29 October 2014

The Necessity of Beauty

It was that late-afternoon time where it’s dinner time in the United States, but not in the Dominican Republic, but my stomach still hasn’t agreed to leave me tranquila long enough to sit through a church service on empty. The women’s ministry meeting had ended, along with a serious private conversation with another missionary, and I still had twenty minutes before church started. Just enough time to slip away to buy some egg rolls from the nearest Chinese restaurant.

I paid 80 pesos for my food, and began to wait. Just in between the Chinese restaurant and the river, a small triangular park of sorts divided the road into a fork. Orange, red, and fuchsia flowering shrubs surrounded the steps leading up to the little island park, where motorcycle taxi drivers reclined on concrete benches, and a couple embraced each other in the shade. But it was the whole panorama that caught my eye as I looked out the tall doors of the Chinese restaurant, through the park, and out onto the river, where the sun was scattering rays of golden and rose-colored fire as it lowered onto the horizon.

With one egg roll down and one in my hand, I wandered across the street to take in the view. If I hadn’t been on my way to enjoy something just as beautiful—worshiping the Creator of all this beauty, with my fellow beautiful creatures—I would have stayed until the river swallowed up the sun, and its many-hued clouds gave way to darkness. But I would at least take some of the beauty with me, I reasoned as I plucked a few of the melon-toned flowers and secured them in my topknot.

Smile when you see the flowers. My friend Jasmine’s words echoed in my head. Surrounded by so much beauty, how could I help but smile?

Jasmine had sent those words to me in a text message nearly three months before. I had been visiting Arizona for the first time in my life.  Ever since I can remember, my dad has told me stories about how it was to grow up there. He said, sometimes he would be out exploring barefoot, and he would step on sticker cacti. That, apparently, hurt a lot. So he would lift up his foot, take out the stickers, and then take another  step, and lift up that foot, take out the stickers, and so on. After Dad had told this story enough times, we finally thought to ask him, “Daddy, why didn’t you just go backwards, if you were just starting the sticker patch?” I never understood that story.

But what I did understand, is that Arizona was a desert—extremely hot and dry, full of sand dunes, cactus and rattle snakes. Not so many years ago, my grandma shot a rattle snake in her backyard, and sent us the picture. This served to confirm my suspicions. Clearly, Arizona couldn’t support much life beyond desert plants and animals, and well-hydrated humans with air-conditioning.

Or at least, that’s what I thought about Arizona. Imagine my surprise when I arrived  in Phoenix in the beginning of August, and saw flowers everywhere! Every office building, every intersection, and at least half of the houses seemed to be bursting with flowers.

“They’re not natural,” my friend explained. “They are artificially irrigated, with hose underneath the ground.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the flowers. I had already been staring out the window and smiling during the whole trip, when Jasmine texted me: “Smile when you see the flowers.”

Back in the Dominican Republic, a tropical climate  where one can expect to see a wide variety of flowers all year long, I haven’t stopped smiling when I see the flowers. Sometimes I come home from a difficult day in the women’s ministry, weighed down by my own mistakes as I try to navigate cross-cultural servanthood. Then I see the flowers, and I smile.

Last week, I sat on my bed and got out my box of pastels for the first time since arriving here again in August. I drew a blonde head of hair, drawn into a low bun, arrayed with orange-red flowers at the base, and in a wreath around the crown. I wrote above and below the portrait, “Let the beauty of YHWH be upon us.”

It was in the middle of a week of whirlwind warfare. In the warfare, God repeatedly encouraged me with beautiful things… The flowers are just an outward sign of His beauty, which is my real joy and strength. Besides flowers, He gives me beautiful promises from His Word, times of beautiful prayer alone and with other believers, beautiful coincidences reminding me that He never forgets me, beautiful faces that have chosen hope in the midst of desperation, and chances to offer beauty back to Him as I dance in worship.

I echo the words of David in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have desired of YHWH, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of YHWH All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of YHWH, And to inquire in His temple.”

This one thing keeps me going… the beauty of YHWH, the great I AM, my Father, my Lover, my Savior, and Friend!

1 Chronicles 16:29 says, “Oh, worship YHWH in the beauty of His holiness!”

I am convinced that beauty is an absolute necessity in the healthy Christian life. It’s not a luxury for artists, for musicians, or for retired people. It’s the lifeline for those in the battle trenches, covered in mud and wounds. We need beauty to survive in this battle.

We must recognize beauty, we must seek it out, we must enjoy it, we must dwell on it. We don’t recognize beauty and ignore ugliness and pain. Rather, exactly because we can’t ignore the pain, we must seek out the good. Exactly because are surrounded by ugliness, we must fight to dwell on the beauty of our King.

