On Love and Suffering

This week a friend of mine helped me to shed light on the popular love passage found in 1 Corinthians 13. The familiar words of this passage are often recited at weddings:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8 NKJV)

What struck me as we discussed the above words was the opening phrase “love suffers long.” Some translations phrase it “love is patient,” but the idea of longsuffering in love conveyed in this passage sheds light on the heart of our Savior. Usually we do not think of love and suffering as going hand in hand. When we think of love we think about the “warm and fuzzies.” We think about first crushes and high school sweet hearts. We think about laughter and moments spent with friends and family.

When we read in 1 John 4:8 that God is love, we think much the same way. We think about joy and hope and triumph, along with a sense of being well-cared for. While all of these notions do certainly reflect God’s heart, we cannot deny that love involves suffering.
The definition of longsuffering is to have or show patience in spite of troubles. Jesus serves as the primary example of how love and suffering correlate. Jesus’ love for us led him to the cross. His concern for us led Him to make the painful sacrifice of giving up His earthly life. His care for us was so great that He allowed Himself to be beaten, whipped and crucified, in order that we can experience freedom and fullness of life.

The same is true of our love for one another. When you truly love someone, there is always pain involved. You let someone close enough to see the darkest parts of you. You allow someone to see your edges. You see theirs. When that person is broken, your heart breaks too. Their pain causes you pain. It’s real and it’s raw and it’s beautiful. When we allow ourselves to delve beneath the superficial levels of the “warm fuzzies” and show each other every corner and crevice of our hearts, we invite healing. We help to hold each other up. We support one another. With that comes the amazing realization that we are not alone.

Despite the pain and the trials that will inevitably come, love bears it all. Love chooses to believe that God is at work no matter how rough the season and knows a brighter day is coming. Our love for one another causes us to hold out hope, even as those we love struggle to find meaning in the midst of their brokenness. Love endures. It doesn’t give up. And the love that we are rooted in, the love that comes straight from our heavenly Father, it never fails.

It’s All About Perspective

I have been reflecting lately on how much of our attitude and our outlook on life relies on perspective. Last week, when I was in Florida, I was beyond thrilled to be experiencing temperatures in the 70s. Back home, I knew my friends were experiencing below 0 temperatures and I knew that I had escaped (even if only for a few days). I ordered iced coffees, left my winter jacket at the place we were staying, walked on the beach, went to the park and did all the things that I feel deprived of in our New England winters. I could not have been happier. However, to my friends grandparents, the weather was crummy. They kept apologizing for how cold it was. They told my friend to drive me around and not to take me outside too much, because the weather was freezing! That was not about to happen. Because I am all too familiar with the woes of New England weather, I was fully able to appreciate even “cold” Florida weather. It has struck me that in the same manner, even the trials and challenges of life, God can use to help us to see the seasons of our life more clearly from his vantage point. God uses difficulties in one season to make us stronger for the next season. He uses our brokenness to help us to connect with the brokenness of others.

Because we are only human and limited to what we can see with our natural senses, we tend to allow our outward circumstances to dictate our mood and to control our happiness. We often judge the quality of our lives based solely on external factors. The problem with this way of thinking is that we do not allow the bigger picture of God’s grace and His goodness to inform our mindset and to root us in the hope of Jesus.

Reflecting on my life and the lives of those close to me, I know for a fact that God can turn any circumstance around for His glory. God uses what we see as setbacks and failures to draw us closer to Him. He takes the hardest and lowest moments of our lives and uses them to fashion and to mold us into the men and women that He has called us to be. We see this in the story of Joseph. Although Joseph’s own brothers had sold him into slavery, God uses his negative circumstances to exalt Joseph to a position that he never could have achieved on his own. When reunited with his brothers, after being appointed second-in-command over all of Egypt, Joseph has this to say: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

My desire is that everytime I face an attack from the enemy that this would be my response. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Think about it. God loves to bring beauty from ugliness. He loves to redeem even those circumstances that seem unredeemable. When Satan attempts to throw us into slavery to sin and bondage to our past, God’s intention is to always turn that situation around on it’s head and use it for our good. The brokenness and suffering of this life is an indispensable part of who we are. It is our brokenness that draws us closer to Jesus, that makes us realize that we cannot possibly go through this life on our own and that strengthens our trust in Him.

