Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When it all burns down

When I step back, I am nearly overwhelmed by all the burning down going on.

My husband lost his job early summer and it's easy to pin things on that; but in retrospect, the kindling was lit long before. Now, I stand among embers, still smoldering. So much has burned down. God has stood back and allowed it to burn, the dead branches, the excess, the unfruitful. And there are heaps of ash in every corner to remind us. Our livelihood, marriage, and faith have been reduced to a mere framework. Utilitarian. Raw.

It was shocking when we moved here to Montana, from California where the smallest strike of a match in public sends the authorities flocking to your side with rules and regulations. Southern California is fire country, and any spark, firework, or tossed cigarette feels like a threat. But in Montana, I watched our neighbor burn a massive pile of trash in the yard behind us. It produced twenty-foot high flames no more than 100 feet from our house. And in an agriculturally centered community, widespread burning of land is common; a good fire purges, starts things over. Rebirth starts in the ashes.

But there is a space of time before things regrow, a hush of activity after the fury of the fire has died down and licked up the last bits of brush. In this quieter space, God is calling me to kneel and listen.

In Bible times, people mourned by scooping ashes over their heads. Think of the smell of a latent fireplace or your clothes after a campfire. Imagine handfuls of that ash in your hair, on your face, in your mouth. We tend to avoid mourning in our culture. Back then, people got intimate with the concept that things burn; they knew there was a time for grieving in the ash.

Tonight, with a heavy heart, I shared with my kids how twenty-one Christians were killed this week for their faith. My son said, "My heart just almost broke." My daughter made a comparison to something in Mockingjay. And both were silent for a while. I then shared with them that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, a time to think about sacrifice and repentance.

I told them I was going to church to do some of my own repenting. Frankly, at first I wanted to go in order to cry out for our country, for our world, and for believers. But the darkness isn't "out there." It's here, in my own heart. I need to bow my face to the ground and scoop the ashes over my own head, for my selfishness, for foolishly neglecting my relationship with God, for my grumbling over serving my family, for my impure thoughts and motives.

I need the ashes in my hair and on my face, and to taste the burning with my ever-harsh tongue that casually lashes out at my loved ones. How can I be a passionate disciple in our lost world when I can't even go a single day without misrepresenting Jesus to my own family? Well, grace. But first, mourning.

I read something yesterday that stuck with me. That the gardener stops pruning those vines from which he expects nothing. But he diligently works on cutting back those from which he expects more fruit.

There's a promise in the ash: God believes in me. He's shaping me, washing me with hope, anticipating the rich fruit to come later on.

But today, He's whispering that it's time to kneel and wait. It's not a time for sweeping up the mess, but resting in the middle of the devastation, clinging to the truth that He is in control, He is good.

On Wednesday, take some time. Bow you head; picture the ashes. Mourn for yourself and your own heart.

But don't ever, not even for one day, forget: God has a habit of trading ashes for beauty.

Love you.


Monday, February 09, 2015

The word I didn't want


The year was so bad, I didn't even ask.

I couldn't ask. I couldn't speak to Him about it, the tradition we bloggers have to choose a "word" for the year.

In the past, we'd settle on one together, happy anticipation flowing from what was to what was to come. All those other years seemed to arrive with the shining glow of promise.

But promises seemed dim and distant this new year's. Still existing, but hazy and threatening to disappear all together.

This time, the year turned over slowly, like a child heavy with sleep, sluggish to wake. I was sluggish to embrace it. And when I did finally turn to face 2015, I felt myself shrink from a hope that might disappoint.

Of course, my Father knew my wounds, my fears, my weariness. He saw my heart balled up, on it's side. He spoke anyway, on His initiative, not mine. His grip on me is always stronger than my grip on Him.

I thought, "Stupid word thing."
He said, "It's Full."
I said, "I'm not asking. And what does that even mean?"
"Just, Full."
"I'm not playing the game this year. I don't want it. That's not even a good word."
(my eyes blur just typing it out)
"Because you've known a lot of Empty lately."
And then obviously, I cried at that, saying nothing, so painfully aware of the steady emptying I'd been living for a length of time I could no longer measure.

"And this year, what I have for you is Full."

2014 meant an emptying of our lives on so many levels. From income to time to health to faith, it seemed all our resources, all familiar securities, healthy or not, dwindled consistently and seemed to have no bottom. We expected God to wait till the usual last minute to dramatically rescue with a metaphorical shout of "BUT I LOVE YOU AND WILL NEVER FORSAKE YOU!" However, we thought our last minute was last month, and the month before that, and the month before that. The fact that the emptying was so continual and so unrelenting made our heads spin.      

And in many ways, we are still spinning. Still confused and feeling emptied. Still waiting for His plans to be made clear.

