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Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah: A Story of Mercy

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My Sunday school teachers had turned Bible narrative into children's fables.  They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it.  They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity... 
How did we come to think the story of Noah's ark is appropriate for children?  Can you imagine a children's book about Noah's ark complete with paintings of people gasping in gallons of water, mothers grasping their children while their bodies go flying down white-rapid rivers, the children's tiny heads being bashed against rocks or hung up on fallen trees?  I don't think a children's book like that would sell many copies. 
-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

I find it quite ironic that I read these words only a few days before seeing "Noah" in the theater.  I'll be honest, though I encouraged my fellow Christians to give the movie a chance, asking them to see the film and look for some merit before writing it off, I went in with fairly low expectations myself, simply because the only other film I've seen by director Darren Aronofsky was not one that I enjoyed.  I didn't find it offensive, just a little creepy.  I was afraid I might come away from "Noah" with a similar response.  However, my hesitation proved to be unnecessary, as I actually found much to appreciate in this new film.  Did they take liberties with the story?  UH, YEA.  But that, for me, did not hinder the central message of the story.

**Spoilers ahead!**

I'll start with a few things this movie brought to life for me that I'd never previously considered, things that did NOT depart from the Biblical account.

1.  It was DARK inside the ark.  Like really, really dark.  I guess I'd always subconsciously imagined it with windows?

2.  Along the lines of what Donald Miller was saying in the excerpt above, it must have been truly horrifying to hear the screams of all those whose lives were being taken by the flood while YOU sat in safety.  I deeply appreciated how this was poignantly portrayed in the movie.  As a fairly extreme feeler, it doesn't matter HOW firmly I believe someone is getting something he or she justly deserves, I still am deeply troubled when I witness another person's pain.  Being in THIS particular situation...well, I just can't imagine.  I heard one comment about how the filmmakers had an agenda to portray God as mean.  Well, to be honest, I would humbly suggest that impression has little, if anything, to do with the way the filmmakers told the story and pretty much everything to do with the story itself, even as one would read it straight out of Genesis.  Sometimes it hurts to be confronted with the uglier realities of certain aspects of our faith story.  AND YET, while I completely understand how one could read the story or see the film and think God is mean and hateful, the crucial element here is to remember the whole reason God sent the flood was because men had become so evil & violent they were destroying each other.  This act of judgment was actually an act of mercy, and contrary to how sending a flood of this magnitude appears on the surface, through it God actually showed his LOVE for humanity by preserving mankind through Noah's family.  And I actually believe this was conveyed through the film.

3.  There was a time when the creation story was globally recognized and accepted, even by the most wicked of men.  I LOVED hearing one character after another speak of "The Creator" and getting a glimpse of a culture in which this story would have been passed down through oral tradition and accepted by all as a central component of life.  I also LOVED the creation montages used throughout the movie as the story was being retold.  Beautiful artwork.

4.  Although I knew Noah got drunk at some point after the flood, it had somehow never occurred to me to wonder WHY.  Though many liberties were taken throughout the film, including with what happened during Noah's family's time on the ark, the fact is God had not told Noah (or at least it was not recorded) how long his family would be confined to that space or when it might be over or, really, what would happen afterward.  I think we can all relate to being in the midst of a waiting period, not knowing when or how God is going to change our circumstances, and feeling something along the lines of situational cabin fever.  Not knowing if or when a difficult circumstance is going to change can make a person lose it a little.  Add to that uncertainty whatever myriad of emotion Noah may have felt in light of the fact that THE ENTIRE HUMAN POPULATION HAD JUST BEEN DESTROYED outside his door, and suddenly it's not at all mysterious to me that Noah may have sought a bit of escape in the form of alcohol.

Now, as I said, the filmmakers did take liberties with the story, perhaps most notably with Movie Noah's coming to the conclusion that God wanted to destroy ALL of humanity, INCLUDING him and his own family.  He came to believe their purpose was simply to preserve the animals.  When his only daughter-in-law, presumed to be barren, turned out to be pregnant, he determined he would take the baby's life if it was a girl, thus preventing any future births.  While nothing like this happens in the Biblical account, I don't have a problem looking past that to see what the filmmakers may have been trying to say through their own version of the story, and to be honest there were a few elements of this plot line that I actually really appreciated.

