Beginning and Ending

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m getting ready to make dinner. It’s a special dinner, as it is every New Year’s Eve, since it’s Hannah’s birthday dinner. I told a friend today that our New Year’s Eve is always pretty boring, except for that one New Year’s Eve when we had a baby. That one was pretty exciting.

img_4211That particular New Year’s Eve, we were in the hospital early in the morning, and Hannah was born around 2:30 pm. We were supposed to go to a party with our small group from church, but instead we called them and told them we were in the hospital with our new baby. They all spent the night at their party and came to visit us in the hospital the next day. We were the first of the group to have a baby, so everyone passed her around, talking to her and cuddling her. Those are special memories.

The Beginning and the End

img_4212We had no idea how having a baby would change our lives. We had a cerebral knowledge that everything would be different, but we didn’t know how that change would feel on a day to day basis. I remember telling a coworker I’d decide whether to do some freelance work “when everything went back to normal” after the baby was born. She just laughed and said, “Nothing is ever going back to normal.” How right she was!

I had no idea how it would feel when absolutely no decision  would ever be made again without first considering how it would affect that little being and her siblings. Every single decision now gets filtered through the how-will-it-affect-the-kids filter.

The moment she settled her little self into my arms marked the beginning of the difficult process of thinking about someone else on a consistent basis. That moment ended my ability to live for myself while at the same time pretending to myself that I was living for others. This is something I never learned in Bible college, didn’t learn in ministry, had only begun to learn in marriage at that time. Each step in life has taken me deeper into the project of thinking about others, a huge endeavor to say the least, but the step into parenthood was like stepping off the high dive and jumping into the deep end of a pool of lava. Trial by fire!

img_4213I spent my whole childhood and young adulthood preparing for and doing ministry. I was 100% in when it came to my work. I loved living overseas, loved teaching, loved the kids I worked with, loved my friends there. I loved it all! Having a baby, we decided we’d be staying in the US for a long time. We decided I would stay home with the baby instead of trying to find a job that paid enough to cover childcare. I guess I thought motherhood would be my thing, but over time I still missed other things. I had trouble figuring out what my niche was in this new state of affairs. Besides childcare, did I have a purpose?

 

For a long time, I struggled with this. I felt alone a lot, and I resented my husband for getting to go to work and sit in a quiet office where he did things like read books and write lesson plans. Alone. With hours and hours at his disposal and an endless career to feed.

New Life

Gradually I got used to parenting, to thinking about children ahead of myself. Gradually I adjusted to being home with them, and eventually I did start working again. I earned a masters. I got jobs and now even have a career. Over time, I learned that being a mom can teach me more than I ever thought I could learn. I have learned a lot about sacrifice and trust. I’ve learned about patience and how my words and actions affect others. I’ve learned a lot.

I’d like to say I learned those things well. I’d like to say I loved it all. I’d like to say I didn’t struggle most of the time. I can’t say that, but I can say I’ve made it so far, and I can say that now that they’re almost all teenagers I enjoy parenting. That’s something, right? I love spending time with them and joking around. I like having intelligent conversations about truly important topics. I like sharing real insight and hearing theirs. I love seeing their interests and thinking about the people they’re becoming, wondering what they’ll do in their lives. I love those kids in ways that I could never have understood on that New Year’s Eve fifteen years ago.

Today my girl Hannah got in a car and drove us to the mall. Legally. And today she planned her whole birthday, including that trip to the mall with a friend. Today she made herself a birthday cake for fun with her boyfriend. I listened to them laughing in the kitchen and smiled at the fun they were having. Maybe we did ok after all!

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Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.

Broken Arms and Changed Plans

FullSizeRenderYesterday I complained before leaving work because I had to take my youngest to open gym at the gymnastics place last night and would have to sit there for an hour and a half waiting on her to do her thing. Later that evening during open gym, my girl asked me to come in the gym and play with her. Apparently other parents were in there showing me up, so I dropped my book and went in to watch her balance on the balance beam and practice her moves (and she was super cute and surprisingly athletic, if I can brag on her for a minute). While I watched and “helped” her, I snuck a few texts to a friend, commenting on how much lessons cost and how could we ever afford this? And I dreamed about what I’d do after all of the kids went to bed and the evening stretched out before me, free and open for Netflix or knitting or writing or whatever.

