For God so loved the world …

Every morning when I blow dry my hair, I read. A physical book with a front and back cover and pages in between does not work well. I can’t keep it open. My phone is too small and I tend to look down when reading my phone, so my already thick hair just expands beyond help. So the best solution is my Kindle. I prop my beloved Kindle Paperwhite up on the bathroom counter, set the font size to an easy-to-read option, then sit back in my chair and read hands free, only having to reach up and touch the screen whenever I need to turn the page.

I don’t have a lot of books on my Kindle, but I do have one absolute favorite – 7 by Jen Hatmaker. I’m currently on my fourth trip through 7. I have a paperback copy, which I read first. That copy has highlights and underlines galore. Then I bought it on my Kindle, which is good, because my paperback is often loaned out to one friend or another.

How Jen has written the book makes it easy to read in short five to ten minute segments of time, so it’s the perfect hair drying/straightening book. The remarkable thing to me is that even this morning – my third time to read this book on my Kindle – I was highlighting more sections.

After highlighting a certain section this morning, my friend, Brooke, texted me and I shared the section with her because it was relevant to our conversation.

Brooke and her husband, Jon, are currently in the process of adopting a child from China. Brooke is one of those people who pays attention to the world and not just America. It’s one of my favorite things about her. In fact, thirteen years ago, Brooke was with me at a concert when we heard a presentation about Compassion International. She and I went to the Compassion table at intermission to look at all the child packets and she helped me pick out my first sponsored child – Juan from Guatemala. Juan was standing in a green, mountainous area wearing jeans, a pink and blue sweatshirt, and a big grin. She picked out a little girl to sponsor who had her hand on her hip and looked to be full of sass. To this day, Brooke and I still volunteer for Compassion together sometimes.

I love America. I’m so thankful to have been born in America. But at the same time, a lot of the Christian culture in America bothers me. There’s a lot of selfishness here. (I am absolutely guilty of this myself.) There’s a lot of petty emphasis on preferences that really don’t matter. (Again, I’m guilty.) I read a book a few weeks ago – Crazy Love by Francis Chan – and it was made obvious to me that I’ve let simple preferences carry far too much weight. It’s silly, really, but I definitely fall into that category. There’s a lot of emphasis on the prosperity gospel, which I have yet to find anywhere in the Bible. (While I absolutely do not buy into the “name it claim it” and “God wants you to have lots of stuff” school of thought, I definitely do like my stuff and I have a lot of it. I am very much a consumer.) Brooke showed me a quote by David Platt – “We desperately need to explore how much of our understanding of the Gospel is American and how much is Biblical.” Indeed. (This was another topic that was addressed a bit in Crazy Love.)

I’ve heard so many people who refuse to look outside the borders of the United States of America at anyone else. I’ve heard of people who are against foreign aid to other countries; I heard someone I know and genuinely admire talk about why he didn’t agree with foreign aid. I’ve heard people make very rude comments about international adoption. Some people don’t understand why anyone would want to adopt from somewhere other than America. (I think a lot of people don’t understand wanting to adopt at all.) This sort of attitude was the source of Brooke’s frustrations and our conversation today. It gets under my skin as well and Brooke and I know that when we are fed up with this sort of thing and want to vent our frustrations, we can vent to each other. It bothers me, but I would imagine it bothers Brooke more. Brooke has a child out there who has likely already been born and is waiting to be matched to his or her family – an awesome family. Brooke is a Mama waiting on her baby from China – a baby who is no less worthy of a family than any child born in America. To Brooke, it’s personal.

For God so loved the world … (John 3:16)

Go into all the world and share the Gospel … (Mark 16:15)

Whatever you did for one of the least of these you did for Me … (Matthew 25:40)

Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t those in America who could use our help and attention. There are lots. But I just don’t want to forget that there’s a whole big world out there outside of these borders. My Compassion kids are a reminder of this. Several friends of mine who have adopted or are working to adopt internationally are a reminder of this. I’m thankful for them all. For God so loved the world.

Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite songwriters. He has a song he wrote after going on a trip with Compassion and feeling confronted with how spoiled we are in America and the comfort we’ve become accustomed to. I’ve always found these lyrics to be profound.

