Modern artist, Kevin Rolly's rendition of Jephthah's daughter. His gallery here: http://kevissimo.deviantart.com/art/

Modern artist, Kevin Rolly’s rendition of Jephthah’s daughter. His gallery here: http://kevissimo.deviantart.com/art/

{This is a theological reflection I wrote for a grad school class, but I found it so healing to put into words that I wanted to share it outside of that class.}

“Lament is one of the ways you refuse to give up on justice… Lament is a form of radical honesty that entrusts our woundedness and the world’s brokenness to a God we expect to listen and to care.” – Kyndall Rae Rothaus[1]Introduction

Caregivers and practitioners involved with exploited children face the daily reality that we cannot help everyone. Some children will live and die in the most horrific and unjust ways, and we are simply not powerful enough to intervene. We are left with questions of the spiritual significance of their lives. Understanding God’s Heart for Children is a text based on a set of seven affirmations endorsed by Christian leaders in the field of children at risk (McConnell, Orona, and  Stockley 2007, ix). The last affirmation insists that “Children are essential to the mission of God. Christ made it clear that children are able to receive the kingdom of God (Mark 10: 14) and are therefore able to be an active part of the kingdom community” (ibid, 6). Does this affirmation extend even to the child in an on-going exploitative situation or is it limited to those children who have been rescued and who have experienced some level of healing? This paper seeks to acknowledge the upside-down power of un-recovered children to advance the kingdom of God and to provide a biblical justification for this recognition.

Into the Narratives
Any reflection on children in Scripture will include Christ’s words of welcome and inclusion to children. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14NIV). However, this is only the introduction to the biblical perspective of children. From the narratives of the Old and New Testaments, we find children like Samuel, David, Miriam, Josiah, and Mary being used mightily by God to advance his kingdom. These are the stories that are easy to embrace. They are encouraging and heart-warming. The children grow into honored adults, and the kingdom work begun in their childhoods only continues to gain momentum as they grow older.

When considering exploited children and their purpose in God’s kingdom, it is tempting to never move beyond stories like that of Joseph, a teenager trafficked for labor who later became politically powerful. We use his narrative to remind ourselves that what men intend for evil, “God meant for good”(Genesis 50:20). This feels encouraging because in the end, Joseph was not only exonerated, he was restored to his family and even played the role of a hero for his oppressors. Could there be any better story we could wish for on behalf of exploited children?
To be fair, sometimes this is the story. Organizations working on behalf of children at risk are full of people whose passion for their work was birthed in their own traumatic childhoods and experiences in crisis. Truly, these are often the people who make the most impact in work with exploited children because they can empathize in a way that no one else can. The evil done to them becomes the catalyst for powerful good. That cannot be diminished.
But what about the children for whom rescue never comes? What about the ones who will never be restored to their families or who will never play the role of a hero? Can God do nothing with their lives? Are they exempt from the affirmation that they are essential to the kingdom of God? Is participation in God’s kingdom limited only to those whose lives mirror Joseph’s story on some level?
Limiting this affirmation to the success stories undermines the credibility of the affirmation itself. It is as dangerous as insisting that “all things working together for good” can only mean an eventual happy ending (Romans 8:28, NIV). A perspective that excludes un-recovered children from being participants in the advancement of God’s kingdom does a second and perhaps even deeper injustice to the lives of the many who will never know justice on this side of heaven. It denies hope or dignity within their human circumstances and excludes them as a part of the “these” that Christ insists the kingdom belongs to. In the population of commercially exploited children that I work with, the majority will never escape with their lives and freedom. But I cannot believe that God does not still redeem and dignify their stories. He does. He is that big; He is that good.

Setting the Stage
As believers, we must contend with the evil perpetrated against children in reality and also in the history chronicled in Scripture. An honest reflection on some of these uncomfortable stories can shed desperately needed light on the kingdom role of the most hopeless cases that we might encounter.

One of the most disturbing stories regarding children found in Scripture is the narrative of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11-12. Jephthah, a military leader, made an ill-advised declaration to sacrifice the first thing that walked through his door upon his return from a successful battle in thanksgiving to God for the victory. His daughter, exuberant to greet her father, ran out of the front door and straight into her most unjust fate.
Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky sets this passage in its context in Judges. It is a story designed to appeal to our deepest sense of injustice and make the reader long for a different outcome. “The horror with which biblical authors react to child sacrifice is the very reason this story is included in the book of Judges… The reader waits for salvation – why doesn’t somebody stop the sacrifice and rescue the daughter?” (Frymer-Kensky 2002, Loc 2448).
The book of Judges uses the narratives of females to show the downward spiral of a nation ruled by God to a nation desperate for intervention. The earliest stories are of Jael and Deborah who work in harmony with their brothers for the good of Israel in submission to God. The final stories in Judges 19- 21, which sounds terrifyingly similar to modern day evil, are of the gang rape of a woman that ended in her death and the story of the men of Israel slaughtering a city and abducting 400 girls to be their brides. When these 400 were not enough to go around, they kidnapped a group of dancing village girls as well (Judges 21). The explanatory verse is the last of the book: During that period, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them” (Judges 21:25).

Frymer-Kensky writes that the point of Judges was that Israel “needed a king,” but the rest of the Old Testament was proof that a human king was not the answer (Frymer-Kensky 2002, Loc 3488). A Jewish scholar, she does not study the New Testament or the affirm Jesus as the Messiah, but the kingship of Christ fits perfectly with her research. It was not King Saul or human governments that was needed to prevent such tragedies, it was (and remains) God himself in the person of Jesus. The rest of the Old Testament moves on to prove this and set the stage for the inauguration of the kingdom of God that comes with his birth.

