Into the Jungle

Lately, the path I’ve been walking seems to lie between two rather distinct regions, both with their own landscape and climate.

On the left side, I find the desert of fear. The desert, as one might expect, is characterized by its lack of water and extreme temperatures. There is very little in the way of vegetation and no shelter from the winds blowing every which way.

To my right, I see the jungle of faith. Lush with plant and animal life, the jungle seems to be everything the desert is not: humid, temperate, sheltered. Yet, all the foliage makes it hard to see what might be around the next bend.

Looking back, my tracks veer sometimes into the desert, other times through the jungle, but primarily in the narrow space between them. As I shade my eyes to consider the way before me, it seems to divide.

I realize now, I’ve encountered these forks in the road before. One branch leads deep into the jungle, the other winds through the desert. I don’t want to have to choose. I want to hold on to my fears, like a lifeline, as I step into the unknown depths of the jungle.

Except, I don’t think that’s how this works.

What if, rather than a lifeline keeping me safe, these worries form a leash attached to a choke collar, reining me in and holding me back? What if what it takes to live life in the jungle of faith is to recognize my anxiety, to know it, to feel it, and to choose not to listen to it, not to let it keep my from following the path I would like to choose?

I am more, I am certain, than the sum of my fears. My heart and soul were made of greater things than these.

And so I take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of fresh rain that permeates the jungle. I step in, placing one foot in front of the other. Verdant leaves brush against my face and close in on the trail behind me. I still feel worry nipping at my heels, but I am making my way, however tentatively, deep into the heart of the jungle.

I understand there is a beautiful temple here.

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A New Credo

About a year ago, I sat on my bed one night and started writing out things I believed about myself and about God and about life. It was a big leap of faith for me to let out some deeply held ideologies, to explore them and examine what might be worth keeping and what might not. Here is what I wrote.

I love Adam and the kids. I want what is best for them, even when that’s not the thing I’d prefer.

I’m scared that I’m not good enough. That I don’t have enough in me to accomplish all the things that I’m supposed to do.

I’m afraid I’m unlovable. Because no one can love me merely for who I am, I must constantly prove myself valuable by my usefulness. If I am not useful, I can be discarded.

God might love me, but He’s not very happy with me. He gave me all this responsibility and I keep letting Him down.

I’m a fraud. I have all these really good ideas about how life should be and how love ought to cover all and yet, I don’t actually believe any of them to make my life happen. They don’t have any real meaning in my day-to-day existence.

I hurt people all the time and they’re tired of forgiving me. The ways I used to be useful to them aren’t as important to them anymore and they are only waiting to see if I can find some new utility before they discard me. I don’t think I can so I’m about to be abandoned.

I can do life on my own, I guess, but I’ll have failed. Even if, on my own, I do really well, I’ll never be successful because I have already proven myself to be a failure in the most important roles and relationships of my life. I have failed as a wife and failed as a mother. I am a failure at the two things God and Nature most basically designed me to be.

I don’t deserve to be happy. I have failed and I have hurt the people closest to me. I deserve misery as my eternal penance for my sins.

Pain is bad. It means I’m doing something wrong. If I were doing it right, it wouldn’t hurt. If I’m hurting, it proves I’m failing. I must be a bad person to be hurting all the time.

It’s my fault if people are angry with me and my responsibility to change so they aren’t angry any more. I should always do everything I can to make people happy.

I am being selfish if I take care of my own needs before the needs of everyone around me are met. I am a very selfish person.

Despite my best efforts to look good, everyone I let close to me sees what I’m really like and they are disgusted by me. They only continue to interact with me because I am useful or amusing.

I really, really want to believe that God loves me and all these bad thoughts about myself are lies. But what if they aren’t? What if I trust God and trust other people and then it all turns out to be true?

Ouch. Even that night, as I reread what I had written, I recognized that this terrible credo was not good for me. I offered my response to myself as truthfully as I could.

