Nearly every week I ask the girls in my Sunday School class: "What is the worst thing that could happen to you?"
The first time I asked it, I got a huge range of answers:
"I could get my phone taken away"
"not getting into college"
"my dad could lose his job"
"a parent could die."
All devastating things, to be sure (except maybe the phone), but not what I was hoping for.
So, I re-phrased the question: "As a believer, what is the worst thing that could happen to you?"
They had to think a little harder that time.
"Dying for my faith"
Again, all bad things, but still, I have come to believe, not the worst thing.
As a follower of Christ, the worst thing that could happen to me is to lose my love for Jesus.
I've told my girls this almost every week and I am just praying they are starting to believe it. I hammer this truth so hard because in ten years of working with youth my heart has been broken by how often they sincerely strive to avoid the wrong "worst thing" and don't even notice that the REAL worst thing is happening to them. Eventually many of them move from being a leader in the youth group and Sunday Regular to being apathetic at best and more often drifting completely away from their relationship with Christ--
because, frankly, they don't really love Him that much.
I desperately want them to GET the fact that not loving Him is the worst thing ever.
How does this happen?
Last week I think we stumbled upon something. One girl mentioned that her friends at school find her lifestyle odd. I pressed for examples and she said, "Well, for example they ask me why I want to be a virgin."
"And what do you tell them?" I asked, curious.
She was hesitant, as if she wasn't really confident about her answer. "I told them I want to be a virgin because the Bible says that sex before marriage is a sin and I don't want to sin."
Well, now, that is true. And a good reason for abstinence.
But the uncertain look on this sweet girl's face revealed something to me. It was as if she knew her answer was a fact, and she believed it, but something inside her was questioning: Is this all there is to my faith? Not doing things because they are sinful?
I thought of her curious friends and remembered what it was like to be the one wondering about Christians--and how NOT compelling "it's a sin" was for a response. (From what I have witnessed over the past several years, it's not even compelling to the kids who believe it.) Watching the more vocal Christians at my school work so hard to avoid sin because, well, it's SIN, did absolutely NOTHING to draw me to Christ.
Who wants that--living life in constant fear of disappointing the Rule Maker? Thanks, but no thanks.
As I looked at the faces of my Sunday girls that morning, I realized: We're missing it.
We're teaching them right from wrong. We're teaching them that sin is bad and should be avoided, but we're missing the point of WHY.
What if, instead of focusing so much on what the rules are, we revealed to them the heart of the God behind the rules? Because, as I mistakenly assumed as a Junior High agnostic, God didn't make rules so that no one had fun on earth.
Nor, as I mistakenly believed as a young Christian, did He make rules so that we could work really hard to prove our commitment to Him. (See how good I am, God? I'm a virgin! I don't smoke! I don't drink! APPROVE. OF. ME!)
What if we could show our children and the young people we mentor--through Scripture and our lives--that God is loving and good and can be trusted? That the "rules" are not for Him (as if GOD needs to prove anything), but rather for us--to protect us and preserve us for His BEST? What if we took the time to show them that every single rule in the Bible is motivated by God's absurd, unreasonable, gracious love for them?
What if they really understood the concept of UNMERITED favor--that God's love cannot be earned through performance or obedience, but rather is freely given to us IN SPITE of our sinful bent? What if they would obey Him because they trust Him, not to win His approval (which they already have in Christ)?
What if our young people, when questioned about their choices, could answer with confidence, "Because I know God loves me and wants what is best for me. He says that's not best, and I trust Him because I know He's good."
It's a simple idea, but revolutionary.
God's reason for creating me (and you and everyone) was so we could enjoy a relationship with Him, and bring Him glory and draw people to Him through our delight in Him. He demands to be first in our hearts, not because He's selfish, but because giving Him first place is BEST for us.
His love is the reason for the hope that I have. His love is what I want my kids to know before anything else.
His love is the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Just imagine how compelling a church full of imperfect people living loved would be to a hurting world.
This year I turned 50, a milestone that ideally comes with some hard-earned wisdom to share.
Instead, I've spent the past six months wondering how this could have happened to someone as young as I am. I swear, I JUST turned 40 a week ago!
