Nothing Happened and It’s a Miracle

Apologies to Disney.

Apologies to Disney.

All of a sudden it’s sweater weather. Soup weather. Back to school. Just days ago we were enjoying sunbathing and ice cream. Is summer really gone already?

If you’ve been following along at home, you know this summer has been an intense one in my world. September me feels a world away from June me. This season tested my faith for sure. I’ve never woken up so many mornings in a row going, I cannot make it through this day without you, Jesus. Help me.

I’ll never look at a lot of things the same way again – most of all myself. This summer took me down a peg in a serious way. I’ve built a lot of my adult identity on being a do-gooder: giving blood, volunteering, going to church on Sundays. I’ve thought of myself as a friend of the poor and homeless, because isn’t that what Jesus wants from us? Duh.

This summer asked, “Yeah? What if one if your family members is homeless now? What if you can’t just give them five dollars and a hug and they’ll go away and you get to feel great about yourself? What if your prayers apparently mean nothing in the face of their problems and their pain? What’ll you do now, huh? Where are all your big ideas about Helping the Poor, mini Mother Theresa?”

This summer I saw the truth: I’m not that good. I am not doing much to help the world. Not at all.

I saw more clearly than ever before that really helping people is hard, not straightforward or feel-good at all sometimes. Now some of my past posts, like this one, seem at best super silly and at worst super callous in the extremity of their cluelessness.

Yet, as I wrote before, all of this has made me cling to the Gospel more strongly than ever. I truly do believe the grace of God is infinitely stronger than all my sin, all the ways I fail.

As everyone who knows me knows, I don’t deal with my own failure very well. My instinct is to beat myself up and decide I shouldn’t even try anymore. It was less tempting to do that this time than it’s ever been before, which is actually a pretty hopeful sign. Maybe God is finally allowing me to see more of the ugly truth about myself because finally, finally, I can handle a little more.

I didn’t give up on myself, on God, or on my loved ones this summer, but I was often tempted. These last few weeks especially, I’ve really had to fight the inner voices that urge me to just give up.

Why go to church today? You’ll just hear how important it is to take care of the poor, and then you’ll feel like the hypocrite you are.

Why pick up the Bible? You just read the comforting parts, the parts that make you feel good about yourself, like some kind of pill to get you through the day. Clearly you don’t care about following God’s commands, at least not when they’re actually hard for you.

Why pray? Won’t God just get angry with you because you honor him with your lips but your heart is far from him? Why don’t you do something for a change?

And then, paradoxically, Why try to do good? Who are you trying to fool? You can’t change the past. You’ll never be enough.

I told those voices to shut up over and over again, but I got really tired doing it. At times, going about my normal life seemed totally exhausting because I had to fight negative thoughts constantly. I was seriously tempted to stop doing things I knew were good for me and would help restore me because they brought on such internal resistance.

Yesterday, feeling yet again weighed down and defeated by all this soul struggle, I prayed Psalm 51.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12

Restore to me the joy of your salvation. I want to run toward you, God. I don’t want to shrink from you in shame anymore. I know you love me despite everything, but I want to believe it in my heart, not just my head.

And this morning – you guys, a miracle! – I woke up happy.

Here’s the thing. I never wake up happy and full of energy. Never ever. I am not a morning person. Usually my first thought is Ugh, already? Five more minutes. Certainly not Wow, I feel so incredibly lucky to be so so loved by God. Literally everything good in my life is a gift from God – how do I not see this all the time?

But that’s what I thought this morning. I woke up and I felt energetic, which also never happens but especially not lately, when a normal workday often feels exhausting. I felt like singing. It honestly shocked me.

Nothing changed in my life today. I’m still a sinner, and I will keep on sinning for the rest of my earthly life despite my best intentions. My family is super duper broken. I don’t understand how to help people. It’s still hard and complicated.

Plus, happy feelings aren’t everything. They’re certainly not proof that God loves me. I could go back to feeling sad tomorrow, and my redemption by grace would still be true as ever.