Looking logically at all the statements I wrote out, the only one that seems worth holding on to is the first one.

It’s pretty scary to think about letting go of the rest of them, though. Will I be able to just loosen my grip and let them go? I think I’ll try to hold on to some, or grab them back in some warped sense of comfort. Or just out of habit.

The idea, though, that I can simply choose not to believe these any more sparkles at me like a precious gemstone, half-buried in debris along a path through the woods, catching a shaft of afternoon sunlight as it dances between the trees. And that reflection of Hope warms my heart and bubbles with joy in my soul.

A few days after I’d written this, I met with my therapist and shared my words with her. She suggested I rewrite the statements, cutting out the lies and replacing them with truth. I thought that was a good idea, but I was still caught up simply trying to wrap my brain and my heart around the idea that I didn’t have to believe these things anymore.

In the intervening year, a lot of life has happened. This morning, I was reminded of these statements and I felt ready for some major editing. I have a new credo now that better reflects what I really believe to be true. It is a lot more hopeful and full of grace.

I love Adam and the kids. I want what is best for them, even when that’s not the thing I’d prefer.

I know I am good enough. I have everything I need to accomplish all the things that I’m supposed to do.

I am lovable. Because I am loved merely for who I am, I never need to prove myself valuable by my usefulness. Whether or not I am useful, I am still loved.

God deeply loves me, and He’s very happy with me. He gave me all this responsibility and I keep doing my best, which is all He ever asks of me.

I have not completely got it yet. I have all these really good ideas about how life should be and how love ought to cover all and I am still learning how to inhabit them to make my life happen. They are beginning to have real meaning in my day-to-day existence.

I hurt people all the time and they continue to forgive me. The ways I used to be useful to them aren’t as important anymore because they love me for myself, rather than for anything I can do for them. I will not be abandoned.

I can’t do life on my own, because I was never meant to. I do really well and I will be successful because I have already proven myself to be loved and loving in the most important roles and relationships of my life. I have failed as a wife and failed as a mother, but these failures don’t define me. I am the beautiful being God and Nature designed me to be.

I can choose to be happy. Although I have failed and I have hurt the people closest to me, I am forgiven. I am invited to live a life of great love and bountiful grace.

Pain is instructive. It means something is wrong. If everything were right, it wouldn’t hurt. If I’m hurting, something in my life is failing. When I am hurting all the time, I can sit with my pain, learn from it, and allow myself to be open to joy in the midst of sorrow.

It’s not my fault if people are angry with me and it’s not my responsibility to change so they aren’t angry any more. I should always do everything I can to be at peace with others, but I am not responsible for anyone’s emotions but my own.

I am being loving when I take care of my own needs before I seek to help meet the needs of everyone around me. I am a very loving person.

Despite my best efforts to look good, everyone I let close to me sees what I’m really like and they love me for who I really am. They continue to interact with me because they delight in me.

I really, really believe that God loves me and shame-filled thoughts about myself are lies. Even when I question the truth, I am still loved.

Even when . . . fill in the blank with whatever you or I have thought or said or done or not done or whatever ways we have repeatedly failed . . . even then, we are still loved!

That is so amazing, isn’t it? This is truth worth holding and weighing and pondering. I keep coming back to this, the foundation of true love, trying to open up space deep inside my heart to accept just how huge, how monumentally life altering it really is.

Love is living and active and seeking communion with you and me. Now. Today. Always.

Wow.

May you find your day filled with hope and grace as you walk in the light of Love.

 

Keep Shining

I do not shine as I imagine
A successful Christian does
Spreading the light of Christ
Hither and yon wherever she walks
My light looks more like a candle
Flickering on a windswept night
Offering only the merest glimmer
Of the Glory beyond myself

Yet, in the darkness of the storm
After the sun has set
Isn’t even the flame
Of a single candle
A beacon across the night?

