Monday, September 26, 2011

12.26.10 A Violent Grace

The night before Christmas Eve, I decided to re-watch The Passion of the Christ.  I was inspired by Chris' message the previous Sunday in church, in which he reminded us that the birth of Christ is meaningless without his death (and resurrection).

I remember when I first saw The Passion, in the movie theater.  I had expected to be more distraught at the brutal violence, more in tears at the close of the film.  Instead, I was moved to pray for the Christians around the world who don't have access to a Bible.  Throughout the movie, as I watched the actors play out scenes from Jesus' life, I was moved to thankfulness that I had access to such an epic visual experience.  I praised God that I could pick up his Word, any time I wanted, to read the words of Christ, learn about his sufferings, and be encouraged by the early church (as well as our rich history before Christ).  My heart broke for the thousands of men and women who have devoted themselves to Jesus but possess no Bible, in many cases no community in the body, and who often face persecution and death as a result of their faith.  Having the privilege of not only regularly reading about Jesus but also watching his life on screen before me, I could only pray that my brothers and sisters would be encouraged by the Holy Spirit in ways I couldn't fathom. 

This time, sitting alone on my couch, having just wrapped Maren's Christmas gift, I had an entirely different reaction. 

I definitely experienced more emotion that night, whether because I am now a mother and richly felt the pain that Mary must have endured or because I myself am more emotionally healthy than I once was - or maybe, simply, because I was sitting in the privacy of my home, warm and safe, while I watched the most painful crime ever committed.  But more than that, one thought kept pounding through my head, a truth that made what I was watching even more difficult to bear - the fact that, at any moment, Jesus could have stopped what was happening to him.
It is one thing, from a human perspective, to realize that an innocent and gentle man was wrongfully accused and mistreated.  Even people who don't acknowledge Jesus as God, for the most part at least define him as a peaceful, loving, wise teacher.  I therefore must believe that anyone watching this movie would quickly surmise that Jesus did not deserve the punishment that was dealt him.  I believe that humans are wired to desire justice, that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, and that, as a result, we can watch The Passion and feel quite certain that we are witnessing an injustice.

But as a Christian, as a person who believes that Jesus created the world, that he was present in the fire that left 3 men unscathed, that he gave sight to the blind and even raised people from the dead - because I believe all this and trust in the almighty power of the Most High God - the sight of watching God himself, the God-in-human-form have his flesh ripped from his body is unbelievable.  It's preposterous.  It is utterly and radically...full of grace.

Jesus chose his suffering and had complete power over it.  He stood before sinful, violent, greedy, destructive men and did not defend himself.  He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross - so that I might have full and eternal peace with him, in this world and the next. 

Watching The Passion of the Christ put my life into perspective.  It made all the times I fought with my husband, all the times I was hurt by my partners in ministry, all the selfish desires I've ever had seem so meaningless and petty in light of my Lord.  Jesus came not only to reconcile me to him but also to bring peace to all my relationships.  The more that I allow his Spirit to invade my heart, the less I push for my way; the more I surrender to Christ, the less I take for myself.  And truly, the more joy I will have because I am living in unity with him rather than indulging my stupid flesh.

But this kind of life takes extreme humility, the kind that we humans are not prone to on our own.  This is why it is so important to continually preach the gospel to each other!  Please, dear friends, in the midst of shopping and cooking and cleaning and movie-watching and all the other cares of this world that so easily distract us, please consider Jesus.  Truly look on him and lean into his grace.  Enjoy him as your true satisfaction and give his grace freely to the rest of us.     

12.21.10 Having the (Homemaking) Heart of God (2010 Challenge #1)

I feel different this year.  "Different" in the more peaceful, joyful, content kind of way.  I actually feel like I changed this year. 

After I tried to post a summarized version of the ways and means of this change, I realized that some of these experiences need ample room for themselves.  I hope you can find some inspiration, too!

A Woman After God's Own Heart.  You may remember that I created a reading list for myself this year.  I only read 3 of the 10 planned books, as well as 3 that weren't on the original list.  Since I'm not an Achiever, I'm not at all bothered by this lack of completion.  The point is that I read something and that I allowed the Spirit of God to speak to me through those books.  Not by accident, a friend of mine happened to select one of my books for her reading list as well, so in February, we discussed Elizabeth George's A Woman After God's Own Heart.  Sparks flew!

This book typifies what I'd consider a fairly standard conservative Christian perspective.  The title suggests that any woman could read this with purpose but 97% of the material is geared towards marriage and parenting.  I feel that this implies that a woman cannot fully be close to God unless she is married and has kids.  Many of the author's encouragements could easily ride the line of legalism (i.e., if I don't do what she says, then I'm not a good Christian) and much of her hermeneutic [what the Bible means and how to use it] is flawed.  I completely understand why women would not like this book.

With that said, the Holy Spirit was hard at work on my heart during my reading.  I actually circled 4 chapters in the Table of Contents (those that dealt with a woman's home) and wrote in the margin, "Life Changing!".  I was convicted of my laziness and selfishness regarding the cleaning and beautifying of my home.  I had always used the excuse that I was not a good (thorough, attentive) cleaner and that I had so many other more important priorities to attend to, so it was ok that my home was not well maintained.  I considered this a permanent weakness, rather than something I could - like other weaknesses - turn over to God and have him change.
Here are some of the small nuggets that God used to encourage and empower me from this book -

every wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her own hands
(proverbs 14:1)
"building" my home = creating a safe space that strengthens and renews each family member
every day, I can do just one thing to improve my house; if all I do today is vacuum, it has made my house better than if I didn't do it.

[the excellent wife] watches over the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness (proverbs 31:27)
"watching" over my home = actively guarding, protecting, saving, and attending to what is precious to me
in all labor there is profit (proverbs 14:23) = Newton's 1st law of motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. = "KEEP MOVING".  In other words, as long as I am awake, I do something productive.   Often that means playing with Maren, but as it applies to my home, it means that if I see something that needs doing, I do it rather than idly pass it by.

what I am at home is what I am.
I was challenged to consider that how I manage my home reflects how I would manage 'bigger', 'more important' ministries that God would entrust to me.  Do I treat my responsibilities at home as character-building opportunities to bless my family and serve God?

Elizabeth George is far more detail- and plan-oriented than i will ever be.  But at the end of this section on homemaking, she shared 13 promises that she had made to God about the care of her home.  This inspired me to do the same - and I am going to share them here, because it helps me to remember how I felt back in March, when I wrote this.
  1. I will start each day thankful for the Lord's "new mercies" (Lamentations 3:23) which he affords me.
  2. I will "make the most of my time" (Ephesians 5:16) and "not eat the bread of idleness" (Proverbs 31:27)
  3. I will work diligently to help my husband in every way he needs.
  4. I will prepare healthy, delicious meals for my family and preserve mealtimes as special times for us.
  5. I will cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in my heart and home in order to provide a haven of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
  6. I will strive to keep a clean and orderly home.
  7. I will put my husband before my child(ren) and my family before everyone else.
  8. I will not lag behind in diligence but instead, be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, persevering in times of trial, devoting myself to prayer, giving to those in need, and practicing hospitality (Romans 12:11-13).
  9. I will discipline myself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7) and faithfully teach what is good (Titus 2:3).
  10. I will honor each member of my family in a fun, personal way that celebrates them and makes them feel loved.
  11. I will intimately acquaint myself with my husband and child(ren)'s strengths, gifts, and passions so that I can encourage them to pursue the abundant life God has prepared for them in Christ. 
With God's help, I am slowly keeping these promises and making them habits that glorify him and serve others.