But today, a prayer of mine was answered. God restored to me the joy of salvation. I wasn’t even expecting joy in my life right now. I felt prepared to keep on slogging through. I figured I’d have to wait longer and learn some more patience and stuff. But God declared a holiday from those negative thoughts in my brain today. Today, I don’t just know God loves me – I really feel it.

What can you call that but a miracle? Just in time for fall, like God was buying me a new white wardrobe for Back to Discipleship.

“You Call Yourself a Christian?”

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

He lobbed the question at me and it hit like a gym class dodgeball to the face. I never was too good at ducking things.

I worry sometimes that I build myself up too much on this blog, make myself seem too spiritual. I pray. I try. That’s true enough. And also I fail, a lot, at the two most important things: loving God and loving my neighbors.

I let fear strangle me into silence. I let tension strain me until I snap and snarl. I give in to apathy, close my ears to God’s voice, say it without saying it: My comfort is more important than your suffering.

I could go on.

Getting smacked with the question, right out loud, made me realize it more than ever before: I don’t deserve Jesus. I don’t deserve to call myself a Christian.

Nobody does. That’s the Good News.

Jesus doesn’t save people because they deserve it. He saves people because he just wants to – because that’s what he does. Even people like Peter, who denied ever knowing him when he was about to be killed. Even people like Paul, who at one time hunted down his followers to kill them.

Deserving it doesn’t enter the equation.

And that’s why, since I became a Christian, I can finally see my flaws without being paralyzed by them. I don’t have to be some kind of shiny, perfect person. I just have to admit that I’m broken, ask for forgiveness, get back on the horse of loving God and loving people.

I do call myself a Christian. And I will keep calling myself that, boldly, scandalously. Because Jesus died so we could be forgiven all our flaws and failures, so we no longer have to be slaves to sin, so we can live in love instead. Yes, even me. Hallelujah.

Looking for Help in All the Right Places

Image credit: Simon Law

Image credit: Simon Law

My friend, my mentor, the man sharing a meal with me, looks across the table and asks me, “What are you praying for right now?”

I just shared with him the whole ugly, tragic story of my family member’s deep journey into mental illness. I look down at my burrito and make some discouraged gesture. “Just to get through the day, I guess.” I look up and catch his gaze. “It feels so weird to be going about my normal life, going to work, eating lunch, when someone I love so much is on the edge of catastrophe all the time. I really want to be able to help – but I just don’t think I can, not in any real way.”

He’s looking at me intently, compassionately. “Yeah. I think you’re right. He needs help – but it can’t come from you. Not this time.”

As with so many times when we talk, I find myself relaxing because he gets it – gets why I’m struggling with this. A lot of people have been counseling me to just put this person’s problems out of my mind. They’re not my problems – he can and will make his own decisions, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And they’re right, but there’s also more to it than that. There’s the ache of not-rightness, of just missing him, and there’s also something more: the injustice of a world where someone in the depths of mental illness seems to have nowhere to turn.

We talk about the poor a lot at the church where my mentor and I both worship. The need to stand in solidarity with the poor; God’s preferential option for the poor. Now the poor suddenly, vividly, means someone in my family, and I don’t know how to care for him, and I don’t know who will. On a profound level, this is my problem, because it’s God’s problem.

My mentor suggests I pray about this tension. Put this whole mystery into God’s hands. Pray for God to bridge that chasm between this person and the help he needs to survive. And pray that I will find some way to help, even if it’s not what anyone would have expected.

As always, I come away from our meeting feeling fed in more ways than one. I feel my burden lightened because I’ve been reminded that I’m not carrying it alone – that God does care and will stand with the one I love. And maybe I can too, in some way I can’t yet see at all.

A few Sundays later at our church, the homily is about the practice of meditative prayer. This is odd, because our wonderful priest rarely talks about personal spirituality. He almost always talks about the societal dimensions of the Gospel: nonviolently resisting empire, building God’s kingdom and living there instead. But today the Scripture speaks about Elijah hearing the still small voice, and Father Bob speaks about how beautiful, how essential it is to silently sit in God’s presence.

Suddenly I sit up and take notice. There it is: an answer to my prayer. That is something I can do for my loved one: I can sit in God’s presence and let God rub off on me, little by little.

