Sunday, September 29, 2013

Taken Captive

             Darkness.  As my eyes flutter open, it’s all I see.  I try to lick my lips, but they crack and split when I open my mouth.  Though I can’t see the chains attached to my wrists, I can feel their strain.  My shoulders are numb from my arms being held above my head for weeks.  The outward pull of the iron shackles has rubbed my wrists raw, in some places, I’m sure, to the bone.  Caused by both the constant pain and the putrid smells of this dungeon, my constant companion of nausea rears its ugly head as my body comes fully awake.  I lean my head back against the heavy stone wall and stare upward into the blackness.  Outside the birds start to sing; dawn will come soon in the outside world, but not here.  Here it is always dark.  As I sit in my cold, damp cell, I think again of the things that brought me here, as I do every day.
             I lived in this prison once before, but I escaped.  A man set me free.  He told me he’d paid my debt, and I was free to go.  For a while it was perfect.  We spent every waking moment together.  All I wanted to do was serve him and do whatever he wanted.  But then I made a mistake.  I tried to fix it, tried to make it up to him, but things just weren’t the same anymore.  We didn’t have as much time with each other anymore, and I always felt like he was disappointed with me.  I decided to leave for a day.  Maybe if I took some time away we would be able to reconcile.  But that only made things worse.  Still, it seemed like the only way to escape the endless shame I felt in his presence, so I left even more.
             One day I messed up, like I really messed up.  I wanted to tell him, ask for his help, but I felt like he’d only give me that look that says, “Why can’t you get anything right anymore?”  So I tried to fix it myself again, but I only exacerbated the issue.  Before I knew it, I was back in this cell again, serving time for my mistakes.  I’m afraid my relationship with the man who freed me last time is ruined; he’ll never come back to save me again.  I’m not worth it.
             A tear trickles down my cheek, followed by another.  How had it come to this?  Why had I forsaken the love I had before?  Why couldn’t I have just done the things I knew I needed to?  I’m so frustrated with myself.  “I’m sorry!” I yell out, and the empty prison chambers echo the mournful call.  But I know it’s too late.  I know there’s no use in wishing for rescue.  I’m stuck here forever, trapped by my own mistakes and problems.  Even if I somehow escaped, I’d only come right back.  My failures have overtaken me; there is no escape from them any more than there is this cell.
             I see a light shining down the hallway, but no, I must be imagining it; there is only ever darkness here.  I hang my head and close my eyes, blocking out the illusion.  “My love!” I hear.  I furrow my eyebrows.  There are never any sounds here besides my own either.  What was happening to me?  Had my grief caused my mind to drift into madness?  “My love, where are you?”  The voice is familiar, but I dare not try to place it.  I can’t handle any more memories tonight.
             “Why won’t you answer me?  I’m here to rescue you!”  I open my eyes.  The light is brighter now.  What if it’s not a mirage?  What if there is a chance that someone had come to save me?  Part of me wants to dare to hope, but the other chunk says the pain of rejection isn’t worth believing.  The battle wages on in my mind as I try to come to a decision.  Eventually the hopeful piece wins out by a hair.  I venture a small whisper, “Hello?”  The light brightens even further, nearly blinding me.  A man enters the hall, and I finally recognize the voice.  It’s the same man who released me the last time.  “No!” I cry.  “Go away!  I’m not worthy of your gifts, your love!”
             The man stops at the door of my cell.  “No,” he says, “you’re not.”
             That’s it, he said it.  I was right all along.  He only came to rub it in my face.  Maybe he found another person to love, one who won’t mess up, and he’s come to brag.
             “But I’m here to free you anyway.”
             The words stop me in my tracks.  My brain freezes, unable to continue its line of thought.  A question rises to my lips, “Why?”  He pauses before he speaks again, and a look of pain is etched on his face.  He’s disappointed in me again.  I’ll never get it right.
             “Because I love you.  Don’t you understand that yet?”
             Loves me.  No, loved me.  Before I messed up again, before I ruined what we had.  There’s no way he can love me now.  And there’s no way he’ll ever pay my debt again, not after what I did to him.
“You’re wrong,” he says simply, as if he can read my mind.
             “You can’t pay my debt this time,” I say.  “I won’t let you go through that again, not for me.”
             “I don’t have to.”
             What?  Of course he had to.  That is, if he really did want me to be free again.
             “I paid for it all last time.  I knew what you would do, and I covered that when I set you free the first time.  You are the only person keeping you here.”
             It’s at this moment that I realize for the first time that the door to my cell is open.  Hadn’t it been shut before?  It had been so dark, but it must have been closed.  I shift my weight and remember my painful bonds.  Those weren’t free.  I glance up at my right hand.  The shackle is open, but my wrist is slipped into it anyway.
             “I don’t understand,” I say in disbelief.  What is going on?
             “You put yourself here,” he said.
             Memories come flooding back.  That day weeks ago when I had messed up so badly, I’d come back to the prison.  I remembered the way well.  There had been no jailer, and I had walked inside the cold dungeon.  I found my cell, the place I’d spent so many long years.  The door had been open, and the shackles still hung on the wall.  I placed my wrists in the metal’s cold embrace and sat down.  I’d deserved it.  I needed to be punished for what I’d done.  “There wasn’t a guard when I came back,” I said.
             “Because your sentence is carried out.  There is no need for punishment anymore,” he says.
             My mind is reeling as the thoughts pour over me.  “But how… why?  I don’t understand.”
             “I love you,” he says again, and this time it seems to have more meaning.  “I would pay any price to have you.”
             “How could you love me?  I broke your heart, disappointed you, left you, you can’t love me.”
             Now he walks inside my cell and bends down so he’s looking me in the eyes.  “I’ll always love you.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or will do.  I will always come for you, no matter where you run or try to hide.  I will never be disappointed in you; you are my precious one, my treasure.”
             I want to believe it, want to trust that he really does still love me, will always love me, but I don’t know if I can.  Is it worth the risk?  I remember the look he gave me earlier when I asked why he would come back.  He’d been disappointed then.  I drop my chin and stare at the ground.
             “Sometimes I hurt for you,” he says, reading my mind once more.  “But that doesn’t mean I am disappointed.  I know the pain you are caused when you stray from me, and I don’t want that for you.  But you will never disappoint me.  You are my delight.”
             He lifts my chin with a tender hand and stares into my eyes.  There is such love there, such compassion.  My heart is overwhelmed by the sight.  I know it’s all true.  He loves me.  He’s come to rescue me from my stupid self.  He loves me!  Tears start to flow, but they are no longer tears of sorrow; they are pure joy pouring from my eyes.  My lips part in a wide smile, and the bleeding cracks are no longer there.  He lifts me to my feet and gently pulls my arms from the chains.
             “You are free,” he says, “don’t live as though you are not.”  He wraps me in a hug and holds me until I believe in the depths of my being that this love is real and it will never end.  As he releases me, he finds my hand and holds it tight.  “Let’s go home,” he whispers in my ear.  I lean my head upon his shoulder, and we walk out into the sunlight, leaving behind my prison bars.

