A biblical woman laughs at the future

My husband and I decided to plant a vegetable garden this year. Actually, I casually suggested that we should plant a vegetable garden, and then my sweet husband built us a planter, researched “compost” and “nitrogen” and “carbon” and lots of other garden words. While he’s been poring over gardening websites and NPR gardening specials, I have also been busy with equally important, garden-related business. Like day dreaming about grocery bags so overflowing with our garden’s future bounty that after finishing a little Caprese salad, I frolick through the neighborhood to dole out fresh produce to all.

Two summers ago I decided to “plant a garden.” I use quotes because…do you know what I did to “plant my garden?” I bought a packet of seeds. I threw some in the clay dirt on the side of our backyard, sprinkled some water around where the seed was. Want to hear something shocking? Nothing grew out of that seed that was placed in cement dirt and never watered. I can’t imagine what went wrong. Faulty seeds, obviously.

Flash forward to me watching my husband learn how to garden. Do you know what he has explained to me about gardening 101? Apparently, good soil is CRUCIAL to the growth of any kind of vegetation. So crucial, in fact, that we (ok, fine, he) spent weeks breaking up the dirt underneath where the planter would be, shopping for topsoil and making compost before we could even look at a seed.

Coincidentally (or perhaps as a divinely-timed illustration), our small group is going through a study right now that asked us to read the parable of the sower and identify which soil we are. Easy enough, I thought. I remembered this parable, probably read it a dozen times. Since I call myself a Christian, I thought I could pre-conclude that I am the good soil. And then I actually reread the parable:

“The farmer sows the word.  Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

I couldn’t help but freak out a little bit when I read this. I wholeheartedly consider myself a Christian woman, wife and mother. I know that we’re commanded, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) But do I? James 1:27 tells us “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” How much of my life – the day-to-day stuff – is me, looking after orphans and widows? And how much of it is me being polluted by the world? Does my life produce a crop? Or do the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word in my life? Where is my fruit?

Most of these soil scenarios – rocky, thorny, good – refer to people who call themselves “Christians.” Jesus is not admonishing the non-believers here. He’s looking at the very people who think they get it. The church-goers. The bible-study attenders. The bumper-sticker wearers.

You guys, how easy is it to get caught up in worries, wealth and other things, especially as a wife and mom? I worry about my kids every day. After my oldest was born, for about a month we thought she had a rare auto-immune disease. She didn’t. But I can assure you, my worries were more abundant than the fruit I bore in this season. My 3-year-old son broke his leg a month ago. I worried about his pain, my ability to parent three small kids, two of whom do not walk. I worried about the cost of a trip to the emergency room. Worry, worry, worry.

What would our generation of wives and moms look like if we took the admonishing of Mark 4 seriously, rejecting the worries of this life in favor of surrendering those worries to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine? (Ephesians 3:20)

Proverbs 31:25 says that a worthy woman “smiles at the future.”  Um. Yes, please. I’d much prefer to be this smiling, confident woman instead of the frazzled, worried mother of wild animals in toddler suits.

“She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (v. 26) When you open your mouth, what comes out? Worries of this life, pursuit of wealth, desires for other things? Or is it wisdom, are you teaching kindness? What’s your soil like? Where’s your fruit?

Our early gardening endeavors have taught me a few things: 1.) Nothing grows in lousy soil. 2.) You have to put in some work to get those heirlooms. Yank the thorns, water the soil, pull out the rocks. Now let’s go tend our gardens.

Ain’t love a kick in the head

I don’t know how single moms do it. I solo-parented for one day and found myself Yelping nearby “Nail Salons with childcare.” (Bad news: turns out this isn’t a thing.)

Raising three kids under four is like working at a spa. You spend all your energy helping other people get comfortable. You watch them relax, eat and do their favorite things all day long. They’re living the dream. But you? You’re hungry, exhausted and just when you’re about to take your lunch break, someone has soiled himself and you need to give him a bath…Okay, fine I’ve never been to a spa.