12.13.10 Small and Simple

I am excitedly downsizing and simplifying our life as much as possible. 

My husband will kill me for saying this, but if I could, I would move out of our house and into an apartment RIGHT NOW!  I've realized, after five years of home ownership, that we are just not house people.  Don't get me wrong - my husband is incredibly handy and takes great pride in house projects.  I love having a full kitchen and a washer/dryer in it!  But the truth is, we don't spend time (and don't have the money for) improving our home or taking advantage of the property that we own.  I won't give examples at the risk of embarrassing ourselves but suffice it to say, we haven't done our neighborhood any favors by moving in. 

Before we bought our house, when we lived in apartments and friends' basements, we always acknowledged that most of the world had less space and raised more children in it than we ever would.  I long to return to the simplicity of a small space and the freedom from mortgages!  But since that won't happen any time soon, I am doing everything I can to live like I have less - because I need less!  Here are some examples:

Cleaning out every cupboard, closet, and corner.  I am slowly opening every hidden corner of my home to assess what's living in it.  Just because I have the room to store something doesn't mean I should.  Unused objects are being sold on Craigslist; useless objects are headed to the alley for free pick-up or to Savers.  So far, I've ditched my couch, bread machine, a rocking chair, deep fryer, and some toys.  And the list is still growing! 

Buy only what we need, when we need it.  I've instituted the "clean out" rule in my kitchen on a weekly basis when it comes to my fridge and my cupboards.  Rather than letting a partially stocked pantry or "empty" fridge spur me to another grocery run, I am challenging myself to use what we have before we buy more.  This weekend, when we were snowed in and I couldn't do my usual weekend shopping, I searched the back of our fridge and cupboards and created a meal based solely on what we had lying around - things I would normally have overlooked in order to restock.  When we do go shopping, I focus on the immediate: what do we need now?  This is a little harder in the winter (when it's annoying to go outside frequently!) but in general, I'm adjusting to short bursts of store trips, picking up necessities and completely using them before heading out again.  This fits well with my goal to walk or ride for all my shopping, as I'll have to carry less.

Recycle everything.  This is a simple rule: I'm trying not to buy Maren (or myself) anything new, and when we do acquire a new-to-us item, we must send something of ours off to a new owner.  This keeps our space usage at equilibrium and minimally contributes to the environmental, social, economic, and global issues surrounding how stuff is bought and sold.

Budget? Next on my list is creating and maybe actually sticking to a household budget.  This is harder because it involves the spouse, which means I start imposing (ahem, suggesting) my values to him...and hoping they stick.  We have agreed that we want to be more aggressive about paying down debt next year, so I think a budget is a close next (or necessary) step to making that happen.

What about you?  How do you live simply?   

12.08.10 Live Like a Local!

I'm not much of a structure-oriented person but I do like fresh starts.  I like the first of the month, the beginning of a new year, the transition between seasons.  I like CHANGE!  And I regularly implement newness into my life.

For 2011, I am pursuing a focus on "Local Living."  What does this mean? 

First, I am researching and planning visits to local farms.  I am excited to talk to the farmers, tour their land, meet their animals, and enter into some relationship between my family and what we eat.  I love food, and I believe that my body is sensitive, in a good and natural way, to the quality of what I feed it.  For example, I have never been able to stomach fast food, soda pop, or sweets (other than chocolate, of course).  But over the last couple years, I have had more interest in examining food labels, understanding how food is made, and researching how food gets from field to table.  I am currently reading three excellent books on this topic: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (a NY Times Book Review Top Ten books of 2010), as well as his Food Rules, and Barbara Kingsolver's autobiographical Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I have been inspired and convinced that the closer I can get to the actual place where my food is raised, the better it is for me, for the individual animal or plant, and for the entire natural world.

What really resonated with me is the fact that the majority of people who argue for a more local, environmentally- and animal-friendly food production are not God-fearing people.  They make an ethical argument from a biological and evolutionary standpoint.  If someone who does not believe in a creator can find moral conviction to care for land, animals, and their own bodies, then how much more so should I be doing likewise?  When I claim to follow a God who designed every species of plant and animal, who created these things for the good of the humans he also knit together, who created a world where we should all co-exist and mutually benefit one another -- how can I not find moral cause to take care with what I eat? 

In addition to local farms, I am planning a BIG garden of my own for produce and researching local grocery stores to determine where I can find the freshest, local-est, selection of non- or minimally-processed foods. 

But living locally goes beyond food.  I am also challenging myself to walk or ride (bikes or public transit) as often as possible.  One major reason I love living in the city is the ease and speed with which I can commute to every place I need.  Within 1 mile of my home is a library, 4 grocery stores, 2 post offices, 2 liquor stores, Target, my bank, Savers, lots of friends!, bus stops, and the light rail.  Yet I am such an incredible wimp during the long Minnesota winters that I neglect to take advantage of city living. 

My 2-year-old daughter has actually been the primary inspiration behind this change.  She loves being outside and taking walks; riding public transportation is an adventure for her.  She has no plans, no place she has to be, no sense of time.  So I am praying that I can take baby steps, along with her, to using my own two legs, getting some fresh air, and stepping onto public transit when necessary.  I think this will (a) allow me to feel more connected to the city and the people in it, (b) give me good exercise, (c) challenge me to buy only what I need (since I will have to carry it home by hand), and (d) provide ample quality time with Maren.

As I said, I like change, and the challenge to live locally will certainly require effort on my part.  I am excited to see what benefits come from it - and I would love to hear your stories or research of local living!  

12.02.10 The Return

I fell off the blog map from September through November because I was busy creating awesome art with Sandbox Theatre.  Rather than attempt to pick up where I left off, I thought I could start fresh this month and then give you the exciting conclusion to my conversion story...later. 

I have many thoughts and ideas to share!  But I thought I'd find out if anyone is actually still following this piece of the web, so I'm going to list my topics in no particular order and ask you to leave a comment, indicating which one(s) interest you (the faithful few).  This will give me an approximate goal to work towards when I write, as well as make me happy that someone wants to hear from me!

Some of these categories contain multiple subtopics, making for a potential series of posts -
  • On Being Labeled a "Hippie": my non-conformist thoughts on giving birth, education, cloth everything (including toilet paper), and the constant search to live simply and waste less
  • Events in 2010 that Inspired or Changed Me
  • 2011 Challenges:  my hopes for change next year and the research/plans I've begun to make towards them
  • Meditations for the Christmas Season
  • Things I Feel Guilty About
  • Gratitude
I'll start blogging as soon as I have even one response - so direct me today! 