It's been six months since my birthday, and I never did formulate any summary of the lessons I've learned over half a century. Perhaps time got away from me because I now spend an alarming part of my day running to keep my arteries supple and then doing yoga to stretch and strengthen so that my joints won't seize up.
And napping--because, what with all that running and yoga, you know....
...what was I talking about? Oh, wisdom.
Celebrating the big 5-0
This past week, I moved my oldest child to her new apartment (TWO HOURS AWAY). Let me tell you, launching your young will motivate you to come up with some wise words like 50 never could. The weeks prior to her move, I was overwhelmed with the sense that time was running out...
It didn't help that every blog post that crossed my path contained something in the title having to do with "what kids need to know BEFORE they leave home." (Ulp.)
Did she learn everything I wanted her to learn? In the short time remaining, I struggled with coming up with a "Top 10" list of truths I wanted to be SURE she knew before she left my home.
(Struggled is a bit of an understatement.)
In the end, I cranked out a last-minute compilation resulting from my scattered pondering over the preceding weeks--just before we headed out the door. It would have to do, because time was officially UP. The following list was written specifically to MY girl, but I'm thinking it pretty much hits the highlights of my wisdom from 50 years of living. (It's a good start anyway!)
Celebrating (...well, mostly) my first to leave the nest.
Jesus first—even when you are not feeling it. Home is where He is.
You are a work in progress; you are enough, and you are worth fighting for. So is everyone else. Don't settle for less, and don't give less.
You are loved—even when you are not feeling it. LIVE LOVED.
The worst person you can lie to is yourself.
Failure is nearly always part of the road to success. Give yourself permission to fail.
Surround yourself with positive, whole-hearted people, and endeavor to be one.
BE WITH WHOM YOU ARE WITH. (I know she rolled her eyes as she read this one...)
Don’t worry about your parents’ approval. You had it the moment you took your first breath.
Give grace to everyone--even meanies--remembering that grace is by definition unmerited, and we're all dying for it.
You’re stronger than you know, but it’s okay to be weak sometimes—find the friends you can lean on and support.
So, there you have it. Anyone have anything else to add?
This past Sunday I asked the teenage girls in my small group to imagine getting the news that Mary received when she was visited by the angel. For them, stepping into Mary's shoes would be a small step. Most of them are in circumstances similar to Mary's in many ways:
They are young, innocent, from deeply religious families--on the brink of adult life, but not quite ready.
What would their response be if they were told that they would become pregnant--supernaturally, but out of wedlock? (I know unmarried pregnancy is not so scandalous these days, but these are Southern Baptists...) How would they feel to receive today the news that Mary got? God Himself was going to be placed within her, grow, expand her, pain her as she brought Him into the world...and ultimately save us all.
How would they react if they received this news:
"God is going to use you to save the world, but it is going to hurt on every level. But--GOD is going to use YOU to save. the. world."
My point in stirring their imaginations was to show them the beauty of Mary's response. Faced with such daunting, life-altering news, she sang the Magnificat--a beautiful hymn of praise, trust and celebration.
"Blessed am I...."
Today as I sit in the quiet and think on the nativity again, I am floored by this thought:
I'm no teenager, but I am more like Mary than I realize.
Having repented and followed Christ, I am like Mary in that I received God within me though the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
God Himself is within me, and if I allow it--if I nourish and attend to the Spirit, He will grow and stretch me. As a result, I'll experience great excitement, purpose, anticipation and joy--but the stretching will also bring discomfort.
When I share the Spirit in me with the world, it will very likely cause me pain. This world is certainly a place that often shouts, "No room!" to His presence. The current culture has no problem with the Universe looking out for me, but squirms if I claim the God of the universe does. Therefore, for me--an educated woman from an intellectual and scientific community-- to follow the God of the Bible will no doubt bring me disdain in the eyes of many whom I value. Disdain hurts.
So, I realize today I must ask myself the same question I asked the teenagers:
What will my response be to the news that God has chosen me to carry His Son to the world?
Will I fear the discomfort, attempt to escape the pain, and lament the heavy load I carry within?
Or will I--in spite of it all--be awed by the reality that God would use me to save the world.
Oh, Jesus, let the words and heart of that young Mary also be the response of this old Mary:
"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl...."
