It Is Suffering To Love

The Gospel has become a great mystery to me. One with which I’ve become obsessed. The kind of obsession that becomes my mind’s only companion on the nights where sleep is nowhere to be found.

The past six months have been an interesting journey. It feels like I’ve sort of disassembled the Gospel, with parts and pieces strewn all across the floor. I’ve enjoyed picking up the pieces and examining them. Exploring what each component is made of and how it fits together. Discovering elements I didn’t know were there. And I’m in no rush to reassemble it.

Psalm 32 is quite easily one of my favorites. It’s one of two psalms that David wrote after his kingly affair with Bathsheba. He writes:

“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as the summer heat.

I acknowledged my sin to you
and I did not cover my iniquity,
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

It’s as if there is a poison inside of David, and he fears to let it out for fear of what God might do to him upon its revelation. So it erodes his soul from the inside out, festering inside of him. And God begins to press. Like the summer heat. And he presses and presses and presses until finally David surrenders, pours out his poison before God, closes his eyes, and waits for the fiery judgment of God to consume him.

This may or may not be exactly how I felt as I sat on the couch in my counselor’s office. He asked me a simple question.

“Do you believe that God loves you?”

Listen, mister. I have twenty eight years of Sunday school under my belt. What the hell kind of question is that?

“I know God loves me.”

He didn’t buy my answer. I insisted that I know God loves me. But he pressed me again and again and again until finally my poison exploded, “NO! Okay? I DON’T. If the God I imagine in my head was sitting across from me and He told me He loved me, I wouldn’t believe Him. And I know the cross is supposed to be some grand gesture of Love, but I don’t see it. I don’t know how to see it.” I then went on to use a colorful assortment of expletives. Twenty eight years of Sunday school down the toilet.

I had been so scared to say this. To admit this. Because how on earth could I tell the God of the Universe to His face that I don’t believe Him? How could He not take it personally? The Being that exudes kindness and goodness and steadfast love crossed mountains and valleys to find me, adopted me, made me His own, gave me more love than I could ever ask for, and I know I’m supposed to be so moved that I’m a heaping mess on the floor. But if I’m really honest, I couldn’t care less. How on earth could I say that out loud and expect to live to tell the tale?

I felt like David. Eyes pinched shut, waiting for God’s fiery judgment to consume me. But it was as though in that moment, He grabbed my face in His hands and whispered, “I know you don’t trust me. And it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.”

I was completely bamboozled by His kindness. It haunted me for days and days and days.

One ordinary afternoon, during a very ordinary moment, Jesus told me something extraordinary that I hope I never forget. He said, “Hope, I am willing to wait as long as it takes for you to believe me. I will suffer your unbelief. I’m not going anywhere”

That word sank straight to my depths like a rock in the river. Suffer. Hm. Suffer. It is suffering for him to keep his heart open to me, who feels that his love is so wildly disappointing. And he is willing. To suffer my unbelief. Endure it. Bear it. He is willing to suffer my misunderstanding of him, my fear, my pride, and all of the choices that I make because of it. The words of Much Afraid from the classic novel Hinds’ Feet On High Places echoed through every distant chamber of my heart. “It is suffering to love. But it is lovely to love.” But it was as though the words were pouring out of Jesus’s very own mouth and over my soul, melting away all of the misunderstanding and fear and pride I had used to crucify him.

My unbelief leaves Jesus with two options. If he punishes me, I suffer. If he forgives me, he suffers. He suffers me as I hide from him over and over again because I can’t find a way to trust him, though he has never wronged me. And knowing his options, he actually chooses to forgive. To endure. To bear. This is seen most clearly on his road to Calvary.

Jesus didn’t retaliate man’s misunderstanding of who he was. He suffered it. Pierced were his hands as our pride and fury nailed him to a tree. And pierced were the hearts of all who heard his words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

His own murder isn’t just what he is willing to suffer to be in relationship with us. The cross is what he is willing to suffer and stay in relationship with us. He refuses to disconnect from us to soften the blow of ultimate rejection by the ones he loves.

