Christians, Refugees, and the Threat of the Trojan Horse

By now, we have all heard about the Syrian refugee crisis. Many Christian leaders and teachers are encouraging Christians to “stand up and be the Church,” as Ann Voskamp puts it. But as I scroll through Facebook or search for information about the Syrian refugees on the Internet, I also see dire warnings about how this refugee crisis is really a Trojan Horse trick of Islam to infiltrate countries and take over the world.

It can all be confusing and scary for good, Christian people who love God and the United States of America and people and freedom.

I read those warnings about how dangerous it is to take in millions of people with different values and beliefs, some who even hate everything about our way of life and worldview. It all makes sense. It is risky. Maybe Muslims are hoping to take advantage of this situation and take over Europe. I don’t know.

At times like this, when I feel like my values are colliding within me and confusion muddles my brain and there is so much I just don’t know, I go back to what I do know.

I know that my job is to love God and other people. (Matthew 22:37-40) Everything I do should hinge on these two commands – Love God with everything I’ve got, and love other people as much as I love myself. There are people displaced from their homes and in great need of love in the form of housing and food and clothes and a welcoming smile. These are actual people. People whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. My job is to love God and love them.

I know that God wants me to live in faith, not fear. Over and over in the Bible, we are encouraged, “Don’t be afraid.” When Peter stepped out onto the water, he was OK as long as he operated in faith; but the minute fear took over, he sank. Our love for these people is fortified by our faith in the One who created them and must not be diminished by fear of some grave what-if. When the Church is directed by fear and fear-mongering tactics, the Church will sink.

I know that as wickedness increases, love tends to decrease. Matthew 24:12 warns us about this. But God tells us not to let our love grow cold. When evil seems to be all around us, our impulse is often to build walls and protect ourselves. We forget about loving others and move into a mindset of self-preservation. God knows this about us, which is why He specifically warns us not to let our love grow cold. Our love is our mark of identity to the world. They will know we are Christians by our love. This is how the Gospel message spreads. Love. I want to stand firm in love and be open to love, even when it seems dangerous to do so.

I know that perfect love drives out fear. (1 John 4:18) And the person who lives in fear isn’t being made perfect in love. What is the antidote to fear? Love. Which swings back around to the first truth I know. The more I love God and other people, the less fear controls my life.

All of these truths tie together and guide me in how to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis and the possibility that some would use this situation for wicked and evil schemes. Is there a risk? Absolutely. There always seems to be a risk with love. Are evil ones plotting and scheming? Probably so. But I can’t let my love grow cold as wickedness rises up.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that if we love these refugees and take them in and show them love, everything will be sunshine and rainbows. I’m not saying that no jihadists will sneak through and try to harm us. No. I am saying that I believe God is in complete control and His purposes are greater than any of that. I am saying that I would rather love and risk physical death than build walls and harden my heart, which is a certain death of love and faith and the message of the Gospel. And without love and faith and the message of the Gospel, what good is life?

This is where the rubber meets the road. My love for God and other people and my faith in Him must be greater than my love for the United States of America and temporal freedom and our way of life.

20150817-MIGRANTS-slide-4IDI-superJumboDaniel Getty/New York Times 

Wrestling with God

I am a thinker, a planner, a strategizer. But there are times when all my thinking and planning and strategizing doesn’t pan out the way I want. And there are times when, no matter how much I think and organize and coordinate, I am still truly powerless to control the entire situation.

Do you ever feel this way?  – that you have exhausted your resources?  -that you have strategized the heck out of a situation and still cannot solve the problem?  -that your only options are Bad and Worse?

I love the story of Jacob in the Old Testament. He was a trickster, a con artist. He completely conned his brother Esau out of his birthright. Then, in fear of his life, he ran off to Haran. In Haran, his Uncle Laban tricked the trickster. After working for his uncle for seven years, Jacob thought his reward was marrying the beautiful Rachel, whom he loved. Instead, Laban fooled him into marrying Leah. So Jacob had to work another seven years to have Rachel as his wife.

