Archive for March, 2011


The Absolute Nuisance of Love

Picture, if you will, the great finger of God, stabbing His points for emphasis. “The greatest commandment,” with a dramatic sigh for the stupidity of one young human, “is to love Me with all that you are. You say you don’t know what that means or what love is.” An impatient statement follows, “Silly girl, it’s all spelled out in I Corinthians 13. To love me, you” an emphatic stab of His finger at me “must be patient. You” another stab “must be kind. You may not” point, point, point “envy or boast, and there will be no dishonor, selfishness, or flammable tempers on your part. I most certainly do not want to hear about any wrongs that may have been done to you, either. You can’t keep those records. You better be rejoicing with the truth, protecting, trusting, hoping, and persevering. Let me know when you get it all down.”

This bit. It rankled. I did not like it, not one bit, no sirree! I don’t like being spoken to like this, dismissively being told what I needed to do to make myself at least somewhat acceptable, but this is God we are discussing. However vast my resentment, some part of me recognized that if anybody had the right to talk to me like that, it would be Him, so I tried swallowing my pride and tried to do all of this stuff. I tried to be kind and patient, especially with my (annoying, obnoxious, pestiferous) younger siblings. I failed more than I succeeded, but I did keep trying, and I even humbled myself enough to ask or sometimes demand that God help me with this impossible task.

I did not approach this labor wholeheartedly. All the while, that resentment of God’s highhandedness kept rumbling. I was annoyed by it all. “I must be patient. I must be kind. I must not be boastful,” I would snarkily repeat to myself, under my breath. “What the heck does all the crap mean, anyways, God? I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.” Please, my friends, do not underestimate the value of snarky prayers or confessions. God hears even them. All I could do with love was try, and the trying made me angry and insecure, because it exposed how completely I failed. I could not even talk to God about love consistently with any love (or civility) on my part. I was not patient, nor was I kind, nor did I treat God with honor. Once in a while, some of that would appear, but it was not a consistent experience for me. I just kept trying and kept looking for opportunities to keep trying. I’m stubborn, and I do not give up easily. Still, I treated love like a huge pain in my butt. I felt it was a nuisance. I did not believe that love was a good thing. I only cared about it because I believed it was what God demanded of me, and I was trying to make Him happy.

God hears and answers even snarky prayers, people. One day, I was in the kitchen, making something for lunch. Nobody else was around, something that was a rare event with my many younger siblings (I had five at that point), and while I was cooking, I was thinking. Cooking involves lots of fairly mindless tasks, and performing fairly mindless tasks has been a soothing thing for me for a long time. I accomplish something, my hands are busy and thus not distracting me, and my mind settles down for a good think. So I was thinking, and because I had love on the brain (love had gotten under my skin. I was so irritated by it!), I was thinking about it and God’s ridiculous demands. My mind was traveling its (by now) well worn path of resentment and shame.

But suddenly, I had this moment of revelation. It was so cool. Out of nowhere inside me, I realized that I was reading I Corinthians 13 all wrong, and that I was more right than I knew in complaining that I didn’t understand love. I thought – believed, really – that I Corinthians 13 was there to point how messed up I was. It is not. It can serve that function of conviction, yes, and it did for me, but that is not its most crucial message.

You see, my friends, what I realized is that God is love. Not only that, but at just the right time, while we were still powerless, while we were still sinners and making terrible messes, God demonstrated his love for us through the death of His Son, of Himself, of Christ. God was NOT saying, “Bekah, you have to live out I Corinthians 13 to get me to care about you.” I had misunderstood completely. He was saying, “I Corinthians 13 is there to explain how I treat you, because I AM love, and I’ve already commended that love to you. I already love you. I am patient. I am kind. I do not boast, and I am not selfish.”

My jaw dropped. It was not a demand, an imposition over which I had every right to be angry, a great nuisance to make me sweat and toil and suffer. It was an explanation, an offer, something which I’d already been given. I had been so wrong, and yet He was so gracious. My jaw just dropped in awe at the amazing awesomeness that is the love of God.

