how to speak of God’s love?

the following is the final message given to a gathering of university students in berkeley, california in a semester-long study of Jesus’ response to the question: what’s the most important commandment? (mark 12:28-31)

so to wrap up our series on love, i want to shift our focus from our love of God, love of others, and love of ourself to God’s love for us. after all that we have been talking about this semester, we can be left thinking the most important thing is our love, but i want to flip that tonight.

the yale theologian miroslav volf puts it this way:

“in the minds of most people, christianity is supposed to be about love of God and neighbor, even though…at the heart of christianity does not lie human love at all, but God’s love for humanity.”

the most important love is not ours, according to Christian tradition, but God’s love for us.

but here’s the thing: it’s tough to talk about God’s love.

how do we speak about God’s love that’s not met with an immediate eye roll? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that’s not reduced to sentimentality?

or, perhaps even more importantly, how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t ignore the incredible suffering in the world? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t give the impression that we live in complete ignorance of the world happening all around us?

as the peruvian priest and theologian gustavo gutierrez has asked, how do we say to the poor, to those with no rights, “God loves you”?

the first thing i did when i woke up this morning, even before getting out of bed, was check a facebook alert on my phone—which is never a good idea. and i noticed a news story a friend of mine shared that made me want to stay in bed all day.

the story was about a massive international child pornography sting involving the arrest of 348 adults and the rescue of nearly 400 children. those involved in stopping the multi-million dollar international operation said that they had never seen anything like it before, in terms of the sheer quantity of video confiscated and the horrific nature of the acts carried out against these children.

perhaps most tragic among the findings was that among those arrested were 40 school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, six police officers, three foster parents, and nine pastors and priests.

this was the first thing i read this morning, knowing i would be speaking on this topic tonight.

how do you possibly speak about God’s love in light of this news?

i want to try to speak to that point tonight by putting a finger on three characteristics of God’s love: God’s pursuing love, God’s freeing love, and God’s costly love.

but before I get into those, let’s pause and pray.

gracious God, i thank you for this time and this space where you bring us together each wednesday, away from the busyness of our day and week, so that we might meet with you and with one another and maybe even with ourself for the first time.

 

Lord, I recognize the incredibly fragile nature of speaking on your love in a world that is so full of deep suffering, pain, and anger. and yet, your word is clear that you are not simply a loving God, but that you are Love—even when we struggle to see it.

 

i ask that you would work through these, my words to reveal how your love has been at work in the world, and is still at work in the world, even now. it is with hope in your Son that we pray, amen.

God’s pursuing love

you may have noticed in tonight’s scripture readings that we’re jumping all over the bible. the first reading was from a prophet in ancient israel, found in the old testament book hosea. the second passage was a powerful story from Jesus’ life, found in john’s Gospel. and the third and last passage was from a letter to the early church in a city called ephesus, reflecting on Jesus’ life.

and my hope for tonight is to show how God’s love is a thread running throughout the entire biblical narrative, connecting the old and new testaments.

so to start, as quickly as possible i want to speak on how ancient israel understood God’s love. and in order to do so, i need to speak on a few key ideas: creation, fall, and covenant.

according to ancient israel’s traditionall those stories that would have been passed down from generation to generationGod created humanity to live in a right, loving relationship with God and all of creation. but humanity used its freedom to turn away from that relationship, and that led to all of the broken, challenging life that humanity has known ever since.

israel understood its distance from God as the source of its deepest longings, pains, and struggles. this broken relationship with God feels like endless struggle, rather than ease of life. it feels like craving something that nothing will ever satisfy. it feels like loneliness.

a writer i’ve shared with you here before by the name of david foster wallace, who was not a christian but who was deeply in touch with the human condition, described our struggle this way:

“We’re all lonely for something we don’t we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”

 

this is a contemporary, north american, well educated white man explaining our modern experience, but it fits with how israel explained their struggles, too. this is what it feels like to live at a distance from our Creator, they’d say. that’s our condition. that’s the creation and fall story, and it accounts for pretty much everything that’s happened since.

not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but pretty much the rest of the old testament books tell the story of God trying to repair this relationship with humanity. God does that by pursuing a particular people, called israel, and entering into a relationship with them, a relationship that had stipulations attached to it.

