He Gives Me His Best

In the story of the prodigal son, I’ve always only identified with the disobedient son who goes off and makes all the mistakes. Somehow, I forgot how the Father responds to this son. Upon the sons repentant return, his Father gives him his best. He throws him a party. And this reveals to the returned son not only the depth of his Fathers love, but also the humility it takes to receive such a love. This is, I believe, how God is responding to my return to him. I just couldn’t see it for a while. I’m still processing through all the amazing experiences God is teaching me through but I think I’ve figured this much out:

1. The more I trust God, the more stunning and joyful my life becomes. It doesn’t mean difficult things don’t happen, but the way I feel and respond to them does. And it’s kind of the best thing ever. Instead of woe is me, I ask myself how is God using this for good?

2. God has crazier, better things in mind for me than I could ever come up with on my own. When I took this new job, so much of my vision was full of the sacrifice I was making versus the opportunities God was creating. I thought I’d lose adventure and travel. Yet somehow I’ve got the most amazing job ever which I look forward to everyday and I’ve had more new experiences in these past 8 months than I usually have in years.

3. God is revealing how this season of singleness has been the best thing He could have done for me. I’ve had time to heal from the past and build better, healthier habits. I’ve learned to put God first rather than making my partner my idol. I’ve been placed amongst men who are protectors rather than predators. I’ve learned how to trust and what I find attractive has drastically changed. I have a blast with kids and have gotten to a place where I know I want a family someday but I can also appreciate what Gods doing here, now. I feel confident that the total transformation of my life these past couple years would not have been possible if I hadn’t had the freedom to fully run after where God was taking me.

4. God’s teaching me how to do relationships, and it’s not weird. Surrendering control and being truly vulnerable is one of the most powerful things I can do. The more I let go and have God lead rather than me, the more I discover about his heart for me. A family that welcomes me to their home and their table. An adventure in Old Jerusalem. Officiating a sunset marriage at an outdoor synagogue in Israel. The blessings of a tearful old woman. The amazing testimony of a Believer facing stage 4 cancer. The company of a friend who balances depth of conversation with silliness and hearty laughter. A roommate and friend who serves as a rock and comforter in difficult times. A closeness and affection with my family (and particularly my sister) that few people possess. And through all these relationships I learn not just what God wants for me, but from me: I continue to become a better friend, sister, daughter and (someday?) wife.

5. God wants my authenticity. He designed me with purpose and delights in who I am. I’ve spent much of my lifetime trying to be what others wanted me to be rather than who God designed me to be. That’s ridiculous. Putting others first doesn’t mean I compromise on who I am; it means I give them the best of myself. Learning the difference between this has been a powerful catalyst for building healthy relationships that leave me feeling known rather than isolated.

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Reflections on “Love Does,” by Bob Goff (Part Three)

If you didn’t start at the beginning, I suggest starting at Reflections on “Love Does” by Bob Goff (Part One), although it’s not super important.

Wedding Cake

I used to think being a believer was enough, but now I know Jesus wants us to participate, no matter what condition we are in.

A wedding on a shoestring budget. It might not sound amazing to some people, but it sounds beautiful to me. A family friend cutting them a deal on the cake, the caterer making the best of pasta salad, and his boss hooking them up with a free venue. This is the blessing of community, isn’t it? When he arrived at the reception, Bob saw his high school-aged friend assembling the cake in the parking lot. Four tiers tall, it’s fate was written as soon as he began pushing it across the parking lot on a wobbly AV cart. Responding swiftly, a plan was made, the fallen cake was gathered, and in 30 minutes it was being reassembled with the help of a fresh bucket of frosting. They served it up, tiny bits of gravel and asphalt included.

“Like that cake, my life is full of small rocks, pieces of asphalt, broken and unrepaired relationships, unwanted debris. But somehow God allows us each to be served up anyway. Jesus talked to social outcasts, loose women, lawyers like me, and religious people and said they would not just be so many decorations or window treatments, but He would serve them up as well… The only thing that Jesus said He couldn’t serve up were people who were full of themselves or believed the lie that they were who they used to be before they met Him.” (56-57)

There it is. Conviction.

The lie that they were who they used to be before they met Him. This is a lie that whispers to me in the night, in the times before I speak in front of people, in the moments where I wonder who my friends are and if they care for me. The TRUTH that I am transformed, that I am made new, is one I fight for actively. And I am finally feeling the light of dawn on my face, that I am emerging from a battlefield victorious over this lie. “Yet Jesus continues to select broken and splattered people not just as followers but as participants. He called people like me who can’t even figure out which end of a plastic bag is open His hands, He called people who trip every day His feet, and He called people who can’t figure out which way to turn a screw to tighten it or even stack a cake correctly the ones who would build a kingdom.” (58)

Just Say Yes

I used to think you had to be special for God to use you, but now I know you simply need to say yes.

