My God of Freedom

Earlier this month, as I watched our Independence Day fireworks illuminate the summer sky, I started thinking about God—and how I could almost see His smile in the light. It occurred to me that, although He hasn’t approved of everything we’ve done in our history as a nation, He has beamed at the still prevailing thought which inspired our nation’s birth.

Here’s how I know that: I go back to the garden. I see Adam and Eve standing at the tree of knowledge, unaware that their Creator is watching them. With a simple touch—one taste of the poisonous fruit—they are poised to defy the sole command of their God. He saw the whole thing. He knew what it meant—and what He would have to do to bring them back to Him. He could’ve stopped it effortlessly, but He didn’t. He didn’t stop it, because it was never His intention to crush them with His power. He wanted their love, and He knew that love expressed under force is not love at all. He wouldn’t force them to love Him, yet how could they not have loved a God like that? He gave them their freedom in the hope that someday, they might give Him their hearts.

This is the God I love, and it is He alone whom I endeavor to serve—no matter what.

Beautiful One

In my mind, I hold a blurry picture of my Savior’s form. Always before me, it appears as the synthesis of every image I’ve ever known. Every painting. Every cinematic portrayal. Every person who has ever inspired the resounding of His name within my heart. No matter what subtle differences there may be in how we each perceive Him, we tend to imagine the same basic features. Cascading dark hair. Olive skin. A face shining brighter than the first light of morning. We see His youth, and above all else—we see His beauty.

Yet, it occurs to me that, in all of Scripture, there is really only one passage that describes Him physically. It is a prophetic passage written, ironically, a great many years before He was born. It is incredibly poignant, and every time I read it, it makes me wonder all the more. “My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” (Isaiah 53:2-3, NLT)

Reading that will surely leave us with a much different picture in our minds than the one we’ve dreamt of on our own. It has to. And isn’t it just our way? Isn’t it just our way to assume that He must’ve been outwardly beautiful, given the truth of who He was? And wouldn’t it have been just His way to purposely veil Himself within a shroud of ugliness—if only to test our hearts? I think so. It reminds me of a fairytale.

But it’s not an easy idea for us to accept. The poison in our humanity won’t let us accept it. For us to do so, we must be in sync with God—joining ourselves to Him in body, mind, and spirit. For, only then shall we see as He sees. Only then shall we envisage true beauty. His beauty.

Don’t Cling to Me

It might be kind of late for an Easter post, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene as they stand alone by His tomb on that morning is one of those simple passages in Scripture that has always haunted and puzzled me. I’ve never really liked it, and I’ve even found myself wishing that I could rewrite the scene—to make it more tender somehow.

On the surface, it just seems so cold. There she is, already lost in grief at the death of  the Man she loves. And that grief has just been made far worse for her upon her realization that she can no longer have the comfort of even drawing near to His body—because someone has apparently stolen it. Then, as she starts to cry, a stranger appears—invading her privacy and even asking her why she’s crying. That, alone, must have been so awful for her. But then, this stranger finally allows her to see him for who he truly is, and in her love and elation, she runs into His arms! She runs into His arms as He tries to hold her back. “Don’t cling to me,” he harshly admonishes, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17, NLT). And that’s basically all that’s been written to describe the encounter between the two of them. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt. Then, He goes His way and she goes hers—back to tell the others what has just happened.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just me trying desperately to ease the discomfort I’ve always felt upon reading this—but I thought of something recently that I hadn’t considered before. This was probably the last time that Jesus ever felt Mary’s embrace—as a human being—before returning to God. In the Old Testament, we read all the time about how perilous it was for a human being to even see God’s face. But, for thirty-three fleeting years, God, Himself, was a human being. Not only could He come close enough to His creation to let them see Him, but He could actually touch them. Hold them. Kiss them—without causing them to die! For thirty-three years, He was able to be on their level, and to express affection for them in a way that they could understand. And He could feel their affection for Him, too—not just as God, but as man. He could feel their affection as His divinity lay ensconced in flesh and blood.

Mary Magdalene was no exception to this. Chances are, she probably enhanced the experience for Him—because He’d known her so personally throughout His time on earth. So, He awakes from His death, knowing that He cannot stay—that He has to leave His humanity in order for His Spirit to, at last, indwell the ones He loves. Knowing this, He comes upon her as she weeps at the tomb. And maybe the sight of her compels Him to reveal Himself—because He can’t bear to watch her cry. But when she goes to touch Him, He immediately relents. He feels the warmth of her flesh upon His. He feels the caress of her hands as she reaches up to touch His hair, and in that moment, just maybe—He can’t find the will to leave her. He knows He won’t be able to experience this again until He comes for her a second time, so instead of holding on, He pushes her away. He pushes her away because He loves her so much—and because it’s just too hard to say goodbye.

