Sunday, March 25, 2012

In the sun

{a letter to our almost-four-year-old son after a particular difficult day}


Today was a very sad day for daddy and me. The winds and waves were tall; and our boat so very small. I was grateful that we were together: you and Hanan, daddy and me.

The rules and boundaries we give are not to bind you, but to keep you safe. We give you instructions, so that you will know which way to go. We build you a trellis, so you will be able to climb and find the sun.

Meanwhile, mommy and daddy are watching you sleep, our hearts hurting. We love you very much, and I am grateful that we are together, especially during the storms.

I can't wait to run with you, in the sun.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

grace in the flesh

{and how to act around people of the opposite gender}

When we were very young, Pa was the pastor to three churches spread out in the interior parts of Borneo. He was gentle and kind, and very, very loud -- but only when he was preaching, praying, and singing hymns. His voice cut through the hot and humid air of those tropical sanctuaries.

Ma was my Sunday school teacher, at all three churches. No books, no pictures, no handouts. Just Ma, and Bible stories. She was very good at using her hands. She was captivating.

They were the faces, the hands, and the voices of grace. They were God's grace to me, in the flesh.

I should have paid more attention, listened more carefully. Pa and Ma were right about many things. There was one thing that my parents often pleaded with me, again and again. The one thing that I absolutely hated hearing.

Your sisters are watching you.
They are imitating you.
Please set a good example.

How I loathed these words. Like a death sentence! In one sense, they were a death sentence. My parents were asking me to live for my sisters' sake and not my own. It was a death that I did not want to die. Or more precisely, a death that I could not die, apart from the work of Christ.

To each her own, that was my motto. I did not want to live for my sisters' sake. So what if they were watching me? I did not want to live for them; I wanted to live for me.

Thankfully, the Lord had mercy on me. And he taught me how to die; I am learning very slowly. Fourteen, I think, was when I started dying. The only reason I can recall this time is because my sister Jean told me that I was nice to her -- for the first time in her life.

I know, what a monster!
The poor little sisters!

My role as the wife of a youth minister is very much like my role as a big sister. The difference is that I don't yell or make threats as much anymore. Little sisters ask a lot of questions. Lately, I've been getting many questions about boys. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! I always prefer to give principles, not methods. But sometimes, damage control is necessary; it comes with the job.

About interactions with the opposite gender, I tell my girls this: think like a person already married. I usually get looks of confusion, shock, and disgust. All at once.

Let me explain.

1. The book of Proverbs commands us to make Wisdom our first love. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The father instructs his son to pursue Lady Wisdom, to love her and not forsake her. Likewise, daughters are to pursue Wisdom -- in the face and the words of Christ.

Single or married, the object of our affection must first and foremost be Christ himself.

2. Jen Wilkin, a mom of two teen-aged daughters, puts it this way:
Here's the reality I want my girls to understand: The world is full of men-who-are-not-my-husband, but the world was full of those men before I ever met my husband. I wish I had had the wisdom to recognize this, and to live like I was married even before I was married: to guard my time, my speech, my dress, my thoughts, my actions jealously for the husband-who-was-to-come.
3. Feelings should be proportional to commitment. Feelings with no commitment is like water without a container -- it goes down the drain. The kind of things you do and the amount of time spend together should follow, and not get ahead of, the kind of commitment you have. The kinds of commitment can be that of a friend, a person you are considering for marriage, or marriage.  Most guys are just friends.

4. Usually, by this stage, the shock has worn off a bit and the girls are just confused. They are not married, so they don't know how to act as though they are already married. Then comes the comical part.

I hear myself repeating my own death sentence to the girls: Imagine me, think of me. These girls have known Hans and me for almost six years now. They have been watching us. They know that I am crazy about Hans (and that we are crazy in general).

