When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Friday, January 24, 2014

...And Don't Forget that I Love You

The hall was long and dark. Bunk beds lined the walls, each draped with children and blankets, the rough orange wool pulled up around thin shoulders, muffling giggles and whispers. “Shhhhhhh…”, the older ones hissed, sending the younger ones deep undercover to stifle the offending laughter. There were echoes of running feet and affectionate shouting down other halls, but those sleepy-time moments in that long dark hall are always hushed and hallowed in my memory.

Every night I stood before them. With halting, faltering Albanian I read them a bedtime story, sang them a goodnight song, and tucked them in. Each one received a kiss on the forehead, a cuddle, and these words: “Naten e mire, gjume te embel. Zoti te bekofte dhe mos harro se te dua”: “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you and don’t forget that I love you.”

Years later, my goodnight memories of the orphanage remain some of my favorite; certain songs bring me right back to the dark echoing hall, the muffled giggles, and the smell of orphaned foreheads. Even now, I repeat those words to dear friends who come to visit and stay “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you, and don’t forget that I love you.”

I was learning then and am still learning now much about love, how it looks and sounds and is lived out; what it means to give love bones and skin and breath. Romantic comedies and pop ballads make it seem as simple as falling, but the truth is love requires more effort than I often feel capable of. It requires as much dedication and diligence, as much passion and sweat as a magnificent work of art; the personal cost it exacts always reflects the depth of its reward.

I am learning that love is the goal of my faith. Years ago, when I was settling into life in Germany, when I was making the transition from serving children with nothing to serving children with everything (and everyone in between), I asked the Lord how to accomplish the task. I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know how to relate to them. I didn’t know how to introduce them to the God who loved them. Down a tree-lined path under leaves gilded by the afternoon sun I walked, begging my Lord for wisdom, “What should I do?” I waited, expecting a plan, a program–a nudge in some direction, at the very least. 

The answer came softly, riding on the cool edge of a breeze sugared with the scent of honeysuckle and sweet hay, “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.” 

That sounded simple enough. I assumed they were marching orders to get the ball rolling. I could do it for a few months and then I was sure God would reveal His grand plan for revealing Himself. I did my best at loving all involved and a few months later asked again.

“All right, Lord. I’ve been loving them. Now what should I do?”

Quietly then, on the dancing steam of a coffee cup by the ledge of an icy window…

“Love Me and love them–the rest will follow” 

Hadn’t I done that? No matter how many times as I asked, however, I received the same answer: “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.”

Years on, I have realized that there really is no other answer. Jesus, Himself, makes it clear that every facet of faith (“All the Law and Prophets”) hang on those marching orders: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).

I am learning that faith in Christ is not about programs or formulas or cultural taboos. It’s not about being the ‘behavior police’ or standing firm against ‘enemies’ or whether our political pendulum swings left or right. The foundation of our faith is love. The expression of our faith is love. The goal of our faith is love.

It is clearly stated in the Bible: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6). Why, then, do we settle for a definition of faith that is anything less?

Perhaps because love, real love, is difficult. Following formulas and creating programs and ticking off boxes is, quite frankly, easier than investing a piece of yourself in someone else. The demands of real love are vigorous–they call us to sacrificial living: choosing to value another’s needs over our comfort, giving away what we’d like to keep, serving when we have every right to be served ourselves. There are no timecards to be punched, no holidays, no long weekends off when it comes to love. True love is much less a sentimental dream than it is a tangible reality involving ears and knees and dishpan hands. 

I am learning that true love is hard. It holds on long after feelings are gone. It digs down and settles in, determined to carry on, despite whatever response it elicits. Affection endears those who love in return; love loves for the sake of loving, no matter what the reaction. Love stays up late, gets up early, and lets someone else take the last piece of chocolate cake.

Love, however, as impossible an endeavor as it may seem at times, is always worth the effort. It is the only thing that will reveal to a hurting world the truth that God wants to heal their broken hearts. This is why we are reminded to do it so often, and why it is God’s first and greatest command. 

I think it is His greatest command not just in the sense that it is the most important, but also in the sense that it is the ‘greatest’–the most wonderful, the most incredible, the most fulfilling. I love knowing the most important job God gave me was to love–not to be perfect, not to be tidy, not to be successful, but to love. 

