How I hopped aboard the Lent train and gave up sadness on the ride to Easter.
How I hopped aboard the Lent train and gave up sadness on the ride to Easter.
So these ideas (you know, from Part 1 wherein I sang Amazing Grace with a naked stranger) began pinging around inside my head the other morning as I tooled around in my car between the bank and Target. In an effort to refocus my thoughts from Twitter, kid worries, my thesis and job woes onto Something Bigger than myself I turned the dial from NPR to the Christian station (which I can tolerate only about 10% of the time due to my saccharin intolerance, I’m a bad Christian).
<An aside.> But back up a minute. I’ve been inviting God into my writing life more. Okay, more begging than “inviting” him—to invade, pervade, take over my writing process. This practice was born in the midst of some pretty paralyzing writer’s block a couple months ago, and I’ve found that it has helped. But careful what you ask for, right? <End of aside.>
A turn of the thumb and forefinger, and lo, a David Crowder Band song shifted my attention to this idea about love—God’s love—that I hold to be true. Singing along into my imaginary steering wheel microphone elevated me, sweeping up my spirit, whipping with it my emotions and thoughts into an epiphanic dust devil.
He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
LOVES LIKE A HURRICANE, I AM A TREE? <holy swoon>
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
. . . And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
[Swept, I’m swept, I’m bent, like a tree and this really happens as I steer between Chase and Target]
And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all
Oh, how he loves us oh, Oh, how he loves us…
I’m feelin’ it. I’m lifting my right hand, singing, with heart and soul and voice, having some church up in my minivan. God, He loves US! just wow!
And on the horizon of this ecstasy a giant writing prompt blob looms. I don’t veer, don’t get out of its way. I let it gobble me up in its path: The “we” who sing this very song on Sunday mornings in church, while singing, become proprietary with this love. We hoard it at the same time we can barely believe it ourselves, the small portion we can grasp even as it spills from little hands. From our little human-sized praise bubbles we proclaim, Abba loves ME ME ME, with the subtext not THEM THEM THEM.
That idea blob, which is morphing into this blogpost, began to take shape in my mind, forming into mental notes for me to assemble later on a page. I thought about those Christians, how all those “other,” churchier people tend to claim, deep down, that God’s love is reserved more for them, a blessing for their devotion, that it doesn’t apply to the ones they deem out of God’s will. They may *say* God loves everyone, but they really view “those other people” as more worthy of judgment than blessing—people who are gay, divorced, atheists, unfaithful, the people who advocate for the gay, the divorced, the unbelieving. People who aren’t them.
And I’m swept up with the compulsion to announce to *those Christians* this: that God loves “us” means God loves “THEM” too! Whoever “them” is to the singer of the song, proclaimer of this truth (“how He loves us”). Gosh, I will write this down, I’m thinking in my car. Thanks God for this epiphany, which maybe can help persuade those judgmental people who hate on my gay friends, maybe I can craft something that in writing will communicate that David Crowder’s song applies to the people not in the pews too.
So I’m in my car, my writer engine revving with ideas, and a dear friend, an atheist I love and admire enters my mind and I see that she, too, is covered in that wide blanket of love even if she doesn’t believe and even if she finds it irritating that I do. I can sing the song at the top of my lungs with her in my mind, lifting beautiful-M to the throne of the Most High on my quavery alto, and she can’t do a thing about it! God doesn’t just love “us” so. He loves HER too.
This calls for prayer.
Me, to God, at the stoplight to turn toward Target: Thank you, God, for this idea, these thoughts, these fresh perspectives. I will write about them. God, help me to remember these concepts so I can write about them later when I get home. [Oh. The arrogance.]
God, to me, as I pull into my parking space: Sure thing, Beth. And while I have your attention…
I pulled into the expanse of Target parking feeling relieved to have a clear writing direction for a change so I wouldn’t have to just sit there later curing writing time staring at a blank screen. I turned off the engine but left the keys in the ignition. I wanted to sit there in that sacred space and enjoy the rest of the song, when a nearby unfolding scene bumped the needle out of my groove. In my line of vision a woman, cig hanging out her mouth, pulled into a Handicap parking spot. Yes, she did have a tag, but she was smoking and looking pretty agile. I sat there and watched her get out of the car and for all my strength didn’t hop out, chase her down and tell her her legs or back must be feeling better. She practically skipped to the door. I fumed. Urrrg. Grrrr. The nerve of people! When that damn song rushed back at me like an irony-shaped boomerang. Oh, how he loves that handicap fraudulent woman oh, how he loves her. … I laughed at myself, burned up inside over my overinflated sense of justice, and went in to shop.