Like I said, I don’t know. I’m sure there are lots of other theories as to why Jesus reacted to Mary’s touch in the way that He did. As I pondered the question in my mind, this is just what came to me—as I felt the tears springing forth from my eyes.

The Majesty of Love

I recently stumbled across something I wrote about six years ago. I’d been lovesick and despondent for more reasons than one, and I’d found myself trying to make sense of my pain. Things have changed for me since then, but as I reflected carefully upon the words, I realized that they still hold true. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I know that there are many who still yearn, seemingly in vain, to be loved by the object of their affection. If you are one of them, I’d like to dedicate this entry to you, in the hope that it might give meaning to your pain. This is what I wrote:

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently, and although I feel the need to add a disclaimer to say that my thoughts on the matter are of no greater importance than anyone else’s, I wanted to share them with you because in them, I’ve rediscovered a fundamental truth that could help us understand.

Sometimes, I wonder why it’s necessary for us to feel with such intensity when the love that we have goes so often unreturned. It would probably be next to impossible to count the number of poems and songs that we, as a unified whole, have offered up to our beloved in an hour of passionate longing. Dare we even try?

Love is, indeed, the most powerful force unseen by human eyes, and it makes me so sad to think of the innumerable tragedies that befall us when our love is rejected. I don’t think there’s really any need to discuss these in detail—I’m sure we’ve all heard mention of them if we haven’t experienced them in some measure ourselves.

To be denied by the one we love will bring a pain so indescribably real that we fear we may be crushed to death beneath our own weight. In our anguish, we turn our gaze to the clouds and wonder, why?

I have to confess that I have been guilty of this questioning myself, from time to time. But when I really stop to think about it, I find that I’ve known the answer all along: We have to know this pain so that we can understand.

At the risk of losing some of you with this next part…what if there’s a deeper meaning behind everything that we experience in this world? What if the pain that we feel for the want of those we love is not meant as a mark of cruel indifference, or even as a punishment? What if it’s actually bestowed as a gift?

I believe, wholeheartedly, that God exists. I also believe that He loves us more than we will ever have the capacity to know. He gives us so many things as a testament to His love—the way the flowers smell, the way the fireflies illuminate the summer with their tiny and twinkling lights, the way the warmth of the sun can soothe us gently to sleep—but more than all of these things, His greatest sign of affection is His willingness to suffer for the want of us. He loves us so much that He embraced anguish and death even at our hands. Many of us have heard the story, but is that truly enough to let us know?

Maybe God has another idea in mind. Maybe He knows that we could have no hope of understanding unless we experienced a piece of this anguish for ourselves. He so desperately longs for us to know the depth of His love, so He allows us to love each other in a way that emulates it. He allows us to know the pain of unrequited love not because He wants to hurt us, or because He doesn’t care, but rather because He wants us, in those moments of sadness, to turn our hearts to Him and remember.

Love is the single greatest gift that we have been given in this life—in our ability to give as well as to receive it. To receive it is such an indescribably wonderful joy, but only in giving it do we start to bear likeness to our Creator. Only in giving it are we clothed in majesty.

So the next time you love someone, be ever thankful for that precious gift…even if the one you love cannot love you back. Just take a deep breath, lift your eyes to the heavens, and remember…

I suppose that some might find my musings a little theatrical, and even I must admit that, most of the time, I find it quite entertaining to re-read the expressions of my younger self. But this one—well—in light of all that my God has spoken into me throughout the years, I can’t help but stand by it. And I know that every moment of my life I’ve chosen to pine for someone else, God has spent pining for me—waiting for me to finally turn my heart to Him and give Him the passion that belonged to Him from the beginning. He loves us all this way, and He deserves our love in return. So, when you find yourself heartbroken for another person, may you also find comfort in knowing that His heart breaks for you. And in that knowledge, may you run to Him—His lover overwhelmed to be His beloved.

 

Letter to a Non-Believer

Oh, dearly beloved,

I don’t know where you come from or what you’ve been through, but if, in your kindness, you will permit me, I’d like to speak with you for a moment. I know that there are all kinds of reasons for a person’s unbelief, but as many as there are, I also know that there are just as many reasons for us to open our hearts.