The second part of the above-referenced verse points out the reason God redeems broken situations “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” In Joseph’s situation, his rule as second-in-command proved to be a vital role when Israel faced famine. Joseph was able to implement a plan to prepare for the famine, so that the people would not starve. In our own lives, we never know how God is planning to use our story to bring life to others who are experiencing their own brokenness. God takes our story and fits it into His bigger story, allowing others to experience Him in a fuller way. He uses our seasons of slavery to bring freedom to those in our lives who are in bondage to slavery right now.

What is it your facing today? Stand in faith that God will turn that situation around for His glory and expect that the things that were meant for your evil will turn around for your good.

The Implications of a New Heart

This week I was given the task of preaching a message on what it means for God to give you a new heart. As I prepared my message, I was drawn to the following passage found in Ezekiel 36:

Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is-the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” (Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT)

Ezekiel was a prophet during the time of the Jews exile in Babylon. Ezekiel predicted the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylons and warned the Israelites that their idolatry and unfaithfulness to the Lord would not go unpunished. Ezekiel challenges people to turn from their wicked ways, so that they can experience the promises that God has for His people. He knows that although Israel has been unfaithful, God’s plan involved redeeming His people and producing in them a change of heart.

The Jamieson, Fauset and Brown commentary on this passage points out that “the external restoration must be preceded by an internal one. The change in their condition must not be superficial, but must be based on a radical renewal of the heart.” This struck me as the key point in this passage. Namely, God’s internal work in our hearts leads to external outcomes in our lives!

According to this passage, God does not only repair and mend our hearts…He completely replaces it! The nature of this heart surgery is nothing less than incredible. The heart refers to one’s innermost character. It speaks of our emotions, passions and appetites. Before we come to know the love found in Jesus Christ, our hearts are described as stony and stubborn. When we say something is set “in stone” we are referring to what the Merriam-Webster dictionary would describe as a “permanent and unchangeable state.” Left to our own devices we are stubborn. Bent on doing things our own way. When we surrender our lives to God, He gives us a heart that’s “tender” and “responsive.” He helps us to break our walls down. He polishes off our jaded edges. He puts His Spirit within us, making it possible to live a life that is pleasing to Him.

A few verses down, the passage from Ezekiel continues, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:33-36)

Although this passage is a prophecy concerning the nation of Israel, I believe it serves as a picture of what God does in our lives externally when we yield to his internal work in our hearts. He cultivates our desolate land. He brings growth where there once was stagnation. He yields life from death. Seeds of his love, hope and joy germinate in our hearts, take root and begin to grow. The art of rebuilding is a process, a journey. God builds the foundation and one by one lays the bricks causing us to grow up strong in Him. The areas of our lives that once lied in ruins become fortified, strengthened by the love of our Father. They become inhabited by His indwelling presence.

God always chooses to reveal His holiness by His redemptive work in the lives of broken people. In verse 23, the Lord declares, “Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.” God reveals to the world the nature of His character and his love towards humanity by transforming us into a masterpiece right before its very eyes. People around us will know who the Lord is when they see how His love has changed us and made us whole. They will be drawn to Him as they see that the chains that once bound us, no longer have any power over us because of His liberating grace.

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On Singlehood: Jump Right In

Last weekend, I was in Palm Beach, Florida. It all started because a close friend of mine and I had met up at Starbucks on a frigid New England evening and l had pondered out loud, “Wouldn’t it be great if we can just escape the cold and go to Florida for the weekend?” Well, as my luck would have it, my friend’s grandparents live in Florida. My friend was sure that they wouldn’t mind us staying with them. My plan was actually affordable and doable. So we booked it.

We only stayed for a few days, but my time there was GLORIOUS. Little did I know that my friends grandparents own a beautiful condo directly overlooking the Atlantic. The second you step into their home all you see is ocean. Their home features huge glass windows in both the living room and dining area, permitting the dazzling blue water to be your backdrop for every occasion. They also have two lovely balconies with patio furniture set up, where you could look down at the beach below. I, of course, was thrilled with the whole situation. While my friends back home in Connecticut were suffering through the coldest day of the year, I was riding through Palm Beach in my friend’s grandparent’s Porsche sipping an iced soy chai latte. Life was good.