A half hour later, I steered my cardinal-red cart loaded with first world necessities when I noticed the handicap tag faker’s car again and realized she would have to make it into this part of my “inspired” blogpost. I had heard a song in a new way to share with people who (I felt) might need to have their perspectives tweaked, and God decided to tweak mine. He was good enough to remind me that as open and accepting as I think I am, there are plenty of people who make my internal list of judgement-worthy humans I find difficult (or impossible) to love. And who knows — maybe handicap spot skipper is recovering from chemo. Maybe she has a family member with ALS. Maybe she’s seconds away from needing a trashcan. Maybe … who knows? It’s none of my business. My only business where she is concerned is to show her love.
The song on the radio when I turned the key to leave sealed the deal, but, well, I didn’t make bold enough mental notes to remember the title. I was too busy praying for God to help me be a better lover. Steve Curtis Chapman’s catchy Love Take Me Over will suffice, its message just as effective as the song I forgot.
This is what I’m sure of, I can only show love
When I really know how loved I am
When it over takes me, then it animates me
Flowing from my heart into my hands
Love, take these words that I’m speaking
Love, take these thoughts that I’m thinking
Love, take me over
Love, fill up all of my space and
Love, stand right here in my place
Love, hear this prayer that I’m praying
Love, take me, Love, take me over
Love, take me over.
Certain church types are really into praise music. They engage in a practice that must strike non-churchies as silly, ridiculous, and maybe even a little embarrassing. They—okay, we—have this bizarre habit of singing at full voice, under the steeple with of all the peeple and also within the privacy of our own earbuds, songs to proclaim doctrinal tenets we hold to be true.
Just tonight, after my swim at the Monon I stepped into the shower room to hear a thin voice over the spigot din singing Amazing Grace, the Chris Tomlin version (9,466,900+ views, zowee). And yes, I joined in to harmonize with the naked stranger four stalls down as I lathered, rinsed, repeated. How could I resist? I mean, “My chains fell off, I’ve been set free”? Also, Elf.
As a matter of obedience and tradition, generations of Christians have sung hymns and other spiritual songs to connect the corporeal and the spiritual while recognizing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Doing so is an act of worship, yes, but at its heart, praising musically is part celebration, part theologically acceptable mantra, driven home by Kevin Bacon in an impassioned exegesis of Psalm 149 in the city council scene of the 1984 classic Footloose.
And I think there’s another, more practical reason some of us engage in serial worship song singing: forgetfulness.
As Christians are we not supposed to operate from cell-level assurance of our status as dearly loved children? It’s what we preach. But as run-a-the-mill Earth dwellers with hoomin brains and limited capacity for memory we lose sight of the part about being created “in God’s image” and “a little lower than the angels.” For whatever reason we can’t help but insist on clinging to a self worth baseline that keeps us stuck feeling unloved, even unlovable.
Enter the psalmists and songwriters, who, since 1000 B.C., have penned songs to: 1) Help us praise God and 2) Help us forgetful sheep to remember that God’s nature is love. And this was before existential angst was invented.
By singing these songs in church, our cars, at home in private or with a naked soprano at the gym, we call on the lyrics to remind ourselves that we don’t completely suck; and when the lyrics are set to music we like, we are elevated to a state where we even feel loved and lovable, at least temporarily. If we can get that, if we can apprehend God’s love, we’ll have a chance of passing that love along to others, which pretty much sums up the greatest commandments according to Jesus:
Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Check back in a day or 2 for “Praise Craze Part 2: Love Take Me, Love Take Me Over, Especially When A Smoker With A Handicap Tag Pulls Into A Handicap Parking Space and Nimbly Skips Up To The Target Entrance While I’m Trying To Have Church In My Car With The David Crowder Band”
In other news, upon further examination it has been determined that “adulteress” was not entirely accurate. Turns out I was only a harlot and that, after more research into Biblical definitions and semantics, I apparently had it all wrong about adultery.
According to the author of a somewhat prominent Christian marriage site I’d rather not link here (hey, it’s a blog, not a newspaper), “modern Christians” completely misunderstand the word “adultery,” and I quote:
Here’s a simple test:
If a married man has sexual intercourse with his single secretary, has he committed adultery?
If you answered yes then you don’t know the definition of adultery.
He goes on to clarify the matter thusly: “The fact is that anyone who has sexual intercourse outside of marriage has indeed committed a sin (harlotry*) but if the woman involved is not a married woman then it is not called adultery.” He also says, citing Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance as his source (“the concordance favored by theologians”), that adultery refers to a specific kind of sexual sin: sexual intercourse with another man’s wife or woman who is engaged to another man. “That’s it,” the pastor-author says. “Nothing else.”