Back to last weekend. I desperately rallied my tiny troops so we could leave the house for a fun outing, “Go potty!” “Stop hitting your sister!” “Don’t eat the dog food!” My patience waned as the clock ticked. The kids were so slow to obey. They disobeyed me in the same ways we’d discussed dozens of times. Didn’t they know I only wanted what was best for them? When I tell them to use the restroom, it’s because I don’t want their teensy little bladders to uncomfortably fill up mid-car ride. Jack doesn’t like it when Selah hits him, so Jack shouldn’t hit Selah. (Golden rule = common sense, y’all.) And for crying out loud, don’t eat the dog food. It tastes like, well, dog food, and we are VEGETARIANS, you guys.

I was exhausted and annoyed for having to repeat myself. I wished they’d just obey me. That they’d turn back to a few of the very basic lessons my husband and I have been drilling in since infancy: Obey us. Love others. Be a vegetarian.

We were already five minutes late when I plopped my 3-year old son on my lap to put on his shoes. He had one hand in each shoe, and against my repeated instruction, he wildly swung his shoe-hands over his shoulder behind him, nailing me in the eye with the rubber toe of his tiny Chuck Taylor. “Ouch!” I cried. “Jack! I told you NOT to wave your shoes in the air. You disobeyed me, and now you’ve hurt me!” He shrunk and began to cry out of shame and remorse. “Sorry, Mom,” he said through tears. My eye throbbed in pain. I vacillated between wanting to discipline my boy and wanting to check the mirror for a shiner. Either way, I really wanted him to wallow in his mistake for a minute before I forgave him for this “grievous” offense of…hmm. accidentally bonking me in the eye.

After stewing for a minute I realized my own giant pride had rationalized my failure to exhibit even an ounce of grace towards my son. “But he disobeyed ME! His MOTHER!” I thought. “He said sorry, but why should I be so quick to forgive him when he brought this upon himself through his own disobedience?”

And then it hit me: God forgives me every day. Instantly. I disobey Him (in much more grievous ways than an accidental kick in the head,) and He forgives me. Immediately. Boom. Done. He calls me to obey His commandments because He loves me and wants what’s best for me. And when I disobey and cry out to him in remorse, he catches my tears with the very hands that were nailed to the cross to pay for the sin I just committed.

Tainted by original sin (thanks for that, Eve), I sometimes cave into my desires to disobey God. And then I reap the consequences. My children disobeyed me (sin), and I reacted gracelessly, in a fit of rage (sin). Jack and I don’t share the same exact struggles. I don’t, for example, desire to wildly flail my shoe-hands. (I prefer to use shoe-hands for handstands. Better traction.) But we are cut from the same original-sin cloth.

God’s Word tells me, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:1) All of these things destroy relationships and hurt people. His rules make sense. When I obey them, my life is better. I’m living the way I was designed to live. His burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

I recently heard someone describe parenting as “looking at yourself in a full-length mirror.” AMEN. Nothing in my life has so clearly demonstrated my failures and inadequacies like parenting. I used to think I was patient. Then I had kids. And now I understand that my own grace and patience is a joke. So what now?

Enter the One who invented patience, willing to fill me with His spirit if I seek Him. James 4:6-8 tells us that God gives grace to the humble. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” So what does that look like? It starts with making time to read His word. Sound hard? Pray about it. Pray for God to stir a desire so strong in your heart that you can’t wait to spend time with Him. And then take a tip from Nike and Just Do It. If you have time to Facebook or read this essay about fantasy nail salons and Jesus (hopefully your takeaway emphasizes the latter), then for Pete’s sake you have time to open your Bible. (I mean this lovingly and I’m talking to myself here, too.) Because it’s only through Jesus that I can channel the kind of grace to immediately forgive a shoe-handed kick in the face.

Lord, thank You for the beautiful, exhausting, hilarious and humbling job of parenthood. Thank You for showing me where I fall short and how much I need You. Help me to parent my children with the kind of unbridled grace and mercy You show me. I fall short every day. And You forgive me every day, Your steadfast love never ceases; Your mercies are new each morning. Thank You, Jesus.

Why you should stop trying to earn God’s love

I gave my three-year-old a bowl of grapes the other day, and he said something that broke my heart.

“Jack. Eat your fruit, buddy.”

“Why? Because it helps me grow big and strong?”

“Yes.”

“And because you and Daddy love me more when I eat my fruit?”

My heart about stopped. Did he really think that my love for him had anything to do with him eating his grapes? This concept sounds so obvious and juvenile to us…but how often do we subliminally believe that God’s love for us changes with our behavior?

