But Do You Love Me?

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I’m not a fan of a lot of the popular talent shows on TV. I downright hate programs where people are booted off the island or out of the house or eliminated from the list of contenders for the prize. It’s not the striving for excellence part that bothers me; it’s how easily people are rejected.

Sometimes fine folk are jettisoned, not because they lack talent, but because they don’t understand how the game is played. I had a student who tried out for a very popular talent show for singers. She had all the right stuff. Beauty, voice, flexibility, brains, charisma – that illusive “It” factor. This girl had her act together! She prepared a stunning audition piece, but she never even made the first cut. She was devastated, even after the judge told her the reason she was not accepted.

“You’re too good,” he confided. “This is a game show. This is entertainment. We are looking for people we can take credit for transforming from raw potential into a star. But thanks for playing. Next!”

She lost her faith in the contest system that day.

Can I admit that for years I harboured a secret fear of being rejected by God because I didn’t understand how the game was played? For a while I lost faith in his goodness. I had trouble believing he loved me. What if I reached the great day of judgment and faced elimination because I missed a clue as to what it takes to please him? Everything in my experience taught me that non-winners lose – and sometimes I lost because I didn’t understand the rules.

I still blow it. I charge right through warnings not to get involved in controversies without any insight but my own. I seek comfort in people, places, and things other than God’s provision. I give up on folks who are hard to love. Like the contest producers, I am also one who likes to collect friends who will make me look good.

When the Lord kindly points out areas in my life that are not working the old question pops up. “I’ve failed again, Lord. I know I don’t deserve it, but do you love me? Are you going to say, ‘Thanks for playing. Next!?’ Do I still have a place in your heart?”

This week I came across a verse in 2 Timothy 2 that I hadn’t noticed before. I did remember the verse before it that said if we deny God he will deny us. (The ability to love necessitates being given the ability to choose not to love and he honours our choice to reject him). But I hadn’t noticed this one before:

If we are unfaithful,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot deny who he is.

There is a difference between knowing who God is and choosing to dis-own him, and struggling with faith in his faithfulness – especially faith that he loves us and doesn’t play games. His love is not conditional on finding a use for us in a show that makes him look good. He desires relationship with “losers.”  He is willing to have his reputation tarnished by fragile people who do not have their act together.

Does God rely on your faith? No. He relies on his faithfulness and his inability to be anything other than what he is. He is faithfulness. He is love. Faith and love are gifts he gives you so that you have something to give back to him.

Faith and love originate with him. We don’t need (or have the ability) to conjure them up. We have a great high priest in Jesus Christ, who understands our weaknesses. In our earthly bodies we are more like delicate flowers than titanium blocks, but he chooses to contain his light in our fragility. He is not disappointed. He had no illusions about us in the first place. He loves because he loves.

His promise: He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.

He remains faithful because he is faithful – and he cannot deny who he is.

 

 

 

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Keep Your Head to the Sky

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Sometimes God’s voice shows up in the strangest places. I expect to hear him speak through the Bible and through people who spend a lot of time in his presence. God also speaks to me through nature and through innocent children. Both can be remarkably profound. I’ve learned to pay attention to dreams that stand out and to listen to hymns and worship songs that play in the night and on repeat during the day. But movies and pop songs always surprise me.

Today God spoke through a chance encounter with a Mariah Carey song from the last decade. But first some background…

Beautiful friends prayed for me last night. I was glad I sat at the back of the auditorium because I cried through most of the service that ended a conference where I feasted on solid food. The speaker talked about Jesus setting a pattern of descending in humiliation and ascending in exaltation. (I will probably write more on this as I process the image of Jesus as our great high priest.)

Part of Jesus’ descent involved taking on human form with all its frailties. Satan attacked his identity when he was in a weakened state in the wilderness after a forty day fast. Christ’s exaltation involved ascending to heaven in his glorified body where he sits on the right hand of God as one who identifies, intercedes, and intervenes on our behalf. He made a way for us into the holy of holies with his own perfect blood sacrifice.