Open gym was almost over, a fact I knew because I kept a watchful eye on the clock on the wall, when she lugged out a springboard thingy. Running down the lane leading to it, she jumped on it and sailed a few feet into the air in an attempt to do a cartwheel. She is actually pretty good at gymnastics and cartwheels, so I didn’t expect what happened next. She landed wonky on her arm, and I knew the night wasn’t going to end for a loong time.

I ran over to her, all thoughts of time and clocks and what I’d do that night after she went to sleep already vanishing. All I could see was that arm hitting the ground. I had flashbacks of another time I watched that little arm, a lot smaller that time, as she jumped from playground equipment at the age of four and landed on it the same way. That time she broke it, and I believed she had this time too. She looked up at me stunned and said, “It got black and I saw stars for a second.” And it hurt a lot.

My little girl’s pretty brave, but by the time she got to the car she was crying, and I headed toward the emergency room. She held up well. She put ice on it. She looked at the aquarium in the waiting room and exclaimed about how much it looked like Finding Nemo, which it did. In triage, the nurse asked her how much it hurt on a scale of one to ten with ten being “I just got hit by a semi truck.” She said seven. I was surprised. She didn’t seem to be at seven pain level, but maybe she hid it well. She asked about shots. Would she have to get a shot? The nurse said, “You won’t have to get a shot unless you need surgery, and then they’ll give you an IV.” All fear of shots left her as she looked at me in panic and said, “I might have to have surgery?!”

A couple of hours and some x-rays later, and it turned out to be a pretty bad sprain. No IMG_0969surgery. No shots or IVs, a fact that relieved her greatly. She did get a splint and instructions to follow up with an orthopedist in five days just in case they missed a break. Today she proudly showed her arm to her brother and sister and explained what happened. They were in bed at the time and didn’t know we even went to the ER. She secretly told me that even though surgery would have been horrible, it would have been a good way to get some extra attention. My response: “Girl, if you need attention, I’ll take you out to ice cream! You don’t have to get surgery!”

As I lay down in bed last night at 1:00 am, I realized I’d done none of the things I’d planned. I’d had no free time. I’d watched no Netflix and knitted no scarves. I thought of how fast things had changed. In that one 30-second time span, I stopped caring about how much I accomplished and whether I had any time alone. All thoughts focused on my daughter, with a few stray thoughts thinking how much will this cost? (I know, I know, I’m materialistic and petty.) But as I drifted off to sleep, I also thanked God that it was only a sprain. Not a break. As Emma said, “I could have landed on my head!” How quickly things can change. Thank God it was only a small change!

The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

Fish and Houseguests

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Movie night with the students. See how happy everyone looks?!

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Most of the time, I think Ben was onto something when he wrote that quote, but this week I disagree.

A week ago, at the end of Thanksgiving break, some sort of pipe/faucet malfunction occurred at the college where we work. A flood followed, and quite a bit of water damage happened to the classrooms, library and dorms. The college arranged for the boys to move to another dorm building and the girls to stay in a hotel. Three of the students asked if they could stay with us instead.

I have to admit I felt reluctant. I wasn’t sure. I told one of them, “I want to make sure we’re all still friends at the end of the week!” because I know that having houseguests can be stressful, for the hosts and the guests. I know I can get tired and grumpy when there’s a lot of extra stuff around the house. I know our family is pretty quiet, and enjoys our time alone to recharge. However, I asked myself what I’d wish I’d done when I look back on these times in ten years. Will I remember how we had a clean house and some quiet time or will I remember the fun we had staying up late and talking and laughing with friends? Not to mention that our children begged us to say yes. So we did.

And guess what. It was great! I loved it! How could I ever have questioned how fun it would be? They happen to be so much like us that we felt like family. I’m so glad we have such great young people in our lives, and I’m happy our children get to be around them. Having different people around lightens things up and gives all of us something different to think about. It’s not just all homework and work. We played Apples to Apples and watched movies. They filled in for us when we couldn’t get home right after work and even cleaned the house this morning!! How great is that?!