“Buddy. Mommy and Daddy love you always and forever no matter what. There’s nothing you can do to change that. We want you to eat your fruit because it’s good for you. We want what’s good for you because we love you.”

“Oh. Ok!” Then he ran off to watch his sister play Mario Kart. I can’t stop thinking about this exchange. My love for these tiny people runs deeper than anything I know. I tell them I love them every day. I show them I love them by making their meals, keeping them clean, comfy and addressing their every need – and a lot of their wants, too. There’s nothing they did to earn my love for them, I loved them before I birthed them.

In fact, if kids had to “earn” our love, we would all be in trouble. These miniature, bouncy humans have approximately zero to offer their parents, rationally speaking. They are loud when you tell them to be quiet. They are quiet when you tell them to speak up. And we love them. They are expensive, exhausting and create more dirty diapers than should be legal. And we love them. Purely from a place of logic and reason, children are a net drain on our finances, time and energy…And we love our kids unconditionally, regardless of what they bring to the table. We love them because we love them, not because they did something to earn it.

Is this not the same way God loves us?

What can I possibly offer the God who spoke the world into existence? Nothing. And He loves me. He provides for my every need and even a lot of my wants. Here I am, loud when He wants me to be quiet; quiet when He wants me to speak up. And He loves me. Even when I do all that I can to serve Him, I’ve accomplished nothing He couldn’t have taken care of by Himself. He loves me because He loves me, not because I did something special to deserve it. But because He is love.

As Christians, we say that God loves us, but do we really believe that? After our passive-aggressive retorts to our spouse; after habitually making everything a priority except Jesus, after we snap at our kids and ignore our neighbors; we realize we’ve messed up. Again. We pause for a moment to come up for a breath of air and feel like we’ve failed God too many times. And then we do something dangerous: we mistakenly intertwine God’s love for us and His delight in us – something that we cannot affect; and something that we can. It’s there that we’ve missed the crux of grace. We begin to feel unloved and unworthy because of our failings, like somehow God’s love for us is dependent on our behavior. Good news, friends, it isn’t.

His love for you will never waver. I mean, how could a human do anything to alter the very character of God who has existed forever? Is there anything more comforting than that? He. Loves. You. And do you know what exhilarates me? That separate from His love for me, God can actually delight in me. When we obey Him, when we pursue Him, when we delight in Him  – He delights in us. “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” (Psalm 147:11)

My husband is taking on the massive DIY project of ripping out the old, yucky carpet on our stairs. We wanted to make them look less “The Money Pit,” and more “Pinterest.” This is a legit project involving an orbital sander, hammers, and dozens of other toxic or sharp items procured from Home Depot. Jack has intently watched his Daddy rip carpet, sand and paint when he finally asked to help. What help can a 3-year-old actually provide in a staircase redo? About as much help as I can offer LeBron James in perfecting his free throw. Nada. And yet David and I were thrilled that Jack wanted to help with the project. David handed him a wrench and told him to tap on each of the already-secured screws to, you know, “make sure everything was tight.”

As parents, our delight obviously wasn’t in Jack’s wrench-tapping skills. Our delight was in Jack’s heart to please his dad. We already loved him to capacity, whether he was watching TV or helping his dad. Because we love him, we were thrilled that he desired to help his Daddy accomplish his work. We love our son while he is hitting his sister. We love him when he gives her a hug. But we delight in him when he does the right thing.

John Piper explained, “Therefore, we are doing what is right when we are understanding the truth of God’s value for what it is, and feeling it proportionately to his universal supremacy, and acting in ways that express God’s supreme value. That is what ‘right’ means.”

I’m so grateful that God uses parenting to give us a glimpse into the way He feels about us, His children. God loves you always, without condition or reservation. He loves you at your worst and at your best. He loves you because He loves you. He loves you so relentlessly that He desires you to seek Him and delight in Him. And when you do seek Him, obey Him and value Him, you delight Him. Does this not blow your mind? That the God of the universe can actually delight in you, when you delight in Him? That God uses tiny people who cannot even tie their own shoes to demonstrate His perfect love for me?

A lesson in magnifying joy

My 3-year-old son broke his tibia two months ago. This daredevil child (who I pulled out of the zoo’s alligator pit by his feet a few months back), fractured his leg by – get this – jumping from the coffee table to the couch. Seriously? The kid has fallen from a 7-foot high play structure without a scratch, but landing on the soft couch was apparently awkward enough to score us three trips to the hospital and a bright orange cast from toe to mid-thigh.