This story was inspired by a poem I wrote two years ago and a message/book by John Lynch (the book is called The Cure).  Here’s the poem.

My sin was once a cripp'ling weight
That kept me from your love.
This prison's shackles held me tight;
I had no will to run.

When darkest night seemed all there was
And sin, my master, pressed me down,
A light shone through my prison bars;
Your voice came calling down the halls.

"Why do you keep these chains that bind?
Life's pleasures are but fleeting things.
My gift has saved you from this cage,
My blood has crushed these bonds from Hell.”

Had I bound myself again?
Had my own hands reclasped these irons?
No longer will I stay confined;
Your grace has cut me loose again.

Now I am free to feel Your love.
My eyes are clear to see Your hand.
I've left my chains; they're crushed to dust.
Your name I'll praise forevermore.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

Last May I moved to Grace Adventures camp in the thriving metropolis of Mears, Michigan, population: lots of dear and squirrels.  I was there for one purpose only (or so I thought) – to earn money working in the kitchen to appease my parents desire for me to do something with my summer (after getting turned down for a position I wanted at Barakel).  My plan was to not form big attachments (because I couldn’t see myself splitting my time volunteering between two camps).  I imagine God laughed heartily at that one.  Obviously, I ended up there for longer.  I became an Ascent intern for nine months.  I had no idea how hugely God was going to impact my life in that time.  I could write pages and pages on the things I learned, struggled through, laughed about, and was hurt by, but I want to hit on one thing, an overarching theme.

