Some Questions I’m Asking

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After the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas this last week and the attack at the Istanbul airport the week before, my soul will not rest, my heart is moving toward despair, and my body actually hurts with the loss of life. I don’t have words, but I have a bunch of questions that I’ve been wrestling with as I’ve listened to the news, read various blog posts, and scanned through social media posts. Here they are:

What does it mean to live in our world today?

What does it mean to be white in the United States? How is the lens through which I see every victim and perpetrator impacting my heart and mind and response?

What does it mean to be black in the United States…and how do I know the answer to that?

Who do I need to sit with and listen to?

What authors do I need to read?

What are the things I want to be right about and why?

What statistics are right? Does it matter?

How am I benefiting from unjust systems, laws, practices, and presumptions?

What do I do with the despair I feel?

What topics, questions, conversations make me afraid? And why?

Who do I want to be wrong and why?

What are all the things that are making me so sad?

What ways of thinking or assumptions need to be renewed, challenged, questioned?

What history am I believing and has this caused me to be biased for or against certain people?

Who will be a light?

What lens am I seeing the world through?

What does love (and not being right, being respected, being loud, being defensive) look like right now?

What is my hope really in? Really.

Do you see us, Lord? Is your heart breaking?

What is mine to do?

How can I be on the side of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation?

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Just Wondering: Some Questions for My Christian Brothers and Sisters

I’m having such a hard time these days with social media and the news. Hatred, anger, and fear underlie almost every post and report. I have been especially surprised by the reactions and comments of Christians.

I haven’t been a follower of Jesus for that long—just since 2008—and I admit I follow him quite imperfectly. So perhaps I’ve missed something. But to my understanding it is love by which he said his followers would be known. (Jn 13:35) He didn’t say go out and be right. He said go out and be love. And he didn’t just say to band together and love each other. He said to love our enemies, to bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27–28) He said to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Mk 12:31) He said to welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner. (Mt 25:34–40) And he said “do not judge others.” (Mt 7:1)

These days, it seems that what we Christians are looking to do is correct behavior instead of love. Before we love you, we want to know whether you are a practicing Muslim or if you are just a Muslim by culture and in name. We want to know whether you are practicing homosexuality or if you’re just attracted to someone of the same sex. We want to know what crime you committed and whether you’ve actually repented. We want to know whether you’re addicted to alcohol or drugs before we buy you a meal. We would rather talk with you about your behavior than lavish you with love. We would rather pass judgment than extend mercy.

I guess I’m just wondering why we do this. What are we afraid of—that Christians will get a bad name? That we will be known as lovers of Muslims, homosexuals, criminals, or addicts? I thought that’s what we were supposed to be known for. No? Or are we worried that being right on certain issues is the thing that ultimately saves us? I thought we were saved by our faith and trust in Jesus. No? And, by the way, why are we afraid anyway? I thought we believed that Jesus has overcome the world and that our hope is in him, not our country, political leaders, or the Second Amendment. No?

Just wondering.

Christians Are Hypocrites

This is a continuation in the series “What Are You Afraid Of?” based on a discussion I had with a friend over dinner who said she was afraid I would try to convert her to Christianity.  One of the things she said was that Christians are hypocrites.

When I left my law firm several months back, I had conversations with as many people as I could who I had come to know to tell them I was leaving.  I took the opportunity to describe that I would be going into Christian ministry.  One of the men I told responded by recalling a lawyer he knew who was a “Christian lawyer” and the most difficult lawyer he had ever dealt with because he lied frequently and was belligerent.  At some point, he also mentioned the “Christian politicians” we hear about in the news.  His point was that the Christians he knows or has been exposed to are hypocrites.  They claim to be holy and righteous, but their actions demonstrate the opposite.  This leads, I think, to the conclusion that if Christians are this way, who wants to be one?

I remember feeling heartbroken about his perspective of Christians.  How often I had had this same view.  I remember becoming very aware about what a heavy thing it is to be called a Christian, one who carries the very name of Christ in your identity.  From a linguistic standpoint, when you describe yourself as a Christian, you are saying you belong to Christ.  The “-ian” means “belonging to.”  And “belong to” means to be the property of, to be a part of or adjunct to, and to adhere to.  In Romans, Paul describes himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus” and describes the gospel as a call to “belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1) and to be declared righteous in God’s sight based not on anything we do, but based on faith in Jesus who is righteous and holy and whose actions bear this out perfectly (Romans 3).