08.31.10 Discovering Jesus Part 7: A Slap in the Face

Despite the fact that I was occassionally a jerk to my boyfriend, we were still mostly together when he graduated in the spring of 1999.  We decided to live together again that summer, a sort of last hurrah before I returned to school in the fall and we permanently broke up.  He would spend the first half of the summer out of town in Connecticut, training for his new corporate job, so I was a secure roommate taking care of our Minneapolis apartment.  I was hired by ACR Homes, an organization assisting people with disabilities to have independent living situations.

I should have known that God was out to get me when I interviewed - and was subsequently placed - at a high-functioning home directed by a Christian woman.  Apparently, a high percentage of PCAs are Christians. But it wasn't until the end of my first week on the job, while I was innocently watching a training video, a co-worker entered the house, introduced himself as Mike and headed into the kitchen - then, my world irrevocably changed.

As a logical person, I cannot believe in 'love at first sight.'  But as a Christian, I absolutely believe that the Spirit of God affects powerful and immediate conviction.  And from the moment I met Mike, I was drawn to him.  I was physically attracted to him, yes, but there was something else that made me want to know him, to be around him, a something that I couldn't name but instantly recognized.  And so I unabashedly pursued him.  He made it clear to me that our lives were not even close to running in the same direction, given that he was a Bible-believing Jesus-lover and I was an athiest living with my boyfriend.  But he agreed to hang out with me at Perkins most nights when we got off of work, and he always had his Bible with him, ready for any debate that I initiated. 

[insert now-husband's brief background:]
Michael had been working for ACR for over a year when Nicole started.  This was an unheard-of length of time for the home in which we worked, which boasted 2 extremely difficult residents.  And although Michael wanted to leave, he felt that God was keeping him in this place.  When he met Nicole, he claims to not have been attracted to her.  He asserts that he befriended her simply because he realized that she was the reason God had kept him in this job - that God wanted Michael to tell Nicole all about him.

Even though I had never been interested in God, I found myself asking and challenging Michael about his beliefs whenever we were together.  He was simultaneously the most inviting and the most formidable Christian that I had ever met.  He was completely unfazed by my mockery of his faith, by my insults to his intelligence, and by my dismissal of his religion.  In fact, he not only had a calm, well-thought out answer for every one of my remarks, but he also threw my questions right back at me.  It was the first time that anyone had ever challenged me to explain my views.

Essentially, Michael commanded my respect.  Even though I radically disagreed with him, I found him to be wise, kind, analytical, and humble.  He was extremely confrontational with me, but in a way that communicated care.  

And about 4 weeks after we met, two unbelievable events forever changed my course.

The first was a normal night for us, although for some reason Michael had come over to my apartment (obviously, my boyfriend was still out of town).  We had stepped into the kitchen and suddenly, we were facing each other, about 2 feet apart.  Michael looked straight into my eyes and began speaking with conviction...and he didn't stop for an entire 60 minutes.  We were rooted in position, standing close, eyes locked, and Michael spoke with the power of God.  I can't explain it any other way.  I only remember one thing he said - "Nicole, you are letting Satan run your life and you are heading straight to hell."*  But I will never forget how I felt while I was listening to him.  It was like a holy slap in the face.  I felt like someone else was in the room with us, controlling Michael's mouth and speaking through him.  And when he was done, he leaned over, put his head down, and exhaled this huge breath, like he was exhausted.  He looked up at me and said, "I hope you know that it wasn't just me speaking to you just now."  And I did know.  I didn't understand, I had no idea that the Holy Spirit worked like that, but I knew that I had just witnessed something bigger than Michael and me.

The second event - was the night we kissed.     

07.26.10 Discovering Jesus Part 6: From MN to Ireland to PA

I spent January of my sophomore year at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland.  I lived in a hostel near the school that month, along with other students from various colleges across the U.S, including a small group from the Christ-centered Messiah College (PA).  I thoroughly enjoyed my time training as a performer, the short-term friendships made with this random assortment of peers (even the Christians), and, in particular, the adventures I shared with one young man from Messiah College.  I felt such a kinship with him, in fact, that I spent my spring break of that year visiting him in Pennsylvania.

I chose to spend my one-week vacation on a Christian college campus, and this is where I first experienced Christ in community.

Those seven days were surprising, surreal, and yet, totally comfortable for me.  I spent most of my time with the two young women in whose dorm room I slept, in addition to meals with my friend and his girlfriend.  They were all looking forward to getting together with a few other friends, one girl in particular, at the end of the week.  They spoke about this girl in admiring tones; it was obvious that they all held her in high esteem.  I, of course, was invited to attend the gathering, though I had no idea what the night would entail.

So the night before I left, about 7 or 8 college students met in the dorm room where I was staying.  The young woman whose appearance was so highly anticipated had brought a video of a dance performance (that I think she had danced?) during an Easter service.  We watched the video, which didn't impress me, but which obviously moved the rest of the group.  Then slowly, seamlessly, my friend and another guy started softly playing their guitars.  Before I realized it, this small group of Christians was singing love songs to Jesus.  Nothing was planned, no one explained that this was the next part of the evening; the two guys didn't have sheet music or consult with one another.  But somehow, they were playing together, and everyone was singing, their eyes closed and their hearts completely focused on worshiping God.  I had no idea what was happening, but suddenly, I was crying. 

It was the strangest experience.  Part of me was hurt, wondering why they all thought this was an appropriate way to spend their last night with me.  But most of me was in awe of what I was witnessing.  Obviously, something was going on at a deeper level than I could understand, as I couldn't explain why I was so moved to tears.  And this girl, this leader who they all respected, sat down next to me.  She told me that Jesus was in that room with us, and that he wanted me to open up my heart to him.

I know this sounds like the classic, cheesy Christian evangelism that modern secular movies love to mock, but in that moment, I wasn't offended or humored by her directness.  I recognized the sincerity of her faith and her care for me.  But I was totally confused by the experience.  I had no concept of God at that point in my life.  I certainly didn't think of Jesus as this personal figure who had an individual interest in me, and I had never heard about the work of the Holy Spirit.  So her invitation to accept Jesus into my life came way out of left field to me.  I just had no construct, no context, and, as I told her, I had no reason to "believe" in Jesus.

She didn't push it, and soon after she returned to her seat, the evening shifted again.  No one was visibly (or verbally) directing the group, but in a moment, everyone's hands were touching one person, and people began to pray for him or her. Even though I had never seen anything like this, I sat with the group and touched the person of the moment.  When it came to my friend, I even said something like a prayer over him!

I shake my head in disbelief as I remember this night, now 11 years ago.  I literally walked into a worship service, a mini-church of young people singing psalms of praise, lifting holy hands, and encouraging one another in prayer and the laying on of hands.  I didn't know it then, of course, but God was chasing after me!  I had locked God away in a very small box so many years before, hidden and forgotten.  But he had not forgotten me.  That event, on a college campus in March, unknowingly prepared me for the life-changing choice I would make just 4 months later.   

