Thursday, May 26, 2016

I will create, not destroy

As a parent, I like to think that I can teach my children important life lessons from the safety and comfort of our living room, shielding them from the pain of learning those lessons from real life. The danger in this is, of course, the best lessons are always learned the hard way. Those that stick with you usually come from a scar that is left behind as a reminder to your seasoned heart.

Several months ago, Keller came home excitedly talking about his favorite teacher forming a garden club. He and several friends decided that they would join and from that point forward, it was a passion for them. They discussed what to grow, read about how to grow it, cleared out the garden beds and planted. They patiently waited for the first signs of life from their new hobby, often dedicating their recess time to work and pull weeds rather than play. Over spring break, Keller was insistent that since we lived closest to the school, we needed to check on the garden because going for a whole week without care was unacceptable. He even carried a full jug of water as we walked the half mile from our house to the school because he was unsure there would be a source to get the water once we were there. The boy was all in.

Super Jalapeno

When Keller got to school yesterday, he was greeted by a friend who promptly asked, "Have you heard about the garden? You should go out there."

When he got out to the garden, he joined a brokenhearted group of friends and together they gained a scar.  Someone had vandalized their garden. Every plant had been violently ripped from the ground, thrown and scattered around the school yard. The tomatoes had been smashed and thrown against the windows of the school. It was total devastation.

With tears and a broken voice, he was telling me about what happened when I picked him up yesterday.  As he talked, my anger grew. I wanted to know who did this. I wanted them to be punished. I wanted them to know how much sadness and pain they had caused a group of amazing kids and their sweet teacher. Before he was finished, I was devising a plan to root out the vandals and make them pay.

But this isn't a story of destruction and vengeance. This is a story of grace.

When those kids saw months of hard work and dedication laying before them as waste, of course they were upset. Rather than wallow in pity and devise a plan to punish those responsible, they went to work.  They tenderly started picking up the plants and deciding which ones may be saved.  Carrying them like newborn babies, they gently replanted and watered them, propping up the broken stems as much as possible. After they replanted, they cleaned. They didn't have to. There were fun activities planned for them for the day but they knew there was hard work to be done. They borrowed soap and rags and scrubbed dried tomato from the windows of nearby classrooms. For two hours, they cleaned up the mess that was meant to destroy and made it beautiful again. In the end, their pain was less evident than their love. Their garden may not survive but this beautiful scar will and they are better for it.  We all are.

Before he was done giving the details of their morning, my heart was changed. Their response changed my response. Their hearts changed my heart. Their grace, kindness and love were so big that my anger was eclipsed. Now, I could only see grace, kindness and love. Overwhelming love.

Some days, I tend to narrow my focus on all the turmoil around me. Everything looks broken from this vantage point. I want to demand punishment for every wrong and justice for every hurt. What would happen if I focused instead on Love?

Life is full of difficult seasons. Just as I want to protect my children from learning them the hard way, I've always prayed that God would let me learn them from the comfort of my own safe life, watching others go through the hard parts rather than experiencing the scars for myself. This is, of course, impossible. Rather than try to avoid the scars of growth all together, I need to change my response.

I want to open my arms and accept them with love, knowing that those scars will produce something beautiful in my own heart. I want to allow Jesus to look around at all of the broken pieces of my life, scattered like trash and left for ruin, gently pick them up and make them beautiful again. He can do it. He will do the hard work of putting us back together, propping us up and making something beautiful from the brokenness and devastation.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

American Jesus

Not very long ago, I realized that I was worshiping a god that didn't exist. 
I gave him my life years ago, in high school and followed him as faithfully as the Israelites for over two decades. I clung with white knuckles to the rules I needed to follow to be considered faithful by other believers and presumably him, wagging my finger and shaking my head when the world didn't find those rules as imperative as I. 

The god I worshiped probably looked like me. He was likely white, well behaved, well spoken, wagged his finger at the same infidels that I did, never associated with sinners (if he did, he would only associate with them temporarily unless they changed their ways) and made sure that his disciples and family stayed as insular as possible because the world needed to see that they were "different" and different surely means that we are better than you and find your ways abominable. Deep within me, I was sure he would be proud of my church attendance, my tithe, the fact that I voted republican, sent my kids to church camp and made sure they, too, followed all of the right rules and were considered good little Christians. 

