What Does Love Look Like?

“What does love look like?”
is the question I’ve been pondering
“What does love look like?”
“What does love look like?”
is the question I’ve been asking of You

            – Misty Edwards (“Arms Wide Open”)

Over Christmas break my heart has been awakening to the call to love again. It began over my visit home, stirring in the few quiet moments amidst the flurry of activity as we made the rounds of families and friends. On our return to Kansas City, it intensified as I began reading The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, one of my gifts this Christmas (I’ve wanted to read it for several years now). And as Derek and I joined over twenty thousand people at the Onething conference, I heard that same call to love fully echoed over and over, in the times of worship, in the messages, and in the cry of my own soul in response to it all.

When I began to read The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence’s simple descriptions of how he formed a habit of conversing with God continually and doing everything out of love for Him stirred me to the high and simple invitation to desire God above everything else. It sounded so simple. He didn’t share a three-step plan or five essential practices or a formula of any kind. He merely described his experience of loving God and falling back on His grace over and over. It sounded so simple. And yet, it also brought the painful realization of how far I am from that reality in my life. More often than not, I try to slap a half-hearted pursuit of God on top of everything in my life and pretend it’s all for Him. In reality, my motivation comes from so many other places but rarely from genuine love for God. I want genuine love for God to be the root of all that I do, but as I recognized the absence of that in my life I also begin to realize how little I truly understood about what it means to love God well. Or what it means to love Derek well, for that matter. This past semester produced a stellar report card and a new job, but what of my relationship with God? What of my marriage? Did I love well?

During the Onething conference, focused this year on “Jesus, Our Magnificent Obsession”, that invitation to return to my first love for God surfaced over and over, not just in the worship and the talks but in my own heart as I responded to what I heard. Over and over I was reminded that nothing was as crucial as loving God fully.

One of the most profound parts of the conference for me was Dwayne Robert’s talk that Friday morning. He spoke about how Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we go through seasons of our life, yet eternity has been put in the heart of man. We were designed to connect with the Eternal One and nothing will fully satisfy us until we are dwelling with God. He cautioned that our careers and even our ministry cannot be our focus. These are our calling, not our reward, not the place in which we find our satisfaction. We will never be satisfied even by miracles or power going forth from our bodies. Instead, we must be compelled by the love and revelation of Jesus. He said that the cry in the inner room of those who walk in signs and wonders is, “Jesus, my magnificent obsession, I love you!” “I am not going to let this eternal cry be met by anything else but a Man with eyes aflame with love for me,” Dwayne declared. “My life is a failure if I enter eternity with my life dull to Him.”

At the end, he issued a call to be diligent in our calling, but to shift the goals and focus of our lives, to enlarge our hearts, to detach from everything that is contaminating our hearts and to do whatever it takes to break our addiction to the American dream. His words were cutting and powerful, but it was the passion behind them that spoke most deeply to me. As he spoke, I saw a man desperate to love God fully, to turn away from every other passion but Jesus, and to see others engulfed in that same passion for God. I recognized the puniness of my own passion for God lately, how little I truly loved this Man Jesus, how little I even know Him. But it stirred the coals of that fire a little more. I want to know Him. I want to love Him more fully. I want to see my life radiating passion for the Eternal One. I want to see that passion engulf every other passion and desire in my life until it compels everything I do.

So in this new year and new season for me and Derek, I have resolved to pursue God again, to open my life to a deeper knowledge of Jesus and invite Him to feed the flames of love for Him in my heart. Even as I turn my heart back to God again, though, I can feel the tug of my flesh in the other direction. There’s the constant temptation to draw away again, to feed myself with the world, to let my mind and spirit simply coast, to take the easy way. More and more I recognize my incredible need for God’s grace to seek Him and know Him. I am encouraged by a prayer that Brother Lawrence was in the habit of praying whenever he found that he’d failed in his pursuit of loving God fully: “I am used to do so; I shall never do otherwise if I am left to myself” (The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 13). In the past couple weeks I’ve often found myself echoing that prayer in my own words, pouring out confession after confession of my own inability to relate rightly to God, and inviting Him to pour out His grace in the places of my weakness. Because weakness and all, that invitation is still there to love Him more.

