Paris

Once upon a time, Michael and I went to Paris. It was hands-down the worst trip we’ve ever taken. It was hot and the city smelled like poo.  The exchange rate was pretty terrible and, because we had very little money to actually spend in Paris, the cost of everything stressed me out. We don’t speak French but we were assured that everyone there speaks English (that is so not true.) We kept getting lost and taking the wrong buses. The Louvre was crazy-crowded and the Mona Lisa was so small. The food that we could afford was actually not that great. Most disappointingly, our credit card didn’t have whatever chip the European cards had, so we couldn’t use it in the machines that were set up all around the city to allow you to rent bicycles. Everyday, Michael looked longingly at all the lucky French people effortlessly riding bikes as we trudged around on foot.

I was pretty sad that our trip had turned out so badly. I mean, it’s Paris. Isn’t that supposed to be the place where two young-and-in-love people have the most romantic time of their lives? Before our trip I imagined that we would sit together in little cafes, holding hands, and basking in the fact that we were in Paris and in love. To say that the reality of our trip didn’t live up to my expectations would be an understatement.

I learned a couple of things from that experience– 1) For goodness sake, do a better job planning and preparing for your trip than I did. I am usually pretty good about these things, but for some reason with that trip I just didn’t do any research. I thought that getting to Paris and being there would be enough to ensure that we would have a fabulous time. 2) The reality of how things actually are is often radically different than how I expect them to be. If I had started the trip with a different expectation, I don’t think I would have been quite as disappointed.

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In his sermon, The Struggle for Love*, Keller teaches on Genesis 29 which is the story of Jacob working for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Laban, Rachel’s father, is a crafty old guy and tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter, Leah. Jacob actually marries Leah, goes to bed with her thinking she is Rachel, and doesn’t discover that it is Leah until morning. He’s understandably upset but agrees to work an additional seven years to marry Rachel.

There are a ton of things that Keller brings out in this sermon that I think about constantly, but the one that sticks with me the most is his refrain, “You go to bed with Rachel, but in the morning, it’s always Leah.” He uses that line over and over to explain why we are so often disappointed, not when we don’t get what we strive for, but when we do get what we’ve been working for. Getting married, having children, taking that vacation (ahem…), finally getting that promotion– we “go to bed” with them thinking that this particular thing is going to satisfy us… it’s finally going to meet our heart’s desires. But we are always, always disappointed when we wake up and find that it’s actually Leah. C.S. Lewis writes:

Most people if they really learn to look into their own heart would know that they do want and want acutely something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love or first think of some foreign country or first take up some subject that excites us are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can ever really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or failures of holidays and so on. I’m speaking of the very best possible ones. There is always something we have grasped at. There’s always something in that first moment of longing but fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse. The scenery has been excellent. It turned out to be a good job. But it’s evaded us. In the morning it’s always Leah.

I think about this often because I know that I am tempted to focus on the temporal. I am so easily distracted by what is happening in my life at this exact moment that I forget that I wasn’t made for this world. I put my hopes in what I can see, instead of what I know to be true.

If things are going well and everyone around me is healthy and happy, I tend to dream and plan for the future. I imagine a comfortable life where I have all the right answers, everyone likes me, and I consistently make good decisions. If things are not going well and life is crumbling down around me, I tend to be fearful and turn to my familiar frenemies, Stress and Anxiety. I worry about every decision I make and forget what it means to trust God for my provision.

But thinking in eternal terms helps me keep my perspective. My job, my pursuits, my marriage– these are good, good things… but they aren’t ever going to fully satisfy me. They aren’t meant to. I am free to enjoy and rejoice in the Lord’s blessing on my life without elevating those things to a place that only Christ should occupy. I can hold things loosely and remind myself that my identity isn’t bound up in what I accomplish or how well things seem to be going. And when something is taken away from me, I may indeed be very sad and weep bitterly, but it won’t devastate me. As Michael has said to me countless times over the last 10 years: The most beautiful, amazing thing that could ever happen to me has already happened (I’ve been saved by Christ) and the saddest, most terrible thing that could happen isn’t ever going to happen (to be separated from Him forever). What comfort it is when I remind my soul of that truth.