I am absolutely undone by this Gospel. We cannot escape His love. There is nothing we can do to Him that He isn’t willing to suffer in order to stay. If we go to the depths of Sheol, He is there. If we fly on the wings of the dawn, He is there. Where can we go from His presence? We cannot escape His love.

And then Jesus says things like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And, “As I have loved you, so love one another.” And I am Kevin on Home Alone during the Aftershave Incident.

I used to think that love was how much I enjoyed someone. I’m learning that love is what I am willing to suffer, to bear, to endure, and still keep my heart open to someone. And I am devastated that I cannot love like that. I’ve tried. But my heart is like a buoy lost in an endless sea of fear. I’m too scared of being rejected, abandoned, and misunderstood to keep my heart open. I’m too afraid of the suffering that is required from a love like that.

But Jesus promised that His love is stronger, wider, more expansive, and all-consuming, and His perfect love will melt away all of my fear. And as I let Him love me with the kind of love that suffers my fear, His love actually frees me from my fear, and in the very same breath I will be freed to love.

And a starry twinkle of hope peppers a dark blanket of sky. And that is a heaven that I never dared to imagine was possible on earth.

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A Grace That Haunts

We typically talk about the grace of Jesus with warmth and gratitude. And I do feel those things from time to time. But 2017 was a year where his grace haunted me more than anything else. Haunt. To be persistently and disturbingly present.

Earlier this year, Jesus and I had a conversation about grace that intrigued me. Nothing offends a religious spirit more violently than grace. I naïvely asked him to let me see this grace that would offend my religious heart. I was anticipating revelations of grace for the people around me that I was quite aware did not deserve it. I was most certainly NOT anticipating that I would be the object of grace that would offend me.

If you’ve been around me in the past month, you might have heard me use this analogy. It has been to my horror to discover that the way I feel about my Broken Heart is exactly the same way the Dursley family felt about Harry Potter. Hidden in a closet under the stairs. Treated with the utmost contempt. Not to be seen or heard. Especially when guests come over. They hate Harry Potter for all that he is. And I have hated my Broken Heart for all that she is. Because if she had been better, prettier, funnier, more interesting, less needy, she wouldn’t have broken us. Broken me.

And so a Civil War has been raging inside of me between my inner Harry and my inner Dursley. And I would like to believe I could hide the Civil War. But I know that it is actually so loud that the neighbors, the strangers passing by on their evening walks, they hear every word. Which only infuriates Dursley even more, because Harry’s very existence ruins the proper image they long to cast to the outside world.

In the five years that I have been aware of the Civil War, Jesus has never (to my knowledge) taken a side. And so the war goes ever on and on. But a few months ago, Jesus began to teach me about grace. And I asked him to let me see. And so, one day, he took a side. He made his home in the closet under the stairs. He came in waving a pennant that, to Dursley’s horror, had “Team Harry” woven across the fabric. And all at once, silence.

I’ve been bamboozled. Jesus froze the Civil War in its tracks and began a new Civil War, this time in the heart of Dursley. How could he choose a side? This wasn’t what I meant when I asked to see grace. And how could he choose Harry’s side? How could my Dursley, who acknowledges the authority Jesus carries, continue to wage war against Harry when it is no longer just Harry? To war against Harry is now to war against Jesus. To hate my Broken Heart is to hate Jesus. He warned me that the hatred I feel towards her is the essence that was in the hearts of the people who murdered him. And all of the sudden, I have no idea what to do with all of my hatred.

It is so reminiscent of the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery. Thrown in front of the crowd in the middle of Jesus’s sermon, the Pharisees demanded that he pick a side: her or them. Grace or Law. They know what the Law says. It was the perfect set up to finally prove that Jesus was the heretic they knew him to be. But his response completely disarmed them. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. No one had the audacity to launch, and the stones dropped one by one from their hands to the earth like redemption rain.