1.  Movie Noah recognized the brokenness that existed within himself and his own family.  He didn't assume they were incapable of great violence even though God had chosen them for an important mission.  I appreciate that the filmmakers painted Noah as a self-aware man when it would have been easy to have him come off as self-righteous.

2.  Movie Noah's wife desired mercy when all Noah could see was the need for judgment.  Though she, too, acknowledged her family's brokenness, she still desired life and love for them even when Noah had given up and resigned himself to this idea that God wanted them to die, too.

3.  After Movie Noah's twin granddaughters were born, and he arrived on the scene ready to take their lives, fulfilling what he believed God had called him to do, he caved, saying he couldn't do it.  From the time Noah's downward spiral began to this moment in the movie, I was wondering more with each passing minute if I was going to end up hating the film.  My response was hinging on whether Noah came to his senses or not.  When he lowered his knife past the babies, tears rolled down my face and all I could think was, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  YES.  Thank you, God.

4.  After Movie Noah's family was living on land again, Noah had a conversation with Ila in which he said he failed God by not completing the task of ending the line of humanity.  Ila SO WONDERFULLY challenged his statement...I wish I had the exact wording, but she essentially said, "DID you [fail]?  God chose YOU to go on the ark.  You had a choice -- he knew you would have a choice -- and you chose mercy, and love."  YES, YES, YES!!!  This whole plot line may have been entirely man-made, but the message it conveyed is SO TRUE to the heart of God!  

That pivotal scene between Noah and Ila was my favorite moment of the movie, and it was what enabled me to embrace this film.  The details may have been skewed, but the message was still that God loves humanity.  He loves us enough to put an end to our selfishness and violence when we're killing each other.  And he loves us enough to preserve us in spite of our brokenness when we're willing to walk with him.

There is plenty more I could say, but I'll close with just one more thought.  I feel like we as Christians sometimes make the same mistake Movie Noah made in thinking God has put us here to execute judgment on his behalf.  But we who live in this day and age have the advantage of knowing how he revealed himself and his heart in the life of Jesus, and Jesus' life clearly showed us that God desires to show mercy.  May we come to our senses as Movie Noah did in the man-made part of this story that's being told on film and recognize that mercy and love are indeed the things The Creator longs for us to choose.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Guard your heart." Um, yea, about that...

{photo source}
For pretty much as long as I can remember I've heard Proverbs 4:23 quoted as something of a warning against investing too deeply in someone (particularly a member of the opposite sex) prematurely, lest they end up disappointing you.  I always understood the logic behind such a precautionary measure, and yet there was also always something about it that just didn't sit right with me.  For years I chalked that up to my own stubbornness and the idea that I was too foolhardy to embrace common sense, but at some point over the past couple years I started to recognize a better reason that interpretation of this proverb just didn't resonate with me.

It's completely antithetical to the Gospel of God's Kingdom.

Allow me to step away from the proverb for a moment.  Something God really impressed upon my heart last year was the fact that if I'm supposedly a part of this Kingdom where Jesus reigns, that means I no longer get to assume the throne in my own life.  And another thing He really impressed upon me last year was the fact that submitting my life to Christ should lead to restored relationships in all facets of my life -- which I began to realize had a lot more to do with my choosing to love others selflessly than keeping up with a list of do's and don't's.  This is where Christianity -- in its pure sense -- breaks away from all other religions.  The main point is LOVE.

Now back to the proverb, how does a call to love selflessly fit in with the idea that we should "guard our hearts" by keeping a safe distance from certain people to ensure that we don't get hurt or disappointed?  Well, if you ask me, it doesn't.  It surely isn't what Jesus modeled during His time upon the earth, as He faced rejection, ingratitude, and betrayal time after time.  These things never once caused Jesus to pull back and withhold His love.  (Now, granted, He had harsh words for a few people, but if memory serves me correctly, those words were reserved for the religious leaders who were making it difficult for people to connect with Him.  I've pointed this out before and I undoubtedly will again, simply because I think it's a truth too many of us have lost sight of in our quest for personal right-ness.  But alas, I digress.)