I was so stoked to be living at the beach for a few days, a beach where it’s warm. (The temperature was in the 70s for the majority of my stay). The water there was unlike anything I have seen before, the most piercing blue, much unlike the murky dark-greenish water of the Long Island Sound. My last full day there, my friend and I made plans to go down to the beach first thing in the morning. I wanted to take some up close pictures of the water and collect some seashells to bring back home. When we got to the private beach entrance, my friend told me that she would wait at the gate, while I did my thing. She didn’t mind waiting and preferred not to get sand in her shoes. I was surprised by this. I was like a little kid. I needed to put my barefeet in the sand. I needed to let the waves lap around my ankles. I need to feel the breeze off the ocean hit my face. I needed to experience everything firsthand. I wanted to jump in! My friend, on the other hand, goes to Florida often to visit her family and didn’t feel the need for an upclose experience at the expense of getting all sandy. She was content to watch from a distance.

This got me thinking about life and adventure. How many of us sit on the sidelines without enjoying the full experience? How many of us settle for the balcony view when God wants to give us an up close and personal tour of all that life has to offer? And why? Just a couple of days ago, we celebrated Valentine’s Day. I believe many singles feel prohibited from fully experiencing and enjoying life because they feel as though they have no one to enjoy all the special moments with. They sit on the sidelines. It can be fun sometimes to think about all the things you will enjoy doing with that special someone one day. It becomes dangerous, however, when you start to believe that you could never fully enjoy doing those things on your own. That sort of thinking brings with it alot of discontentment and frustration. I love what Hannah Brencher writes in a recent blog post entitled, “‘What Single Ladies Never Told Me.'” She writes, “If you want a damn adventure then you must pack the bag and go. Buy your own coffee. Make your own playlists. Plan your own road trips. See the things you want to see just for the simple fact that they matter enough to you. A match on Tinder will not live your dreams for you. Your singleness is not an accident. Your singleness is not God’s blindspot.”

I love that. To my fellow single ladies and single men out there, stop putting your life on hold. There is so much beauty in this life. Even within the most routine of days and mundane of moments, there is adventure waiting for you to grab ahold of it. But you’ll miss out if your too busy waiting for a different set of circumstances or wishing for whatever it is that you don’t have now. I have set a list of goals that I wish to accomplish while I’m still single. I have made it my goal to see more of the world before I get married. Right now, I am only responsible for me. I don’t have to run my decisions by anybody. It’s the perfect time for adventure! Now, don’t get me wrong, if at any point God brings along Mr. Right, I won’t turn him away. But in the meantime, I want to see as much as I can. I want to try things I have never tried before. I want to explore. I want to laugh with friends. I want to read long books. I want to snuggle up with warm mugs of coffee. I want to meet new people. I want to live my life.

The truth is that in anything we do, we never truly do it alone. Jesus is our tour guide. Our constant friend and companion. He goes with us. Ditch the sidelines. Jump right in!

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Ps. 16:11)

I Have a Name: Thoughts on Being ‘A Child Called It’

Last week I finished reading the book The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family. The book is one of several written by David Pelzer, chronicling his own story of abuse, along with his search for acceptance and belonging. The book focuses on the period of his life that David spent bouncing from foster home to foster home after being rescued from his destructive home life. Throughout the book, we find a young boy struggling to accept the fact that his own mother had targeted him for abuse and had professed not to want him or love him. David vividily describes several instances of abuse, such as the time his mother took her anger too far and stabbed him in the chest and the day that his mother forced him to eat dog feces as a form of punishment. I sat up one night in bed crying as I felt the very real emotions of a little child whose only wish was to hear his mother say the words I love you.

As I began to process this story and to unpack all that I read, one particular detail of the book really stood out to me. Throughout his whole childhood, David’s mother was never able to call him by his name. She would refer to him as it or the boy. For this reason, the prequel to this book is titled A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive. For whatever reason, she was never able to call him David. Perhaps if she did she would be forced to acknowledge that the boy standing in front of her was not a mere object of her wrath, but a person, her own son.

It struck me that we all have an innate desire to be known and to be loved, especially by our caretakers and guardians. We could all agree that a feeling of love and acceptance from our parents is a significant felt-need in our lives. We want to be valued and appreciated for who we are. We want to be called by our true names and known by our true identities.