We see sides in the Gospel stories. Pharisee and tax collector. Older brother and younger. Zacchaeus and the grumbling crowd. The woman and her accusers. And we think we are supposed to pick a side. So we demonize the Pharisees. We hate the older brother. We try to disassociate ourselves from the side Jesus was obviously against. But this year has turned that notion on its head for me. Because I am beginning to see that we humans are complex beings. We can’t escape from the fact that we are both sides.

We are Pharisee and tax collector. We are older brother and younger. We are Zacchaeus and the grumbling crowd. We are the woman caught in adultery and the accusers demanding her death. We are sheep and goats. We are wheat and tares. We are sinner and saint.

The Gospel of Grace is that Jesus saves us from ourselves. He sees the Broken Heart that I had hoped to hide in darkness under the stairs forever. But darkness is as light to him. We cannot flee from his presence. And I am simultaneously infuriated with and relieved by this gospel. His grace soothes me and burns me. His gospel heals me and haunts me.

I’ll finish with a poem. Because why not?

Judas
Labels keep things simple
So we label him
The crook
The traitor
The villain
And we think to ourselves
At least I’m not like him
But until we see the Judas
In our own hearts
We are actually
More destructive
More enslaved
More tormented
Than Judas ever knew

 

Honest Musings

Many of the events that have unfolded in our nation over the past couple of years have left me feeling caught in the middle of a raging culture war. From protecting Chick-fil-A, to excommunicating Phil Robertson from his own TV show, to the recent Starbucks cup uproar, I watch as social media functions as a boxing ring for an insecure and broken nation to slam each other to the ground.

I struggle to understand what to think about it all. I see two sides who are hell-bent on convincing the other side to agree with them, and condemning the other side for being wrong. And then there are those that get angry at the two sides for not being more like Jesus. And then there are those that don’t want to get involved at all and so they stay off of the social media and bury their heads in the sand. And there are those who see all these sides and don’t know what to say and so they say nothing at all and wonder if that’s really what they’re supposed to do. (That would be me.)

I know Jesus said it is better for him to leave so that we could have the Holy Spirit to guide and shape and comfort and teach us, but it’s times like these that I just wish Jesus was here in skin and bones and I could sit with him over a cup of coffee and pick his brain on the topic. I wish I could see for myself the love in his eyes and the joy on his face and the wisdom in his heart and the kindness in his voice. I wish I didn’t have to wonder what he really thinks about it all.

One might say, “Well isn’t that what the Bible is for?” Yes, the Bible is God’s thoughts and desires and intentions for us. But the Bible also says that we see things dimly. No one sees the whole picture. (Which is why we need each other. Paul writes about that in the middle of his spiel on spiritual gifts.) And one day, Jesus will come back and everything that was hidden will be revealed. And there will be no question of who he is or what is true. We will see his glory. How I long for that day.

Jesus tells us to be unoffendable and to be relentlessly kind to people and to always honor the value of every human life because he does those things too. But what words would Jesus actually offer to the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples? What would Jesus really do if he stepped on an elevator with Caitlyn Jenner? Jesus continues to live his life through those who follow him. But would Jesus in me say or do the exact same thing as Jesus in you in any given situation? Is there really a right and wrong way to love Caitlyn Jenner?

Jesus says he is the Truth. Which is a really radical thing to say. And an even more radical thing to believe. Because it means that his opinions aren’t just opinions. His opinion is reality. If he thinks you are funny, then you are funny. If he thinks the Church is beautiful, then the Church is beautiful. His opinions are not subjective. And if I claim to follow Jesus, then that means that I am to let his opinions define my life. If he doesn’t get his panties in a wad about Starbucks cups, then I won’t either. If Jesus is passionate that all red Starbucks cups should have snowflakes on them, then give me a picket sign and a megaphone.

These events have spun me on a journey of seeking his heart on a deeper level. I’m discovering that though I don’t really want to join any of the sides I see, Jesus calls us to engage with our culture. To be agents of love. To be light in the darkness. The scary thing is that everyone seems to think they are the ones that are doing it right. Many sides have taken a stance and believe Jesus to be on their side. I just want to know what Jesus thinks. Because whatever he thinks, I want to be on his side.