 

Redemption in Unexpected Places
Jephthah’s daughter’s story provides a powerful testimony of God’s ability to redeem even when he does not rescue. There is a shocking hope where there should be none. Through her story we learn that in honoring the memories of the ones never rescued by naming the truth of their tragedies, the kingdom of God moves forward.

Upon realizing her fate, Jephthah’s daughter responds with stunning dignity. She requests two months to spend with her friends mourning the coming reality, mourning their collective powerlessness to stop what is happening. It is an intriguing response that begs for reflection. Caregivers of exploited children can feel a sense of solidarity with the friends’ bittersweet resolution to stay with Jephthah’s daughter all the way to her death. They could not change what was, but they could ensure that she knew that she was not alone, that she was loved, valued, and esteemed. They could remind her that she did not deserve what was happening to her and that they would never forget. This too is part of our work.
There was no last minute rescue for Jephthah’s daughter like there had been for Abraham’s son (Genesis 22:11-12).  But even after her death, her story was not over. Judges ends Jephthah’s daughter’s tragic story with the statement that, “From this comes the Israelite tradition  that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11:39-40). It is powerful that what began with the solidarity of a few friends became a movement of a nation’s young women in which they honored the memory of a sister who never received her justice and reminded their entire community of the consequences of rash vows.

The friends of Jephthah’s daughter were certainly admirable and heroic, but it is important to remember that they were heroic and admirable precisely because of their relationship with Jephath’s daughter. It was she who alerted them to injustice. It was she who invited them to lament. It was she who taught them the truth about her situation, and it was she who sobered an entire nation and became an eternal symbol of the depths of the human capacity for selfishness, stupidity, and injustice. It was she whose life and death pointed so clearly to humanity’s need for a savior. So it is with the un-rescued children of our lifetime.

 

Conclusion
Jepthah’s daughter advanced God’s kingdom because in her youth and innocence, she showed us how much we need King Jesus. In the same way, child victims of exploitation are never “just” victims. Their lives and deaths are never in vain so long as there are friends who will acknowledge them, be changed by their memories, and use their lives to point to our desperate need for hope in Christ. Our role as “friends” of exploited children is to be truth-tellers and commemorators of their lives, even when their stories do not have happy endings. This is the truth of the Kingdom expressed in flesh and blood, that God has chosen the weakest, the lowest, and the most despised to reveal himself, to show his power, and to pave the way for salvation (1 Corinthians 1:25-28, 1 Corinthians 12:9).

Works Cited

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 2002. Kindle edition

Kyndall Rae Rothaus Chapel. Performed by Kyndall Rae Rothaus. September 28, 2016. Accessed January 28, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUH2o-U8c_I.

McConnell, Douglas, Jennifer Orona, and Paul Stockley. Understanding God’s heart for children: toward a biblical framework. Colorado Springs: Authentic, 2007.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.


[1] A special acknowledgement of this sermon for awakening my heart to seeing the power of the “horror stories” in Scripture, and of Jephthah’s daughter’s story in particular.

barbarian

I’ve heard that the 30s are often a time of self-discovery, of learning to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s certainly been the case for me. I prefer to describe it as becoming my true self and imagine time has been shedding off layers of who I thought I was supposed to be. This process of the last few years has been extraordinarily painful, delightful, and thrilling. It feels a bit like what it looks like to have a new patch of skin growing – raw and tender, not very pretty, easily damaged, but healthy and full of potential.

After sitting with the questions of my identity and purpose for a while, with pretty sudden and perfect clarity I found answers: I am a barbarian.

The term comes from a book called The Barbarian Way which I’ve read twice in the last 2 months, underlining nearly every page because it so perfectly describes my motivations, personality, and calling. In it, the author writes about a time that he went to a leadership conference where the speaker urged the listeners not to be innovators but rather first adopters. In his opinion, the innovators are the ones that get themselves and others into trouble. They are the “mushroom eaters” who try what has never been tried before and gamble with safety and success. Better, he said, to be a first adopter who sees what has been done and wisely steps over the corpses of the ones that went first and failed, especially if bringing others along. It turns out that I am a mushroom eater.  “The barbarian call is simple: we are called to be mushroom eaters. A world without God cannot wait for us to choose the safe path. If we wait for someone else to take the risk, we risk that no one else will ever act and that nothing will ever be accomplished.”

I love this metaphor because it makes sense of what I’ve dedicated my life to doing. I am in uncharted territory, and I know it. I could get myself hurt in so many ways, and I know it. I could easily fail, and I know it. But I have to go forward anyway. This isn’t recklessness and impulsivity, or a lack of wisdom, or an inability to understand the potential consequences. I am perfectly clear on what the costs could be; I simply cannot tolerate the idea that this tiny sliver of God’s kingdom advancing might not be initiated in my lifetime. If I fail, at least those coming behind will know what NOT to do. Someone has to go first, and going first is part of who I am and how God has designed me to be.  “The original call of Jesus was so simple, so clean, so clear: “Follow Me.” He wants us to surrender our lives to Him and follow Him into the unknown. And if it means a life of suffering, hardship, and disappointment, it will be worth it because following Jesus Christ is more powerful and more fulfilling than everything else in the world minus Him.”

It has been hard to wrestle through what this looks like practically. There have been rebukes and words of concern from people who love me. There have been questions about my emotional health as those who have known me the longest have watched the shifts in my personality. The intensity of my emotions and passion has increased (I didn’t know that was even possible!), and some of the carefree ways I used to approach the world have dissolved a bit as I actually encountered that world in all its glory and devastation. Honestly, I am just not into playing games or trying not to call reality what it is for the sake of not making people uncomfortable. There is too much at stake here. I am trying to find the balance between listening to the people that I trust for feedback and counsel and walking fearlessly into the deep waters that I know I am supposed to enter. “Strangely enough, though, some who come to Jesus Christ seem to immediately embrace this barbarian way. They live their lives with every step moving forward and with every fiber of their being fighting for the heart of their King. Jesus Christ has become the all-consuming passion of their lives. They are not about religion or position. They have little patience for institutions or bureaucracies. Their lack of respect for tradition or ritual makes them seem uncivilized to those who love religion. When asked if they are Christians,, their answer might surprisingly be no, they are passionate followers of Jesus Christ. They see Christianity as a world religion, in many ways no different from any other religious system. Whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity, they’re not about religion; they’re about advancing the revolution Jesus started two thousand years ago.”