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I’m not sure that we will ever go to Paris again; there are other places I think I’d rather explore. But it was a good lesson for me. The Paris of my mind– the bright and shiny (and pleasant smelling) city that I spent months dreaming about– was in reality just another city. Paris isn’t supposed to exist solely in my mind or on a postcard. It is a place where people work and raise their babies and don’t have time or the inclination to help tourists. And that’s okay. Allowing things and people to exist as they are meant to exist (whether it’s your job, your spouse, or a long dreamed about vacation) means that our hearts aren’t getting unduly attached to them. The only thing that should completely capture my heart is Christ- and he’s the only thing that, in the end, won’t break it.

 

* There will be a day when I do not reference a Keller sermon in every single post I write, but today is not that day, I’m afraid. I am not very original so most of what is rattling around in my head comes from things I read or listen to. I figure I might as well give credit where it’s due.

No Fear (well, maybe a little fear)

Michael and I were talking about Plato this morning. I’ve never read Plato (except for random quotes that people put up on Facebook– somehow I don’t think I can count that) but Michael has and since I’m married to him and we’re One and all, I like to think that means part of me has read Plato. You know… the part of me that is Michael.

Anyway, we were talking about fear and how it can destroy us if we let it. He mentioned some things that Plato wrote about Courage and how Courage isn’t the absence of all fear. It’s learning to fear the right things and reject fear of the wrong things. That makes sense to me. And, more importantly, it lines up with the Gospel.

Here are some (wrong) things that I’ve feared over the years: being taken advantage of, being generous with money, looking foolish to others, not being accepted, the unknown (!), losing my husband/children, and countless other things. At times, the fear has been almost debilitating as I’ve let my thoughts run wild about what might happen or what people might think about me. In recent years, as I’ve learned more about the Gospel, I’ve found myself doing and thinking things that would have previously been scary for me. Big things. Vulnerable things. Dying-to-myself-kind-of-things. And truth be told, I was usually standing on the knife’s edge separating Courage from fear. What kept me from constantly falling over into fear was preaching the Gospel to myself. Instead of just threatening my soul with vague thoughts of trusting and obeying, I found that it is much more effective to remind my soul of what the Gospel really is.

The Gospel is about love- the love of the Father in making a way for us to be reconciled to him. It’s about the love of the Son as he came and lived among us and then died to claim us as his own. The Gospel is about unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and putting all the wrong things right again. It is about second chances. It is about infinite chances.

This is not a gospel of fear. This is not a gospel of self-protection. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not call us to constantly replay in our minds all the bad things that could possibly happen to us if we reach out to someone who desperately needs us. Quite the opposite, actually. The Gospel calls us to die to ourselves– to do things that look foolish to the world. The Gospel calls us to pour out grace on people who do not deserve it. (How can it be grace if someone deserves it? It’s only grace if the person is completely undeserving of your kindness.) The Gospel calls us to reach out to others– people that are hurting themselves, people that are hurting others, people that are hurting us. We aren’t told that we will be spared pain if we do this, as if we have some sort of Jesus force field protecting us. In fact, we’re told that we will encounter suffering as we love others. So why would we ever do this? Why would anyone choose to obey the Gospel if it’s just going to bring more pain and grief?

I know I will never be able to really express what the Gospel has done to me– I don’t think I will ever recover from how it has wrecked my soul. The Gospel will crush you in a way that nothing else will. Seeing your brokenness and coming face to face with who you really are is absolutely devastating. But, the Gospel will put you back together and heal you in a way that nothing else can. It removes your heart of stone and puts in its place a heart of flesh. The grace that we experience as believers in Christ is like nothing else– just a taste of it compels us to show grace to others. As Michael and I often say (usually after one of us has sinned against the other), “What is this between us?” What we mean is, what can I possibly hold against you? I’ve been completely forgiven and found worthy by the only One who really matters– I have the “praise of the praiseworthy” and it changes everything. The extent to which the Gospel has seeped into your soul will effect how much grace you can give to others.