Do you trust in science and think it foolish to believe in the existence of a higher power? I can understand why. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the supernatural, and the power of suggestion can be quite strong. None of us want to be fooled into believing a lie, and we certainly don’t want our lives to be led by one. Yet, throughout the course of our history, men of science have proven to be among the most spiritual people who have ever lived. They have come to understand that science and spirituality never have to stand opposed to each other, but are rather undeniably linked. It’s easy for most of us to take for granted the intricacy of our world and the careful precision with which everything had to come together in order to make life possible for us. But for those who devote their lives to studying it, there is often no room to doubt that there had to be a creator—that this couldn’t have just happened. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the supernatural, but what if life itself is the supernatural? What if science is just God’s way of letting us in on His secrets? It seems to be a misconception among Christians that true faith must be blind faith. God doesn’t like us to test Him at our leisure, but Jesus performed miracles so that people would know who He was. He deemed it necessary to prove Himself so that they would believe. And even non-believers have attested to His existence—that He lived and died, and that His body mysteriously vanished in the way the Bible claims.

Have you suffered much? I feel compassion for you because I’m frightened to suffer. It’s probably the thing I’m most afraid of in this world, and for those who have endured it most, I have an overwhelming sense of respect, awe, and love. Please, know that, and also know that God has suffered with you. I know that words such as those can seem empty and even evoke anger within your heart. In your pain, you see this image of an all-powerful being who could help you if he wanted to, but, for whatever reason, chooses to do nothing. It’s better for you to believe that God doesn’t exist at all than to believe that He is so indifferent. Part of what makes Christianity so special is the idea that God willed Himself to become human. Omnipresent, all-powerful, and everlasting as He was, He bound Himself in our mortality so that He could be close to us—so that He could understand us in a way that would fortify our bond with Him. For thirty-three years, our Creator lived as a human being. He knew what it felt like to be hungry and cold and tired and heartbroken and scared, and everything else we feel. He allowed Himself to be born into one of the harshest environments that anyone could’ve been born into—and as a peasant who was certainly much more impoverished than I have ever been. Then, he ultimately allowed Himself to be tortured. Made fun of. Spat upon. Beaten. Practically torn apart to within an inch of His life. Forced to carry the instrument of His own execution, to find relief only in reaching the place where he would die. Finally, after being subjected to this, He allowed His executioners—whom He, Himself, had created—to brutally drive nails the size of railroad spikes through His wrists and feet to hold Him fast to a wooden crossbeam. Afterwards, the vertical beam that supported it was hoisted up to stand erect in the ground, making it so that those nails were the only things supporting His weight. Slowly suffocating, then, He remained for hours, having to use the nails to push Himself up each time He needed to breathe. It was only a matter of time before He would find Himself too exhausted to go on. Then, He, God—the Creator of light and life—submitted to a dark and human death. I don’t give detail to these things in order to trivialize your own suffering. I’m just saying that the idea that God is distant and indifferent to your suffering couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s lived through it. He’s died through it. And he’s done so because He loves you. He’s done so because it is never His will for you to suffer. You have suffered because our world is fallen. Our hearts are fallen, and though it grieves Him, He does not want to control any of us against our will. He allows evil because it’s what we choose, but He counts your tears, and He promises that someday He will make all things new. He loves you, and He will not allow you to suffer anything beyond that which He, Himself has suffered. He loves you, and whatever you suffer, you may rest assured in knowing that He is there—holding you.

Have you sinned? So have we all. Ever since Eden, sin has been in us. From the moment of our conception, it spirals itself into the very fabric of who we are, and there is nothing we can do about it. One of the other great misconceptions of Christianity is that we have to follow God’s rules in order to be allowed into heaven. Yes, God has rules. And yes, He wants us to follow them. But he knows that we can’t—not really. When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God for the first time, it put a chasm between God and humanity, rendering us all imperfect, fallen, and broken creatures who can never be worthy of heaven. That’s why God came to us. In spite of the damage we’d done and the hurt we’d caused Him, He wanted to be with us. He wanted to make His home with us and to bring us home to Him. Heaven is a gift we do not deserve, no matter how upstanding our lives are, and we can’t earn it. We can only receive it. All He truly asks in return is love. He wants us to love Him more than anything else. He wants us to love Him with the same unbridled passion with which He has always loved us. And in loving Him this way, submitting to His desires can become second-nature to us. Our love for Him will make us want to sacrifice our selfishness, not because we’re afraid of what he’ll do if we sin against Him, but because we love Him so much that we’re willing to do anything to make Him happy. That’s really all it is. That’s all He wants. He loves you with all His heart, and He wants you to accept His love. He wants you to accept His sacrifice on your behalf, and He wants you to love Him in return. Don’t treat Him as though He’s just some annoying voice in your head making you feel guilty about something you shouldn’t be doing. Treat Him as though He’s your greatest Lover, who deserves nothing less than your undying fidelity and devotion—because that’s exactly what He is. And when we deny Him, all we’re really doing is denying ourselves of the most profound and unfathomable love we’ll ever know.

