Heresy Monday

God Doesn’t Owe Me a Spouse

Ah, Christian Mingle, you thought you were so clever, targeting your Facebook ad to a 20-something woman who has posted about her faith on social media.

It’s too bad your algorithm didn’t know I was once a teenage girl who, when told to write a letter to her future husband, scribbled, “Dear Future Husband, Why are we doing this? It feels selfish, like you’re supposed to be a long list of things I want, when I don’t even know if you exist. (No offense.) If you are out there, keep doing what God wants you to do, I guess. I’ll do the same. We’ll talk later.

Who, two Christmases ago when I was single, responded to a sweet relative’s concern that I wasn’t dating someone with, “So, I’m just curious: what do you believe about the sovereignty of God?” (which was absolutely not the best response but also hilarious).

And who has a particularly strong radar for heresy on Mondays.

Because if you’d known all that, you probably wouldn’t have targeted me with this particular ad.

I’m mostly focusing on the verse written over the proposal image here. The other photos in the slideshow ad display the rest of Luke 11:9: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I’m not criticizing online dating, but I am 100% criticizing the application of this verse to imply that God will give you the man or woman of your dreams if you just ask (click), seek (sign up and pay) and knock (connect with matches).

I could talk about how the entire rest of the Bible is full of clarifications on this. Every promise in the Bible gets less commercial and cutesy when you step back from it and look at the context…but also larger and more amazing.

  • Psalm 37, tells us “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” followed by a list of what desires your changed heart will have, including justice, righteousness, and self-control.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 says, “I know the plans I have for you,” but we forget that the plans in that original context involved toiling away in exile in a foreign land.
  • Romans 8:28 reminds us that “God works all things together for good for those who love him” and was written by a man who was persecuted and executed for his faith.
  • Philippians 4:13’s triumphant “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” is the ending of a conversation about being able to find contentment in every kind of hard situation.

Even the immediate context of Luke 11 tells us Jesus wasn’t peddling a wish-fulfillment service. After talking about how fathers love to give good gifts to their children, Jesus says, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God does sometimes give his children other gifts—everything from our daily bread to a loving spouse to miraculous healing—but here he’s talking about giving believers the Holy Spirit.

Which means he’s promising to give us wisdom to understand the Bible, grace to better love and serve others, and conviction in the areas of our lives where we’ve gotten too comfortable with sin.

That’s an amazing promise…but not one that’s going to sell an online dating platform.

Neither is this, but I’m going to say it anyway, and say it loud because there are a lot of flashy voices trying to yell the opposite, some draped in prosperity-gospel-glitz, others disguised in faux-Proverbs-31-femininity:

God does not owe me happiness. Or any specific thing that I or my culture has decided I need to be happy.

The American dream. A job that is also a “passion.” Health and wealth. Even marriage and kids.

Could he give me all of those things? Sure. Do I cheer when I hear stories of believers who are thankful for these gifts? Of course. But God doesn’t have to give me any of that, and sometimes he doesn’t, for reasons that are way bigger than me or my wishlist.

That sounds harsh, and listen, I’ve had my moments and seasons of searching—for good things like community or purpose—that took longer than I wanted or didn’t ever arrive the way I wanted them to.

I’ve worn my knuckles out knocking on heaven’s door for everything from good weather to the salvation of people I love, but sometimes the answer is “no” (or at least “not yet,” which without a timeline looks like the same thing from my perspective).

But one passage I come back to when I feel like that’s unfair or that I have a right for God to approve of my plan (this happens fairly often) is when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, right before his death, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”

Jesus asked. He sought. He knocked.

And God answered, but the door stayed shut, because it was not God’s will. Jesus had to die for us. There was no other way.

And so Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

If “Everyone who asks receives” means that God will always approve our plans and grant our desperate longings…then it didn’t even work out for Jesus.

What do we do with this kind of God? The one who doesn’t promise health and wealth, but in fact tells us we’re going to suffer in this life? The one who could say no to what we see as a good and beautiful dream? The one who might not deliver a spouse or any other blessing if we click a button and have enough faith?

We worship.

Because I do not want to believe in a God who structures the world around my wants and whims, who never lets me experience the growth that comes with loss or longing, who is only barely big enough to respond to whatever vending machine button I happen to be pushing.

That sort of God is no God at all.

What seems at first to be unfair fine print on an open-ended promise is actually large print written over every page of the Bible and human history: GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT.

And that is a very, very good thing.

