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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The World's Great Love Stories

We live so much of our lives in search of fantasy.

Sure, not so many people actually read fairy tales any longer, but Disney and Hollywood keep re-playing them, sometimes with a modern tweak here or there. But the stories have a sameness.

Someone is alone. Someone else is alone. Sometimes someone or something is standing in the way. In the tragedies, the love is unrequited or the obstacle is too great and the lovers die young. In the more common "happily ever after," the obstacle is overcome and best friends live a long life together, mutually satisfying one another and enjoying one another all their days. The "spouse as best friend" picture has emerged as our modern-day fairy tale. The story we all want to claim for our own. The only one that will satisfy.

It's cozy and comfortable and yes, very desireable. And if my path were always my own to plan and navigate, it's the story I'm sure I would choose.

But is it really the greatest love story of all time?

Decades ago, a book was written called The Greatest Story Ever Told. I think it was written by a Catholic about the life and death of Christ. I didn't read the book--it was of my parents' age--but I can certainly agree that the greatest story ever told is a love story, the story of a God betrayed, who refused to stop loving, and so came to redeem, and was betrayed again, to death, and still refused to stop loving, and is coming again to renew and completely regenerate absolutely everything. That's not a fairy tale. It's not a tragedy. And it's not as simple as a life-long buddy-ship either, though "best friends forever" takes on a different meaning when eternity AND the actual power to secure it are concerned.

So humanly speaking, I have to wonder about our standards for what makes the best love stories. Maybe the greatest human love stories are not the ones that never suffer at one another's hands, that never know deep trouble and hardship and the infliction of pain and betrayal. Maybe the truly great love stories are the ones that make it through that, despite never being best buds, never having the first reaction to give of oneself sacrificially for the other, never ride off into the sunset, never manage to be so perfect as to live freely independent of the support of others who encourage toward the good.

Maybe the greatest love stories are the ones that survive the thorns and the nails and the spears that come from within the relationship and not just from without, and show instead a reflection of the Greatest Story Ever Told. That stand and endure in the shadow cast by the gruesome tool of execution and the blood that flowed from it, to cover and allow for and make sense of innocence accepting pain and betrayal and wounds that may always be evident, even into eternity and glorification.

Maybe we've got it all wrong.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Clairvoyant Commentary of Robert Frost on My Life

I have a new favorite poem for this one snapshot moment of time in my life.
I found it today, completely by accident. At lunchtime, I often read poetry or stories to my 5 year old while she eats. Today, the collection of Robert Frost poems was out, because the 13 year old is learning one for school.

As I browsed and read, my little one insisted that I was choosing poems that were too short. "Pick a longer one!" she demanded. So, thankful for her growing attention span, I just opened up to this one. And it's all about me and my life right now. Mr. Frost, how did you know?

Good-by and Keep Cold

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark
And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter,  cut off by a hill from the house.
I don't want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don't want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don't want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn't be idle to call
I'd summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don't want it stirred by the heat of the sun.

(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)

No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm.
"How often already you've had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below."
I have to be gone for a season or so.

My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nurtured, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an ax--
Maples and birches and tamaracks.

I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard's arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.

--Robert Frost

Sunday, January 6, 2013

See that iron spike in my temple?

See it there?

Today, I got hammered. Twice.

If you've been reading what I write here for more than a few months, you've probably seen me say numerous times, "If the Bible or Jesus or God says something once, it's important. If the same thing is stated twice, then we really need to sit up and listen. And three times is the equivalent of our superlative. It's the ultimate expression."

So I have to take my own words to heart and hear what was said today. First, it all began with a very appealing opening line: The actual content of the Bible contradicts those who argue that it is misogynistic. On the contrary, God honors women. Jesus honors women.

I'm listening. Feeling "honored" is something I must say that I don't experience often.

The text was from Luke's gospel. Jesus is invited to the home of Simon, a Pharisee. These are the guys who think they have all the insider knowledge about God, and they uphold the letter of the law and overburden the people with it. They don't understand grace and work only by outward appearances of righteousness without it ever touching their hearts.