God’s relationship with israel was called a covenantal relationship because God had certain expectations of what it looks like for israel to be in right relationship with their Creator. God committing Godself to israel placed certain obligations on israel.

and the truth is, this is how committed relationships work, or else they break down.

most of you know that i’m in a committed relationship with jen, my wife of 10 years, and you would not be surprised if i tell you that this relationship places certain obligations on me. my being in a married relationship with my wife means i don’t get to be intimate with anyone i want. because she has committed to being physically intimate with me, and only me, and she rightly expects the same from me in return.

the same is true when it comes to God’s commitment to israel. when God said, I’m going to love you uniquely, God asked israel to do the same in return.

no longer will you look to other nations’ kings for security, or other nations’ gods to fulfill that loneliness, that void that you feel, God told israel. only I can do that.

so when God and israel have a d.t.r. moment, God gave israel certain rules for their relationship. and here’s the interesting thing about those rules: God told israel that if they lived into those relationship commitments well, things would go well for them. their entire life would be restored, they would flourish.

they called this restoration shalom. you’ve probably heard the word shalom, often translated as “peace.” but it’s more than that. the word shalom paints a portrait of complete restoration. its peace in the fullest, most holistic sense.

and, interestingly, israel is told that God would use their relationship not just to restore this particular people, but to reconcile all of creation to Godself again.

but if you’ve read any of the old testament, you will likely know that basically most of the stories are of israel failing to live into this relationship well. they’re constantly distracted by other desires, other relationships. constantly turning away from the God who reached out to them in love, and turning instead to foreign political rulers in their fears and insecurities, or turning to other foreign gods.

and time and time again, what we read is the story of God: getting angry at israel’s infidelity, and then getting jealous. which is just as it should be, by the way. anger and jealousy is the normal response for infidelity, in any committed relationship.

if i was unfaithful to my wife, if i turned to someone other than her for my most intimate needs and fulfillment, she would rightly be angry and jealous. if she wasn’t, that would reveal that something was wrong with our relationship. you would have reason to question not only my love for herbut whether she really loved me, too.

the same is true for God’s relationship with israel. God genuinely loved this people, genuinely wants to be reconciled to all of God’s creation, which explains the anger and jealousy we find throughout the old testament.

but then something interesting happens…

after God’s anger and jealousy subsides, God returns to israel, and recommits to their relationship. what we find in the old testament is a God who pursues His unfaithful lover with reckless abandon, over and over again.

it’s as though God cannot help Himself.

which brings us to the passage read for us from hosea. after israel has once again turned away from God for other lovers, the prophet hosea gives us a picture of God turning back to his unfaithful lover.

after washing and cleansing israel from her relationship with these other lovers, hosea gives his people a picture of God and israel returning to the honeymoon stage of their relationship, and his bride singing to God as she used to.

and then I’ll marry you for good—forever,” God tells israel. “I’ll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go.”

God’s love, as we see it in the old testament, is that of a God who pursues His unfaithful bride over and over and over again, with reckless abandon.

this is also an image that appears throughout the new testament—think of the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and leaves the 99 behind to go after that one.

and this God who pursues His creation in love is a story that shows up in so many people’s lives.

last week i shared a song from a favorite singer of mine, andrew belle. i mentioned the fact that he became a christian after he already had success in his music and the affect that had on his work, especially lyrically.

he said this in a recent interview:

“i can’t really pinpoint when i became a christian, but all i know is that in 2010 i had one of those existential crises. life blowing up times… stuff was going badly. i just realized that i was living on a trajectory of life… and i didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore.”

 

“really for the first time, i actually felt like I realized, ‘wow, i’m really a despicable person at the core of me. there’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.”

the track i played for you last week comes from his album, “black bear.” the title refers to belle’s experience of being pursued by God.

“flannery o’conner describe Jesus as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. in my head, I pictured a ragged bear—a black bear—just kind of disheveled and not attractive.”

 

“[black bear] is the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.”

many others have described their own conversions similarly, as being pursued by God, including c. s. lewis. as a 30-something oxford university lecturer and ardent atheist, lewis refers to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of england,” wanting to be left alone, who was pursued by God, and who finally gave in.

so many others describe their own experience with God in this same way. God’s love is not one we must find; it is a love that pursues and finds us.

which brings us to the new testament and our second point.

God’s freeing love

when God’s love finds us, it doesn’t leave us as we are. God’s love affects us.

over and over again in Scripture, God’s relationship with humanity is that of a freeing love. in the new testament, God shows up in the flesh and bone Person of Jesus, constantly freeing people…

…from the guilt and shame and the voices that tell them they cannot go out in public.

…from skin diseases that put them at a distance from others.

…from being a slave to the law, rather than understanding the law as a gift and means to peace, restoration, and life in a full sense.

…from self destructive behavior, and from so many other chains.

and the scene that was read for us from john’s gospel is an instance of God’s freeing love, but not how we initially expect.

woman-caught-in-adultery-sebastiano-conca-1741

woman caught in adultery, by sebastiano conca (1741).

to get a good picture of what’s going on here, listen closely to this story. picture it. we’re told that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” caught “red handed,” we might say. which means she’s not likely well dressed or covered up.

and then she’s brought to where Jesus is teaching in the temple by religious leaders. she is completely shamed, with no opportunity to hide herself or take shelter from these men.

and she’s brought to Jesus, we’re told, in order to tempt Jesus.