One of my life verses has been “That I might know him,” but I can’t ignore that the scripture combines knowing him with “and the fellowship of his sufferings.”

Life on this road is full of ups and downs – ascents and descents, mountain tops and valleys. I have known the elation of seeing God perform miracles before my own eyes. In the past year or so I have also known what it is like to be misunderstood, misrepresented, rejected and even had false accusations levelled at me. I have not always handled these well. Mostly I have not handled them at all (other than to ruminate and drive my husband to distraction with rehearsed re-enactments). I’ve been  withdrawing and becoming emotionally and spiritually numb. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between shunning negativity and outright denial.)

Last night I began to realize that Christ was allowing me to share his experience in a tiny homeopathic-size dose. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood, misrepresented, rejected, hated, and lied about. I wanted to experience the ascension to a new spiritual height after a wilderness experience, like others talked about, but all I felt was pain. The pain of not fitting in anywhere. My pain. His pain.

I wept.
And I thanked him.

Afterward a kind man and two women who love the Lord and understand this journey prayed for me. They told me what the Lord was showing them. Amongst other things (precious and private) they mentioned they saw me as one who was meant to live at altitude, like a bird living above earth-bound entanglements in the presence of my Creator, but that striving will not get me there. I thought of the scripture, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.”

Prophetic words are usually a confirmation of what the Lord has been saying to our hearts all along, but words we have forgotten or ignored or dismissed as something meant for someone better than ourselves.

I didn’t tell them about having dreams of being a song bird that flew to the top of trees where the growling predators couldn’t reach, or of the very dramatic vision of a bird with bright red feet. When I asked what that was about I was told it was a “red-footed booby.” I had to look it up. It’s a sea bird that spends years at a time in the sky, riding on thermals, living on fish and touching land only to  raise its young. I remembered encountering these things when I was trying to understand my identity in Christ and asking God how he saw me.

Today I came across the lyrics of Mariah Carey’s “Fly like a Bird.” I heard the Holy Spirit repeat the message in some of the phrases:

Weeping may endure for a night
But joy comes in the morning
Trust Him

Somehow I know that
There’s a place up above
With no more hurt and struggling
Free of all atrocities and suffering
Because I feel the unconditional love
From one who cares enough for me
To erase all my burdens
And let me be free to
Fly like a bird
Take to the sky

I need you now Lord
Carry me high
Don’t let the world break me tonight
I need the strength of you by my side
Sometimes this life can be so cold
I pray you’ll come and carry me home…

Keep your head to the sky
With God’s love you’ll survive…

Carry me higher, higher, higher
Carry me higher, higher, higher
Carry me home
Higher Jesus
Carry me higher Lord

I don’t know how long the descending bit of the road is, but I know Joy comes in the morning. I trust him.

I also know I am not the only one in this place. If this is also you, keep your head to the sky…

Because You Are Good

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The older kids had already run out the door to catch the school bus. She was in her jammies, her hair matted in a wad of fine blonde fuzz at the back of her head and a greying blankie hanging like a loose toga over her shoulder. Her voice, crackling with the residue of sleep was hard to hear.

“What would you like, honey?” her Mommy asked, as she added raisins to my little granddaughter’s oatmeal.

“Can you put on worship?” she asked again, a little louder this time.

“Sure. I can do that. Which one?”

“Kids worship, please.”

Mommy started a video on the computer on the kitchen desk.

“She asks for music every morning,” she told me. “This is the way she likes to start her day.”

The song played and my little three-year old granddaughter grinned at me.

Your goodness never stops
Your mercy follows me
Your kindness fills my life
Your love amazes me

I sing because You are good
And I dance because You are good
And I shout because You are good
You are good to me!*

Yes, my beautiful young one. You continue to teach me. This is how to start the day.

