Thursday, March 23, 2017

Can't We All Just Get Along?

It seems that there is an increasing amount of contention in the world today, fueled by an instant public forum provided by the internet and social media. We can now "discuss" our grievances with the entire world by pressing the "Publish" button, and we're able to do so without the pesky interference of seeing the people with whom we disagree.

The instantaneous ability to impersonally express any and every opinion only increases our need to really consider who's on the other side of the screen, and how we can love them well.

Because, shockingly, a disagreement is not a loophole in the commandment to "love your neighbor". One the flip side, an agreeable facade is also not a biblical expectation of love. In order to love someone you don't have to pretend to agree with them or avoid issues of disagreement like a snotty-nosed toddler.

It is possible, and even necessary, to learn to disagree in a loving way. If we're going to live authentically and honestly, disagreements are going to happen.

Disagreements aren't a problem.

Disagreements are a symptom of sharing life and getting to know another human being, which is an important part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Disagreements handled without love are a problem.

If we are trying to prove someone else wrong, seeking to make much of ourselves, or if we are fueled by anger or self-righteousness, our mishandling is indicative of a major sin: refusal to love God more than anything or anyone else (like ourselves or our reputation) or refusal to love our neighbors the way we want to be loved.

Allow me to volunteer the fact that I don't have this down yet. I've come a long way in the last four years or so, but I'm not where I'd like to be. Many of the lessons I present below are lessons that I'm still working on, or realize the need for due to my own personal failures, maybe even in the last month or so.

That being said, here are a few ways to season your language with grace, even in the midst of conflict.

  1. Stay away from excessively strong language or absolute language. There's really no reason to say "all" or "everyone" or "every time". For one thing, there's literally no way that you could possibly prove such a grandiose statement. All anyone has to do is find a single exception to prove your statement false, short-changing the value of the discussion. Not only are such statements grossly inaccurate (there's almost always an exception), but they also amp up the intensity of the conversation needlessly.

    The words "heresy", "evil", or "crazy" have a similar impact. Even when I believe that someone's way of thinking is, in all actuality, heretical, it prevents open dialog to call it such. Only people who agree with you are likely to join the conversation once such a term comes flying out. It also lowers the bar from "truth" to "not heresy". We're no longer discussing what is true, but we're now reduced to a conversation about what is even slightly acceptable. We can do better than that.
  2. Don't view a conversation as a competition. There's no such thing as a loser in a conversation. In an argument, on the other hand, both parties typically end up losing something. Seriously, why do you care so much if someone believes something with which you disagree? Why on earth should I be ticked off that you and I disagree on a certain issue?

    If your motive is love and you genuinely believe that a person's false belief is putting them in physical, emotional, or spiritual danger, anger toward that person isn't an appropriate response. Who has ever been berated into safety?

    The goal of a discussion is to get to know the other person better and understand where they're coming from, as well as to express your own view and help the other person understand your take.

    Honestly, this one is my biggest struggle. I love a good debate, LOVE IT! My husband refuses to debate me, even when he's right, because I'm more skilled at the actual debate. But a debate is rarely a wise choice in a personal relationship, unless you're both freaks like I am and relish the debate. They are very rarely a good idea on social media. Actually, I can't think of a single situation when it would be wise to engage in a full debate on social media.
  3. Be very careful about assigning malicious intent. This is the biggest failure that I see in many Christian blogs dealing with social issues. There is a very big difference between being incorrect and being malicious. Once you cross this line, there's no going back. Once you say that a parent is abusive or a pastor is intentionally misleading his sheep away from the Gospel or a politician is corrupt, you've set yourself up as an accuser and enemy to the person you have attacked.

    You can no longer engage in any sort of meaningful discussion with them or with anyone who might agree with them. You can no longer discuss issues or facts. You've made it personal, and it's going to be very easy to come out looking like a bad guy, even if you're right about the issue itself.
  4. Stick to the issues without making it personal. In some ways, this is a way to re-word the previous point, but it has other implications as well. If I really love an author or speaker, and you point out something wrong with one of their teachings, even in a very loving way, my initial reaction is to be defensive. I saw this in a Babylon Bee (a Christian satirical website similar to The Onion) post about a certain women's speaker's use of soaring language. It was comical and somewhat accurate, but her followers took it very seriously and personally. They went on the attack to defend their favorite poet.