I am learning that love has its own rewards; that the process of loving changes me and that the bits of myself I have given away somehow multiply and double back, flooding the hollows they had left behind in my heart. Loving someone deeply, presenting them with the knowledge of their own intrinsic glory, watching their walls of pain slowly crumble and blow away is worth every lost moment of sleep, every inconvenient conversation, every sink of soapy water. Loving God and loving others has been the greatest experience, bar none, of my life. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. 

And I know God must feel the same, for He gives me moments that I believe He wouldn’t trade for anything. Has it ever happened to you? Have you ever taken a walk, minding your own business, and then turned a corner and been suddenly swept up in a golden storm of sunset? The yellow blush of sky on earth casting rivers and fields in hues of heaven; the wind laughing through tall grasses, the leaves in the trees rushing to great heights and depths in the dance of eventide. Have the colors breathed out by evening ever made your heart break? They did mine. And all my soul could say was, “I love You, I love You, I love You…”

I don’t know why my God loves me so much. But He does. And if loving those around me is what makes Him happy, then it is my privilege to do it. After all, He's never asked me to love anyone more than He first loved me.

My marching orders remain the same–I don’t even ask anymore. “Love Me and love them–the rest will follow.” It always does.

And so, naten e mire, dear ones. Gjume ju embel. Zoti ju bekofte dhe mos harroni se ju dua. “Good night, sweet dreams. God bless you and don’t forget that I love you…”

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Love Bigger than Life

His heart was bigger than his biceps. 

No difficult feat for most mortals, but for a hulk of a man who could bench-press upwards of 405, it was remarkable.  His uniform left no doubt about his profession, but in it or out, he served and protected just the same.  Those who saw his badge assumed courage and honor were his obligation, but those who had known him before knew the courage came long before the clothes.  He was born to protect.

I remember years before when he wore another uniform – a costume, playing the role of a different protector.  Dressed as Jesus, he addressed the insecurities of those on stage with him – an athlete and a brain, a shopaholic and a potential suicide victim, children of scandal and divorce and abuse.  No matter what complaint or wounded cry they directed toward themselves, each elicited from him the same response: “I love you.”  To the one driven by impossible goals, “Find your perfection in me.”  To the one feeling too broken to pray, “Just talk to me – I love it when you talk to me.”  To the one choking on a shattered self-image, “You are beautiful in my eyes – if only you knew.”  To every sorrow, every fear, every disappointment, his conviction never wavered. “I love you.”

He played the role well and I suspect it was another identity defined more by his character than his clothes.  His costume was convenient, but in it or out, he loved just the same.  For all the iron he could press, his greatest strength was making people feel valued.  He was born to care.

A heart that big is rare theses days.  Increasingly, we are becoming a fractured society and I am more than a little concerned at the creeping malaise of loneliness now lapping at the unsuspecting edges of our hearts.  We live and work and shop and drive and attend to our lists, and we do much of it on our own.  Like the characters who shared his stage, we have become consumed with the pursuit of our own accomplishments, with our own failures, and with the gaping cavern in between.   There is no space in our schedules to love one another deeply, and many have never learned how.  The media now defines love for us, and we have forgotten any other version.  Love has become a commodity we want to receive freely, but charge interest to give.  The result is loneliness – fathomless, disheartening, abysmal loneliness and we only know one way to deal with it.  Alone.

But my friend with the heart bigger than his biceps calls me back to an era in our lives that was anything but lonely.  They were years defined by a love the media often leaves unnoticed. His life overlapped with others, those on stage and at church and on the road, and when none of us were looking, we fell into being family.  We were delighted in each other’s presence; we were determined to bring one another joy.  We sought the Jesus he played on stage and in finding Christ we found the best in each other.  It is a web of love that, though the strands seem sometimes fragile, thinned by distance and distractions, binds us still.

It is also a web that can sting.  Just days ago, my friend’s commitment to serve and protect cost him his life – like the prophet Elijah he left us in a whirlwind, riding a chariot of fire.  We stand now in the ashes looking back on the moments he laughed and joked and breathed and bear on our shocked and disbelieving hearts the wounds of love.          

But the web that stings, also heals.  Once dressed as Jesus on stage, he left us on Good Friday, the day we remember Christ’s death.  I understand the disciples a little more, today.  Understand their pain and their disbelief.  Understand how they could have been speechless and in shock.  They bore the wounds of love, but they had fallen into being family, too, and when they weren’t looking, they left us a legacy of how to hurt well; they did not hurt alone.  Their binding web of love comforted them in the days following the crushing death of their friend.  They gathered together in a room, they spoke of Him, they missed Him, they grieved together.