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A Story of Limitations

“Because there are more people than we have time or strength to see personally and care for, it is imperative to remember that it is not sinful to be finite and limited.” (Edith Schaeffer, quoted in Making Room, p. 132)

These past few weeks I’ve come right up to the hard wall of my own limitations. I may have even banged my head against it once or twice.

It began on a Monday night, when I joined the Boiler Room community for a night of prayer and worship. As people sang and danced around me, rejoicing in the joy of the Lord, I curled myself up in a corner of the room and tried to cry out a weighty ball of frustration and anxiety.

I had spent that morning babysitting the kids, forfeiting my quiet time for a constant stream of activity. I love being with the kids, but that day I just felt drained. Then there was a last minute scramble to find another babysitter to take over when I left for work because the one who was supposed to come couldn’t find her keys. And then work that afternoon was…chaos. Kids throwing crayons, beating each other up, cussing (my preschoolers use more profanity than I do….), and even pulling down their pants to show off their underwear to the class (one boy started it and the next thing I knew, five more had followed his example). I did a fair amount of yelling and left feeling like a pretty crappy teacher.

But as bad as that Monday was, the real problem was that it perched precariously on top of several weeks of packed days (snow days and all). My weekends, when I usually take time to rest, were particularly crammed with activity, filled to the brim with good things – time with friends, creative projects, prayer meetings, hospitality, community gatherings, and meals with people – but filed nonetheless, with barely an hour anywhere to sit down and breathe.

After about four weeks in a row of this, I began to wear thin. I felt starved for real rest, longing for days and days on end with nothing scheduled. Even when I found myself with some time to potentially sit down and be quiet, I was so wound up with everything that needed to happen, that I felt an inability to wind down enough to rest, much less to really go deep with the Lord.

This wasn’t a new place for me. I hit a similar spot when I lived at Lewis House. When I moved into Lewis House, I left my job to do ministry “full-time” and threw myself in with everything I could muster: time, resources, passion, everything. I knew that a missional lifestyle required sacrifice, so I set my heart to give give give until there was nothing left to give. I wanted to be fully devoted to what I was doing with the ministry, so I felt guilty if I took time for myself. In that process I set aside a lot of things that I enjoyed – reading, writing, art, and even many of my friendships (and just ask Derek how fun it was to be in a relationship with me during that season). As it turns out, it didn’t take that long until I reached that point where I had nothing left to give and increasingly withdrew from truly engaging with the people around me.

Since then, God has taught me a lot about learning to rest and finding my identity in Him rather than in all my doing, but now that I’m back in a place of ministry and intentional community, that temptation to cram my time full of doing is back. I don’t want to run hard and then burn out again so I have to withdraw for months. I want to live a sustainable life, not just sustainable as far as physical resources go but also emotionally and spiritually sustainable. I want to pace myself to run for the distance.

So following that Monday night, I closeted myself away in my room for a good portion of the week, skipping out on several corporate gatherings and trying to hash out what boundaries I needed to set for myself. I read ahead in Making Room by Christine Pohl (a book on the Christian practice of hospitality that I’ve been working my way through) to the chapter on the limits, boundaries, and temptations of hospitality. It reminded me that this need for boundaries is common in the practice of hospitality and that “Boundaries help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious” (Making Room, p. 136).

I still wrestled with it, though, because I didn’t want to set so many boundaries that I was no longer open to the opportunities to meet the Lord in the midst of this life. God has challenged me, in the past and especially more recently since Shelby and the kids have moved in, to be available, to be fully present where I am. There’s sacrifice in being present and a constant temptation to hold myself back, whether literally or emotionally, and only give so much.

And yet, if I’m overbooked, rushing from one thing to the next, how can I hope to be fully present in any given moment? When I burn myself out, my capacity to love or even just my ability to be with people is diminished. If I don’t take time for adequate rest and renewal, time to nourish my own life and spirit, the quality of what I do is weakened.

So I have been reflecting on where I’m called right now and what specifically I’m called to do, trying to set some boundaries and cut things from my schedule where I can. In particular I’m trying to guard a place of Sabbath rest.

In all this, though, I’m realizing that what I really want is to live out of the presence of God, not out of a string of frenzied activity or simply following good principles. Ultimately, I want my boundary to be that I’ll do when He says to do and rest when He says to rest, that all that I do will come in joyful obedience to the prompting of God. Because it’s only in God’s will that I can truly rest in freedom. I’m not free simply because I’ve set all the write boundaries or opened up space in my schedule; I’m free in relationship with my Abba.