I respond to the assertion that Christians are hypocrites this way: First, I acknowledge the truth of it, at least in my life.  I belong to Jesus Christ.  My actions do not always demonstrate this.  I say God loves me, but I often act like he doesn’t.  I say there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, but you should hear the things I believe about myself sometimes.  I say I trust God and there is no reason to worry or fear.  I worry.  I fear.  Second, I am clear that I carry Jesus’ name in my identity not because of my own holiness and righteousness, but because of his.  Third, I do not share my opinion as to whether someone else is a true Christian or not.  Fourth, I continue to ask God to, as he has promised, transform me into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) and help me be like Jesus in this world (1 John 4:17).  I remind myself that I am a follower of Christ, not a follower of Christians.

How do you respond to the assertion that Christians are hypocrites?

There Are Some Things I Don’t…

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(photo source)

I have been writing this series of blog posts responding to fears that a friend of mine raised about becoming a Christian.  I am grouping the next three together because they are related:

  • I don’t know enough.

  • I don’t want to give up stuff I love.

  • I don’t really think I need it.

This is such an interesting group of fears, and maybe “fears” isn’t exactly the right word.  I struggled with each of these as I considered Christianity and so now when I respond to someone who raises them, I try to do it in a way that, looking back, did or would have helped me.

I don’t know enough. The Bible is the key to this one, but it is intimidating if we don’t know where to start.  If you start in Genesis, you’ll lose interest and comprehension quickly.  A suggestion that helped me most was to read the books of Luke and Ephesians first.  Luke gives an understandable and accessible description of Jesus while he was on earth.  Ephesians explains the significance of Jesus and what belief in him means and looks like.   I also found “The Case for Christ,” by Lee Strobel and “The Jesus I Never Knew” and “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” by Philip Yancey helpful.  There are only so many books to read, though.  And we will never know everything or have the answer to every question.  There is a passage in Psalm 34 that says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”  (Psalm 34:8)  At some point, you just have to try it and see.

I don’t want to give up stuff I love.  Somehow following Jesus, or being a Christian, has become associated with rules that impinge on our freedom.  The thought that comes to mind immediately upon hearing the term “Christian” probably starts something like, “If you’re a Christian, you’re not allowed to…”  This is so ironic because when Jesus lived on earth, and during the years of the early church, Jesus was criticized for being a violator of the law, not someone under which the world would be restricted.  The only things I have given up since I’ve become a follower of Christ are those things that hurt me and left me feeling empty and those things I idolized, putting my trust in, all the while knowing they would not last.  I have never felt so whole, at peace, or purpose driven.

I don’t really think I need it.  I used to look at my life, I think mostly subconsciously, compare myself to other people, and conclude: “I’m a good person overall.  I’ve made some missteps here and there, but nothing that bad.”  And so the notion that I needed to be saved seemed a little dramatic and unnecessary.  I could always identify someone who had done far worse things and the idea of them needing help seemed much more plausible.  But then I realized I had been drawing the wrong comparison.  The correct comparison is between me and God, not me and other people.  If I assume that God is holy in every way, not just like the best person I’ve ever known, but far, far better, indeed, perfect, I could see that I was not “pretty good” at all.  Far from it.  (Romans 3:23)  And if the goal was to be perfect and holy, I knew I had blown it very early on.  If the deep longing in me was a longing to be with God, all the evidence suggested to me that I could not bridge the gap my wrongdoing had created between God and me.  When I speak to friends now about this gap, I try to help shift the comparisons they make so they are no longer viewing their life in comparison to another person’s life but instead are comparing their life to the standard of a perfect and holy God.

What do you tell people who feel like they don’t know enough yet about what it means to be a Christian?

What have you given up since becoming a follower of Jesus?  What have you gained?

My Friends and Family Wouldn’t Get It

IMG_0386This is the second fear my friend identified as we talked about why the idea of becoming a follower of Jesus scared her:  her friends and family wouldn’t get it and she’d be alone.

The best response to the fear “my friends and family wouldn’t get it,” is: “Yes, that’s true.  Most of them won’t.  Some of them will distance themselves from you.  And it hurts.”  To say otherwise would be false.  The next question, quite naturally, is: “Then why would I do it?”

The only way I can think to answer this one is to explain why I did.  The truth is that for me, becoming a follower of Jesus did not originate with the thought that I had offended God and needed a way back to him.  I suspect this is true for most people today.  It did not cross my mind that I was separated from God because God was not my frame of reference.  My frame of reference was what the world taught me equaled success: a husband, a child, a house, cars, money, approval, gadgets, elite airline status, good wine, and a New York Times subscription.  Upon acquiring each of these, though, I became increasingly aware of their inadequacy to still me, and their tendency to create a craving for more.  I didn’t know what to do with my dissatisfaction, and so I unknowingly slid into a years-long period of disintegration and darkness.  There were still moments of light and laughter and hope, but really, I was lost, bouncing from one thing to another to fill my time and thoughts.