What if I were never meant
To offer more than this lonely flame?
What if I’m meant to glow
In such a place as this
Where night and clouds and forest
Team up against the light
And my little candle’s worth
Of the brightest glory
Is all I need to shine?

Like a Child

I grew up in Sunday School. There I learned that Jesus said some pretty cool things about children. In Mark 10:15, He says, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (NIV).

And I remember learning the term “childlike faith,” by which was meant we were to trust God unquestioningly.

Fourteen years ago this month, I became a parent for the first time. Do you have children? Do you know children? Have you ever spoken to a child? Do you know what they do ALL DAY LONG?

From nearly the moment they can speak, children ask questions. Every day I hear from the mouths of my no-longer-so-little children, “Why?” And, “Would it be weird?” And “How about?” And “Can I?”

I’m beginning to think I misunderstood. I don’t think Jesus was talking about blind obedience or unwavering trust.

Instead, I think He was inviting us to ask questions. A lot of questions.

Maybe, like me, you were raised in a faith tradition that didn’t encourage questioning. Perhaps, as I did, you grew up believing that the most important thing in being a person of faith was to believe wholeheartedly, without questioning the authority of your parents, teachers, and leaders.

As a mother, that idea certainly holds its appeal. If my kids would simply believe everything I told them and obey every instruction I issued without hesitation, life would be a lot more peaceful . . . for me.

But, for my kids, who live moment to moment with questions bubbling up inside their little hearts? Not so much.

One song I love is called “Big Enough” by Chris Rice. In the chorus, he sings:

God if You’re there I wish You’d show me
And God if You care then I need You to know me
I hope You don’t mind me askin’ the questions
But I figure You’re big enough

This is the image I now have of God: big enough to handle every one of my doubts, my fears, my questions and loving enough to hear me out, no matter what I ask or feel or believe.

Well Good

As a child at my mother’s knee, I learned to cook. Not well, nor completely. My mom was big into canned and frozen and pre-prepped foods. I knew she knew how to make bread from scratch, but mostly we stuck frozen dough in loaf pans and baked bread that way. I knew it was possible to create spaghetti sauce from fresh tomatoes, but by the time I was learning to cook, my mom worked full time and our spaghetti topping came out of a jar with Prego (Italian for “you’re welcome”) on the label.

Eventually, on my own, I really got into cooking. I baked bread from scratch and whipped up cakes sans boxed mixes. I married a fellow foodie and we hand rolled pasta together. We made French Silk Pie without a little package of powder or a pre-rolled crust and I discovered how long it really does take to make tomato sauce starting with fresh tomatoes. I was pretty amazed by myself and everything I could do.

And then, I made some changes to the way I ate for health reasons. I’ve made a LOT of changes to the way I eat for health reasons. I’ve had to learn how to cook all over again, more than once, now. Starting over feels wrong. All the things I thought I knew about what you needed to bake cookies or bread or how to put a meatloaf together had to go right out the window, because those things no longer worked that way. DH was ever-patient through my trials, but he was rarely willing to eat much of my baked goods in the early years. He told me, more than once, that he’d prefer to eliminate bread entirely, rather than eat the vaguely bread-like substitutes that were coming out of my oven. But bread was really important to me. So, I persisted. I learned more, I practiced more, and, when we had the money, I tested out new ingredients and different recipes. My bread got better. Even now, I’m still working on it, but my husband has stared eating it again.

This story is not really about the bread, but about the Bread. And the Church. And what it looks like when we try to have Church without Bread.

I grew up in a family that loved Jesus. Yet, the way we loved Jesus wasn’t very loving. My family focused on loving Jesus by trying to follow the rules. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance . . . these were what “good” Christians did. If we followed all the rules, we’d never have a need for any of that messy grace business.

Okay, nobody told me that last part. I figured that out all by myself, years later. After I’d continually fallen face-first in the mud of my own messy existence, pulling on my bootstraps and telling myself that if I’d just follow all the rules, these little slip-ups would stop happening.