I can’t love this person properly when all I can see is his illness, my own hopeless inadequacies, overwhelming darkness. But I can ask for God’s perspective on the situation, God’s ability to love through anything. Sitting in silence, I can learn to listen for that still, small voice eclipsing all the drama of fire and winds and earthquakes.

And when I soak up God’s love, it can’t help but spill over from me into the lives of all my family and friends.

So please, friends, pray for me that I’ll have the courage and self-discipline to continue seeking God’s face in prayer. It’s so tempting for me to seek distractions instead. Those have their place, but ultimately they don’t provide me with the real joy I need to counterbalance the pain of my current reality. I need to honor this answered prayer, turning my heart to the One who is my help.

One Small Step Out of Egypt

fire

Last week, I shared that I need the hope my faith gives me more than ever due to some circumstances in my life that have been making me feel hopeless.

This week, I got to taste a tiny bit of freedom, the sweet fruit of God’s patient faithfulness with us humans. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

But first, we have to go back to last year, when I saw my mother in person for the first time since 2007. It was a huge deal for both of us, a huge statement that despite all the bad memories, I felt strong enough to hope that our relationship could be better in the future. Jesus alone gave me that strength as well as the willingness to reach out in love again after all these years. We ended up having a great time together.

There was one thing, though, I wasn’t prepared to see. I knew my mom lived in a group home and had for years. She’d often complained to me about it on the phone, said it was no place for anyone to live, but I’d thought she was exaggerating, her prideful nature unable to accept how much help she really needed these days.  Surely they took good enough care of her, right?

I’ll never forget my first sight of the place: the broken furniture, the threadbare institutional carpet, the limp colorless food being served up for lunch, the smell of cigarette smoke and decay that pervaded everything. I saw one of the numerous overworked staff members sweeping the carpeted floor with a broom, presumably because there was no working vacuum cleaner or even carpet sweeper.

My mom was right. It was no place for anyone to live.

I came back from my visit rejoicing at how well things had gone between Mom and me, thanking God for the courage that had helped me reopen this relationship. But as I settled back into my life, I felt again like Jesus was tapping on my shoulder: Hey. The work of Love isn’t done here. You know you wouldn’t want to see Me treated like that.

After much further bothering from Jesus and much prayer, because I am really slow about these things, I decided I wanted to help my mom find a better place to live, if I could. An intrepid church friend of mine joined me on this mission, since he’d had a job years ago evaluating group homes and he knew how to scout out the good ones. We made a list of possibilities in Mom’s area, and I started calling them.

The first thing I found was that most of the possibilities… were not actually possibilities. Many of the homes were private-pay only. This meant they would not accept my mom, who lives on disability, because they couldn’t charge her more than a certain amount by law. I found out that only very few places in the area were not private-pay only. Of these, I’d heard good things about one particular place. I called her, hoping against hope it would seem like a good situation. It did, over the phone at least, and the owner told me she had a current opening.

End of story? Not by a long shot. Even after my mom had met the owner and ended up hitting it off with her. There were so many logistics involved in moving: money, medical matters complicating Mom’s care, not to mention her own fear of change.

Also, the new place wasn’t perfect, and there were real cons to be weighed against the pros of moving there. I still felt strongly it would be much better than the old place, but for awhile I feared my mom would rather stay with the evil she knew. I started to lose hope, especially as I watched my other family member go into a downward spiral. Like the Israelites, I doubted whether all this was going anywhere, whether God really was leading my journey.

Slowly, almost without my noticing, the obstacles fell one by one. As of yesterday, Mom is moved into her new place. Like I said, it’s not perfect either, but she will be in a place with much more caring staff, a homey atmosphere, and greater dignity. And I rejoice at that.

It’s just one small step toward freedom for one woman. There are so many others still stuck in the old group home, a place that keeps their bodies alive but undermines their souls with an atmosphere of hopelessness. And all over the country, there are overworked and underpaid caregivers whose dignity is also stolen by such working environments. I know God wants true freedom for them all.

And yet, I rejoice in this one step, this one victory that once seemed impossible. Now I can see God clearly leading again, like a flame that can light our way through the night.

