Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sacred, Not Secular

A few King things from this month...

We babysat four kids from our church. This was during a trampoline session. The littlest one was happy, I promise. She just liked clinging to the biggest, safest one on the tramp.
 We went to a "cheese tasting" class at a local shop for my birthday. (Yes, my birthday was in August and it took me until October to make a decision about how to spend my gift $$!) Two hours of cheese was a perfect choice.
 In an effort to take advantage of our downtown location (and jump at our first chance to actually wear warm clothes in Dallas), we walked to a local museum on a free day. By far our favorite "work of art" was the outdoor garden.
I am addicted to brussel sprouts. I could eat them like popcorn. (There, I said it.) They were out of the conveniently packaged ones last week, so we bought a...stalk? A bushel? not sure. Needless to say, Michael had fun being creative while he, er, plucked it.

The past few years at seminary, I've been learning that it's false to think of "sacred" things and "secular" things as distinct from each other. God created our world, so all of it belongs to Him. He has stamped His name on everything-- from brussel sprouts to gardens to dairy products-- and my "Christian education" is not impeded by breaks to go to a museum or jump on a trampoline or eat cheese. In fact, I've been learning to think of those things as part of my Christian education. What do I mean? I mean I've been challenged  to approach my Hebrew homework as part of my daily worship and devotion, and to approach a day off to do something fun as more of the same-- an act of worship and devotion. 

Do you tend to make a distinction between "sacred" and "secular" things? What might it look like if you saw all of your life as sacred-- having to do with God-- instead?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vulnerable Enough to Ask

In the past few weeks, I've thought a lot about questions and "tensions" within my faith. I've written two posts about it-- questions I'm sometimes afraid to ask and tensions I'm sometimes unwilling to live with. And in the past few weeks, the Lord has been nudging me forward in spite of those fears to engage with Him more fully and freely. 

Last week, we went to our church's monthly prayer service. Now, I always cry at prayer services, but the tears I shed that Friday were not Hannah's run of the mill "I'm emotional because this is beautiful" kind of tears. They were Hannah's "I'm discouraged because meeting God in this way reminds me of the heavy hurt I'm carrying in my heart" kind of tears. The pastor was there, and I had an urge to tell him about my discouragement and ask him to pray for me. But for an hour and a half, I chickened out. "He won't understand." He'll just think I'm an emotional female. My discouragement is stupid. What if he says no? What if he writes me off? What if he gives me some kind of cursory care that will just make my discouragement worse?" Those were just a few of the thoughts that raced through me as I battled my desire to be vulnerable.

This week, I had a conversation that challenged me to do something I'd been thinking about for months, but too scared to do. A person in my life who had been a meaningful role model and made a significant impact-- a relationship that had been "changing" since I left my hometown-- had been on my mind  and I'd been wanting to say, "I miss you. Let's stay in touch. Do you want to?" But that meant reaching out and admitting my vulnerability. It meant admitting my desire and opening myself up for rejection. And so, for some of the same reasons I battled at church, I had been chickened out. "He won't understand." He'll just think I'm an emotional female. My feelings are stupid. What if he says no? What if he writes me off? What if he gives me some kind of cursory care that will just make my discouragement worse?"

I remember during my Greek class working through a passage in the Gospels where Mary, Jesus' mother, asks him for something. She admits her desire to him. Books could be written on that little passage for a variety of reasons, but what I remember the most about our conversation that day is that Mary askedMy teacher said that sometimes we Christians can get so caught up in conversations about God's "sovereignty" and whether, since God is "in control," our prayers make a difference. We talked about how we sometimes can hide behind big words like "sovereignty" because it's easier to say, "well, God is in control, so why bother" than it is to get up the courage and be vulnerable-- to admit our hopes before an Almighty God who has the power to reject us-- and ask anyway. Jesus said yes to his mother's request that night.