I’ve come to realize that in my family, I learned to love good, but not well, because I’d never learned to love God. The thing is, life and faith is not about the rules, it’s about the Love. The Law of Moses had a lot of rules. A quick internet search tells me there are 613 of them. They cover everything from what the priests wore to what animals were appropriate for food to sexual abstinence within marriage. From the sacred to the profane, so to speak. We didn’t follow all those rules. They taught in Sunday school about how Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17), so that meant we didn’t have to worry about things like animal sacrifices or wearing clothes that blended two different kinds of material. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But we missed the Love.

Jesus was asked once what was the greatest commandment. His answer was simple: Love. Love God, and love people (Matthew 22:36-40). That seems so much easier than 613 separate decrees about how to live life. So, what’s the problem?

We don’t know how to love.

God is love. I have been told that this is what separates Christianity from many other religions: we are taught that God is love rather than fear or anger or caprice. I have not studied enough of other religions to know whether that is true, but having studied my own, I’m not sure that’s really an accurate representation of most Christians I know.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2, NIV)

We don’t know how to love, so instead we substitute. We mix up the ingredients to form a loaf, yet we don’t have Bread. We follow rules, we make declarations, we draw lines that separate “us” from “them.” None of those things, in and of themselves, are bad. I’m not advocating for anarchy or moral relativism. But those are not love. They can and do exist with love, but they are not love.

I woke up this morning to the epiphany that we don’t love, because we don’t feel loved. We can’t offer to anyone else what we haven’t received ourselves. God is love, but we act like He’s a strict taskmaster, a teacher watching students sweat over an exam as he slaps his ruler against his palm. Or as my dad puts it, “a bully cop in the sky.” We don’t know how to accept His grace for ourselves and because we don’t grab hold of it, we can’t share it with anyone else.

To accept God’s grace, I must admit I need it. To need grace means I can’t do life on my own. I must hit, as they say in addiction circles, rock bottom. I don’t like that. If it’s all about following the rules, than it’s what I do (or don’t do) that seals the deal. But with grace, I can only accept. It’s not my doing, but His. I want it to be about me, because that feels reassuring to my sense of self, but instead it’s about Him. I am valuable not for why I believe, what I say or how I act, but because He loves me. Which means, you are just as valuable as I am.

You are valuable, no matter who you are (or who you’re not). You are valuable, no matter why you believe (or can’t believe). You are valuable, no matter what you say (or don’t say). You are valuable, no matter how you act (or won’t act).

I am inherently worthy of love, and so is everyone else. Not this sham of rule-following, right-believing, do-as-you’re-told so-called love. Real love.

Love values your body and mind, not just your soul. Love cares for your children just as much after they are born as before. Love chooses you. Love celebrates your joys and cries over your heartaches. Love walks with you and talks with you and sits with you and listens to you.

And if that’s not the way I am treating you, what business do I have calling it “love”?

Heavenly Father,

Let me know You. Let me know Love. Let me remember it is not about me, but about You, and You are about loving the world. Let me not dress up insecurity and call it love. Let me not toss a covering over fear and call it love. Let me value every life, every individual, as You do. Let me be love. Let it be so.

Love, More or Less

God is love. I’ve been told that all my life. God loves me, no matter what. That, too. And yet . . .

There’s a line from Michael Card’s song “Chorus of Faith” that goes:

He (meaning God) cannot love more and will not love less.

I remember the first time I thought about those words. I was in high school probably. Or maybe early college. I had no problem with the end of the sentence. The idea that God didn’t have to love me, but chose to anyway, fit neatly into my theology.

The first part, though? Man, I couldn’t quite get that. Surely God could love me more if I were a better person, couldn’t He? I mean, if I were more righteous and more honoring to my parents and got up earlier to read my bible more and all those other things that good Christians do more that I did, wouldn’t He love me more?

Nope.