Allow me to reassure you that my child’s broken leg is more reflective of his personality than my parenting. My non-daredevil daughter has made it to four-and-a-half years old with no injury worse than a “paper cut.” I use quotations because no one has actually seen one of these “horrifying afflictions” on her skin. But we do purchase Band-Aids in bulk because, well, she gets them “all the time.” If you mother a bouncy boy, I’m sure you can empathize with the wildness of little males. And if you do not, please pause for a moment to appreciate all the additional gray your head does not have.

So there we were, three weeks into the chaos that is parenting three preschool-aged children, two of whom did not walk. According to the orthopedist, even a drop of water on the cast required an immediate blow drying, and I felt like I’d busted out my Conair daily. I’d removed tomato sauce, ranch dressing, dirt and jelly from that neon, weaponized toddler leg. I’d even smelled it, certain that nearby dog droppings had made its way into the tiny crevices. (It wound up being the dirt-caked jelly. Never thought I’d be so happy to smell dirt-caked jelly.)

Don’t get me started on getting the children into or out of the car (which we do a dozen times a day). Remember that logic puzzle where the farmer is crossing a river with a fox, goose and a bag of beans? He has to bring them all to the other side of the river and can only carry one at a time, but can’t leave the fox alone with the goose, or the goose with the beans. It takes him seven trips to bring all of the parties across the river. This was my life bringing groceries inside the house. I was the farmer and I strategically struggled juggling bags and children into my house, only in my version, the goose’s leg had a neon orange cast and the farmer, goose, fox and bag of beans all whined excessively.

Three weeks in, I was tired and defeated. I cracked open my bible to James 1:2-3. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Joy? Joy?! Shoot. I had complained more in three weeks of my son’s broken leg than I had in my three decades of life leading up to it. “My arms hurt!” “This cast stinks!” “Why do you people need to eat dinner every niiiiiiight?!!!”

James preaches on, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19-20) Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…So basically if we used myself as an example, you could just take me and then do the exact the opposite of that, and there’s the way we’re supposed to act. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26) Worthless? Yikes, James.

So where do I go from here after that kind of admonishing? James actually hand-holds me through this one: “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” Reading James 1 in the midst of this joyless parenting trial felt like a quick mirror-check at a dinner party, where I find gobs of mascara under my eyes. “Whoa, sister. Good thing you checked that mirror!” I reassure myself but then I leave the mascara under my eyes and head back to chat it up with my friends. How ridiculous, right? And yet, that messy mascara is my spiritual gunk when I read these words and don’t let them impact my attitude.

I’M READY TO JAMES 1:19-IFY MY PARENTING.

A few nights ago, my husband suggested we take a few minutes to pray together, thanking God for the blessings in our lives. Air conditioning, clean running water, healthy food, healthy babies, access to some of the best medical care on the planet, books, forgiveness, hot coffee, a washing machine, a car, a job, Nutella. We could have gone on forever. How quick I was to complain about ONE hardship amidst all this bounty. Reminding ourselves of God’s perfect and generous provision readjusted my perspective immediately. I was suddenly…joyful.

It took my 3-year-old’s broken leg to magnify the joylessness I allowed to hold me captive in my parenting. I’m hoping I shed that joylessness along with the nasty orange fiberglass cast we sawed off and left behind at the doctor’s office. I’m ready to James 1:19-ify my parenting. Let’s do it together!

Have you ever felt joyless? What things do you do that bring joy back into your joyless life? I’d love to hear from you.

When Your Life Becomes a Pinterest Fail

I recently had a day. Like, a DAY. You know the kind? When you wake up too late for coffee? (Fail.) You frantically rush the kids to dress, eat and sit still for a bumpy, mediocre ponytail that you’d have NEVER let your mom get away with. Ants invaded your kitchen while you slept – a pleasant reminder that you did a lousy job wiping down the counters after dinner last night. (Another fail.) You are a grump, and grumpiness is scientifically proven to be eleventy-gazillion times more contagious than Hand-Foot-Mouth-disease. So now your kids are all grumps, too. And you’re annoyed at them for being grumps. (Fail again.) You barely make it through carpool pickup at noon and by the time you’re flipping four burnt but passable grilled cheeses (fail) you remember that you never dropped off the husband’s dry cleaning which needs to be ready by tomorrow. (Fail.) The laundry is out of control, you don’t remember when you last mopped and your kids won’t touch their lunches. So you escape into the pantry and cry. Because how is it humanly possible for a person to spin their wheels this hard yet fail so miserably?