For the Discouraged, Disillusioned, and Disappointed

This one’s for all my friends who are looking around—at the news headlines, at their former heroes, at their unfulfilled ambitions—and feeling like life isn’t what they thought it would be. For anyone who feels worn out waiting for everything to come together and feels hopeless and helpless in the meantime.

Basically, if your life isn’t Happy-Christian-Instagrammable right now.

You’re not alone. Not even close.

By now I’m convinced: we’re all waiting for something better.

I was reminded of that last week, telling the kids at a summer camp program a story. It’s fairly standard: High School Amy noticed a girl in her choir class who no one talked to, who made herself small and stared at the ground and ate lunch alone. Amy knew she should reach out to that girl…but it felt uncomfortable.

After a lesson at youth group about loving our neighbors, High School Amy resolved to talk to the girl before class the very next day. But Monday came, and the girl was absent. And also the next day. And the next. Finally, Amy learned that the lonely girl had moved to a different state unexpectedly.

The reaction from the kids is the same every time. Silent stares greet me. A few mouths drop open. By the time I get to, “I never saw her again,” a few kids look like they’re about to cry.

If I had said, “I walked into school the next day…and the girl had turned into a DRAGON,” I don’t think they would have been so surprised. That, at least, would have the potential for a dramatic showdown, some kind of Disney-like good-triumphs-over-evil finale like the kids have been trained to expect, with the loose ends tied up by the credits.

And so I call it out: “That’s not a very happy ending, is it?” Some kids shake their heads. Some kids are still staring, waiting for me to tack on something that will make it all okay.

I thank God for those wide-eyed faces. I pray a little harder for the ones who don’t seem surprised at all, who are overly familiar with unhappy endings.

Because we should all be surprised when conviction doesn’t come in time, when we don’t get a second chance to do what we should have done in the first place. We should genuinely grieve when a church leader falls or another tragedy rocks the world or an attempt at forgiveness is rejected.

I think, sometimes, in a church culture that emphasizes happiness and love, we need to leave a little more space to mourn sin and its consequences. Not pretend it doesn’t exist. Not become so jaded that we don’t ask the Holy Spirit to change and correct us and other Christians.

For me, those moments of mourning have come when repeating a liturgy of confession in church, when praying over the faithless corners of my life in small group, and when taking my distress over all the noise in the world before God.

I hear it in Good Friday hymns, feel it in the presence of those who love me enough to hold me accountable, see it in the eyes of the children waiting for the happy ending.

And so I tell them the happy ending, because even though God didn’t give High School Amy a chance to right my wrong, he did—and does—give me grace.

There is something beautiful in all our badly-finished stories of defeat and disillusionment, because they point us to Jesus.

Jesus who loves me even knowing all my fears and faults and failures.

Jesus who loves the church even when so many of the people within it do damage to themselves, the reputation of the Gospel, and others.

Jesus who loves the world steeped in the mess we’ve made of it, who sees something worth dying for in the sludge of systemic evil and violence and selfishness and oppression.

And Jesus who will one day undo the effects of sin forever and make all things new.

But we’re not there yet, and I want the kids to remember that too, because the evidence will add up for them through the years. They will experience unmet longings and broken relationships, confused emotions and mixed motivations.

Sometimes justice will come fully and immediately…but sometimes it won’t. Sometimes groups calling themselves Christian will beautifully demonstrate what Jesus is like…but sometimes they won’t. Sometimes God will answer their prayers clearly and in the exact way they wanted…but sometimes he won’t.

If kids are only taught the rosy, happy stuff, if they’re armed only with slogans of self-esteem or blessing…what will they do with the world as it is?

If they think Romans 8:28 promises that they’ll never experience hardship, how will their faith survive when it comes?

And if they aren’t taught about sin, why will they need Jesus?

Let’s tell all the stories from our lives and the Bible, happy and bittersweet and ugly and messy, because together they teach us who God is and why we need him to be those things. Tell them to kids, tell them to your family, tell them to yourself, especially on the hard days.

But above it all, let’s tell the story of the cross, tell it a thousand times louder than our shame and hurt and regret. Let’s remember the cost that our sin had and the grace that can be found for it in Jesus, because that’s the only way to a happy ending in this messed-up world.

How to Write Like You Don’t Matter

(I gave this devotional recently to a group of writers, but I think it applies to how all of us search for significance. Enjoy!)

When I was thinking about a passage of Scripture that relates to writers, Psalm 8 immediately came to mind. Which probably needs some explaining since it’s about stargazing.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.