    Slow down! Just because you disagree with something someone says, that doesn't mean that they're attacking anyone. Just because you're offended, that doesn't necessarily mean that what was said was offensive. Take a deep breath and consider the actual statement being made.
  5. Be honest in the right forum. If you're offended, say so. Hash it out one-on-one. Don't handle it in the comment session. There's no need to pretend that someone's statement didn't have an impact when it did. You may discover, as I have, that you jumped to an unintended conclusion. If you need to say something of a personal nature, say it in a personal way. Don't just carry around anger and bitterness. Bring it into the light so it can be dealt with. If the other person refuses to discuss things civilly, that's on them, not you. But if you walk around with hurt, believing that they know what they did without speaking up, that's on you.
  6. Remember that people are real, live, breathing human beings with hearts and families. Even if a person is in the public eye, that doesn't give you the right to rip into them as if they're merely a symbol. That person may represent certain theology or ideas held by a group of people, but they're still incredibly valuable to our Father. Treat them as such. Treat them the way that you would want to be treated if you were in their situation. "I would never be in that situation!" Well, pretend that you woke up tomorrow morning in his or her shoes. How would you want someone to speak to you and about you? Now, do that.

    They may be horribly wrong about an issue, but that doesn't give you the right to act unlovingly. People are more than a compilation of beliefs and ideas. We must consider the heart when we choose what to say and how to say it.
  7. Consider your own motivation. I touched on this in the introduction, but it is so very, very important. For a long time, I stayed out of conversations that I thought could be divisive out of fear that I would offend someone. I have come to understand that engaging in meaningful conversation about important issues is an important part of living in community and being a part of society. I've also learned to handle my fear with love by simply handling offenses as they come up.

    You may be silent for the wrong reasons, or you may speak up for the wrong reasons. Consider your own heart carefully when choosing whether or not to join in a conversation. You may have the exact words that someone else needs to hear, or you may just add to the insanity.

    On social media, it is very difficult to know the impact of what we post. Many people are silently watching and following along. Although we won't know the effect of our words, we can know our reason for adding them to the discussion.

    Even if the only thing that our words accomplish is to prove that it is possible to love someone with whom we disagree, that's a pretty monumental accomplishment, and we should strive toward it. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

In the Hallway: Mourning Dead Dreams

The last two years have been difficult and wonderful at the same time. One of my life's longest-held dreams was fulfilled when we brought our precious son home from China. At the same time, I've seen some of my most defining dreams pass by. Unless something strange and miraculous happens, at least one of my dreams is out of reach and quite possibly dead.

I grew up believing that there would come a point when I would find my "niche", and that once I did, the idiosyncrasies in the way God designed me would make sense. I thought that I had found that niche when I had the opportunity to speak to groups of women and teach the Word. I felt more like myself when I was teaching than I felt any other time. I felt more comfortable in my skin and in my personality than I felt at any other time. I came to believe that God would open doors and allow me to teach more often, so I could be more of myself more of the time.

But now I sit in the hallway, surrounded by closed doors on every side. Not only are there no speaking opportunities, there's no potential for speaking opportunities. The part of me that came alive when teaching has atrophied and weakened. It's a part of me that may very well be on its death bed, and I thought that it was the best of me.

It may be a matter of timing or phase of life, or it may be my permanent reality. There simply aren't many speaking opportunities for complementarian women (women who believe in gender roles within the family and church, specifically that a woman is not called by God to pastor His church). It requires a lot of help from others who are more experienced and well-connected, and they really have to see a spark and then choose to fan that flame.

Once I reached out to a more mature woman in our association with a piece that I had written and poured my soul into, and her only response was "I noticed a few grammatical errors. I can help you with that if you'd like." The fact of the matter is that I like starting sentences with conjunctions because it makes writing feel more like a natural conversation, but that's simply a difference in style, I suppose. Others have been much more encouraging, but none have seen a flicker and felt the call to fan it into flame, which is God's territory, not mine.

My style is quite different from typical women speakers (especially those of the complementarian variety). My theology is very similar to the theology of many other women speakers, but it's my personal style that isn't normal. It's just one of those idiosyncrasies that I believed would make sense once I found my place in God's Kingdom.

But that sweet dream has turned into a bitter emptiness.