It all worked out very nicely for me until I realized that this Jesus didn't even exist.

American Jesus looks very different from the Jesus of the Bible. I have spent so much of my life following American Jesus and trying to make him proud...although, if I'm honest, it was as much about making other believers proud of me.

A couple of years ago, I began to feel deep conviction over the way I viewed Jesus and the church. When I saw something that made my pride rise up within me and my thoughts immediately went to judgement, I felt the conviction grow. I knew something was off but I was so afraid to confront it because in doing so, I may have to allow God to do a complete overhaul of my life. I'd have to let go of things I had been sure of, give them up and allow Him to mold them according to the reality of scripture. Since that's a hard pill to swallow, I ignored it.

Until I couldn't. 

If I saw a story on the news about refugee children being brought to my city and heard my Christian friends saying, "NO! We don't want them here! They could be terrorists!", my first response was to agree. As soon as the thought cleared my brain but before it could exit my mouth, I felt it. 

"Why do you believe that? Is that what my word says?" 

"Yes. No, wait. I'm not sure....No, Lord."

Turning to scripture, I found this:

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34-35

"For he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to it's neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Romans 13: 8-10

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." ..."I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Matthew 25:35-36,40

Lather, rinse, repeat every single time I tried to hold tightly to a belief I'd long used to puff out my chest and polish my halo. 

I heard a speaker recently tell of a pastor from Zimbabwe who was giving account of all the miracles his church sees in Africa to a group of American believers. He said that in his country they often see God perform miracles because God is their only hope. Jesus is all they have to cling to and because of that, they see him move through miracles that Americans believe do not exist outside of scripture. He told them that he believes that in America, we don't see these miracles because we have so many options, so many things in which to place our faith. His church only has Jesus.

For so long, I lingered in the belief that Jesus just didn't call everyone to radical love. It was great for missionaries and maybe even pastors but for a regular girl like me, he understood that I just didn't have the time, resources or calling to do live the kind of life it takes to see him actually perform miracles. I thought serving in my local church, teaching a Bible study to a group of ladies who were a lot like me was enough. Don't hear me wrong, that's exactly what I was called to do. But, it's not ALL I was called to do. Loving others the way Jesus loves them isn't going to happen by checking off a box and attending church regularly, there has to be more. We can't just go to church, we have to BE the church.

My pastor taught today that the first step in our experience with Jesus is Information. We learn about him and want to learn all we can about being a believer so we fill our head and heart with religious information. We figure out our theology along the way and we know all the rules of what we believe. For some, that's where they stall out and that's what stands out about them. Let's not forget, it's those with all of the correct religious information that killed Christ because he didn't adhere to the rules. We must move on to the next steps of inspiration and transformation if we want our relationship with him to grow. We must let our transformation be what stands out to others. 

"The Lord says: These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men." Isaiah 29:13

We teach the world nothing of the love of Christ by demanding that they adhere to our beliefs or we will turn our backs on them. The world cannot see Jesus in our demands that every life matters, if we walk past the hungry and do nothing, allowing them to literally die of starvation because we think they should have worked harder to get themselves out of this situation. The world wants nothing of a Jesus whose people demand rights for the unborn but do nothing for the orphan. No one wants a relationship with a Jesus who is pleased with his followers for labeling every prisoner a burden who is getting what they deserve. 

When our sin and filth is exposed to unbelievers, it's easy for them to use that as an excuse to stay away from Jesus if the pretense that we don't sin is what we used to tell them that Jesus loves us more than them in the first place. How can they believe that His love is not worthless if you have spent your time telling them they need to be perfect (like you) in order to earn his love and then they find out that you are a fraud? If you are a fraud, then He must be, too.

I don't have all the answers, I'm still daily learning who Jesus really is. I'm finally letting go of all of the knowledge and rules that have been so important to me and allowing him to replace them with love. I'm still battling the acidic words that spring into my heart with every new hot button issue and asking Jesus to remake my beliefs into His. It is a process that has been both painful and sweet because as I learn more, I love more. My heart is changing and I'm clinging to Him, valuing no other options and yearning for his miracles.