I remember working through another passage in the Gospels, where Jesus, God's own son, asks the Father for something. He admits his desire to God. "If it's possible, let this cup pass from me." Jesus was about to face a horrible death, and He knew it. He was struggling, and He was not afraid to admit it. He chose to be vulnerable before an Almighty God who had the power to reject Him-- and ask anyway. And the amazing realization I made while thinking through this passage is that God said no to Jesus. God's eternal son, in whom He is "well pleased," who did no wrong, who had the Father's constant friendship-- heard no. But Jesus didn't take it as rejection. It didn't damage their relationship. He still followed the Father into the future. He heard no and His response was, "not my will, but Yours be done."  

What's my point? It's not that my pastor did show grace and compassion and pray for me, and that my hometown friend was thrilled to hear from me. The point is not that things "ended well" in these little vignettes. The point is that the Lord is giving me the courage to ask. He's reminding me that, like for Mary, He delights in granting my requests. And He's teaching me that, like for Jesus, even His "no" doesn't mean rejection. I'm learning that the point is not whether I hear "yes" or "no" about the things I desire, but that in His love, I've been made secure enough to ask. 

Does fear of rejection keep you from being vulnerable enough to ask?  How does remembering that Jesus asked and heard "no" change your mind about that? 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Living in a Holy Tension-- Am I Willing?

I like to think. A lot. 

This is one of the reasons I went to seminary. I love to learn, I want to understand, I feel that I engage better with the world if I have wrestled well with its realities. 

But sometimes, I find that I wrestle more than I engage. Sometimes I find that I get stuck inside my own head, and if I don't understand something "fully," I can't possibly have peace or security. Sometimes I find that my worship, my joy, my confidence in Christ is dependent upon Him explaining everything to me, and in a way that makes me perfectly comfortable. Sometimes, I want God and His story to fit into an elevator pitch.

Lately, He's been reminding me that He's a bit more complex than I want Him to be. Lately, He's been asking me if I'm OK with that. If I want a life of "everything makes perfect sense," of, "there's no tension here," of "I have a quick answer for everything," I'm following the wrong Lord. Lately, He's been reminding me that if I understand everything about Him and His ways, then He fits inside my little box, my little library. And He's been asking me, "What kind of a God is that?" 

This morning, as I was praying about (wrestling with!) something close to my heart, the Lord brought to my mind His own experience. Christ's substitutionary death-- His death in the place of sinners (me! all who have transgressed His Holy Law)-- speaks of God's absolute righteous judgment and wrath against sin. His crucifixion says loud and clear that "the wages of sin is death" and that God, the Holy Judge, has every right to condemn us for it. 

And yet the same death that so graphically reveals His righteous judgment also reveals His incredible mercy. His willingness to take that death upon Himself in the place of the undeserving (me! all who have not even known the depths of our sin enough to plead for His mercy before He gave it) speaks of His unbreakable love for His creation, His sons and daughters estranged by sin. It speaks of a love so strong that He's willing to die for it. 

God Himself hates sin and pours out His wrath upon it. God Himself shows  unfathomable love for sinners and pours out His wrath upon Himself in their stead. It's a paradox that can't be fully understood, only experienced. Thinking on this reminded me that God Himself is willing to live within a holy tension. He's inviting me to do the same. 

What are some issues you wrestle to understand? Have they become so preeminent that they keep you from having a relationship with God? If so, how might He engage with you about them?


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Question I Avoid Asking

A few Sundays ago, I was going on the third consecutive day of grumpiness. I somehow afforded the opportunity to spend an hour at a coffee shop before church and thought, "great. I can work out this issue and get over it before it consumes yet another day of my life!" I went, I prayed, I read, I journaled, I even drank espresso. And still, when the clock struck and it was time for me to leave, I had not resolved my funk. I was still in it. 

A few Wednesdays ago, I got a diagnosis that explained my chronic back pain. I was thankful to finally have something to "call it," and to have some suggested treatments to consider for relief. That, in a number of ways, was an answer to endless prayer. And yet, a week into my "treatment," I'm still having pain. I've seen a specialist, been given a fancy name for what my ailment is, and even paid for medicine, but my body is still broken and I am still experiencing the fallout of that reality.