I am also reminded of the chapter in Punk Monk that talks about the ancient art of breathing, the balanced rhythm of time with God and time ministering to others out of that place. In it Pete Greig writes:

“As we seek to establish a life-dynamic that balances prayer and action, receiving and giving, being and doing, we must remember that the priority is always the inward breath. Adam was mere dust until God first breathed into his nostrils. Likewise, a newborn baby cannot cry until she has taken her first great gulp of air, a breath that unfurls her lungs like a sail and begins a process that will last as long as her life. The midwife knows that nothing else is more urgent than that first breath – everything else in life will flow from there. In just the same way, as we seek to develop a rhythm of life, we cannot breathe out God’s life and God’s dreams through the kinds of hospitality, mission and justice described in this book, until we have first breathed them in by being with Him….We are called to be fruitful (see John 15), but only by being rooted in Jesus. We are commanded to go and preach the gospel (see Matt. 28), but first we must come to Jesus’ side.” (Pete Greig, Punk Monk, p. 93-94)

So right now I’m stepping back, becoming more acquainted with my limitations and learning to breathe in God’s presence and the deep grace that meets me in the midst of my weakness.

“Because this is, perhaps, part of what sets us apart from “the world”: that we don’t knock ourselves out, but are people able to be still and know our humanity.” (my blog friend Brooke, in “the obligatory new year reflections”)

Grace and Provision (and the Provision of Grace)

Four snow days in a row this past week unearthed some interesting things in my heart, particularly in what I believe about God’s provision (an area that I feel like He has been highlighting for me lately).

The first snow day was so relaxing. I spent the day with Derek, dreaming about the future, walking through the neighborhood, and just enjoying our time together. The second day was still a welcome time of rest and reflection. By the third day, though, I felt a little bored and antsy to return to work and a more normal schedule.

And on the fourth day I started to do some math (you know, the kind where I multiply the days I’ve worked by my rate of pay, then subtract rent, utilities, groceries, bus fare, and phone bill, and then freak out a bit). The main problem this month is that, because of having two weeks off for Christmas and these unexpected snow day, my two pay checks this month will only amount to seven days of work (significantly less than usual).

So I took myself and my growing ball of anxiety up to our room and sat down with the Lord. I felt like God really wanted to use this time to teach me about His provision. Almost as soon as I sat down to pray, though, a raw question burst forth from my heart:

“But am I doing enough for God to provide for us? Am I doing enough ‘kingdom work’ for God to pay our bills?”

The question hung there, quivering with insecurity and inadequateness. As if God were my calculating employer, tallying up hours and rationing funds accordingly, instead of my Abba who tenderly cares for me as His daughter. Because what child earns her father’s provision? Since when does a child question whether they’ve been good enough or productive enough for their father to feed them, clothe them, provide for their needs? (unless, of course, they come from a dysfunctional home – but there is nothing dysfunctional about the kingdom of heaven). Yet God calls us His children and heirs (Romans 8:17) and even His friends (John 15:15).

It surprised me, actually, to find that question in my heart, because of everything God has worked in my heart this past year in teaching me how I am beloved in Him apart from what I do. Clearly there are still layers of self-sufficiency that God wants to peel back to draw me into deeper trust in Him and His grace.

Appropriately enough, yesterday morning at the Boiler Room Adam spoke about God’s incredible, extravagant grace and how everything we have is a gift and cannot be earned. His message struck home, right to the core of this wrestling over God’s provision.

Yes, I need God’s provision, but more than that – so much more than that – I need His grace. I need His grace in my weakness, in my anxiety and lack faith, in my ungratefulness and my pale love for the One who, full of grace, poured out His life for me. I need his grace to free me from my self-imposed standards of worth, to break this urge to try to earn whatever I need (and the false belief that I can possibly earn it). I need His grace to change my heart and transform my life, to release me to the freedom of God’s love. Grace that I can’t possibly earn or deserve. I need God’s grace to convince me of these truths and root them deeply into my life.