If I am being transformed to look more like Jesus, why would I interpret a Scripture that urges me to guard my heart as a warning that I should somehow limit the investments I make in other people, lest I experience some form of pain as a result?  Would it not be more reflective of His life to guard my heart against things like bitterness, jealousy, pride, and unforgiveness -- things that lead to broken relationships -- and to be willing to take the risk of caring deeply for other people, even if they don't all care deeply for me in return?

{photo source}

There is a scene in M. Night Shyamalan's film "The Village" in which the leader of the town in which the movie is set has allowed his blind daughter to venture beyond the sequestered, supposedly safe confines of their small community in order to seek advanced medicine for the badly-injured man she loves.  The other leaders are appalled when they learn of this since their entire purpose in forming the community was to keep its members sheltered from the evils outside.  As they voice their frustrations with his decision, he emphatically declares, "Yes, I have risked!  I hope I am always able to risk everything for the just and right cause!"  And what is that "just and right cause" but love?  "The world moves for love," he says softly, moments later.  "It kneels before it in awe."

I want to live my life with a willingness to risk for the sake of love.  My friend Lisa who lives in Nicaragua wrote an affecting piece last September about a girl in her community who is living in this very tension, and it has stuck with me ever since.  I know it is risky to love freely.  I know at times it will lead to pain.  But you know what?  For one thing, pain is a little easier to bear when you know you're following a call to something beautiful.  And for another thing, it's not all painful.  Loving freely brings about a great deal of joy and beauty, too, that wouldn't be found without taking the risk of opening up your heart to other people.

So do yourself a favor.  Guard your heart, but guard it against the fear of allowing it to do what it was made to do:  LOVE.  After all, elsewhere in the Bible we're told that perfect love drives out fear.  In the words of Rend Collective Experiment, "Real love is not afraid to bleed."  Yes, sometimes we will bleed.  Jesus did.  He seemed to believe it was a risk worth taking.  And so do I.


I came across two great pieces on this topic yesterday.  Click here or here if you're interested in reading them.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Re-thinking Relationships

What's this?  Two blogs in less than a week?  After three and a half months of silence?  Well, yes and no.  Actually, the bulk of what I'm posting tonight was written prior to the last blog I posted before my extended period of silence, but it never made its way off the pages of my notebook and onto my computer screen until tonight.  Why am I posting it now?  Well, because I stumbled across it Sunday afternoon when I pulled out my notebook to start composing my most recent blog, and when I reread it I thought, "Dang, those were really good thoughts!"  Ha!  Basically these are some ideas that I think challenge the way a lot of us approach relationships, but rather than elaborating on that any further, I'll let the ideas speak for themselves...

Idea #1:  Be who God made you, not who you think someone else wants.

To begin with, trying to be someone other than yourself is not sustainable.  Let's say you're able to present another persona and gain someone's attention.  Then what happens when the true you surfaces?  More importantly, though, God has made you the way you are*, with a specific set of gifts and passions and experiences, for a reason.  You have a unique role to play in His Kingdom.  If you attempt to override His design for you, you may miss out on things He has called you specifically to do.

What I'm not saying:  Never consider where you might need adjustment.  God gave you a unique design, but even that God-given design needs to be examined and transformed as you submit to His guidance in your life.

Idea #2:  Stop seeking the perfect person.

The truth is, no matter how Christ-like someone is, he or she is still human*.  We all experience ebbs and flows in our faith journey.  We all face seasons of doubt, discouragement, and weakness.  We all have areas of immaturity.  These things do not make a person unworthy of your love and relationship.  Instead of seeking the person who has it most together, seek someone who admits his or her shortcomings and humbly pursues growth.

What I'm not saying:  Throw all your standards out the window and enter into a relationship with just anyone.  Sometimes a person legitimately needs to undergo some expansive character transformation before a serious relationship could possibly be healthy.

Idea #3:  Look beyond the surface.

Just because a girl is physically attractive does not mean she will fulfill your God-given desires.  And just because a guy pays attention to you does not mean he knows how to truly express your God-given value.  Is this person trustworthy?  Does he or she genuinely appreciate you?  Can you see yourself growing old with this person when beauty has faded and energy has waned?  Is he or she a proven friend?

What I'm not saying:  It's not okay to be attracted to someone's appearance or personality.  These are fine things; they just aren't the most important things.