All I know is this ever-increasing hunger to know Jesus by experiencing life with him, and I am completely convinced that life with him is a unique experience for each follower. I am learning to put my blinders on and go full force where his spirit is drawing me, without fear or a need to explain myself. The point is not so much what I may or may not accomplish with my life. The point is being stripped naked before the King, with no pretenses or fears, just surrender that I am nothing without him and will go and do anything anywhere in pursuit of his heart.

“To be filled with the Spirit of God is to be filled with dreams and visions that are too compelling to ignore. Live or die, succeed or fail, barbarians must pursue and attempt such dreams and visions. The barbarian spirit dreams great dreams and finds the courage to live them… The barbarian way is about love, intimacy, passion, and sacrifice. Barbarians love to live and live to love. For them God is life, and their mission is to reconnect humanity to Him, Their passion is that each of us might live in  intimate communion with Him who died for us. The barbarian way is a path of both spirit and truth. The soul of the barbarian is made alive by the presence of Christ.”

 

 

 

One of my favorite Christmas traditions since becoming a mother has been taking my boys to the dollar store for Christmas shopping. They get to pick out whatever they want for the people on their lists, and let me tell you, it’s HILARIOUS to watch the gift opening on Christmas morning. Mardi Gras beads for grandma, Minnie Mouse hair brushes for a college-aged aunt, and a giant bucket of cheese balls for Daddy. It’s truly fantastic, but it has also become deeply symbolic to me because it is the perfect representation of our relationship with God.

You see, I am struggling with an addiction to productivity. Like many other Americans, being productive is a moral value to me. It’s how I identify myself – I am what I do. I am learning that this is baloney and that God is much more concerned with my being than my doing, but it’s hard to get over the habitual thought process and constant self-judgment. I know that God’s love for me doesn’t wax and wane with the things that I do for him, yet, I often think about how God will respond when I perform something in his name. Won’t he be so happy that I accomplished this goal that helped so many people? Isn’t he proud that I was selfless in that thing I did?

I don’t think this is wrong, really. I think that there is something very TRUE about our faith being lived out in our actions. It is RIGHT that we associate our good works with pleasing our God. Those are very sacred, holy things. What isn’t so holy is when my perspective isn’t just a vertical glance, but a horizontal one as well. It’s when I start looking at what others are offering Jesus and feel either defeated or superior that things get a little crooked.

But I learned something by watching my little boys pick out dollar store Christmas gifts…  First, they don’t care what their brothers are giving. They know what the others picked out, but they are so excited about giving THEIR gifts that it doesn’t even occur to them to stop and compare. They are SO SURE that dad is going to be over the moon about those cheese balls that there is no energy to put into wondering if the cheese balls will be the favorite. Of course, they are the favorite. They are ALL the favorite.

And that’s the second lesson. I love every single ridiculous dollar store gift I’ve ever been given. They are each spectacular because they were given by the people that I adore the most in the world. They delight me precisely because of the giddy delight with which they were given. They make me feel known and loved even though they are honestly… silly. Which is the third thing that I learned.

Truly, isn’t that what our best gifts are to God too? We take ourselves so seriously, thinking that our contribution that we are making to the kingdom is so desperately important, so critical. And maybe it is. Or maybe, just like I could easily pick out my own pot holder, I suspect God can do his own work any time he wants. And he probably cocks an eyebrow occasionally at the things that we deem critical to mankind, but I think they give him a delighted laugh too. The fact is that it’s not that he NEEDS these gifts of ours. It’s actually grace that he even accepts them from us. His love is the only thing that explains why he bothers.

What our dollar store Christmas gifts have taught me is that God really delights in the baubles that we offer him so seriously. He’s pleased with the tender hearts behind them that want to make a contribution to his Kingdom, that take our positions as his daughters and sons so seriously. What brings him pleasure and what releases me to the greatest joy is focusing exclusively on that and refusing to get caught up in worry that another child of his might have picked out a better gift. That’s not a thing. He’s delighted by what I uniquely offer him as he is delighted by his other kids giving him their unique gifts. This is no competition. There’s plenty of room for all of us to give God every perfect dollar store gift.

 

 

Francesco Hayez: Incontro tra Esaù e Giacobbe

Francesco Hayez: Incontro tra Esaù e Giacobbe

 

Much like in his actual life, Esau is often overlooked in studies of Genesis. Jacob gets the vast majority of ink for that generation’s story. Jacob, the father of Israel, is the focus even though his methods are often less than ethical. Esau is reduced to a slightly dense, impulsive whiner with a temper bad enough to scare his brother right out of the country. But I don’t believe that is who Esau was, and it certainly isn’t who he eventually became.

I have twin boys myself, and I imagine that Jacob and Esau grew up much like my sons. Constant wrestling, playing, fighting, and loving. My sons will bicker with a passion that only comes from the certainty that the other will not abandon them, but they hold the exclusive right to harassment. “No one gets to insult my brother but me!” Their love for each other has been most apparent in the times that they have been apart since birth. The first time that one of my twins had to travel away for a few days to see a medical specialist, both boys sobbed as the car pulled away and were adorably ecstatic when they were reunited a few days later. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been with someone since the moment of your conception. I suspect Esau and Jacob were similar, and that is probably exactly why Jacob’s betrayal was so painful for Esau.