Last night we gathered with some friends to pray (these same friends had prayed over us at collective on Thursday). One of them shared that he was struggling with provision and we began to share stories of how God has provided for us, testifying to God’s faithfulness over and over. Initially we planned to share one story each, but the more we shared, the more we remembered about how God had provided for us, sometimes just enough and sometimes extravagantly, sometimes in the necessities and sometimes in little luxuries to show His attentive love. I feel encouraged by these testimonies and by remembering God’s faithfulness in my own life thus far.

So stay tuned. I fully expect to have stories to share of God’s provision in the near future.

“Grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is a gift.” – Brennan Manning

The God of Wrath is ALSO the God of Love!

(My husband wrote this today and gave me permission to share it here. I love his thoughts on the amazing love of God!)

Here at the Roasterie this morning, spending some time with the Lord, my mind keeps going back to the message last night at the Boiler Room about Psalm 22. Before I go on, I thought it was a great message about painful prayer. I love hearing Michael talk because he is a very good teacher. This note is not a critique of his message, just a response to the statements about the wrath of God.

The statements he made about the wrath of God bothered me a bit. He made the statement that the church kind of reads into the text that the Father turned His face away from the Son during His time on the cross, and that it wasn’t true. It is true that it isn’t found in scripture, and it probably is inferred from the text, however, I don’t know if anyone can really say whether or not it’s true. Since scripture doesn’t give anything beyond the simple narrative of the death of Jesus, I don’t believe we can for sure say whether Jesus was speaking out of what truly happened or that He was “mistaken” to believe that God had forsaken Him. Could it simply be Him expressing emotion to the Father even though it wasn’t true? Yes, because I believe that it is not sin to express emotion even if it is not based upon truth. Emotion based on a lie is still emotion, and therefore is valid and not sinful to have or express. However, there was something very unique in Jesus’ death on the cross: He was literally bearing the weight of the sins of the entire human race. Could it be that Jesus really did have the Father “turn his face away” that we would never experience that? I don’t know if any can really say. Personally, to be completely honest, I believe the Father didn’t turn His face away, now that I really think about it, because of the Father’s great love.

I think it is a problem when we use this argument and where we stand on it to minimize the wrath of God against sin. The key to being fully OK with the wrath of a God who is love is all wrapped up in the OBJECT of His wrath. It is never people. It is always sin. It is the enemy who tries to blur the lines between sin and sinner. If he can twist our hatred of sin (which is an attribute of our Father) just far enough, he can get us to hate the person living in sin, and that is the problem. The wrath of God, on the contrary, is actually one of the most important aspects of His character to seeing the true greatness of His love. It is precisely God’s absolute hatred of sin that makes Jesus’ death so horrendous and so shockingly beautiful. Without the potency of God’s wrath, His love loses it’s power. They are two sides of the same coin. Without God’s wrath, the humiliating death on the cross makes no sense whatsoever. Jesus’ death on the cross was not some mere symbol or exciting story to tell, it was literally the wrath of God against sin borne upon a single man, all so you and I could be reconciled to God.

We have no way of coming to God on our own; our sin prevents it, primarily because of our agreement with sin, not because it is too ugly or abhorrent for God to reach into (He did this through Jesus of course). But this is the beauty of God’s love, it’s why His grace is amazing: in spite of our agreement with sin, He PURSUES us and He LOVES us; it is this kindness RIGHT IN THE FACE OF WHAT HE HATES MOST that leads us to repentance. His kindness when we are “living rightly” isn’t what leads us to repentance; it’s how while we were yet sinners, agreeing with and living out our lives in the sin that He hates, He treats us with kindness when we know we deserve wrath! This totally disarms us. But if we lose the sense of God’s wrath against sin, His love loses it’s true depth and meaning to us. We have to live in the tension between His love and His wrath, not losing our grip on the reality of either one.

One last word on the wrath of God: in addition to the fact that His wrath makes His extravagant, crazy love so much more beautiful, it will also be released on the earth again somewhere in the future. To negate the wrath of God leads down a very slippery slope to denying the severity of sin and the reality of hell, as well as the coming judgments of God in Revelation. When the Lord was speaking to Abram about his descendants in a dream (Gen. 15), He said that they would be in bondage and then return to possess the land he was currently in, in their fourth generation, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” There was an appointed time that the Amorites went on in their sin before the Lord brought His judgment on them.