07.10.10 Discovering Jesus Part 5: False Redemption

In the spring of my freshman year of college, I read How Could You Do That?! as part of an Ethics class.  Written by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the book expands on the many calls she receives on her radio show and her swift judgments regarding the bad behavior of these guests.  While I'm not necessarily recommending the book, I vividly recall a short section near the end that dramatically ended my 3-month depression and sexual escapism. 

A fan had written to Dr. Laura expressing regret over his lifestyle but not knowing how to make a change.  Her response to him was simple: just because you have made a bad choice does not mean you need to continue to make that choice.  After reading this common sense advice, I went straight to my boyfriend and told him that I could not continue having sex with him.  He didn't hesitate, and from that moment on, we never approached that line again.

In fact, we lived together that summer in Chicago.  Slept in the same bed.  Every night.  But no sex.

In some ways, it was as if it had never happened.  It was amazingly easy to stop.  I felt like our relationship was strong, to have ridden such a ride in less than a year but to have come out on the other end still together, and in love.

Unfortunately, I realized that summer that I no longer wanted to be in the relationship.  We had successfully navigated through a difficult past but I could see that we were headed into two very different future directions.  He was driven to move up the corporate ladder, to have an impressive job that demanded long hours but was financially rewarding.  I wanted to join the Peace Corps.  We didn't discuss these glaring contradictions that summer, but when we returned to school in the fall, I started pulling away.  I treated him terribly.  I did everything I could to get him to break up with me.

Because even though I knew that we didn't have a future, I stayed because of our past.  I stayed because I had given him something that I had intended only for my future husband, and since I couldn't get it back, I felt I could redeem myself by marrying him.  My second year of college was even more confusing and destructive than the first, as I wouldn't let my boyfriend off the hook by leaving him but gave him no good reason to stay together.  He forgave me countless transgressions and killed me with his kindness. 

In January of my second year, I went to Ireland.  And the game changed again.

06.29.10 Discovering Jesus Part 4: Shame

My freshman year of college changed everything.  For the first month of school, I never slept in my dorm room.  I am still not quite sure how this happened, but I usually ended up sleeping in bed with one of the sophomore guys on the first floor.  A different guy each night.  And, just sleeping.  Not sex.  Weird.  I can only imagine what people were thinking and saying about me.

Soon enough, though, I started dating an upperclassman, and I was able to sleep over at his place most of the time.  I had made it very clear to him that I was not interested in having sex, but he helped me push the pre-sex boundaries further than any guy I had dated in the past.  It happened quickly and it was exhilarating.  Unlike high school boyfriends, this man was very giving and very focused on me when it came to our physical relationship.  He easily expressed his love with both words and actions.  I felt adored, admired, and very excited about exploring physical intimacy.

So it should be no surprise that we ended up having sex.  I had heard people describe sexual encounters as "it just happened" but I always doubted that excuse.  Until "it just happened" to me.  We didn't plan it, hadn't talked about it, weren't prepared (as in, protection).  We were just fooling around as usual and suddenly it was actual intercourse.  Suddenly I was no longer the virgin I had planned to be until my wedding night.  I freaked out.

I went to the doctor to have an exam and go on birth control so that I'd be ready for what I expected to be a regular sexual relationship.  And then I learned that, in that one unthinking and sudden experience, I had contracted HPV.  My boyfriend had only been with one woman before me, and he told me he was clean (we had had this discussion long before we had sex, so pregnancy had been my only worry after that night).  I had never even heard of HPV at that time, although it was the most rampant STD.  The problem is that HPV is not necessarily active in the people who are infected; someone can carry the virus but not be affected by it, so a test would show up negative.  And it is (was?) impossible to test for HPV in men at all - it only affects women when active.  So it can easily spread through hundreds of people and only show up on just one.

My boyfriend and I shed alot of tears over this revelation.  He was genuinely distraught that he had not only 'taken' my virginity but also given me a disease.  A disease about which I now had to call my parents and tell them that their insurance was going to pay to surgically remove.

For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed.  This was the first time that I felt like I had not lived up to my own standards of goodness.  I was deeply disappointed in myself and actually afraid to face my future husband.  While my parents and I had butted heads over the years, I never felt like I had done something to let them down until I had that conversation about contracting an STD.

So in the sixth month of my freshman year of college, I became depressed.  I didn't recognize it at the time because I buried myself in sex.  But I didn't know myself any more, and I didn't trust myself, and I thought I would feel better if I just kept doing the very thing that had started the whole mess.  I was with a good guy who loved me, and it was easier to escape into physical experience than to address the emotional scars.  

06.10.10 Discovering Jesus Part 3: False Humility

I have always had an obsession with suffering and death.  Or, more accurately, I have, from a young age, always been keenly aware that every day, around the world, people are suffering and dying.  I don't know how this happened, as my parents have never left the U.S. and weren't the type to say "eat your vegetables because some kid in Africa is starving." 

But the plight of those less fortunate than I was a constant force affecting my daily choices.  I remember a conversation with a friend, around age 10, in which I explained that I felt a responsibility to live a good life (i.e., do good things) because I had been given privileges that so many of those suffering and dying people had not.  I had rejected the Catholic religion, but decided that I could prove that someone could be a good person without God.

I am not a people-pleaser, so this choice to do good was supremely selfish and ultimately arrogant.  I wanted to show off what a good person I was so that others could see how useless a god was and be impressed with me.  There is a twisted irony that, in my pursuit of doing good - of attempting to demonstrate how humble, kind, generous, etc. I was - I was actually puffing my ego up and considering myself that much better than everyone else, especially those weak people who needed God.

My pride was compounded by the fact that most of my friends considered themselves Christians, yet their behaviors did not reflect Christian values.  In high school, I never drank alcohol, and, even though I fooled around with my share of guys, I was staunchly specific that I would remain a virgin until my wedding night.  So I often found myself the designated driver or save-my-girlfriend-from-rape at parties.  I was impacted by all my 'Christian' friends who were getting plastered or having sex, all the while claiming faith in a God I was pretty sure did not approve of these acts, while I found it so easy to avoid such mistakes.

I graduated from high school certain that I was going to change the world with my resolute virtue and good deeds.  But just a few months after I started college, my entire world was rocked.     

06.03.10 Discovering Jesus Part 2: Hypocrisy

One thing that I really admire about how my parents raised us kids is their unity in decisions.  In my house, we could never get around the decision of one parent by approaching the other; we knew that what Mom said, Dad held to, and vice versa. 

Perhaps because of their consistent solidarity, it was all the more noticeable that Dad did not attend mass with us, except at Christmas and Easter.  My parents fully agreed to raise us in the Catholic tradition, and my father would never let me get out of going to any religious activity that my mother deemed necessary, but his absence spoke volumes more than his verbal assent.  If Dad didn't need God, then why did I?  Once I was considered old enough to responsibly sit in mass without any parental supervision, my parents would send me along without either of them.  By then it seemed clear to me that religion was a bunch of rules my parents wanted me to follow but which they themselves had no use for.  That ticked me off. 