After the well-known story of Jacob deceitfully swiping Esau’s firstborn blessing from their blind, aging father, Esau begs his father for some sort of leftover blessing. Isaac has already dispensed with his best blessings, and there is no going back. He had already claimed over Jacob, “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness” as well as the promise that his brother would serve him (Gen 27:28-29).

Isaac repeats this to Esau, “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above [obviously physically away from where Jacob would be]. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother” (Gen 27:39). But then Isaac added a unique prophecy: “But when you grow restless, you will throw his [Jacob’s] yoke from off your neck.” (Gen 27:40). I believe THIS was the heart of the blessing from father to devastated son. It was a prophecy that bitterness would be replaced by forgiveness, rage by grace. But only when Esau was ready, only when he grew restless of his grudge against Jacob. The CEV translation says, “But when you decide to be free, you will break loose.” The Amplified Bible Translation adds the details, “However it shall come to pass when you break loose [from your anger and hatred], That you will tear his yoke off your neck [and you will be free of him]. It’s the fulfillment of this blessing that paints a vivid picture of forgiveness and whispers of the grace that is coming in the person of Jesus.

What I missed in many readings of the story of Esau’s rage was that his plan to murder Jacob was incredibly calculated. He explicitly stated that he planned to wait until Isaac died and the appropriate period of mourning was over before he killed his twin (Gen 27:41). Jacob did not run off overnight in fear of his brother. His exit to his uncle Laban’s house involved preparations and an excuse authored by Rebekah and executed by Isaac to get Jacob away before Isaac’s death (Gen 27:41 – 28:5). In fact, the text says that it was Isaac who “sent Jacob away” (Gen 28:5).

Jewish tradition paints Esau as an evil man who was thwarted by a very wise Rebekah who saw the truth of her sons’ characters when their father was both figuratively and literally blind to it.[1] I am skeptical that the story has enough information to make that kind of a claim about either man, but what I do see is an incredible difference between our last glimpse of a livid, murderous Esau in Genesis 27 and the one who ran out to greet his long lost twin brother in Genesis 30.

When Jacob finally decided to return to the land of his birth twenty years after fleeing, he was terrified of meeting his twin again. Before the inevitable reunion, he divided his property and family into groups, thinking that if Esau attacked them perhaps some would survive (Gen 32:7). He also sent an absurd amount of gifts ahead of him hoping that they would soften Esau’s heart toward him (Genesis 32: 13-16). Clearly, Jacob was expecting the same rage that he had left behind twenty years earlier, but that is not the character of man who met him.

In what is one of the most unexpected, tender moments in Scripture and one that is oddly similar to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, we read that “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” This must have been the last thing that Jacob expected from the twin whom he had betrayed, the twin that had once wished him dead.

Yet Jacob was still not convinced that he was out of danger. Esau offered to accompany Jacob on the rest of his journey, but Jacob replied that he must to go very slowly for the sake of all his young children and animals and did not want to inconvenience Esau’s party. Then Esau offered the protection of some of his men, but Jacob ducks out of that as well. Esau’s party headed southeast to Seir (Edom) where Jacob promised he would meet him soon (Gen 33:14). However, Jacob went in the opposite direction, northwest to Sukkoth and eventually Shechem and settled there (Gen 33:17). It was another betrayal by Jacob, and it was years before Jacob finally turned around and headed back toward home. (Interestingly, there is no record of God speaking to him from the night before he met Esau in Genesis 32 until he finally left Shechem to return home.)

The heart of this story is very easy to miss in all of the details of locations and people and subplots woven in the text. Twenty years passed since the time that Jacob fled due to Esau’s vow to murder him upon their father’s death. But twenty years had changed Esau. Changed him enough that Jacob returned home while their father was still living. And when Isaac finally died? “… his sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Genesis 35:29). Together and in peace and forgiveness of past wrongs, these brothers mourned their father’s passing. Esau’s legacy is not jealously and bitterness. His legacy is extending grace and forgiveness and learning contentment in life’s unfair and unexpected turns. His legacy is embracing with joyful tears the ones who have betrayed us most deeply and repeatedly and setting aside wrath that would destroy for mercy’s sake. Esau’s legacy oozes the fragrance of a Savior who does the same.

[1] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/246619/jewish/Jacob-Receives-Isaacs-Blessing.htm

jesus-mary-martha-1617345-gallery

Happiness has been a frustrating topic in my life for a very long time.  The tag line of my home church is “more joy in Jesus.” On one hand, I agree and have no problem with it at all. There IS more joy in Jesus than can be found outside of a relationship with him. The trouble comes when joy is equated with happiness and a value of “chase happiness” develops. The definition of happiness is ” a state of well-being and contentment.” What that means is that happiness is circumstantial and changes in a moment if we are no longer in a state of well-being or contentment, and God knows that life holds plenty of these moments. I do believe there can be a hopeful joy in deep pain and grief when we are able to shift our mind to an eternal perspective… Sometimes joy is simply the knowledge that this pain will not last forever. Jesus will eventually make all things right again,  justice will be birthed, and the dead will live again. That’s the joy that Jesus brings that doesn’t rest on our changing states of well-being. But those states of well-being are not meaningless.

There are two major problems that I have with the theology and lifestyle that says that if people are doing this faith thing right, they will be happy. The first is that it leaves no room or time for true healing. The “chase happiness” perspective shames the broken and hurting, heaping pain upon pain on those who don’t feel the happiness they are apparently supposed to be experiencing even when their loved one dies, they are abused, or they experienced any of the great, tragic losses that this world can throw at us. It makes an emotional expression the litmus test of faith, and there is not a biblical case for this. Rather we see human beings in Scripture experiencing the ups and the downs of emotion, and we see the permission granted them for seasons of mourning and times of grief (John 16:22, Ecclesiastes 3:4).