When I quit my paid job to stay home and raise babies, I expected a few things: 1.) My real house would now look like my Pinterest house. 2.) The stress in my life would disappear. 3.) After pouring into them daily, my children would obviously “arise and call me blessed,” à la Proverbs 31. Isn’t that supposed to be the legacy of a stay-at-home mom? That’s her entire job, what excuse does she have for failure?

Yet here I am, five years of full-time motherhood under my belt, basking in my shortcomings as I sob into the unorganized hodge-podge of processed foods I swore I’d never feed my kids.

After a teary afternoon of failure-basking, I finally snapped out of it to realize my problem wasn’t my litany of mom-fails; my problem was my misplaced identity. I’d been measuring my worth on a scale of everything but Jesus. Pinterest, Martha Stewart, the gluten-free Joneses. I measured my success by my ability to avoid feeding my kids refined sugar (hello, popsicles); by how clean my floors were (not); by how organized my pantry was (please see “hodge-podge”). Imagine the most eternally-insignificant way to gauge success, and that was my barometer.

I know better. And yet I was letting “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22) I was speeding on the expressway to fruitless living. As I put the words to paper, I now realize how out-of-whack my priorities can get. The desire for cleaner floors, my obsession with 7 extra grams of sugar and the absence of labeled snack baskets in my pantry were sending me to the brink. Who is this girl?

Have you ever done this? What kind of yardsticks do you use to measure your worth? Job promotions? Raises? Losing baby weight? Being a “Good Mom”? Punctuality? Being noticed? Being liked? Having an organized house? The list never ends. It’s great to excel in these areas, and God can be glorified in all of these things – but they cannot be the measure by which we obtain our value. If they are, we are missing the gospel. And this week, I missed the gospel.

Sometimes we know cognitively that we need Jesus’s forgiveness, but our hearts are a little slower on the uptake. Understanding the gospel and being transformed by it must go hand-in-hand.

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all…God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-8; 10-11)

I was going through an identity crisis and I didn’t even know it until I was disciplined for it. If my hope and identity is in the eternal, if I am properly fixated on loving God and loving people; of going into the world and preaching the good news to all creation (Mark 16:15), I shouldn’t be rattled by the inability to make my pantry look adorable.

The tears of self-defeat sure as heck sting. But how grateful I am for this discipline; for the reminder that if I seek unimportant, worldly things, my life will inevitably be shattered by those same unimportant, worldly things. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) So let’s turn our eyes from the burnt grilled cheeses and ant conventions in our kitchens to a kind of mind-blowing love that anchors our hollow hearts with forgiveness and hope.

* Photo by Kai Lazarte via Flickr

How to be the church we were meant to be

The Southern California June drizzle declared war on my frizzy hair. I sat with three other fourteen-year-old retreat-goers, and we eyed the straws and gumdrops in front of us. In our freshman awkwardness, we tried to look more bored than the person next to us. We waited for the middle-aged church lady to give us instructions.

“Each group will use the gumdrops and straws to build a church. The group that builds the largest church will win a prize,” The woman announced as she held up four Snickers bars. “You have ten minutes. Get started.”

Eight separate groups of creaky-voiced boys and brace-faced girls began sticking straws into gelatinized sugar. Tall, wobbly towers sprang up around us. Our group members just stared at one another. Competitive by nature, my ears had perked up as soon as the lady mentioned that a winner would be declared. I had an idea.

“Hey! Guys! Since a ‘church’ is actually made up of the people and not the building, let’s build a bunch of gum-drop-and-straw people!” My group members indifferently nodded. They either thought I was an idiot or didn’t care, but they bought in and soon we had erected 8 adorably sticky gum-drop people. I was very pleased with myself. Game on, people.

“Time!” Ten minutes had elapsed and I couldn’t wait to blow this lady’s mind with our out-of-the-box game move. She made the rounds, stoically measuring each group’s “church.” She approached our table and I excitedly studied her face, waiting for the light bulb, the excitement, the congratulatory smile. Instead I was met with confusion. “What’s this?”