Idea #4:  Give people a chance.

I don't know how long ago the concept of "friend zoning" someone came into play, and perhaps this trend has come and gone already unbeknownst to me, but I feel like it's a pretty ridiculous way of thinking.  I probably wouldn't have said this even as recently as a couple of months ago, largely because I wouldn't have wanted to subject myself to the possibility of giving certain people a chance, but God has been shifting my thinking when it comes to this.  If someone is already a friend, it seems to me that this should qualify rather than disqualify them for your consideration.  Why?  Because I would hope one of our primary qualifications for any romantic relationship is friendship.  Though I definitely have an easier time picturing myself with some people than others, God has softened my heart to the idea of giving pretty much anyone with whom I already have an established friendship a chance, given the opportunity.  There's no telling what might be right under our noses that we could potentially miss out on by prematurely dismissing certain people as "just friends."

What I'm not saying:  You should try casually dating all your friends.  That might be a little extreme.  Just be open to the possibility that something deeper could possibly develop from a pre-existing friendship.  Don't over think it* too soon.

Idea #5:  Recognize that romantic relationships are in no way separated from our calling to represent Christ's Kingdom in a broken world.

I think many of even the most committed followers of Christ tend to unwittingly view romance through a compartmentalized lens, buying into the pursuit of chemistry and emotion.  In reality it should be something more than that:  the joining of two lives already actively bringing glimpses of Christ's Kingdom to the world around them in unique ways designed by God for each individual, now entering into a lifelong pursuit of continuing to reflect His Kingdom as a team.  Sometimes I think the world sees certain things more clearly than we do, and to quote some wisdom offered up by Maroon 5, "It's not always rainbows and butterflies; it's compromise that moves us along."  The Gospel is a call to die to self, and if anything, a relationship that could lead to marriage will probably require more of our sacrifice than any other relationship.  This is not a bad thing.  It is hard, but it is good.

What I'm not saying:  Put away the confetti, romantic relationships are actually a killjoy.  A good relationship won't be oppressive, it just won't be easy.  It will be a challenge, but it has the potential to be beautiful.  To quote some more wisdom, this time from Mat Kearney, "Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy."

That's the end of what I wrote back in May.  To wrap this up tonight, I guess the main point I want to get across is that sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in wanting to BE and wanting to FIND the perfect mate, we get lost and forget we will never BE nor FIND such a thing* so long as we live in a broken world.  And along with that, people can surprise you.  That super quiet girl who was home schooled can turn out to be incredibly witty.  That guy who frustrated you with his Facebook arguments can turn out to have a huge heart for segments of culture that tend to be misunderstood.  The guy who is loud and crazy can turn out to have really deep thoughts about investing in a church community.  Don't take yourself too seriously, and don't be too quick to judge others.  Love the people in your life, take the time to really get to know them, and keep an open mind.  God may have something amazing in store that we never would have sought out or expected on our own.

*I highly encourage you to read the articles I linked to in this post.  There is some great food for thought in each one!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Environment of Welcoming

Last week I had conversations with two people within a three-day time span in which each person shared with me some recent events in his/her life that had been frowned upon by other Christians.  Both individuals were aware of the perception with which they would likely be viewed, but that didn't make the feelings of judgment or even ostracism any less hurtful.  (Let me clarify that neither person had done anything blatantly sinful -- although even if they had, haven't we all??)  Each of these friends expressed gratitude that I had been willing to listen to their stories without judging them or acting as though they were sliding down a slippery slope into the fiery pit of hell.  (I may have taken some liberties with exactly how they expressed that last part...)

I don't say any of this to congratulate myself but rather to ask why those of us who follow a God we describe as all-powerful often act as though He can only work in and through people when they display what we would consider to be impeccable decision-making.  If our God is so big, why do we so often think another person's seemingly risky choices are going to prevent God's movement in his or her life?  I am well aware that there are some decisions and behaviors that are clearly harmful to others (or to one's self) and I'm not suggesting we ought NEVER to intervene in another person's life.  But why are we so quick to jump to fear-induced pleas, expressions of disappointment, or worse yet, threats?

