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Defeating the Isms

soup_kitchenFor the past few months, I’ve been helping to feed people in my downtown. Once a month I bring food to a local food ministry, and other people from my church bring food, and we heat it up in a big, giant kitchen. Then we open the doors, and anyone who wants to come and eat gets to come in and eat.

I have a confession here. I am not entirely comfortable with some  kinds of people. Like the mentally ill. The homeless. Those who never bathe. Those without teeth. I tend to gravitate toward people who have more in common with me. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

And I know that’s not right. I have shown up to feed people because I KNOW I am supposed to love these people. And by these people I mean anyone–there are no requirements to eat at our ministry. But I find myself dealing with the little isms–some ageism, maybe some racism or sexism. Is there an ism about finances? If so, I sometimes struggle with that one. The little ways I define someone as part of a group that’s very different from me.

During these months, something has happened. I didn’t expect it. I accidentally found the cure to my personal case of isms. And you want to know the secret? I served.

I didn’t show up to fix anything. I’m not changing anyone. There are no sermons involved here. I simply pour coffee. I pass out cookies. I take special orders when I can.

And suddenly, it isn’t a room of people who are different and maybe scary. It’s a woman who likes coffee. And one who only wants water. It’s a man who doesn’t want rice on his plate. One who wants his food mixed together, and one who doesn’t want his food to touch.

It’s a table of people who are laughing, and a table of strangers giving each other the evil eye. It’s a man who says thank you and one who doesn’t make eye contact. It’s a woman who asks me to watch her backpack–which holds her every life possession–while she goes to the bathroom. It’s a man who lives in an apartment close by and one staying at a shelter. A woman who always wears a flower in her hair, a woman in a wheelchair, and a vegetarian.

It’s individuals. They’re people. And they have their own wants and needs and likes and dislikes and agendas. And the longer I serve, the more I see them that way, and the less I can apply an ism. Isms are about groups and the idea that every person in that group is identical to every other one. After people are grouped, sweeping judgments can be made. But really, nobody entirely fits in any group. People of different races or religions are not clones of each other. People with mental illness, the homeless, the underemployed–none of them are clones. I have to take each as what they are–unique people.

Somehow I am now in charge of our church’s monthly meal at the ministry. Yeah, I went from being wary to jumping in with both feet. I’m sort of hooked. I spend more time in the kitchen than out with people, because that’s who I am. But that doesn’t matter, because the change is still there. When I get a crazy special request, I smile, because it’s a new way to serve a human being, one with likes and dislikes and his or her own unique, God-given personality. Helps remind me that this is about individuals. Always.

We imagine we’re feeding people and somehow saving the world.

We’re feeding people. That’s true. But the saving part? I think I’m the one being saved.

Wooing the Prince

DSCF5974I read a marriage devotion recently, and I think, in a few simple words, it may have completely changed the way I look at my husband. And since he never reads my blogs (or my books, for that matter. Hey!), I can talk about it here.  (Don’t fear. That’s largely the end of me talking about my husband. He’s safe. This now selfishly shoots back to me.)

The devotion writer pointed out that the surest way to offend someone is to mistreat that person’s child. I know this is true. Just a few days ago at church a young boy was cruel to my youngest son, and I wanted blood. It doesn’t take much to bring out mama bear.

God is pretty fanatical about his kids, too. I mean, He sent his natural son to die so He could adopt a bunch of other sons and daughters. We have a lot of value to him. Nobody mistreats us and gets away with it, not long term. The Old Testament, especially, is filled with verses about how God will come for his people, sword out and battle ready. Nations that mistreated his kids went down, and they went down hard.

Those of you females reading this might be aware of the current trend for Christian women to think of themselves as princesses. In a world that body shames and life shames and passes cruel judgments, we need to be reminded that we are royalty, beautiful and beloved in the eyes of God. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

And yet strangely I was surprised when the devotion writer pointed out that I married a prince. If I am beloved and beautiful and special to God, so is my spouse. He’s the son of a King. That same God who comes with sword drawn to defend his princesses–yeah, you guessed it. He’s pretty enamored with his princes, too. And I have been entrusted with one. There is a special one in my home all the time, one who is flawed sometimes, clueless sometimes, wise and powerful sometimes, and always one the King loves deeply.

I don’t know why I never thought of it this way, except I think our culture can be hard on men. I say this as a mother of three boys and one girl. Sometimes girls are taught it’s okay to abuse boys verbally. It’s okay to be hands on and play rough with the boys. Teasing boys and making fun of the entire sex–that’s acceptable. The boys are supposed to respect and love the girls as the princesses they are, and yet the girls aren’t always taught that it’s not a one-way street. They aren’t taught to see those boys as princes, sons of the living God as much as they are daughters, and just as worthy of respect and honor. It breaks my heart, because sometimes it breaks my boys, who will one day be men.