I still don't really want the word, because disappointment, dispersed over a long period of time, becomes a deafening command to stop wishing so hard. But I want God, more than ever. I don't pray for His presence because I know I do have that; He's closer than my breath. That's one comfort I never lost. And I want to believe. Not that He will someday trade ashes for beauty, but that He is right this moment doing exactly that. I want to believe that all along, I misjudged when the "last minute" really was.

I want to believe that January meant a flipping of the hour glass. And so the empty side just waits to become full.


Monday, February 02, 2015

Try-harder Christianity and why it has nothing to do with God

In high school youth group, we sang a song actually titled "Ephesians 2:8 & 9". It's youth-group, 90's style, guys. Some of you know it. Fess up.

Let me refresh your memory - it is comprised of the exact verses, but let's say, flashier than the original text?

"For by grace - doo, do, do, doooo - you have been saaaaaved,
Through faith - (yelled) do, do, do! - and that not of your selves, not of your selves, OH OHHH...
It is the gift of God, not as a result of works (yelled) do, do, do!,
So that no one can boast, NO ONE CAN BOAST, AHH AHH
Ephesians 2:8 and 9, I'm saved till the end of time,
I'm saved by His grace, I'm saved, (big finish) DO, DO, DO, DO!"

You saw that finale coming. But I totally learned those verses. So when we covered them last week in Bible study, I was obviously singing them in my head.

First, we poured over the verses before the song, though, noticing the harsh words used to describe our lives before Christ. "We were dead in our sins...sons of disobedience...children of wrath..."

Then verse 4: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love....made us alive in Christ..."

Those two little words. But God. It's the turning point, and the defining moment that distinguishes our faith from every other faith in the world. Did you know that? Every other faith on the planet hinges on man's work. Man's attempts to reach God. The Bible says the real deal hinges on God's work to reach us.

All the others basically say, "We were children of wrath...But man worked his tail off for his whole life desperately hoping to make it back into God's favor by holding up a long resume of good deeds." They say, "If you just keep trying harder, God might eek out some love for you."

And I COMPLETELY get it. If I'm honest, I wish salvation worked this way. I mean, I don't, because I'd never earn it. But I see how easily I could be tricked into thinking I could. I know achievement. I get the satisfaction of embracing a reward because I've earned it. That feels good and right and fair. It's practically a universal truth: You get what you deserve.

Yet, this is what I read in verse 4: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love..." saved me through Christ.

I did nothing to earn it. Trust me, the first-born in me tries super hard to prove myself to God, but I FAIL him over and over. Not once in a while. Every day. I fail God every day. Thank you, motherhood. Furthermore, I don't truly appreciate or thank Him for his love. But God acted, anyway, despite me.

Since I am tired of nagging my child to practice piano and brush his teeth and wake up on time for school, I started a sticker chart for him. It works for toddlers; I figured why won't it work for big kids who are motivated by earning the carefully rationed golden nuggets called screen time? Well, as soon as he saw that chart, never before has he put so much enthusiasm into all of the above. Like, he was running to complete the boxes.

Know why? Because it's in our blood to perform for a reward. "I do this, you give me that." It's what every person on the planet, from the toddler to the CEO, understands as Fairness.

Our heads spin because God in His mercy is crazy unfair. It's starting to make sense to me why the majority of people in our world will say 'No' to the one true God. They'll shake their heads and furrow their brows and say, "No, free salvation doesn't make sense. I must need to work for this. If there is a God, I'm certainly going to have to prove myself."

I think this attitude breaks God's heart. It's pushing away His free gift of love and saying "No thanks, I'd really rather make up a super complicated, and difficult earning system to show you how good I am and how much I deserve a reward." Let's be very clear: that kind of religion is never about God at all. Not the real God, anyway.

Try-harder Christianity will always be about me and my work. It will always seek to glorify myself and the good things I feel I'm accumulating on my goodness resume.

The Bible says that compared to God's goodness, all our good works are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Think about when all your dishtowels are heavy with damp and yuck and they sit in the laundry room sink for a week (No? Is it just me who does that?). People are living their lives trying to improve their smelly rag piles. Comparing their rag piles. Judging other people's rag piles. People are consumed with building a more impressive rag pile than the next guy. Remember the song/verse? Salvation is a gift of God, "not as a result of works, so no one can boast." I imagine God's like, "Dude, are you really trying to boast about your rag pile? This is about me and my attempt to rescue you; it's not about you and your attempt to deserve it. And if you could deserve it, by the way, how would that be Love?"

In a couple days, before my son wakes up, I'm going to put a sticker in every box for the day. When he comes down for breakfast, I'm going to say, "Guess what? Today, you just get the stickers. For free. Because I love you." Cue hugging and kissing.

I imagine he'll be confused. Aren't we all, by unmerited favor? It's a grace test. I'll keep you posted with the results. One thing I do know: if I am to model God's grace to my kids, then at times, they'll need to get rewards they don't deserve. They'll need to deal with the racy unfairness of real Love.

I'm saved, by His grace, I'm saved.

(Do, do, do, do!)