Unconditional

In youth group this week, we were talking about God as our Father. When I got the girls into small group, one of them looked at me and said, “I get that God loves us, but what I don’t understand is why.” She then expounded upon what horrible beings we are and basically asked why God even bothers with us.

Whoa.

It’s probably a good thing that I don’t think it’s my job to give answers, but to spark discussion, because those girls have rendered me speechless time and time again.

Because I don’t think there’s a “why” answer when it comes to love.

Love is not something that can be explained logically; it simply is. At some point you make a choice, conscious or unconscious, to love another person and that is simply what you do. If we flawed human beings can figure that out, wouldn’t you suppose that a perfect God would be capable of the same thing?

The love my student was describing to me had stipulations. God should love us… until we fail Him, in which case He should turn His back on us forever.

But that’s not what love does. And God is Love, so that’s not what God does either.

So here this girl is asking me why, and I’m simply sitting there with my mouth poised in an answer that never comes. Because I don’t have an answer. Not really. I can’t explain why God loves us even when we spit in His face any more than I can explain why I still love my brother even though he once punched a tooth out of my mouth.

He’s my brother, and I love him; we’re God’s children, and He loves us. I could have said that to my student the other day, but I don’t think it’s a satisfactory answer for most people. I don’t know why it is for me.

I’m always a little hesitant to say this because it seems like it shouldn’t be possible, but I’ve never had a problem with the Unconditional thing. Maybe it’s because I spent a lifetime in church, where it has been permanently ingrained in my being. Maybe it’s because I have parents who would still welcome me home if I showed up on their doorstep pregnant or strung out on drugs. Or maybe it’s because my personality type according to Disney has been summarized as “Most likely to remain faithful to you even after being transfigured into an anthropomorphic clock under a curse that you caused.” (I never saw any similarities between me and Cogsworth until that moment, but now I kind of feel like I need to watch Beauty and the Beast for the hundredth time.)

In any case, I can do the Unconditional thing. I think that’s the piece of God’s image He gave specifically to me, and I’m grateful for it. Even though it has torn my heart asunder a thousand times, I’m glad I can still love freely and deeply.

Because I want to be the one who would leave the porch light on for my children to come home—perhaps in far worse shape than I would choose to find them—but home nonetheless.

I’ve always only ever wanted to be someone you can come home to.

I had a conversation with a preschooler one day. She sat down on the bench next to me, screwed up her face like she was thinking real hard, and finally asked, “Why does Brookie love you so much?”

As if I could know the motives of a child who couldn’t yet speak a word more than my name. As if I could put words to what happened in my heart when I first held her infant form in my arms. I chose her, and she chose me, and there’s not a child or teacher in that school who doesn’t know that Brooke is Miss Rebekah’s baby. How do you explain something as miraculous as that?

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why do you love me so much?”

There was a moment’s pause as she thought about it. “I don’t know.”

And she snuggled up under my arm because the whys didn’t matter.
Because she knew she’d always have a place between my shoulder and my heart.
I love her, and she loves me, and it’s the sort of thing that’s unconditional.
And we all need a little bit of unconditional.

A Very Clumsy Christmas

I love children’s Christmas programs. I love watching kids act out the story of a miracle that took place over 2,000 years ago.

Only in a children’s Christmas program do angels sing off-key and shepherds stumble against the backdrop as if they are trying to bring it down.

Only in a children’s Christmas program do you hear that an evil king was “determinated” to kill baby Jesus.

Only in a children’s Christmas program do you see a four-and-a-half-foot angel climb up on a chair so she can scream at Joseph and Mary to “GET OUTTA THERE!”