I love that we are settled enough to provide a home away from home for college students. We always wished we could have more students in our home, but, frankly, I was too stressed out and busy when the children were younger to host them. I felt like we needed our down time. Now the kids are older, and we can get down time when they’re around instead of just after they’re in bed. Now it’s fun to share our life with other people and build relationships with new people.

So here’s to stepping out and inviting some fish over. Turns out they smell pretty good!

For the Love of Minecraft

The concentration. They didn't even see me there taking the picture.

The concentration! They didn’t even see me there taking the picture.

I’m sitting on my couch. In the next room, my children have gathered around the dining room table. Their lively conversation, the kindest they’ve had in days, revolves around running for their lives from killer mushroom soup and a zombie that will kill them with one hit. Whatever that means. They’re playing Minecraft, rejoicing over the murder of a zombie with a Thor axe.

Most of the time, these three walk a fine line between beating the tar out of one another and simply ignoring each other’s existence. Once in a while, they start playing something that gets them all immediately involved 100%, and then this beautiful situation occurs. Over the years, different games have intrigued them. Once I woke up on a Saturday morning to the sound of three kids playing in the other room. I went in to see them all embroiled in a huge light saber fight. The girls each held a baby doll on a hip, deftly wielding a saber with the free hand. When I asked what they were doing, Hannah answered, “Playing Star Wars!” The babies were the twins, Luke and Lea.

Yep, they even play it at the library!

Yep, they even play it at the library!

A couple of years ago, Minecraft entered the scene. They became immersed in a blocky world of endermen and zombies, and they all became very good at building creative structures with blocks. Hannah even built an elaborate church, a throwback to when my sister and I played worship service in the garage or school in the dining room. Since then, they have played Minecraft with friends from church, students at the college, and one of the small group guys spent an afternoon playing it with them, despite his advanced age (20 something!).

I’ve heard criticism galore about how too much computer time hurts kids, and I’m sure that’s true. However, this game and others like it have given my children much more positive interaction than anything I’ve seen them do. Ever. They have more to talk about and a language that only they understand. They work together in their Minecraft world. Tonight my daughter begged my son to play, saying that he could best save her and protect her there, so they even have a chance to rely on one another and care for one another in their virtual world.

The heavenly day when they received their very own laptops--a combined Christmas gift from grandparents and parents and worth every penny!

The heavenly day when they received their very own laptops–a combined Christmas gift from grandparents and parents and worth every penny!

Not only do they play the game together, but they watch YouTube videos of other people playing it. Today at lunch, one of them started laughing about something one of them saw on a YouTube video, and I swear it sounded like they were talking about a friend. When I realized they were all laughing about someone they knew from a vlog, I just shook my head. They’re already in a world I’ll never care about.

Hearing them talk to each other, laugh at things that happen online, and cheer each other on as they play makes me happy. These are the days I waited for, the days I longed for when they were little and covered in a mixture of snot and chocolate milk and unidentifiable goop from breakfast. These days, I have uninterrupted periods of time when they’re happy and fulfilled without me, when I can sit on a couch and write a blog post or take a shower without the guilt of a baby crying in her crib in the back of my mind. They’re growing up!

And not only are they growing up, but they’re growing up great. I know they’re my kids, but I think they’re pretty wonderful. Today I was the last of the family to leave Taco Bell and went out the door behind a group of people using wheelchairs. I thought my kids were all in the car, but as I walked out the door I noticed that the person behind it was my youngest, Emma. She had held the door for a long line of wheelchairs. I saw one of the caretakers accompanying the people smile one of those oh-my-what-a-lovely-little-girl smiles and I just felt so proud of her. She is a lovely little girl.

So here’s to enjoying these days when they’re all home and all having fun together. Days when they still just have each other, when they build memories they’ll take with them when they go their separate ways and find other people to share their lives. Here’s hoping that they remember these days as well or better than they remember the days when Mommy lost her mind and yelled about the car door that wouldn’t close or the day when everyone sat in silence during dinner because they got reprimanded for talking mean to one another.

For now, I’ll let them conquer the Pumpkin King with TNT and enjoy listening to their animated conversation…even if I don’t understand half of it!