When sin entered the world, we lost the ability to connect with our heavenly Father. A wide-gaping chasm was forged between us and Him. We lost relationship. As a result, we lost sight of who we are and who we were called to be. We roamed through life nameless, disconnnected from our true identity. We lost sight of the fact that our lives were designed by our creator with purpose and intentionality.

Jesus came to bridge the chasm between us and Father God. Jesus willingly chose to allow His earthly life to be taken, by a brutal death on the cross, in order that he might share the gift of eternal life with us. By accepting this gift, our connection with the Father is reforged never to be shaken again. I love what it says in 1 John 1:12-13, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Ephesians 1:5 tells us, “He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” He chose us to be his sons and daughters. He always knew he would win us back to Him. He wants us and desires us.

But there’s more. The God who chooses us, calls us by our true names. His Word tells us, “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1). In fact, God is the only one who knows our true names and identities. He gives us a new name that corresponds with our purpose and identity in Him. I love what God speaks over Israel in the passage Isaiah 62:2-5. To emphasize the main thrust of the passage, despite the fact that Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord, God makes it clear that He has plans to redeem the nation. He says, “You will be called a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.” He says, “Never again will you be called “‘The Forsaken City’ or the ‘Desolate Land.’ Your new name will be the ‘City of God’s Delight’ and ‘The Bride of God,’ for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as His bride.” A name change is in order for us as well. No longer shall we wander around nameless. No longer are we to be called it. We are chosen. We are loved. We bear the name given to us by our Creator.

Making a Home for Jesus

Recently, I read the book Jesus Manifesto written by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. Check it out here! The back cover describes the book as a “prophetic call to restore the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ in a world- and a church- that has lost sight of Him.” The book talks about the problem of knowing alot about Christ, without really knowing Christ. It talks about the problem of striving in our own strength to live like Jesus, rather than allowing Christ to live through us. This book is filled with amazingly powerful insight from cover to cover and is a great read for any believer looking to delve deeper in their relationship with Christ.

My personal favorite chapter in the book talks about the significance of the town of Bethany in Jesus’ life. Sweet and Viola describe how throughout Jesus’ life rejection was a common theme. From the moment he was born, the government sought out to kill Him. His own people in the Jewish community despised him. He was rejected by his hometown of Nazareth. The town of Bethany was special in that there Jesus was able to find rest.

It is within this town that we find the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. In Luke chapter 10, we see that Jesus is welcomed in their home and not only was he welcomed, he was given the place of highest honor. It is in Bethany that we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet among the other disciples. It is in the place of Bethany that Mary anoints Jesus with her costly perfume, preparing Him for burial and pouring out all that she has in extravagant worship at His feet.

In Bethany, we see Jesus bring life from death and hope from hopelessness. It is in Bethany that Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus and commands Him to rise from the dead. It is there that Jesus ascends into Heaven, after his own death and resurrection, blessing His disciples as He goes.

Jesus was ministered to and cared for in Bethany. I found it fascinating to learn that on the six days before He was crucified, Jesus spent the day in Jerusalem, but returned to Bethany in the evening to find refuge and peace. Sweet and Viola make particular reference to a passage found in Mark 11, in which a hungry Jesus comes across a fig tree on the way to Jerusalem that bears no fruit. Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers away. That night Jesus returns to Bethany. Interestingly enough, Bethany means “house of figs.” In Bethany, Jesus is satisfied, cared for and loved.

As the book points out, the church is meant to be a “Bethany.” Jesus has made his home in us. God’s Word makes it clear that Jesus now dwells in our hearts. As Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and Jesus declares, “In that day, you will know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

Christ dwells within our individual bodies, but also within the body of Christ, otherwise known as the church. Within the church, we are to embrace all of Jesus. We cannot accept Him only in bits and pieces. We take all of Him or we take none of Him. We cannot take the love of Christ without also embracing His justice and holiness. We cannot take his love for the poor without it being attached to his heart for saving the lost through the message of His gospel. He does not conform to our mold. We conform to Him.

As it was in the home of Martha and Mary, the church should be a place where Jesus is given the highest place of honor. We need to pour our extravagant worship at His feet. Above big crowds, good sermons and “doing ministry,” our number one pursuit should be his heart. Our gaze should be set on Him. Our hearts should burn to know Him more intimately and everything else should be secondary.