And only in a children’s Christmas program are we reminded that Christmas is a little bit clumsy. Yes, clumsy, as in: “done awkwardly or without skill or elegance.” Because, while the Christmas narrative was perfectly orchestrated, it played out in the most awkward and uncomfortable of ways. It was clumsy…

Clumsy like an awkward teenage girl being visited by an angel and finding that she has been hand-chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world. Clumsy like agreeing to this miraculous conception when she, like the rest of us who have ever answered “yes” to the call of God on our lives, didn’t really know what she was getting into. Clumsy like stumbling her way to Bethlehem in the final days of her pregnancy only to give birth in a dirty, smelly stable.

Clumsy like the shepherds who abandoned their sheep to see this child for whom the heavens had split open. Clumsy like the wise men who alerted the king of this impossible birth as they hurried to bring the newborn king the most unusual of gifts. Clumsy like being awakened in the middle of the night and hastening away to Egypt until the threat of death exists no longer.

Somewhere over the last 2,000 years, we’ve perfected our hymns and polished our performances until the Christmas story is something that plays out effortlessly in our minds, but I can’t help but think that the real Christmas had all of the elegance of a stage filled with elementary-aged kids, stumbling over their lines and completely forgetting their stage directions.

The King of the Universe came to earth with little fanfare, revealing Himself only to a young woman, her betrothed, a handful of shepherds, and a few wise men. When you look at it that way, the Christmas story is beautiful in its simplicity, miraculous in the most ordinary of ways, and absolutely, 100% clumsy.

This year, as you remember the story you’ve heard a thousand times, I pray you see it through new eyes.

May you have a very clumsy Christmas and a joyous New Year.

You Can’t Touch Her

I watched a handful of preschoolers chase one of their little friends around a playground when, suddenly, the little girl who was being chased made a beeline for my arms. I held her to my chest and shooed the other kids away with my free arm while explaining, “I’m base. You can’t touch her as long as I’ve got her.”

So the kids backed up and waited until Charleigh gained the courage to run again. She jumped up, knowing she didn’t have to outrun the others for long—just long enough. Once around the playground, back into my arms, and repeat.

Except one time, Charleigh didn’t make it back into my arms. One time, she didn’t quite run fast enough. One time, I watched her get tackled by one of her little friends. She was taking a beating, and even though they were all laughing and enjoying themselves, I knew it was only a matter of time before things got out of control and someone got injured.

It was time to change the rules.

I stood to my feet, cleared a few preschoolers out of my path, and pulled Charleigh into my arms. “Ah, ah,” I warned when the other kids rushed at us. “You can’t touch her; I’m base, remember?”

I’ve been replaying that scene in my mind for weeks because, sometimes, I feel a lot like Charleigh. When life swells up all around me and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed, I just know that I’ve got to make it back to God’s arms and it will all be okay. He holds me close as I catch my breath and my heart rate returns to normal. He soothes me and comforts me, stroking my hair, sheltering me from all those things that threaten to consume me.

Because He’s base, remember? And nothing can touch me as long as I’m in His arms.

Then I’m off again to repeat the same pattern. Only sometimes, like Charleigh, I don’t quite make it back in time. Sometimes I find that life overwhelms me and I’m lying facedown in the dirt. And just when I think I’ll never get back up, the rules change. The base moves.

And God is there, picking me up, brushing me off, and saying to my struggles, “Ah, ah. You can’t touch her; I’m base, remember?”

Sometimes God lets us run to Him. He stands there with open arms, waiting to be the shelter we so desperately need because He wants for us to seek Him. He wants for us to declare our need for Him. And we’re the ones who have to come crawling back to fall at His feet and say, “God, I need You right now. I need You so bad.”

But sometimes… Sometimes we’re in too deep. Sometimes it hurts too much to crawl. Sometimes we can’t quite make it back on our own.

And that’s when the rules change.

That’s when God stands to His feet and pushes our struggles out of the way until there’s nothing left but Him and us. That’s when we’re safe again.

So if life is beating you down, just turn around and see that He’s standing there, arms outstretched, waiting for you to fall into the warmth of His embrace. Waiting for you to let Him set things right.