I was sitting in Ben(my supervisor)’s office one day talking about some of the things I’d been dealing with lately, and he said something I don’t think I will ever forget.  “Hannah, do you believe that God loves you?  Now hold on, I know you know it in your head, but do you really believe it?”  His words knocked me flat and started a journey I had no idea I needed to take.  Somehow, over the years, God’s love had turned into an explainable, comprehensible equation.  I tend to analyze things to death.  I find the why and how behind as many things as I can.  I’ve heard all my life that God can’t not love us; it’s in His nature.  I took that as He loves us because He has to, since it’s His nature, so it’s not really love.  I didn’t actively think that in my head, but that’s what it came down to.  There were a lot of factors involved in that change of perspective, including a lot of loss and betrayal.  It just seemed to make sense with what I had experienced.

In the beginning of March, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the CCCA (Christian Camp and Conference Association) conference at Gull Lake Ministries.  God used the speaker to put a lot of the puzzle pieces in place for me to understand who I am because of Christ, how much He loves me, and what that means.  One of the things he said was this, “We understand grace; we love it for justification, that whole reality of new birth, of God and I reconciled, of all that beginning, of my becoming a new creature, all of that.  We get it…. And then over here, glorification, the end, where we get to go home….  But then every second between justification and glorification we turn God into an angry pirate who’s had too much coffee.”  I had a faulty belief (one that I’ve found many people share) that God is disappointed in me when I sin.  It only seems right.  My parents are disappointed when I don’t do something they told me to do or fail some expectation.  But you have to ask yourself this, “Can you surprise God?”  Obviously not; He’s omniscient.  Doesn’t disappointment require surprise?  Well, yes, I suppose.  But God already knew before I was born that I would mess up and fail at living for Him.  Funny, though, He died for me anyway.  God doesn’t make mistakes.  He doesn’t accidentally let people get saved and then go, “Oh great, she’s prayed the prayer?  I guess I’ll have to love her too.”  Each one of us is specifically chosen.

I’ve always understood that God paid for all my sin on the cross.  But somehow the definition of the word 'all' got mixed up somewhere.  It’s not that I sin, and it takes a second for His grace to kick in.  Everything I do was paid for before I ever do it, before I ever think about doing it, before I was ever even born.  Because of that, God can love me all the time, no matter what I do, even when I’m in complete rebellion and state of refusal.  But what does that mean?  Love is one of those words that’s been overused.  I can say I love flowers, people, my best friend, tacos, etc.  It’s also something that’s rescinded a lot.  I used to love watermelon, but now I don’t.  My parents used to love each other, but now all they do is fight.  This use of the word ‘love’ has made it very hard to understand.  It’s a highly ambiguous term nowadays.

So what does it mean for God to love me?  It means He not only cannot be disappointed by me, but He always approves of me.  He’s even proud of me, and not just when I do something right.  All the time.  It means when I am having the worst day living for Him, He’s still smiling because I’m His and all that sin is paid for and forgotten.  It means that He takes care of me and will not let anything outside of His will for my life happen to me, no matter what I do, and all of that will be for my own good.  That’s a peace-giving thought.  What else does it mean for God to love me?  It means He uses me for His perfect plan.  He doesn’t have to.  But He chooses to make me a part because He loves me.  It means He doesn’t expect me to fix my sin on my own; He stands there with His arm around me and says, “We’ll take it on together.”  It’s like He has pictures on His walls of me, and when people pass by He points and says, “Hey, that one’s mine!  Isn’t she great?”  It means He’s crazy about me.  It means He will never ever give up on me.  It means that nothing I or anyone else can do can change my standing before Him and how close we are.  Sometimes I feel like God is farther away when I sin, but He’s not.  He’s always right there – in me, around me, with me, next to me, take your pick of prepositions.  I can’t make Him go away.

