I met Elsie when I was 16, while serving as a mission intern at a school on the Texas-Mexican border. She was single and only in her early 50's at the time, but she seemed older because she struggled with debilitating arthritis. She moved slowly, couldn't have air conditioning in her apartment (in Texas!), and had to watch her diet closely lest something make her pain worse. She served as a missionary for years in the West Indies, Papua New Guinea, and Texas until she retired.
I love being around successful people - those who get more out of life than we mere mortals. But it's the courageous people who inspire me. Courageous people aren't always the most 'successful'. They might 'win' by simply getting their shoes on in the morning while they're in pain. They might be a faithful servant in the back of the church who cares for a parent or spouse with Alzheimer's, instead of the person up front in the spotlight.
I have to admit something - I'm a wimp. I scream like a little girl over a paper cut. Okay, that may be overstating it, but not by much. When I'm in pain, I want to solved, dealt with, cured, finished, over. But people go on every day raising families, going to work, making life happen while they're in physical, spiritual, emotional or financial pain. I admire them.
I have far less obstacles to overcome in my life than many of the people I do life with. I have been truly blessed. But if I had their courage and determination - I can't imagine what I could accomplish.
Elsie retired from the mission field and married a pastor from back home. She passed away just 4 years ago at the age of 78. She didn't let anything stop her until she was ready to take her last trip to where there is no more pain.
May her tribe increase.
Yes, It's true...but we'll get to that in a minute.
I've been thinking a lot about sacrifice. It comes up frequently during Lent. God gave his only son for us. We sacrifice by giving up something at Lent in honor of Christ's sacrifice. We also give up time and energy to put extra attention to our spiritual lives during the weeks leading up to Easter. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to tell us that the whole point of our faith is for our entire lives to be a Living Sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
But I also see the idea of sacrifice being distorted and even abused. Politicians backed by huge corporations send teenagers off to war, making decisions with their lives from behind a desk, only to financially benefit from their sacrifice. Families leave Cinderella in the coal cellar while the other siblings live lives of comfort and ease. Churches beg for 'sacrificial giving' so they can put a $4 million fish tank in their church. (Don't get me started that piece of hypocrisy).
There are beautiful examples of sacrifice. People marry, have/adopt a child, take in a stray (person or animal), stay at home for the kids. Each of these will require sacrifice of some sort.
How do we sort out the difference between loving someone unconditionally and 'lost puppy syndrome' in which you 'take on a project' and are convinced that you can change a person by your own willpower and sacrifice?
Here's what I've come up with so far:
Sacrifice without love is oppression. Someone who is made to give everything while others give nothing is being oppressed. To paraphrase a well-known writer, whenever you hear someone call for a sacrifice, better see who is asking to receive it. Imagine if you forced a woman work against her will as long, hard and completely as your mother willingly did for you. Without love, it's oppression. With love, it's one of the most beautiful forms of love in the universe.
Love without sacrifice is infatuation. All of us have had a crush on someone only to have it fade when we realized the person isn't perfect (except Denzel Washington, of course - we all know he IS perfect).
Love results in sacrifice, but sacrifice doesn't result in love. This is where we get to the lost puppy syndrome. I've seen many people get into relationships because the other person 'needed' them. Even the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had an unhappy marriage because he 'fell in love' with his nurse while he was sick. He needed her. Once he was well, however, they couldn't find a way to be happy together because Wesley was all about his calling, not staying at home in bed. The bitterness was a drain on both of them.
Back to my story...I dated a 'project' not a person. It was not right for either one of us. He had become a Christian, and I thought he needed me. I was willing to sacrifice the rest of my life for that person to have a better life. But at the ripe age of 18, I wasn't even my own person yet, let alone able to give up my future for another. When I fell in love with Ken, I realized the difference between the two kinds of 'love'. One was love, the other was the 'lost puppy syndrome' (You can thank my old youth group leader for the name).
Now there is nothing wrong with rescuing a few (actual) puppies in your lifetime. In fact, I recommend it. But our sacrificing comes from our love, not the other way around. When your life consists of hand to mouth survival, a new puppy isn't the wisest choice to make.
John 3:16 tells us that God loved, so God gave. Love first, giving springing from that.
Why has this been on my mind? Because as a church, we have a vision for people that is worthy of our sacrifice. But I want that sacrifice to spring from our abundance of love in Christ, our overflowing love for the one who is the source of life itself. That's the only way this can work.
I hope during this season of Lent you will cultivate your love for Christ more fully and more deeply as we learn what it means to truly love unconditionally.