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A Heck of a Mess

How in the world was I supposed to love God from the mess that I was that lay hidden behind the facade? I’m so glad that you asked that, but before I try answering, let me talk a bit more about the mess. I’ve been having a lot of fun here telling my story. That is a good thing, but I think I would be remiss if somehow through all my fun, I glossed or minimized over what a mess inside I really was.

I hurt – a lot. I was very angry. I was afraid. I was confused and desperately uncertain. I was mostly blind to how I felt or what motivated me, and I literally could not tell you, “I hurt.” I did not cry. I did not feel or express pain or anything that might betray a weakness if I could possibly help it, and I’d gotten very good at helping it. As far as I could tell, my dad enjoyed seeing other people’s pain and fear, and at a very young age, I’d sworn to deny him access to mine. He could beat me, and I would not cry. He could frighten me, and I learned to sneer. He could bully and bluster, and I would stand firm, defiance of his will intact. “You can’t touch me” is what my whole life told him. It wasn’t exactly true. He could. He hurt me a lot, but what my vow did do for me was pull me from the “easy prey” category.

What it also did was make me like this everywhere I went. I didn’t have a soft side that showed up in other places. Just because I wasn’t home or Dad wasn’t around didn’t mean that I gained the ability to say, “I hurt.” It didn’t mean that I was suddenly someone who could be touched, not in my heart or physically. For whatever reason, how my dad treated me and what I learned to expect from him helped define every relationship and relational concept that I had. Even after he left home for good, I was still who had been. I expected everybody to use me, to hurt me and then lie about it and/or enjoy my writhing. I did not trust, and I was highly suspicious. I was always, always scanning for potential threats. I was not okay, and I really had no idea that I was a mess.

Some part of me, deep down, knew I was in trouble. Come to think of it, my heart was probably part of that. But for the most part, I only had a faint notion that what I knew – and I mean, knew, as in this was normal, as in confidently expected life to be like this in the same way that I assume the sun will rise, as in what I knew was real and everything else was a fairy tale bedtime story worthy of my scorn knew – was extremely limited. My dad’s attack on my grandfather helped jolt my confidence in what I “knew.” I began to see the tiniest glimmerings of light, so faint that I was not all sure they were real. I wasn’t sure for a long time, like years, that I was not just making that light up like a bedtime story, and because of that, I did treat myself with a great deal of scorn.

So here I was, a mess, and there God was, demanding that I love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Knowing what I do now, God was not demanding, but back then, I had no other experience by which to measure. I expected Him to demand, and I resented Him for it. The ironic thing is that those demands were all in my head. My attitude wasn’t exactly, um, fair to God. Anyway, I had no idea how to love Him. What came to mind was more of I Corinthians 13:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Hello the fairy tale! Can you tell I did not greet this with great rejoicing? I’ll chat about it more in my next post.

Faith and Love

To continue my story, there I was, seriously unhappy over this little revelation that without love, my life is worthless. I know that sounds extreme. “Oh, no! My life is worthless without love.” It might even be a little bit extreme, if you can be a “little bit” extreme. Seems like that would be oxymoronic. But, oh, the angst! The drama! The angry mutterings and sarcastic rantings spewed by my grubby, little soul were vitriolic, rebellious, and yet… still hopeful. I didn’t like what I was hearing, and I didn’t like what I was seeing, and I really wanted to be mad at God for pronouncing me a failure, but I was convicted. This mess I was in was not His fault. It was mine, and I wasn’t getting anywhere that I wanted to be by blaming others. Having that suspicion about who was to blame sneaking about my soul didn’t make me feel less angry or otherwise less upset, by the way.