Does Jesus even have a side?!

Lessons in the Desert

I hate the desert. The seasons where God’s love feels more like a leaky faucet than a tidal wave. The seasons where His voice sounds more like crickets than thunder. It’s in these seasons where the seas crash over into the boat, and I grab my little cup and try to scoop out all the water to stay safe. The water flooding in faster than I can scoop it out. All the while, Jesus is sleeping in the back of the boat, refusing to respond to my desperate cries for help.

It’s very confusing.

When I ask God for more of Him, I expect Him to answer with Holy Spirit fire and rainbows and butterflies and puppies and pumpkin chip cookies. Instead, He takes me to the desert. It seems so backwards. But I’m learning from personal experience that only the desert can show us where our flesh is reigning. My flesh. It’s only in the desert that I discover this thing in me that hates being dependent on a God that I can’t control. Knowing that He is Love, but being absolutely powerless to force Him to fill my soul with His life. It is in the desert that I discover that I’m completely dependent on His willingness and desire to give Himself to me. And something in me despises the fact that I can’t have God when I want Him in the way that I want Him without ever having to be vulnerable with Him. (Apparently that’s not a real relationship.)

However, it’s also in the desert that I discover something in me that longs to be dependent on a God that I can’t control. There is something in me that is desperate to live in this place of abandonment and trust and wonder. Jesus says that whoever doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child won’t enter the Kingdom. That Greek word for child literally means a newborn infant. An infant can’t do a single thing for itself. It doesn’t contribute to society in any way. It can’t chime in at the dinner table. It is completely dependent on the goodness of another person to take care of its every need, and has no ability to give anything in return. It can only receive.

No wonder the cross is such an offense to our flesh. Romans 7-8 talk about these two desires within us that war against each other. There is something in us that hates God. And there is something in us that longs for God. And every day we have a choice of which desire we will nourish and which desire we will crucify. Realizing that we have a choice has planted a small seed of hope in my heart. Hope that I can acknowledge my desire to do everything on my own without actually bowing down to it. Hope that I can also acknowledge my desire to entrust my entire being to God and actually do something to position myself to be dependent on Him.

I wonder what would have happened if the disciples hadn’t frantically woken up Jesus. What if they followed his lead and took a nap with him? I mean, seriously. Would they all have drowned? Would the water have filled the boat to the point of capsize? That’s sure how it feels in the midst of the storm. And nothing in me wants to position myself to be dependent on him to keep me safe when clearly we aren’t going to make it across. Allowing space for God to move is terrifying because what if…

But I’m also learning that it’s in the “what it” that we find that God is everything that He says He is.

Of course Jesus doesn’t even crack open an eyelid. I asked for more of him. So why would he contribute to keeping alive the thing in me that hates being dependent on his goodness? We ask for more of him, and so he takes us to the place where our flesh is crucified. And it is painful beyond words. It requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and courage. Because every fiber of my being flesh wants to respond in self-reliance, self-protection, self-preservation.

I’m beginning to wonder if Jesus sleeping in our storms is actually proof that he partners with us to crucify our flesh by refusing to enable it survive.

Isn’t there a way to experience resurrection life without a crucifixion death? If only.

So, as much as I hate the desert, I’m thankful that He so deeply longs for me to have His whole heart and for Him to have mine, that He refuses to relieve the pain of the death of the flesh.

Thank you God for allowing the pain for a little while so that my heart can be wholly Yours forever.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Well, it’s that time of year again. The semi-annual writing of the blog post.

I’m finding that following Jesus will take you on a very interesting journey. Dark and winding valleys of sorrow, mountains of bliss, seas of loneliness, waterfalls of joy. You name it, he’ll take you there. It is a journey that is full of agony and wonder. And no matter how ugly it gets (or how ugly I get), he always stays with me. The mystery of all mysteries, it seems.