Because He’s base, remember? And nothing can touch you as long as you’re in His arms.

Some Questions Are Better Left Unanswered

It seems like every time I turn around, someone within my online community has been debating the goodness of God. Is He good or is He not? Does God really love the world, or is He spiteful and vindictive? Because how could a God who claims to be Love allow so many things to go wrong? Why does He stand back as we endure suffering and pain?

I nearly lost my family on Easter Sunday. They were driving home from my grandma’s house when a car came flying across the interstate and nearly crushed the family minivan. Except, somehow, miraculously, it didn’t. And my family is alive. You can bet I was praising Jesus so hard I was weeping when I heard that news.

Last week, my young friend Mackenzie lost her dad to cancer. How can it be that a mere six weeks after I praise Jesus for sparing my father, Mackenzie loses hers? Is it fair? Is it just? Can I call that the work of a loving God? And if I can, would I still be saying the same thing if I had lost half of my family in a horrific car accident and Mackenzie’s dad was miraculously healed of cancer? Would I still believe in a God who loves if everything had been ripped away from me?

I’d like to say I would. In fact, I honestly believe that I could. I honestly feel that, under all the hurt and anger and confusion, I would still hear that still, small voice saying, “Rebekah, my child, I love you.” And I’m 98% convinced that I would believe it. Because I’ve believed it for twenty-one years.

Because I have lost people I love before. And yes, it was hard (and still is hard some days). Yes, I was angry and asked questions that haven’t fully been answered up to ten years later.

But you know what I’ve realized in the midst of the pain? Sometimes Love does things that don’t make sense to the beloved. Sometimes bad things happen so better things can come. Sometimes the losses we experience make room in our hearts for greater joys. And beauty really does come from ashes… eventually.

In case you were wondering, these aren’t the words I would tell Mackenzie, because they aren’t the kind of words that heal so fresh a wound. Because, deep down in her heart of hearts, Mackenzie knows what I know. She knows that God loves her. She knows that everything happens for a reason. But right now, those answers aren’t what she needs to hear.

Maybe the reason that God elects to leave so many questions unanswered is because He knows that what our hearts truly seek isn’t answers after all.

God’s silence in the times that we are hurting isn’t a sign of His indifference; it’s His way of standing alongside us in the midst of a myriad of empty platitudes. Maybe He doesn’t offer answers because He knows what we really desire is to be understood in a world that can only try at understanding. Maybe He holds back the words because He knows that what we truly need is simply to be held amidst the awkward shoulder pats and sympathetic smiles of the people who don’t know how to handle our grief.

Knowing the answers doesn’t take the pain away. It won’t give our loved ones back or miraculously heal our broken hearts. But knowing that God is there to carry us through when we don’t have the strength to carry ourselves… Well, sometimes that’s the only thing that drags me out of bed in the mornings.

So, for now, I’m content to leave my questions unanswered and keep my God close by. Because I choose to believe that Jesus loves me… even when He doesn’t say it out loud.

To Tickle the World

Steven James, in his book Sailing Between the Stars, ponders the roles we play in the body of Christ. He compares a couple of friends to an earlobe and a fingernail before speculating that he might be a whisker on God’s cheek.

I laughed when I read that and wondered, “Why a whisker?” An earlobe I understand and fingernails are necessary, but a whisker? What good is that? I feel that if whiskers were truly important, all of humankind would have them, but as you may have noticed, most (but unfortunately not ALL) women do not. And the majority of men in our culture shave them off. So again I ask: “What good does a whisker do?”

I started wondering why Steven James would compare himself to something so seemingly useless. Then I began to wonder why the rest of us do the same. Why do we look at our lives and think that the gifts God has given us are too small? Why do we look at all the fingers and ears and even eyelashes of our world and think we are somehow less than them because we are whiskers?

And I wonder if our gifts were meant for more than meets the eye. Because I have a memory of whiskers that is as fresh as the air I breathe in this moment.