Little Elba how’s the sun in South America
Does it shine upon the faces of the poor?
Do they see in it the brilliance of the place that’s been prepared
And dwell upon the hope of what’s in store?
Or are they just like me
Do they only see an opportunity
To complain about the heat?

And little Elba how’s the rain in South America
Does it fall upon the roof tops of the sick?
Do they thank the Lord for coming up with such a great idea
And dream about a place beyond all this?
Or are they just like us
Do they gripe and fuss
About the rain and mud
When they’ve had too much?

And I’m just a little jealous of the nothing that you have
You’re unfettered by the wealth of a world that we pretend is gonna last
They say God’s blessed us with plenty
but I say you’re blessed with less than me
Because you never stop to wonder
Whether earth is just a little better than the land of the free

Well I’m weary of the spoils of my ambition
And I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch
Well I wish I had the courage to deny these of myself
And start to store my treasure in the clouds
Cause this is not my home
I do not belong where the antelope and the buffalo roam

So I hope you’re safe and dry in South America
Cause I’m feeling pretty good in Tennessee
But may you never be so happy that you forget about your home
Your home in the land of the free

These thoughts may all seem scattered, but it’s just stuff that’s been turning over in my mind for a while. It‘s really just a stream of consciousness at this point. I’ll probably elaborate on some of it before too long, or will at least talk about it with a few close friends, but for now a lot of it is marinating. I’m trying to figure out what a lot of these things mean for my life.

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who acts – this person will be blessed in what he does. – James 1:22-25

I want to be a doer, because a lot of times, I’m just a good hearer.

I’ll end with two quotes from 7 along these lines.

Here’s the one I shared with Brooke this morning. Jen had just written about a homeless woman who interrupted their Easter service they held with the homeless community and made everyone (including Jen) uncomfortable. It was the next day when preparing for a speaking engagement that she made this connection. She compared the woman to Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) who called out loudly for Jesus while others tried to make him be quiet. Jesus was merciful to him & healed his blindness. James and John, just a few verses earlier, asked Jesus to allow them to sit at His right & left hand in glory.

The poor world is begging for mercy like Bartimaeus, while the rich world is asking for more favor like James and John. While the richest people on earth pray to get richer, the rest of the world begs for intervention with their faces pressed to the window, watching us drink our coffee, unruffled by their suffering. It’s just not right.

And then there’s this:

This life is a breath. Heaven is coming fast, and we live in that thin space where faith and obedience have relevance. We get one shot at living to expand the kingdom, fighting for justice. We’ll stand before Jesus once, and none of our luxuries will accompany us. We’ll have one moment to say, “This is how I lived.”

To me that’s heavy. Lots to think about.

Best Supporting Actress Goes To …

I’m almost two years younger than my sister, Melissa. I’ve always been her trusty sidekick throughout life. We ordered our parents a personalized Jones Soda once with the caption “Partners in Crime & Making Our Parents Cry Since 1980” and the following photo:

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Melissa was always full of mischief. I wasn’t always in the middle of whatever trouble she was getting into, because I wasn’t always that brave, but I was never far away.

We shared a bedroom until Ashley got married when we were eleven and thirteen. I remember many times in elementary school when the lights had been turned out for the night, we would stay awake and talk. We would sometimes hear Mama or Daddy approaching and one of us would loudly whisper, “Act asleep!” and we’d do our best job pretending.

In our shared room as kids, we would play house with all of our Cabbage Patch Kids, but we called it “Parts”. When we played Parts, Melissa was always ultimately the boss because her part of the room had the bedroom door. I had to ask permission to come into her part, so we basically played Parts until Melissa was tired of playing Parts. I wasn’t leaving our room until she gave me permission. It was fun though; I was probably always happy to keep playing.