Good old Philippians 4:8 is not just a memory verse…it’s the only way to survive the mess we’re in, without becoming part of it. The Message says it this way: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

The New King James says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

Beauty is not an escape from pain. It’s the only antidote. As we offer God our pain and shed tears for the broken lives all around us, He offers us His beauty for our ashes, the only kind of beauty that can satisfy our souls, and offer some hope for us. It’s that beauty and hope that we carry back to the very ones we cry for.  

Whether you are in a dry land where you didn’t expect to see flowers, or fighting spiritual battles in a tropical land, somewhere, somehow, God has put beauty in front of you. Take time for it. Find it and enjoy it. Or rather, find Him and enjoy Him,  because He is beauty! Take time for Him! Come behold the beauty of YHWH!

"I came to love you late, O Beauty, so ancient and new; I came to love you late. You were within me and I was outside where I rushed about wildly searching for you like some monster loose in your beautiful world. You were with me, but I was not with you. You called me, you shouted to me. You broke past my deafness. You bathed me in your light, you wrapped me in your splendor, you sent my blindness reeling. You gave out such a delightful fragrance, and I drew it in and came breathing hard after you. I tasted, and it made me hunger and thirst, you touched me, and I burned to know your peace." --St. Augustine

15 August 2014

To the mis-informed, mis-taught, and distraught: Purity is not what you think

It's been awhile since I've formed a rebuttal or even considered engaging in any kind of semi-intellectual, semi-theological debate of sorts on any article posted on Facebook or elsewhere. While I do read thoughtfully, I don't usually care to win the argument. 

But this title grabbed my attention. What a sad title! As I browsed the first few paragraphs, my grief and frustration only grew. 

I am so sorry for the author. While it's good to think about how you were raised, and try to find the Truth, this author's search unfortunately left her without any faith in God, because "I couldn't figure out how to be religious and sexual at the same time."

How sad.

Sad, because God wants a relationship with us--but the lies Samantha Pugsley grew up believing were religion devoid of relationship. Religion always destroys relationships with God and others. 

But God is so much more than that! 

And, dare I say, sex as God designed it is so much more than what Samantha was taught. 

God says to have no other idols before Him, and that includes purity. This author is right to recognize that purity has become an idol for many in the Church. Any time we lift up a standard of holiness above the Holy God, we risk creating an idol. 

As someone still on the purity side of the fence, though, purity is not an idol for me. I struggle with my share of idols and could write long books about them, but first, let's talk about this article. 

Purity certainly is an idol for some, and that can be very damaging, as Samantha lets on. My head hurts and my heart cries a little to read the first couple paragraphs of this article. This is surely not purity as God, or His Word conceived it, or as many solid churches preach it. I am sorry to hear that some churches teach stuff like this, or are perceived to teach stuff like this. A Biblical, [truly] liberating, and joyful celebration of sex as God created it is not like the distorted teachings she describes. 

Lie #1: "I would go to Hell if I did it" The woman caught in adultery didn't go to Hell, as far as we know. Jesus said that the one who is without sin could be the first to stone her--so, of course, she wasn't stoned. Then He told her to turn from her sin and walk free. That's because we all deserve Hell, no matter what kind of sin we commit--be it lying, lustful thoughts, coveting someone else's stuff, slander, of course the list goes on. The list does NOT go on because God wants to make our lives miserable. On the contrary, the list goes on because He is Holy and can't look on sin. Little do we know, until we turn to God for help, His holiness is actually our eternal happiness. That's because even though our sin separates us from Him, our source of true and lasting joy, He is a God of relationship. (I mean, duh, He created sex for one thing!) He couldn't bear to be separated from us, so He sent someone else to take the separation.... Jesus. Jesus' sacrifice and victory over sin and death, in our place, is the reason NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ, not sexual sin or hate or murder or anything....anyone who has taught anything differently is lying. 

Lie #2: "[A]s a girl, I had a responsibility to my future husband to remain pure for him. It was entirely possible that my future husband wouldn’t remain pure for me, because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the Bible." Whoa, just whoa. I have NEVER read that in the Bible. Shame on anyone who ever taught anything like that. I just did a search for the word "sexual" in the Bible and really can't see how anyone would get a one-sided message from any of the verses that appear. Does the Church sometimes, especially historically, put an undue burden on the women involved, more than the men? Yes. It goes way farther back than just Christianity, though. Does God teach this in His Word? Absolutely not. In fact, it was Jesus Himself who stopped the Pharisees from stoning the woman caught in adultery. 