The second and perhaps biggest problem that I have with “chasing happiness” is that I see no real way that we can behave like followers of Jesus with that as a priority. If we are to be people who mourn with those who mourn, that means empathy that feels pain, grief, devastation, and anger alongside others. It means choosing to leave a state of well-being for the sake of sitting inside of someone else’s pain with them. If I am preoccupied with pursuing my own happiness then I must be necessarily pursuing a state of personal well-being. If that is the case, I cannot truly enter into mourning with others.

Recently, I came across this comic. Normally this comic strip is good for a snort-laugh, but this particular piece deeply resonated with me. I loved the part where the comic character is discussing her vocation, “Sometimes my arms hurt from lifting these, and sometimes I get frustrated. But I find it meaningful.” The artist goes on to explain that he does things that are meaningful even though they don’t make him happy. They don’t make him happy because they are achingly difficult and painful. To demand that people in deep grief and suffering feel happy is, at best, delusional and absurd. Last I checked, people who feel a state of well-being (aka happiness) in pain are pathological.

So if being happy is a virtue that I should be pursuing, it means that I have to avoid pain. But I believe that the things most worth doing in life involve pain. The deep work of personal healing when we’ve been wounded or abused is incredibly painful. Choosing to truly empathize – mourn – with someone who is suffering is a deliberate choice toward pain rather than happiness. The way of the cross might be a pathway to the joy of being aligned with the One who will eventually make all things right, but it is also the path of a Savior who is chose to empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). To erase these very real parts of Christ’s identity is to rewrite who he actually was. To act like we are to do anything other than to emulate him is to place ourselves above him.

Jesus embraced excruciating pain in his life and death, and I don’t believe for a second that he was feeling all that happy when he agonized in the hours before his death about the torture awaiting him the next day. I think he meant it when he said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt 26:38). If we are going to act like Jesus, we don’t chase happy. We follow obediently toward what is both meaningful and beautiful precisely because it endures through hardship and pain.

Like Christ, we will experience moments in our lives of happiness and carefree pleasure. These are gifts, but they are no indication of our morality or the state of our faith. If they were, we would be forced to say that in the most holy moment of Christ’s life as he willingly chose to die a guilty man’s death for the triumph of good over evil, he was in the most faithless moment of his life. I think it was the opposite. The moment he chose personal pain for the sake of love was exactly the moment of his victory. His willing journey toward painful torture, degradation, and death was in solidarity with ours. He did not have to do it; he could have remained in his happy heaven. But he chose suffering and pain instead. He let go of that eternal happiness temporarily so that we could eventually have it forever, and it was beautiful and meaningful.

As I think about what this means to me personally, it makes complete sense. Last night I sat in a room full of sex workers, many of them there through coercion and some of them still teenagers. Intermittently in the hours I was in the brothel, I watched these precious women and girls get up to go meet the men outside the room who had purchased the opportunity to use their bodies. They were not happy, and I was not happy. There was no possibility of happy feelings when awaiting these transactions of human flesh. Rather in a small (and honestly what feels like insignificant) way, I listened to these women and girls tell me about their lives while we waited. We showed each other pictures of our babies, and I murmured words of sympathy at how difficult it must be to leave a baby behind in another city in order to seek out a job that would provide for her. I ached with grief and I know that they felt my true concern and tenderness for their awful situations.  I cannot fathom any other appropriate response. As The Oatmeal creator described, “When I do these things, I’m not smiling or beaming with joy. I’m not happy. In truth, when I do these things, I’m often suffering. But I do them because I find them meaningful. I find them compelling.”

I don’t want to chase happiness. I want to deliberately choose the way of Jesus that is set solidly on the foundation of peace and hope and joy of knowing that someday (but not yet!) the work of the advancing kingdom of light will finally and forever overcome the darkness. In the meantime, I choose to suffer alongside Christ with those who suffer. There’s no place better than that.

About a year ago I started considering whether the benefits of social media were actually worth it. Several times I very nearly deleted my facebook account, but two primary reasons held me back. One of those reasons is gone now, and the other I decided was just an illusion. The short story is I’m done, but here’s the longer thought process behind it.

Reason 1: Social media gives me an opportunity to use my voice and to make a positive impact.

I have lived half my childhood and now adulthood overseas. I regularly interact with people of different cultures and religion (particularly Islam). However,  I still have one foot in American culture & American Christian subculture. There is grief in the rootlessness of this reality, but I’ve also thought that perhaps there is a gift in it. Perhaps the gift I can give is an outsider’s perspective who understands the inside. So I interact on social media to offer that perspective and to challenge the sometimes myopic view that is inherent to those who simply haven’t had experience with different ways of thinking.

Every “spiritual gifts” test I’ve ever taken has told me that I am prophetic, and my personality profile (ENFJ) tells me that I “radiate authenticity, concern and altruism, unafraid to stand up and speak when they feel something needs to be said.” This has been true for me, and in past years, I think it was a good thing. But the world has changed, and I am afraid the medium of facebook et al is no longer viable for me to do advocacy and “prophetic” well.

We are a divided people now. It seems that the days of having authentic, two-way dialogue is gone. Now an expression of an opinion, no matter how well or how badly expressed, is assumed to be a line in the sand. All words are fighting words even if they were never intended to be.

I am tired of fighting.

And I no longer believe that my voice matters in this particular sphere. I fear that it is not received as loving or bone deep aching desire to see us to better – to BE better. Rather I fear my voice is just more noise adding to the division that is ruining us. I can’t participate in that any longer if I am only a gong.

 

Reason 2: Real relationships are maintained by social media only if they exist outside of social media as well.

