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.

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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.

A Single Step

I’ve been thinking about my future quite a bit recently, questioning whether I am who I wanted to be when I grew up. In many ways my life does not look the way I ever imagined it would. Years ago, DH and I sat down together for a series of discussions about where we wanted to raise our family. We agreed on the Pacific Northwest. Instead, we’ve lived in the Midwest for our entire marriage.

Moving from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains, I struggled to find my place. Even now, I want to live in a different home, a better neighborhood, someplace with a fenced-in yard and more than one family within walking distance that we truly call friends.

The thing is, God is with His people no matter where we are. He sometimes sends us to places we would never otherwise choose. Yet, through our journeys, He refines us, both for our own benefit and to bless those who surround us.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7, NASB)

While my family isn’t in exile, we are living life here because this is where God has put us right now. I may wish to be somewhere else–especially when I wake up to several inches of snow on the ground or am calling in yet another noise disturbance for the people next door–but this is where I am. I need to be fully present here, working and praying for the people in our community. And as they are blessed, that will be a blessing to us as well.

I don’t know what the next step of our journey holds. God may keep me right where I am. Or He may send me to the Pacific Northwest (or Hawaii … Hawaii always sounds wonderful at the end of winter). Or maybe I’ll move somewhere else that never made it onto my list of places I’d like to go. The question is: Do I trust Him enough to take the next step down His path, wherever it leads?

Lord,

I do trust You. I know You are a good God and I am not. You love me and know what is best for me. Even though what I want is a good thing, I know You may have another, better plan for me. I can trust You to lead me. I choose to follow You, even though I don’t know yet where we are headed. You are with me and that is enough.

Breath of Heaven

For many months, our church has been struggling. The hows and the wheres and the whys are not relevant to this story; suffice it to say the church has been slowly dying and those of us who remain have been grieving our once-vibrant Spiritual community. I was ready to jump ship at the end of last year. But as DH and I talked and prayed, we realized God was telling us to stay put.

I didn’t want to hear that. I cried. I would have argued long and hard with Him, but I knew even before I began that it wasn’t worth the breath or time to go on; God would win. God always wins. I felt He was asking us to be a part of His plan for new life, health, and growth. So I went back to church, and a tiny part of me deep inside started to feel a whisper of excitement in anticipation of God doing one of His God-things.

Since that night, I have seen His plan just begin to unfold. Change is slow and painful. More friends have left the church. The lessons God has for us are hard. And yet, He is with us. God has the power of life and Life is stronger than death. Even when hope seems to be dying, we can put our hope in the One who conquered death and lives forever.

These are the words of God to the dry bones, “My Spirit will bring you back to life. I will connect you with muscles and tendons; I will regrow organs and blood vessels and cover you with skin. I will breathe My own breath into you and you will live. Being alive, you will know Me as the Lord your God.” (Ezekiel 37:5-6, paraphrase)

No matter how dead, how beyond repair, how hopeless it seems, God can breathe His life into us, and doing so, He brings us back to life (John 11:21-27). Even when we have walked away from Him, He desires us; He pursues us (Romans 5:6). He calls us His own family (1 John 4:7-10). He offers life more abundant than anything we can picture (Ephesians 3:14-20) and promises to be with us always (Deuteronomy 31:8).

God,

I find it so easy to see hopelessness and desperation as the end. When I can’t imagine a way through, I don’t believe there can be a way. Yet You are beyond all I can imagine. You work beyond my wildest dreams. You are so much greater than I can even begin to understand. Let me rest in the Mystery, Lord. Let me be at peace knowing You ARE.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

I have been struggling the past few weeks with the idea of praise. Like most folks, I like being praised for something I’ve done. In itself, that is not a bad thing. What becomes a problem is when I accept such praise and leave it at that. The fact is, as a Christian, my purpose is to focus and magnify the Light of Christ. I am not the Light. Whatever ability I have to create or shine comes as God creates in me or shines through me.

Does this mean, every time someone notes a good job I’ve done, I need to say it wasn’t me, but God working through me? Well, no, I don’t think so. I think the need is more simply my own humility of heart to recognize any power, any creativity, any capacity to accomplish anything is a gift from God.

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above; it comes down from the Father of lights, the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens, in whom there is no variation, no rising or setting or shadow cast by His turning, for He is perfect and never changes. (James 1:17, AMP)

When I was a kid, I watched a movie about a few university students working to build an extremely powerful laser. Before a crucial project test, a rival student smears grease over one of the lenses. When the laser is fired through the dirty lens, rather than focusing the light on the target, the smudge interferes and distorts the beam.

That same sort of interference and distortion occurs in my life when I start to think I deserve the adulation of others for whatever I may have accomplished. Instead of shining the Light of God into the world, I’m trying to hot-wire my own little headlamp. No one can clearly see God through me when I am smeared with arrogance. Not only do I miss an opportunity to give glory to God myself, but to anyone who may be looking, I offer an inaccurate image of Him.

Father of Light,

What a risk You take every day to show Your Light through us. What an honor to be invited into Your Brilliance. Thank You for blessing us so much that I can actually make the mistake of thinking I’ve done something to deserve it. Help me to recognize Your fingerprints on every good thing I do. Cleanse my heart that I may see clearly and allow others to see You clearly in me. Let all that I am and everything I do bring You glory.

Inside Out

I saw a picture of myself the other day. Not a physical photograph, but a picture in my head. I was standing along the edge of a prison yard, right up next to the fence. I had my eyes focused on a group of people on the other side. They were playing basketball. I wished I could play. They looked like they were having so much fun! But I had no way of getting through or over or under the fence between us. I was stuck, just watching, while they had all the fun. I looked down at my plain clothes and felt jealous of their colorful uniforms. I wanted to be part of a team and get to wear a bright outfit like that! Then one of the officials blew his whistle and the game was over. All the players lined up and headed inside. I remained, staring at the empty court, wondering what I could do to get past that fence.

The view changed then, as I saw myself from the outside. I could see myself, standing there outside the fence looking toward the prison. But I could also see behind me, acres of grassy fields and rolling hills. If I’d but turned around, I could have seen that I was the one who was free, yet there I was, eyes trained on the prison yard, feeling jealous of the prisoners who were allowed to play ball during their single hour of exercise for the day.

“I, the Lord, made you, and I will not forget you. I have swept away your sins like a cloud. I have scattered your offenses like the morning mist. Oh, return to Me, for I have paid the price to set you free.” (Isaiah 44:21b-22, NLT)

How many times have I felt on the outside looking in, hurt that I’m not part of that crowd? Wishing I had what they have, desiring to do the things I see them doing?

Too often, I stand facing the wrong direction, seeing the life I think I want, without realizing what I’d have to give up in order to get it. I miss out on what I already have because I don’t see it in the places I choose to look.

Lord God,

Forgive me for looking away from You to find what I think I want. Help me to understand that You already know what is best for me and I can trust You to give it to me just at the right time. When I look at other people, remind me that I don’t see everything, I can’t understand the whole picture. Only You do. And You are working through all the circumstances, in everything I see and experience everyday. And You know what You are doing.