 

*From Bethel Music Kids/ Come Alive

Choking Hazards

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I bought my granddaughter a jewellery-making kit with 25,000 colourful beads. When I took it out to wrap for her birthday, I thought a while, then put it back in the closet and bought her something else. I was pretty sure she would like it, that was not the problem. The problem? A little sister who got into everything and sometimes put those things in her mouth. Depending on a child’s age this box contained either 25,000 pieces of potential pretty jewelry or 25,000 potential choking hazards.

I was also an eldest child. I know what it’s like to have younger kids’ needs veto mine, but I looked at my granddaughter’s harried mother and her incredibly curious toddler sister and decided to choose safety this time.

But it bugged me. It wasn’t just the memories of having to forego activities because of offendable siblings (because as a mother and grandmother I’ve done this many times without complaint); this time it triggered something else. I realized it represented another problem I am struggling with – when potential choking hazards limit older believers’ spiritual growth, when topics are kept simple to avoid offending people who are still toddlers in their spiritual growth (and I do love toddlers).

Many years ago I volunteered to help a large family. I assumed the mother must really like kids to have so many.

“Actually it’s the babies that I love,” she told me. “When they start getting independent my arms feel empty. I just adore cuddling babies. I can’t imagine home without little ones. They are so much easier to manage than teenagers. If they don’t want to move you just pick them up and move them yourself.”

I looked around. This home was completely centered on the needs of the youngest children. No potentially dangerous toys or tools and definitely no boxes of beads or junior chemistry sets. The older children were expected to look after the younger.  Some of them were remarkably responsible. But some of the teenagers were unhappy and rebellious. No one had time to encourage their individual interests and talents or listen patiently to questions that would lead to long that-depends kinds of conversations. They were set adrift to learn on their own. Some of the older kids did not fare well. They left home as soon as they could, but lacked preparation for life outside the nursery.

I realized that some church communities I have been part of could be a bit like this. When the emphasis is on producing new Christians and teaching them only to the point where they can turn around and serve the needs of the less mature, a kind of stunted growth becomes the norm for some and restlessness begins to emerge in others. Often those who fit into the niche of evangelism and service giftings are happy. Often those who tend to pose hard questions are not.

Service is a very worthwhile undertaking. The problem arises when older “children” in the family lack the opportunity to go beyond the basics, to learn about and explore everything Jesus said and the apostles taught, when they are expected to be satisfied with milk because meat is a choking hazard. They don’t develop discernment because the messy stuff and complicated stuff is kept on a high shelf in the back of the closet, or out of the house completely. The result is often apathy, vulnerability to the world’s philosophy, learned helplessness, and a whole bunch of people dependent on an overworked pastor/parent figure who is just trying to maintain a safe environment where everyone can play nicely.

The writer of Hebrews expresses it this way when trying to explain a deeper understanding of Christ-centered faith: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity… (Hebrew 5:11-14; 6:1 NIV)

Some of the “elementary teachings” mentioned later in this chapter are not even taught as basics in a lot of church family circles these days. More complex concepts can’t be packaged in a Sunday morning twenty-minute sermon or a week day Bible study with accompanying fill-in-the-blank, tell-me-what-the-author-thinks-verse-six-means study guides. Some questions have answers that require years-long conversations and don’t fit into blanks designed for one sentence. Not even close.

Research shows that a large category of people leaving institutional churches are the ones who have served for years. They are actually looking for more God. (A.B. Simpson called it “The Deeper Life” and in his day had to leave the established church in which he was ordained to pursue it.) These folks are not saying “I’m done with faith.” They love the Church – the body of Christ, the family of God. They are just saying,  “Hey, wait a minute. Is this the glorious church, or is there more, Lord?” They often feel torn between love for family and a drive to pursue more.

If you’re looking for an answer to the question of how to be considerate of people yearning to learn and grow to maturity as well as nurturing new believers vulnerable to choking on hazards or frightened by voices who don’t agree, I don’t  have one – only more questions: What is love? What does grace look like in a household of faith? When do we emphasize security and when do we exemplify freedom? How does honour build everyone up to become God’s temple of living stones?

All I know is that a loving family is concerned about making disciples and equipping all its members to be everything God intended them to be. And we have room to improve.