“Well,” I beamed, “You said to build a ‘church,’ and a ‘church’ is the people, not the building, so…” I did my best Vanna White as I pointed to our sad little straw men, brutally slain by the expression on this woman’s face.

“No… That wasn’t what we were going for.” Just like that, I set up my own literal straw men, and she destroyed them. (Could I at least get some bonus points for irony?)

At fourteen, I gave lip service to the idea of the people comprising the church, and yet the closest I got to living that out was through a failed straw man illustration at a church retreat. I grabbed a nugget of truth and ran with it only far enough to hopefully win me a Snickers bar.

I thought I understood what it meant to follow Jesus. I never missed a Sunday service, I didn’t use profanity, I prayed before meals. I would gladly dig my Conservative heels in during political debates with friends, using the Gospel as a bludgeoning tool for the “unsaved.” And of course, I thought I was perfectly fine. I was saved by grace, through faith. So there I sat, lazy and complacent with my golden ticket of salvation, waiting blissfully for the rapture. “I’ll just be over here, watching homeless people and orphans around me from a comfortable distance.“ “Don’t want to get too close, because, well, safety.” “I don’t feel called to serve ‘those people,’ “I’m busy with school/work/kids/life, maybe during another season when I have more time.” Can you relate? On and on we go, rationalizing why we don’t have time for the only work we were ever created to do: love God, love people.

Children starve, homeless people freeze, orphans dream of adoption in our own city…while we sit idly by, calling ourselves “Christians,” a label we think we deserve because we avoid orgies and certain four-letter words and we vote Republican. We join bible studies and hear Beth Moore speak and we play worship music in our air-conditioned cars while we drive our kids to another extracurricular activity.

The idea of the believers being the church is not new. The early church looked less like a weekly country club gathering and more like people who were actually being the hands and feet of Jesus. And yet here we are, two thousand years removed, we “Christians” sit complacently for an hour in our Sunday best, surrounded by people exactly like you and me.  We check the box and then congratulate ourselves for raising well-behaved children. When did we start relegating “church” to a building where we attend a one-hour service on Sunday?

Seventy-seven percent of Americans call themselves Christians. Can it be true that eight out of ten people love their neighbors as themselves? Does your city live out the gospel? Are eight out of ten of your city’s inhabitants feeding the hungry, adopting the orphans and caring for the sick? If the church is an overwhelming majority, then why are kids still hungry in our city? Does your neighborhood look like the hands and feet of Jesus, moving to meet needs? Does your household? Do you? If we are honest, I think we are failing at doing the “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

So we, the church, have failed and we fall short, but we already intimately know how beautiful and mysterious God’s grace is. Let’s accept it again and watch in awe as it covers these very failures to unimaginable depths. All of them: my complacency, my selfishness, my greed, my ambivalence to suffering, and on and on forever. No one can fail so badly that God’s grace doesn’t cover us if we seek Him. But the story doesn’t end with epic failures on our part, mind-blowing grace on His, then us grace-recipients sitting idly, clutching our golden tickets of salvation. Let’s live this thing out, let’s work out our salvation in fear and trembling, letting God work though us to fulfill His purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Ok, so we are the “church.” You and me. We are saved by His grace, through faith. And we’re not supposed to just sit here. So what are we supposed to do?

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

“But be sure to fear the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things He has done for you.” 1 Samuel 12:24

Let’s seek out the needs around us, matching our abilities to those needs. Let’s connect with our neighbors and love them like we’re commanded. We’ve started believing these weird lies, like the only way to serve Jesus and love others is to dig wells and build homes in third world countries. How beautiful that our brothers and sisters in Jesus are serving people this way. As someone who cannot distinguish a wrench from a ratchet, I will not likely be erecting a home for anyone who wants a non-collapsing roof. I’m good at other, less build-y things.

But if I match my skills and capacity with the need around me, I will identify needs and rise to the occasion. I can make a meal for someone who is sick. I can invite my depressed neighbor over for coffee. I can host lemonade stands with my kids and donate the proceeds to charity. I can take my kids to the park in a poorer part of town and bring extra snacks to share with kids. There is need all around us. If the church outnumbers the non-church, we should be resounding voices of willing hearts, eagerly seeking opportunities to show Christ’s love.