So I'm sitting in this closed-off hallway, trying to figure out where to go from here. I'm exploring a completely different path through classes in web development, graphic design, and digital marketing. I believe that these skills are an excellent fit for my personality, and a great way to benefit the Kingdom while providing for my family.

But being a web designer and marketing expert doesn't justify God's design, which is what I really want. I want to know why God didn't make me happy to be a nurse. I mean, it's a hugely important job with good insurance and a variety of scheduling options, but that's just not how He made me, I want to know why I would rather study an obscure passage from a minor prophet within a historical context than an old stand-by like Proverbs 31. I want to know why God made me to like football far more than cooking or decorating. I want to know why I speak the way I do, think the way I do, and do the way I do. I want to know what God is up to while I'm sitting in this dark, old hallway.

But here in this hallway, God bends near and whispers, "I don't have you in this hallway for you to know. I have you here so you can trust."

He gently reminds me that His own Son had a dream that wouldn't come true in His lifetime.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Matthew 23:37-39

Jesus longed to take His people into His arms. He longed to make them great among the nations. He longed to bring them blessing and abundance, but His dream wasn't going to happen in His lifetime, but in His death. His death would make a way to build a new Jerusalem from the destruction of its predecessor. His death would pay for the sins committed by those who steadfastly kept their trust in Him, and His death would establish a new nation and a new family that would bring Him the glory that was refused Him by those in Jerusalem who would sentence Him to death by crucifixion.

So here, in this hallway, I mourn for the Hannah that I thought and hoped and prayed that I would be. I mourn for the missed opportunities and closed doors. I mourn for the lost hope and painful emptiness. I mourn, trusting that this mourning is but temporary. This ignorance is short-lived. There will come a day very soon when I will see Him, and I will know why He made me precisely the way that He did, and when I do, I'm pretty sure that I won't care about that at all.

Because in that moment, I'll see Him face to face, my priorities will be set right, and I will know exactly what it means to be justified. I will finally be able to love the way that I was intended to love without fear or self-concern. I will finally be able to serve with all of my abilities without trying to prove a thing to myself or anyone else.

When I finally know what I want to know, I'm confident that will be the moment when I know that trusting has always been better than knowing.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Christians Act More Like Gaston than Belle Because We Forget We're the Beast

Today I spent a special day with my oldest daughter to celebrate her birthday. It included going to see Beauty and the Beast.

It. Was. Magical.

The new, semi-live-action film added songs from the Broadway version of the story, as well as a few helpful plot points, like the fact that the Enchantress placed a spell on the village, causing them to forget the castle and its prince. The combination of CGI and live-action was gorgeous. The story was a bit more complex than the original, and the characters were much deeper and more complicated.

When we got to the end, DeLaynie diverted her eyes for fear that the Beast would die and all of the palace staff would fade into inanimate objects. I leaned over and whispered, "You want to see this. It's the best part."

There it was, the same scene that I remembered from my childhood, from a time when I was even younger than DeLaynie. It was the scene in which the love of a beautiful woman transformed the gruesome beast into his true form- a prince. (If you've never seen the original film, I apologize for spoiling the ending, but seriously. Where have you been, and what have you been doing?)

I once heard Tim Keller describe this scene in a sermon. He explained that for a Christian all art now points us directly to Christ. Our story is woven into every great story. Our Savior's portrait is painted onto every beautiful canvas. The story of the beast is our story.

We were once like him, literally as ugly as sin. Our humanity had been torn from us by choosing our selfish ways over trusting our Creator. We looked to temporal things instead of the eternal things for which we were made. We traded our humanity for an animal-like craving for satisfaction. We no longer looked like the One who created us. We no longer reflected His image the way we were created to.

But then our Beautiful Savior stepped in and He loved us, and He made us love Him. That love transformed us from the inside-out. It's true that our transformation comes much slower than that of the Beast. It takes a lifetime and seeps into eternity to that first moment when we come face to face with our Beloved. But we know that it is coming, and our pending transformation changes us in the here and now.

Yet, we all too often forget what we once were. We take the love of our Savior as a testament to our beauty instead of His grace, so instead of seeking out those who remain in darkness in order to love them with the love that only Christ can give, we live in fear of the darkness. We attack when the darkness around us comes closer than we would like. We seek to destroy those who have not yet been transformed because instead of seeing the ugliness of sin as a cry for transforming love, we see it as a threat.