What bothers me most is knowing these friends of mine didn't perceive their fellow Christians as safe places to share their stories (and sadly with good reason).  If anything, I would hope that we who follow the Jesus with whom prostitutes and tax collectors felt at home would create a refuge to which all people could come to be real, to be vulnerable, to be met with love and grace - and yes, truth, but not the sort of truth that slaps someone across the face (it seems to me that Jesus reserved that sort of truth for those supposed followers of God who made life difficult for other people...if you're in that category, then okay, maybe you need that kind of truth, but my friends did not) but the sort of truth that embraces someone, flaws and all, and says, "I understand.  I'm broken, too, and I may not have an easy answer for you, but I will walk with you through this.  You are not alone."

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the church seems to rely a lot on fear, guilt, and shame to manipulate people into "appropriate" behavior.  I'm not exactly sure how that demonstrates the fact that Christ came to offer us forgiveness and freedom, but somehow it doesn't seem to me that fear or guilt or shame are exactly what Jesus had in mind when He came to proclaim the good news of His Kingdom...

This scene from The Office has always made me laugh, but sometimes I fear we as Christians echo Michael's statement to Toby when we encounter someone doing something we don't approve of.

I don't know about you, but it's God's grace and mercy that keep me clinging to Him, not some sense that He's going to "get me" if I don't behave.  I don't know when we started thinking that manipulation was part of our calling as Christians, but I wholeheartedly believe there is a better way.  A right way, actually.  And the last thing I want to do as a Christian is foster an environment within the body of Christ in which people feel they have to either put up walls or get out.

This was my fortune at Panda Express two weeks ago.  No joke.
I was sort of blindsided recently after I opened up to someone and was essentially asked not to share the part of my life I opened up about.  I'm an extremely trusting person (perhaps to a fault), but I really believe my openness with others is a big factor in why many people such as the two friends I mentioned earlier are comfortable opening up to me about sensitive subject matter they're hesitant to share with others.  And I think that's the way it should be in the church.  What is the church if we have to hide when we show up?  How can God produce genuine transformation in us if we're just masquerading as though we've already got it all together?

I have another friend who decided last year to start letting go of his facade, to start being real about the broken parts of his life.  He may not always say the most appropriate things these days, but do you know what he does do?  He loves people well.  He makes others feel welcome and included.  And to me, this reflects Jesus more than his previous charade.

It's not until people know they are loved and accepted exactly as they are that they can experience genuine, heart-level transformation.  Outward behaviors should undoubtedly follow suit (though we should not be too quick to assume a lack of inner transformation if those behaviors are slow to materialize, because the truth is transformation is a life-long process), but if the heart is not affected first, any outward change is only superficial.  And last I heard, Jesus was not a big fan of white-washed tombs...

I visited a church this morning where a friend of mine was leading worship, and the pastor's message was exactly in line with these things God has been speaking to my heart lately.  One of his points was that we should "reject shame as a motivator."  He reminded us that shame has never changed anyone's life, and while this doesn't mean we never confront sin, it does mean that we should only confront it from a stature of grace, not judgment.

He also said that we ought not to be rule-based and reminded us that Jesus had but two "rules":  1. Love God.  2. Love others.  He compared the Christian life to football, saying that the object of a football game is to score points (preferably more than the opposing team, of course), not simply to avoid penalties.  Likewise, the goal for the Christian is to LOVE, not to simply avoid missteps.  To paraphrase what he said, a win for us is to love our neighbor enough to share the love of Jesus, NOT to carry a flag in our pocket to throw at another Christian...just to play penalty-free is not the "win."

We would do well to remember this - to love more, to judge less.  To let people be real.  To listen and not to condemn.  To foster an environment of welcoming rather than a masquerade.

May we truly love unconditionally -- just as Christ loves us.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let's Be Honest

Yesterday after church I headed to a local coffee shop that I visit once a week to do some reading and writing.  The guy working knew me because of my frequent visits, and yesterday as we were talking he asked me my age.  I answered somewhat reluctantly and was delighted when he expressed genuine shock and said he would have guessed I was [12 years young than my actual age].

One might wonder why it matters to me, but I can point to at least two reasons without giving it a second thought.  First, I always expected I'd be married long before now, and being reminded of the age I've now reached without seeing that dream realized is usually painful.  Second, it would take at least two (and in some cases three) hands to count the years between my age and that of pretty much all my single male friends, and while age difference isn't a big deal to me, I fear it may be to them, and I am therefore not eager to draw attention to its existence.