For as long as I can remember, my grandpa had a beard. A Big, Soft, Bushy Beard flecked with browns and reds and silvers. I remember chasing my cousins through my grandparents’ house when a pair of arms would reach out of nowhere and engulf me, drawing me into my grandfather’s lap. I would brace myself for the attack even before the warning left his lips:

“WHISKERS!”

As his chin burrowed into my neck, my little hands would reach up to pull on his hair and shove at his face in attempt to break free. “Stop,” I would squeal through the giggles, while secretly loving every moment of our familiar game.

And that’s the memory that gives me pause. That’s the memory that makes me swallow my laughter at Steven James’ words about whiskers. Because when I look through at it that way, I can see that being a whisker in God’s Kingdom isn’t as bad as it first appears. And when I close my eyes, I can’t picture my grandfather’s hands or ears or eyelashes. But although it has been more than ten years since I’ve seen that glorious beard, I still remember the scratchy feel of Grandpa’s whiskers on my neck.

Suddenly, I’m feeling that my gifts truly matter and that there are no small roles in the intricate story God is writing through our world. But mostly, I’m realizing that whiskers aren’t useless at all. In fact, if I could choose the role I was meant to play in this story, I think I’d walk right up to the Divine Director and say:

“You know, God, I’d really love to be a whisker on Your cheek. Yes, I think I’d like to spend the rest of my life leaning down to tickle the world with Your lavish, ludicrous love.”

Running

“I’m running as fast as I can and every hour is another frantic stride. I used to think I was running toward you, then for awhile I thought I was running away from you. But in truth you’ve been running beside me this whole time.” ~Steven James

That’s the kind of God I serve – the kind that sticks close to me whether I’m seeking Him or not. The kind that doesn’t wait for me to run into His arms, but rushes to meet me where I’m at. The kind that doesn’t wait for me to wander back to Him, but follows me as I meander along the bunny trails of life.

He’s the kind of God who doesn’t wait for an invite to help a friend in need. He’s the kind of God who stands patiently by my side until I finally turn and notice that He’s there – that His arms are open and that His love is true.

Even when I run a million miles in the wrong direction, He loves me enough to keep running beside me. And even when I think that I’ve drifted too far – when I believe that redemption is too far out of reach, I find Him waiting. Waiting there all along, hoping I’ll turn around and notice Him. And it’s during those times when I realize how lost I truly am, that I’m thankful He runs alongside me just waiting for the moment He can turn around and carry me back to the life I was always meant to live.

Back to the Basics

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I scoff at the basic truths of Christianity. Not that I don’t believe them, but it can seem that I’ve heard them a hundred million bazillion times. Sometimes when I hear the words, “Jesus loves you,” I just want to shout, “Okay, I get it already! Do you really have to remind me again and again?”

As a matter of fact, yes, I do need to be reminded. Because, while I know the truth in my head, sometimes I forget to let it sink into my heart. Sometimes I don’t really believe it. Sometimes I don’t let it reach into the depths of my soul and transform me from the inside out. Sometimes I move to the rhythm of faith completely out of habit rather than passion.

But think about it. Those three seemingly simple words carry a lot of weight. Jesus loves me. Me. The God who created the universe, set the stars in the sky, and keeps the world in motion truly cares about the tiniest details of my life. That’s huge. No other religion in the world boasts a God who loves His creation. No followers of other faiths can revel in that fact. And sadly, most Christians (myself included) don’t really revel in it either. We accept it as a basic truth, a simple rule. It’s as routine as “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.” We don’t even consciously think about it anymore; we just write.

But the Bible isn’t meant to be a rulebook; it’s God’s love letter to His children. The words “Jesus loves you” aren’t merely lyrics to that first song you learned in Sunday school; they are a reality with the potential to turn your world upside down. It’s time to go back to the basics of Christianity and allow the marvelous truth of God’s love to break through our religious routine.