But there's something more subtle at work here than the obvious inequality Samantha claims she was taught. She says she was taught to remain pure "for him". Really, really wrong motivation! What if there is no future husband? Does that mean all our "saving ourselves" is for nothing? More on this later. 

Half]-Lie #3: "[I]t would be my duty to fulfill my husband’s sexual needs" Anyone teaching this to women alone, is twisting God's Word again.... 1 Corinthians 7 clearly states that the man should serve his wife's sexual needs. Every time it mentions the expectations for the man or the woman, it mentions the same expectations for the other, "in the same way". This is because a committed, monogamous relationship will have issues that will require BOTH sides "submitting to one another in love" (also a Biblical mandate) for the good of the man, the woman, and the relationship in the short and long term. 

Lie #4: "[I]f I remained pure, my marriage would be blessed by God and if I didn’t that it would fall apart " Works-based theology didn't work for Job, or Stephen, or a lot of people throughout the Bible, so I see no reason anyone would think it does now. Except that all of us, even teachers, are "prone to wander"--and unfortunately lead others astray when we do.  

Major result of all the lies, #1: "It became my entire identity by the time I hit my teen years". Purity should never be an identity.... our identity is that we belong to Christ! Not just our sexual thoughts and actions.... but our whole beings! We are sons and daughters of a loving Father God! 

Major result of all the lies, #2: "[S]ex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married" God help us!  So sad! The Bible doesn't say this, and churches don't usually say it, either! But we need to speak up more about why this is not true! I myself am convinced that sex is a gift from God. He gives good gifts to His children! While it might not always be perfect, He created it to be fun, and life-giving both literally and figuratively, when within the bounds of a committed monogamous relationship between a man and woman. Maybe it's easy for me to see this because I am so sure of God's goodness and love for me! Not just love far removed or distant.... but a personal love--the love of a wonderful Daddy for His little girl. 

Now, outside of God's design I do believe that sex, which exposes our deepest vulnerabilities as humans physically, emotionally, and spiritually--brings some of the deepest pain we can know as humans. That is why God forbids it--because He loves us and wants to spare us that pain. But if we've experienced it, and we turn to Him for help, He will not turn His back on us. He didn't turn His back on David after he repented for his adultery. He will forgive, heal, make beauty out of ashes, and help us to live pure lives before Him. That's the beauty of grace!

For my part, I ask for God's strength and grace to be pure in my thoughts and actions, not in order to have a great marriage, earn God's favor, or gain anything at all.... but rather because obedience is God's love language! 

I can only love Him, because He first loved me. There truly is nothing sweeter than walking closely with Him--not even extra-marital sex or other habits of the mind and eyes that will ultimately harm me and grieve my Creator, who I delight to honor. 

That said, am I pure? Well, purity is not a box to check or a line we either have crossed or not--it's a lifestyle of submission to Christ, who alone can keep us pure. Without Him, even if we don't check that box or cross that line, we are powerless against the sins of the mind. Jesus said if we even look at another to lust after them, we have already committed adultery with them in our hearts. God, help us! (And, He does!)

It is Christ who purifies me. It is "Christ [who] also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:25b-27)

I am not pure for my future husband, but instead I am pure for and through Christ. 

If my purity were to please the Church, or my future husband (who may or may not actually exist), it would just be another false hope, another foundation of shifting sand, another idol. The only sure foundation is Christ! 

Again, am I pure? Not always, and certainly never on my own strength. Proverbs 22:9 says, "Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin”?" Not I. But, in the words of a wise friend, "yoked to Jesus, I am free to walk in righteousness." 

Grace and peace to you. 

05 February 2014

Cast your net!

At the international student Bible Study on Friday night, we studied the story of Jesus telling His (future) disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. These were simple fishermen who had been working all day without any luck. To their surprise, they caught a huge amount of fish. Astonished, Peter recognized Jesus' lordship. Jesus responded by telling them to follow Him, and He would make them fishers of men. 

We asked how Peter probably felt when God told him to just cast the net on the other side.

"Frustrated," was a common answer. 

After all, he had been fishing all day. Come on. There's no reason the fish would just magically appear and flock to the other side of the boat. It was unreasonable, but Jesus said it, they did it, and the results were more than they ever could have imagined--let alone caught on their own.

I felt like God spoke directly to me through that. 

If I do ministry my way, I can fish all day and catch nothing. That's frustrating. The Spirit's instructions to "cast my net on the other side" can seem unreasonable and ridiculous. But if I will just obey, if I will just take Him at His Word, I will truly bear fruit---more than ever before!