When we got married, my husband asked me not to play the wife game where we women get together and bash our husbands. He’d heard women do that, and it bothered him. It was a strange request, because he doesn’t ask things like that. This mattered immensely to him. He needed me to be on his side both when I was with him and when I was with others. (Okay, I lied. I’m talking about my husband again. But it’s good things!)

I’ve never forgotten that request. My prince, the son of my King, is vulnerable. I think most of God’s princes are. He wants to succeed at parenting, husbanding, life in general. But sometimes he’ll fail, and he needs to know I’m on his side. I’m not perfect, either, and sometimes when I’m hurt or angry I might slide into the wife game where we compare our husbands’ imperfections, but I try to guard my mouth and heart and protect him. He does the same for me. Both of us have royalty to protect and cherish. It’s a beautiful thing.

I married a prince. His Dad is a Big Deal. Am I acting like I care? Do I respect both the prince and his Father? Whether or not my husband respects his princess isn’t the question here (although, FYI, he does.). This is about me and how I perceive the man gifted to me. Do I focus on his moments of imperfection, or do I focus on his growth, on his journey to become the man he will be for eternity, a completed, mighty, grown son of his Father?

Of course, I can’t forget I’m raising little princes and princesses, too. The people in my world are important. They matter more than I can comprehend, just like I matter more than I can comprehend. I’ve been entrusted with a huge job, raising, loving, guiding, protecting such important people. It’s amazing to me that God put so many of his precious sons and daughters into my care. I pray I take that charge seriously and treat them as their Father wants to see them treated.

 

The War for the Intimate

file0001833018783I was glancing through a book catalog last week, a Christian book catalog, and it got me thinking. Many, many of the books were about a relationship with God. With Jesus. With the Holy Spirit. Reading the descriptions to the books, I found myself drawn in. I wanted to read all of them. I wanted what they promised. And since there are so many out there, I suspect I’m not the only one. There seems to be a longing in our culture for more, and I’m not sure where it comes from or how to quench it.

Every one of those books promised a more intimate relationship with God. Closer walks. Getting to know God more personally and having Him impact my life more fully. Lessons in prayer, again with the goal of getting closer to God. All of them suggest we are too far from God and can have an amazingly close connection with him, and all of them have ideas on how to go about this.

This post isn’t to criticize those books. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are right. I long for more when it comes to God. I think secretly many of us wonder why our prayers don’t look like prayers of old–how often have you prayed a dead man alive? Prayed for the beginning or end of a drought? Seen blind men healed and lame men walk? How often have you felt a closeness to Jesus like the apostles did, where He laughed in your midst, told you parables, sat with you over dinner?  Or even the relationship the Israelites had with God–have you wondered which way to go and followed a pillar of fire? Has your church filled with darkness while God’s Spirit consecrates it?

Why haven’t we? Why this longing for more and the inability to find more? I want those things. I want following Jesus to be easier. I find that I forget. I wake up and forget that I love God, that he’s central to my life, that I am loved with the most selfless, amazing love in the universe. How can I do that?

I ask for fish, and sometimes it feels like I get stones. I trust God for something, and I feel like I have the faith and the knowledge to ask wisely, to ask for something God surely desires in his heart, too, but the dead don’t rise. The broken don’t heal. What is wrong with my prayers?

I look for direction for my ministries, my relationships, my marriage, and instead of having a pillar of fire to lead my way, I stand in a drying plain with no landmarks in any direction. Where is the path? I open the Word to light my way, and yet I stand in darkness. Where is the lamp to guide my footsteps?

I have such great plans. Reading plans. Prayer plans. I attend conferences and workshops and hope to use the energy of those mountaintop experiences to develop habits that last. I want to love God without reservation. I do, with all my heart. And yet, slowly but surely, I slide back into some halfway world where God is peripheral. I skip a day of reading. Then I skip two. I pray for ten minutes. Then five. I look with longing at books about close walks with God and wonder what makes those people so special that they can be close while I feel like I’m drifting away in an ocean of distraction.

I suspect my biggest problem is that I forget I’m in battle. And wow, our enemy is special. He’s ancient. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And I don’t prepare to fight. I look at the books in the catalog and think I can find some magical way to slay the enemy once for all. But I can’t. I battle every single day. Except days when I don’t. And then I slide.

I wonder what would happen if my Christian friends and I remembered, every day, that today we were going to battle. If I peeked around every building and made every turn expecting to be ambushed. If I hid my valuables and protected them expecting someone to snatch them away. If our conversations always included new ways to fight, new weapons, stories of battlefield victories and defeats meant to prepare and warn one another about the fights ahead.