Jesus doesn't turn down the invitation. He goes to the Pharisee's home. He will join in fellowship with this man. While there, reclining at the table, a woman unknown by name but only as "a sinner" comes up behind Jesus. She is so overwhelmed by being in the presence of this one she knows of that she begins to weep. Her tears fall on his feet. She has nothing to clean them with, and so she kneels and does something considered obscene in that day: she lets down her hair, in public. She wipes his feet with her hair--wipes away the tears of contrition and love that she feels must be dirtying him; and does it with the symbol of her own glory, the woman's hair. His feet.

She is so lacking in self-consciousness that she doesn't care that she has just walked into the home of a Pharisee, one who knows her reputation. "Surely he can't be a prophet," the Pharisee judges. "If he were, he would know this woman is a Sinner." She has no name. Only the title: Sinner. Despised one. Filthy one. Jesus is aware that the Pharisee is judging her. He is aware also that the Pharisee is judging HIM. Judging God Incarnate for letting himself be dirtied by the loving, contrite touch of a repentant image-bearer. But she doesn't notice. She is not thinking of herself, only of being in the presence of Jesus.

When the hard-hearted Pharisee refuses to acknowledge that he is in need of forgiveness, Jesus draws attention to the woman directly. "Look at her!" he says to Simon. "Open your eyes and look at this woman. See how she loves me. You did the absolute minimum you could do in offering hospitality to me, but she has poured out her love lavishly, intensely, openly, publicly. And you would judge her?" Implied, too, is the pride of Simon to judge Jesus--a sin far worse than anything this Sinner woman has committed.

And so it was a beautiful story of how Jesus honored the woman of faith, despite her reputation among men. But while that was lovely, that wasn't the kicker for me. It was this, instead:
She knew her reputation. She knew what the Pharisee and other townspeople thought of her. They had judged her long ago. But she was so NOT absorbed in herself that she did not judge back.

In some ways, I am so like her. I weep at the feet of Jesus. I crave his presence. I remind myself "there is no condemnation in Christ." But I still don't have that freedom that she has, to let go of the desire to be thought well of in others' eyes, to set the record straight where painful judgment and assumptions have been made, often without basis, or based on individuals' own perceptions and not knowledge. They wound me when they judge. I am too self-conscious. I judge back. "You judge me for being free! Well I judge you back for judging me with your rules and ideas of cultural conformity!"

I heard this twice today, because we sat through worship at the church we were visiting twice. (We wanted the children to do Sunday school, and there was no other way.) The first time, I felt the hammer blow. But the second, it drove home. Twice means you'd better listen, girl. This is about you.

There really is no condemnation in Christ. Simon could think what he wanted about the woman. It wouldn't change the fact that her faith had saved her and she was in a perfect-tense state of forgiveness for her sins. She didn't have to condemn Simon. She didn't have to hide from Simon either. His condemnation was already determined, and for more than just judging her, but for not taking God at his own word.

I need the humility of the woman in this story. I need such focus on Christ that I don't care what others think of me, and I don't hurt so much when they judge me wrongly or presumptuously. God has dealt with me himself. I have been forgiven much. So much. I need to see this more clearly, so that I can be humble enough to love and not judge in return.

Pray for me on this journey?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Idealism and Realism Collide

I'm an Idealist. You know that. I see everything through the lens of How It Ought To Be and for most of my life, I've expected all of you to see it that way too, clamoring to join the race to the Finish Line of Perfect Achievement and crowd around, rejoicing, slapping backs and patting rears and yelling, "Atta Girl!" and "Atta Boy!" in the Utopian Afterglow.

Are all Idealists born, sliding from the womb, slippery and screaming and seared with the first cold breath, on a trajectory toward the inevitable collision with Reality? Or, is Realism the actual obstacle? I think there's a distinction.