Ten years ago, I started a facebook account because my college friends started getting married and having babies. And I wanted to see pictures! As we moved overseas, and then moved overseas again, I began to believe that social media would help me keep relationships. I thought if I saw pictures of children that I love growing up, somehow that meant that I know them. I thought if I knew the random daily activities of old friends, somehow that meant we still have a relationship.

It doesn’t, and I cannot articulate the grief that this realization has caused.

Pictures and unimportant interactions are simply not real relationships. They are joyful icing on actual ones. Just because people see my kids does not mean they are a part of their lives. It does not mean I am a part of their kids lives either. I have to let some of the not-actually-real relationships die a natural death… or acknowledge that they are already gone. I believe that still living relationships that I have don’t need social media to continue to flourish, but social media acts to mask the reality of death in too many old friendships.

The pain involved in choosing to let go would probably be enough to keep me from doing it, if I didn’t believe that the obscene amount of energy that I put into maintaining dead relationships could bring new life in my new home. There are relationships here that I can’t have because I have no time for them. There are ways that I get my social needs met online rather than by people in my flesh and blood community. I believe that there might be a gift in this somehow, even though it is excruciating.

 

So I’m making some personal changes.

* I’ll still have messenger & WhatsApp because texting is SO much easier with a 12-15 hour times difference with the Western hemisphere, and the group feature is awesome.

* I am still a verbal/writing processor, and I still love to engage with theology, current events, and social justice issues that I am thinking through. But I’ll be taking those conversations to more intimate circles or to my own “space” here on this blog.

* I haven’t let go of facebook completely. It’s still the easiest way to share cute stories and photos of my kids. I just simply will no longer let myself believe that likes and comments have any significant relational value.

As with anything else in life, we’ll see if this works. If it makes me a more effective leader, a kinder mom and wife, a more intentional friend, and a more consistent disciple of Jesus, I’ll call it a win and keep going. If not, I can always jump back into the social media chaos. I suspect it’ll be the first…

hell gates 2

Christian communities worldwide have a problem. We have become insulated, inward-focused, and fearful of the outside world. We wrap our children in bubbles of Christian subculture terrified that they will be tainted by the sin of the world or worse, that they will be attracted to join in. We run from darkness, thinking that if we come into the light of the Church we will be safe.

We were not meant to run from the darkness, we were meant to drive it back forcefully and confidently with the light of the Kingdom. When Jesus described the church he said that “the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). For some reason we have pictured Hell storming toward us. If that was the case, hiding in the bubble of the Christian community would make sense. That would mean that we are in a defensive position.  However, if this is the image that we get when we think of the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light, we have gotten it backwards. Gates are not offensive weapons; they indicate a defensive, buttressing position.

The reality is that Satan and darkness and sin is real and active and damaging in our world, but the Kingdom of Jesus is advancing daily. The light that disciples of Christ bring with them into the darkness shrinks the reign of Satan with every step into enemy territory. What Jesus was telling us is not to shrink away in fear or hide from an evil kingdom that is attacking us, but to rush forward as warriors into the darkness because the gates of Hell are not strong enough to withstand the power of the cross. WE are on the offensive, and we are assured of victory in the end as the Kingdom rushes in on the shoulders of Christ’s followers who have been given the authority of the Creator over evil.

We know that the final page of this world’s story has already been written, but we were not told to crowd protectively together and wait it out. Over and over in Scripture, Jesus sends us out and tells us to advance his Kingdom with him. Our role is to storm the gates of darkness WITH Jesus until they finally crumble completely. And they will.

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).

What on earth…? This was GOD HIMSELF sitting right there and teaching the disciples. What about this lesson required them to leave Jesus’ side in order to be able to learn? The very idea disturbs me.

What could not be learned from Christ alone is that God’s movement toward us occurs not in spite of our sin, but precisely because of it. Our sin is NECESSARY to reveal God’s mercy, and in an unexpected, fabulous shift, sin gives birth to grace.

go and learn

Jesus statement starts with mercy for good reason. Our understanding of mercy can never mature without other human beings. The reason this is true is that we can receive mercy from God, but we are unable to be merciful toward him. Jesus told his disciples to go and learn what this means precisely because they could not learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice or why God prefers the former from Jesus alone. It’s why the solitary aesthetic lifestyle can never be a true measure of spirituality. True spiritual maturity or Christ-likeness can only be realized in community.

Our humanity in contrast with God’s divinity is laid bare in the difference between mercy and sacrifice. While mercy requires a human receiver, sacrifice, whether referring to the burnt offerings of the Old Testament or a modern equivalent, can be done in isolation between one person and God. God’s preference for mercy means that we cannot please him in isolation. What he desires is not what we do in our relationship with him, our devotion to him, or our piety toward him. What pleases him most is how we give and receive mercy in relationship with other people.

It reminds me of my kids. I love when they are sweet to me. I delight in their kindness toward me or their gifts to me or their affection of me. But when I see my sons doing and saying these exact same thing to one another… there is nothing more satisfying and nothing that makes be prouder as a mother. Frankly, all their tenderness toward me would be meaningless if they turned around and acted hatefully toward their brother in the next breath. I wonder if God feels similarly.

Another difference between mercy and sacrifice is that mercy is done for one who doesn’t deserve it, while sacrifice is done for one who does. Mercy is always an undeserved gift whereas honor often requires sacrifice. For example, a lifeguard drowning in order to rescue a victim is self-sacrifice because there is no moral difference between lifeguard and victim, and the commitment inherent in lifeguarding suggests such a sacrifice might someday be required. On the other hand, drowning to rescue the very person that angrily pulled you into the ocean with them is a merciful act. The rescue is not required by position, nor does the other person have any moral ground on which to demand it.

Interestingly, I cannot think of any example of mercy without a component of forgiveness woven in.

