Monday, January 26, 2015

Grandma, pancakes, and a legacy of love

I really miss my grandma's pancakes this morning.

I have never in my life had pancakes that tasted anything like my grandma's. The woman was skilled. I have no idea what she did to them or how she did it, but they must have come straight down from heaven onto my plate after she did some sort of pancake rain dance. She was the Queen of Mickey Mouse Pancakes, and not only that, but she could make a pancake in the shape of whatever you wanted. A dog. A cat. A rocket ship. A dinosaur. It was magical, and it was delicious.

Pancakes weren't the only thing she made, by far, and they certainly weren't the only thing she poured her love into. My grandma was very fond of crafts. I remember morning after morning going to my grandma's house while my parents worked and doing some sort of new art project with my cousins. In hindsight, my grandma may have done crafts with us to give us something to do and keep us busy (read as: not swinging from the ceiling fans and putting each other in diapers for sport), but in those moments, we were her equals, the genius behind our own projects, just like Grandma.

When she wasn't being artsy with us, she was crocheting masterpieces of love for her grandchildren. I have a couple hanging up in my room; one has my name on it, and the other simply says "God is love."

And that He is. And I can think of few people in my life who have communicated that love to me as profoundly as my grandmother did. She was a vessel of God's sweet and tender love for us not only in the things she created for us or the ways she helped shape us into the creative people my cousins and I still in many ways are today, but in the love she shared with my grandpa. Her creative love wasn't limited to crafts and cooking. She and my grandpa masterfully and lovingly created some of the most amazing people this planet has ever been blessed to meet. Together they had seven children, and lovingly raised eight. Those children went on to have their own children, and those children are just beginning to get around to having their own children as well.

I marvel at how fondly my mother and aunts and uncles recall my grandmother. They lost her far too early, but from her life we've all gained so much. She was straightforward, hilarious, busy, and determined. Her traits are carried on in the work ethic, faith, and tenderness of her family.

I remember walking with her and my cousins through the garden she and my grandpa maintained. And while I will never again walk through that garden, I continue to walk the paths of the garden of love they sowed in their children. I remember spending summers and holidays and hours after school at my grandparents' house, and while I miss that house more than seems rational, I will always be a brick in the house of love they built by their marriage. And I'm blessed to be.

I'm thankful everyday, but particularly today, for the legacy of love my grandmother left behind her. And I'm thankful for her pancakes, and I really wish she was here to make me some. Because I'm really hungry, and that just sounds about perfect.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday morning ramblings

Being a Christian is hard. Our faith demands of us that we acknowledge how far we've fallen from the righteousness of God and how deeply we have hurt not only Him but ourselves in our rebellion and our waywardness. Scripture holds nothing back in describing how deeply we've wounded the heart of God; we are not only a people who have turned from our Creator, in the language of Scripture we are adulterers, we are a child who has scorned our Father's life and left him for dead, and Paul goes so far as to describe us as the enemies of God in our sin.

These descriptions of us are difficult to stomach. But even more difficult to fathom is God's response to them.

To the people who have turned from their Creator, God says:
"Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved.'" Romans 9:25

To His adulterous Bride, God says:
"On that day, says the Lord, you will no longer call me 'Master,' but 'Husband.'... I will take you forever for my bride, in justice, steadfast love, and mercy. I will take you as my bride in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord." Hosea 2:16, 19

Regarding the child who left his father for dead and wandered away, we are told:
"But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." Luke 15:20

And in the same place Paul calls us God's enemy, he puts forth one of the most amazing assertions about God's scandalous love I've ever heard:
"But God proves His love for us in this: while we were yet God's enemies, Christ died for us." Romans  5:8

Jesus Christ is there for us when we fall. When we fail, He is our victory. When we're lost, He is our Shepherd. When we stray, He is our desperately in love husband, who will take us back after anything, if we only so much as desire and ask Him to.

I think a lot of Christians forget about the true depth of this love. I know a lot of people who have given up on Christianity because it's hard and it's demanding. I know a lot of people who struggle through Christianity because they can't be perfect for a Perfect God.