It’s great that we attend our Sunday services, rocking out to the worship music and nodding along to the sermon for an hour…but a week has 168 hours. What are we doing with the rest of them? Where’s our fruit? Let’s be the church that we were intended to be. Let’s move.

Must I love those neighbors, too?

I couldn’t believe it! New neighbors had finally moved into the vacant house next door.

Prospective friends! Do they have kids? Do they like board games? Are they awesome? My mind began to run wild with the potential of new BFFs living just a stone’s throw away. But those daydreams came to a screeching halt after a few interactions that struck me as odd: they avoided eye contact, ignored my “hello” waves, and practically ran away from me when I tried to strike up conversation. I soon realized they were neither renting, nor had they purchased the house they were occupying. They were straight-up SQUATTERS. I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

A bank representative came to ask me questions about the folks occupying the home still owned by Wells Fargo. I had a few questions of my own. What were they DOING in there?! Were they making drugs? I have KIDS! Why do I have to live next door to shady people? Seriously, who just moves into a vacant home??

I proceeded to live my life inside my own lines: attending church, teaching my kids about Jesus, and hosting a Bible study in my home. Of course, I filled our Bible study friends in on every juicy detail about our new illegal neighbors. Then I cracked open my Bible and gave lip service of my gratefulness for the relentless grace and love that God lavishes on me–the same grace and love that I’m called to lavish on those around me.

“Go in peace, Bible study friends! I love you all dearly. Just look out for those creeper neighbors as you get in your cars. Don’t make eye contact, lest they mug you. God bless you all!”

The squatters came and went for three months. The house lights would turn on at strange hours, and they had some kind of workshop in their garage. I speculated, I wondered, I gossiped.

What a Pharisee.

But God was working on my heart. After about two-and-a-half months of resenting my neighbors, I felt a gentle nudge: Hey, so remember all that basic, Gospel 101 stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself? Yes, of course I remember. But surely that command didn’t refer to THESE neighbors. They are here illegally. Can’t I just stick to loving the other sweet neighbors across the street, instead? They’re much easier to love.

I resisted, I rationalized, I searched for any excuse to ignore this command.

Then the gentle nudge started to feel like more like a big slap in my face. Mark 2: 16-17 came to mind, where Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees, side-eying Jesus, asked his disciples: “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

And here I stood, claiming that I was committed to living out God’s word, while completely missing the second most important commandment. “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Galatians 5:14).

Two and a half months passed before my head knowledge of God’s Word reached my heart. TWO AND A HALF MONTHS until I looked at the 20-something-year-old girl next door and thought, Hey, that’s someone’s daughter. More importantly, that’s God’s daughter. What if no one has ever told her there’s more for her than this? So I tried to forge a relationship. I brought her a bag of oranges from our tree. She gratefully thanked me, saying she almost never eats fresh produce. I asked her about her life. She was guarded.

I started thinking about this girl all the time. I just wanted to hug her and tell her, “You and I are the same! God sees us exactly the same, we are created in His image, and no matter what you’ve done, Jesus paid for it.”

About a week after that initial conversation, I pulled into my driveway with a car full of kids and groceries. My neighbors stood in their driveway, all their belongings strapped to their beat-up car. A locksmith and a bank representative escorted them out. Oh no! I thought.They’re leaving already?! I ran my kids inside and turned on an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, filled an empty Trader Joe’s bag with oranges and ran into my driveway. I wanted to tell the girl what I should have told her two months ago, but when I looked up, the car was gone. As quietly as they had moved in, they moved out.

I stood in my driveway and cried. I missed it. For three months, I gossiped, I judged, I hated, I condemned. And I missed the most basic tenet of my faith: love God, love people. How could I have been so dense?

Some families willingly move into dangerous neighborhoods for the sake of sharing the Gospel with their neighbors. I had the luxury of staying in my comfortable home, in my safe neighborhood, with a mission field conveniently moving in next door to me. I missed the opportunity to live missionally because I let my desire for comfort speak louder than the truth of the Gospel.

I missed it. I messed up. As I stood in my driveway crying like a baby I also knew that God’s patience and grace were covering me. Where do I go from here? I could wallow in my failures. Or I could repent, get up, brush off the dust and do better next time.

Can you relate? Where are you allowing your desire for comfort to speak louder than the truth of the gospel?