I love how this captures an emotion we can all understand: standing underneath the stars, looking up at the countless number of them…and feeling very, very small.

Sometimes I feel that way when I think about words. How many people are stringing letters together to form words and sentences, how those combinations form a massive amount of ideas, how many things I have to say and how helpless I often feel to say them effectively. Sometimes I look at statistics about the vast number of books being published each year, or I read a favorite author and think, “How is it possible that we have access to the exact same letters?” and I feel very, very small.

(more…)

Be Brutus, Not Mark Antony (And Other Things I Never Thought I’d Say)

Recently, I realized that my sister Erika has something in common with Marcus Brutus, murderer of Julius Caesar (the man) and star of Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare tragedy).

(Near the top of my list of “fun things to do on my blog” is to compare my twin sister to a character in a play she hates…while she’s busy being a camp director and won’t see it. Heh heh.)

For those of you running over the basic plot points right now to guess what I mean, I’m going to rule out at least one: my sister has never, to my knowledge, led a conspiracy to stab a political leader. (I mean, you never know, but it’s unlikely.)

She did, however, tell me about the importance of names.

In college, when I thought I hated kids but accidentally signed up for children’s ministry (loooooong story), one of the best tips Erika gave me was: “Learn their names. All of them, even the ones who aren’t in your group.”

Why? Well, partly so you can call them out when they’re about to dump a bag of slime in someone else’s hair. But also because using names communicates to people that they are valuable. Important. Worth knowing as individuals. Even kids can pick up on that, and while I’m not as good at associating names and faces as my sister is, I always try to make an effort.

So did Marcus Brutus.

(Summary of the plot for those of you not required to read this one in high school: Julius Caesar, who may or may not have been on the path to dictatorship, ignores several direct warnings of his impending doom. Brutus, his friend, and Cassius, definitely not his friend, lead a group of conspirators to murder him. Mark Antony pretends to side with the conspirators…and then turns the tide of public opinion and fights against them. Lots of angst and death and a few women being sensible one minute and then abruptly crazy.)

When watching a production of Julius Caesar recently, what caught me was how deliberate Shakespeare was in having Brutus call people by name. Every minor character on his side is given the dignity of an identity and usually an accompanying adjective of praise—mighty, honorable, most noble, etc.—embodying the ideals of the Roman republic that Brutus said motivated his choice to kill Caesar.

Whereas Mark Antony, the loyalist and alleged hero of the story…not so much. Antony speaks to faceless masses, which is fine when he’s addressing (*cough*blatantly manipulating*cough*) the townspeople, but it continues into his relationships with his subordinates and even at times his inner circle. When he does speak the names of others, it’s not usually in a positive way, like when he trashes co-leader Lepidus as soon as the guy leaves the room.

Need more proof? There are several scenes where Brutus not only refers to his servant, Lucius, by name, but strives to be kind to and look after him. Whereas when Antony needs something from his servant, he hollers, “How now, fellow!”

Brutus is able to call in Varro and Claudius, his guards, to ask a favor of them. Antony addresses his underlings as a mass and even Shakespeare identifies them as Soldiers 1, 2, and 3.

Brutus goes around in a circle to greet and charge each conspirator individually. Whereas Antony’s most famous scene is his speech to a group of nameless, numbered citizens.

It’s possible there was a structural reason for this that has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s portrayal of either man—maybe the characters in Brutus’ scenes are named because they appear more than once and keeping them anonymous might confuse the audience, or maybe Antony addresses everyone generically because his scenes are almost always shorter.

Maybe. Maaaaaaaybe.

I just can’t think Shakespeare made such a strong contrast between his two main characters accidentally.

Intentional or not, one of the effects, I think, is that audiences are able to see Brutus outright stab his friend and leader onstage…and still relate to him, feel his grief and moral conflict, and believe Antony’s pronouncement that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all.” Why? Because Brutus acts in ways that are consistent with the code of ethics he talks about.

Which made me think: do all of the tiny actions of my life back up the broad, sweeping claims I make about what I believe? Specifically, if I say that people are made in the image of God and are of infinite worth and value…how do I treat the people I interact with every day? Not just my friends and family, but the characters playing walk-on roles in my life (and starring roles in their own), the ones who I might never see again or who can’t give me anything in return or who won’t be around for long?

It’s worth thinking about. Can we know all of them by name? No. But we can treat them like they matter so that our words and actions are consistent, just like Brutus.