Where I Went and Why I Came Back

Image Credit: Dayna Bateman

Image Credit: Dayna Bateman

I’m sorry for the long silence; it wasn’t planned. The plan was always to come back next week. The truth is, though, right now I’m struggling with a lot of things that make writing seem overwhelming. Even writing about them seems overwhelming, and also, I don’t feel comfortable sharing too much, but I will say this: it involves active, untreated mental illness in my immediate family. My own life is pretty great, but I’m heartbroken about the mounting consequences of this illness for the sufferer and for my other loved ones. Watching from a distance and praying, which is really all I can do, is taking up quite a lot of soul energy.

At the same time, I miss writing here. Blogging has been my way of preaching the gospel to myself, as Ann Voskamp would say. Despite what a tiny group I know you readers are (which is my fault for not inviting more people to this space), I like to think that each post makes at least one person’s week a little easier, and I know I’m that one person a lot of the time. Writing about the faith that gives my life meaning and how that faith plays out every day really helps me focus on what matters, and given all the drama in my personal life right now, I need that perspective more than ever.

Reading the Bible helps too. I’m reading the book of Exodus right now. I sit in the back parking lot of my office at the picnic table under the lone tree and I read the story of how much God wanted to set the Israelites free. How God literally moved heaven and earth to do that. The sky rained down frogs and gnats and locusts all to show the extravagant love the Creator felt for the People.

Presumably God didn’t have to go to quite such lengths, though. Surely the slaves could have been freed in one glorious day, their fates changed nearly instantly. Surely any normal person would have let Moses’ people go after just one or two awesome displays of divine power.

But God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, says the black and white text over and over again. I always used to wonder, Why? Why would God do that, knowing it was prolonging the people’s suffering? Why draw it out like that?

The answer is right there in the text too. God drew the story out like that so everyone would know, forever, that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of Egypt. In case there was any thought whatsoever that Moses and Aaron somehow accomplished freedom for their brothers and sisters without God, or in case there was any way the Egyptians would try to claim they chose to free the Israelites themselves, God wanted to make sure it was obviously, undeniably a miracle. Thus the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and the miraculous food and all the rest.

Because I’ve read the whole Book now, I know this is a theme that comes back again and again. Because we’re doubters, all of us. We doubt that God loves us. We doubt that there’s a grand plan and/or that it’s a good one. We doubt that God cares about our puny little lives or cares enough to help us. Even the ancient Israelites whom God had just freed from lives of slavery doubted. That’s why the Psalms and the Prophets and so many other parts of the Bible repeat this image again and again ad nauseum: God loves you. How do you know? Because of the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, etc. etc. QED.

I used to think this repetition was boring. But now I know that I desperately need it, especially at times like these. I need to keep that image of salvation in front of my eyes at all times. God does love me, care about me, would do anything to save me. Even part the sea. Even die on a cross. I need to fix my eyes on the truth about God’s love every day, like a snake lifted up in the wilderness.

So the long and the short of it is, I can’t predict you’ll see regular blog posts from me here for awhile. I really don’t know how long this will last or how it will end. But I’d appreciate your prayers that I can keep writing in some form, because it helps me burn my most lifegiving beliefs into my heart and mind and soul. And then I have a better chance of staying sane, of staying open and vulnerable and loving when I’m tempted to be bitter and despondent and angry.

Here’s to knowing God will help us all get out of this mess, somehow.

What’s So Good About This Friday?

Michelangelo-pietaA good reminder not just for Good Friday, but for every Friday.

The first moment I had a clue what the Cross was for, I was in my usual spot in Mrs. Weaver’s English classroom at Cochise Community College: one row back, two spaces from the left. It was Irish Literature class, and we were talking about the gods of Irish mythology, and Mrs. Weaver, knowing my nerdy interest in Ancient Greece, had just called on me to back her up on a scene from Homer’s Iliad.

“Now, Rachel, in the Iliad, the gods don’t concern themselves much with the fate of human beings, do they?”

“No,” I responded immediately. “In fact, at one point, Zeus is feeling sad because he knows his son is about to die in battle, but Hera talks him out of it. She says mortals are doomed to die anyway and he’s better off not getting emotionally involved with them.”

