All’s Quiet on the Western Front

stormI’m sitting in my dining room, at the table. The kids are in bed asleep. Andrew is in bed asleep. All I can hear is the gurgling of the fish tank, the occasional stirring of the dog in the corner, and my neighbors fighting outside the window. It’s 10 pm this time. The last time it was closer to midnight, and the talk sounded a lot more dangerous. In fact, the last time I’m pretty sure they threw some garbage cans around the yard at each other.

I listen to their voices but can’t really hear much more than the occasional curse word. I listen because I’m curious and because I feel for them. I understand the frustration that brings a person to the point of yelling and not caring who hears. Or yelling and wanting someone else to notice and care. Or even worse, the frustration of just being quiet and either not knowing what to yell or not caring enough to say anything at all.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Relationships are hard, and the ones that matter most tend to bring the most hardship. If I don’t like a coworker, I can avoid the person and keep things superficial. If I don’t like someone who lives in my house, there’s not much I can do but dive in and face the discomfort. I can quote the Bible verse, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:7) until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t ignore the fact that when iron sharpens iron, sometimes sparks fly!

I tell my kids all the time if people live in a house together they will sometimes have conflict. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. It’s conflict that gives us the chance to learn how to face disagreements in ways that don’t hurt others. I tell them when they grow up and have families of their own they will know how to deal with conflict in ways that build up instead of destroy. That’s what I say, but I’m not sure I’m teaching them how to do it. I’m still learning it myself, and I have to admit I’m not all that good at it.

wedding picWhen Andrew and I got married, I knew that God planned us for each other. I felt certain of it. I never was one of those girls who thought there was one person for everyone, and I’m still not. If that were the case, I for sure would have messed up and married Mr. Wrong and then what? Would my whole life have been a mistake from then on? I have always believed that God’s will for me is flexible and fluid and that if I know him I’ll follow him and I’ll look for ways to do what he wants. If I miss some things he’s pointing out to me, he will still use me in other ways.

That being said, though, I knew Andrew was for me almost the moment I met him. Now I thank God for giving me that assurance! Now I can rest in the belief that God put Andrew in my life for a reason. When life gets hard and we get frustrated with each other, I can look back at the time I felt sure God put us together and know that he still wants to use us in each other’s lives.

If I believe this, I trust God will use him to change me into the person He wants me to be. I trust that God will use me to mold him into the person He wants Andrew to be. Even in times when living with another person is hard and I feel frustrated by our differences, I have to admit that when I look back at the people we were when we started this marriage, I like who we are now better. I might think at times that my life would have been easier had I just gone it alone, and I might be right. It almost definitely would have been easier in a lot of ways. However, what would I have become if left to my own devices, without the smoothing influence of my husband? I’m not sure I would have liked that person.

Peace in the War Zone

Let me give an example. One of the struggles we’ve had in our marriage revolves around the way that we talk. I come from a tell-it-like-it-is kind of family. I remember my grandma telling me men can’t read your mind so if you want something you’d better go ahead and just tell them what you want, not to expect that they’ll figure it out on their own. I took that to heart. I saw too many girls hinting, wishing that some guy would figure out they wanted something and then getting disappointed and even angry when the guys didn’t catch the hint. That seemed foolish to me, so I decided I wouldn’t hide how I felt or what I was thinking from my husband.

Andrew’s family is different. They’re waaay more subtle than mine. Their idea of telling-it-like-it is…well, my family would never even know there was any telling going on if they heard it. His family does this out of respect, I think. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so they present themselves more subtly. And guess what. The other family members figure out what they mean without the loud, in-your-face telling that my family does. It works for them.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

However, put these two together, and it’s not always so easy. When we were dating, I went home from college with him to visit his family one weekend. On Saturday night, I asked him to wake me up the next morning in time to get ready for church because I didn’t have an alarm clock. The time to get up came and went, and he didn’t even knock on my door. I finally woke up and asked him why he didn’t wake me up. His answer? “I was making noise so you’d hear it and wake up.” To him, this seemed like a perfectly polite method of waking me up. To me, it seemed like he didn’t care enough to make sure I was awake.

These different styles have led to a lot of “interesting” conversations over the years, but early on we both realized the value of being married to someone with a very different style of self-expression. Over the years, I have become less abrasive, more thoughtful in my approach. I’ve learned to think before I talk, to consider people’s feelings and not just blast everyone away with my opinion. I’ve learned that if the tone of my voice sounds angry, it doesn’t matter what I say because he will only hear anger. I’ve learned it’s not up to me to save the world and to point out everyone’s flaws and shortcomings. He’s learned to stand up for himself more, to be more aggressive in conversation. He’s learned to say what he thinks because people might not pick up on the subtle cues. Somehow in the mix of the two of us we’ve both found a decent middle ground that enables us to say what we think without hurting each other much of the time. This has translated into our other relationships at work and with friends as well.