Now my life has, for as long as I can remember, been filled with wonderful experiences and far more than my fair share of amazing friends.  If I'd married before now, I almost undoubtedly would have missed out on at least some percentage of these blessings, and honestly I wouldn't trade the latter for the former.  But that in no way diminishes the desire I have or the ache its deferment often produces in my heart.

Here's something that's not helpful for people like me (and perhaps this is why I so rarely broach this subject except with the closest of friends):  offering cliched statements intended to be encouraging.
"The right person is out there, just be patient and trust God's timing."
"Enjoy your singleness!  You have so much freedom!"
"When you stop looking, that's when it happens."
"Focus on God and He'll bring that person into your life."
"God is preparing you so you'll be ready at the right time."
Now there is definitely some truth within these statements.  There is also just enough misguided advice and lack of empathy to make me feel like I've been slapped in the face (albeit unintentionally) each time I'm on the receiving end.  While I truly believe people who say such things do so with the best of intentions, such statements unfortunately ignore a few basic truths that can produce unwarranted burden in the life of the hearer.

1.  A spouse is not a guaranteed part of God's story for everyone.

2.  While marriage does bring responsibilities that can limit opportunities, I would hope that those of us who follow Christ do not view marriage as a closed door on freedom but rather a new context through which to experience various facets of life.  I do realize many people are facing trying marriages, and I do not want to minimize such difficult situations.  But I don't believe God intended for us to view marriage as limiting, or else He probably would have said something in Genesis more along the lines of, "It will be perfectly fine for Adam to function as a singular unit," than, "It is not good for man to be alone."

3.  God's story for each person is different.  Some people find their mate when they're not looking.  Some find that person in the midst of the hunt.  Some are focused on God when the relationship begins.  Some are not.  God does not hold every person to some standard set of requirements before entering into marriage.

4.  No one is ever fully "ready."  Granted, some are better prepared than others, but I imagine even the best marriages must involve a good deal of trial and error.

I'm currently reading Rick McKinley's book, This Beautiful Mess, and in it he describes a time when his son was admitted to the hospital with an undiagnosed illness.  He explains with candor his and his wife's pain and fear during the episode as well as the responses of people around them and their effects on his family.
During those weeks, some well-meaning people gave us the right answers.  "God knows what's happening," they said.  Or, "Josh will be fine because we're praying."  The right answers seem right to say, of course, and seem right when you hear them, but they don't help much.  To be honest, the right answers began to make us angry.  Somehow Christians have a hard time saying things like, "I don't know why the hell this is happening or how this will end.  You guys must be scared to death."  I guess we all need to be able to explain life down to every last detail even when the answers don't mean anything to us.  We just can't stand the questions.  But in the kingdom of God, I have come to believe, it is all right not to have all the answers, and I think Jesus likes it even more when we don't make up ones that are safe and easy but hollow. 
Just because people prayed did not mean that Josh would be okay. 
Just because God knew what was happening didn't mean I did.  Or that I knew how God would intervene for our family.   
Just because I knew a Bible verse that says God will answer when I pray didn't mean I wouldn't lose my kid to some stupid killer infection.  His answers are not always my answers.
Here are the two most meaningful things that have ever been said to me in regard to my struggle with singleness:
"I look at you, and I just think, 'God...what the heck?'" 
"I don't know what things I'd be thinking about myself if I were your age and not care deeply, feel deeply, relate with passion, you give yourself to people and causes that are important to may be unmarried but this is not because you are lacking in ANY way."
No trying to resolve my situation.  No trying to explain it.  Simply acknowledging my pain, giving me permission to feel it, and suggesting that my situation is not the result of some failure on my part.