Needless to say, the family dynamics were pretty dysfunctional. The undesirable Leah had many sons for Jacob while the much-loved Rachel struggled with infertility. Jealousy, anger, blame – all festered and boiled over in the family.

Jacob and Laban continually argued over fair wages, and Jacob strategized to increase his flocks of animals and weaken Laban’s. Then Jacob and his wives and all their children and servants took their livestock and their goods and sneaked away, back toward Canaan, where Jacob’s family lived.

Naturally, Laban and his clan pursued Jacob. They eventually had a daytime-talk-show-like moment of confrontation, reconciliation and forgiveness in the hill country. So Jacob and his large family continued on their way back to his family, back to Esau, who wanted to murder him the last time they saw each other. Jacob sent ahead a bribe with all his people, and he stayed alone in the camp on the other side of the river.

That night, a heavenly or angelic stranger came into Jacob’s camp and wrestled with him. All night, until daybreak, they wrestled. Finally, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip out of socket. Still, Jacob would not let go until this angelic stranger blessed him. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means he struggles with God. After receiving the blessing, Jacob realized the stranger had been God himself, and he called the place Peniel, which means the face of God.

There Jacob was between Laban and Esau, between the options of Bad and Worse. He had done his best to make amends with Laban, but he couldn’t go back. In fear and distress, he had sent ahead every gift he thought would convince Esau not to kill him. His entire life of strategizing and manipulating and grabbing for what he wanted culminated in this moment. There was nothing more this trickster could do. On the riverbank, Jacob was alone, face to face with God.

Finally, when he reached the end of himself, when he had wrestled and struggled until he was spent and disabled, Jacob received the blessing he had longed for his whole life.

Frederick Buechner describes this moment in the Bible as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” The apostle Paul would clarify later in the Bible that it is in our weakness that God blesses us with his strength.

As long as we are strategizing and feverishly grabbing at what we want and manipulating circumstances to try to get our way, the real blessing will remain beyond our reach. It is when we come to the end of ourselves, alone with God, wrestling it out, facing our failures and mistakes that he gives us the blessing we really want. Like Jacob, we may be injured in the process. We may walk with a limp the rest of our lives. But God meets us in our vulnerability and brokenness and wrestles with us through the hard stuff.

I love that Jacob held onto the stranger he knew was from God and wouldn’t let go until he got a blessing. In my humility and weakness, as I face my failures and surrender to God’s strength, I want to hold on and refuse to let go of him until I receive the blessing of his strength made perfect, of his mercy, of his love.

When we are completely spent, when we are out of resources, when our bucket is empty and our well is dry, when all our plans and strategies have not succeeded, when we are absolutely powerless to do anything more, when we have wrestled and fought and we lay incapacitated on the rocky ground — that is when we are finally ready to receive the blessing.

Don’t lose heart. Hold on to God. His presence and strength, struggling with him and overcoming – those are the blessings. Now, limp on across the river with me.

 

When The Novelty of Snow Wears Off

All week, we have had snow and temperatures much too cold for a state that was part of the Confederacy. With more snow today and negative numbers on the thermometer tomorrow, my children may not go to school for the rest of the week. Naturally, I am thinking back to this post I wrote last February, when my children enjoyed the bulk of their summer vacation days. *originally posted Feb. 20, 2014

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You know how in Narnia it’s always winter and never Christmas? Well, here it is always winter and never school. So yeah, let’s talk about snow days.

I’ve lost track of how many snow days my children have had this year, but I’m pretty sure we’ve had so many that we’re down to about five hot minutes of a summer vacation now. Every day they jump and cheer about another snow day, I mumble, “Happy summer vacation. ‘Cause this is it. Now move while I put on another pair of socks and sip this hot cocoa.” And then I grieve the days we won’t have at the pool, when I can easily justify sitting in a lounge chair, chatting with friends, sipping Diet Dr. Pepper, and soaking in the sunshine by saying I’m doing it “for the children.”