Honestly, I still struggle with that. Like the Prodigal Son’s older brother, I want to be celebrated because I’ve done so much for my Father. I forget that all the while, as I’m being busy trying to do, do, do so His love for me might grow, grow, grow, He’s right there loving me more than I can even imagine, and I’m missing it! I’ve so burdened myself with what I think He wants from me that I can’t receive the love He wants to give me.

To love God with all your heart and mind and strength is very important. So is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. These things are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33, NIrV)

The reality is: It is finished! Jesus did it all already. There is nothing else I need to do, nothing else I can do, nothing else God is waiting for me to do, but let Him love me. That is all He wants from me. Not that I follow all the rules (whose rules?), not that I believe exactly the right doctrine (which doctrine?), but to let Him love me, let myself love Him back, and let His love flow out of me to the people around me.

Lord, God,

You’ve made it so simple for us. Yet, I want it to be more difficult. I want it to be about me instead of about You. I want to be able to earn Your grace, rather than take charity. I want to figure out all the rules and follow them and pull myself up by my bootstraps. Until I don’t. Until the pain and the sorrow and the evil in this world overwhelm me and I realize I can’t do it on my own. I need You. And if the only way to get to You is to let You come to me, to tear down my defenses, and give You access to the deepest hurts inside my soul, I need to stop trying so hard to avoid the weakness and the vulnerability of being human and being loved. To allow You in my life as You are: Healer, Savior, King.

Loaves and Dishes

Silence is an underrated blessing. We live in a world of near constant noise. To take time out, to step away from the livestream of everything everyone else is doing, to calm my heart and sit before the throne of God without prattling on about what I want from Him is an amazing experience.

A few months ago, I participated in a prayer and worship service. The highlight of the night, for me, was the 10 minutes of silent corporate prayer. We all sat together, hushed in reverence of the Creator, and allowed Him to speak to us.

That evening, I saw a scene that has stayed with me. We were all gathered, everyone in the room, coming home for a feast–as scattered relatives return to the family homestead for Thanksgiving. Yet, we were all outside the place where the meal was being served, arguing with one another about the dishes. Not who would wash them, but what china pattern was best and whose settings should be used.

Suddenly, a plate struck the wall, shattering to bits and startling us all into reticence. We moved into the banquet room then and were shocked to see the tables, low to the ground, Middle Eastern style. There were no plates at all, but communal serving platters from which were to help ourselves, bite by bite.

That scene returned to me as I lay in bed this morning. When I first saw the images, what stood out to me the most was the plate, breaking to bits against the wall. I understood the symbolism as a verdict against the Church’s arguing with one another over trivial matters of policy, rather than joining together to share the bounty of God’s blessings that had been prepared for us. Today, I realized I’d missed something. In a traditional meal where everyone shares a common serving dish, individuals eat a flatbread of sorts (like tortilla or pita or naan), using it to scoop up bites of the main course. I realized that not only are we arguing over the plates that aren’t even a part of the feast, but such disputes have completely taken our focus off the Bread.

“For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:33-35, NIV)

The Kingdom of Heaven is not about me. It’s not about what I have done or not done. That is not to say that my actions have no importance, just that I cannot change the essential nature of Christ’s Kingdom. He invites me in to join the feast, but the feast is not my doing. There is no place at the table for arrogance that my china is being used. This is the wedding feast of the Lamb and we are here as His Bride, to celebrate with Him. The only way to enjoy this great banquet is to eat the Bread (Matthew 26:26).

Lord Jesus,

Thank You for giving Yourself to be the Bread of Life. Thank You that through Your life and death and resurrection, I can come to the feast, that You honor me as Your bride, and I am invited eat my fill. Help me to remember Your preeminence over any understanding or practice of my faith, to know that You are the One in whom I have faith and any other aspect comes distantly second. Let me choose to embrace each individual member of the family within the unity of You, rather than trying to assert the superiority of one tradition over another. May we be one as You and the Father are one (John 17:16-26). Amen.