“Right,” she said with satisfaction, turning back to the class. “So you see, this myth is similar in that…”

The discussion went on, but I remember staring at the floor to the left of my desk, daydreaming as I often did in class at seventeen. Huh. Interesting that in both these cultures, there’s a story about why the gods don’t care about us humans. Actually, why would you ever naturally believe a god cared about you? What could a god, who is immortal and can’t feel pain, know about your life? Why would they ever want to know?

And then it hit me. I’d never understood about Jesus. Growing up in the Church, saying all the creeds, listening to the Gospel over and over, my religious education classes, none of it had made the death of Jesus make any sense. God loved me? Sure, okay. Jesus, both divine and human, came to us to reveal how to live? That sounded like a fine plan. But every year when Easter came around, I would wonder, Why did he have to die like that? Why couldn’t he just have gone back to be with God, or even died like a normal person? Why the beatings, the blood, the torturous thirst, the getting nailed to things?

I didn’t get it. And now, somehow, I did get it a little bit: if you believed that Jesus was God (which was still to me just hypothetical), then you could no longer say, ever, that God didn’t care about or understand your suffering. Surely crucifixion was not only one of the most horrifically painful deaths ever, but also one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing. And if God was Jesus, and Jesus went through all that, it proved once and for all that God knew all about suffering. Surely God had empathy for your pain, compassion even for the most horrible experience you would ever go through.  Surely, if you believed that, it would give you a powerful sense that God was with you in your darkest moments.

Now, this is not how the impact of Jesus’ death is usually explained. I’ve discovered many more dimensions of it since then, and no doubt I will discover many more. But that was the thing that grabbed me first, stunned me and spun me around and made me get it after all my years of half-sleeping through sermons. I almost got choked up thinking about it: a god would do that for me? So that I could know I wasn’t alone? So I could know the Creator of the world was not hostile, or even neutral, but loved me enough to get down on my level, wade through all that blood and mud and grime, suffer all those filthy looks and jeers and whispers, to prove it wasn’t the end of the world? I pictured Jesus like a big brother, jumping before me into a lake that looked freezing, murky, teeming with perils, his head rising again to the surface to say, “Come on in. I’ll be in here with you.”

It wasn’t the day I decided to follow Jesus, not even close. I filed out of class somewhat pleased that I’d had an interesting thought. I’d always wanted to understand why people made such a big deal out of the Cross.

I thought that was it. But now I know that’s one of the things that makes Good Friday good. Jesus took what was until that time a horrific symbol of torture and death, a tool to make an example of criminals, and he took it on to show us how much he loves us, how intimately he wants to know us, that he would drink from the very same cup of pain. And also, of course, to show that no matter how horrible that pain, it won’t have the last word.

I’ll always remember that day as the day Jesus got his hooks into me. He must have waited years for it. He got me good.

Newsflash: Fruit Doesn’t Come from the Supermarket

Image credit: Graela, flickr

Image credit: Graela, flickr

Jesus spent a lot of time breaking stuff down. Making it comprehensible to the rest of us. His parables and metaphors about the Kingdom of God drew on the world that surrounded him and his listeners: wheat, sheep, trees, clouds. Sometimes I wonder what he’d come up with to fit my urban, modern landscape. Instead of a treasure hidden in a field, maybe a thrift store couch stuffed with cash?

After sheep and shepherds of course, I would say Jesus’s metaphor of choice was fruit. The seed planted in good soil that grows up to produce bountiful fruit (Matthew 13:22). The barren fig tree that earns his curse: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14). Other fruitless trees that get chopped down down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9). Branches that can’t bear fruit unless they remain connected to the vine (John 15:4).

I’ve been thinking lately about this metaphor. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand it in the same way the original disciples did. When I want fruit, I usually go to the supermarket. There it lies in huge shining mounds, sweet and beautiful and often cheap. Often, it’s so ripe I can buy it and immediately bite into it. It’s one of the easiest foods to enjoy, often requiring no cooking or preparation of any kind.