When we managed to get grounded for bad grades or for whatever other reason, we would wait until Mama was taking her afternoon nap. We would quietly go in her room and whisper, “Mama …. Mama … “ until she said, “Huh?” We’d ask, “Can we go to Alicia and Lauren’s house?” She’d reply, still asleep, “Uh-huh.” Great! Permission! We’d head over to our friends’ house to play and then later would come a phone call to Alicia and Lauren’s mom. She’d confirm that we were there and send us on our way. Mama would always get on to us for going over there when we knew we were grounded. We would always tell her, “We asked! You said we could go!” Sneaky sneaky. It worked like a charm. I’m certain it was Melissa’s idea, but, like I said, I was right behind her. I wasn’t about to stay home like a goody-two-shoes while she played with Alicia and Lauren.

As young kids, we did a lot of role playing games, but Melissa was always the boss. The big sister would tell the little sister what was going to happen, and little sister would fall in line.

I remember Melissa saying, “Let’s play Nadia. I’ll be Nadia.” You know Nadia Comaneci. She was a gymnast in the early 80s who was amazing and scored a perfect 10 in an Olympic event. Melissa was Nadia. I was the lesser talented gymnast teammate. (This really was fitting since I’ve never even been able to execute a proper cartwheel.)

Then there was Jessica McClure who fell down a well in west Texas in the 80’s. Yes, that’s right, we played Jessica McClure. “Let’s play Jessica McClure. I’ll be Jessica McClure.” I suppose I was a news reporter? I can’t remember, but I was never Jessica. Melissa was the starring role, so Melissa was the child who fell down the well.

Ashley told me we also would play Annie. Melissa and I don’t remember that, but I believe it was a role we would go with. Ashley told me it went like this: “Let’s play Annie. I’ll be Ms. Hannigan and you be Annie.” (I think I got to be Annie because Ms. Hannigan got to boss Annie around.)

Then there was this one. I remember this one. I remember this photo. I had not seen it in years and had no idea where it was, but I knew this picture existed. I remember playing Santa Claus where Melissa was, of course, Santa Claus. She wore red and had a pillowcase full of toys slung over her shoulder. I was the reindeer. On a leash.

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Mama found this photo last night and I was so happy! Bless. Melissa is so cute. Her face is adorable. Her hat cracks me up. Also, I think she had on some of Mama’s brown cowboy looking boots. She thought this through – Santa wore a red suit and boots. I’m sure I was told to wear red as well, in the spirit of Christmas. I guess the rope/leash was tied to my belt loop on the back of my little Osh-Kosh overalls. My hair looks like a rat’s nest. Also, I can still sit like that, just not for very long. Melissa thinks we look annoyed because Mama made us stop playing to take a picture, but we’re so glad she did.

I’m glad I had Melissa around to give me supporting actress roles in our childhood games. We had fun.

Blast From The Past – College Crash Pads

This morning I was on my way to work and Worse Than I Thought by The Critics came on my iPod. I immediately thought back to Johnathan’s birthday one year in college when some of us decided to surprise him by having Myles (lead singer of The Critics at the time and previously of Jolly Napier – one of our favorite bands ever) show up to his apartment and do an impromptu concert in his living room. This memory cracked me up, because I remember it clearly – Johnathan knew we were trying to surprise him, so he made it obvious he knew. You know, the whole “Geez, I wonder if there are any friends hiding in the dark in my apartment right now?” thing. He was laying it on thick. He opened the door to his apartment, we all yelled “surprise!”, he shrieked and started fanning his face (adding to his I’m-really-not-surprised-but-I’m-going-to-humor-you act), and then suddenly saw Myles and was genuinely surprised – and clearly embarrassed at his over-the-top previous reaction. It was hilarious. (Hence why I was cracking up on my drive to work.) It was a fun night. We ate cake and ice cream. Myles sat on the couch with his guitar and took requests for a while.

Johnathan lived in Royal Crest apartments off Tech Farm Road. We lovingly referred to his apartment as “Royal Crap”. It was straight out of the early 80s, complete with dark wood paneled walls. It was not aesthetically pleasing, to say the least, but it was still such a great place. I took many mid-afternoon naps on Johnathan’s couch on days when I wanted to stay in Ruston for something at night and didn’t want to drive home to West Monroe. I ate many bowls of ice cream over there. Large bowls. Johnathan always bought huge buckets of ice cream and we didn’t skimp on serving sizes when at his apartment. We watched lots of movies and Friends episodes. I remember rushing to Johnathan’s apartment after an intramural flag football game during the final season of Friends and I seem to remember that we were locked out and ended up missing that episode.