Think of me when you are confused about the specifics. Should I go out for dinner with non-Hans alone? Should I chat with non-Hans for a few hours every night? Should I have a "close friend" who is not Hans? Should I go swimming with non-Hans alone? Should I wear that dress to impress a bunch of non-Hanses?

What do you think I would do? If you are not sure, you may ask.

Paul gave Timothy, the Corinthians, the Philippians, and the Thessalonians the same instruction: "Imitate me." At first, it may sound like such a presumptuous thing to say. Who was Paul to tell people to imitate him?

But then, we think of Paul, who loved the churches with the most difficult kind of love. Who lived not for himself, but for the sake of others. Who was crucified with Christ. Who no longer lived, but Christ lived in him. Nothing presumptuous here, just a man joyfully dying for the sake of others. He was showing us how to die well: Watch me, imitate me.

For this purpose, God gave us one another. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the faces, the hands, the voices of grace. We are to love one another as Christ first loved us. We are to flesh out Christ for one another.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

for no other reason

The boys were asleep; the house was quiet. All I could hear was the soft murmur of the air purifier and Hans' fingers on the keyboard. I sat on the bed and watched my husband. His back was facing me.

For a brief moment, I was there. I did not need to be seen or heard. I was not waiting for him. I did not have something to discuss with him, or ask him. I had no reason to sit in the room, except to be near my best friend.

Disinterested love. So this is what it feels like.
And then, as Hanan would say at the end of every prayer,
The End. (eeeeeeeeeee-aow!)
I was distracted. I was all interested in being disinterested.
A rare, fleeting moment.

I asked the boys to share a bowl of pasta the other day. Emeth quickly said, "I want to share the pasta." Not a bad response, I thought. And then he said, "Hanan doesn't have to share the pasta. I want to be kind. Hanan doesn't have to be kind."

My child did not want to share his act of kindness.

In so many ways, these little people instruct me to understand my own heart. My feeble attempts at love and kindness are each plagued with self-seeking thoughts. What is in it for me? What would I receive in return? Experience? Comfort? Recognition? Righteousness? A temporally appeased guilty conscience? Finishing your food, sleeping through the night, and everlasting gratitude would be nice.

My acts of kindness are rarely, if ever, joyfully disinterested.

Moulin Rouge got it all wrong. The greatest thing we will ever learn is not to love and to be loved in return. No. The greatest thing we will ever learn is to love, and not expecting to be loved in return.

God loved us in this way -- with a self-forgetting, self-sacrificial love. While we crucified him, rejected him, abandoned him -- Christ died for us. Greater love has no one than this, that we too may lay down our lives for our friends. With no regard for whether or not they will love us back. For no other reason, except to offer our love as an act of worship and obedience to Christ.

At the end of the day, there remains two kinds of worship. The worship of the supreme God, or the worship of self.

The worship of self is utterly invested and interested in the self. I offer these sacrifices to this deity because I want my crops to be plentiful next year. I worship my ancestors because I want protection. I want wealth. I want to get something out of the sermon. I want God to fix my life. I want to be healed. I want to feel loved. I want to feel something, anything. I want to go to heaven after I die.

I want. I want. I want.

True worship is never self-seeking. Because the worship of the supreme God is a response -- to everything he has already done, everything he is doing, everything he promised he will do. It is possible for worship to be disinterested because there is nothing left to want; Christ has provided everything. Or, as the Psalmist sings, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." We worship for no other reason, except to be in his presence.

Among the exercises of worship, fasting is not my favorite. It gives no pleasure, it severely restricts, and our hunger makes us uncomfortably aware of our humanity. It is like prayer, except harder. Its discomfort and lack of immediate gain (if we follow the rules) is precisely what makes fasting a most suitable posture to offer to God worship that is not self-seeking.

When we fast, we wean our bodies from the need to satisfy our bodily hunger. We become living sacrifices, the living dead. We throw ourselves at mercy's path. We engage in the battle against our flesh.

We gain nothing, except the delight of communing with God. We fast for no other reason, except to be near God.