But God's love isn't just a nice cliche we toss around to make ourselves feel better. It is the deepest and most fundamental aspect of our existence. It is God's love that cradles us in existence right now. It is His breath that gives us life right now. It is because of His desire that we exist that we continue to exist at all. The Holy Spirit reveals through Job that if God wanted to, He could just stop thinking about us and we'd return to the dust from which we were made. We would revert back to nothingness, and God wouldn't be affected in the least. He doesn't need us. He is wholly self-sufficient. He lacks nothing in Himself.

But, my God, how He loves us.

Scripture doesn't just set out to declare our fallen relationship to God in unabashedly harsh language. Scripture's climactic purpose rests on its declaration of God's relationship to us.

"Can a woman forget the child at her breast, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." Isaiah 49:15

"I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them." Hosea 11:4

"The Lord longs to be gracious to you; He will rise up and show compassion." Isaiah 30:18

"The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior. He rejoices over you with gladness, He renews you in His love, He sings with joy because of you." Zephaniah 3:17

I could go on, and on, and on.

Sometimes (often, really) we are hesitant toward God. We sin. We fail. But God is never hesitant in embracing us in love.

A Christian is not someone who is perfect. A Christian is someone who continually acknowledges their need for Jesus and responds to the grace He extends. A Christian is someone who is intimately aware of their need for God, and seeks Him out.

We have nothing to be afraid of, and in some ways, even nothing to be ashamed of. God's love is more than all we could ever dream or hope for.

Don't be afraid to approach it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

God isn't afraid of your questions

My favorite thing about King David is his honesty. He may not have been very honest all the time with his human peers, no, but he exhibits an astounding and brutal honesty before his Creator. If ever there was a man to take it to God and tell it like it is, it was David. And I'm not only referring to David's honesty about God's power or glory or majesty or might. I'm talking about how honest he was about his feelings.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night I find no rest." (King David, Psalm 22:1-2)

David Repents

I think this honesty is something we've lost in many hearts today. I wonder if we've been taught that God should be respected so much that we have to protect Him from ourselves, as if we're too dirty, as if He were afraid of that, as if He wouldn't want to help.

When I was 13, my grandpa died. I had been struggling with the question of God's existence and some questions about heaven for a good while at that point, but his death really brought a lot of those questions to the forefront of my mind. I remember one day asking my dad one of those deeply personal questions, one of the questions that was bothering me most, and his response was one I would never forget: "Don't think like that." That answer characterized how I thought about religion for a long time -- that, in order to have faith, you had to give up thinking, and feeling, especially when your questions might upset someone.

So, I kind of just gave up. Many of those questions went unanswered for years, and instead of allowing them to be open questions, I closed them up in my heart. These questions of my heart, no longer allowed to see the light of day, became the state of my heart. "God, why have you forsaken me?" became "God has forsaken me, if He exists at all." "God, why did you let this happen?" became "God doesn't care, if He exists at all." "God, do you exist?" became "How could God possibly exist? No, stop. Don't tell me; it will hurt too much to know that such an apathetic yet malicious being is truly on the other end of our existence."

I think a lot of people can relate.

Why are we so afraid of questions? Are we afraid that we'll lose church attendance if people start questioning things? Are we afraid to lose precious soldiers in our precious Culture Wars? Are we afraid of people questioning things we hold dear? Are we afraid because we have the same questions?

Thankfully, God isn't afraid of our questions. He isn't even mad about them. Not once did He reprimand David for inquiring about His apparent absence in His life. Not once did He send down fire from the sky on David's head for asking where the hell He was when he was suffering. And He doesn't do that to us, either. In fact, God is very much concerned with our thoughts and feelings, especially about Himself. The first words of Jesus quoted in the Gospel of John are, "What are you looking for?" The next are, "Come and see."

Jesus doesn't mind our questions. He would mind if we stopped asking them. He doesn't want us to stop searching for Him; He wants us to search until we realize that it's not even us doing the searching, rather, He is the one searching our hearts. He knows us perfectly, but He wants to engage in an intimate relationship with us. He wants us to share with Him. He wants us to come to Him.

He wants us to ask Him questions.

He doesn't ask for a blind faith. He asks for faith enough that He'll be allowed to heal our blindness. Don't know where God is? Ask Him, it's okay (Jeremiah 29:13). Don't know why He seems to have left you alone? Ask Him, it's okay (Psalm 22). Don't know if He's good, if He's trustworthy, if He's loving, kind, compassionate, or if He even exists? Ask Him. Tell Him. He won't be offended. And if you aren't satisfied, keep asking (Luke 11:5-13).

