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Thursday, September 19, 2013

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

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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?

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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.