I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

Take a Stand

IMG_9591This week in Kentucky we saw it play out one more time. Kim Davis, a county clerk in a small town stood on her conviction that homosexuality violates God’s ideal for marriage and refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples who applied for them. This isn’t a new story. It’s a different version of the same old story about Christians refusing to bake cakes for gay couples and Christians clamoring to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and Christians claiming religious persecution because people want to replace the greeting “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

This is a special breed of American Christianity that, as I’ve said in earlier posts, teaches us to stand up for what we believe and be aggressive about it. Don’t just sit back and take this “persecution” because the non-believing government no longer has our best interest at heart but instead tries to annihilate our freedom to express our beliefs. Isn’t that what Americans are about? Freedom?

In regard to the Kim Davis situation, I can’t really answer the question of the legality of the decision or whether it is a binding one. I don’t have any knowledge about the law, and, frankly, at this point, I’m not too concerned about that. Here’s what I am concerned about: in all of this taking a stand for our rights and our freedom, we Christians are losing sight of the goal.

Focus on the Goal

From the opening pages of the Old Testament to the closing pages of the New, the Bible teaches us that a savior would and did come for all of us. All people are included in the promises of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets a free pass and we can do whatever we want, but the Bible emphasizes over and over and over that those who believe have a responsibility to reach out to those who don’t yet.

Here’s where I think we get caught up. Many Christians get a Sunday school version of the Bible and don’t see the big picture all that well. I have gone to church my whole life, and I remember reading the Bible through from start to finish when I was a teenager and discovering that all of the stories I’d been taught from birth were linked in some way. I mean, I’d heard about Abraham and Moses and Noah and all of these people, but I had only heard the Sunday school version where they were portrayed as separate characters in separate stories. I was absolutely shocked to find out that the characters were all related, and that the Old Testament was basically the story of one huge dysfunctional family! I had a very basic understanding of the Bible until I later went to Bible college and began really studying it as a whole.

Sure, there are lots of stories of people standing up for their faith, and if we learn about the Bible in that Sunday school way we may learn the surface lessons they appear to teach. Daniel refused to pray to the king and instead prayed to God. God rescued him from his punishment, being thrown to the lions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow to the statue of a false god and received a fiery punishment. God also saved them. This must mean we should stand up for our faith and God will save us. Right?

God Includes All People

IMG_6780Throughout the Bible, though, are passages pointing to the inclusion of all nations. In the Old Testament, we see God calling out a group of people, the Israelites, and instructing them on how to separate themselves from the culture around them. This was to set the scene for the entrance of the main character, Jesus, and God instructed the early Israelite people how to remain pure and separate so that they’d be focused on Jesus when he made his entrance. God’s rules for separating from the cultures around them were to protect them from the temptation to stray from him and to show them how impossible it was to keep all the rules and be perfect.

Keep in mind, and this is key: they didn’t have the Holy Spirit yet. Everything they were doing was done on their own power, so they needed to keep as far away from temptation as possible. However, even in those times of separation from the cultures around them, the people were given instructions on how to welcome “outsiders” who wanted to become part of their culture. These outsiders were required to change everything and become like the Hebrews to do so. But God didn’t exclude the non-Israelites from his promise. He repeatedly instructed his people on how to include them, how to welcome them into their midst, and how to treat them well when they were there.

Outward Focus Replaces Inward Focus

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In our current arrangement of the Bible, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi. The Hebrew scriptures, though, originally placed 2 Chronicles at the end of the Old Testament. This is relevant because of the last passage of 2 Chronicles. In that passage, the Israelites have been captured and taken away to Babylon by the king of Persia. After a long and complicated exile, they are allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem, and, surprisingly enough, the king of Persia even tells them in the very last verse of their scriptures to go back to Jerusalem and build a temple. He encourages the inward focus of the people, basically telling them to go home, regroup, focus inward again.