I also attended CCD (Catholic education classes once per week), where I learned the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith.  I was a good student, and I always knew the right answers.  But I knew nothing about God.  I never thought about him, except when forced to listen to sermons or lessons that taught about God's greatness and my terribleness.  I would sit in mass, hearing about how right Jesus was and feeling like he was kind of stuck up.  Not the kind of guy I'd want to hang out with. 

Even more than that, though, was the incredible disconnect between what I was being told God wanted from people and what my family was actually like.  I distinctly remember being in 1st or 2nd grade and feeling confused about why my parents wanted me to learn anything about God at all.  I just didn't understand what value they saw in pretending to believe in a god that obviously did not exist.  If God was so powerful, then why did my mom worry so much?  If God was so loving, then why couldn't my parents express their love to me? 

I remember telling my mother, sometime around the age of 7, that I didn't believe in this god that the Catholic church talked about and that I no longer wanted to attend mass.  She was shocked, upset, and, I am certain, quite angry with me.  Even though it seemed to me that my mom didn't have any use for God, she clearly expected me to continue the church-going tradition and keep up the appearance of obedience to religion.  She told me that I had to go to church until I was confirmed (in 8th grade); after that, she said, the choice would be mine.  This deal only furthered the hypocrisy I sensed - what was the point of getting confirmed (expressing my assent to the Catholic faith) if (a) I knew I didn't actually believe it and (b) I knew I'd leave the church right after the ceremony? 

But that was the rule, and I had no choice but to follow it.  So I spent the next 6 or 7 years acting like the perfect Catholic student and all the while laughing in the face of God.

05.19.10 Discovering Jesus Part 1: What Came Before

I'd like to share the journey that brought me to Jesus.  I'm going to make this a series of small posts so that I can more deeply reflect on this experience for myself, and I hope you can enjoy the ride with me. 

I usually start my story with my declaration, sometime around the age of 7, that I did not believe in God.  But this conclusion was reached, in part, because of the spiritual heritage of those who came before me.  My parents never shared many details of their childhoods, but I intuited enough to understand that it was pretty strict, rules-based, and religion-focused.  My father's parents are Greek Orthodox, fresh from Greece, and my mother's parents are Irish-Italian Catholics.  While those denominations have a fair share of differences, the practical outworking was similar: one of law, fear, and 'doing the right thing'.  Religion was more about belonging to an ethnic community that did good works rather than experiencing a personal relationship with God. 

My father left his home and his religion to marry my mom (his parents did not attend their wedding, nor his funeral almost 8 years ago).  They never let him - or my mom, or any of us grandkids - forget this abomination.  Every single memory I have of my paternal grandparents is one of them openly criticizing my mother, in front of her and all of us.  In fact, when my family moved from New Jersey to Iowa, our last visit with my dad's parents (who live in New York City) was very bitter.  My grandmother hugged me before I left and said that she hoped that someday I would walk out on my parents and betray them as much as they had done to my grandparents.     

We saw my maternal grandparents more frequently, but my memories are not much more positive.  Before and during every visit, my mother would threaten us kids not to embarrass her or indicate in any way that we were less than perfect children.  Being 5 kids of Greek-Italian-Irish heritage, this was essentially impossible.  I grew up believing that my dad's parents hated my mom, and my mom's parents thought little of us, all because no one was "good enough" to please the other.   

This is my spiritual heritage, and it presents an authoritarian god.  A god who disapproves of wrong actions to the point of condemnation.  A god who should be feared and obeyed, at all costs.  If this is what God is like, then it is no surprise that the adults in my family were so unhappy and so angry all the time.  And it explains why, even at a very young age, I had serious doubts that this was a God worth following.      

04.19.10 Taking Responsibility

In the inner recesses of my heart, I am a complainer.  I naturally want everything done my way all the time, every time.  So I inwardly grumble when the people and the situations around me don't comply with my wishes [i.e., when things go wrong and I just "know" it would have gone better had it been done my way].

But I hold back my complaints most of the time because I am a leader.  Leaders who complain are not useful, because they do not set the necessary example of taking action about the problem.  Gandhi urged us to "be the change you want to see", and we would progress much more quickly towards the goal of a better world if we heeded this advice.

The problem is, it's incredibly difficult to take responsibility for making improvements.  I have been in leadership and in ministry long enough to know that every person wants the other individual/group/organization to do the changing, as if that one person has all the flaws that make it difficult to remain in partnership.  If only he would do this... and so the complaint continues, and the finger is never turned around and pointed right at the heart of the complainer. 

The cycle spirals out from our intimate relationships into our neighborhoods, our church community, our city, our country...if only "the other" would do something differently, then we'd all be so much better off.  But the fact is, we are "the other" to everyone else.  People want us to change just as much as we wish it on them.  And someone has to act first.  Someone has to voice the underlying discontent - in a respectful, constructive, and open-minded way.  And that someone better be armed with a load of ideas on how to resolve the issue - because complaining outwardly is no more helpful than remaining silent if some suggestion for improvement and willingness to pursue change doesn't accompany the grievance. 

The interesting challenge here is that, in order to stop blaming "the other" for our less-than-desirable circumstances, we have to actually start the hard work of changing ourselves.  Responsible individuals are intentional about honest reflection and personal transformation.  Being responsible to God, and to one another, requires us to consider ourselves with sober judgment (Rom 12:3), to use our time wisely (Eph 5:16), and to do everything we possibly can to build up the people around us (Eph 4:15-16).  It means loving people where they are but pushing them to be even better, starting first with ourselves.

When I am faced with a person or a situation that is less than ideal, I first ask: is the problem with "the other" or with me?  In other words, is there any objective truth that should compel the other to change or is it simply a matter of my preference?  If the issue lies with me, then I must decide whether it is important enough to present, if I need to move on (leave the person or circumstance), or if I must simply drop it.  And if I drop it, it must be dropped [I must truly be able to let it go].  If however, I am bound by scripture or by conscience to urge change, then I must be willing to commit to see the change through.  I must do my part, which is often painful, hard work because it requires me to forgive, to be generous, to be patient, and, quite often, to change something about myself as well.

So - what have you complained about recently?  And what are you going to do about it?

04.10.10 Faith Matters Part 3: Love Jesus

Knowing the bible is important.  Thinking critically about theology, social issues, and practical applications is important.  But at the end of the day, Christians must love the Christ. 

This should be self-evident, but following Jesus and loving Jesus, in our post-Christian, post-modern, pluralist society, are no longer inextricably linked.  Today, anyone can be a follower of Jesus.  Any peace-spouting, love-thy-neighbor-toting, self-sacrificing athiest can consider himself a follower of Jesus, if following Jesus means liking (most of) what he said.  One doesn't have to be a Christian to appreciate Jesus' teachings or to attempt to imitate his life.  You can follow Jesus with your head - intellectually assent to his wisdom - without ever changing your heart.     