Every January I spend some time thinking about what should be my "word" for the year. That may sound cheesy, but intentionality is not my strong suit, so I've found the practice a good one. One word, well-chosen, reminds me of an important focus for the year and guides my decision-making and prioritizing. This year that task was tough. Nearly into February, I was still without a word, still without a focus. Then one morning, as often happens, something in the Word jumped out at me: "On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he restedfrom all his work." --Genesis 2:2
First God finished. Then He rested. Honestly, the word that first grabbed me was FINISHED. Maybe that was my word: FINISH. I reasoned that God had earned the right to rest, because He had finished His work. Perhaps I needed to focus on finishing things. Great idea, great word, but the thought of it left me feeling weighed down and on the verge of tears. Because, really, does a wife. a mom, a teacher EVER finish? Truth be told, I was not resting because I never felt finished. The problem is that I tend to view my roles as a continual and unending work that will not be finished until the kids are grown, until I retire, and until death do us part. And frankly, I wasn't so sure I could make it to "finished" if I didn't get some rest! Here's the thing: The Bible doesn't end at Genesis 2. A whole lot of Book comes after Genesis, and it's ALL the work of God. Not only that, I'm living proof that He is STILL working in this world. What God finished before he rested was the work of creation. One work. Granted, that work was pretty impressive, but it was not His entire work for all of eternity. He finished that work, then He rested. He didn't quit.
In viewing the "big picture" things of life as what had to be finished before I could rest, I was actually hurting my work and God's work in me. The cost of never resting is an overwhelming desire to just quit. What a relief to read more closely, to let God show me the Heart behind His words. Yes, I need to finish what I start, and a rest feels much more blissful when it comes after a hard effort that is completed. The rest, however, is just as much a part of the ultimate work as the finishing. Therefore, what I need to give myself permission to do is rest after finishing "the work of _____________." Then, with the satisfaction of one job complete and a well-earned rest, I am refreshed to continue in the Great Work to which God has called me.
"Because He was full of grace and truth, from Him we all received one gift after another." John 1:16
This was my memory verse this week. Not to simply repeat, but to meditate upon.
Because Jesus was full of grace, He made it possible for me--and you--to receive what we don't deserve, the favor and presence of God Almighty.
This is a BIG HONKING DEAL.
However, I'm not sure we can fully fathom the magnitude of His grace unless we also remember the truth part. My pastor's son, also a pastor, preached it in a way that resonated this Sunday.
"The key to doing all the things you should do...is that you can't do it." How's that for a feel-good truth?
It is, really, because once I realize that I can't do what is required, I can marvel at the wonder that Christ has done it for me. Unless I grasp the truth that I am capable of nothing that is holy, unless I see the truth of who I am without Christ, I can't fully absorb the magnitude of the grace that He has showered upon me.
Without the ugly truth about me, I can't appreciate the utterly magnificent grace of Christ.
I experienced this truth in a very vivid way last week.
I was innocently folding laundry when some very unpleasant memories just popped into my brain. UGLY memories of something awful I did as a young teenager. And then that memory set off another, and another, and, unfortunately, my misguided youth provided ample fodder for a complete avalanche of memories of my depravity.
Imagine a version of the FB movie--with only the bad things. Yeah, it was that--only longer.
The realization of who I was without Christ rammed right into my solar plexus and knocked me down. It sucked the air right out of me to realize just how rotten I was capable of being. This should not have been a great revelation to me, but it was.
You see, normally I have this talent for completely forgetting anything that is unpleasant, and frankly, there are many things in my past that I prefer to forget. (Don't get me wrong, I had a safe, happy childhood and was well loved by two wonderful people--it's ME that was horrible.)
I truly was rotten, but I was a bit stunned to realize just how rotten, because I've always been so nice. Parents didn't really fret if their kids hung out with me. (They probably should have.) Anyway, it's a bit of a shocker for a pathologically nice person to be faced with the fact that her pleasant temperament was just a sweet coating around a selfish, dishonest, nature.
That day as I folded and the memories flooded back, I was undone.
Honestly, I don't know why on that day I had those memories. My first instinct was that my enemy was accusing--pointing the finger to show me how unworthy I am to even attempt to serve Jesus. Maybe it was, but he should have known better. Because as soon as that thought crossed my mind, the realization hit me that my unworthiness is sort of the point of the Gospel.