Nothing Worth Doing is Ever All That Easy

The most recent picture of us. We've changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

The most recent picture of us. We’ve changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

In that case, iron has sharpened iron, but, oh my, that sharpening process has been long and difficult, and it will probably continue until the day one of us dies. It has involved deep issues, things from both our pasts that aren’t easily dealt with, things that neither of us ever wanted anyone else to know about, things that we can’t hide from the one we live with day in and day out, especially not if we want a healthy marriage. When those kinds of things come out in the open, they have the potential to destroy us, but they also have the potential to grow us into  stronger, more stable, more understanding people. People who are more Christlike.

I began writing this post over seven months ago. I have hesitated about posting it because I’ve got friends who know some of the realities of my marriage and might read it and think what a hypocrite I sound like, coming from a less-than-perfect marriage and writing about how God uses it. I hesitated because it’s easy enough to gloss over the difficulties publicly and present our marriage as this model relationship when it most definitely is not. We’ve had our share of destruction and pain over the years. I can’t help but think, though, that it’s worth it. It’s worth the arguments, the silence, the hurt that we’ve both sometimes felt because now that we have been married long enough to look back we can see some progress. We can see the positive changes that have resulted. We’re learning to see each other as people who are still growing and changing instead of as final products, solidly stuck in our ways and unable to change.

Not that we’ve perfected it! Not at all! There are still so many things that we need to work on, some that I’m sure we don’t even know about yet. There are still so many mistakes and blunders. We still struggle quite a bit. Sometimes I still look at him and think, “Who is that?!” and at times I wonder if he even knows me at all. Then he says something that summarizes my personality in one sentence and I think maybe I was wrong. Maybe he knows me better than I thought. No matter what our differences might be, our sixteenth anniversary is just around the corner, and I can happily say that we are not throwing garbage cans at each other. At least there’s that!

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Forgiveness Changes Everything

Who could ever stay mad at this sweetie?

The other day, my daughter stayed up too late. This may seem like a harmless event, but in her nine-year-old life, staying up too late produces a sentimental reaction to just about everything. After 9:30, she cries. She cries for the friends she left behind when we moved, she cries for the house we moved out of, she cries for pets that have died. On the particular night in question, she came to me with a sad face and cuddled on my lap and told me she was crying because of the mean things she had said to me in the past.

Right then, not one mean thing she had ever said came to mind. I said, “Honey, I can’t even remember those things anymore. I know you remember them, but I’m your mommy, I love you and I don’t even care what you said to me before.”

At that moment, a light came on in my head. This must surely be how God feels when we come to him with old sins, long forgiven, long forgotten. He loves us. He wants us for his children. He doesn’t even try to remember anything we did so long ago. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, those things are gone.

There’s a story I’ve been thinking about that illustrates this point. Jesus ate dinner with a lot of people, and in this story he was eating with the religious leaders of the time. They lived with the assumption that their religious observances and practices would pave their way into God’s good graces. In this particular story, they gathered for dinner. At some point in the party a woman who was known for her sinful life, a prostitute probably, came into the house where they were eating, searching for Jesus.

She saw him and fell at his feet kissing and annointing them with expensive perfume, wiping her tears from his feet with her own hair. The religious leaders in the room expressed their concern. “Don’t you know who that is, Jesus?!” No doubt they nudged each other, eyebrows raised. What did Jesus say? He turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” She came to him for forgiveness, and she received it.

An Expensive Sacrifice in An Unforgiven State

This woman expressed her love for Jesus in an extravagant way. She poured out something expensive. This wasn’t a five dollar Wal Mart special. Perfume cost a lot in Jesus’ day. Now, think for a moment about where she got the money for that perfume. She purchased the perfume with money she got from selling herself. She purchased it with her morality, her dignity, her very soul. She brought that to Jesus, and she sacrificed what she had to honor him.

Not only did she come to him with something expensive, but the woman came to Jesus in her unforgiven state. She came with her sins. She came carrying the jar of perfume that represented her sinful life. Had she never lived that life, she would have had nothing to present to him. She had a past, she had sin, and she gave it to him. Her act of turning that sin over to him, pouring it out on him, that was her sacrifice to him.

There’s a tension in Christianity. It comes from the pull between the freedom that comes from grace and the bondage that comes from sin. It sometimes manifests itself in this difficulty some Christians have in forgiving people who have wronged them, accepting people who live different lives from them, loving people who have made mistakes. I know it because I feel it. I have that tension in my own life. It’s the tension that makes me ask myself how I should treat people I know who mess up royally. How should I treat people who continue to live in their mistakes, who don’t seem to want to change? When I love someone, shouldn’t I want to point out their shortcomings so that they can change those and be somehow worthy of God’s love?