I want to be close to Jesus, but I want it simple and light. Yet my marriage isn’t simple and light. My friendships take work, too. And this relationship with Jesus–it is a thing under fire unlike any other relationship. Every moment of the day, it’s under fire. I don’t prepare for that. My friends don’t prepare for that. We forget to be soldiers. Soldiers need to be ready. Always on guard. Always a struggle. They lose friends. They need rest sometimes, where someone else holds the gun while they grab some sleep in the bottom of the foxhole. They cover each other, and they strategize. Battle is their life, because forgetting that gets them killed.

And in the end, if they are diligent and wise, they take the enemy down.

Jesus can be close. Those books aren’t wrong. Of course I can have a close relationship with Him. It’s what He wants most. But I think I have to embrace the battle required to hold onto it here. That relationship doesn’t grow easily, but it is easily snatched away if I’m not careful. The Holy Spirit is the commander, and I need to listen for his commands and never hesitate when He gives a battle cry. I hesitate. I want Psalm 23, where I can lounge by the stream. But more often than not, I’m in Ephesians in a room filled with battle gear. Only I don’t realize it, and I walk out on a deadly field practically naked and wonder why I can’t seem to win the skirmishes.

Today, whatever happens, I need to read the Word. Pray. Fight the powers of darkness. Jesus meets me there with a hug and a smile. With Him victory is guaranteed, and that victory is sweet indeed. But it never comes easy, and I think I set myself up for failure if I think it ever will in this life.

Rescuing Family

rescuing familyI have rewritten this post several times now. It’s a plea, a call for help, and a risk. Because, you see, I don’t love like Jesus loved. He looked at people who wanted to kill him, and he loved them. He looked at a disobedient nation, and he loved it. Seems to me he loved people pretty equally.  And I don’t.

Confession: I want my people–my children, my spouse, my family, my friends–to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus more than I want anyone else to come to that same knowledge. I will sacrifice more, pray more, and plead more for those people than for strangers. I might give up on strangers if they deny Christ. But I will never give up on the people God has given me.

I suspect that’s true for all of us. And it makes sense. None of us can invest in everyone. Even missionaries in distant communities only live in a single community at once. A person who invests his life in a tribe in South America can’t also give his life to a village in Asia. We all invest more in some than others. Jesus was the same, pouring himself into a few men and not everyone. So maybe I shouldn’t feel bad about this.

God has given me a church family. I hope he’s given you one, too. And although I believe the Spirit opens hearts and draws people and ultimately saves a soul, I believe He does it through people. And likely He will win my people through me or other people I know.

Because I have people in my life, people I love, who don’t know God. Some have never known. Some are wandering. I’m willing to bet everyone in every church is the same. We have people who mean the world to us, and they haven’t answered the call to live for Jesus, and our hearts shatter into a zillion pieces with every prayer, every hope, every conversation. We can only do so much, pray so much, and love so much, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to change a thing.

When someone who isn’t walking with God agrees to attend church with you, how do you feel? Is there hope? Do you pray that that person will be changed, that the Spirit will sweep over your person during worship, during songs, during  fellowship? I do. It’s what I want more than anything else, that a person I love who walks into a worship service with me will walk out new.

So, here’s the thing. Here’s where I keep deleting and starting over. Church body, this part of the post is for you. For any church body. Every church body. It’s normal to greet strangers. Every church I know greets strangers, surrounding them with love, asking them questions, hoping they will return, praying they will feel loved and sense the Spirit in our midst. But how do we do with the not-so-strangers? The adult children who walk in with parents. The siblings who appear only on holidays. The parents who come only for a grandchild’s baptism.  How hard do we work to love those people?

I hate to admit this, because it’s a heartbreaking truth, but not all of my children are pursuing God at the moment, not with any fervor. Some are questioning and wandering. They know the truth, but they haven’t claimed it yet. They weren’t loved well by other bodies, and now they hesitate to enter a body again. And I have done all I can do. I have said all I can say. Every now and then these children agree to attend church with me. And I pray and hope every single time that this time the body will gather round them. Perhaps this time they will meet a kindred soul and develop a friendship that will ultimately lead them back to the fold. Maybe someone will speak the words to soften their hearts and pierce their armor and remind them of the truths of eternal life. I hope someone will be the lifeline to lead them home in a way I haven’t been able to do. Yet often we walk in and out and nobody says a word to them.

When I bring my people into the body, I’m calling in the cavalry to surround them, to speak to them of love and truth, to be God’s hands and feet. This is a battle and a rescue, and I need help. I am not, as the commercials say, an army of one. God never meant for me to be that.

A few weeks ago another mother of a young adult son approached and asked me if we could introduce my son to her son. She felt they might have some common ground. And the two young men talked a long time. I realized I need to do this, both search out people who might have common ground with the guests I bring into the church as well as seek out other people’s guests. Because I am the cavalry, too. Perhaps someone will bring a daughter or friend or sister who needs me, something only I can give. Maybe the Spirit wants me to be the one to head up the rescue of someone else’s special person. Someone might have shed as many tears over her people as I have over mine, and God’s answer to her tears is ME. It sounds unbelievable, but maybe it’s true. Maybe that’s why each particular group of believers is together, because we have what it takes to rescue each other’s people as well as reach the world where we live.