A story of pranks. Bob pranks a buddy and so, when he gets a call from an ambassador of Uganda, he thinks that this is payback. So he tells the guy yes. I’ll meet you in New York. Hello, adventure. Until the entourage from Uganda pulled up and Ambassador Kamuninwire greeted him and he realized it was real. And the Ambassador introduced Bob as the consul instead of counsel. He had all the paperwork ready to make Bob a diplomat. License plates, clearance, diplomatic immunity. Handed to him after being cleared by Ugandan Parliament and the FBI. “I think God sometimes uses the completely inexplicable events in our lives to point us toward Him. We get to decide each time whether we will lean in toward what is unfolding and say yes or back away.” (64) I want to be someone who answers yes to the adventure God calls me into, without needing all the reassurances and explanations. I want to trust fall into God’s story and be swept away. But there is a doubt in me that wonders how such a God as this could have any use for a person like me.

“I don’t think it was because Moses needed Aaron but because Moses mistakenly thought he had to be somebody important in order to be part of what God was going to do.” (65) And this is the mistake I make; God doesn’t use important people. God makes people important. All the time. Because they all matter to God. “We were all meant to save many lives. God is always trying to save lives, and it seems like He usually uses the least likely people to do it.” (66)

The Interviews

I used to think I had to be somebody important to accomplish things, but now I know Jesus uses ordinary people.

In the wake of September 11th, Bob asked his kids, “If you had five minutes in front of a group of world leaders, what would you ask them to help make sense of life, faith, hope and the events that are unfolding around them?” (68) His seven year old said he’d invite them over. His other son said he would ask them what they hope for. His daughter, the eldest, said she’d go to their homes and ask what they hope for; maybe even do a video interview so they could share it. These ideas were eventually put in a letter that they sent to leaders all over the world. Over the coming weeks the kids received the kindest rejection letters, but they also received 29 invitations to visit various leaders they had written. They hit the road. More often then not, it started with the kids having an official meeting with the leader in an official reception room. Once the leaders realized the kids came with only an agenda to be friends, they’d invite them into the private offices. They’d talk about family and hopes. Bob wrote of one Russian leader, “And with that preamble, he shared his thoughts drenched in sincerity about how a friend knows what you need before you ask. He ended his talk with these words that still ring true for our family. ‘You know what it is about someone that makes them a friend? A friend doesn’t just say things; a friend does.‘” (73) And in the end, the kids got exactly that from this adventure: friends that do. This is the kind of friend I am, and I am blessed to have many friends around me who operate similarly. I have no idea where I would be without them.

There’s More Room

I used to think I needed an invitation to get into most places, but now I know I’m already invited.

Sometimes, we get this strange idea that we have to jump through hoops and navigate crazy twisting mazes to get close to God. We have to have the right clearance, pass the right tests, know the right words and act the right way to “get in.” This is a lie that keeps us distracted and busy rather than focused on the relationship offered to us. “When you read the Bible, the people who loved Jesus and followed Him were there ones like me who didn’t get invited places. Yet Jesus told His friends they were invited anyway.” (81-82) This invitation we receive from Jesus isn’t about being a spectator; it’s a relationship that asks us to love God and our neighbor deeply enough to respond. To get in the game. To invite others to come play with us. “They don’t think about their pain or their weakness any longer. Instead, they think about how incredible a big life really is and how powerful the one who is throwing the banquet is too.” (83) I don’t often forget where I came from, but I do sometimes forget that Jesus invited me to the table when I was there. When so much of the world consumed me, Jesus offered me himself. I drank of living waters that quenched a life-long thirst. I ate a bread that nourished and filled me far greater than anything I’d ever found so far in this life. “The one who has invited you is way more powerful than any of the impediments we think we’re facing, and He has just one message for us. He leans forward and whispers quietly to each of us, ‘There’s more room.'” (83)

Wow, What a Hit!

I used to think the words spoken about us describe who we are, but now I know they shape who we are.

This is basically a reflection on words of affirmations, and how they impact and shape us. “…I do know one thing that works every time-it’s having somebody else say something good about you. I think that’s how we were created, you know, to get named by people this way. I think God speaks something meaningful into our lives and it fills us up and helps us change the world regardless of ourselves and our shortcomings.” (87)

I remember the first time that I had 4-5 people tell me they all believed I was gifted in faith. It made me cry. How could they all be so terribly mistaken? They knew my story, my struggle and yet they look at me and saw… a powerful, uncommon faith. Eventually, through their words, I began to realize that this was a gift that God had given me. I did, however, need others to reveal it to me.