Rick McKinley goes on to talk about how God's Kingdom showed up even in the midst of his frightening and painful experience while his son was suffering.
The kingdom of God is the kingdom of life, health, beauty, salvation, and freedom to name just a few of its qualities.  The enemy of the kingdom, whom the Bible refers to as Satan, is always attacking that life and health and beauty.  He attacks spiritual freedom; he wants us to be paralyzed.  His relentless attacks are why things are not the way they are supposed to be...yet. 
But there in the midst of the tension, the kingdom of God still comes crashing in.  It usually crashes in quietly though.  God showed up all through our situation with Josh: 
Nurses who were kind. 
Gut-busting laughter that he and I shared during our hours in the hospital room. 
A friend who arranged for the guitarist from one of Josh's favorite bands to come to the hospital.  That was really cool. 
People who prayed and watched our kids and loved us.  People who sat with us, cried with us, laughed with us.  
In those moments, the tension receded.  It had to wait while the love of God filled the room and flooded our hearts.  The kingdom of darkness and ugliness, for those hours, was pushed outside the door by grace. 
I realized that God didn't create or send Josh's sickness and that He was not distant or unaware of it either.  God's kingdom is present and real.  He knows if a sparrow falls to the ground, Jesus said.  But that doesn't mean God flicked the sparrow off the tree.  Rather He is present and aware and caring, even in the tension of death and sickness.  And in its own ways, Jesus' kingdom breaks in.
As I read McKinley's story, it resonated with me in light of my own recurring struggle with pain over my singleness.  I recently came face-to-face once again with the reality that nothing is even on the horizon in the way of my dream of being a wife, and suddenly I was compelled to find some life pursuit that would be fulfilling even if I never get married.  And so, long story short, tomorrow I begin my college career, pursuing my AA in Psychology with the hope of being able to offer people some form of counseling some day.

God has been insanely faithful in providing for this new pursuit.  I enrolled in school having no idea how I'd pay for it, but two weeks ago I received an unexpected check that covered my whole summer tuition with $6 to spare.  The next day I received another unexpected check from friends who wanted to enable me to buy a laptop.  While I was humbled and thrilled by God's provision, a nagging voice in the back of my head began urging me to notice how God's provision for my new educational pursuits compared to His seeming lack of provision for my long-time desire to be a wife.  It suggested that He found the former to be worthy of His blessing while the latter didn't matter to Him.  I had to repeatedly shift my thinking, telling God I did NOT, in fact, believe He was holding out on me but that I trusted He was blessing my new direction to confirm that I was on the right track and this did not mean my prior dream was off the table with Him.

In the midst of this inner struggle as I read Rick McKinley's account of encountering the Kingdom of God even in the midst of his pain, I immediately thought of all the beautiful friendships God has blessed me with.  I've been on a journey with many of these friends over the past year in which we've been discovering what the Gospel really means for our lives and what it looks like for us to pursue righteousness (in the context of right relationships) even in the midst of a broken world, and it has been incredible.  Just a few days after this recent bout of discouragement, I spent an evening with quite a few of these friends, eating, talking, and laughing, in what was for me an unmistakable glimpse of God's Kingdom "crashing in quietly" even in the midst of my own pain.

I could have involved myself in another church at any point over the past few years in an attempt to increase my odds of "finding someone."  But I've always believed God is big enough to provide for my dream, if that's part of His plan for me, even as I continue to invest in the only church family I've known in Reno, whether that's through someone He will bring to that church family in the future or someone I'll meet in another setting or someone who's already there but as of yet is "just" a friend.  And if this dream is not part of God's plan for me, well, I'll still keep walking through life surrounded by a community I love with all my heart.

I sit here typing this on my brand new laptop feeling genuinely excited about the new chapter of life I'll enter tomorrow as I begin my college career.  When I first decided to go back to school, I didn't feel like God was telling me I needed to replace my old dream with a new one but rather He had a bigger dream for me than I had for myself, one in which He would use me not only primarily in one person's life through marriage but also in many other lives through counseling.  Though I've wrestled to hold on to this belief, and to accept the possibility that it will not come to fruition, my trust in the story God is writing for me remains intact amidst the tension.

I know I'm not the only person in my circle of friends who shares the desire for someone with whom to walk through life.  I also know I'm not the only one who has struggled with having that dream deferred, or who has experienced frustration at being offered simplistic answers that do little to address the painful longing.  One of my prayers for my community is that we will foster an environment in which we can simply be real and honest with each other, acknowledging the tension between our dreams and desires and the disappointments and heartaches that come with living in a broken world.  And I pray we will sense God's Kingdom crashing quietly and beautifully into our lives through the simple knowledge that we are not alone in our struggles.