Sometimes people will ask me if something is sinful or not. Is it wrong to smoke? Should I go see that movie? (You know which one I'm talking about.) Sometimes they expect a long tirade about the evils of the world. Sometimes they want to justify their choices. Either way they look to me to pronounce judgment on a behavior.
Many of those behaviors, however, fall into the category of personal convictions. Personal convictions are just that - things we believe we personally should not do. But our neighbor doesn't necessarily agree nor feels guilt if he partakes in the activity.
All too often we then proceed to judge the person who feels comfortable doing something that we don't.
I have found that a different way of thinking about this is by using the words helpful or not helpful. Is something sinful? Not sure. Is it helpful? Certainly not. That solves a lot of these issues without resorting to judging or over-generalizing.
The apostle Paul taught us that the freedom to do something doesn't mean it’s wise to do it.
1 Cor 10:23 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is beneficial.
Will going out with your girlfriends who like to bash their husbands be helpful? If your marriage is strong, it probably won't hurt. If your marriage is struggling, then do yourself a favor and run the other direction. Will the extra glass of wine with a co-worker be helpful to your relationship or your ability to drive? Will dessert be helpful for your waistline?
I think there are two extremes we would do well to avoid...
1. Walking around in constant fear of offending God as if he were our great aunt whose sensibilities were regularly violated by the stain of the world.
2. Assuming that just because everyone else is doing something, it’s okay for you. Something that is benign for your friend might be harmful for you.
This is why we always come back to relationships. These issues get worked out in relationship - with God and spiritual friends. As you walk with God, you will learn to discern what your personal convictions are. And you will learn what things might be allowed, but not helpful.
I was teaching a Bible study when I posed a question to the group - If someone donated $10k to put up billboards of the 10 commandments next to every school in our city, should our church accept the donation? The group was perplexed by the question for a bit. Finally someone asked a great question:
Why wouldn't we?
We then talked about
Telling someone to eat less doesn't stuff the chip dip back in the frig. Telling someone they need to stop smoking has no power to help them do that. Informing someone of the 10 commandments has no power to keep them from stealing, lying or cheating. About the only thing it accomplishes is making the 'teller' feel better (read: self-righteous).
If our goal is to see people transformed, then our priority has to be on building relationships, because relationships are the key to life-change.
If we are not in relationship with someone, we have no business trying to speak into their lives.
Why wouldn't we?
We haven't earned the right. We can actually do more hard than good. If we truly care about standing for Christ, let's do it the way he did, by investing in those around us. If we don't care to learn a person's name, we don't care enough to share our personal convictions about, well, anything.
The flip side of this is also true...sharing our lives with others gives us a tremendous opportunity to see lives transformed by Christ. Investing in those around us provides tremendous leverage for life-change. So...
Why wouldn't we?
Last spring I asked a bible study group to write a letter to themselves - the catch was that it should be written as if it were from God. I told them I would send them the letter in about a year.
It hasn't been quite a year, but I thought the holidays would be a great time to hear from the Almighty, so I mailed the letters a couple weeks ago.
What I forgot was that I also wrote a letter and gave it to a person from the bible study to send to me. I got that letter this week. I wrote this a few weeks after I was told we would be moving. This is an edited version of it. Amazing how prescient it was.
Dear Beloved Vicky,
I have seen you struggling the past weeks. Know that I AM with you. It will be difficult to leave the ones you love. But I AM with you -- and that is enough, my love.
Your future may be hidden from you, but it is not hidden from Me. I have people for you to meet who will love you for who you are. I have people for you to love into my family. Some of them will be obvious as to who they are, and some won't be so obvious to you. Just love them all.
I'm excited to see where you are today. I've walked every step with you --even when you didn't feel me there.
Take care of Ken.
YHWH (I AM)
This is exactly what I have found here in Girard. I am so happy to have people who love me for who I am - THANK YOU for doing that for me. And I am thrilled to know that I will have an impact in someone's life for eternity. It is truly an honor to be your pastor. God has taken a painful situation and brought beauty from it.
You see, anyone can make something good out of something good. But it takes God to make something good out of something so painful. That is the awesome God we have the privilege of knowing.
Practice seeing yourself through God's eyes. I encourage you to do something like writing this letter. What would God say to you? How would God speak into your life? No judgement, no condemnation, just see through the eyes of a loving God who only wants the best for you.
You'll be amazed at how true it will become.
Question of the Day: What would God say if God wrote to you?