So what are the right things to fear? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that sin is a big one. You should be very, very afraid of sin and what it can do to you. Sure, we all have a choice to obey or disobey, and in the beginning we do choose sin. But, friends, sin is like a lion sitting patiently at your door. It is just waiting for you to step outside to play a short game of tag with it, and then it will eat you alive. If you want to know my story, buy me a cup of coffee one day and I’ll tell you how sin absolutely owned me for 12 years. If you think you are immune from sins like adultery, violence, drug abuse, etc. then, not only do you not know your own heart, but you are at high risk for judging others. As Keller says, the root of a judgmental, bitter, or unforgiving heart is the notion that you would never do something so distasteful, ugly, or heinous. How can you move out into the world, overflowing with grace for others, if you haven’t recognized that you, too, are in constant need of the grace of Christ? It’s just not possible to judge and condemn others if you have been utterly undone by the grace of the Gospel.

Let us be a community of grace– people that are not interested in protecting themselves, but in loving others. Let us encourage each other in the Gospel to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus– what is there to fear?

(Hebrews 10:19-24)

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

Shhhh…

Let’s talk about Quiet Times.

I’m terrible at them. Though I understand the importance of spending time reading the Word and praying, I have always been baffled at how exactly to have a Quiet Time. This probably has a lot to do with how I have approached education in general over the years. Do I love to learn and passionately pursue knowledge just for the sake of learning? I’d like to believe I do, but realistically that has not been my pattern. (For example, when I read The Lord of the Rings, I kind of always skip the songs. And the part where Tom Bombadil is hanging out with the hobbits in the forest– I skip that, too. Michael was aghast when he found out that I have no appreciation for Bombadil. But to me, it doesn’t seem like it moves the narrative along very much. And I need the storyline to progress… I mean, that book is so long!) In school, I was always a good student and figured out how to make an A, but I’m not sure that I learned a whole lot in high school, college, or even grad school. That is quite embarrassing seeing as how I’m a teacher and all.

Do not judge– that’s a sin, you know.

Anyway, when I first started trying to have Quiet Times back when I was 13 or 14, I thought there was a magic formula that I needed to figure out. My youth group had given out workbooks of some sort and insisted that Quiet Times had to be in the morning. That didn’t work for me very well because I am not a morning person. It was especially difficult because school started so early and I already had a getting-ready routine that took over an hour (let us not discuss the copious amount of hair spray and curling irons involved.) So I failed at having my Quiet Times early on and felt like, well, a failure. I didn’t try again until a few years later when I was in college. By that time, I had a better idea that what mattered was spending time learning about my great God. I also started to really pray deeply and even found myself late to class once or twice because I lost track of time. Because I was praying. So weird.

Those times were so sweet and I still look back at that time and treasure how close God and I were. We were tight, yo. But then the fire of my Quiet Times started to go out. I realized that I didn’t really understand what I was reading. I had this terrible habit of making everything in the Bible about me. I would read the Psalms where David describes fleeing from his enemies, and I would think, “Hmm… I don’t really have anyone trying to kill me. David seems kind of dramatic here.” Or I would read passages in the Old Testament where God made specific promises to specific people and feel all warm and fuzzy as I claimed those promises for myself.

You know you do it, too.

The book of Ruth gets so abused in this way. Single women read it and are encouraged that they, too, will find their Boaz. Older women read it and identify with Naomi and cling to the promise that God will give them grandchildren. We are a messed up lot of folks who do not understand scripture or even how to go about trying to understand it. But do not despair– there is hope!

I was listening to my good buddy, Tim, the other day and realized something. After years of  hearing him preach, I think I’ve actually learned some things about the Bible. And I think they are starting to sink deeply into my soul. This morning I listened to a sermon about forgiveness (actually, I listened to it twice) and kept thinking, “Yes, yes! This is what I’ve been talking to Michael about!” We’ve been talking about how forgiveness is costly. We’ve been discussing what it means to pour grace out on people who’ve sinned against us. We’ve been encouraging one another to remember how we, too, are sinners in desperate need of grace. You see, the same themes keep coming up day after day… Grace. Forgiveness. Trust. The Gospel. And though I haven’t done a study on forgiveness with a shiny workbook to point me to the right passages to read, I’ve been learning about it.