I couldn’t even justify being mad at Him for setting me up to fail or anything like that. God wasn’t saying, “Forget you, idiot. You’ll never make it. Enjoy the hellfire and brimstone, MWAHAHAAHA!” The Bible abounds with stories of creation, redemption, and transformation. I could and did pull it open just about anywhere and read about God’s life-giving prowess. Look at Genesis 1 – the earth is reported to be “without form” and covered in darkness. Three or four chapters later, it’s bristling with light and life. There’s a nobody named Abram who does pretty well following God, and God blesses that obedience. Abram became Abraham, he has a kid, the kid has kids, and next thing you know, there’s this whole nation of Abraham’s children’s children’s children running around who are probably making God pull His hair out. Children are good at that. The thing is that even though those children messed things up bad – following other gods, killing and exploiting each other, bad deeds, more bad deeds, naughtiness, mischief, sin, sin, more sin, blah, blah, blah – God still showed up for the nation and redeemed them. Even when they’d been overran by their enemies, He sent judges, prophets, kings, people who preached and led the nation in conviction and repentance. The nation of Israel has had more lives than the proverbial cat! Blind folk were given sight, illnesses were healed, dead people were made alive, the hungry were fed, the imprisoned were freed, the treacherous were rebuked, and the guilty were forgiven. God dealt justly, with mercy, and in love toward a fallen humanity. If He would do that for Abraham, for Israel, for all those people Jesus or the disciples encountered, maybe, I thought, just maybe the same would be true for me.

In the midst of those ruminations, another unpleasant conviction intruded. I was trying to figure out a place to start. A girl can’t do everything all at once, right? Gotta have a place to start. I was doing my standard thing of reading and meditating and asking God for enlightenment when I ran across a verse that made my priorities pretty clear, good ol’ Matthew 22:37. That’s the one that tells us all that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. It’s repeated (for emphasis, I suppose) several times, starting in Deuteronomy and continuing into the New Testament. The terrific thing was that this certainly gave me a place to start. Jesus called it the greatest commandment, and it simply doesn’t get more explicit than that. You might was as well have a big, flashing, neon sign (burning bushes are so O.T. and B.C.) saying, “START HERE.”

The rotten bit, though, was that not only did it emphasize my troubles with love in general, it showed me yet another area where I was miserably failing. I was still looking at life as a performance. That “outward appearance” that man looks at was my yardstick, what I used to evaluate life, my life, other people’s lives, and God Himself. I didn’t have another metric to use, and I didn’t understand how limited my perspective was. This verse about the importance of loving God helped provide illumination for me. God looks at the heart, right? Oh, yeah, God looks at the heart. Crap.

I thought I might be able to put up a decent display of loving God with what I did and what I thought, but my heart? Uh, er… um… I was uncomfortably aware, horridly so, that my heart was an unplumbed, untrustworthy depth. I mean, hey, I was well informed about the state of human hearts. Jeremiah wrote that those hearts are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). I only had to recite that verse a dozen times or so throughout my school years. Not only had I recited it, I knew I’d seen some evidence of that in my own life, with maleficent motivations popping up to reach out and smash someone. That seemed like wickedness to me. Besides all that, I’d grown up with a definite need to protect myself. I’d learned to bury myself deep and wear a thick armor, to protect myself and to protect others from the angry, frightened, hurting mess that lived at my core. I’d buried it so deep I but rarely felt it or much of anything. I lived within armor that was both protection and prison. How in the world was I supposed to love God from there? I wasn’t even sure anything still existed where my heart supposedly dwelt.

I really wasn’t liking myself much those days. I was in a heck of a mess, and I couldn’t even blame God. Lame!

Faith – What Happened Next

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you! My paint dried perfectly, and I no longer have black stripes, spots, or other marks decorating my skin. Having placed the endcap on my counter, the set of shelves is now comfortably placed and stocked at the end of the counter. I’ve got a wine bottle rack I purchased at Ikea that I’d like to get installed next. I’m not sure that’s going to happen today, though. Mom and Stephanie are headed out of town for an Oregon FFA event. Stephanie is campaigning to be elected as a state officer, and here’s hoping that she gets it! Vote for Stephanie! Anyway, that means I’ve got Kimberly and Kalyn here to help me this afternoon, and I have to do things like feed the little monsters so that they don’t really turn into monsters. We’re going to make some dinner and brownies (*Shhh! Don’t tell Carey! It’s a surprise!) and, with any luck, have a grand time working and laughing together.