A few Saturdays ago, an old sin crept its way into the forefront of my heart again. A "trigger" to compare myself to others, and the sneaking suspicion that I come out severely lacking, had me on my knees by about lunchtime. This is a lie I've been battling since high school, a pattern I've been working to dislodge for years. I've prayed, read, journaled, sought counsel,sat under the teaching of the Word, sought to apply it. And yet, I still struggle. I still have days where it's all I can do to run to the Lord for mercy minute by minute as thoughts of failure and inadequacy fill my head. 

These are three seemingly unrelated vignettes, but they all lead me to the same realization: God doesn't always answer the way I want. He doesn't always resolve things, He doesn't always heal, He doesn't always deliver me from struggle. I know this to be true because I know that He is able. He could give me insight and relief from a bad mood-- He is "Wonderful Counselor." He could heal my back instantaneously-- all authority on heaven and earth belongs to Him. He could deliver me from the sin of comparison in a moment-- He has vanquished sin under His feet. I've had the glorious privilege of seeing Him accomplish these very things in the lives of people I know. These stories cause me to rejoice and to praise, but they also cause me to wonder...

...Why not for me, Lord? 

This question-- or rather, the fear of what the answer might be-- kept me from asking for a long time. I so worried that if I asked for deliverance and got a "no," it would mean, "no, because I don't love you," or "no, because you're not really worth it to Me," or "no, because you haven't jumped through the right hoops yet" or "no, because I am not really interested in your good." 

Having grown up in a Christian environment, I know a lot of pat answers. Some are relatively comforting and have some biblical truth to them: "God uses these struggles in your life to sanctify you," "God is teaching you to depend on Him," "God is preparing you for something down the road," "God is helping you to understand what others go through." Others are less comforting and less biblical: "You must not have enough faith." "You're not praying hard enough." "There must be some sin in your life that's keeping you from blessing."

Some of those answers might seem like lunacy to you, but some of them might seem scarily familiar. Especially the latter, less biblical ones-- I actually believe those more often that I'd like to admit. I've decided not to try and end with an "answer" to my question, because I think that would defeat the purpose of the post. I'm not saying there aren't answers-- the Lord is certainly "answering" me, in different ways, in each of the struggles I shared today-- but my goal in this post is to encourage all of us (myself included!) to wrestle well with the question before reaching to a pat answer. Because sometimes we run to pat answers for the same reason we run from asking altogether-- because of fear.

Are there ongoing struggles in your life that you feel God has said "no" to delivering you from? How has that caused you to question? Are you willing to talk to Him about it before running to a pat answer? (For the record, "God doesn't exist" can be just as much a pat answer as "God is asking me to have more faith." It's easier to write God off as non-existent than to vulnerably ask Him if He loves you.)


Monday, October 1, 2012

Sex and the Gospel, Pt. 8-- Who's the Hero?

Part 6 and part 7 of this post have set up part 8. I was blessed to find Grace's own story as an example of one "narrative" that got distorted-- how even "Christian" versions of sexuality can be portrayed in ways that don't accurately portray God's character or the nature of sexuality. As she shared, her perception of "God's way" led her to think of God as a negotiator-- "obey Me and I'll give you the dangling carrot." I'll call this Santa Claus theology, and (although I've forgotten to write about it for two Christmases in a row) it's something I've thought about a lot. When I was single and attempting obedience, I felt a tension: "God, I'm doing the right things now! I'm maturing! Doesn't this mean You owe me a husband soon?" In a way, I bought into a lie similar to the one that Grace described. I thought God had promised, A + B = C. Since then, I've realized a number of things about this mentality that don't line up with the Christian narrative.