Humans can both sacrifice for and be merciful toward other humans, and it is significant that God explicitly prefers one of these. It reminds me of “love your enemies.” Loving our enemies is mercy, not sacrifice. They do not deserve it by position or moral hierarchy. Indeed, to be merciful to others requires us to enter into relationships with those who have wronged us or who are morally lacking in comparison to us. It requires us to be in relationships with people who don’t deserve it. This is the precise context in which Jesus spoke these words. He was answering the questions about why he was spending time with the most detested and avoided fringes of society.

And to receive mercy? We are often on the receiving end of mercy and have no idea. I think we can safely assume this for all the times we have shown mercy at great personal cost to someone who neither recognized or appreciated it. How many times do we receive mercy without even knowing? Coming to recognize how often I need mercy puts me face to face with my sinfulness for if I was sinless, I would be in no need of mercy from others or from God.

When we enter into diverse relationships, we learn what it means to receive mercy as we learn what it costs to give mercy. We begin to see the difference between sacrifice for the deserving (our children, our friends, the good) and mercy toward the undeserving (the criminal, the addicted, the selfish). At some profound moment, and only because we’ve entered into these uneven relationships, we LEARN. We realize that Jesus’ sacrifice was to his Father through his mercy to ME… which means that I am the criminal, the addict, the selfish… the sinner.

This is a shocking realization for some. It is for me. I’ve most often put myself in the “righteous” category and thus put this teaching in a not lost/lost paradigm. God doesn’t need to call me anymore because I am now righteous. He calls people when they are sinners and then they are made righteous. The End.

But that is not the actual message of this passage  This is the call to unpack our identities as humans in relationship with the Divine. It’s another paradox of God – the strong are really the weak, and the found are the lost, and the first ones are the last. Similarly, the only way that we can perceive any call of God to relationship with him is in our sinfulness. He only calls people to the extent that they can accept their own human-ness. Knowing  our callings apart from knowing the truth about our sinfulness and humanity in light of God’s holiness and divinity is impossible. To hear and to accept God’s calling on my life goes hand in hand with the ability to “be” a sinner.

This realization could bring despair. But it does not precisely because Jesus reminded us that he did not come for the righteous. He came for sinners. He came for me. This very grief of seeing my true humanity against his holiness is mercy itself. Somehow, in the paradoxical nature of God, it is our sin that makes space for knowing God. The very thing that brought us death reveals the deepest truth of his character, and it is what he desires the most for us to participate with him in. In a shocking twist, my sin has somehow become the necessary road on which mercy travels.

 

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the most challenging part of Scripture in the whole Bible. It isn’t particularly difficult to understand, but wow is it hard to live! The sermon starts off with the list of “blesseds” otherwise known as the beatitudes. I grew up thinking they were a sort of carrot Jesus was dangling in front of his followers, but a little study recently changed my mind. I don’t think these “blesseds” are potentials, I think they are descriptions of the character of Christ’s people.

beatitudes

Here’s what I learned:

The English adjective “blessed” is used for two different Greek (and Hebrew) words that have two different meanings.
Meaning 1: Eulogeo (Hebrew baraka) means a blessing to receive. In other words, it has an implied request or an unaccomplished aim. “Lord, bless my mom.” or “We will be blessed if we remember to care for the poor.”
Meaning 2: Makarios (Hebrew asir) means an existing state of reality. In other words, a proclamation of being. “I am a blessed mom of 4 boys.”

What is interesting to me is that the “blesseds” in the beatitudes in Matthew are all makarios (meaning 2). In days past, I would read this passage and think these were little promises that would apply to some special people. If you managed to be meek, you would inherit the land etc. But this not what is going on in that passage as that would be eulogeo (meaning 1).  It doesn’t fit.

In addition to the language, we have to see the beatitudes as the introduction in a sermon. What Jesus says here should be reiterated and illustrated in the rest of the sermon. Looking ahead we find that the entire thing is about how his people act- how they are to give, serve, and pray, what their priorities are supposed to be and the attitude with which they interact with others. The beatitudes, I believe, are given with the exact same point. They are about the character of the people of God (the “blessed” if you will). Each applies to all followers of Jesus. They are statements about who we are.

The beatitudes are not encouragements or exhortations for us to act a certain way. They are statements about the reality of our blessed-ness. For a perfect parallel example: “Blessed are happy babies because they are fed and diapered.” The “blessed” is merely explaining the connection. Babies are happy because they are fed and diapered.

For me it is a little easier to understand the English equivalents if I turn this adjective into a noun (because nouns are more concrete in English) If Christ is describing his people – the blessed ones, with the beatitudes as he is describing his people with the rest of the sermon, this makes things a little more clear to me. With liberties, here is my “translation” for the sake of better understanding of the point of the passage:

The blessed are poor in spirit because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
The blessed mourn because they will be comforted.
The blessed are meek because they shall inherit the land.
The blessed hunger and thirst for righteousness because they will be filled.
The blessed are merciful because they will obtain mercy.
The blessed are pure in heart because they will see God.
The blessed are peacemakers because they will be called Sons of God.
The blessed are persecuted for righteousness’ sake because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
The blessed are those who when insulted, persecuted, and falsely spoken against because of Jesus, rejoice and are glad because their reward is great in heaven exactly as that of the prophets of old.

I really loved this insight into this little word because it shows what comes first and why we are able to live into our identities. I can extend mercy exactly because I have obtained mercy. I can be a peacemaker because of my identity as a son of God (with his authority and blessing to do so). I can be courageous and loving in the face of persecution because I know the kingdom of heaven is rightfully mine and the cloud of witnesses remind me that I am not alone. I continue to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness because it is a hunger that is always satisfied.

