How to act on the brink of brokenness (or, divorce and the mercy of God)

Roly-poly1We used to call them roly polies. When I was a kid, they were hands-down my favorite bugs. Finding a family of them under a brick in the dirt was like finding a whole other world.

When a roly poly is stretched out and moving forward, he is one of the most flexible animals on God’s green earth. But when he balls up to protect himself he becomes the opposite of flexible. Stretched out, he can maneuver through dirt and grass and under rocks. Rolled up, he is incapable of mobilizing at all. He is just a hard ball of crustacean trying to protect himself.

When Jesus talks about divorce in Matthew,* it makes me think of the roly poly. Jesus says, “When you ball up to protect yourself, you default to a hard heart. And in a marriage, a hard heart can be a killer.” That “rolling up’ we do can manifest as anger, emotional withdrawal, dishonesty, manipulation or even bitterness. It is us, backing off emotionally until we feel nothing and have lost all sense of possibility.

Stretched out and moving forward, we put ourselves in line with immense possibilities. In a self-protective crouch, we are incapable of seeing the options.

In Jesus’ word about marriage and divorce, he reveals what he knows about human nature. The one who spoke us into being knows how we are made —  our weaknesses, how we cope, how we tend to protect ourselves. He knows our tendency toward self-protection leads us in directions we don’t intend to go.

And in his great kindness he offers mercy even at the dying end of a marriage. Not because it is God’s best but because sometimes it is the best we can do.

Sometimes marriages will fail. I believe this is exactly the point Jesus was making in Matthew. In a fallen world, tough things happen, things that are not God’s best. Sometimes it will happen because of our own fallenness; sometimes it will happen in spite of our best efforts at restoration.

What then? We are limited but we serve a God of immense possibilities. In the middle of something that feels like a valley of dry bones, what is our right response?

Acknowledge what is. Recently I had a conversation with someone whose marriage is teetering on the brink of brokenness. The comment was made: “I have to decide whether I want to be married to this person or not.” To which I replied, “Too late. You already are.” Married is married. Vows are vows. At the very least, be honest about what is.

Remember: there are a million steps between your unhappiness and divorce. When things go wrong, we tend to default to “fight or flight” mode and neglect all the options available to us. Keep in mind that we serve the most creative Being in the Universe. Surely he can come up with a solution or a way through that we haven’t yet considered. Is counseling an option? A conversation with your pastor? What about a weekend away? Or a weekend apart (but in safe places)? Spend time listening to the Holy Spirit and writing down every option you hear. Don’t discount any of them; allow God to open up the possibilities for you. A crisis will often narrow our perspective. Allow God the chance to widen it again. Remember the roly poly and stretch yourself. You can’t move forward in a defensive crouch.

Let Jesus referee. When face-to-face communication stops working, try knee-to-knee communication. Bring Jesus into the conversation through prayer. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence. If praying aloud isn’t comfortable, sit together and pray quietly. Start somewhere.

Remember that your circumstances are not the foundation of your happiness; God is. By focusing on circumstances, we make others responsible for our joy. Others must behave in a certain way in order for us to be at peace. If, on the other hand, we’re able to focus on what Christ has done, we find ourselves rooted in something more stable. Root your emotions in your relationship with Christ, especially in times of uncertainty. This change in perspective may be the key to moving us from hard-heartedness to whole-heartedness.

Is there room for divorce within a Christian worldview? Yes. When infidelity happens, the trust that is broken may be irreparable. When there is abuse, it is both our right and responsibility to remove ourselves from the abuser (some boundaries are holy; this is one of them). When others are acting immorally or illegally it is an act of mercy and maturity to hold them responsible for that. To let a person persist unchallenged in their sin is not healthy for either of you.

We will also get divorced for reasons that aren’t so noble or clear-cut but even then, we must remember that divorce — while it is not God’s best for us — is not the unforgivable sin. We can rebuild, restore and become new people as we forgive and take responsibility. Even when we miss out on God’s best, we remember that we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are people who sin in the hands of a merciful God.

Praise God for grace enough to cover all of it — the good, the bad and the painful.

 

* They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” — Matthew 19:7-9

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Come, Lord Jesus (or, How to pray for everything)

A few days ago I visited a mercy ministry in another town as part of our preparation and planning for building a capacity-building ministry in our community. Talking with the director of the ministry I visited, I was reminded again of just how many beautiful souls there are in the world. I keep running into people who care deeply about dignifying life, and who sacrifice for that cause.

