Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Painful Memory and a Painful Calling

Last night, something happened that hurt my feelings. What was said wasn’t intentionally malicious, and it wasn’t cold. But it exposed a reality that has deep significance to me, and in some ways, confirmed and reopened some yet unhealed wounds. Someone didn’t remember me. Someone who had been very important in my life. Introduced himself to me as if he’d never seen me.

Now. Even as I write of this experience, I’m tempted to laugh it off as, “it’s probably because my hair was different, it’s probably because he’d had too much to drink, it’s probably because I look so much older, it’s really not a big deal anyway….” But the point is, it hurt, and it reminded me that there is still pain embroidered into the very fabric of my memory of this person. I had so hoped that this person would be—and care—more for me than he did. I wanted something that he didn’t give. And last night, as I watched him hug and catch up with others who did experience that kind of relationship with him, I was reminded of the question I asked so many times; “Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Will you notice me?”

Almost immediately after the encounter last night, I began evaluating my options for how to respond and process the experience. Would I go home and cry? Would I be filled with anger and want to trash talk this person? Would I pretend not to care at all? Who would I tell? Who could I tell? Who could I trust with the embarrassing news? If I told the wrong person, he or she might validate my worst fear, the answer to my recurring question: “Of course he didn’t remember you. Why would he? You’re not worth remembering.”

During the season that I felt the pain of this man’s rejection on a more regular basis, I tried all of the above responses. I looked for reasons to write him off, to roll my eyes about him, to belittle him—all for the ironic purpose of feeling a little bit less hurt by his lack of interest in me. I pretended not to care some, too. Being above it all felt good (when I could actually convince myself that that was the case). Usually when that wore off, I cried. When nobody was around to see that I was really hurting, that I did in fact care, and that I did in fact want this man’s approval. Only then did I allow myself to feel the pain.

Last night, I felt tempted to do the same. To act as tough as nails while others were around, to laugh about it in conversation, to eagerly listen for others’ complaints about this man as if I, too, thought he was just a chump. And then, wait till everyone was gone, where it was safe to lick my own wounds. It was shame enough to not be remembered and to realize its implications. It would be quite another thing to relive that shame in the presence of another.

But as the night wore on, I realized that that is exactly what I’m called to do as a Christian. Having put my trust in Christ means actually trusting Him with painful experiences. It means telling Him the whole story, even if I’m afraid He’ll laugh. Even if I’m afraid His answer will be, “Well of course. You’re not worth remembering.”  Facing God is, I have found, much more difficult when I’m allowing someone else’s behavior to dictate what God’s must be. But that is why I must do it anyway—because God gets to speak for Himself. What I found in coming to Him is that He didn’t laugh, He didn’t validate my fears, and He didn’t encourage me to get angry or even. He simply said, “I know. I’m sorry.”

What I realized afresh last night is that the Christian call in the face of pain and rejection is actually quite simple—to grieve it. When hurt, I’m called to admit my sadness over unmet expectations and dashed hopes—I’m called to experience the vulnerability of my humanity and live through it, not seek to get around it somehow with feigned indifference, or self-protective anger. And the reason I can have the courage to admit all that is because I don’t have to face it alone. I grieve loss in the presence of Christ, who has not rejected me. Christ, who has not forgotten me. Christ, who does not belittle my feelings of pain.

As a Christian, I am called not to try and get around the pain, but to grieve through it. And I do that in the safety of His love, His acceptance, and His comfort. Allowing God to speak for Himself and affirm His solidarity with me in my pain is giving me the courage to put down my weapons of anger, and put down my mask of indifference. It is giving me the courage to do what I need to do: feel pain and grieve loss.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fear, Interrupted

One theme that has proven to be a constant in my life is fear. Fear of the future, fear of failure, fear of what others think about me. In the past few months, I've sensed the Lord leading me to do a number of things that, er, aggravate this issue. One involved stepping into a situation that might include a lot of conflict. One involved doing something new in front of others that might result in total humiliation. Another involved being subjected to physical pain and the unknown. 

In all of these situations, I dreaded the follow-through. I knew I was supposed to say "yes" and step out in faith, and I knew that "yes" meant facing fear: that butterflies and sleepless nights were part of what obedience looked like for me. The good news is that in all of those situations, the Lord sustained me. I made it to the other side alive and well, and with just enough encouragement to say "yes" the next time a scary calling presented itself. 

One thing I'm learning about being a Christian is that it doesn't mean life will be easy or comfortable. It doesn't mean I can hide behind God's "robe" as it were and let Him deal with all the things I'd rather not have to face, such as an angry friend, a room full of people staring at me, or a scary operating room. But it does mean that I can accept His calling when it includes things that intimidate me. Why? Because He's died and risen so that I don't have to live a life controlled by fear. He's put that old master to death and given me a new life, in His Kingdom of love and freedom. 