Jennifer had a great apartment, too, over on East Reynolds. I lived in that complex briefly and it was fun to have Jennifer living just around the corner. To this day I can’t hear a song from David Crowder Band’s Illuminate album without having a flashback to playing old school Nintendo late at night in Jennifer’s living room. We’d play Super Mario Brothers or Super Mario Brothers 3 with the TV muted and David Crowder playing loudly. I also can’t hear Eminem sing “I’m sorry, Mama, I never meant to hurt you” without thinking of Jennifer’s hispanic neighbor singing that (complete with his I’m-not-from-Louisiana accent) as he walked up the stairs and Jody busting out laughing. Jennifer had a great couch for napping, too. She had the best couch ever. That thing was like a bed.

Janie was always a great hostess. She rented an actual house with a couple of roommates. Janie would invite a large group of us to her house – 808 Marie – also known as “Bob Marie” – and she’d cook a big meal for us. How she afforded to feed six or eight friends with large appetites while in college, I’ll never know. We’d all sit around the table like civilized people and eat an honest to goodness meal – lasagna or roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. Then we’d always play games afterward. I remember once a really quiet guy named Ryan came to a game night at Janie’s. We played a game called 1313 Dead End Drive. Once we were ready to move on to a different game, Ryan quietly got 1313 Dead End Drive back out and set it up again. I remember once when the ABS planned reverse trick-or-treating in the dorms, Janie offered up her house for making/painting our costumes. I remember that Keith was running around the house scaring us that night, knocking on windows and running. Someone got brave – either Jennifer or Brooke, I think – and met him outside with a pitcher of water. Surprise! Janie rarely even went to the ABS, but she was friends with lots of us. The best was when you’d end up spending a night at Janie’s because you’d usually wake up to sausage and homemade waffles.

Brooke and Emily occasionally had us at their apartment, but it rarely turned into a late night. Brooke would get tired usually between 9:00-9:30 and would start brushing her teeth. That was our cue – go home, folks! I do have two particular memories at their apartment. Once when a large group of us gathered there before starting our own photo scavenger hunt (we were good at entertaining ourselves), the neighbor’s dog ran inside. I think his name was Cal, but Brooke was yelling, “No, COW! Get out! This is not your house, Cow!” I also remember one night with Doug, Julie, and Brooke when we stayed up visiting way past Brooke’s usual bed time. Doug ended up making predictions about all of our futures and wrote them down, sealed them in envelopes, and instructed us not to open them until we were engaged to be married. Brooke and Julie have opened theirs fair and square, but I finally just opened and read mine several years ago. Doug was wrong about my future. Good thing he’s not a psychic!

One of my earliest memories of Jody was when we were playing the board game Risk at Doug’s apartment at the beginning of Jody’s freshman year. Jody’s turn immediately followed Adam Owens’ turn and Adam was hesitant to make a certain move because he thought Jody would overtake him. Jody assured him she wouldn’t, so he made the move. Jody immediately made the move to overtake Adam and he reminded her that she promised she wouldn’t. Jody’s reply – “This is not a Christian game!” That’s when I knew Jody would be a funny, feisty character. I also remember leaving Doug’s apartment one night and instead of saying, “It was fun”, he accidentally said, “I was fun!” That quote is still in rotation when we’re all together. In fact, Brooke and I said it to each other a few weeks ago when we parted ways.

Goodness, Ruston is a charming place. I’ve got so many good memories there. Thanks for the memories, friends. And thanks for the naps on your couches.

Blessings – a study in contradictions

I don’t believe God is overly concerned with my happiness.

Let me clarify.  I think God loves seeing us happy.  He created laughter and smiles.  God gave us the ability to laugh so hard that our eyes fill with tears and our stomachs hurt.  In fact, I remember once on a road trip with two friends when I laughed so hard at a chunk of cilantro stuck in my friend’s teeth that I almost threw up.  Those moments are fun and God gave us that ability to experience those things, so I absolutely think He revels in our joy.  He gives us plenty to be joyful about.  But is my happiness at the tip top of God’s list of concerns for me?  I don’t think it is, nor do I think it should be.