I'll explain. Asking God, "Don't You owe me..?" reveals a presumption that flies in the face of the gospel. If God is really God and I'm really not, He doesn't "owe" me. Period. But it also reveals a presupposition that I am at the center of my own story in a way that flies in the face of the gospel. If God is God and I am not, my story is not ultimately "about" me. Period. 

Yet here's how we presume that when it comes to sexuality. In one sense, those who do happen to "keep the rules," live sexually chaste lives, wait for spouses, etc. often are lauded as heroes-- "wow, look at how those two waited for marriage. What an accomplishment. They really deserve each other/a great life/they'll have a great marriage." Now, sexual purity should be lauded-- those who are protected from sexual sin give us a picture of how things ought to be-- But where does the glory ultimately go?

I watched two friends get married this past summer, neither of whom has kissed anyone other than her now husband. I actually grieved in the light of this reality more than I expected to-- entering a sexual relationship with no flashbacks, no bad memories, no learned patterns of some relationship other than one of total commitment, fidelity, and love?-- I can't imagine what that's like. And yet, that is what I was created to experience. Seeing their innocence, their purity, their delight in seeing the other-- and only that other-- for all time, was moving to me. It reminded me of the safety and holiness for which sexuality was intended. Furthermore, it gave me a clearer picture of what it means that the church, Christ's bride, will be "holy and blameless" before Him. It made more powerful to me the reality that those who belong to Jesus will stand before Him shamelessly and radiantly at His return, delighting in Him alone, and no other, for all time. 

Their stories-- how God protected and preserved them and how their purity mirrors the church's purity-- caused me to glory not ultimately in them, but in God, because their stories put His on display. So we should rejoice with people who've experienced sexuality "the way it ought to be;" but it would be a shame if we did so in a way that made those people the heroes of their stories. If we think staying pure is about patting ourselves on the back and thinking it means we deserve something, we've missed the point entirely. No-- sexual purity puts Christ on display. It proclaims His protection-- the fact that neither of my friends were victims of sexual abuse, for example, is merciful. It proclaims His grace-- the fact that neither of my friends' weak and sinful hearts (because yes, even virgins have weak and sinful hearts!) manifested themselves in particular kinds of impurity is only by God's grace. And it proclaims His gospel-- the fact that my friends walked down the aisle in white foreshadows not their accomplishment, but Christ's sanctifying love.

The same goes for those who've experienced sexuality "the way it ought not be." To think the story ends there, with those "sinners" and their "failures", is to miss the point entirely. See, one thing I've learned as just that-- a sinner who has failed-- is that in my failure, Christ's spousal love shines all the brighter. The fact that I still am counted as His bride, arrayed in white, shameless and radiant in His sight, reminds me that Christ is the hero of my sexual story even though it hasn't worked out the way He created it to. Sin has wreaked havoc on my humanity, my sexuality included. I've been both victim and perpetrator of evils that reveal the depth of creation's depravity. But the beauty of the gospel is that those evils don't stop Christ from telling the story of His love through my life-- in fact, the evil Christ overcomes in my life puts His powerful love on display in a different way than the evil He prevented in the lives of my friends.

Whether our sexual stories speak of God's protection or of God's rescue, we can look up and see Christ as the Hero, not ourselves. Whether we walk down the aisle-- or into a counselor's office, a hospital, a birth center, or a church-- with "baggage" or not, we can find ourselves radiant and shameless in His sight, because what makes us spotless is not our accomplishments or failures, but is His sanctifying love. And whether our stories thus far highlight what "ought to be" or what "ought not be," we can glory in the fact that they are ultimately part of The Story-- of a good creation, sin's destruction, and God's relentless rescue-- we can glory in the fact that however we started the journey, Christ extends to us the invitation to be swept up in His happy ending: the restoration of all things. It starts with seeing Him as the Hero.

What's your story? Do you feel crushed under the pressure to "perform" righteously, as if you're expected to be the hero? Or are you despairing under the weight of your failure? When you hear someone else's story, do you puff up with pride or feel the sting of shame? What would change if you looked up and saw Jesus and His sanctifying love at the center instead?