To love Jesus, however, involves an entirely different level of devotion, of obedience, of self-denial, and of worship.  To love Jesus is to delight in him, have a passion for him, derive pleasure from him; to savor him, to adore him, to serve him.  Loving Jesus is hard because it requires us to stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on him.  Put another way, following Jesus involves the choices that we make, emphasizes the responsibility that we have; but loving Jesus is solely centered on worshiping who he is. 

A Christian must love Jesus more than she loves herself. 

This means loving Jesus more than we love being right.  More than we love our own preferences, our own opinions, our own judgment on how we think the world (and God) should work.  We need to love Jesus - his words and his ways - more than we love what we want. 

Too many Christians think that they are loving Jesus when they criticize his church, his beloved bride and his very body.  We think we are loving Jesus when we observe the letter of the law and forget about his spirit.  We convince ourselves we love Jesus even while we ignore his commands in order to live according to the world's wisdom.  We think we love Jesus when we do good works and yet, avoid our own sin.

Christians, do you truly love Jesus?  Is he your first love?  Do you prize him more than yourself and your ways?  Is it more important to know him than to know any other thing?  Is it your determined purpose to know Jesus, that you may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of his person more strongly and more clearly, that you may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from his resurrection, so that you may so share his sufferings as to be continually transformed in spirit into his likeness, even to His death (Philippians 3:10)?   

How I pray that this is your prayer!  For Christians who love Jesus are more powerful than a thousand armies, or governments, or peace-loving followers, because those Christians are fully submitted to Christ, and it is HE who is at work in them, rather than their own flesh.  Reading the bible is nothing without the love of Christ; knowing how to argue well is nothing without the love of Christ.  As the apostle Paul said, "knowledge makes us arrogant, but love edifies"; and again, "If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing.  If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love." (both quotes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church).

Let us remember, not only to love as we want to be loved, but to bury ourselves in love with Jesus. 

04.01.10 Faith Matters Part 2: Think Critically

In addition to not taking the bible seriously, modern day western Christians also fail to think critically about most issues.  I think this is actually a cultural problem, in which we are not teaching young people how to think for themselves.  Instead, we attempt to cajole, persuade, or force others to agree with our viewpoint, and rather than learn how to have an intelligent debate, most people simply react (often emotionally) and choose the opposite stance, with little support or rationale. 

With Christians, the issue is compounded because when a Christian does not take her bible seriously - does not read it for herself, does not ask the Holy Spirit to give her wisdom and understanding - then she is at danger of simply following what someone else tells her to believe or blindly rejecting anything that doesn't agree with her (emotional) opinions.  This is why so many Christians in the USA can come to associate Jesus with a political party and why so many accept a watered down gospel.     

So I want to take a moment to urge everyone to re-think how you take in, digest, and spit information (particularly theological information) back out.  When you read a book, listen to a speaker, or engage in conversations --
  • Acknowledge your biases.  It is impossible to approach any issue objectively.  We're human, and our minds, hearts, and life experiences predispose us to interpret what other people say through our own subjective lens.  God is the only perfectly objective being in existence, and he created the absolute truth that we are striving to know.  But this means that we must leave room for being wrong in our understanding.  When we listen to others' opinions, we must be aware of how our internal prejudices are filtering their words and check ourselves to make sure that we truly understand what the other is saying before we respond to it.  And we must do the best we can to evaluate how our biases affect our reactions.  
  • Recognize the other's biases.  Whether or not the author/speaker will admit it, he, too, is communicating through a subjective lens.  The more we can understand what has shaped another's opinion, the more we can evaluate the directions and degrees to which his interpretations are affected.  We can also try to judge how much the person has attempted to move away from his subjectivity and how cricitically he has assessed his own situation.  For example, when I hear someone speak on women's issues, and she begins her message with a lengthy exposition on the (perceived) oppression she was subjected to as a young woman, and she continues to use only emotional language to describe her current perspective, I have a difficult time giving her argument weight.  She wants to move her audience to sympathy over her past and then use the wrongdoing of others to justify the opposing position.  I can validate her unfortunate experiences without accepting her extremely subjective conclusion.
  • Listen to all sides of the issue.  There are at least two sides to every issue, and one can usually find intelligent folk who ascribe to both.  If we only listen to those with whom we already agree, then we fail to recognize our own weaknesses (which are many).  I find that it is helpful to regularly engage with respectful and insightful opponents, because I am challenged to defend my position and also to more seriously consider theirs.    
  • Consider the logical consquences of both sides.  If a speaker is well-thought out and passionate about her opinion, then it is easy to be caught up in immediate agreement with her.  [or, to the opposite effect, we can pick out specific statements that rub us the wrong way and then ignore the remainder of the argument]  But a wise friend of mine has always advised me to "be careful with your 'therefores'."  In other words, think through the logical conclusion of the idea presented.  In order to do this, we must step back from the rhetoric, sort through the emotions, and simply attempt to spell out the logic of an argument.  We must ask how a certain idea will practically work itself out.  
  • Compare notes with the bible.  Ultimately, if we as Christians are to take the bible seriously, then we must hold up every interpretation, suggestion, and practice with the actual biblical account.  We must read it, pray about it, and discover it for ourselves.  We must ask the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to be our teacher, to "open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119:18).  
I'll admit: it takes a mature, patient, and studious person to think critically.  But the rewards of making your own (informed) decisions, and the benefits of being able to engage wisely on issues, extend well beyond your own personal advantage; it creates a community of respect, understanding, and - hopefully - of truth.

03.25.10 Faith Matters Part 1: Take (an informed) Stand

I enjoy a good debate.  I value listening to someone else's perspective, considering their viewpoint, reflecting on how that affects me, and responding appropriately.  I often replay such discourses in my mind until I am satisfied that I have thought through every point that was mentioned.  I think it is absolutely essential to human development to encounter and engage with different values, opinions, and beliefs. 

What is supremely frustrating to me, however, is when the person with whom I disagree has little to no support for her position.  Or, as the case may be, when her entire argument stems from an emotional reaction to the issue, rather than an objective consideration of the facts.  Emotions are important and invariably have an effect on the decisions we make.  But how someone else feels cannot persuade me to change my mind nor can it 'prove' in any equitable way that their position is more valid or more right than mine. 

I could continue down a myriad of paths here, but I want to specifically address any Christians who read this blog.  I regularly encounter Christians who do not agree, point by point, with some of my understanding of the Bible.  That isn't a problem.  What IS a problem - in my opinion, a VERY BIG problem - is when those Christians cannot give me any sound biblical rationale for their disagreement.  Sometimes they quote authors they've read, or sermons they've heard, but more often than not, the response I receive is that it just doesn't feel right to them. 