Similarly, I believe the prophetic words in Revelation show that there is an appointed time when the whole earth, now in a time of “the year of the favor of the Lord” as Jesus declared in Luke 4, will see the “day of the vengeance of our God” that Jesus very intentionally left out of His reading that day. This is the time of the favor of God, when He sits on His mercy seat, showing His extravagant love in spite of the rampant sin on the earth. But one day, He will return to make all things right, and in order to do that, He will exact vengeance on His enemy Satan, the father of lies and peddler of sin. And the truth of it is that those who have chosen to agree with God’s enemy really will be dragged by Satan into the lake of fire. God’s wrath is real, it is just as alive as it was in the OT, but because we are in the year of His favor, we don’t see it yet; we see His patience, His longsuffering with the human race. I really like IHOP’s teachings on this topic, that we must preach both the Jesus in white (the intimate bridegroom God who loves us unconditionally and rescues us from the dragon) and the Jesus in red (the warrior God who crushes the dragon and his empire securing peace and life for His bride).

When we embrace the God of Wrath who is also the God of Love, we will gain a new and awesome picture of His love for us and the extent to which He pursues us, even in our weakness. This is AMAZING GRACE!

Ash Wednesday and the Assurance of Grace

(Written last night)

I am so struck by the grace of God tonight.

It’s been four years since I celebrated Ash Wednesday. When I left the Catholic Church, I shied away from nearly all of those familiar observances, unsure anymore what I believed about them. But tonight Washington Church had an Ash Wednesday service with three other area churches and I went. So now I have that familiar gray smudge on my forehead, but I was struck by the stark difference between this Ash Wednesday and all the Ash Wednesday of my past. And the reality of the grace of the cross in my life is that difference. It changes everything about how I view repentance.

In the past, I saw Ash Wednesday – and all of Lent, really – as a season to recognize my sinfulness and to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness from God. I knelt and prayed and fasted, and wondered if it was enough to make up for my sins, enough to turn God’s mercy toward me.

After all, our sin is a serious thing, especially in light of God’s immense holiness. The Old Testament is full of references to the holiness of God and all the precautions and ceremonies the Israelites had to go through before entering the presence of God because of His perfect holiness. There are even stories of people struck dead because they entered the presence of God unworthily. I never knew much about all that, though; I just had a sense that God was vast and distant and that I could only hope to ever work my way to being good enough for Him. It made sense that we should have to beg and do penance and hope that He might hear us and grant us grace.

But we don’t have to.

Because of the cross, we don’t have to grovel or beg or wonder if it will be enough to appease our Most Holy God. Even in our sin and weakness, even in our brokenness and filth, we don’t have to wonder if God will accept us back. We don’t have to wonder if we’ve done enough. God sent His only Son to die on a cross and take the full weight of our just punishment on His own shoulders. He took it upon Himself to cleanse us, to wash away the scarlet stain of sin and make us whiter than snow. And He said, “It is finished.” It is enough. He is enough.

Yes, we’re still sinful and need to repent. Yes, we turn away and have to turn back and rely on the favor and grace of our Savior. But when we repent and ask for forgiveness, we don’t have to hold our breath and question whether it will be enough. When we fall at His feet, full of the weight of our failures and filth, we don’t have to wonder if we’ve earned back His love. Instead we are confident of His everlasting love and mercy towards us. We know that at His feet we will receive the gentle touch of His hand, washing us again, lifting us back on our feet. We are assured that He is always enough.

So tonight I bear that familiar mark, but it means something different to me now. I wear it as a sign of my mourning over my sins, for the ways that I’ve fallen short of what God deserves. But at the same time, I wear it as a sign of my joy, my redemption, my assurance that the door of God’s grace and forgiveness is always open to me. Tonight I asked for mercy and forgiveness – as I’ve had to many times before – but I also celebrated by singing about the cross, even singing “Hallelujah!” because “before the throne of God above/ I have a strong, a perfect plea:/ A great High Priest, whose name is Love,/ Who ever lives and pleads for me.”

Before the Throne of God – Shane and Shane

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Because a sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Praise the One,
Risen Son of God!

Behold him there, the risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I am,
The King of glory and of grace!

One in himself, I cannot die
My soul is purchased by his blood
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God
With Christ, my Savior and my God