“It is impossible for a single woman to commit adultery.” Hallelujah. Thank goodness I’m a harlot. (Or was a harlot.) Harlot has such a nice ring, doesn’t it?, compared to “adulteress.” Harlot. I like the literary flavor. But wait, no. I was an adulteress and a harlot? Wait, what? Oh, man.
I do subscribe to the following idea asserted on another site representative of Christian thinking on the matter of “sexual sin,” namely that: “God created you with a purpose: To bring glory to Himself in an eternal love relationship with Him.” I love that about God. He’s such a lover. I also buy into the notion that “God invented marriage as a living metaphor for how He desires our relationship with Him to be.” My non-believing husband demonstrates this Ephesians 5 standard of marriage, driving me deeper into understanding of Christ’s complete and sacrificial love for His bride, men and women who follow Him.
25 Husbands, love your wives. Love them just as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her. 26 He did it to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her with water and the word. 27 He did it to bring her to himself as a brightly shining church. He wants a church that has no stain or wrinkle or any other flaw. He wants a church that is holy and without blame.
28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives. They should love them as they love their own bodies. Any man who loves his wife loves himself.
That’s the extreme to which my agnostic husband loves his Jesus-freak wife. Lucky me, eh? (And I also realize that the passage goes on to speak in terms of marriage applying to a “man and a woman,” but dude: I know gay and atheist couples loving their spouses in this Christ-like way better than many, many so-called Christian [male] husbands and their [female] wives. Don’t even get me started on the stats of violence and other forms of domestic abuse within Christian marriages.) But, in an article examining the question of why homosexuality, fornication, harlotry and adultery are sin I see clearly now that I really have no business being married. Specifically, this line:
“Homosexuality, fornication, harlotry, and adultery pervert God’s purpose for creating us and destroy the metaphor that represents the Holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctified intent of marriage.”
So therefore, dear reader, anyone who has ever had sex outside of marriage—including before marriage, which, according to the Waiting Till Marriage website’s article 4 Cool Statistics About Abstinence in the USA, takes 97% of American citizens out of the running as marriage material—really has no business tying the knot.
Anyone who has ever had sex before marriage—probably most of my high school class and yours—shouldn’t have the right to be married, legally or otherwise. We, all of us, are—or were—harlots, fornicators. We have all, whether in thought or action, perverted the metaphor.
And right now, in Indiana, the handling of a particular piece of legislation singling out same sex couples grieves and infuriates me! When I think of my gay friends who are monogamous and have been in a committed relationship years for more years than my (latest!) marriage, gay friends who are single and more chaste before/outside “marriage” than I was, and more faithful within their unions than I and other Christians who have made poor relationship choices have been, I think this: maybe I am the one who shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
We Christians STINK! Sheesh. We’re such puritans and hypocrites! According to the article “Why Affairs Happen”, in Today’s Christian Woman, “As many as 65 percent of men and 55 percent of women will have an extramarital affair by the time they are forty, according to the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.” And ministry folk? Not great PR/witness there either. “A Christianity Today survey found that 23 percent of the 300 pastors who responded admitted to sexually inappropriate behavior with someone other than their wives while in the ministry.”
And that’s not even accounting for the different “types of adultery” (emotional, mental). Jesus said, after all, that “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Por ejemplo: guys from 12 to 102 drooling over barely-dressed young women in just about any television commercial and the February issue of SI, to say nothing of actual porn; women, too, oo-lah-lahing over Don Draper (guilty!) and Adam Levine (again, guilty!). But for some reason, straight-up hetero- gray area impropriety/meta-adultery isn’t as appalling to us church types as homosexual monogamy. Blame the ick factor (<<<compelling NUVO piece from Indy photographer Mark Lee).
It’s not same sex couples being allowed to marry that unravels the fabric of our society, it’s people. Assuming a sex-focused root-of-evil perspective, society has been unraveling for a long time. Remember Thomas Jefferson? Bill Clinton? JFK? If it’s sexual sin we’re fingering as the agent responsible for poisoning our otherwise pure society, then consider the legions of “lustful” senators, presidents, ministers, priests, etc. and other skeezy culprits keeping CNN, FOX News and SNL on the air.
If it’s true that “Homosexuality, fornication, harlotry, and adultery pervert God’s purpose for creating us and destroy the metaphor that represents the Holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctified intent of marriage,” then maybe the Speaker of the House should reword the amendment to include language excluding from legal marriage in Indiana anyone who has ever had sex before marriage or outside of marriage. That would be the ideal. What say you, Brian Bosma?