I am not going to mention a particular issue here, because my point is not to prove how right I am.  But I am going, in no uncertain terms, to plainly state that I believe that Christians must take the bible seriously.  This seems like a no-brainer to me.  If you claim to follow Jesus, if you believe that he is the son of the God whose Holy Spirit authored both the Hebrew and Christian bibles, which both testify to his messiahship, then I do not understand how you can dismiss the teachings within them.  I understand how you could feel challenged by them, how you could wrestle with them, how you could desire to resist them.  But to believe in the Christ and claim to submit to his lordship - and then ignore, reject, or dismiss his written word...this seems like a paradox to me.  The ultimate hypocrisy.    

So let me say again: Christians -  take the bible seriously!  This means, to me -
  1. Know what it says.  I am constantly amazed at how many church-attending Christians refer to the contents of the bible in the same generic terms as the twice-a-year (Christmas/Easter) average American.  I'm not proposing that all Christians should be able to spout off the perfect scripture verse at the perfect moment - but some kind of regular reading of the book that's supposed to be guiding your life seems reasonable to me.  
  2. Recognize its authority.  Is the bible the word of God or not?  If so, then what it has to say is more important than the teachings of culture, of family, of tradition, and even of our own experiences!  Too many Christians only want to obey the parts of the bible that sound good to them and explain away the rest.  But how is this different from non-Christians who like some parts of Jesus' teachings but completely neglect others?  We head down a dangerous path when we pick and choose what is 'truth' out of the bible or when we place our own human opinions above God's perfect wisdom.  
  3. Differentiate between interpretation and application.  Because of our emotional prejudices, Christians often miss the solid interpretation of the bible because we are too concerned with what we assume the practical repercussions will be.  Interpreting the bible requires us to understand the context of the original hearers but also to understand the purpose and the principle that is being expressed.  Sometimes, the bible is simply describing what took place, while other times, it is prescribing a timeless command.  In order to differentiate between the two, we must be familiar with the entire bible.  We must also simply read the text and ask, as objectively as possible, what is being said.  Without a proper understanding (interpretation) of scripture, we cannot hope to apply it well.  I find that when I try to discuss the interpretation of the bible, Christians often argue with me about the application instead.  For example, various churches differ on whether both men and women, or simply men, can serve as elders in the church.  Most Christians I encounter have made this a gender issue.  But I would argue that this is actually an issue of how one defines eldership; or, more exactly, how one interprets biblical eldership. Churches on both sides of the debate have been swayed by culture just as frequently as by biblical teaching; but more troubling is the number of Christians who have an opinion that is completely ignorant of any biblical influence.  If you are going to have an opinion on the application of the bible, then you better know what the bible says and have some intelligent interpretation of it! 
I could say so much more but ultimately, I just want to see people who say they love Jesus, love his words.  If we don't, who will? 

03.09.10 A Change is Gonna Come

My husband and I do not make New Year's resolutions for much the same reason, I suspect, as why we do not celebrate most holidays.  We believe in taking responsibility for our relationship, our choices, and our habits every day of the year and not just on the national 'you-should-do-this' day.  However, just over two months into 2010, I have realized that there is definitely something new and wonderful and beautiful happening in our home. 

Michael and I are both apprehensive of schedules, avoid to-do lists, and generally reject time-imposed routines.  Translated, this means that neither of us is able to commit to any daily activity or task that is not related to human necessity.  The result is that we have a lot of spontaneous fun and experience time freedom - but lack the discipline to change or to acquire habits with any degree of success.  This has been a source of individual frustration and marital tension, on and off, for the better part of our 9+ years together.

But in this, our tenth year of marriage, we are changing.  Something happened, in a sort of slow, under-appreciated, and easy to miss way.  I have noticed that each of us, separate of the other, has made intentional - indeed, radical - decisions to discipline ourselves in areas that were previously great weaknesses.  For most of this new year, we have been steadily working towards improving ourselves, changing our daily lifestyle, and just simply blessing the other person.  I know we have shared our choices with each other, so it's not been some secret or surprise, but as I reflect, I am amazed that each of us had the personal motivation to move in this direction.  At the same time.  But not necessarily together or because of the other.

What a great encouragement!  First of all, I am encouraged that the Holy Spirit has been working on my heart.  I had struggled over the last 6 months with feeling purposeful, and the discipline that I have been acquiring over the last 2 months has literally changed the way I wake up in the morning, not to mention the way I use my time throughout the day.  I feel empowered and strengthened in the grace of Christ to fulfill the calling he has on my life as a wife, mother, minister, and artist.  It's freeing and challenging all at once!

Additionally, I am so proud of my husband and am finding even more reasons to fall in love with him.  I see him feeling encouraged in his personal disciplines, and I am excited for what lies ahead for us.  I am reminded that 10 years of marriage is just the beginning, and that God is still hard at work in us.  We have the opportunity to counsel so many couples, and I love that we can share how 'long' it has taken us to change, so that we can encourage them to keep at it!         

This year has been a fresh start for us.  One that we didn't plan or expect or even think we may have needed.  It feels like a great big renewal, a giant "spring cleaning" of our hearts that overflows into our home -- and hopefully pours outward onto everyone else!

02.27.10 How Would Jesus Vote? Part 2

Another huge reason that I find it difficult to be a Christian in a secular democracy is that I feel like the issues that our politicians campaign on are usually symptoms of bigger problems that they cannot fix.  So how would Jesus vote on issues that aren't the real issues and that don't (and can't) address the actual issue?

For example, I strongly believe that all humans are made in the image of God, and, as such, that all human life is sacred, and that God makes life begin at conception.   So I am anti-taking of all human life, at any stage, for any reason.  Technically, this makes me anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-war, and anti-euthanasia.  As far as I'm aware, there is no political party in the USA that stands for all 4 of these positions.

Even I am very gray on most of them.  Take abortion, for instance.  While I believe that killing innocent life is wrong, I also believe that we should be concerned with why this is happening in the first place.  Well over half the abortions in this country occur in unmarried, minority women under the age of 25.  A part of me feels that Jesus is more concerned with how our culture ignores the sanctity of sex, ignores the many emotional and psychological reasons that young women enter (or are forced into) the sexual act, ignores the cycle of unhealthy sex relationships in the black community - that Jesus would rather we address these failures (which no government can do) than simply vote against abortion.

The death penalty is similar.  Back when criminals were publicly and gruesomely executed, and crimes were much more straightforward, the death penalty may have been a deterrent.  But I believe that the type of crime we deal with now in the USA is different than what was faced 100 years ago.  I believe that all of us have it within us to commit crimes, to choose to act with evil intentions.  There is evidence which suggests that the natural human propensity towards wrongdoing is increased in environments of violence, abuse, and neglect.  I believe that 21st century criminals - in many cases - became offenders because of a combination of their instinctive 'bad'-ness and the evil which was inflicted upon them.  Removing them from society by killing them - a poor retribution, in my opinion - does not address the failure of our society to help them, protect them, or heal them when it mattered, long before their first criminal act.   