We've forgotten who we are. We've forgotten what we once were.

Every Christian is simply a transformed beast. 

We needn't fear the darkness. We know that the One who restored us to who we were meant to be will return, and He will restore His whole world to an even greater beauty than the first. Until then, as transformed beasts, our greatest privilege is to reach out to those who do not yet know the radical love of our God that changes us from the inside-out.

We cannot deny the ugliness of sin, or we risk loving without transformation as an end result, cursing those we love to an eternity in their cursed state. We do need to see sin's ugliness for what it is- a curse that can be set right by the love of God, the One who created us to rule beside Him forever. In every beast, there is a potential prince or princess, but denial, fear, or hatred cannot transform them.
Only perfect love can do that.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Why I'm Not a Part of "Moms' Groups"

Before we left to bring our son home, I joined a moms' group that was associated with our adoption agency. One day I was debating whether to take our jogging stroller with us to China, so I posted the question.

The response was insane. In. Sane.

"Your child will probably be overly sensitive to stimuli, so he won't be able to handle jogging."

"You're going to need to be flexible to your child's needs. Don't plan on going for any runs."

My personal favorite:

"You're going to have to do what's best for your child and not yourself. Hopefully you can be okay with that."

Somehow, my packing question morphed into a parenting question, and somehow, without meeting my child or me, I was deemed to be a selfish failure.

Because I asked for advice about taking a jogging stroller.

(For the record, I wished I had my jogger every single morning after Gotcha Day. Due to jet lag and an early morning waker, we were up long before the crowds filled the street. Li did just fine in the jogger once I got him home. No sensory issues there. Getting off my running routine needlessly made my life harder and made the jet-lag ten times more difficult when we returned. And I never got back to running.)

Where did it go so wrong?

No one asked any questions. They assumed that my son was just like their child.

But he wasn't. And I knew that because I had Skyped with him, read his file, and talked to him.

They didn't know that because they didn't ask, and they didn't seem to care.

I still don't understand why the sharks circled so maliciously. I eventually unsubscribed to updates on my own question because people continued to pound me with unkind and uneducated answers based on their own experiences that had nothing to do with my situation.

And it quickly became clear that they didn't care about my situation, or me. They cared about sounding smart. They cared about justifying themselves. They cared about feeling superior.

It's a good thing church isn't like that, huh?

Wait, it is like that!

People give you Scriptures about your issue without finding out what your issue actually is.

People pray for solutions to your problem without asking any questions to figure out what you actually need from God.

People knock you down for simply asking a question.

And I'm just as guilty.

I've given easy to remember Scriptures without considering the implications for the person seeking help.

I've prayed for solutions to problems quickly, without asking a single question to make sure that I'm praying for what's actually needed.

I've even embarrassed people for simply asking a question.

I didn't do it on purpose. In fact, I didn't even realize that I was doing it. I was so used to it, I had a hard time seeing that it was a problem. Until one day, when I was leading a Sunday School class, and one of the women had the courage to admit to her prayer group that she was struggling with real, severe depression. The person assigned to pray for her prayed something to the effect, "God I pray that you'll give her to the strength to get through her depression and do what she needs to do."

In that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The glorious privilege of prayer had just been used as a weapon against a tender soul who had finally found the strength to admit her frailty to a group of women she didn't know very well. Instead of praying for a loving Father to bring His comfort to His precious daughter, this unwitting pray-er threw the blame on sufferer and compounded her pain with more guilt. I was very young at that point, and I didn't know how to remedy the situation, but it did begin the very long process of learning to ask questions and seek helpfulness over easy answers.

What you've experienced isn't the same as what I have experienced. You and I have different weaknesses, different struggles, and different strengths. If I love you the way that I want to be loved, that could be very unloving because you're not me. I have to learn to love you the way that I would want to be loved if I were in your shoes. I have to learn to listen. I have to learn to care about you, right where you are, And I have to learn to learn.

I really don't want to be the shark that takes your head off and drives you away from church forever because unlike mom groups, church is mandatory (and overall, a wonderful privilege) for the believer. I really don't want to use a prayer as an excuse for a guilt trip. I really don't want to cut you down to make myself feel big. I really want to learn how to bend down to the broken and the hurting.

I really want to be more like Jesus and less like a moms' group.