We want to rescue the world. That’s a perfectly good thing to want. But more personally, we want to rescue our own. And if I worship with you, your people are my people. Your family is my family. Your tears and fears and hopes–they’re mine, too. So here’s my promise. I will help you rescue those you love. I hope you’ll help me rescue those I love. If I don’t worship with you, I hope you will make and keep such promises to your own bodies about your own people. Between all of us, we can reach many, many souls.

We need to love each other well. Have each other’s backs. Speak the words of the Spirit to each other’s people. And not let the enemy carry away anyone we care about if there’s anything we can do to stop it.

 

 

The Dilemma of Helpfulness

dilemma of helpfulnessThis week at the grocery store, I noticed a mom who seemed to be in trouble. She had a child strapped to her chest, crying, and a little one underfoot she was trying to corral with her legs. With one hand she was tossing groceries from the cart to the bagging table; with the other patting the tired baby. All of this was done with a lot of speed, and she didn’t look happy.

I offered to help her bag. She made it clear that my offer was not acceptable, that she was fine, that even though I might have needed help when my children were little, she did not.

It hurt. In my attempt to help her, I had offended and upset her. All kinds of thoughts went through my head. Was it the way I asked? Did I somehow express that I thought she was failing? Did I break some sort of taboo by noticing her distress? I am not good at social cues, so there was a good chance I did something wrong by even asking.

It was a simple exchange. Took less than a minute, but for the rest of the day I felt dark and sad, like I’d failed. What you need to understand is that I’m not comfortable with people. I have been trying hard to be loving and compassionate toward people, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. People scare me. They upset me. I’m supposed to love them, but I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even like them. But I’ve been praying for eyes to see them as Jesus does, worthy of love and compassion regardless of circumstance. I want to be sweet and kind, but it’s hard to get past fears and hurts to do it. I’ve had people be really unkind to me, and so I was stepping hugely outside my comfort zone even to approach this woman. And I hit unkindness again.

Eventually I had to let myself off the hook. People in the world aren’t especially kind. I knew my intention was simply to help her get home faster so her tired baby could rest or eat or play. That was it. If she chose to get upset, that was on her.

Without realizing it, sometimes we do this in the church. I bet all of us remember moments when someone in our church bodies offered to help us with something, and we quickly told them No, I’m fine. I don’t need anything. I don’t want to put you out.

It hurts, doesn’t it? Makes you question asking again? Makes you wonder what value you have if simple offers of help are turned away?

Long ago I knew a woman who felt her calling was to help people in church. If a problem arose, she was the first to offer food, counsel, whatever was necessary. But then when life went back to normal, she wasn’t around. She wasn’t developing friendships or relationships; she was simply filling needs.

This same woman refused to accept help. I invited her to a cookie exchange. She said she didn’t have time to bake cookies. I explained that I had overbaked. I had a ton of cookies at my house. (This was in my pre-diabetes years.) She insisted it was unfair to eat my cookies and would not accept my offer. In the end, I had to throw them away. They went stale before anyone got to them. And we didn’t get her company at the exchange.

After that day, I didn’t accept help from that woman again. Bearing burdens needs to be a two-way street. God didn’t tell us to help one another to show the world we are good people. We’re not doing it to the check the Obedience or Good Deeds boxes in our spiritual checklist. He did it because we need to be intimate. We need to have friendships and relationships. Life is hard. The world is mean. We need to have people around us who don’t only help us in time of need but also love us in times of good and joy. It isn’t about tasks done; it’s about hearts woven together in an unbreakable tapestry.

I call people like my old friend the foul-weather friends. The lady at the grocery store turned around and offered her cart to someone when she left the store. She wanted to be kind to strangers, but it offended her to accept kindness. That was weakness. I think we do that in church, too. Many of us jump to help, but we don’t accept help. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We pat ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and forget about anything deeper.

Again, I’m working on this. I’m trying to be helpful, but I also want to build friendships and relationships. I’m the kind of person who could live on a deserted island for a decade before I started talking to volleyballs, but God wants me to interact, so I’m trying to interact. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for any of us. Our society is about independence. Our society isn’t God’s society, and that’s clearer every day.

If someone offers to help you, maybe it’s not a sign of weakness to accept. Maybe it’s as much part of being a good disciple of Christ as offering. Maybe that help won’t only aid your life, but it will build up the one who offered. It’s a two-way street. The world is rough, and we are called to comfort each other, laugh with each other, enjoy each other, weep with each other, and walk each other to Heaven’s doors.