I still struggle to have an official Quiet Time that follows any kind of consistent pattern. I do try and find some time to quiet my soul and pray each day, but even that is hit or miss sometimes. If you struggle to read scripture and apply it (or heck, even understand it) then here is my encouragement to you: You do not need to follow some prescribed formula that works really well for someone else. There are lots of great suggestions for how to read the Bible through in a year (and one day I will do that… I hope) but for now, that is daunting and discouraging for me. And honestly, even if I did read the 10 chapters of Leviticus that were prescribed for me to read, I do not think I would have any idea what I had just read. I am not a dumb person, but I do not have the background to open the Word and instantly know what it’s talking about. In fact, doing this over the years led me to create my own special brand of heresy.

Though I don’t want you to make the error of believing that there is only one way to learn and grow, I don’t want to lead you into the other possible error which is not doing anything. For a long time I didn’t try and do anything to feed my soul because I thought that I couldn’t do it the right way. Getting up early is still difficult– with little children occupying my house for the foreseeable future, I’m just not sure I will ever leave my bed before I absolutely have to. But I have found some things that do work; primarily I listen to sermons by Tim Keller. I listen to them while I clean the kitchen or pick up toys around the house. When I drive anywhere longer than 5 minutes, I listen to Tim (Jeremiah is going to grow up very confused about why he never gets to meet Uncle Tim, but always listens to him in the car.)

What works for me right now is listening to Keller when I can, talking to my husband about what I’m learning, and when I’m feeling especially time-enriched, I read books that help me understand scripture better (this one is great.) What works for me might not work for you– but there is something that will work.  And if you try something and it doesn’t work, try something else! Make it your quest to spend some time learning about the Gospel in a way that excites you, and I promise you will keep doing it. And if you miss a day (or many days) because life happens at you, for heaven’s sake don’t beat yourself up. Learning about God isn’t something to add to your This-Will-Make-Me-A-Good-Person List. After all, there’s no hope of that– but where we can have hope is that by learning about the Gospel we will be people who are captured by its beauty. And that, my friends, is what changes us.

 

The Woman

My husband has a test that he often applies– it can be summed up with this question, “What would ‘The Man’ do?” For as long as I’ve known him, he has had this image in his mind of the kind of man he wants to be when he is 65 or 70 years old. The Man is well-read, wise, full of grace, generous, and a master musician. He knows how to build things- from furniture to guitars. He knows philosophy, church history, and has read the classics. He loves his friends well and spends his time wisely. He speaks truth and above all, he follows Christ.

I think he has pieced The Man together from biographies he’s read of Schaeffer and Wilberforce, the writings of countless theologians, and the older men in his life that he looks up to and respects. Regardless of where exactly The Man came from, he is a very real motivating factor in how Michael spends his time and what he chooses to pursue.

Contrast this with what I, and most women I know, tend to do. We compare ourselves with other women in our social spheres. We notice their clothes and hair, their homes, their children. We comment on how fabulous they look and how quickly they lost the baby weight. We spend our time reading Facebook and magazines to discover who we should try to be.

Back in June, I attended a women’s conference held by The Gospel Coalition (TGC). TGC was founded by Tim Keller and D.A. Carson, with folks like John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, and CJ Mahaney making up the board. The theme of the conference was “Here is Our God.” To be a women’s conference, it was surprisingly not focused on women, and that was their intention. Something that was repeated often that weekend was that “this conference is for women, but it isn’t about women. It’s about God.” What I love so much about TGC is the reminder that the Bible isn’t about me, it’s about God.

I heard some great new speakers, my favorites being Paige Benton Brown and Kathleen Nielson. I learned a lot of theology, but more than that, I came away with a vision for what I now think of as The Woman. The speakers were inspiring– they were deep and lovely, full of grace and wisdom.They were teaching other women theology and raising their children to know the true God.

The Woman I want to be when I’m 65 or 70 is wise and gracious. She loves her family and friends well and has time to spend on others. She reads books that matter. More than that, The Woman has spent the last 30+ years reading books that matter and raising her children to do the same. She knows theology and church history. She pursues passions like photography and writing.

I am a long way from being The Woman, but that’s okay. The things I do today and tomorrow matter– the people I love on and the books I read will shape me into who I will become. I may not have consistent quiet times or even understand what I read when I do, but I think I’m growing. I’ve been shaken up a bit recently and the result is a much sharper understanding of what matters, and what doesn’t. Here’s to pursuing what matters and leaving the rest behind.