We got an invitation in our mailbox last Friday.  The front said – Beyond the Grave! – and directly underneath it read – “Free!  Free!  Free!” – and went on to tell about all the free stuff you might win if you were to attend the Easter celebration at this particular church.  I thought to myself – here we go again.  This church was going to have inflatables and carnival games.  They were serving hotdogs, chili, gumbo, frito pies, fried Oreos and Twinkies.  They were giving away “tons” of bikes, X-Boxes, Playstations, cash, MP3 players, giant Easter baskets, and more – all free!  You had to register prior to the church service on Sunday morning and then the big “block party” was going to follow the Easter celebration, and you had to be present, of course, to claim your prizes.

One local church gave away Visa Gift Cards at their church service prior to Christmas.  Now this one gave away lots of stuff on Easter.  As I’ve tried to wrap my head around this phenomenon and understand how they could think something like this was a good idea, I can only come to one conclusion.  They’re sending the message that God wants to give you stuff and wants you to be happy and entertained.  Come one, come all!  Win an X-Box!  God wants you to win an X-Box!

This is a common theology, it seems.  The prosperity gospel has spread like wildfire.  Name it, claim it.  God wants to give you stuff.  God wants you to be rich and prosperous!  He wants you to drive fancy cars and wear expensive clothes and have the biggest house imaginable!  Also, you’ll never ever get sick.

This is a shallow view of God and a shallow view of blessings.

Jesus described the blessed people as the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness.  Jesus said you’re blessed when you’re insulted and persecuted and falsely accused because of Him.  (Matthew 5:3-12).  This is a far cry from the description of “blessed” we see these days what with all the cash, X-boxes, and MP3 players on the list.

Also, Jesus said not to store up treasures for yourselves on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but to store up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.  (Matthew 6:19-20)

Jesus also said in this world we will have trouble, but take heart – He has overcome the world!  (John 16:33)

This idea that we’re always supposed to be happy, prosperous, and entertained is flawed.  The picture that is presented of a life blessed by God – with lots of stuff and fancy things and picture perfect health – is not accurate.  It’s deceiving and I think this idea is what draws a lot of people in initially (I mean, who doesn’t want a perfect life?!)  and then sends them heading for the hills when the first thing turns bad in their lives.  They think they must have done something wrong or they don’t have enough faith if their lives aren’t picture perfect.  They think God isn’t blessing them.

I’m generally a happy person.  I have my moments, of course, but I’m typically a happy, optimistic person and I can usually find something to laugh or smile about.  But here’s a bit of truth.  I think God is more concerned with my growth than my constant happiness and in my experience, it has been the hard times in life when I’ve grown the most.  They’re not fun times.  When I look back at the absolute most heartbreaking and painful times in my life, do you know what I see?  Growth.  Moments (sometimes a long time coming) of letting go of the selfishness I’m so prone to and growing in the process.  A much needed learning process.  Thank goodness for hindsight and a loving, patient God who never forsakes me in my most unlovable, bratty, uncomfortable, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, temper tantrum laden, pity party moments.  He shows me grace when I am anything but graceful and I think that’s a pretty big blessing.  Sometimes He has had to show me tough love, but I can look back on those times and honestly say that I needed it.

Nobody hopes for hard times.  Nobody wants to be in a difficult situation.  But I think we do God a disservice when we refuse to see the blessings in the things that our culture has taught us are anything but. His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  I think contentment is key.  And yes, this is easier said than done.  Note my aforementioned temper tantrums and bratty moments.  I am sometimes slow to get there, but when I finally get to the point of just being still and trusting God, I realize it’s okay.  Things are okay.  He is still good and still loving and helping me grow, even when I’m experiencing severe growing pains in the moment.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.  (Philippians 4:11-13)

We’re blessed.  We are.  Even if we don’t have a stash of cash in our pockets or a new X-Box hooked to a 72″ flat screen.  We’re blessed.  Even in pain.  Even in loss.  Even in disappointment.  Our culture has tried to change what blessed looks like, but culture is often times a liar.