But Jesus’s original listeners were not office workers like me. Many of them were farmers, as we can tell from his many metaphors related to fields and crops. My main contact with plants is a few houseplants huddled on my kitchen windowsill, which I often forget to water. They tended crops whose success meant food and life. They invested so much in the growth of these plants: their resources, their hard work, and most of all, their time.

Time is such an important ingredient for fruit. It’s easy for me to forget that, since I can go to the store and buy it whenever. I forget that the fruit is the final product of a long chain of events, preceded by seed and shoot and flower. Even after fruit appears, you have to wait for it to get ripe and sweet. I chow down without a second thought on sugars that took seasons to mature. If time is money, even fruit that didn’t cost me much is pretty expensive.

I’ve never thought this much about fruit before, which is sad, because clearly it was so important to Jesus. Not in itself – he didn’t curse that fig tree because he was feeling peckish – but because of what it represents. Fruit is a metaphor for the sweet end result of something. Genesis commanded humanity to be fruitful and multiply, bearing many children who would flood the world with life; the New Testament speaks of spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

I look at that list of fruits of the spirit sometimes and I feel so discouraged, feeling like a barren tree. Why haven’t I collected them all already? I believe in God and all that good stuff, so why am I not Mother Teresa? In my mind, I think spiritual fruits should be easy to get, like swinging by the supermarket for ripe, perfect strawberries. In real life, all fruits take plenty of time and attention, especially when they’re getting started.

Not that spiritual fruits are due to our effort alone. Far from it! I can try to be good soil, clear my soul of the rocks and weeds that might strangle out my spiritual seedlings, but what plant could grow without the God-given blessings of sun and rain? Even the most hard-working farmer can’t control those! Jesus told this parable about a growing seed to highlight the fact that true growth is something we don’t fully understand:

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29

Like good farmers, our role as disciples is to make sure the conditions are the best possible, then watch and wait as the mystery unfolds. But I have to remember there will be a lot of watching and waiting, a lot of time before fruit appears. Jesus expected I would know this, would have thought about how the natural world works, so I can know how it reflects the spiritual world.

This metaphor is certainly giving me a lot of food for thought. (Sorry. Had to.) I love trying to think about things the way that Jesus did, diving deeper into the stories I’ve heard so many times before. Next up: maybe sheep? Maybe.

How to Eat a Book

THE START

(Photo credit: whologwhy)

I was hungry for bread, but my mouth was full of wheat stalks and wild yeast.

That’s what it felt like when I tried to read the Bible all the way through the first time. I was home from college on vacation, with a view of miles of desert that invisibly morphed into Mexico. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read it Lone Ranger style: no rules, just me and my paperback NIV in my room. I started on page one with Genesis, those familiar Sunday-school favorites igniting my hope that I’d finally learn the whole story.

I made it as far as the book of Judges.

I couldn’t muddle on anymore through the darkness, the violence, the lists of names. I couldn’t see a big-picture Story in this; it seemed like a bunch of disconnected episodes for which I’d never figure out the context. The Jesus story I felt I understood (mostly), but what was all this about animal sacrifice and marriage taboos and census numbers? What did the one thing have to do with the other? Why were they part of the same Book?

I was hungry, and it wasn’t feeding me. So I gave up on it for years. I did enough reading for class, I reasoned. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started reading it regularly for the first time, finishing the entire text a year later. Since then I’ve reread it three times in full and just started again. I’ve found that each time, it gets better and more satisfying.

The problem was that trying to read the Bible alone, with no guidance or vision, was like trying to choke down wheat berries and yeast and call it a loaf of bread. All the nourishment I sought was there, but I couldn’t take it in until the text was properly “cooked.” For those whose reading experiences have been similarly unsatisfying, I have this hard-won advice to offer.

First, don’t go it alone. One thing that really helped me during my first read-through in 2010 was my partner’s unexpected and kind commitment to read along with me. Without her encouragement, I might never have made it through. We’d read out loud to each other sometimes, and each of us would remember connections the other forgot. Reading in a group, especially a faith community, is great if you can manage it. Don’t forget to lean on the scholarly community as well – a good study Bible has often been my best friend when figuring out context and narrative structure. And finally, when you feel like you just can’t make it through another genealogy, asking for understanding from God (as you understand God) can be truly invaluable.