When an ex wrote me this over a year after our relationship had ended, I remember being stunned: “There are so many way in which I know I hurt you over the years that at the time I didn’t even realize did to list and for all of those I am sorry.  I know your love and encouragement were always sincere…I know you’re intentions were always sincere and that most of the time (okay pretty much all) you put me head of everything, which is something that I rarely did for you but that you deserved of me.  If either of us needed to apologize and ask for forgiveness it would never have [been] you.”

Even he saw this in me. These are things my sister has said for so long, as well as close friends and family. But for some reason I couldn’t believe it. I thought that there must be something terribly wrong with me that made me so difficult to love. It never occurred to me that the men I dated didn’t know how to love and hadn’t yet developed the capacity to do so well; it was only through how well I loved them that they discovered it in themselves. I allowed the wrong words spoken over me in times of desperation and anger to shape me rather than hearing the truth that people who knew me well offered.

 

Israel, 4 am

The journey was over 24 hours to get here but I managed to steal a few hours of sleep from a couple flights. I was positive I would sleep soundly tonight, yet 4 hours later I’m wide awake and I don’t need to rise until seven. Perhaps some journaling and a sunrise with God is in order (and maybe some coffee too).

I heard children using “Abba” with their fathers today and it brought a whole new context to the word for me. This term, which Jesus used to refer to our Father, is similar to “Daddy.” But today I heard it used by small children, often accompanied by reaching arms and grasping hands. “Abba, Abba!!” they cry, unabashedly asking to be held, or comforted, or protected. Striking out fearlessly, one little one became startled and ran with arms open back to her Abba. It makes me reflect on Jesus’ choice of words and the posture of children with their Abba. Is that how I would describe my relationship with God?

Israel and Relationships

So we’ve got this group of singles, of which I am part, heading over to Israel for a couple weeks. There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation around it, and for good reason. This is the longest and most consistently I’ve ever prayed for anything, and I’ve now had several people who have spoken over this trip that maybe “relationships” will come out of it. Please don’t misunderstand me in what I say (I would be so happy for whoever it is), but I worry that these words will seep into hearts and distract rather than encourage.

I know that we are going on an awesome adventure. We will walk where our God walked; we will pray where our God prayed. We will learn from a man whose walk in faith resembles that of Jesus’ far more than the modern Christian does. And herein lies my point: this is an once in a lifetime chance to know God in a unique and intimate way. If it is His will to bless people on this trip, by all means, may the Lord move hearts. But I pray that the idea of a potential relationship would not be so distracting that it comes at the cost of intimacy with God.

So my prayer is this: “Abba, should it be your will to bring new relationships to life in Israel, I pray that they would be relationships that honor you. I petition you, Lord, that the blossoming of that relationship would increase the intimacy they know with you, Adonai, and that it would serve as a testimony to you. I pray that you would guard hearts that need guarded, that you would bring them life and comfort in discovering your character. Above all, I pray that we would all love you, the Lord our God, with all our hearts, souls, minds and bodies; and that we would also remember to love each other. Your will, Elohim, and not ours be done. Amen.”

The State of the Union

Charlottesville. I wish this outrage wasn’t part of a pattern interwoven into the fiber of our country. That this was some tragic, one off event. But it isn’t. I don’t know how to express my sadness, anger, mourning and disappointment. Posting online can feel trite in such circumstances. The inclination of man to use names and stereotypes to remove humanity and ultimately justify oppression, violence and murder of those “others” so they can stand a little higher is no new thing, but that does not mean we do not push back against the storm that rolls relentlessly against us. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” The best representation of any society, I believe, is when we we look at the margins of that society and see how those who stand there are treated. Are we correcting oppression and bringing justice? Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.”

But don’t listen to just me. Tina Fey has some thoughts as well.

Encountering Mystery

I had spent a very, very long time trapped in a space mentally and emotionally which felt like complete hopelessness and loneliness, clinging to a tiny shred of hope. It was like the glow of a single, twinkling Christmas light in what felt like an otherwise black abyss. I had started going to Crossroads about 10 months before, and a series of events had made me curious enough to begin asking, “Is there a God? And if there is, is God good? Who am I to God?” This ended up with me landing in India, going to some of the darkest places I could imagine, and challenging this God to show up.

I experienced a moment there that I will never forget. Crossroads partners with several homes in Mumbai and Kolkata, India, that rescue girls and women from sex trafficking. I was in the first group that went to Kolkata and we spent one of our days there putting on a day camp for the girls. We sang, we danced, we played, we taught each other songs and we also did some crafts. One of the crafts was to make a beaded bracelet or necklace. The different colored beads stood for things that were important to us or things we wanted. Examples would include hope, friendship, love, wisdom, etc. I was making a bracelet with one of the girls when she noticed the beads I had chosen to use. “No, no, no. More love.” I was confused, and asked her what she meant and she smiled and laughed at me. “You!” She pointed. “More love,” she said as she pointed at my bracelet, which barely included that color at all. She then proceeded to dismantle my entire bracelet and fill it with the color of love.