Forgiveness Brings Change

In thinking about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I don’t remember any times that he required a person to change before he or she came to him. I don’t remembering Jesus himself ever turning someone away because they weren’t good enough, sinless enough, perfect enough to come to him. They changed because they were with him, not because they heard about him or because someone told them to clean up their act before they made it to him.

Forgiveness breeds something in the forgiven. Maybe it’s not just realizing that we’re sinful that changes us, but maybe the actual forgiveness itself changes us.

I worry about us as believers sometimes. I worry about how we draw lines and create boxes and how we like to say, “This far is ok, but past that and we’re over the line.” I worry that we read the Sermon on the Mount, and instead of noticing that Jesus says that we can’t possibly be good enough and we therefore need his grace, we use his teachings to draw the lines around what we have decided determines sinful behavior and what determines being in God’s good graces even darker than they were before. We say, for example, “Aha! Before we thought murder was wrong. Well, guess what! Now even anger is wrong.” When we do that, we feel justified in ostracizing people who we think have crossed the line, have stepped outside the box. We choose the sins we don’t like and we focus on them, but we ignore the fact that our sins are all destructive and none of us escapes those sins on our own.

What Are We For?

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Tobias, Nebraksa

Even as I write this, I notice something. I notice my well-defined ability to judge people for being judgmental. I pull the Pharisees down from their high horses only to jump right up there in the saddles so I can look down at them from my “perfection.” In our culture today, it’s popular to say everyone has a right to live how they want. It’s hip to be against people who are against everyone different from them. I scroll down my Facebook feed and see people posting about the right to bear arms and restricting immigration, tossing out Muslims and putting (evangelical Christian) prayer back in school, and I feel myself climbing right up on the high horse next to the people who posted those, ready to push them down for their conservative views that go against the current cultural views that say we should love and accept everyone.

Then I realize something. I realize that, just like everyone else, I define myself as what I’m against instead of what I’m for. I judge the judgmental. In championing acceptance and love for those who used to be on the margins of society, I couch my judgmentalism in terms of acceptance, thus enabling myself to continue being judmental but in a politically correct manner that is focused on judging those more conservative than I am.

Set Free for Freedom’s Sake

Our culture of acceptance and tolerance isn’t a bad thing. I like it. I think there are some parts of it that resonate with the Gospel. I’m glad that the new generation of Christians seems to be rising up to love the ones previous generations saw as unlovable. Here’s my fear, though. I hear many Christians advocating love for the sinner and yet scorning other Christians whose opinions about social issues or understanding of theology differ from theirs in the same way that the previous generations scorned the non-believers.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” A Bible college professor once told me that the translation doesn’t quite convey the intensity of the original meaning. It actually means something more like, “Christ set you free. Now start living like you’re free!” We don’t have to set up boxes and draw lines. We don’t have to self-righteously proclaim to the world which groups we’re against. We can love people exactly how they are: sinful and messy, law-bound or lawless. If I’m quick to say that we should love gay people, for example, but turn my back on my friends who see things in a legalistic, conservative Christian way, maybe I’m still missing the point.

A big, fancy church in Honolulu.

Honolulu, Hawaii

What are my motives? Am I zealous for truth and righteousness and freeing the oppressed or am I zealous for maintaining a particular self-image that revolves around condemning those who are different from me? Do I do what I do for God or to promote an image of myself as a particular type of Christian?

This comes back around to the story of the woman with the perfume. These days we like to focus on the woman and on how she was forgiven, and that is very important. However, we also need to remember that Jesus loved and forgave the Pharisees in his midst as well. Those who believed in him–those were also forgiven and accepted, even if they hadn’t quite grasped the idea of freedom from the Law. Maybe even if they never did.

A Calling to Sacrifice

Last week I sat in a meeting where an evangelism professor from the Christian college where I work called on a student to give an impromptu testimony in front of a group of incoming freshmen. I initially felt sorry for the poor girl put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, but I then thought what if he calls on someone else after her? I began planning what my testimony would be, in case he called on me. By the time she finished her speech, I had just two thoughts ready: calling and sacrifice.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

When I was the age of those hopeful students, I had all kinds of plans. I thought I would do what I had planned to do since I was nine years old: be a missionary. I was sure of this. I knew God wanted me to go, and I wanted to go. I had figured out God’s plan for my life, and I would do what he wanted, and it would work out.

Fast forward a few years, and I was living the dream I thought God had for me, teaching missionary kids in Ukraine.The ministry fit the exact combination of skills, education, and interests I had, and I loved almost every minute of it. I remember feeling so settled and content, sure that God had put me exactly where he wanted me. Four years into it, I even married another missionary who shared my passion for cross-cultural work.