Second, make it bite-size. As with any big goal, reading the entire Bible is easier for many of us if it’s broken down into relatively easy steps. Luckily, there are many plans out there that have done the work for you, breaking down the number of chapters you need to read daily to finish in a certain amount of time (most commonly a year or two years). Some, like those through Discipleship Journal, even factor in extra days so you can catch up if needed. Bible reading plans also make it easy to give yourself variety if you don’t want to go straight from beginning to end – some plans will give you a variety of readings from different parts of the Bible each day, while others have you read from a different “genre” of book each day of the week. Just in case you feel, as I did, like you’ll be stuck in Judges forever.

Third, keep the big picture in mind. Many folks find the New Testament far easier to read than the Old Testament. We Christians often don’t know what to do with the Hebrew Scriptures – what do they have to do with us, we ask ourselves, and when will we get to the good part? The fact is, the New Testament is intimately related to the Old. Both Jesus and Paul reference the Hebrew Scriptures constantly; the love story between the Israelites and God is their native tongue. So especially if you’re reading from beginning to end, keep your eye out for Old Testament symbols and promises that will form the backbone of the New Testament. One great resource that’s helped me practice seeing the big picture of Scripture is The Jesus Storybook Bible (written for children, but beloved by many adults).

Finally, don’t forget to savor and enjoy! Choose a translation that speaks to you, or even a modern paraphrase like The Message or The Voice. Create rituals for your Bible time that help you focus and enjoy, like reading outside on sunny days or curling up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea on rainy ones. Mark passages you love, things to which you want to return, words that spark questions in your heart, words that satisfy your hunger. Read out loud. Slow down, lectio divina style. Sing Psalms, dance prayers, retell the stories in your own words, feast your eyes on great religious art. Let it make you laugh, cry, hope, and dream.

As for me, I’m still chewing on this book. On my plate today is a few chapters of Exodus with a side of Proverbs. After a few complete read-throughs, while some parts have always gone down like candy, others have become acquired tastes for me, like arugula or olives. Often, it’s only after reading something for the third or fourth time that I’ve been able to see the beauty of it and exclaim, “This was holy ground all along!” I’m so glad I stopped trying to jam the text down my throat to fill my hunger and learned to savor it, properly cooked, as the feast it is.

Reposted from July 2013 to celebrate my fourth complete read-through of the Bible. It really does get better every time!

Love Thy Annoying Next-Door Neighbor

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Or how about not. How about some nice Matthew 5:45 instead? Photo credit: Kirk Kittell (flickr)

I remember donating my allowance to PETA back in eighth grade. I remember the first time I gave blood back in college, dizzy with excitement that I’d dared to do it. I remember walking out of a bakery one time in Greece with two loaves of bread in my bag and handing one to the beggar at the door. I tried to act cool as I walked away, but his smile burned into me for blocks.

Yes, giving is a rush sometimes. And rightly so, I think. Acts records the words of Jesus: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” I think we get joy from giving because God made us that way. Science has now discovered the “Helper’s High,” feel-good chemicals our brain releases when we do something charitable. We are wired to like it.

But if I’m going to be honest, I have to say one thing: sometimes it feels easier and better to help strangers than people who are much closer to me.

Weird, since Jesus said “love your neighbor,” that sometimes I find my neighbors hardest to love – especially the ones who make too much noise upstairs or set the fire alarm off again. Strangers are still a mystery, their annoying habits as yet unknown, often more likely to win a smile from me than someone who sits near me at work with whom I’m acquainted all too well.

This reveals something else about humans: we naturally feel good when we give, but we’re also naturally reluctant to do it – especially when we suspect the recipient might not deserve or appreciate our gifts. And sometimes the more we see someone, the easier it is to suspect this. And gradually, our relationship shifts from open-handed to close-hearted.

There’s so much evidence of this in my life, geologic layers of it. Piles of never-answered emails in my inbox. Dozens of lackluster, barely conscious exchanges each day (“How are you?” “Good…”). So many mundane tasks performed grudgingly instead of lovingly. So many offers of help and opportunities for listening left unexplored out of fear of seeming awkward, fate worse than death.