Though it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable, it is good and kind that He pushes me in the direction of walking in the freedom that belongs to me as His child. Freedom from fear of the future-- He is my loving Father who will provide. Freedom from the fear of failure-- He turns all mistakes into beautiful opportunities to grow and learn. Freedom from the fear of what others think-- no matter what happens, my identity is secure in Him. Even fear of physical pain-- He endured the unbearable so that my body could one day be fully restored. 

I'm finding that these opportunities to say "yes" to Him regardless of the anxiety I feel are the very means by which He is eliminating this dynamic in my life. The more I listen to Him-- instead of the fear that would otherwise paralyze me-- and realize His promises are true, the more I realize: there is actually nothing left to be afraid of. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cancer and Questions Pt. 2: The Beginning of an Answer

Fourteen years ago, my parents came home from the doctor with surprising news. "Daddy has cancer," they explained. "We've decided that whether I live or die, we want my life to glorify God." 

Six small kids listened, scratching their heads. Even as the second oldest, I did not know what "cancer" meant and certainly couldn't imagine how something like my dad's death would glorify God. But over the next four years of surgeries, month-long visits to out-of-state specialists, and the smell of hospitals, I began to understand what cancer was. It was the enemy. It was the thief that came to steal my father's life from before our eyes; that reduced his invincible frame to that of a child; that tore our family apart on holidays and throughout the year, orphaning us even before either parent had died. 

Cancer was the weapon the Enemy wielded against my father day after day, eating his insides like a vulture feasting on a wounded animal. Cancer was also the weapon the Enemy wielded against me, devouring my insides each time I saw my father weak and helpless in a hospital bed, or gasping for air after offering to dance with me in our living room for five minutes, or needing to be carried out of our school play on a stretcher by four large men who could barely restrain his convulsions. 

By the time of his death, I knew well the meaning of cancer, but still not of God's glory through something so ugly, so devastating, so evil. It was not for another four years until I began to see how the trauma of my childhood had actually begun to serve me in the transition to adulthood. Somehow I began to realize: having watched a parent cry out to God in the midst of unspeakable suffering taught me that the Christian life is not one of rosy formulas, as if God were a puppet on my string; that I do not get to manipulate my life circumstances by performing in a certain way or belonging to a certain religious club, and that sometimes joy in the Lord comes not through happiness, but through hell on earth. 

I began to realize that our family having lost everything financially might have actually been a form of rescue: once expecting a brand new car at fifteen, I knew the hold that things-- shiny, new, abundant-- had on my heart and how I might have clung to them as god in the wake of crisis had they been available to me. Losing them made me realize that my identity, and my hope, are not dependent upon them; and that God delights in providing for His children when there is no fat family bank account to take the credit. 

Somehow, I began to find myself no longer despairing, but dancing, and eager to share with others about a God whose promises are not dependent on circumstances working out the way I think they should; a God who filled me with joy through the most devastating experience of my life; a God who literally used the weapon of the enemy for His own victory and my own good. And that's when I realized that my father's prayer had come true. God had used even his death for glory. I was parented and fathered through the loss of my father more profoundly and meaningfully than ever possible through his life, and as much as I still miss my father and still feel the waves of sorrow and grief that will never cease to come in this life, I can honestly say that his death was not in vain.

Tomorrow, my follow-up test is first thing in the morning, so these thoughts and emotions are heavy on my mind. As I ponder the possibility of a similar path as my father's, God reminds me first that cancer is an enemy. As His beloved daughter, I am called to approach Him with boldness and ask for grace, healing, victory over illness. I am called to pray, just as God's son Jesus prayed, that this "cup" be taken from me. It is not weakness to ask for that and to mean it. In fact, it's weakness not to. 

But the other thing God reminds me of this morning is the way in which He uses even the weapon of the Enemy as an instrument of glory, and that even if cancer does come, it will not be the end of God's blessing in my life. It will not mean that I am abandoned, overlooked, or unloved. It will not mean that I merely do not have enough faith or did something wrong. It will not mean that God's power is insufficient. It will simply mean that all of those things will be put on display in a different way than I would choose for myself. 

In the end, His glory and my good are not up for debate. I don't need to fear or worry that those things may not happen in my life. They will. That means that whether cancer is a part of my story or not, it will not have the final word. And there is great peace-- even joy-- in that. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

What Being A Christian is About

I just finished reading a book that framed the Christian life in a way that broadened my perspective on the gospel. Its main point is that the good news of Jesus' coming, dying, rising, and return is not primarily about the individual reception of a product (ie. "I get to go to Heaven when I die") but about God's becoming King of the whole earth, and the healing His reign will bring to all things. 