I am there, at any rate. I've crashed into an argument of Should and Ought To Be. It's been turned around upon me, and this morning my husband and I found ourselves wearing its chains, and they are heavy. I don't know what to do with this. We are so weary of hearing the Shoulds and Ought To Bes when they are presented only in theory, presented in formula, and dependent upon such a degree of supernatural Pollyannaism that even I find myself a little queasy from the implied self-deprecating kind of Idealism required for it to work. Rewrite your story, then! Play the Glad Game until you make it look convincing! Fake it! I feel squelched and diminished. Buried under a dust cover. He feels overwhelmed by the burden he SHOULD be carrying well, completely outside of his design and programming.

Neither of us feel like pretending.

There is a reality to Him and Me. There must also be an ideal. Could it be that the Idealist in me has enough tempering by some small seed of Realism that I can finally begin to recognize that the real and the ideal in the us of this story might actually deserve no more than lowercase letters? And can you? Could it be that we (and not just he and I) have squandered far too much effort on prescribing and defining and outlining and dividing and analyzing and overcompensating and suppressing out of fear of failure or fear of something else, that we've forgotten to live by the two words we know to be the most important: Trust and Obey?

Don't complicate it. This is who we are. That's real, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


The following is a discussion I've been having with my cousin and dear friend, Leslie. In July 2011, we went to see my favorite Christian band, U2, together. So many of their songs, though veiled in poetic artistry, touch me with deep spiritual truths and truths about human relationships in this fallen condition.
This one touches both Leslie and me. ONE is among their most profound songs, most touching, most real, most human and most divine.
ONE, by U2.


Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
You say

One love
One life
When it's one need
In the night
One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don't care for it

Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it's

Too late
To drag the past out into the light
We're one, but we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head

Did I ask too much?
More than a lot.
You gave me nothing,
Now it's all I got
We're one
But we're not the same
Well we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again
You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can't be holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other


Leslie:  So I've been contemplating the lyrics to U2's One.  I've decided it is among the saddest songs on the planet.
You act like you never had love and you want me to do without. 
Did I ask too much?  More than a lot?  You gave me nothing, now that's all I've got.
And of course, I told you before that the line, "well, it's too late tonight to drag the past out into the light" makes my soul hurt.  That feeling of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion mixed with the beginnings of indifference and apathy that it conveys to me is one of the worst feelings in the world.
I've been spending too much time thinking about this.  I don't know why...

Me:  On Sunday, our pastor said that love is giving for the sake of another and expecting nothing in return. He said that, and I practically gave up all hope. I cannot give all the time without expecting something in return. I can't even give a little without somehow expecting at least that relationship will grow and deepen because of it. And I'm not sure we're supposed to, either. I mean, Jesus, in John, told his disciples not to love their neighbors as themselves any longer. But he told them he was giving a NEW command, "JUST AS I have loved you, love one another." And then he called them friends and brothers.
There are two important parts to that: Just as he loved them. He DID life with them. They ate and drank and talked and slept and worked and traveled together. He let them know him intimately, and he knew them as well. They really knew who it was who died for them. They knew him like family. He declared them to be family. He let them in close.But the second part is the mutuality he commands. LOVE ONE ANOTHER. It's a back & forth thing. It's no longer just "love your neighbor," but there's expectation that we will love one another. One gives and one can also expect to receive. We're made to be in community and we're made to encourage others, because we also need encouragement.

So just as I was giving up hope, our pastor admitted that we can't do it. We can't love with no expectation. Love is supposed to create a response, even if it doesn't demand on its own way. So he said love is to be both justifying and sanctifying, like Christ is.

Love tells the brother who has offended you that he has right standing with you. The one who loves absorbs the offense and offers grace to the offender without expecting restitution for the harm. That's the justification part. But it doesn't stop there. He says then, real love encourages improvement in the relationship. It doesn't just accept it the way that it is. Real love says, "You have right standing with me at this point. Now, let's work on this together."