My heart broke in the most wonderful way possible in that moment, like walls around it were crumbling. It was as if all the darkness I felt like I was covered in turned into a liquid and puddled at the bottom of me and suddenly, the world seemed to be made of color. Of light. This child who had been through so much could see the very thing I felt I lacked but that I so desperately longed for and she piled it on, unabashedly. She taught me to worship as we sung, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, Rejoice!” I was overwhelmed, I was baffled, I was in the process of becoming. If this young girl who had experienced the true darkness of mankind so fully could worship God, could call out for love with a hungry heart, than certainly there was something special happening here. Some kind of extraordinary goodness that could say, “Even in this place I will give you joy. Even in your suffering, you will know love. Loneliness is a lie because there is a God that loves you and is always with you.”

It wasn’t the first time or the last time that I encountered the Mystery of God, but it planted a seed of faith so deep inside of me that it successfully took root. I began a steadfast pursuit of this God that comes close, who moves in our lives today. While I’ll never fully know or understand God, I feel called into this Mystery that is. I get a sense that not only am I welcome to explore the character and nature of my God but that my desire to know God brings joy. When I begin feeling alone or discouraged, I look back on this moment and I remember how God used the ordinary to speak about the extraordinary and I rejoice.

Being Beings and Discovering Mystery

John Shea’s essay, “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light,” outline four different environments that we all share, best understood as “the basic contours of our existence.” (Shea 2) The environments are made up of the self, loved ones, society and institutions, and universe. Our experience as humans may appear to be summed up by our interactions with these four, but there is a fifth environment which encompasses these: Mystery. Our basic experience can be understood in having two points: ourselves and the environment we encounter (for instance, I (1) eat bread (2)).  When this interaction reveals a dimension of Mystery, we experience sacramental awareness (the addition of the third point). In the instance of eating bread, I might understand it to be not only bread but my personal participation in the account of Christ who gave his followers bread and told them it was his body, broken for them.

There are five primary ways Shea outlines as a means of becoming aware of the ultimate dimension of our experience as humans. First is contingency, “what Kazantzakis calls the luminous interval between two darknesses.” (Shea 13) Sometimes it looks like the gift of living fully and joyfully in the moment, amazed by the very experience of it all. At other times, it can be a reminder of how very fragile and finite out lives on this planet are. The second path is dialogue and communion. Through dialogue people discover who they are and in communion they discover a love and acceptance gifted to them by their community. The third path is collapse. “When order crumbles, Mystery rises.” (Shea 16) This is the falling apart of the beliefs or knowledge we clung to and our reaction to that loss. “A fourth path to Mystery leads through a deepened sense of the ambiguity of our moral activity.” (Shea) While we strive for moral ideals, we most often find ourselves falling substantially short.  Last is disenchantment. Well known throughout history, it refers to an awakening which ultimately calls us into a maturing religious consciousness.

When we read Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike, we see a boys journey to sacramental awareness. The main character, David, experiences these environments in such a way that he becomes disenchanted, one of the five paths mentioned by Shea. David has an encounter with Reverend Dobson over heaven when he didn’t answer David satisfactorily.  “His indignation at being betrayed, at seeing Christianity betrayed, had hardened him. The straight dirt road reflected his hardness.” (Updike 36) He searched and searched for truth, but he was lost in the darkness that can fall when one realizes there is a question but no answer. He saw his classmates and their ill-fated path towards imminent death and eventually lost his desire to read altogether. Although concerned, his parents resolved to give him a gun for his fifteenth birthday. We can see the “universe environment” and it’s influence on David as he practiced shooting, which put fear into his dog who he would sometimes comfort. “Giving this comfort to a degree returned comfort to him.” (Updike 43) Ultimately, David is asked to use his new skills to clear out the pigeons in the barn. Although he didn’t have a desire to, he did as he was asked. As he killed more and more pigeons, he enjoyed it more, feeling the power he held with his gun and his ability to predict the pigeons path. Yet it was when he went to bury them that Mystery entered into his world: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair… a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides…And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers….no two alike… designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” (Updike 50) He was startled by the intention behind them and the fact that they were treated like pests. In this encounter, he rediscovered his God, “….that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.” (Updike 50)

References

Shea, John. “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light.” Stories of God. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2006.

Updike, John. “Pigeon Feathers.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Short Story.