Moving along to write what promises to be another lengthy post, mostly because I yammer on about what I’m doing at home to help ground myself, I was writing about the solid beginning of my faith. I’d like to continue that story today. It’s one I’ve told many times to many different people, so chances are that you’ve heard it, but it’s a pretty standard part of my introduction. I tell it because I want people to know that it’s important to me, and I tell it because remembering where I came from and how I got here is good for me. Why do I think the way that I do? Why do I see life as I do? Why do I believe and live the way that I do? A good part of those whys come from the experiences I’ve had and the choices that I’ve made in my past. Nearly twenty years ago, I chose to become the person I am today, and every day since then, my choices, however deliberately or carelessly made, have supported or undermined that choice. My story is not about what happened to me. My story is about what I have done, and I have done it because God is real and is true to His Word and Himself.

What did I choose? I chose to admit that I didn’t know. I chose to admit that I wanted more than I could get on my own. I chose to seek. I chose faith. At the time, I don’t think I would have called it faith. I was angry, I was frightened, and I didn’t like at all that what I’d thought was true was without substance, so I rounded on the void of the great unknown and defiantly begged for more. But it was faith. Angry and desperate it may have been, but the very desire I had to know if God was for real or just more crap was evidence of something beyond me, of something beyond this world, of eternity at work unseen. I had to know, and I challenged God to prove it by changing my life. I didn’t want Him to make my life all better and give me everything I ever wanted. No, I wanted something a lot more difficult. I wanted an internal makeover. I wanted to Him to change who I was inside and make me a person who authentically and demonstrably belonged to Him. I wanted reformation, renewal, transformation!!! of my soul. If that didn’t happen, I was going to call Him a liar (which He would be, because He makes a lot of promises about new life in His Word) and move on.

It began simply. I admitted that I didn’t have what I needed and couldn’t get it myself. I asked God for help. I dug more deeply into the Bible with an eye to learn what should be present in my life and what I should expect of God and myself. I meditated on it while I was working and about my day. I would ask God what something meant and to bring clarity and understanding. I was convicted, and the cycle would begin again, where I was admitting that I didn’t have what I needed. I had a lot to learn.

See, I knew how to behave well. I did a pretty good job of being a good girl, but it was a layer. It didn’t go all the way through me, and I behaved because I was made to and generally because of fear or a desire to show off. I was all about the performance. I knew the verses, I had the grades, perfect attendance was mine, and I was a “good” kid. But what I didn’t know, what put my performance to utter shame, was, in a word, love.

I Corinthians 13:1-3 (courtesy of Bible Gateway)

1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Do you know what this means? It means that what I can do and what I can know is so much garbage without love. It doesn’t matter how perfectly or powerfully I perform, it is noise without meaning. It does not make me a better person. I am still the same nothing I was before the performance, and the bottom line is that I have gained nothing. Love is that essential. Do you know what this did to my self-esteem? Bad things, let me tell you – I felt pretty worthless, which made made me more angry and desperate and inclined to scream at God. Fortunately, this is not the end of my story.

It’s just the end of this post. 😀

 

Almost. Funny story at the end.

 

* I have this sneaky streak, which won’t surprise most anyone who knows me. Last night at dinner, I wanted to make sure that the rottentots had plenty to be excited over today. I pulled them in close and said in a confidential manner, “Can you keep a secret? You can’t tell Carey!” Their eyes got big, and they assured me of their ability to keep it quiet. “Okay,” I told them. “We’re going to make brownies for dessert. Won’t that be good? Don’t you think Carey will like that?” They got all kinds of excited, Kimberly told me we should have them with ice cream, and they solemnly promised not to spoil the surprise for Carey.

Here’s the deal, though 😀 : Carey came home last night after they went to bed, and she didn’t see them this morning before they left for school. Barring something unusual, I knew last night they wouldn’t see her to spoil the surprise! They get to be excited about knowing a secret, Carey gets a chocolate surprise, and I get to sit back and snicker over how well I managed all that.

Faith – A Beginning

I have black spots and stripes all over my hands and arms. My day’s project is to get a set of shelves I finished building a week or two ago painted, and since I have a couple more coats of paint to add, it seems a bit silly to invest much effort into scrubbing away the current set of marks. In about three hours, I’ll be collecting another set of them.

I like chores such as painting. The work itself isn’t highly entertaining, but covering wood and catching drips doesn’t require much thought, either. That leaves my mind free to consider other things without the distraction of my body’s boredom and restlessness. Up, down, add more paint, whoops – too much, and my mind leaves enough attention to do a good job before wandering off to ponder, remember, pray, and dream. It seems to air out and somehow renew my soul. It did this morning. My thoughts turned to faith.