(And also don’t assassinate anyone. Let’s not take this imitation thing too far.)

What the British Baking Show Taught Me About Accepting Criticism

I realize I’m several years behind the craze of The Great British Bake-Off, but when lots of my friends were raving about it, I decided, without ever seeing an episode, that I would loathe it.

My reasoning? I hate reality TV. And I enjoy baking, but in a very imprecise, hey-that-looks-like-about-a-half-cup, yay-frosting, look-I-coated-myself-in-flour sort of way. The last thing I wanted to watch was a dramafest that would also give me impossibly high standards for future batches of cookies (sorry, biscuits).

The judges and hosts of the show.

Thankfully, that’s not what the show is like at all. The drama is mostly: will the rolls rise in time?!? Or what if the ice cream melts inside the baked Alaska and makes it (gasp) soggy? It’s almost entirely about talented people making beautiful, delicious food. So, five stars from me.

The contestants from 2014 (the season I just watched).

But one people-watching aspect of the show that intrigues me is seeing how the bakers take criticism from the judges. Some are so extreme on the people-pleasing scale that they go out of their way to agree with the judges…and offer additional information on why their bake is even worse than originally thought. Others make a self-deprecating joke or agree to work on that aspect in the future or just say “thank you” and retreat.

But what always gets me are the people who argue with the judges.

Granted, some things are a matter of taste, but even then, do you really want to contradict two respected culinary authorities while being filmed?

Actual comments contestants have made include:

  • “Well, I quite liked it.”
  • “I really don’t think it’s that bad.”
  • “But you’ve missed the point.”

All of which were met by a sarcastic comment from Paul and a raised eyebrow from Mary (which, in understated Mary-speak means, “I am completely appalled by your rudeness, young man/woman”). None of their excuses, shockingly, changed either the judges’ minds or the state of the baked goods in front of them.

But the defensiveness is easy to understand. These people have put their identity in what they’re doing, and to have it critiqued is hard. “I am a good baker,” they’re saying. “Everyone has told me this. To criticize my baking is to criticize me and all of my hopes and dreams.”

So they respond with excuses and miss an opportunity to grow and improve.

And I cringe because that is totally me. (more…)

Baby Dedications for the Rest of Us

At most churches I’ve attended, Mother’s Day is for baby dedications, that time-honored Russian roulette of trying to guess which kid will scream bloody murder while the pastor prays for their life and faith and peaceful upbringing.

As a single person watching from the pews, this is prime time to either A. join the obligatory cooing when adorable pictures of the dedicatees go up on the screen, B. try to rank how much sleep each participating mother got the night before, or C. remember to call Mom after the service and/or take her out to brunch along with half of America (with sincere apologies for all those years I overcooked toast and undercooked eggs and passed if off as “breakfast in bed”).

While none of those are bad things, they might be missing the point, because we still have a role to play, even if we aren’t the ones onstage breaking into a cold sweat because the grandparents are in the front row taking dozens of pictures of Junior spitting up during the pastor’s message.

Whether you’ve never had kids or have already made it through the kids-in-the-house stage or are still in the trenches of parenthood, there’s something you can bring to the little ones making their Sunday-morning debut.

Most churches have some way of including the observing members in the dedication. Whether they ask the congregation to repeat vows or say “amen” or just be reminded that they are part of the raising of these little kiddos, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. Sometimes those requirements are spelled out, sometime they’re a vague commitment to join in community with the parents and children.

If that’s the case, here’s the fine print, just so you know what you might be agreeing to just by showing up on Mother’s Day, kind of like those terms-and-conditions boxes that hardly anyone reads before checking.

If you follow through on the promise you make at baby dedications, congratulations! You’ve signed up for a lifetime of tiny moments of secondhand parenthood, with all its joys and frustrations and moments of cluelessness.

You’ve agreed to do your best to model holiness in front of dozen of little eyes and ears. That means holding back angry words, choosing love, giving out of right motives…and humbly asking forgiveness when you fail in all those areas (as you’re basically guaranteed to do).

You’re telling parents that their kids aren’t just optional add-ons to the church, but that they matter. You’ll pray for their parenting when needed and be one in an army of comforters and babysitters and fix-it-guys and casserole-makers to be there with practical help in the hard times. You will greet and worship with and high-five and speak to the younger members of the church like they’re your little brothers and sisters (even if the highest spiritual plane you can bring the conversation to is dinosaurs and ice cream flavors). You’ll use your unique gifts to make a difference in their lives and in their parents’ lives wherever you can for as long as God puts them in your life.