Jesus shouldn't use me. But He does.
And those sickening memories--as unpleasant as they were, turned out to be a gift.
In remembering who I was apart from Christ, I was amazed at where He has brought me. I hated looking at the picture of the past, but it helped me see that that person, is no longer who I am. I'm still in progress, but I really am a new creation.
He loved me as I was, but He didn't leave me that way.
It was a gift to feel the full weight of my sin, because it helped me to grasp the full weight of the Gospel.
Can I just tell you---it is an unspeakably awesome thing to stand before a holy God, undone, and say, "I am not worthy," and to feel His gentle whisper, "I know. But you're mine."
The past few weeks God has been creating a perfect storm that is MESSING. ME. UP. I feel compelled to write, but I'm not even sure I can express clearly what is churning in me. I want to be polite, clear, and logical in challenging people, like the ever-gracious Tim Elmore, but my discontent is so deep right now that I think I'll probably slip more into a Matt Walsh-esque degree of snarkiness.
Except that, honestly, I don't feel snarky. I feel desperate.
Here's the storm:
I have recently begun working to put on a 5k to raise money for She is Safe, an organization that works to fight human trafficking through prevention, rescue and restoration. I've been interested in the issue for several years, but in recruiting helpers for my cause, I have been reading and re-reading stories of girls affected by human trafficking. I am sickened by the number of cases in which it is actually a girl's family that sells her into slavery to be used up and abused as a commodity to satisfy the greed and perversion of oppressors. What kind of parent would sell a child into prostitution?
At the same time, my chronological read-through of the Bible has landed me in Jeremiah (aka, the weeping prophet). Turns out he was weeping because he was commanded to give God's message of judgement to a people who didn't want to hear it (Jeremiah 7:27). As He speaks through Jeremiah, God calls His people "adulterous" and accuses them of prostituting themselves to other gods.
Meanwhile, during my break from teaching, I am also finally reading the book 7:An Experimental Assault on Excess by Jen Hatmaker, which was recommended by a friend. While reading the chapter on her drastic reduction of media consumption, the final "disturbance" collided with the previous two to produce a spiritual typhoon within me. I don't know what it was specifically about that particular chapter (conviction, perhaps?), but suddenly the realization hit me full in the gut:
How can I be enraged by impoverished parents selling their daughters, when we here in the land of plenty are prostituting our own children to idols? Because whether we realize it or not, I'm afraid we are.
For the past nine years I have worked in the youth ministry at our church. For the past eight years I have taught writing classes to Middle School and High School students. Every year for the past four years, the young people I've encountered have gotten markedly more self-absorbed, demanding and apathetic about the Gospel. And I'm talking about the good kids. This does not make me angry; it breaks my heart, because I LOVE these kids!
Sincere, godly parents bring their kids to church faithfully, send them to camp, VBS, and mission trips. What they don't recognize is that their kids don't even see the spiritual feast laid before them because they can't take their gaze and attention away from their smart phones. They have no interest in the Word of God because they are too busy broadcasting their own words and images into cyberspace and then compulsively checking their "approval ratings." (I once listened to a group of 14- and 15-year-olds discuss their marketing strategies for getting Instagram followers.)
I've watched as teens receive praise and honor (heck, I've been one of the adults heaping praise) for worshipping at the altar of achievement, even when the pursuit of that success has become a source of identity, an idol, in the life of that student. I've watched when that success leads to arrogance, pride and contempt for those less talented.
I've witnessed teens who obediently sit in church, passionless and bored, critiquing not the content of the message, but the entertainment value or delivery. If it doesn't satisfy them, they feel they are absolved of the responsibility to listen--because the Word of God is no longer good enough on its own. Yet I've seen these same seemingly passionless kids raising their hands in adoration for a boy band or football team. I know many girls who know exponentially more about the members of One Direction or Luke Bryant than they do about Jesus, and many boys who know more about their favorite athlete or video game than they do about their Savior.
More often than not, I leave my time spent with youth grieving for them and the emptiness that they don't even realize is their life. I'm not blaming this entirely on the adults in their lives. The culture that surrounds them certainly plays an overwhelming role, relentlessly bombarding them with lies and distractions. I constantly thank God that I did not have to navigate my teen years during this generation.