I like the sound of that. But I reach the fatigue point too. I think ONE is talking about something similar, though. We are brothers and sisters. That we get to carry each other is a blessing, not a curse. At least, it is supposed to be. But we're so bad at actually loving one another that it happens imperfectly. And the fuel runs out. We can't seem to meet consistently where we need to be.

I know that personally, my expectations are just so much more full than those of others. "Did I ask too much? More than a lot?" (Not by my own standards, no. I don't ask more than I've been willing to give, and then some. But it's uncommonly deep, that which I seek. Yet, I can often be satisfied with a small response if it is inclusive and voluntary. Fighting for it cheapens it, somehow, and makes even small responses seem untrustworthy or insincere.) I expect, somehow, to go all out. To draw people in like family, and for them to stay and want that kind of overlapping inclusion. But it's most typically, though not exlusively, one-sided. I draw circles to bring them in and within that, they draw circles to shut me out. Holding on is not something I can do on my own. It takes supernatural power to keep loving and keep trying when that happens.

I told him I didn't think I could keep doing it. I can't be the only one waving this one banner all alone. He said in 30 years, less than a handful of people have seemed to hear what he's saying. I want to respond, "But it's too late, tonight, to drag the past out into the light." I tire. That's where that supernatural comes in. He says the power I claim to make ONE possible is the same power that will fuel me to keep trying.

"Leaves you, baby, if you don't care for it."

One love, one blood, one life, I've got to do what I should. One life, with each other: sisters, brothers. I believe it. I want to live what I believe. But I run out. (This is the "already" person in a "not yet" world. I always long for the ultimate fulfilment.)

Leslie:  I think that maybe the key to loving without expecting anything in return is misleading.  I think it might be about changing what we expect in return.  And I think it is easier to do with strangers than it is with family and very close friends.

When we volunteer at a habitat house, or make Christmas boxes for children third world countries, or foster dogs, or pay for the person behind you in the drive through - we don't expect anything remotely reciprocal - we do it, with love, expecting nothing more than the warm fuzzy feeling of doing the right thing.  It is an act of love, truly selfless, with the anticipated result of the act being the reward in and of itself. 

But when it comes to family and close friends, we (and by "we" I mean "I") become more likely to have a mental scorecard, no matter how much we try not to keep score.  Even when we WANT to write it off, the ink seems to be indelible.  The closer the relationship (with the exception of infants and very small children), the more we demand in return, and the less likely we seem to be to love without expectations.

While Jesus did obviously love the disciples in a very real and present way, I think it is fair to say that he didn't expect anything in return, really.  Even Judas and Peter, who took and took, but when it came to the one time Jesus needed them, weren't there - they didn't act in love in return.  My reaction would have been intense anger... after all I have done for you, and here you are, betraying me unto death and denying you are even my friend... but Jesus' reward (if it can even be called that, that seems to be dismissive somehow) wasn't caught up in what WE could do for HIM, it was love for love's sake.

And yes, we were commanded to, and in a perfect world we all would love one another, but sadly, we can't control anyone but ourselves, we can't control their actions or their reactions.  I can't rightfully expect that people are going to love me back, do nice things in return, treat me the way I would/have treated them.  I can only control me and MY reaction.  If they aren't loving me as I loved them, as God loves me, I cannot change that, but I can recognize it, and rationalize it, and attempt to modify my expectations of reciprocation.

And here is where the concept of loving someone but not liking them very much comes in - and it usually seems to happen with sisters most of all :-)  Sometimes the nicest thing, the most loving thing I can as a human in that situation is to refrain from doing something hurtful or destructive, and try to reset and recalibrate my heart and head. 

The one thing we can't do is make someone love us that just doesn't love us in the same way, manner, depth that we love them.  You gave me nothing, now that's all I've got.
So to recap, yes, we SHOULD love one another, and in a perfect world, it would be equally reciprocal.  But it isn't, and we can only change half of that equation.  Also to recap, I am cynical and have learned that people are hurtful and have come to terms with that. 

Me:   You are right and you are right and you are right. And you are real.
I love the part about sisters. But that's how we all are, too, once we get close to each other. Really close.