Read that verse in conjunction with the last words of Jesus in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus knows something that the Old Testament people didn’t know. He has left his people with help to resist the temptation that the people before them did not have. He has given them the Holy Spirit, and they are now free to mingle with the non-believers. They are actually encouraged to do so. Now that they have the power of the Holy Spirit, they can interact with those who are different from them without requiring that those people completely change everything first. Before he left his people to return to Heaven, Jesus reversed the proclamation of the Old Testament. Instead of focusing inward on themselves and on keeping themselves pure, his followers were instructed to focus outward, to get down in the dirt with the people Jesus loved in order to show that love to them. Now that we have the Holy Spirit living inside us, we can confidently live in the world without the fear that we’re somehow going to be corrupted by them.

Our American Old Testament Jerusalem

IMG_9590So what does this have to do with Kim Davis and gay marriage and Christmas? I think that today’s Christians must fight the urge to believe we live in an American Old Testament Jerusalem. We must give up our fear that we will be corrupted or that somehow our freedom of religion will be taken away. No government can take faith away from us or cause us to sin. The power of God in us is strong enough to keep us faithful. We are living in a time when we can not only accept differences but reach out to those who are different from us.

When we live in an American version of Old Testament Jerusalem, we do things like point out the faults in others while ignoring our own sins. Let’s not forget that Kim Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth husband. Or that she’s a woman in a place of leadership and doesn’t the Bible say something about that? As Christians, we can’t hold to an Old Testament view of standing up for our faith or we’ll be forced to put her down for her sins. We can’t pick and choose which sins we accept and which ones we condemn. If we’re living the Old Testament way, it’s all or nothing. But we live under the New Testament, under grace that forgives the Christian who sins by divorcing repeatedly and the grace that welcomes the sinner before he even changes in hope that he will grow closer to Jesus in the process of being cared for by his followers.

All of this “taking a stand” we’re doing? It’s doing nothing to advance the Gospel. Instead, it throws up obstacle after obstacle in the way of those who might believe. We spend so much time focusing on what we’re against, on preaching against it, on pushing our opinions that we forget about what’s truly important. We expect the non-believing world to behave like the believing world, and let’s face it: they are. Because we’re acting an awful lot like them. If we want them to drop their protest signs and stop insisting on their way, maybe we need to do the same. Instead of stubbornly saying, “We won’t budge until they do,” maybe we could decide our faith is strong enough to live with some differences of opinion. As a friend of mine once said, “Love opens the door for truth to walk through.” Open the door with love. Truth will be welcomed then.

Random Thoughts

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Just a few random thoughts at the end of the week:

  1. New beginnings are exciting! School started this week. We have two junior high family members now, and the youngest child is sweetly still in fourth grade. On Tuesday, everyone got dressed in their finest clothes, straightened and spiked hair, and loaded their backpacks. As much as I love sleeping in a little in the summer and having a more relaxed schedule, I also like the routine and predictability of school.
  2. New beginnings are stressful! One boy in our family has gone to bed at 7 or so several times this week. People have had blow ups over tiny, dumb things, and by people have I mean I have. I’m not even in school, and I feel stressed out by it!
  3. Cicadas make way more noise than I’m comfortable with. I’m sitting on the deck in the back yard, and I can hardly think because of those things.
  4. The weather must follow the school calendar. On the very day that school started, the temperature went from don’t-even-look-outside-for-fear-of-radiation-burns to get-back-in-here-and-get-a-jacket. How does it know?!
  5. The feel of the world changes in fall. How strange is that? I was in the car with Alex yesterday around 7 pm and said, “Man! It even looks different now that school started.” The light is different–golden or something. The clouds and sky looked so crisp. How is it that I forget this during other seasons and only remember it when it hits again?
  6. I’m really tired. Overloaded with new routine, getting kids out in the morning and being home on time, an influx of new students around me all day, many of them needing something from my office, and less sleep than normal come together to make Tired Laura.
  7. I guess I break things when I’m tired nowadays. I mean, this hasn’t been a thing for me in the past, but I think I’ve taken up a new hobby of breaking pottery. Yesterday I dropped my fave coffee mug in the morning and broke the handle off, and last night I dropped a coffee mug out of the cabinet. It fell onto a plate on the counter below, and both of them broke.

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My poor Willa Cather mug

Tired Laura probably should end this overgrown Facebook status-y blog post and go make some dinner. Or, you know, break some stuff.