Within our churches, we should not shy away from talking about the sufferings of Christ. Within the person of Christ, we find the beautiful mingling of sorrow and joy, suffering and pleasure, death and life, defeat and triumph. It is through our times of suffering that we see the love and light of Christ bursting through, transforming our hearts and resurrecting our lives.

I am awed and amazed that my heart can minister to the heart of Jesus. It is incredible to me that He is moved by my care and my affection toward Him. It is hard to believe that within you and I, He finds refuge and peace. How amazing it is that as He said to the disciples, He says also to us, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15).

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On Knowing the Right Words, but Never Doing Anything in the Face of Poverty

 

For the past 9 months or so, I have been working as a case manager in the city of New Haven. My official title is “Employment Specialist,” my job is to work with individuals on welfare to help them to find work and to gain independence and self-suffiency. My job is often demanding and at times rewarding. I love to hear people’s stories. More than anything I want to give people a sense of hope that things can be better. They can be better.

At a job like mine, it is easy sometimes to lose focus. To lose sight of the bigger picture. With caseloads in the 150’s and numbers needing to be met, it is hard at times to narrow your focus to one individual, one broken person.

I have often heard it said that the church should be providing the response to the issue of poverty. I am familiar with passages such as Matthew 25:35-46 that exhort us to feed, clothe and provide shelter to the poor, reminding us that whatever we do for the least among us we are doing unto the Lord. But it wasn’t until recently that I truly understood the nature and extent of the church’s responsibility. You see, a government contracted agency like mine will never be able to cure the issue of poverty, joblessness, homelessness, etc. At best, we can try to put a bandaid on a wide gaping wound.

The church holds the key. His name is Jesus. Listen to what Paul writes about Jesus in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.” He became poor. He left heaven to take on the form of broken humanity. In Christ, lived “all the fullness of God in a human body” (Col. 2:9-10). And guess what? In us, lives all the fullness of Christ! In the same manner that God left heaven to dwell in a broken world, we are called to leave the bubbles of our church communities and the comfort of our homes to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the poor and destitute among us. It is time we started bringing the riches of the joy, love and hope of Jesus to the broken-hearted, the crushed and the poor of spirit.

Lately, I have been thinking that we have become too good at doing “church.” Those of us who grew up in the church know all to well how to do church culture. We know all about the latest Will Reagan album or Bethel hit. We faithfully attend small groups and Sunday services. We are big on doing “community” with other Christians. All these things are wonderful. But do we know the names of our neighbors? I have to say I don’t. Where are the broken people in our lives we are pouring into? Who are we sharing the Gospel with? Are we praying for those we come into contact with on a daily basis?

The government will never do a good job of taking care of the poor. It doesn’t hold the answer. The people I serve aren’t just lacking jobs. They are lacking peace. They are lacking love. They are lacking motivation. They are lacking answers. I can’t count the number of people that have emotional breakdowns in my office talking about their anxiety and depression. I can’t tell you the number of drug addicted people we serve. I have lost count of the number of people that have told me they had been a victim of domestic violence at one juncture in their life. The people I see don’t need a 30 minute meeting with an employment specialist, they need a life support. They need someone to meet them where they are at. They need someone to listen to their story. They need someone to care. They need someone who is willing to get involved in the messiness of their lives. They need someone who will leave their judgmental and condemning glances at the door. They not only need to be told that God loves them, they need to be shown that God loves them. They need to know that someone thinks their worthy of their time and that they are worthy of being invested in.

I am a firm believer that we should never compromise the truth of the Gospel or water down the message of Jesus. I think that sometimes we believe kind actions are enough and that if we can do enough nice things in the name of social justice that we are spreading the Gospel in our own way. This is not true. We need to be meeting the needs of others AND unwaveringly sharing the truth of God’s word. We cannot merely tell people that Jesus loves them, without loving people ourselves. I love the way the Message paraphrases the passage found in James 2:14-26, “Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?” It goes on to say, “I can see some saying, ‘Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.’ Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.”

We can’t separate our deeds from our faith, or our faith from our deeds. We are called to allow Christ to live through us. Church, let’s stop trusting in the government to do the work that was originally assigned to us. We have been contracted by God.

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