Exactly one year ago today, I was kneeling on an altar at a church conference in Austin, TX. Heidi Baker had invited anyone who felt called to follow Jesus to the nations of the earth to come up so she could pray for them. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. I loved the nations. I had once wanted go to the bush of Africa, the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the mountains of Central Asia, to see people of every language and culture fall in love with Jesus. It used to burn in my heart. But honestly, it took the back burner when I fell in love with Baton Rouge. God completely changed my life in the six years that I’ve lived in this city and I wanted to stay here. To go up to the altar, I would feel like a fake.

But the still, small, sweet voice of the Holy Spirit reminded me that He was the one who gave me that passion so many years ago, and it certainly wasn’t on His back burner. He gently told me that my dreams for my life with Him had gotten too small and that I needed dream bigger.

Don’t get me wrong, Baton Rouge is THE best city in the cataloged universe. Hands down. And to follow Jesus is absolutely the greatest honor and adventure of your life, no matter where he takes you. But I had dreamed of people all over the world falling in love with Jesus, and somehow I became scared to believe that God would actually use me in that. Next thing I knew, I was up on the altar with the rest of the crazies, wondering what God on earth might do with my little life.

Sometimes it feels like God takes a lifetime to move. This was not the case. I don’t know what on earth she prayed, but three days later I was driving home with Cameroon on my mind. The story of how Cameroon entered the picture is for another time. But over the following weeks, God flooded my life with Scriptures, conversations, events, dreams, all pointing to Cameroon. Before I knew it, I was saying yes to spending the next who-knows-how-many-years of my life with Jesus (and an incredible, passionate, wholehearted, wacky team of people that includes my best friend) in Cameroon.

I don’t feel very brave. Most days I feel crazy. And most days I wonder how on earth this is my life. And some days I’m pretty sure I’m making an enormous mistake. But I’m starting to figure out that when Jesus invites you to go somewhere, you really don’t want to say no. Here’s hoping it really will be worth it.

I’m intending to chronicle this adventure here. I’m also discovering that any story about Jesus is a story worth telling. Even if no one reads all the way to the end. If you did, mad props to you.

Hello My Old Heart

Driving through towns in Haiti, you’ll often see men on the side of the road mixing cement. They will spend hours under the merciless Haitian sun, working at the base of a small mountain of cement powder, pouring it in a bucket, mixing it with water, patting it into bricks, and selling it in the market. I learned from some friends in Haiti that often they add sand to their powder to cut costs. So they send these bricks of sand to the market, where they are bought and used to build houses, schools, hospitals, you name it. And you and I both know that cities built of sand can’t remain when the earth quakes.

God used this little nugget of truth to help me make some sense of the heavy plate of heartbreak that 2013 served me. Long story short, the rug of my life got pulled out from underneath me. It turned my world upside down and left my heart in shambles. (My last post was crafted in the midst of this heartache.) After six months of being as lively as a sad sack of potatoes, God used Haiti’s bricks to let a sliver of light into my hopeless state.

I realized that I had built a lovely house for my heart to keep it safe from the pain of our broken world. (I’m pretty sure everyone does this, but I haven’t met everyone yet, so I’ll just speak for myself on this one.) Unbeknownst to me, this house was made of Haiti’s bricks. Enough cement to look like the real deal, but enough sand to keep it fragile to the elements of life. These bricks come in lots of different colors. Anger, pride, religion, just to name a few. My bricks were a dazzling shade of perfectionism. As long as I never felt, thought, said, or did anything wrong, my house was fine and my heart was safe. My life really worked for me for a long time. Until an earthquake came.

When my life got pulled out from underneath me, my entire house came crumbling down in one fell swoop. In the midst of the pain and confusion, this picture was the only language I had to understand and communicate what was going on. I was sitting in the remains of the living room, flattened walls, broken picture frames and shattered dishes strewn across the floor, heart completely vulnerable and exposed.

For a long time I thought God wanted me to fix my house, and I would just sit there and cry because it was beyond anything I could possibly repair. I begged Jesus to just come and make me whole again. Sitting on the floor in my brokenness, I wondered where on earth he was and what was taking him so long.