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I often heard Americans say to me, “I don’t know how you can live there. I couldn’t do it.” I always responded, “I couldn’t not do it.” I felt compelled to go, compelled to do this hard thing for God. It was at the very core of who I thought I was. But along the way things changed. I found out that God doesn’t leave us in those comfortable places forever. It seems that sometimes he requires some things we don’t really understand.

Our last year in Ukraine was complicated, and it eventually became evident to both my husband and me that we needed to move back to the U.S. He got a great opportunity to teach at a Christian college, something he had always dreamed of, and we packed up and moved. Before I knew it, I lived in a house in the suburbs, doing nothing I had planned to do. We had children, a mortgage, some pets, and I worked hard not to think about how my dreams of being a missionary lay broken somewhere in a dark room in the back of my mind.

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute!

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute in this photo!

I wish I could say that being a mom became my unexpectedly fulfilling calling. In all practical ways it did, of course, because I had three children to care for. They were there, they were mine, so I apparently was called to mother them. However, I haven’t ever really had the passionate, I-love-motherhood thing that some moms have going on. I love my children; I just always wondered if maybe I had missed something else I was supposed to do. I thought if I were a better woman, a better wife, a better mom, I could have handled motherhood and some sort of vibrant ministry, and the fact that I did nothing but change diapers for the better part of a decade proved that I couldn’t handle more. I pushed that thought into that dark room in the back of my mind as well.

I had a lot of jobs over the years. I took most of them only because they fit conveniently into our lifestyle and did not require us to get a babysitter. I discovered that I liked some of the jobs, though. In fact, I really liked them. Still I could never quite reconcile the Bible college, church camp, calling-from-God idea with those jobs. Working in a store in the mall, for example, didn’t require a calling. If God called all of us to something, did he call me to work in a store?  Sometimes I felt weird for loving these jobs as much as I did. I mean, selling stuff? Why was that important in the big scheme of things? I felt like I had to justify my enjoyment of my work. And how had I become one of those people who just works a dead end job and tries to find joy in the little things in life while ignoring the big, world-changing things I heard so much about in Bible college?

I still feel that way sometimes, even though I work in a Christian organization and can placate myself by saying that my work contributes to the school’s mission of creating the next generation of church leaders. I never saw myself in this type of job, although I do really love it.

It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve begun unpacking some of the junk I pushed in that dark back room of my mind and maybe I’ve started understanding some of it.

Maybe God’s calling is less about what we do and more about who we are. This relieves the pressure to somehow find God’s perfect will. In American culture, we are all indoctrinated to believe that we are great people, capable of doing great things, and therefore should search diligently for those great things we should do. For American Christians, this gets translated into being told we are great because God made us great and that he has planned great things for us. We spend our lives searching for a specific calling from God, and if we don’t find that we start to feel frustrated and disillusioned in our run-of-the-mill lives. Sometimes we push our way into something that we think is great in an attempt to prove our worth to God and other Christians. Sometimes we fall into the habit of expecting God to choose us to rise above the crowd and become superhero Christians: missionaries, preachers, worship leaders, charismatic speakers with huge followings.

In reality, we don’t find much in the Bible about us each having a great big calling, but we do see that God clearly tells us throughout the Scriptures that our calling is to love him. Love him and live with him and show him to those around us by the way that we love them. A few years into my job in the mall, I realized that I came into contact with more non-believers in a day there than I had in months of ministry. I had the opportunity to live out my faith every day in that menial job that I initially took just because I could work when my husband was home to care for the kids.

Maybe I needed to sacrifice what I once thought God wanted from me. I thought God wanted me to be a missionary. It appears that he doesn’t have that in the plans for me at this point. Thinking about my testimony distilled my thoughts into those two ideas: calling and sacrifice. Do I stubbornly sit myself in a corner and refuse to do anything because it’s not what I originally thought I’d be doing? (I admit, I have done that…) Or do I stand up and do what’s at hand and give it to God with the confidence that he will use it? Maybe my true calling actually involves sacrificing the calling I once thought I had. I find over and over that I must sacrifice the dreams I thought God had for me or the dreams I had for myself and enjoy what God is really doing around me.

superman-clipart-9i4E9jeiEMaybe God knew when I chose the superhero path that part of my motivation involved showing off the big red S on my shirt. Maybe the rest of my life’s challenge and calling is to live a regular life, a quiet life, not caring if anyone remembers my name at all when I’m gone.

I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on these student’s ideas of what God has planned. They’re young and energetic and idealistic, and maybe he really is planning on using them in great ways. I know a lot of professors and college staff rooting for them along the way. But maybe he’s got more menial jobs in store. Jobs where they can sacrifice the flashy, superheroes-of-the-faith dreams they have and live a day-to-day life of being his in a world that doesn’t know him.

Maybe that’s the calling.