I find it interesting that both Christ and my friend who imitated Him well - on stage and off - stepped away from earth on the cusp of significant seasons.  The corner of winter and spring is the spot of death’s demise every year.  Browned and curling leaves may cover the ground, white spindled fingers of naked branches may still rake the sky, but the defiant yellow of daffodils, having pushed and shoved their way out of the oppressive earth, is undeniable.  There is a greening, green like the color of my friend’s eyes, creeping along the ground and whispers of life after death rush like laughter on the wind.

And there is Easter.  The resurrection.  The deep and abiding hope, conviction, and belief that death did meet its ultimate demise, cracked and rendered powerless by a God who cast off His grave clothes as easily a butterfly its chrysalis.  The apostle Paul assures us, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20).   He is the first, and multitudes will follow.

The beauty of believing such a thing is that those who do are assured they will follow their Lord merely through the portals of death into the glory of new life.  Not only is the ultimate threat of spiritual death neutralized, the lingering series of daily debilitating deaths we call loneliness are obliterated, as well.  In finding Christ, we find the best in one another, for it is the “Him” in each of us that we are drawn to and delighted by.   He spins the chords of love that bind us and heal us; He gives us the great privilege of bearing wounds of love.  He knows the pain and reward of them well - He bore them first.

And the strength He gives to bear them is one that surpasses the limits of mere muscle.  Bulky biceps are good for other things, but stout hearts carry the true weight of others.  My friend knew – he knows.  Our memory of him reaches both into the past and into the future, to what he showed us and to the day we’ll thank him for it.  He pointed us to the God who reminds us that in every sorrow, every fear, every disappointment, His conviction never wavers.  His body may have taken flight, but his words remain: “I love you.”

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.”
-I Thessalonians 4:13-14

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Great and Mighty Goodness of God

God is good.

In every circumstance.
In every circumstance.
All the time.

It’s true.

Our circumstances neither indicate nor dictate the goodness of God.  His goodness is independent of the comedies and tragedies that ebb along the edges of our lives.  He is good on good days and He is good on bad days.  He is good when we are happy and good when we are sad.  He is good when we are satisfied or left wanting, good when we are overwhelmed by sorrow or joy, by abundance or by need.  No matter what is or is not, no matter what we have or have not, no matter what we are or are not, God is good.

His goodness is not challenged when comfort is compromised.  It is not reduced when wind and fire and water fail in their charge, swiftly turning treasonous and cruel against the humanity they were created to sustain. The breadth of His goodness spans need, the length of it spreads across affliction, the height of it eclipses the blinding numbing burn of unexpected trouble.  Nothing can diminish His goodness, neither heat nor cold, neither sorrow nor pain, neither presence of possessions nor loss of all we call our own.

The slivers of pleasurable experiences we have known and attributed to the goodness of God – sweet laughter with well-loved friends, gilded hues of evening on grass and trees and sky, berries full of a flavor so rich no tongue could describe – all these and more are nothing but barely heard whispers of the symphony that is His splendid benevolence.

God is good.

His goodness is known in every galaxy, every solar system.  If stars have souls, they, the ones who sang in the coming of creation, blaze with praise unceasing.  All matter known and unknown, dark and light, quantum and classical is imbued with His magnificence.  The universe waits in expectation for the tiny puny cry of creatures on the planet inhabited, straining to hear the words that set it spinning with glory.  “God is good”, we muster, through tears of joy or of sorrow, sometimes choking, sometimes shouting: “God is good.”  The universe goes wild.

God is good.
God is good.
God is good.

Nothing can change it.  Nothing can steal it.  Nothing can reinterpret, redefine, or rearrange it.  God’s goodness is as present on the battlefield as it is at the peace table.  It dwells in the first breaths of life and in the last breath before death, in health and in crippling, pain-gripped disease.  It is sewn into us, pulsing through us like blood, breathing in and out of us like air, whether we know it, see it, acknowledge it or not.  Just as He is the I AM, God’s goodness IS.

And so I will say it, again and again, whether I understand the swirling winds that whip through my life or not.  I cannot earn God’s goodness nor strive to see it grow – how can the infinite increase?  What could press the endless into deeper corners of eternity?  We tiny puny creatures are made merely to recognize it, to enjoy it and to speak it, again and again, no matter the trouble that surrounds, so that the universe echoes with glory unrestrained.

God is good.
God is good. 
God is good.

 Nothing else is truer.
 “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;    
His love endures forever.
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord
or fully declare His praise?”
-Psalm 106:1-2