It is exciting when the forecast is for a big snow, and those first flakes start falling. As the snow begins and the ground turns white, it is easy to get caught up in the anticipation and the milk-buying frenzy and the flurry of Facebook posts with rulers stuck in snow.

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But then the children decide to go out and play in it. And they fight over who gets the good snow boots and who put the snowveralls where and why this one has waterproof gloves and that one has cheap knit ones that get wet in less time than it takes an Olympic ice-dancing announcer to use the word “twizzle” after a couple’s routine begins.

Then, they play outside for a fraction of the time it took them to get dressed. (There is an actual mathematical formula — snow play = get dressed • fight over gloves • find more than one pair of socks / 4) And when they come inside, they track in enough snow to build a small snow family and leave a trail of clothing so my house looks like the Goodwill threw up all over the place. Repeat this scenario at least 4 times each day.

When they aren’t playing outside for a half a second or getting dressed or undressed, they are playing Minecraft. And by playing Minecraft I really mean screaming, “He shot me with an arrow for no reason!” or “He stole all my gold!” or “He just killed a sheep! In MY world! He can kill sheep in his own world!” And I hear strange things coming out of my own mouth, like “Stop killing your brother’s sheep!” or “If you don’t stop killing each other, I’m taking all the iPods!” or “Only shoot your brother with an arrow if he WANTS you to!”

I have also noticed a direct correlation between snow falling and my desire to bake or cook comfort foods. So while the children are creating heaps of extra laundry, I bake coffee cake and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cupcakes and fry up some pancakes and sausage and make a big pot of cheesy potato soup and garlic cheddar biscuits and a pot of chili and a side of black bean dip and a small crockpot of queso. (There is also a mathematical equation that looks something like — snow day = 5 lbs )

Snow also directly affects my ability to be productive. If we have more than an inch of snow, I seem incapable of doing anything more than baking, eating and watching Netflix or the Olympics. Sometimes I combine Netflix and the Oympics, which results in something really bizarre like watching a documentary about Tonya Harding at 1:00 in the morning. Don’t judge. I’m telling you, I am not made for long, hard winters.

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Last week, we got 2 feet of snow. I considered tying a rope around a kid before sending them to the mailbox, like Pa did before going to the barn during their long, hard winters on the prairie.

I am not normally a fan of wishing time away. But seriously, enough winter already. I need it to be spring. I need sunshine and green grass and buds on trees. The novelty and fun of wearing boots has worn off, and I need to be wearing my cute shoes and sandals again. I need the static electricity that makes my hair always look a little Bride of Frankensteinish to calm the heck down. After living in Florida for 4 years, I never dreamed I’d be wishing for a little humidity! But here I am, applying lotion for the 58th time today and wishing for a higher dew point.

If another winter weather advisory exclamation mark shows up in my daily forecast, you can find me in the fetal position in the corner of my bedroom under a pile of snowveralls and cheap knit gloves. You can leave me there until the daffodils bloom.

When God Disappoints Us

Sometimes I read the Psalms and I think David had multiple personality disorder. One second he’s crying out in anguish that God has forgotten him, forsaken him, that God remains silent and hides his face. Then with the very next breath, David is saying things like, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:6)

But then I pause and I think, David, my BFF, I totally get you! 

Because there is a part of me, the part that was born and raised in the church, the part that attended Christian college and has completed Bible studies galore, the part that has memorized Bible verses and taught Sunday School — that part of me holds tightly to the truths that are rooted deeply in my soul. God loves me. God draws near the brokenhearted. He works all things together for good for those who love him. He has good plans to prosper me. He will never leave me or forsake me. His love overcomes the world. His light drives out darkness. His love never fails. 

I know these things. I do believe them to be true. It’s just that sometimes, they don’t feel so true. Sometimes I feel like David in the Psalms. Sometimes my heart hurts and my soul cries, “Will you forget me forever? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2) Some days I’m right there with my BFF David wondering why the Lord stands so far off, why he hides himself in times of trouble.