Toward the end of my visit, my host invited me to step into the foyer where folks had begun to gather, both volunteers and clients, just after the doors of the ministry opened for the day. Their tradition is to gather that first crowd into a circle to pray over everything ahead.

The guy leading the prayer time asked if anyone had any prayer needs. There was silence for a moment, then a woman piped up. “The world,” she said. “Pray for the world.” A few knowing nods acknowledged what was on her heart. Yes, this is a hard world to live in and those in that circle felt the sharp edges of this world more acutely. We ought to pray for a kinder, gentler option.

More silence, then someone motioned toward a young man near the door. “Dylan just lost his home in a fire. Pray for him.” We all sighed toward Dylan. What a heavy thing to handle. We ought to pray for this man, who looked pretty lost.

A bit more silence, and the guy in charge said, “Okay then … we’ll pray for Dylan and the world.”

Dylan … and the world.

“Dylan and the world” make me mindful that changing the world begins with the person standing in front of me. “Dylan and the world” are the mustard seed and the mountain. They are Jesus telling us to be faithful with a little before we can be faithful with more. They are one woman telling Jesus that even the dogs get the crumbs, and Jesus using crumbs to feed thousands of people.

This is how it is in the Kingdom of God. There is a tension in God’s economy between the one and the many — a tension God himself seems able to hold together. God cares about Dylan, and He also cares about the millions of “Dylans” who have lost their homes this year to the evils of war, communist dictatorships, natural disasters and angry mobs. Eleven million Syrians have left their homes since 2011; Syrian refugee camps stretch on as far as the eye can see. Venezuelans have taken to the streets by the scores to protest their chronic economic crisis (inflation is expected to drive toward 2000% in 2018; try to wrap your mind around that).

The world can be a harsh place. Jesus says (Matthew 24:6-8), “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” This sounds too familiar. The world is a hard place.

At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, a poor tailor asks the rabbi as they are being forced out of their town, “Wouldn’t now be a good time for the Messiah to return?” In the Kingdom of God, this is how the tension is resolved … in Jesus. Jesus is the common denominator between the person in front of us and a worldful of need. And if that is so, then maybe the best prayer we can pray for “Dylan and the world” is the prayer of the early Church: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. It was the prayer of the first followers of Jesus as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. First-century Christians earnestly watched and prayed for his return, even as they spread the word about the Messiah. They believed passionately that in him is the one, enduring answer to burned-down houses, down-and-out men, failing economies, homelessness, and a world chock-full of hard edges.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Much of what Paul wrote was to stir up a hunger for an answer to that prayer. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen… ”  “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

I don’t think we ought to use a cry for Jesus’ return as an escape from being part of the solution. After all, Dylan deserves the whole gospel; the world deserves the best of Kingdom work. Our hearts must be broken for what is happening all around us. But I do believe that developing a hunger for the final answer to a fallen world will help us have faith enough to stand in that tension between the troubles in front of us and a world spiraling out of control.

Come, Lord Jesus. We are hungry to see you in all your glory, and to be delivered from the darkness.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo …

Choices shape futures.

We can blame this current hard choice of a new president on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 on our Israelite ancestors who created this mess millennia ago. Before the Israelites had kings, they were led (not governed, but led) by judges who submitted directly to God. It wasn’t a perfect system because they weren’t perfect people, but it was a God-centered system. Samuel’s sons delivered that system to its corrupt end by taking bribes, perverting justice and destroying the people’s trust (read the story here).

Call it a case of “king envy.” After seeing what his sons were capable of the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king like all the other nations had. Samuel warned them they’d be sorry. A system of kings, he said, would mean a loss of freedom. A king will draft your sons into the army and misuse the military for his own purposes. Your taxes will go up and your property will be over-regulated.

These were the desperate warnings of a prophet-judge to his people proving yet again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ignoring Samuel’s ominous warnings, the Israelites chose to hand all their freedoms over to a king who would then set government above God. Why? The story tells us they were looking for someone to fight their battles for them.

Let that sink in. The Israelites defaulted to a system of kings so they wouldn’t have to fight their own battles.