The beatitudes are not a list of possibilities tossed out for us to try to achieve to obtain some kind of special blessings. They are a statement of reality about who I am and where that identity is born. They are reminders of what God has done for those who follow Jesus and therefore what we extend to the rest of the world as a result.

*Credit and thanks to Dr. Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) for alerting me to these word differences.

patient

In Galatians, Paul lists the “fruit of the spirit” which the Holy Spirit is graciously at work producing in the lives of believers. These qualities are aspects of God’s character – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, that he in turn is developing in his children. The lack of these qualities are attributes of evil. For most of these characteristics, we don’t even think twice about describing Satan and his work in words depicting the opposite. Of course he is unloving and harsh and unkind. But what about impatient?

Thinking through this list, it struck me that we should be applying the same principles to patience as we do to love. Patience is an attribute of God coming from his love (2 Peter 3:9), and therefore Satan has no part in it because he has no capacity for love. Satan is an impatient being ,and impatience, as much as hate and unkindness, is a tool that he uses to destroy us and damage the work of God’s Kingdom.

Satan’s impatience is demonstrated in the way that he operates, quick to attack any open wound or weakness in our lives. It also comes in the way he tempts us to be impatient in the same way that he influences us to be unloving. Often patience is summed up as “waiting without being grumpy about it,” but I believe something far deeper is going on, something that matters far more than our attitude in heavy traffic. Patience at its essence is a declaration that God is the Lord, and I am only his creation. To stand against impatience is really to stand against idolatry.

 

INNER LIFE

This world carries a lot of grief. To be human is to hurt, and in our hurt huge questions about the goodness of God surfaces. How can God be loving and kind when this happened? The impatience of Satan demands that we decide now in the middle of our grief what our circumstances must mean about God. It tells us to close the door on the questions and walk away from the wrestling, and when the questions and the wrestling are painful, this is so very tempting.

Godly patience allows us to be real about the depth of the pain of trauma, loss, and grief and to say that we don’t understand how this works with who God is. It allows us to stay there and to acknowledge that perhaps someday we might understand and that we refuse to be pushed into making a decision now about what we think. Patience is at the core of David’s cry in Psalms 27:13, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord.”

Patience allows us to sit in paradoxes and to be okay in the not knowing. It gives us the space to settle into our own humanity and not require ourselves to be anywhere other than where we are at in the moment. Patience reminds us that omniscience belongs to God alone, and we are not required to understand. Stubbornly walking in patience is an insult to darkness as it refuses to give into the temptation to want otherwise.

 

RELATIONSHIPS

In relationships, especially difficult ones, it takes considerable care not to just write people off when they hurt us or are simply hard to be around.* The impatience of Satan temps us to do just this. While there is wisdom in boundaries, impatience bypasses this kind of wisdom and prioritizes our own frustrations over someone else’s development. Impatience requires us to view people only through the lens of the present and respond to them accordingly. However, patience allows us the grace to view people as sojourners on a journey, imperfect people being wooed into a transforming relationship with Jesus. Godly patience allows us to be gently gracious with people who have a history that led them to who and how they are now and who will not be the same because God is at work.

In full discretion, I struggle deeply in this area. I can be a pit bull in a debate, and I am often tempted to write people off as ignorant, immoral, or deceived. While there may be truth to those descriptors sometimes, patience allows us to treat others as people who God is redeeming and it helps us operate out of a place of hope rather than anger. When we approach relationships with patience, we see God using us to draw others to Himself, and we see others (even the obnoxious ones) as God’s blessing on our lives to transform us as well. It is the impatience of Satan that makes it easy for us to abandon our relationships when they get difficult and to plant ourselves only with people who think and act like we do. Godly patience in relationships frees us to love people exactly as they are in the moment without trying to “fix” them because we understand that transformation is a process birthed by the Holy Spirit, not by us.

 

MINISTRY

It is human nature to want to act. We like decisiveness, and we get anxious when we are waiting for anything. Other times we burn out and settle into apathy and fatalism. Neither is fit for God’s Kingdom or his children who are commissioned to advance it with him.

The impatience of Satan tempts us to act quickly in our own wisdom. It tells us that we are smart enough and capable enough to make the right decisions and to see the big picture accurately. It leads us directly into hastily missing God’s purposes for our own grandiosity, anxiety, and insecurity.

Refusing to make ministry (or life) decisions impatiently is not merely about the wisdom that comes from slow consideration of all the facts. That is an important element in decision making, but not necessarily what godly patience is about. Patience is not about wisdom so much as it is about a deep belief that God is already at work where he is sending us. It declares that we are confident that God has chosen Kingdom work for us to accomplish (Ephesians 2:10), and that we will not miss if we remain steadfastly connected to him (John 15:5).

The weapon against impatience is worship. The enemy would have us frantically trying to figure out what to do next, making assumptions about what God is doing and what we should do rather than stopping and waiting on him to move and joining him there. The way to defeat impatience is sitting at the feet of Jesus acknowledging his authority over us and the calling he has put on our lives. This is not apathy; it is action into a deeper relationship with God. It is a physical expression of a recognition that a relationship with Jesus must not be forfeited to produce ministry activities.

 

Ultimately whether we are looking at our inner lives, our relationships with others, or our vocations, we have to ask if the fruit of God’s Spirit is being birthed in us. Patience is a gift freely given to us not only for our own benefit, but for the sake of the world because it reflects the nature of God as much as do kindness and faithfulness and the rest of the virtues. We cannot produce patience in ourselves, but we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit while he develops it in us. And we do it gladly because it is an act of worship to our God and an affront to our impatient enemy.

 

 

* I am applying this to normal functioning relationships. In cases where abuse is present, the loving thing to do for yourself AND for your abuser is to remove yourself from the situation. You can patiently wait for God to work in that person from a safe distance where he/she is not going deeper into sin through harming one of God’s precious children.