As my spirit grapples with this dichotomy, I dig into the Bible and marvel that David and I are not alone. Job, Sarah, Joseph, Hannah, Moses, Jeremiah, Martha, Thomas, Paul, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the disciples hidden in the upstairs room. Over and over, I see in the Bible people whose dreams were dashed, whose plans didn’t pan out. I see people who obeyed God and were rejected, beaten, left for dead. I see people who believed God and still suffered.

I read Job’s anguished cry that he wished God would just kill him already! “Oh that I might have my request, that God would grant what I hope for, that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut me off!” (Job 6:8)   And I see Jeremiah’s deep loneliness and grief,  “This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit.” (Lamentations 1:16) And Martha’s disappointment with Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) 

The people I read about in the Bible believed God and still suffered. Their stories don’t all have happy endings, tied up with a cute red bow. I see messy lives, complicated characters, distress, disappointment. I see the man who came to Jesus and said, “I believe. Help now my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) Doubt and fear mixed with faith. Heartache blended with hope. Discouragement with a tinge of belief. This is what I see in the Bible.

But too often, it’s not what I hear from believers. Too often, it seems that the Church has put a marketing spin on the life of faith. I hear about people who tithe and are blessed with a raise or the check in the mail to pay a bill. Give to God and He will give back to you, pressed down, shaken up and running over. I hear people tell stories of how they stuck it out in a hard marriage and God restored their love and gave them a marriage better than ever. Obey God, even when it’s hard, and He will give blessings and prosperity. Or the person who was sick and prayed and was made well. The prayers offered in faith will make the sick person well. Or the couple who prayed for a baby and finally got pregnant. Whatever you ask in my name, you will receive. 

We take snippets of scripture out of context and apply them to our circumstances with our limited understanding of the huge scope of God’s mind and plans. And we can name ten people with a testimony to prove that everything always works out for good, and by good we mean – of course – an obviously happy, tidy ending where everyone gets what they want.

But what about when it doesn’t? What about the sweet godly couple who have faithfully served God for years – tithing, serving in the church, being faithful to each other, praying, reading the Bible, loving their neighbors – but have endured unimaginably hard times – the death of children, house fires, health crises, job loss, financial calamity? What about the family who follows God’s call to be missionaries and never has enough support, yet has one hit after another to their bank account, leaving them in deep debt? Or the family who follows God’s call to ministry, only to be mistreated and abused by those they serve?

Obedience does not always equal blessing in the way we understand. Sometimes obeying God results in more suffering. Sometimes walking in the Light brings pain and heartache. Sometimes we plead with God to please answer our prayers, give us what we’re asking for, and He stays silent. For years and years. And maybe we never get the answer our hearts are hoping for.

Like David, I do believe the Lord is on his heavenly throne (Psalm 11:4) and God is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer (Psalm 18:2). I believe God can give strength that does not fail. (Isaiah 40)  I believe it all. But some days, just like Jeremiah, I still feel like God has shut out my prayers. (Lamentations 3:8) Like my soul-sister Martha, I feel like Jesus just didn’t come through for me. (John 11)

And I’m not even going to try to reconcile this juxtaposition of emotions. I believe God sees my heart and understands. I trust his grace is enough for my discouragement, my disappointment, my fear, my pain. I don’t always see the way God is working things out for good. His plans sure don’t always seem good to me. So, in those moments, I sit before him with my busted hopes and unfulfilled dreams. I pour out my broken heart pieces to him and ask where he is, why he seems so hidden. I hold out my tiny belief, my little faith, and ask him to help my big unbelief. And I know that sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, that maybe I, too, sound like I have multiple personality disorder. But if David prayed such conflicted prayers and was the apple of God’s eye, then I trust God is ok when my emotions don’t line up with my beliefs and my soul experiences discord.

And if you are holding shredded dreams and weighed down by deep disappointments, I get it. David, Martha, Job, Jeremiah — we all get it. I’ll sit with you in the messy mixture of faith and fear, hope and discouragement, belief and unbelief.