I suspect our worst choices still arise out of that motivation. In our desire to check out of the battle, we allow ourselves to listen to voices that promise all manner of happiness or relief, at the cost of our most prized freedoms. We want someone else to fix it/ legislate it/ outlaw it, so we won’t have to step up to the plate ourselves. Nowhere in scripture is that strategy promoted. To the contrary, the prescription for good lives and communities always begins with personal responsibility translated into better choices — those that look beyond systems to the God over them.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that nothing got better with a new system of kings; it only got worse. The Old Testament is riddled with stories of all sorts of kings who came and went, often punctuated by a line that sounded something like: “King so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.” Some of those evil kings lived for decades, only to have their legacy boil down to a few words summing up a career of inadequacies and evils.

“He did evil in the sight of the Lord … and slept with his ancestors.”

This line reminds us that as harsh as this season has seemed, kings have come and gone for millennia with little effect. While they may have wreaked havoc for a generation, their infamy was fleeting. At the end of their reign, God was still God. His purposes were still in effect — sometimes because of them, sometimes in spite of them.

And the same is true today. Whatever happens this week, God is still God.

Our most constructive response to that truth is to cultivate a better brand of choice for ourselves, one that is less political, more prophetic. Micah 6:8 gives some good bones for building a better brand of choice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This, in fact, may be the best litmus test for a godly vote on November 8th. A solid vote begins at the intersection of justice, kindness and humility.

Think prophetically, not politically.
Justice requires context. Justice doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing and it almost never means doing the easy thing. Justice always bears the fruit of dignity in other lives. Fences and abortion and human sexuality and the answer for national debt … for me to vote justice into those issues, I need the cross of Christ, the voice of the Holy Spirit and the heart of the Father.

Kindness requires both companionship and conflict.
In this political season the kindness (or mercy) we most lack is the capacity to honor those with whom we disagree. I cannot love people I demonize. Steve Johnson says, “The first thing you need to come to grips with is that the call to go and make disciples is greater than any political opinion you hold. And if you find yourself labeling, demonizing, or looking down on people who have different political views than you, then you have the problem. The problem isn’t that they have misguided political views. The problem is your heart.”

Humility is the antidote to pride. 
Humility manifests as self-acceptance, which is the opposite of self-centeredness. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality. Those who practice humility know how to listen well, with one ear to the world and one ear to the Holy Spirit. This is how Christians fight our battles. We don’t leave them to a political system or party, or to our kings and rulers. We take part in welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God by acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly.

Take courage on November 8th. Ours is not a perfect system because we aren’t perfect people, but we can participate in making our system better by building a better brand of choice rooted in mercy, justice and humility. We may yet return to a God-honoring culture but make no mistake: it won’t happen at the ballot box. It will happen in our hearts.

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Jesus is a friend of sinners (and Jesus is a friend of mine).

I’m thinking about a first-century gathering. Jesus is at somebody’s house and he is laughing. It is a deep belly laugh. Someone has just said something (maybe about the irony of Levi the tax collector hanging out with a spiritual teacher) and Jesus thinks its funny.

And it is kind of funny how people end up at a table with Jesus. They come in all kinds of ways, as many ways as there are people. Sometimes they come broken, and sometimes — like Levi, who learned from the best of them how to cheat people out of money — they don’t realize what they’ve been missing until Jesus shows up.

This gathering at someone’s house is news. It is odd that it would be news that Jesus is eating at dinner with friends; nonetheless, the religious leaders have someone looking in on this little gathering to see who’s there. They count heads and take names and go back to their people to report what they see. “Jesus is at Levi’s house,” they say.

And eyes roll.

“The food is not kosher. These people are not ceremonially clean. I doubt any of them could quote from the holy scriptures.”

More eye rolling.

That’s how people with a religious spirit do it. They judge everything so it is almost impossible to be okay by their standards.

Jesus does not get their standards. He just doesn’t get it. And when they call him out on it — when they call him on these picky little charges, like meeting with sinners — he says, “It’s like you’re treating a hangnail when a person has cancer. Where is the grace for what is? Don’t you see that when I go into these gatherings, I’m not looking for students to grade. I’m looking for friends to walk with.”

And with friends (you can just hear Jesus say it) you start with what is.

Four times in three verses, Mark mentions that Jesus is at this gathering with sinners. When a word is repeated in the Bible, pay attention. When it is mentioned four times, it means something: Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Which means that Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners.

That is great news for us, but a problem for people with the wrong attitude toward sin. People with a religious spirit don’t just have a problem with sinners. They have a problem with saviors, too. Some people have a problem with how Jesus chooses to solve problems. He doesn’t do it by ignoring sin, nor does he do it by running from sin. He does it by leaning in.