Recently, I picked up A.W. Tozer’s The Divine Conquest and began reading it. I’ve only read the preface and into the second chapter, and thus hesitate to say that I know what the book is all about. However, in the first chapter, Tozer is arguing that Christianity is more than an “intellectual assent” to a set of truths and requires experience with a Person, with God Himself. One section was interesting enough to me that I read it to Carey this morning as she was drying her hair. Tozer said:

Is it not true that for most who call ourselves Christians there is no real experience? We have substituted theological ideas for an arresting encounter; we are full of religious notions, but our great weakness is that for our hearts there is no one there.

Whatever else it embraces, true Christian experience must always include a genuine encounter with God. Without this, religion is but a shadow, a reflection of reality, a cheap copy of an original once enjoyed by someone else of whom we have heard. It cannot but be a major tragedy in the life of any man to live in a church from childhood to old age and know nothing more real than some synthetic god compounded of theology and logic, but having no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and no heart to love (11-12).

To the best of my knowledge, what Tozer says is true. Certainly my own life has shown it to be truth. I grew up in church, started out in conservative Baptist churches, and those churches together with private school and Awana did a good job of making me familiar with the Bible. Those three institutions preached the Bible, taught the Bible, studied the Bible, read the Bible, memorized the Bible… By the time I finished high school, I’d read through the entire Bible more than once and could quote more than a thousand of its verses. I am so grateful for that exposure. I’d not have the faith, the relationship with God that I do today without it. All that knowledge has been immensely helpful to me.

But, but… during high school, I had an experience that jarringly demonstrated of how little worth all that knowledge was on its own. My father rushed to the front door, paused with his hand on the doorknob, looked across the room into my terrified, confused eyes, and said, “I’m going to kill your grandfather.” He did leave and attack my grandfather. After that, my mom packed us up, and we left home for a couple, three months. I am sure that for any one, this would have been a horrible shock. It was for us, for me. I didn’t know what to think, and I suddenly wasn’t sure I had any idea about what was true.

You see, it wasn’t just the people at church, school, and Awana who offered Christian knowledge. My dad had been the most influential purveyor of it in my life. He insisted that the family be Christian. We had home Bible studies, had the, um, privilege of listening to whatever sermons or teachings my dad was currently finding interesting (maybe that’s why I just do not like audio teachings), and were sometimes tasked with copying scripture as punishment for misdoings. Thanks to all that, I had a pretty good idea of what sort of behavior God (and therefore my dad) expected, and I tried to measure up to it.

But you see, thanks to all that, I had a pretty good idea of what sort of behavior God expected, and attempted murder was definitely a no-no. My dad was massively failing at meeting God’s demands. The more I looked at what I knew from the Bible and how my dad behaved, the greater my conflict became, because I knew from reading the Bible that certain types of behavior were supposed to become more evident and not less as time went by. There was supposed to be this change. The fruits of the Spirit and love were supposed to be growing and obvious, but that is not what my dad was demonstrating. His behavior was wrong – it was evil.

I started to get angry with him, and then this horrible, horrible, revealing question floored me. “What makes you any different?” While I was still cross-eyed from that blow, another one hit. “How do you that you are saved?” I was jumping through the same sorts of hoops that my dad was. I was doing the same kinds of good things. I couldn’t see anything that made me different from Dad, and I was not at all sure that all I knew was enough for me be certain of my own salvation. My religion was exactly as described by Tozer, “a copy” full of “theological ideas” and “religious notions,” but I didn’t know God as a Person.

At this point in my development, I didn’t know that I needed to know God as a Person. What I knew was that what I was doing was not enough. In fact, I knew that no matter how I tried, it was NEVER going to be enough. There was no safety in it, no certainty but a future full of attempts and failures with no real change, progress, or power. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted more. I wanted to be somebody who grew, whose religion was real, and that desperate desire shoved me away from my own behavior and knowledge of God to seeking to know God Himself.

Hm, looks like my paint is drying well! I’ll chat with you later.