And what about euthanasia?  (this is not a big political issue in this country, but it's something I wrestle with)  As a Christian, if I had some incurable, painful disease or was in an irreversible coma - let me go home to Jesus!  Seriously.  Why keep my body alive if I can't live?    

I feel like this post is a little scattered.  But this is a real conundrum for me - voting wisely, living gracefully, imitating Jesus.  I would appreciate your thoughts!

02.09.10 How Would Jesus Vote?*

I find it difficult to be a Christ-follower in a democratic nation. 

In the first place, the entire history of God's people, as recorded in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, is one of strangers in a foreign land, most often oppressed by the ruling nation.  The people of God were not involved with the politics of their countries ~ as far as I can tell ~ because they were not permitted to be.  As a result, the Bible is relatively silent on how to be a responsible, involved, citizen. 

Additionally, Jesus was apolitical.  He criticized religious leaders, and he had a lot to say about individual relationships, but he stayed out of the political realm.  He was once asked about the fairness of paying taxes, and he upheld the law; when (unfairly) persecuted, he did not resist the Roman process.  He (and subsequently, his followers) repeatedly taught that this world is not our home, and that we should treat it as a temporary residence.

Fast forward twenty centuries, and the people of God, in the U.S.A., are some of the wealthiest people in the world.  We can and do hold positions of incredible power.  We have the right to vote on our leaders and often the policies of our nation.  But how do we balance the high standard that God has on us, as followers and imitators of him, and the laws of our secular society?  In other words, how would Jesus vote on issues of education, on health insurance, on the institution of marriage, on abortion, on war?

I believe that I know how Jesus feels about (most of) these issues.  I believe that I know how he wants me to act with regard to them and how he would lead this country.  But the United States doesn't worship Jesus.  He isn't the ruler of this nation.  So is Jesus more concerned with me, as a Christian citizen in a secular society, using my voice to try and bring his standards into the earthly government - or - would he rather that I use my spiritual authority to act wherever I can as a representative of his kingdom, my true home?  In other words, do I vote to uphold the laws of heaven (how the country would look if it were run by Jesus) or do I vote with the heart of heaven towards the people of earth? 

For example, I believe that God designed, intends, and desires marriage to be between a man and a woman.  But I cannot find a secular (non-Judeo-Christian) reason to only support heterosexual marriage.  I also believe that God is both merciful and just.  So when I consider this society, which does not recognize God's design for marriage, I wonder if I should have the merciful and just heart of God with regard to the issue of gay marriage.  It seems very unmerciful and unjust - in a secular nation - for committed gay couples to be unable to become citizens of the U.S. (when one partner is a foreigner), or to be unable to adopt children, or to not share health insurance, or any other right which a married couple enjoys.  Even though I believe that, in God's kingdom, gay couples would not be married, do I work to bring heaven to earth by upholding the law or by acting in grace?

The tension increases for those Christians who are politicians.  Just as a Christian doctor would choose not to perform an abortion, should Christian politicians only vote according to biblical standards?  I do see a difference between acting as a citizen in this nation versus as a legal representative, because I believe that leaders will be held to a higher account for their influential decisions.  So I pray for our leaders, Christian and non, because I know I would not be able to walk that line with confidence.

In the end, I am ultimately thankful that I am not looking to the government to solve the world's ills or save society; my trust rests solely in a God who can change hearts and bring peace.  And I have hope that whatever choices I make come election time, God is more concerned with my heart towards him and my life of praise, rather than the outcome of specific political battles. 

*This post will be one in a series of political topics.  I intend to discuss the tension I feel as a Christian in a non-Christian society, rather than put forth specific political ideals or uphold certain political parties.  Because I believe that Jesus - and, therefore, the church at large - is apolitical, I struggle to know my role in this democracy. 

01.20.10 Work of Art

Nearly a decade ago, my husband and I vacationed in Italy (*sigh*).  We stopped in Florence and decided to see Michaelangelo's David.  Now, I know this is an important piece of art, and that Michaelangelo is a certified master, but honestly, I wasn't particularly excited to view this work.  I later reflected that my apathy was due, in part, to my perceived familiarity with the sculpture.  The David has to be one of the most recognizeable and popularly reproduced images ever.  I think I felt like I had already "seen" it and had no need (desire) to get up close and personal with it.

My attitude was only reinforced upon discovery that the marble statue was not housed in a large and impressive museum, but, rather, in a wing of an art gallery in the city, entered through what appeared to be a side door from a narrow path.  We came into the opening foyer, rounded the corner, and were suddenly confronted with one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance Sculpture.  It literally took my breath away.

I was first taken aback by the sheer size of the figure.  Seventeen feet is short enough that you feel the reality of its human representation but large enough that you are in awe before it.  I simply stopped in my tracks, about 10 feet from the sculpture, and stared in silence.  I was completely unprepared for the response that was welling up within me. 

Just like the many visitors in the gallery, I didn't know how to take it all in.  I circled slowly beneath him a few times, studying every detail of the form and commenting on the general beauty of appearance.  At last, I took a seat across the room and, from a distance, continued to marvel at the art looming before me. 

I'm no art student, but I am aware of some of the artistic impressiveness of this piece.  The block of marble that Michaelangelo used had been neglected for twenty-five years, exposed to the elements in the yard of a cathedral workshop.  Many other masters refused to touch the 'damaged' stone.  The stance that the artist chose for his subject is apparently a more difficult form to carve, as it offsets the spine, shoulders, and general shape of the human body.

In short, David is clearly a masterpiece.  We stared at him in wonderment for a solid 30 minutes, but I could easily have stayed all day.  (this is saying alot, coming from me)  As I gazed around the room, watching the many eyes that were fixed on the work of art, I suddenly felt a pang of sadness. 

This sculpure has been studied, replicated, admired and appreciated for hundreds of years, and it will continue to be so.  I am certain that countless people, artists and non, have taken pleasure sitting in that room, staring at this statue.  When we view David, we not only react to what we are seeing, but also to the artist who created it.  We comment on his talent, his brilliance, his perseverance (the work took 3 years to complete), his artistry, the beauty of the finished product. 

No one would dare suggest that this statue simply appeared out of nowhere, or that, in sitting neglected for so many years, the wind and rain randomly affected that block of marble until it was formed into so perfect a human likeness.  In other words, we stare at that lifelike - but lifeless - body and easily affirm that an artist created it.

Why, then, is it so easy for us to ignore the brilliant artistry of our own bodies?  Why do we refuse to believe that a creator formed us, had a picture of us in mind and then designed us to that image?  The human body is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the David, but we still insist that we are the result of happenstance, of atoms randomly colliding together. 

I believe in logic.  And I know I would be considered the most illogical person in the world if I insisted that the David was an accident of nature and not the product of personal, intentional, artistic design.  So I am simply asking us to consider - if we look at a piece of art and cannot deny the artist who made it, then we must apply that logic to something more incredible, more difficult by far to produce, and conclude that we were created, on purpose, by the ultimate Artist.               

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

   a psalm of David, praising God for his amazing artistry