Legalism vs. Love

My small group spent the last few months going over a series of books that we have, for the most part, found to be agonizing. But somewhere in the midst of the supposedly interesting stories that don’t aid the message, the corny jokes that should never have been told, and the plethora of statements I downright disagree with, my community found a way to thrive.

Oftentimes the books you agree with aren’t the ones that help you grow. So in the midst of all our frustrations, we created some really deep and meaningful conversations. (Also, we laughed a lot at this author’s expense.)

In this our final chapter (cue the Hallelujah Chorus), the author complains that many people seem to think that godly habits are legalistic—nothing more than rules, rules, rules. He goes on to ask why people training for marathons aren’t considered legalistic. Why aren’t people who do their homework legalistic? Why aren’t people who brush their teeth multiple times a day to prevent cavities legalistic?

Why, he asks, is it only legalistic when someone practices godly habits out of a desire to grow spiritually?

Um, Mr. Author Dude… You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Legalistic: strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.

In Theology:
a. the doctrine that salvation is through good works
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws

Rebekah’s Conclusion: People who practice godly habits out of a desire to grow spiritually are not legalistic; they are genuine.

Legalistic are the people who practice godly habits because it’s what they do. Because they feel like they have to. Legalistic are the people whose religion is rules. Legalistic are the people who haven’t encountered Jesus. Why else would they be living like the Pharisees He rebuked?

Disclaimer: I understood the point the author was actually trying to make. I understand the value of spiritual disciplines. More often than not I open my Bible out of habit rather than desire. I’m really good at doing things because I feel like I should.

I’m a writer, okay? I realize that inspiration isn’t something that will be faithful to me on the daily. Oftentimes it’s something I have to make room for. So like everyone else waiting to hear from God, I crack open the cover of that book and read, hoping that some verse, somewhere, will jump out at me—my little nugget of truth from heaven today.

Does that make me legalistic? I should hope not.

Because, for me, spiritual discipline is not a checklist of things I have to do to make me holier than thou; it’s a habit I cultivate out of a desire to know God better. Essentially, I do it for love.

So about a week ago, when a friend asked me if my family was religious, I cringed, hesitant to say yes even though I knew what he meant in asking. My eloquent response looked a little something like this: “Uh… Mmm… Yes?”

And he nodded enthusiastically because, after seven months of navigating this friendship and trying to figure me out, it’s all coming together for him.

He probably thinks I’m legalistic; I’m trying to convince him otherwise without going too far off the deep end.

It’s difficult sometimes to find that balance of following the law to the spirit rather than the letter. Hard to navigate living in a world that counteracts Christian culture while trying to be a likeable witness.

Everyone who knows me thinks I’m a good girl who follows all of the rules. They don’t realize there are only two rules I live by.

Love God.
Love People.

As long as I’m getting those two things right, everything else sort of flows out of that.

It’s not legalism; it’s love.

 

Reduce Me to Love

“Reduce me to love.”

These words, penned by the one and only Hannah Brencher, showed up in my Instagram feed yesterday morning. Like many of Hannah’s words, they enraptured me.

“Reduce me to love,” she said. And then she proceeded to tell of how she gets in her own way. How often she abandons Love in favor of Expectations and Productivity.

“So please, just reduce me to love,” she prayed. “Nothing more. Nothing greater. I know it won’t be easy. I know it should be simple, but it’s not.”

We fill our lives with so many meaningless (but often well-meaning) things. We try to accomplish so much in hopes of making a name for ourselves. We sing to the tune of Busy, Busy, Dreadfully Busy and leave Love by the wayside.

Love is just one more thing to worry about, and we haven’t got the time. There is no room even in the margins of our busy schedules to add this thing called Love.

But the reason I keep coming back to Hannah’s statement is because she uses such an unconventional choice of words. “Reduce,” she says. “Reduce me to love.”

Not, “Enable me to love.” Not, “Grow me in love,” or “Help me make room for love,” or “Fill me with a love that would overflow into the lives of those around me.”

No, she uses the word reduce. As if Love is a thing of which we are all capable if only we slow down enough to let it do its work. As if it lingers there in our hearts, just waiting for the opportunity to stretch out its hands and work its simple magic.

Because Love really is a very simple thing. Sure, we act as though it is something grand and lofty and hard to come by, but Love is a very simple thing at the core.

Love is a plate of food, wrapped and waiting in the refrigerator for the daughter who won’t get off work until ten.

Love is the handful of wildflowers you stop to pick on the way to a friend’s house because they are her favorite color.

Love is a name remembered. A ponytail tugged. A diaper changed. A late night trip into town for waffles.

Love is one single phone call/email/text message away.

Love is a series of simple things. The kinds of things that don’t require much. In fact, they require very little. Love requires us, not to be more, but to be less. To reduce ourselves from all of our lofty aspirations and checklists for productivity, challenging us to be—just be—that little thing that lingers when all distractions are stripped away.

Challenging us to be Love.

So please, reduce me to love

Nothing more. Nothing greater. Nothing important or pretentious.