But here is the conviction that is crushing me. We tell our kids to follow Christ, but then we give them full access to every possible distraction that isn't blatantly evil. We avoid boundaries because we fear stirring up a heart of rebellion. Wanting to extend grace, we make excuses for "little"sins so often that I fear this generation doesn't see the need for a Savior, because they don't really think their sin is all that bad.
It's tempting to simply shrug these trends off and say, "Well, they're teenagers--it's a stage---they'll outgrow it." We would be buying a lie. According to Jen Hatmaker's research for 7, "94% of evangelical churches reported loss or no growth" last year. She claims, "We are losing three million people annually, flooding out the back door and never returning." The people flooding out are those who have been raised in church--those we thought were just going through a stage and would outgrow it. Why do they leave? Because they have found something else to worship.
Honestly, if I found out that one of my kids was battling an addiction to drugs, I would WAGE WAR on those drugs. Why, then, do I buy into the notion that it's unreasonable to wage war on an addiction to an ipod, video game, cell phone or shopping?
My aim is not to point fingers or place blame, but simply to challenge us ALL to examine our role in the lives of our young people.
In my case, I know the first heart I need to examine is my own. Do I have idols that pull me from Jesus? Do I need to remove anything from my life that competes for first place? Am I placing importance on any thing or behavior that is actually misplaced worship? Am I making excuses for my own sins, rather than agreeing with God, being honest about them and repenting? I want to start with myself because the best way to help the young people in my life is to set the example of honestly and humbly tearing down the idols in my own life.
Next, (and, I have to confess, this is MUCH harder for me), I need to put in place and enforce appropriate boundaries in the lives of those over whom I have authority. This task is tough for me because I hate confrontation--and boundaries create confrontations. Boundaries are not popular--and I want people to like me. In many cases, the boundaries I need to set will be very countercultural. People will think I am weird--or worse--judgmental. For a weak-willed, distractible people-pleaser like me, enforcing boundaries is a daunting task.
But God calls me to speak the truth, and the truth is this: Anything that keeps a person from full surrender to Jesus is an idol, and we as parents, teachers, mentors, have an obligation to protect our young people from idolatry. If not, we are prostituting them.
What a great word as we are beginning Cross Country season again.
My kids are blessed to be part of the most encouraging team in the nation. (I'm not exaggerating.)
Coaches, parents, and any athlete who is not currently running-- all of them line the course to cheer for every team member.
Even the very last one.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds, my son is built more like a linebacker rather than a runner, so he is occasionally the last finisher from our boys' team. I'm so grateful for the cheering section that is always there for him!
The beauty of Cross Country is that although every race has a first place finisher, every athlete competes primarily against himself. It's not just about did you win, but did you improve.
I love Cross Country because you can be last and still have a victory!
Last night even as he charged across the finish as the last man on the team over the line, my son had victory--because his time was a full two minutes faster than his previous race.
Even so, the sport of Cross Country is not an individual sport because each runner is also part of a TEAM. Although he competes against himself, every runner's effort contributes to the success of the team.
It reminds me of The Race of which Paul speaks in Scripture: the spiritual one.
Like running, spiritual success requires hard training, rest, and nourishment. (And if I attempted to cover all of that, this would not be a five minute writing...)
Like running, spiritual success should be measured in such a way that growth is a victory.
I'm so grateful for coaches who teach through sports what Christ models in the spiritual realm. They have a unique training plan for every athlete based on that athlete's needs, experience and fitness. It's not a one-size-fits-all work-out. They hold the runners accountable for doing the work they prescribe, and they emphasize how their individual efforts improve the entire team.
Best of all, they get just as excited over a victory for the last man across the line, when he is running with his whole heart, as they do the first.
Oh, Lord, let me live this way as I seek to be a disciple who makes disciples. Let me see each person as a unique creation with a unique history. Let me love them where they are at and encourage them to move deeper into You. Let me help show them how their efforts and progress contribute to the success of Your Body and Your mission in this world. Above all, let me be thrilled for the progress of the one who may be last, but who is running hard after You.
In my own walk, let me measure myself not by how I compare to others, but by how much I am growing to look like You.