In response to our sin, God leaned in. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him and Isaiah 61 tells us God did it this way for the sake of poor, bound-up captives. People imprisoned by all manner of brokenness. Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people and fed a lot of hungry people.

And Jesus ate with sinners.

The whole time he was showing the mercy and compassion of God, he preached this good news about how redemption works. It is God leaning in, being unafraid of our demons, our diseases, our sicknesses, our poor spiritual sight. Over all our sin, Jesus pronounced the Kingdom of God, inviting us to enter in and be forgiven of our sins and made holy by a sinless sacrifice.

Jesus was that sinless sacrifice. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the old system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus willingly gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for — who peeked in on his small groups and judged him for leaning in and letting people start where they are — to arrest him, because he called his brand of compassion the very holiness of God.

And that is the Jesus who invited a group of sinners to sit around in a circle with him to enjoy each other and to find their redemption not in who they were but in who he is. Which means we are forgiven of everything we’re not … because of everything Jesus is.

Hallelujah.

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Habit #6: Joyful people recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves.

I-forgot-how-bigPeople are funny.

Not you, of course, but people you know. Sociologists tell us that people tend to classify other people in one of three ways: scenery, machinery or people.

“Scenery” is people who are significantly different than us. We acknowledge their existence and recognize that they live real lives, but we don’t see them as three-dimensional. They are are more like photographs — images with whom we have no relationship.

Then there are people who function for us more like machinery. They get things accomplished for us, like lawn care or house-cleaning or bug-extermination. They might even be volunteers in our church, but we don’t see them as people so much as a means to an end. We interact with “machinery” as a matter of necessity, not choice.

Then there are the people with whom we have actual relationships — people we value, whose stories we know, about whom we are genuinely concerned. They are us. And we like us.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us slot most folks into the categories of scenery or machinery. We put very few people in the category of us, which makes those people who see people in the margins as actual people that much more compelling. This is how Jesus saw people. He saw people with demons and people who scammed other people out of their money and people who have been sick for years and a drain on others, as people. Even the crazy ones, he saw as people.

People in need of mercy, yes; but people, nonetheless.

On my my most recent trip to India, we visited a mercy ministry in Bangalore. It was not a particularly well-run place; the people there were a mix of old, disabled, infirm and insane. Because I was fumbling around for a way to be useful, I began looking for what Mother Teresa encouraged us to look for in others: Jesus in his most distressing disguise. As I began to look, I began to see.

I sat down next to a woman who was skin and bones. Half naked and not fully conscious, she had been laid out on a concrete slab with her back side — full of bed sores, covered in flies — exposed to the sun. I don’t know how she was still alive and suspect she didn’t last long after I left.

The direct sun seemed an unmerciful place for someone so fragile, but no one moved this woman and she was certainly not able to move herself. I asked about a place in the shade and was told she needed to stay where she was. I asked about food and was told she couldn’t eat.

What to do, then, when there is nothing to be done?

Helpless in the face of such poverty, I wondered: as a follower of Jesus, what is my responsibility to this woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world? Do I demand justice? Throw her over my shoulder and haul her out of there? Helplessly move on?

Since none of those seemed viable options, I decided to simply notice her. I looked at her. Really looked. This was real poverty, real suffering. I sat down by her side and waved flies from her face (they’d filled her nostrils). I would have suspected that the Word of God would dissolve in the face of this reality but to the contrary, it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. In fact, a word from Isaiah came to mind as I sat there swatting flies and I spoke it aloud over her life: “The Lord called you from the womb. From the body of your mother he named your name … You are honored in the eyes of the Lord. God will be your strength.”

Far from being irrelevant, it seemed the one thing I might want if I were in her place. I think I’d want to know I wasn’t invisible, that I mattered, that in my final moments, the truth blanketed me. For any of that to happen in this moment between this woman and me, my take on the Kingdom had to expand exponentially. To be bigger. To be great. Very quickly, it had to become much bigger than my middle-class existence had come to accept.

In order for me to believe that word was true for a woman whose nostrils were filled with flies, I had to accept that the Kingdom of God includes mysteries I can’t comprehend, and I had to allow it to call me to a holy response that is bigger than my comforts allow.

You are not forgotten. The Lord knows your name. Your life even now has value. The world has failed to treasure your life, but God has not forgotten you.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

And it is much bigger than any one of us can comprehend or carry. We are called to something much bigger than ourselves.

God, forgive me. I forgot how big.

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