Just Love.

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I Kissed Self-Preservation Goodbye

He told me it wasn’t my job to worry about him, but I’d long ago decided that I am my brother’s keeper.

She told me it’s okay to be friends as long as I don’t get emotionally attached, and I ask myself how that’s possible.

There’s a reason my mama named me “Devoted.”
And it’s not so I could offer my friends half-hearted affection.

Let’s pretend, shall we? Let’s pretend to care about each other until the going gets tough and we backpedal through our promises in the name of Self-Preservation.

Self-Preservation. I hate her. If Tragedy walking down the hall makes me cringe, Self-Preservation makes me grit my teeth, clench my fists, and say a prayer that I refrain from slapping her phony smile right off her face.

Because Tragedy may hurt, but she draws people together in a way that comforts and heals. At least, until Self-Preservation walks in. “It’s not your fight,” she says. “It’s messy and dirty and uncomfortable here. Let’s just walk away. Let’s just walk away before all of this becomes too much for this heart to handle.”

And we think we’re doing the right thing, listening to her. It’s the best thing for us, we reason. Because who wants to be burdened with all that heartache and despair?

So we plug our ears and walk away, hoping to forget the cries of the world.

But baby, baby, I hear you.

I hear the way your heart splinters into a thousand pieces.

Self-Preservation doesn’t care. She’s not going to rock you and hold you and wipe away your tears. Instead, she’ll tell you to get up and keep going and forget about this mess. And, yes, there’s a time for packing up and moving on, but you’ve got to pick up the pieces first.

Give yourself time to pick up all the pieces.
We wouldn’t want any fragments of you lost down this road.

Tragedy ripped through your world like a whirlwind, and, baby, it hurt like nobody’s business, but you’re going to be okay.

Yes, you’ll be just fine as long as you’re not looking to be preserved. Because maybe you weren’t meant to maintain your original or existing shape. Maybe you were meant to change with the seasons. Maybe you were meant to be remade and redefined.

Self-Preservation doesn’t encourage that in you. Self-Preservation tries to cling to the things that were. But, baby, those things simply aren’t anymore. There’s nothing you can do about that. I’m sorry if that’s not the way you wanted it, but, sweetheart, that’s the way it is. And that’s okay.

Change is a good thing, honest. Change is a requirement of growth. And trust you me, there is nothing more tragic than when a being stops growing. Stops becoming everything it was meant to become.

A friend told me that the enemy traps women through their emotions, but I think he traps us through our lack of emotions, too. And I believe the latter trap is far more deadly than the first.

So I said goodbye to Self-Preservation and made Sorrow and Heartache my friends. And maybe it’s morbid to say I love the way they make me feel, but I do. I do because they make me feel where Self-Preservation offered nothing but numbness.

But God is good and life is beautiful and pain is not all I feel.

Oh no, pain is a mere side effect of love. And love is so much bigger than pain. Love makes all the pain worth it.

So I don’t care. I don’t care if it defies the laws of self-preservation; I’m always going to love you this big.

Because you’re worth it.

Every single moment of loving you is worth it. In both the good times and the bad.

And maybe it’s true that you’ll only break my heart. Everyone tells me I shouldn’t be okay with that, but, darling, I am. I’m okay to be ripped apart, shredded open, and ravaged to pieces by you.

Because I think someone should care that much. And I think someone should love you that deeply. And I’ve never been good at giving anything less than everything.

So maybe it’s my own form of self-preservation—to love you with all that I am.

(So go ahead and rip my heart apart. Send an email to beyondwaiting@yahoo.com and tell me how you’re really doing. I want to know your story, I’m willing to enter your tragedy, and I promise to send a little love your way in response.)

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.

How to Cradle the World

I fell apart with a five-year-old boy in the middle of a classroom. And by “fell apart,” I mean I maintained that calm exterior that is necessary in a room full of preschoolers, but my heart completely ripped in two.

He said he was hungry, and maybe he was, but it wasn’t the kind of hunger a handful of Cheese Nips could solve. And I wish that it was because it’s so much easier to conjure up a handful of Cheese Nips than to piece together the splintered remains of a broken heart.

So there I am, with my box of unwanted snacks, simply staring at this boy with his thick, long lashes that are laced with tears and longing.

“He wants his mommy,” one of my students sagely observes.

I’ll bet he does. I’ll bet he does. And it would be so much easier to see him cry if I knew he had a mommy to go home to. But he doesn’t. Because he was transferred to my school at the same time he was transferred to a new foster family.

He’s five years old and he has nothing to cling to in life.

He mentioned a brother, but I didn’t dare ask if they were placed in the same home. I was afraid of what the answer might be.

Can I confess something to you?

Sometimes I feel so small.

Sometimes I feel helpless and useless and completely overwhelmed by the world around me.

And while I’ve never been one to doubt that one life can make a difference, sometimes I wonder if we make difference enough.

Because my arms aren’t quite big enough to rock the whole world close to my heart.

And I realize that my presence in the life of this child is temporary. Just a few, short weeks until school is out and he passes from my life forever—gone just as quickly as he came.