Almost Winning

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Jackson’s basketball team has come a long way. In their first game of the season, they entered the third quarter trailing just a little behind the opponent with a score of 32-0. Bless their hearts. When a boy in blue finally scored, all of the parents screamed and cheered as if we’d just nailed the NBA finals.

Last week, we were neck in neck with another team. For an elementary school rec league game, it was very exciting. It had all the makings of an emotional game:  the referees played a little fast and loose with the rules; the boys took bold chances with buzzer-beating three-pointer attempts; they scored; we scored; they fouled; we fouled; regular battles of tug-of-war with the ball kept the possession arrow hopping. Everything came down to the last few seconds of the game. When the buzzer finally sounded, the other team was up by two.

A couple boys on Jackson’s team had tasted the victory that was so close. With crushing disappointment, they shook hands with the opponents and then burst into tears. Their parents comforted them and encouraged them with praise of how much our team is improving.

As Jackson sat down beside me to settle in for his older brother’s game, he looked a bit confused. “I don’t understand why those boys were crying.” He raised his voice into a question at the end of the sentence.

“Because your team almost won, but then you lost. They were disappointed,” I explained.

Jackson grinned up at me, “Yeah, we almost won! That’s why we should be happy. We almost won.”

And there it is. Perspective. The other boys, probably far more competitive by nature (like some of the other kids in my house), were disappointed that they came so close to victory, but didn’t snag it. Jackson, my least competitive child, was thrilled that they almost won – you know, instead of losing by 30 points.

It can be good to have a hunger for the win. I can be just as competitive as the next girl. (And it isn’t always pretty, which is why I cannot play board games with certain people and still be right with Jesus.) But when we lose in life, – and we will – we get to choose our perspective. We can celebrate improvements and be encouraged by the almost-wins, or we can be crushed by disappointment and discouragement.

I just know this – after that game, Jackson was happy and at peace, with his trademark giant smile lighting up the gym. So sign me up for some of that perspective, please.

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But I’m dumb at math!

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Here’s the thing – sometimes it’s good for us to do things we’re not great at. I know this is true, yet I resist it. I prefer to stick with my things, the jobs and hobbies and opportunities that are right in my wheelhouse.

See, I have this strong theory about operating in our strengths. And though there is some real validity -some wisdom- in that general notion, truth be told, I sometimes use that whole idea as an excuse not to stretch myself. And when we stop stretching ourselves, we stop growing. The word stagnant comes to mind. Blech! Who wants that adjective describing her?! But that is my natural tendency – stagnation. Unless I am intentional about challenging myself, I will automatically veer right back into my well-worn groove.

Several years ago I swam every morning. To say that I started as a weak swimmer is a gross understatement. The first morning I jumped right in and started on my first lap. The freezing water snatched my breath right from my chest. Halfway into the deep end, I gasped for air, every muscle tightly trying to conserve body heat and hold me above the water. In the pre-dawn shadows, I thought I would die right there three feet from the side of the pool. That day, my breathing didn’t settle back into normal rhythms until lunchtime. But the next morning, I was up in the dark, gliding my way through the cold water again. After several months, I had doubled, then tripled the amount of laps I could swim.

Last night, I taught my first GED prep class. The entire two-and-a-half hours was filled with math and science. About forty minutes in, I felt like I was right back to my first morning in the pool, halfway into the deep end, gasping for air, furiously paddling to stay afloat. What was I thinking? An English major who is admittedly dumb at math teaching pre-algebra and algebra? A word-nerd writer trying to teach the inner workings of a cell? A former elementary school teacher standing in front of grown men trying to teach them anything! What the what?! I have lost my mind!

I wanted to quit. Actually, I wanted to quit on the drive there. Just turn my giant red van around and come back home to my crock pot full of soup and my six kids who don’t care that I tap out at fifth grade math. But we have a rule in this family that we finish what we start. And I started this new little part-time job. Because it seemed like a good idea when the program director called out of the blue and then, the next day, offered me a job fifteen minutes into my interview.  I had prayed and God had cleared out the one main obstacle, and it seemed like this was God’s provision of an opportunity to earn some money making a positive impact, helping people, encouraging people – those things are right in my wheelhouse. So even though ribosomes and exponents and mitochondria and math problems involving LETTERS threatened to drown me, I sucked it up and went to class.