I can’t help but bring this back to Jesus. In love, no one could beat him for endurance. Behold his disciples bugging him, not getting it, and generally acting like morons on every page of the Gospels, and then abandoning him in his hour of need, falling asleep when he needed them emotionally and denying they ever knew him at the first sign of trouble.

Did Jesus let himself grow cold toward these people? Did he gradually trust them less? Did he ever seem to feel it wasn’t worth it? Sure, he got frustrated with them, sometimes exploded in anger, but stop loving them? Never. After he suffered and died a lonely death and come back to life again, he cooked them breakfast and hung out with them on the beach.

That’s the thing, I guess, about believing that you and everyone you know will live forever. There’s no reason not to be loving. There’s no reason not to start flexing your muscles now for life in Heaven, where we will live shoulder to shoulder with all these other imperfect, messed up people with whom we once felt mutual annoyance and, God help us, we’ll all enjoy ourselves. Or it won’t be Heaven.

I need to pray for the ability to love with endurance. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” Always. Not just when it feels good. Not just when it comes with a tax write-off or a sticker that says “Be Nice to Me” – or even just when it comes with gratitude. I need to pray for the ability to love like God loves, like God’s rain falling down on all the thirsty people, those who praise him and those who don’t.

Because a good feeling is not enough of a reason to love. The only real reason to love is because he loved me first, because I deserve it least of all, because I lived in the desert and now I’m dancing in the rain.

How Jesus Ate My Livejournal

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Once upon a time, before this blog was born, I had a Livejournal. For those of you who don’t know, Livejournals are what those of us who compulsively overshare our lives used before Facebook and Twitter.

As a lonely teenager who hated making eye contact, Livejournal was a great way for me to make friends. Some of them I eventually met in “real life,” while others I knew only by their screennames. Many of them found me by discovering we had common interests. You could list all your interests on your Livejournal profile, up to 150 of them, beckoning people who shared them with you.

I maxed out my list, declared myself interested in 150 things.

This is so like me.

Looking back at the last version of this list, dating from my college days, I can see I definitely wasn’t equally interested in all of them. Some of them, like “Ancient Greek” and “books” and “baking” were bona fide obsessions which will never fade entirely from my life.

Others, like “linguistics and “Latin dance,” were more in the “I’m interested enough in these things to take a few classes in them” sort of category.

Still others (“gardening,” “sewing,” “rivers”) were more like, “Eh, I feel like I should be interested in these things, but the feeling isn’t strong enough to get any real experience with them.”

And some were just odd. “Fingerprints”? “Quixoticism”? The things you say in college to try and make yourself sound cool.

I’ve been interested in a lot of things in my life. I like the newness of learning something, not so much the discipline of staying with it until mastery. I’ve dabbled in ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, swing, bellydance, and Argentine tango. I’ve studied Spanish, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, and Latin. I just can’t seem to decide on one thing. Heck, I have trouble with menus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. It’s fun and healthy and uplifting to try new things. But I can’t be equally interested in everything, no matter how much I’d like to tell myself I can. My life is (gasp!) not infinite.

And some things are so much more worthy of my interest than others.

“Jesus” is on my Livejournal list of interests too, buried under 149 other things. And, yeah, I was interested in Jesus in college. But let’s face it, not that much.

My faith didn’t grow much in college. I was too busy sampling all kinds of new ideas and running from activity to activity to read my Bible, worship, or pray.

Now I am old and wise by comparison. Not really. I still try to do way too much. But I have learned one powerful thing: the more obsessed I am with Jesus, the better. He isn’t just one more thing on the list of things I’m vaguely interested in.

The more interested I am in Jesus, the more interesting everything else is too. And loving Jesus can be the unifying force that makes all my other seemingly random interests hang together.

With Jesus at the center of things, everywhere I travel becomes part of the Way. Every new idea I find is measured by the Truth. Everything I do becomes part of the Life. Sometimes hard, messy, frustrating? Sure. But also shot through with hope.

This is part of my Christian walk. This is part of learning faithfulness: putting all those random interests under the umbrella of the best One of all.