And Love Never Ends. Even if we think we need to shove it down or pack it up or reroute it. Love Never Ends.

Leslie:   I've been thinking some more about it, too, and it struck me that one of the two quotes that made it to the "about me" portion of facebook years ago is about this, too, and it was a tough thing for me to come to terms with.  I am not sure that I am right and right and right, but for me I have to believe this:

"Just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to, doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have."

Me:   Yeah, I think of that quote a lot. But what if you share with people how it is that you experience love. Does love in them then attempt to love you in the way that you best experience it? Or is a response of, "well, I don't do things that way" legitimate?

If I know you respond to gifts above all else, but never give you one, am I really "abounding more and more in knowledge and discernment" (Philippians) so that I can accurately encourage you? If I know that quality time is what makes you feel loved, but I never seek to spend any time with you, am I committing a sin of omission?

And regarding Jesus expecting nothing in return, that's a bit nuanced. He KNEW he was gaining a people for himself, even if he also knew/knows how far short we will fall in responding well to his love. He does it by giving faith and giving a love response, writing his word on our hearts and bringing us through sanctification to eventually perfect us. We humans don't have that power. As you've said, we can't change one another. We can only change ourselves. But aren't we still to be open to confide in one another where we have need and to be open also to hear from each other where we can likewise be better? 

Leslie:  Hmmmm - if it as simple as "well, I don't do things that way, so get over it" I am not sure that that person has love HOWEVER, I doubt it is usually that simple.  For example, if my love language is Quality Time, and I tell that to you, a working wife and mother with four children, and you are unable to meet what I determine to be a minimum demand for my needs, are you wrong for not loving me enough to my needs even though I communicated them to you, or am I wrong for expecting something that may be unrealistic from you?
Similarly, if you tell me that your love language is touch, and I tell you that touch makes me uncomfortable, does it mean that I don't love you when I shrink back from a hug, or does it mean that you don't love me when you, who shows love through hugs, hug me regardless of my stated feelings?
Are we both wrong if we don't work toward meeting the other's needs while resetting our own expectations of reciprocation based on what we know of the other person?  Could abounding more and more in knowledge and discernment also apply to attempting to find true peace, if not full satisfaction in receiving what another has to give, even if it isn't exactly what we wanted?
I fully expected you to push back on the Jesus example, and I was not 100% on board with my own argument there :-), because even though Jesus didn't expect reciprocal love even from His disciples, Father God has certainly told us what HIS love language is, as a result of our love for Him, it follows that we would strive to respect that and love him back in the manner that He instructed us to do.

Me:   Well, the "get over it" addition puts a whole different attitude in the response, and that's not quite where I meant to go with that... much less forceful and demanding, but maybe just a passive, helpless sort of response.

The touch thing is a good example. The time thing...well, it's hard for me, because I AM far too busy, and yet, that's my love language, and so it's like oxygen.

Striving for peace, yes. We get to carry each other, right? That in itself implies that we all have brokenness and need for being carried at some point. Learning to give that right standing. That's the key, I think.

Leslie:   But you get the idea - if I ask something of you that you are incapable of returning in the same quantities that I can give to you, that doesn't mean that you don't love me as much as I love you.  If you HAD time to give and knew I needed time to know I am loved, but choose not to... well, that is something different.  It still doesn't mean that either one of us are "bad" or unloving or unlovable, but it might mean that we are loving with different levels of intensity, and that might need to be considered.  Did I ask too much?  More than a lot? 
We are all trainwrecks.  We are all scarred.  We are all broken.  We're one, but we're not the same.  We get to carry each other.

Me:  Another thing I just thought of: Where is prayer for one another?
Unless I'm missing it, there's no mention of it in ONE. And that's a little bit unusual, because generally U2 refers to a female presence as representing the Holy Spirit. When someone burns me out, shouldn't I pray for that person? Wouldn't I want that person praying for me too?
In Christian relationship (and that has to be what this song is referring to) part of carrying each other is praying for each other.