He isn't afraid of us. He isn't afraid of our feelings. He isn't afraid of our sadness. He isn't even afraid when we're angry with Him, when we yell at Him, when we kick and scream and let it all out before Him.

Bring it.

He can handle it. And He wants to.

"Pour your heart out before Him." (King David, Psalm 62:8)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

In Defense of "Into the Woods"

I've seen a handful of Christians freaking out about Disney's adaptation of this classic Sondheim musical, from friends in my Facebook News Feed to well-known Catholic apologists whose work and writings I usually admire and wholeheartedly agree with. Since its release, I and anyone else who claims the name Christian have been indirectly advised to avoid "Into the Woods" like it is the plague come upon the 21st Century. People seem to be wary of it because of its strong adult themes -- (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) like adultery, violence, and unabashed sexual innuendo. And who could forget the great big theme song for relativism at the end? "You decide what's right. You decide what's good."

Now, let me begin by being very clear here: I do not support adultery, violence, or sexual immorality in any of its many forms. But should we avoid a movie solely because it contains these themes? I definitely don't believe so.

In fairness to those warning against taking children to see it, it doesn't take more than a cursory understanding of the original "Into the Woods" upon which the new Disney film is based to know that it isn't for children. Sondheim is known for being dark, and his content for being weighty and at times over-the-top. This is, after all, the same guy whose brain birthed "Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Don't let the "Disney" part about this movie fool you; Sondheim's original is not based on the Disney tellings of Cinderella and Rapunzel, but on the classic Brothers Grimm versions. In fact, "Into the Woods" in its original form contains more adultery, more violence, more death, and way more sexual grossness than the Disney film would ever dream to.

But that is no reason for mature adults capable of discerning right from wrong to avoid "Into the Woods." I mean, let's be real. If mature, discerning adults shouldn't watch movies containing sinful things, why should we read the Bible? You can read that again if you want -- but I did say it. If adult Christians have to avoid a movie because it contains adultery, fornication, rape, murder, violence, and people who are really, really, obviously confused about how morality works -- we should for sure avoid reading the Old Testament, which contains, without fail, all of these things.

"But," you may argue, "the Bible is a book containing a moral code, and any of the things mentioned are only featured to show that they are immoral and we should avoid doing them." Can the same not be said of "Into the Woods," is what I wonder. I, personally, didn't see anything in "Into the Woods" that even hinted that adultery was acceptable, rather the opposite (simply observe the fate of one of the characters who commits it). Nothing implied that stealing was an okay thing to do (again, one need only observe what happens as a result of theft in the story). Violence is portrayed in such a way that it appears foolishly selfish, resulting in no gain at all but rather severe loss for those responsible. And while Disney's version of the Big Bad Wolf encountering Little Red Riding Hood is all but absent of any sexual inclinations, it is followed up in both the original musical and the movie adaptation with a song about avoiding danger and strangers -- summing the whole thing up quite brilliantly with "nice is different than good."

As for the relativism at the end, well, take from it what you will. But, for me at least, it seemed to be almost comical; a desperate attempt by those remaining at the end to justify and explain everything that had happened because they had made bad choices. "Be careful what you wish for" was a tagline Disney used to promote the film, and the story succeeds in providing ample reason. When the remaining characters at the end are faced with all they've lost for their selfishness, they resort to a relativistic perspective, not in a happy-go-lucky way, but in a way that shows despairing desperation to make sense of their failings and the consequences.

All in all, "Into the Woods" is a dark story that offers reasons to avoid selfishness in all its forms, and to not be naive in our pursuing of our dreams. Those are, honestly, very good lessons to take away from it, and while we may not like what those lessons teach, they are true of the real world we live in. Things don't always go the way we want them to, and often trying to force them to results in more damage than it's worth.

So, I'll just wrap this all up by saying, no, absolutely do not take children to see "Into the Woods" unless you're prepared to answer hard questions, but please, please, please, don't avoid it for yourself. If you like musicals, and you like fairytales, and you like comedy, especially dark humor, go see it. If you don't, you're missing out. Terribly.