It’s easy to feel like God is far away, and I have to earn my way back to Him.  Or He’s looking down on me and shaking His head saying, “Why can’t you get it right?”  But I have to remember that feelings lie.  Satan uses our feeling to ensnare us and tempt us.  The Bible says that to the exact extent that God the Father loves God the Son (Jesus), He loves me.  I’m pretty sure the Father is never disappointed in the Son.  So I have to once again adjust my feelings back to reality.  I struggle with this all the time.  I’ll mess up and start to beat myself up about it, sure that God thinks I’m an idiot, but it’s in those times that I have to remind myself of the truth.  Sometimes I have to tell myself over and over again that God loves me until it really sinks in and grips me.  But I still forget.  I fall back into the same old patterns.  I have to keep coming back and reminding myself of how awesome and amazing the love my Savior lavishes on me is.  But He doesn’t have to be reminded.  He never forgets, never changes, never alters course.

So many people don’t realize all of this.  So many people live like they have to please God, have to pay Him back somehow for what He’s done for us – even Christians.  Especially Christians.  But we can’t pay Him back.  The only way we can do anything good is by His grace, so by trying to pay Him back, we either get farther in debt or we fail completely without His help.  It’s a hopeless cause.  So what can we do?  Rejoice!  We are loved beyond compare, and God has an endless line of grace credit to help us live for Him that He never expects to be paid back.

I think one of the reasons this faulty belief system is so prevalent is the scriptures we choose to focus on.  American Christians’ favorite verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Loved.  Past tense.  Gave.  Past tense.  Not perish…have eternal life.  What we get from salvation.  Sure, that’s pretty much what you need to know to be saved, but there’s so much more than that.  “For I am convinced that neither height nor depth nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come, or any other created thing is able to separate us (even for a second!) from the love of God that is in (present tense) Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

Jesus loves me (present tense, continuing on infinitely), this I know.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Great Disconnect (Wait.. who is Jesus?)

As some of you know, I spent this past summer at Camp Barakel as a summer camp counselor.  It was a fantastic experience that I enjoyed very much, but there was something troubling that I discovered.  Every week, I had the opportunity to meet with each of my campers on what is known as a ‘one-on-one’.  It’s a chance to talk with them about their life, interests, and faith.  Partway through the summer, I began asking a question.  “If I were to ask you, and I didn’t actually know, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what would you tell me?”  I liked this question because it’s very unassuming.  It doesn’t ask what the right answer is, it only asks what they know.  What I heard, on the other hand, I did not like.  I expected that I would have un-churched kids who didn’t really know what the Bible taught, but I think I only had two of those the whole summer.  The majority of our conversations went something like this: “If I were to ask you, and I didn’t actually know, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what would you tell me?”  “Well, uhm.  I would say that he’s our savior.”  “What else, like, is he God?”  “No, well, maybe?  I don’t really know.”  That is just an example.  The answers ranged from ‘I think so’ to ‘No, he was just a good guy’ from kids that claimed to go to church at least EVERY WEEK.
The first couple conversations I had like this just made me think, ‘Oh, okay, they just haven’t really put all the pieces together.’  But as the summer continued, and almost every one-on-one ended up like that, it caused me to start looking for answers.  I found some.  I started paying more attention to details in sermons and the way things were said and how they would come across to someone who didn’t know better.

“God loved us so much that He sent His son to be the sacrifice for our sins.”  That’s the gospel right?  There’s nothing wrong with that statement.  But there is.  God loved us.  So He sent Jesus.  If you don’t expand it and talk about it, it comes across as this God who’s up in Heaven, and He loves us, but He sends someone else to pay for our sins.  He doesn’t get His hands dirty.  What kind of love is that?  And does Jesus love us?  Was his sacrifice voluntary, or did he just do it begrudgingly because God told him to, like a child does his earthy father?  This may seem a little extreme, but it’s what I’ve seen.  It’s not a line of thought that isn’t proven.  I’ve heard the evidence.

Where does this line of thinking lead?  If Jesus doesn’t love me, he just died because he had to, then the cross loses its potency.  It’s not an incredible sacrifice that leads us to love Him more, it’s legalistic.  Theologically, if Jesus wasn’t God, then his death wouldn’t have been effective.  He had to be both God and Man.

That is the Great Disconnect.  We teach that God loves us.  We teach that Jesus died.  But do we cross the gap to make the connection?