Eventually, I began to doubt that what I had been told by watching the world was true.  I could see that no matter how much I tried to love my daughter, and how many new things I acquired, trips I took, bottles of the best wine I drank, or men I loved, I still had a gaping hole inside of me.  I knew in the depths of me that my purpose could not possibly be to make money, acquire stuff, take some cool trips, and then die.  My purpose could not be just to give birth and raise my daughter because she would grow up and move out, and there I would be.  I also knew that my purpose could not be just to enjoy life because I had the sense that I was made to do something that mattered.  It crossed my mind that loving people could be my purpose, but I had not done that very well so far in my life and sometimes, I didn’t feel like loving people.

I became a follower of Jesus because I needed him.  I needed him even more than the acceptance, approval, or affection of my friends and family.  Still do.  In him, I found my purpose.  In him, I found eternal, unwavering, unconditional love.  In him, I found the power to love well and the ability to be still and content.  In nothing else could I find any of these.

So, knowing my friends and my family might reject me, why did I still decide to follow Jesus?  I needed to.  I lost some friends and some members of my family don’t get me or my decision.  But I’m not alone.

If someone asked you why you decided to follow Jesus, what would you say?

Did you know some people you cared about might turn their backs on you?  Then, why did you do it?

I’m Kind of Screwed Up and Don’t Think I Qualify to Be a Christian

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Photo credit

I could not come up with anything that describes the fallacy of the thought: “I’m kind of screwed up and don’t think I qualify to be a Christian” than the story below, by Philip Yancey:

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan.  Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts.  They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside.  “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times.  She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play.  Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her.  California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen.  He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay.  He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before.  She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year.  The man with the big car – she calls him “Boss” – teaches her a few things that men like.  Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her.  She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants.  Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there…

After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean.  “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name.  She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit.  When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores.  “Sleeping” is the wrong word – a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard.  Dark bands circle her eyes.  Her cough worsens.

One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different…God, why did I leave, she says to herself and pain stabs at her heart.  My dog back home eats better than I do now.  She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine.  She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me.  I was wondering about maybe coming home.  I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow.  If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan.  What if her parents are out of town and miss the message?  Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them?  And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago.  She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father.  “Dad, I’m sorry.  I know I was wrong.  It’s not your fault; it’s all mine.  Dad, can you forgive me?”  She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them.  She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years…

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks.  That’s all we have here.”  Fifteen minutes to decide her life.  She checks herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth.  She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice.  If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect.  Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees.  There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot.  They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad.  She stares out through the tears of quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry.  I know…”

He interrupts her.  “Hush, child.  We’ve got no time for that.  Not time for apologies.  You’ll be late for the party.  A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

–from What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey

***

If you are screwed up, there is a banquet waiting for you if you turn to Jesus in the middle of your screwed-up-ness.  No need to wait until you’re all cleaned up.  You’ll never get there.  Jesus said about as clearly as is possible, “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”  Luke 15:7

What Are You Afraid Of?

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Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me over dinner that she was afraid I might try to convert her.  When I asked her why she thought that, she explained that whenever we were together, I seemed at peace, told stories that sounded like miracles, and listened to her without judging.  I asked whether these things seemed inauthentic to her, but she said no, they seemed perfectly authentic.  I was stumped.

“So, you’re worried that if you ‘converted,’ you might be at peace, experience miracles, and be able to listen without judgment?” I asked, smiling.  “Really,” I said, “what are you afraid of?”  She smiled back and we spent the next couple hours talking about her fears, which had at one point been my fears:

  • I’m kind of screwed up and I don’t think I qualify.

  • My friends and family wouldn’t get it.

  • I don’t know enough.

  • I don’t want to give up stuff I love.

  • What if the whole thing is a sham?

  • I don’t really think I need it.

  • Christians I have encountered are hypocrites.

  • I have tried reading the Bible, and I don’t understand most of it.

After this conversation, I realized how important it is to remember that I had these same fears and questions, and I struggled with them.  These fears are real and deeply held because they get to the core of who we are and how we are.  As I look back, becoming a Christian was a little like walking off a 9,000 foot mountain into the sky wondering if the parachute would really work.  I also realized how important it is to be clear about how to respond with love and with truth, but also with the acknowledgment that I don’t have it all figured out, and probably never will in my lifetime.

So, for the next several weeks, I’m going to explore how I respond to these fears and questions, how they manifested themselves in me or in people I’ve talked to, and how to seek God’s guidance in responding with his heart and his words.  I would love for you to join me and to let me know what you’re afraid of or how you respond to these fears and questions.