Finally, one morning I woke up to discover Jesus on the floor with me. My heart flooded with hope. Finally, he’s here and he is going to rebuild everything and put my life back together. He was there, but he didn’t move a muscle. I was acutely aware of his presence, yet all of the pain and confusion remained. Time went by and still he just sat on the floor with me. With each passing day, my hope turned into restlessness, confusion, and frustration. The whole analogy culminated in a conversation with Jesus that branded my life.

“Jesus, why did you even come here if you aren’t going to do anything to fix this?”

“Hope,” he replied, “I’m determined to prove to you that I don’t have to fix you to love you. And I don’t have to clean a single thing to want to be here with you. But if I never rebuild your life, would you still want Me?”

His question has left me undone to this day.

Our hearts weren’t meant to live in suits of armor. That conversation marked the beginning of a journey of letting God demolish everything that I’m hiding behind that isn’t Him. I’m still very new at this. And it’s been terrifying and devastating and beautiful. It is awful to be so vulnerable to pain. But I’m learning that to let Jesus be my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head is what it means to be alive.

To be fully seen and wholly known in all my brokenness, and to find myself nonetheless hidden, covered, and wrapped up in the steadfast love of Jesus, has changed me to my core. I think I’m beginning to understand what Jesus meant when he said things like “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it”. It is painful and exhilarating and wonderful and messy and beautiful. But I can say that it is worth it because Jesus is worth it. Because in the midst of it all, I discovered his faithfulness, his patience, his kindness, his hilarity, his steadfast love, his worthiness.

To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Cost.

It’s quite scary when you start to become real.

This may be too dark and twisty and personal for the internet. But so be it. I’m writing this for anyone else who feels as crazy and desperate as I do. But maybe I really am the only one and I’m just doing everything wrong. Please don’t tell me if I am. I’d rather not know if that’s true.

To be made real, you have to face things you always tried to ignore. You have to see things you didn’t want to know existed. You have to accept things you always pretended weren’t really true. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it. The pain and the doubt and the confusion.

It’s scary to discover that the person in the Bible I most identify with isn’t a great hero of the faith. In fact, he is quite the opposite. The rich young ruler. He is the guy that every pastor says not to be like. And yet I’m finding that it’s exactly who I am. Jesus offers him more than he could’ve imagined, but he turned and walked away sad because he just couldn’t let go. Day after day, it seems that this is my story.

I began to realize this horrifying truth last summer. Desperate for the abundant life that Jesus offers and yet too terrified to let go of what is comfortable and familiar. And I felt so powerless to change. So one fine September evening, I asked God to do whatever it took until He was my only treasure. Oh shit.

I must warn you. This is not a pretty prayer. This is not rainbows and butterflies. It’s not like getting a flu shot that just pinches a little and then you get a Hello Kitty bandaid and a lollipop. It’s ferocious and gut-wrenching and bloody and just plain ugly. And you don’t get a Hello Kitty bandaid. I’m not at the pretty part yet, if there even is one. I’ll let you know if I get there.

I guess I can’t say that Jesus didn’t warn me. He did say things like “whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” and “which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” and “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

But is this seriously what he was talking about? Surely I’m doing something wrong.

Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I know that this truly is worth it. That first I have to really see all the ugly in me and discover all that I’m refusing to let go of. But it’s quite heartbreaking to discover that I’m not the wonderful Christian I thought I was. I knew I wasn’t perfect. But I didn’t know it was this bad.

There are days that I just weep because I treat God like crap and yet He is relentlessly kind to me. He has given me things that I longed for but didn’t know how to ask. And He never gets frustrated with me, even though I don’t hold back in telling Him that I hate how He is answering my prayer. But He knows me. And I’m told that if there was a better way, He would do it.

God has torn us, that he may heal us. He has struck us down, and He will bind us up.” (Hosea 6:1)

That’s all I got.

I wish I knew what happened to the rich young ruler after his troubling encounter with Jesus. Did he ever run into Jesus again? Did he ever give up his money in exchange for true Life?

I really hope so.