The author argued that in our Western culture, we are very individualistic and consumeristic, so it's easy for us to read the Christian message through those lenses: "the gospel is about what God did for me so that I can get a certain thing." He argues that while it is true that the gospel-- God's good news brought to us through the person of Jesus-- does apply to us as individuals in a life-changing and important way (and does include us "getting" good things!), an overemphasis on the individual can end up truncating it, causing God's good news to appear smaller than it is.

I could write about a million different things this book taught me, but that wouldn't be very nice to anyone who actually attempts to read my ramblings. Instead, I'll just share a few ways I was challenged by this perspective and how I think it makes a difference for people who already profess to be Christians and for those who are investigating the Christian life. 

First, for a Christian, it means realizing that the gospel actually doesn't revolve around me. This might seem like a given, but I think it's so easy to conclude that since God loves me, died for me, wants to have a relationship with me, has good plans for my life, etc., it must, in fact, be all about me! I've heard this described as cat theology-- While a dog thinks, "Wow, my owner feeds me, cleans up my poop, takes care of me, plays with me....SHE must be the center of the universe!" A cat thinks, "Wow, my owner feeds me, cleans up my poop, takes care of me, plays with me....I must be the center of the universe!" 

This realization-- that the gospel is actually about God and about Him being the center of the universe-- keeps a Christian from viewing Him as Someone who exists to make me happy. But it also keeps me, as a Christian, from obsessing over my own behavior as if the whole point of the Christian life is about me "being good." I hardly need to point out the political flavor of the American church to illustrate this point; on a national scale, we are so concerned with how individuals should live that it might seem on TV or the news that it's all we care about. "Personal holiness" is incredibly important, but an overemphasis on that can deceptively lead to (or stem from!) the idea that we are the point of it all.

Understanding the gospel primarily as the announcement that God in Christ is extending His Kingdom throughout the whole world and inviting us to be a part of it, also has significance for a non-Christian-- someone standing outside of faith in Jesus Christ but looking in, investigating, pondering. It suggests that "signing up" for Christianity means a lot more than giving up heinous sins or even enjoying a personal relationship with God (though it does include that incredible gift!). It means being made new by God in order to participate in God's making all things new; it means being swept up into something much bigger than just "me and God"-- something that God has been doing through all of history-- namely, establishing His healing reign throughout the whole world.

It means for the non-Christian that Jesus' offer to you in the gospel is not just one "self-help" approach among many, and that the choice is yours based on "what works for you." It means becoming a Christian, though it will change your life and bring personal transformation, is not ultimately a pragmatic path to find personal fulfillment or ease pain. Rather, it is about allowing God to broaden your perspective to the extent that your story-- including the pain God does promise to ease and the fulfillment He does promise to bring, because He loves you-- is swept up into a bigger Story; it is about choosing to follow Him as the Protagonist, the Hero, the Main Character, and about being a part of the good news and healing that He is bringing to the world. 

Whether a Christian or not, what do you think about a more panoramic perspective of the gospel? What difference do you think it might make in your own approach as a Christian, or in the attitude of the church as a whole?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What I Saw This Week

I haven't written in over a week because I've been a little distracted. First, by this: 


then by this: 

and this: 

First on a weekend visit to Colorado then on a week-long road trip to Idaho, I was blessed this past week to see parts of America I never had before, with friends from three different seasons of my life. As I beheld the unfolding countryside and listened to the unfolding stories of my friends, I was awed by my Creator in a new way. 

I saw His creative work in the world around me and heard of His redemptive work in their lives. I was reminded of His ability to create beauty out of materials I would deem ugly-- sand, rock, and salt-- and of His promise to do the same in our lives, when we let Him. I was moved by the unique power of the gospel to bring joy out of suffering, dancing out of mourning, glory out of shame, life out of death. I was reminded that God creates and recreates; giving us life but also making us new, no matter how much the locust has eaten or the thief has stolen. 

I was encouraged to say "yes" to His re-creation in my own life, and "yes" to His invitation to be a part of His redemptive artistry around me. I know this means letting Him in to places that are wounded, painful, and broken; I know it means allowing Him to show me how I've contributed to that same pain in others; I know it means letting go of control as to how my own story will end and giving creative license over to Him, no matter what. But I also know it means deeper healing than I could secure for myself; greater joy than I could attempt to hoard through circumstances; and a bigger Story than I could possibly write on my own. It means giving myself over to His artwork, which is able to transcend the raw materials of my life and incorporate them into a beauty that showcases Him. 

It's a beauty worth seeing.