What simple truth are you going to allow to revolutionize the way you’ve been thinking lately?

Into His Arms

“If you could literally see incarnate Jesus walking by right now, would you shout to get His attention, walk over and tap Him on the shoulder, or just hope He noticed you?”

When I read that question in Lisa Harper’s Untamed, my response instantly came to mind: “I’d run right up to Him and throw my arms around His neck.”

It’s amazing that such gentle words can pack such a big punch, but the next words that came to mind hit me like a locomotive: “Then why aren’t you doing that now?”

Oh.

Well.

It’s easy to view the incarnate Jesus as different than the Jesus I love and serve today. The incarnate Jesus seems so real. So physical. So intimate. But my Jesus… Sometimes He seems so distant. So hard to reach. So very far away.

One of the students in my youth ministry recently posed the question, “Why do people struggle with wanting to know if God is here or there? He’s God. Can’t He be in both places?” Bless the logic of that high school boy; he’s absolutely right. So why is it so much easier to see God as some distant figure who resides in the cosmos rather than the very real being who is alive and at work in our world today?

I chastise myself because I know that God is present in this moment. I know that He is closer than my next cry and more real than the air I breathe. In my mind, I know these things. So why is it so hard to make the connection in my heart?

Perhaps it’s because God feels so far away. Perhaps it’s because it feels like He isn’t answering my cries and I rarely think about the fact that I’m breathing. In my heart, I feel as if He’s so far away. But I know that He isn’t.

The invitation stands in this moment just as sure as it did when God asked me this morning: “Why aren’t you doing that now?”

So I stand in the presence of a God who is more real than flesh and blood, open up my heart, and abandon myself to His love.

Dream Like a Child

“That big, big shadow in my dreams… Why can’t I find it when I’m awake?” “Why do I call it the Keeper?” “How come other children dream of the keeper too?” And “Why don’t grownups dream of the Keeper?”

These questions, asked by the young heroine in Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia’s Colors, won’t stop turning in my mind. No, I’ve never dreamed of a creature called “the Keeper”, but I wonder why it’s so much easier for a child to believe in the unbelievable.

“How can I see something in my sleep I’ve never seen awake?” Auralia questions. “And how come others have seen it there too?”

That’s where children live – somewhere in the dream world, even as they walk along the shores of reality. We “grownups” laugh at their antics as if they are the foolish ones, but I’m willing to bet that children are often closer to the heart of God than even the most spiritual adults.

The fairytales and magical lands we dreamed of as children aren’t foolishness as we’ve come to believe; they are a wonderous picture of a greater reality that we have ceased to believe in. Yet there are other worlds out there. If you claim to believe in the Bible, you can’t deny the existence of angels and demons and heavenly cities. This is the realm of which children dream.

It’s time we return to the dream world and allow our hearts to be captivated by the impossible. Sometimes, when we let down our guards, we get a little glimpse of Neverland. Sometimes we dream of “the Keeper”. And if the only place I’ll ever see Him is in my sleep, I’ll be content to remain in the dream world forever. Because that’s where He beckons me with words all too similar to the ones Tinkerbell spoke to Peter Pan in Hook:

“You know that place between asleep and awake? The place you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you… That’s where I’ll be waiting.”

No Greater Words

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” -Matthew 18:50-52

Sometimes I’m at a loss to say what I want to say. There are no greater words than the words God gave to man that we may know Him. And there are no greater words that I could say in celebration of Easter than the magic of what happened in the moment Jesus surrendered His life.

The temple curtain tore in two, the earth shook, the rocks split, those who were once dead walked the streets of Jerusalem…

I am filled with awe and wonder. I’m rendered speechless at the power of my God. Creation trembled at the death of its Maker, and shook with joy at His resurrection.

Celebrate. Jesus is alive. And my words will never be great enough to convey the wonder of the miracle of Easter.