And as long as I have my Bible open to Ephesians 5, I’m going to spend the day lingering on the first portion of the chapter: “Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children and WALK IN LOVE, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to god for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
My friend’s blog posts from his recent trip to hang out with junkies on the streets of Toronto are compelling and well written, I think, to the point that I want to share his blog. It’s beautiful. Check it out. http://cshawn.wordpress.com/2009/08/
Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'”
So I’ve been talking a big game about seeking God in the eyes of “the least of these.” More and more, I’m convinced that believers must vacate their circles of folding chairs to find Christ, not in a book or by exercising our well toned self-scrutiny muscles, but in the eyes of those for whom Jesus had a heart while he walked the planet. The poor in spirit, the poor in pocket, the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the cold, the sick, the imprisoned. And so like any good action-oriented American, I’ve decided to hunt for an appropriate outlet in my community — food pantries, missions for international adoptions, mentorships to teen mothers — since ain’t no alleys here in the most affluent county in America in which to find God.
And then a job dropped in my lap. Out of the blue. Helping the blind. Now, Jesus seemed particularly compassionate toward the blind. They didn’t make the Matthew 25 list, no, but I’m thinking they count as overlooked.
My friend Bubba pointed out that it’s (my church) “Grace’s social justice orientation with legs.” But does it count as sheep status if I get paid to help the visually impaired find work? And what does it say about my heart that I’m crestfallen that the job isn’t what I asked for? See, I’ve been looking for steady writing work and recently made the short list for a high-paying position with a prestigious advertising firm. I’ve been seeking a glamorous job while looking for an extracurricular least-of-these application to satisfy my requirement to find and serve Jesus.
So my question is this. Do acts of social justice count if the doer receives a paycheck for those acts?
41-43“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
44“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
45“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'”
Am I a goat? Am I a sheep? Will I see Jesus in the eyes of the blind? Because I really want to see Jesus. That’s what drives me to do anything good.
So, like the good evangelical Christian woman I never was, I made myself go to a quiet place to exercise the spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer. Coffee cup in hand, I settled into the comfy brown chair on my screened porch feeling the warmth of the morning sun on my face. I swatted the familiar gnat-like fog of guilt that hovers around the veil and obscures my earthly vision. I strained to see the divine, prayed, “Please help,” and turned to Scripture.
See, I’ve recently returned to the fold of Wednesday morning women’s Christianity after months of wandering in the wilderness with Traci, a writer friend of mine who’s also an atheist. I’m happy to be back, but a fish out of water feeling surprises me. The thoughts I had and documented on our project seem to have taken root in my gut. Turns out the experience really did change me and the way I approach and experience God and traditional Bible study.
This morning when I sat down to study and pray in the old way, I had that fleeting feeling of frustration and distance from God, the sense that I’m just not spiritual enough, I’m not doing something right. When I cried out to him, the darndest thing happened. Jesus spoke. He said to me, “I’m not in there.”
“Huh?” I said.
“I’m in the streets. I’m at Wheeler Mission. I’m in the trailers where children hide from hurt and homes where families go hungry this very moment. I am the battered women at Third Phase where women go for food and a fresh start. Encourage them, feed their babies, and you encourage and feed me.”
“So, wow. Those impressions you gave me back on the Beth and Traci thing weren’t just sensationalism? Not just entertaining and provocative writing points?”
“No, dear, they were my truth. If you want to see me, go to those places. If you want to store my words in your heart, do dive into my word. But remember, I am the Word. Don’t feel bad if you don’t see and feel me when you open those pages. I’ll touch you through the words as the Counselor wills. But remember what you read in that book Amy Lickliter gave you?”
“Yeah, what was that called?”
“God in the Alley.”
“Oh, that’s right. Thanks for reminding me.”
“You’re welcome. Yes, your brother Greg Paul wrote the truth that I want you and others blessed by suburban comforts to know and act upon — that you are to be and see Me in a broken world.”
Ahh, what sweet relief that the Word is Jesus. The word — God’s word, He was sweet to remind me, is a double-edged sword, living and active. But it is not He. He never says, “I am the Bible.”
I need to see Jesus, immerse myself in my beloved, radical Savior by going to –NO, by seeking out the hurting, broken, hungry, imprisoned, poor, disenfranchised, unlovely and unlovable. Immerse myself in them.
Be Him for — and see Him in — “the injured,” emotionally or physically, and the spiritually and physically hungry.
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