The Choice

cropped-1918-2.jpgIf you’re on social media at all, I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs in opinions: opinions about racial issues, opinions about abortion, opinions about Donald Trump. I scroll through my newsfeeds and see all sorts of opinions. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, attended a conservative Christian church as a child, and I work in a pretty conservative Christian environment. Among all of the opinions I hear and read on a daily basis, one theme winds itself around through most of them: many American Christians today claim that the government and cultural agents are slowly but surely eroding their freedom of religion.

I hear people say they think they’ll have to compromise their convictions because of laws regarding things like gay marriage and abortion. I hear them wishing that life would go back to the way it was when Christians were the majority and, even when people did not adhere to the Christian faith, they usually outwardly appeared to go along with it. The people I hear talking about this want America to be “a Christian nation again.”

US flagThe Challenge We Face

My husband said something profound about this topic this week. I knew when I married him he was super-smart, smarter than I can dream of being. But sometimes he says something that makes so much sense that I think to myself, “Man! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Then I remember: it’s because he’s super-smart.

We were driving down the street on our way to the library, where super-smarties like him go, and he said, “I think that American Christians are facing a huge challenge, and it’s not what we think it is.” He went on to explain himself by saying that Christians in America are used to feeling like America is a Christian nation. We’ve mixed Christianity and patriotism so well that we can’t tell the difference between what is Christian and what is American. We so badly want the government to uphold traditional Christian values that when the government acts like a secular force and not a Christian element we feel betrayed and angry. The challenge facing Christians in America in the coming years isn’t winning a culture war or standing up for our faith or our freedom.

The challenge facing American Christians is deciding whether to follow American patriotism or Jesus’ teachings. When the American government diverges from biblical teaching, what do we do? Do we rail against the government and demand that it return to biblical principles? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been fighting this “culture war,” arguing and debating until we’re blue in the face, and yet we haven’t turned the tide of secularism in America. We seem to feel that if the American government doesn’t uphold Christian values, those values will no longer continue to exist. However, the government has never been called upon to promote Christian values. From what I read in the New Testament, I see Jesus tells us many times that as believers we will live in a way that is not culturally popular. This is not something to fear but something to expect. Despite the fact that throughout history much of the world has not been Christian, Christianity has continued to thrive.

According to Andrew, “We are facing a series of tests that cause us to choose between a political position and something that actually is a Christian value. For example, it’s legitimate to think that a country has to have reasonable control over its borders and its immigration policy, but when that turns into a blanket rejection of immigrants and we say racist and hateful things about a group of people, we’re choosing nationalism over Christian values. What is revealed in that situation is that our primary allegiance is to our country more than it is to the principles of Christ.”

cross and flagLove Your Enemies

In a political debate, we often express contempt for people who do not agree with us, although they are made in the image of God. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, that God would guide them and bless them. Instead we call down curses on our leaders, criticizing them in ways we would never criticize someone for whom we were praying a blessing. When we do this we show that our political party or our nationalism is where our allegiance really lies.

There are Christian principles on each side of any issue. If we see a person on the opposite side of an issue as an enemy, as Christians we should react the way that Jesus told us to and love that enemy. When we gossip about him, turn others against him, work to divide ourselves from him, we show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

An Example

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. The issue of abortion has taken center stage in the last few weeks. As a Christian, I am convinced that abortion is morally wrong. However, I know Christians who campaign fervently against abortion but refuse to accept and help young unwed mothers because they obviously sinned by having sex outside of marriage. These same Christians campaign just as passionately against government assistance, claiming that the people who need it should “just go out and work like the rest of us.” Now, tell me how a young mother who chooses to keep her baby instead of aborting it is supposed to afford to raise that child on her own. My husband and I have eight college degrees between us and two incomes, and we still need financial help from our parents from time to time just to make ends meet for us and our three children. What is the Christian response to abortion laws and welfare laws then? Can we just sit back and spew rhetoric about the precious life of a child while at the same time refuse to support that life once it has entered the world?

Christians today live at a crucial moment in history. We typically hear that statement followed by a stand-up-for-your-faith-by-fighting-against-the-culture kind of statement, but, just as Andrew said, that’s not really the crux of the decision. God is presenting us with a choice these days. Will we as Christian people choose nationalism and patriotism or will we follow his directives and choose Christian values?