And I survived. I didn’t drown. I felt really, really dumb. I felt very incapable. Stretched way outside my comfort zone of subjects and predicates and proper punctuation. I imagine that’s how my students also felt. These brave people who are rushing to class after work to study stuff they haven’t thought about in years so they can grasp their second chance to get a diploma. They are also stretching themselves outside their comfort zones. The overwhelming ignorance I felt trying to explain advanced algebra to one student (who is way smarter at math than I am, by the way!) is probably how the one guy felt as I explained factoring to him.

Maybe, just maybe, that I’m about to drown at any second feeling will make me a better GED instructor. Maybe my insecurities and incapabilities will ensure I have empathy with my students. Whatever the case, I am sure all of us in that classroom two evenings a week are praying some version of Jesus, take the wheel! as we delve into those textbooks.

And it’s all going to be good. Because God always works everything out for good. Even math problems involving letters.

The Elephant On My Plate

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes that’s because one really big, really bad thing is going on. Sometimes it’s the hundred little things piling on.

Lately, I’ve had a hundred little things piling on. Small stresses adding up. And the past couple days I have indulged in quite the full-blown pity party. The thoughts and emotions going on — it hasn’t been pretty, people. Trust me.

The thing is — if you’d asked me yesterday if I’ve been praying about the stress, I would have honestly told you Of course I have! I have been praying throughout the day. I have been praying when I wake at night in the middle of weird or anxious dreams. I have been reading my Bible, digging into scripture as I prepare for some upcoming speaking events. I’ve been doing all the Sunday School solutions for stress — Read your Bible and pray.

Still, I have been weighed down by anxiety.

Then, this morning – an epiphany! I have been praying about the stuff, the lists of things to be done, the pressures and demands, all of the hundred little things. I have asked God to take the worry, to fix the problems, to heal, to rescue, to provide. And that’s all good. But I haven’t been praying about ME, my attitude, my heart, my thoughts, my perspective.

So this morning I just poured out my heart to God. I told Him my fears. I confessed that I have a hard time trusting Him. I’ve been disappointed before. Even though I know God hasn’t really let me down, He hasn’t always resolved things the way I’d like. I told Him all about my issues, my hangups. And I told Him about all the things I’ve been feeling overwhelmed about. I laid myself bare.

Then I remembered that Anne Lamott says one of her most favorite prayers is simply, “Help!” So I took a deep breath and I exhaled out, “Help.” And because I figure if I’m going to be polite with anyone, I should be polite with God, I added, “Please.” 

And then I got quiet. And because I had spewed out everything from the lists that have been echoing in my brain, my mind was empty, quiet.

Slowly, a hushed thought began to form. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. That’s from the book of Matthew, chapter 11. I’ve read it a thousand times.

Then, a soft whisper in my soul said, Stay yoked to me. I will give you rest. Stay yoked to me.

I loved that thought. Really, it was a balm of sorts to my tense spirit. But I also know all the responsibilities I have, all the demands on my time and energy, all my needs, all my lists of things to-do. And so I whispered back, “I want to be yoked to You. But what about all the things I have on my plate? It’s too much. Too much.” 

Sometimes God speaks to me through Bible verses. Sometimes through song lyrics or poems. Sometimes through sermons. Sometimes through books. Sometimes through witty little sayings I have heard from friends. The next soft whisper in my soul asked, “Remember? How do you eat an elephant?” African Elephant

 

“One bite at a time, God.” My soul laughed.

Just do the next thing. The next right thing. The next tedious thing. The next fun thing. The next thing, whatever it is. Stay yoked to me, and we’ll do the next thing. Together.” 

I’ve been holding onto this answer all day. And my soul has been at rest.

Are you overwhelmed by the elephant on your plate? Yoke up with God and take it one bite at a time.