If you live like you mean this, you will care about hundreds of young lives and sometimes wonder if it’s worth the emotional energy. You will give without the expectation of getting anything in return. You will speak up when you could just look away. You will pour hours and months and years of your life into serving kids who will shove a gluestick in your hair, like another Sunday School teacher more than you (and tell you so), hurt someone you care about, or leave the church and never come back.

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t get a family—a real, beautiful, stuck-with-each-other sort of family—without sacrifice.

There’s a lot of happiness when making room in your already-crowded life to love other people’s kids, don’t get me wrong. But it takes a reprioritizing, a setting aside of preferences, a long patience and a Holy-Spirit-empowered selflessness.

I’m not there yet…but I want to be. I’ve watched the lives of other believers who have loved recklessly outside of their own family lines to become aunts and uncles and grandparents to kids not their own. I’ve seen a special kind of beauty there that I want, because it reflects the love of Jesus.

So the next time a little red-faced child is making a joyful noise to the whole church, feel free to chuckle. But don’t forget to say “Welcome to the family”…and mean it.

What We Should Talk About Instead of Modesty

In Minnesota last month, we vaulted from a 15-inches-of-snow blizzard to 80 degrees and sunny in nine days. Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

This means that A. Facebook is now showing me lots of swimwear ads with a varying range of coverage and B. the transition from parka to hemlines-of-questionable-length happened so suddenly that my social media feed now contains a flurry of debate on the subject of appropriate clothing for women.

Especially the Christian women. There are opinions, my friends. Strong ones. Different ones. Strong people arguing different things very loudly at each other.

Not that this is new. I feel like May hosts an annual shouting match among believers about what is or is not okay to wear (mostly just for women) and about what messages we’re sending depending on what we choose.

I also happened to be reading 1 Peter 3:3-4 this week, which says, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing that you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

Confession: I always read this passage (and some others addressing women, modesty, and beauty) as being a little patronizing.

Why, you ask? Why would I insert an offensive tone into a passage with basically no justification?

  • Maybe I heard a sermon on this passage once that came across as condescending.
  • Maybe I react negatively to “gentle and quiet” because I automatically think “weak and passive” instead of “compassionate, gracious, and peaceful.”
  • Maybe I know that Peter and I are too much alike to actually get along so I go with the most annoying interpretation of what he says. (It’s a terrible habit, don’t pick up on it.)

Regardless, in my most recent read-through, it dawned on me: I’ve seen the word “imperishable” before. Just a few chapters earlier, in fact.

Do you know what else Peter calls imperishable and unfading earlier in his letter? Our hope and our inheritance in heaven. The blood of Jesus, our salvation, and the Word of God.

If that looks like I bullet-point listed the major components of your average creed, you’re right. Conclusion? The kind of inner beauty that God values in his daughters is just as worthy and lasting as the pillars of the Christian faith.

Which leads me to think…we haven’t said too much about what the Bible teaches about feminine beauty; we’ve said too little.

We’re over here with our checklists and tape measurers, our defensiveness and judgment, our angry Facebook comments on posts about whether Christians can wear bikinis and why guys are allowed to be shirtless…

…and God is like, “Can we talk about what real beauty looks like instead?”

If you really want my opinion about modesty in dress sometime, we can have that chat. I don’t want to dismiss those conversations as unimportant, especially in how they affect what we’re teaching both genders about sexuality, responsibility, and respect for ourselves and others.

But I think we’ve got the balance wrong.

Peter doesn’t tell women to set aside an obsession with physical beauty for a debate over appropriate clothing. He doesn’t tell us not to adorn ourselves with fancy hairstyles and jewelry because “modest is hottest.” We’re not supposed to trade one kind of overemphasis on outward appearance for another.

We’re supposed to love God and other people in such a way that what matters to God—justice and compassion and respect and selflessness—suddenly matters more to us than impressing others with our looks, image, or status.

Women of the church, moms who have daughters, Facebook warriors on either side, sisters who I love—let’s change the conversation on faith and beauty.

Instead of talking about short skirts and swimwear, let’s talk about making sure our budget and calendar and to-do list match what we say our priorities are. Let’s get into a moral outrage about a culture that says we have to buy more and do more and look younger to be worthy. Let’s examine our hearts to see where we have been harsh instead of gentle, angry instead of quiet, envious instead of at peace.

This summer, instead of having debates about temporary things, let’s go after the lasting beauty that is precious in God’s sight.