Have you been taught to serve another god? I know that there are many theological constructs to explore in this world, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of them, but if this is where you are, then let me ask rather than telling: Does he love you? Has he died for you so that you can have life, or does he ask you die and end life for him? Are you allowed to experience intimacy with him, so much that your body is the temple where he dwells, or does he keep you at a distance? Does he want any kind of relationship with you at all, or do you exist merely to do his bidding while he sits in judgment in some far away place? Does the thought of him make you feel anything? Is he a living, breathing person just as you are, or is he more of a fairytale being whom you only call upon when you need a wish to be granted? Is your worship of him motivated by love, or is it only fear? Another misconception I hear a lot is that all religions are essentially the same. And on the surface, that may, at first, appear to be true. Many of the guidelines and proverbs for how to live a good life might, essentially, be the same, but the underlying motivation for doing so is often very different from spirituality to spirituality. In my heart of hearts, I know that there is nothing like Christianity. There is no story more touching—no idea more hauntingly beautiful—than that which is presented to us in regard to Jesus of Nazareth. If you open yourself to it, it can capture your heart, and your life will never be the same. The central point that you should know is that my God loves you passionately.

 

 

Speak In Me

I often wonder these days, in the midst of my conversations with other people, if I’ve ever truly allowed God to speak through me. There are moments when an opportunity will present itself—a precious opportunity where I can actually be the vessel through which God reaches out to someone else whom He loves. Sometimes, I only recognize these opportunities after they’ve passed. At other times, I’m completely aware of them as they’re put in front of me, but my fear will cause me to shrink from them. And then, there are those times when I find myself emboldened enough to say His name. I’ll reference His words and try with all my might to influence someone for the better. But even in those times, I’ll be unsure. Was it really Him speaking, or was I merely attempting to speak for Him? If it really was Him, then why did I have to try so hard? Why didn’t the words just come?

When God first appeared to Moses, He asked him to go and speak to the Egyptian king. Moses was terrified, and the Bible says that he pleaded with God. “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.” But in response to this, God said, “Who makes mouths? …Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say (Exodus 4:10-12, NLT).” The Bible is full of events and assurances such as this one. In the book of Acts, Luke records that the Holy Spirit rendered believers capable of speaking in foreign languages. “And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. Godly Jews from many nations were living in Jerusalem at that time. When they heard this sound, they came running to see what it was all about, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were beside themselves with wonder. ‘How can this be?’ they exclaimed. These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking the languages of the lands where we were born! (Acts 2:4-8, NLT).”

I studied Spanish for a total of four years, and I can promise you that I am nowhere near fluent. In fact, it’s been so long since I last opened those textbooks that what elementary knowledge I gained is, by now, locked away in such an obscure part of my memory that it would be quite challenging to recall it. Learning a foreign language is hard work—but the  people Luke mentions in Acts spoke many languages all at once, and seemingly without effort. They were able to do this because it wasn’t really them speaking at all. It was the Spirit of God speaking through them. I’ve heard other stories like this. Though they aren’t recorded in Scripture, they are just as real, and they make me ache to experience them myself. Someone told me recently that when he was in college, he heard God asking him to go into the gym, where he would find someone alone on the basketball court. When he saw this person, he was supposed to talk to him about Jesus. Anxious though he was, he went into the gym, found the person he was looking for (they had never met), and told him what he’d heard God say. Then, he watched as this other person began to stare at him, with eyes and mouth wide open, before finally saying that he’d prayed the night before for someone to come and talk to him about Jesus. An experience like that can leave no doubt of when we are being led by God. But what about the others? What about those more obvious moments when a conversation seems to leave an opening for God to enter in?

When I recognize those openings and make the choice to say His name, I wish I could know what’s happening within the people I’m speaking to. Can they hear Him, or can they hear only me? Is my voice overshadowing His because I’m choosing to speak on my own, or has He reached them in spite of me? I don’t ask this because I want some feeling of success for myself. I ask this because I want Him with me. Whenever I speak, I want Him to be the one to guide my tongue, because I know that wherever He is, I’m safe. And if I know He speaks through me, then I know He’s where I always need Him to be—inside of me wherever I go.