It’s almost enough to make me question the purpose of giving him all I’ve got.

Almost.

There’s a reason Rebekah means “Devoted.” I don’t know how to love with anything less than all I’ve got.

So I’m sitting there looking at this child, asking God why. Why would He give me something so fragile to hold for such a short time? Why would He give me the desire to nurture and mend and create wings for this child when such a task cannot possibly be done in a mere handful of weeks?

And what does one do with an untouched pile of Cheese Nips on her table and a steady stream of tears creating a puddle on her floor?

You let them stay just as they are, and you draw that child close to your heart, and you make him your world for a moment.

Yes, you make him your world, and you’ll see…

The world fits quite nicely in the curve of your arms.

You’re big enough to cradle the world, after all.

Yes, that’s how you cradle the world.

How to Cradle the World

Bleeding Hearts and Useless Words

There’s a word that keeps resurfacing in my prayer journal—an adjective I keep using to describe my heart.

Bleeding.

My heart is bleeding. Cracked. Broken. Rubbed raw and aching with the harsh realities of life.

Some of it is my fault—decisions I have made, bitterness I have harbored. But some of it… Some of it is completely out of my control. The only contribution I made to that pain was deciding to love too deeply, but I promised myself long ago that I’d never apologize for that.

So here I stand.

Bleeding.

Which is why I’ve been silent here of late. The words have slipped right through the cracks in my spirit. And I’m laughing to think that I had all the answers right up until it came time to use them, which makes me wonder if perhaps they weren’t the right answers after all.

Because when your heart rumbles and shudders with the force of an earthquake and your soul rips apart at the seams, you find that answers aren’t a strong enough foundation for the process of rebuilding your life.

So what is? What remains when everything else lies in ruins?

It’s simple, really. Simple and short and perhaps a bit cliche:

When answers fail—when words are rendered worthless—love remains.

…Which is a difficult concept for a writer to wrap her mind around. You see, words are pretty much my life. I live off them and in them and for them. I’ve read as many as fourteen novels in a single month and still didn’t get my fill of them. Words. Piles and piles of words.

I’ve never believed in letters that don’t wrap around from front to back. I’ve never learned to stay within the margins of my pages. And when I’m broken, I resort to poetry and prose.

But I realized just the other day that I often fill the silences with fluff as if I’m afraid of fresh, white pages. I realized just now that I craft entire paragraphs when only one sentence is needed. And maybe the message I’m trying to get across is found somewhere in that 500-word-essay, but there’s a chance it got lost amidst all the scribbles in the margins. And after all my assurances, condolences, and cliches, you still stand there. Bleeding.

Because I gave you pages of poetry when all you needed was a simple confession.

“I know that you’re broken. I’m broken, too. But I’m okay to be broken for you.”

Maybe all I needed to say was, “I love you.”
As cliche as that sounds, I love you.
Forever.
For always.
Yes, even in this.

Or maybe I don’t need to say anything at all.

Yes, I think for now I’ll just remain silent and bleed right along with you.

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Living For You

Sometimes I find some really cool quotes on the internet, and sometimes I find not-so-cool quotes on the internet. Like, I was on pinterest the other day (that’s how all great stories start nowadays) and I found this quote that says, “You can’t live your life for other people. You’ve got to do what’s right for you, even if it hurts some people you love.”

Of course the person that pinned it thought this was the best advice ever, but I was like, “No. No, no, no.” Because that’s some of the most selfish and horrible advice I’ve ever heard. In fact, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that basically all of the atrocious sins that are committed in this world are committed by people who live as if that statement were true.

And, yes, sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ll have to tell people “no” and chase a dream that they never believed in. But that doesn’t mean you can stop living life for other people. That doesn’t give you the right to hurt someone you love.

When Jesus came to earth, He didn’t do what was right for Him. He lived His life for other people. He gave  His life for other people. And if Jesus is the ultimate example of how we should live… Well, I think it’s safe to say we should turn this quote into ashes.

Life isn’t worth living if I’m only living for me. And though I’m selfish by nature and sometimes horribly fail at living for others, I at least want to be able to say that I tried. Because the worst thing I could possibly do is hurt someone that I love.

And once upon a time I started writing for me, but I like to think that the reason this blog has lived for so long—the reason I keep coming back two times a week to share words I didn’t know I had until they started flowing from my fingertips—is because there was a shift in my perspective. Somewhere along this two and a half year blogging journey, I started writing for you. I started realizing that my words carried enough weight in your lives that you kept coming back for more. That’s why I write here even though there are a hundred other things I could be doing. Even though all I ever wanted to do was write fiction.

I have a responsibility to you. This part of my life was meant to be lived for you. And even when I feel like I’d rather be submerged in a fantastical land with wars and prophecies and a curse that is about to be broken, I keep coming back for you. Because you’re worth it.

So in case you were wondering, I’m done living for me. I’m living for God. I’m living for you. And I’m living the moments as they come. And in fully surrendering me, I’m living free.