“moses, in the law, gives orders to stone such persons,” they say to Jesus. “What do you say?”

their question isn’t actually about this woman; this is about Jesus.

what’s he going to do? they wonder. how will he respond?

this woman is used as an instrument for Jesus’ capture. surely Jesus sees that. but this woman, most likely, doesn’t realize it.

she only sees her shame, guilt, and her fear for her life. because she knows that these men, if they choose, have precedent to pick up stones and heave them at her until her life is taken from her.

with her heart racing, her mind racing, her fear through the roof, she, too, is wondering: what’s he going to say? what’s he going to do?

and then, in a turn of events that no one sees coming, Jesus bends down and uses His finger to write in the dirt. and we’re told not what He writes, but that when He straightens up, He asks whoever is present and who is without sin to go ahead and throw the first stone. and then he bends down again and keeps writing.

and all of the men there, with their stones in hand, begin to turn and walk away, starting with the oldest.

“woman, where are they?” Jesus asks when he stands. “is there no one here left to condemn you?”

“no one,” she says. and you can just imagine her relief.

this woman had pictured herself as the target of so many heavy stones heaved until she could no longer stand. but now, now she’s free.

and notice: Jesus doesn’t tell her to enjoy her freedom by doing whatever makes her happy so long as it doesn’t intrude on someone else’s happiness—which is largely what we’re told today, right?

instead, Jesus says: “neither do I [condemn you]. go on your way. but from now on, don’t sin.”

which is to say, don’t keep living into those ways of life that threatened to take your life.

Jesus looks at this woman and says, in so many words:

“I know you. I know all about you…

 

I know you don’t like what you do, don’t like the fear and hiding that come from it—even though you keep doing it, even at risk of your own life.

 

don’t keep doing that.

 

know that I love you more than you dislike what you do. you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”

and what i hope you see is that this woman is israel in all of the old testament stories of an unfaithful lover. we are this woman. i am this woman.

in search of love and fulfillment, but looking in all the wrong places. turning away from my true love to lesser loves. condemned by so many voices telling me i don’t deserve to be loved.

and Jesus’ says, accept the gift of true life and love I’ve come to give you.

Jesus’ love doesn’t let us remain as we are. He frees us to live life in the fullest sense. He changes us, from the inside out, and then sends us out to share that life with others.

but here’s the brilliance of what Jesus does here. He doesn’t just set this woman free from her accusers. do you see that? He also frees her accusers. from their self righteousness. and from the torment of stoning this woman to death, an act that would have likely stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Jesus frees not just the accused, but the accusers, too. God’s love means freedom for all.

Costly love

God’s love is not just a love that pursues and frees humanity, it is also costly love. and it’s costly because it’s always costly to be in relationship with others.

the russian novelist fyodor dostoyevsky put it this way:

“to love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”

similarly, the author susan sonntag writes:

“it hurts to love. it’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

it hurts to love, to be in intimate relationship with others, because doing so requires vulnerability. and once you’re vulnerable, it’s only a matter of time until you’re hurt.

it’s true for humans in relationship, and once God entered into human relationships, it was true for God, too.

God’s love is costly because it required God’s vulnerability with us.

the german theologian dietrich bonhoeffer said that once God became human, either humanity had to die to itself, or God had to die. and of course we didn’t want to die, so God had to.

there’s a film from the early 1990s called the fisher king that’s set in modern day manhattan. in it, robin williams plays a mysterious, homeless, holy fool figure by the name of perry. it is unclear whether perry is brilliant or crazy.

in one scene, perry is walking with a woman named lydia after their dinner date. walking side-by-side down a quiet sidewalk, lydia insists that he doesn’t have to bother with all the compliments.

“it’s old fashioned,” she tells him. “given what we’re about to do.”

innocently, perry asks what they’re about to do.

lydia explains that they’ll both likely go up to her apartment for coffee, when perry interrupts her to mention that he doesn’t drink coffee. lost in her own thoughts, lydia doesn’t seem to hear him. she goes on to say that, once in her apartment, they’ll talk and get comfortable, have a drink, and then he will most likely sleep over.

and when they wake up the next morning, she insists that he will be distant. he won’t be able to stay for breakfast, except maybe coffee (he points out again that he doesn’t drink coffee, but she doesn’t hear it). then they’ll exchange numbers and he’ll leave and never call.

with a sigh, lydia explains that she will go to work and that, for the first hour or so, she will feel great. but then, she tells him, ever so slowly she will turn into a piece of dirt.

and when she has finished saying all of this, she pauses. reflecting on this scene that she’s just painted, lydia is silent. when she finally speaks up, lydia thanks perry for the great night and she runs off down the sidewalk.

perry is left standing by himself on the sidewalk wondering what has just happened. a second later, he chases after her.

and when he finally reaches her, lydia picks up right where she left off: going on about needing to end things before they go any further, until he finally has to interrupt her.

“please, would you just shut up for a minute?!”

“no, please stop… i’m not coming up to your apartment. that was never my intention… i don’t want just one night. i’m in love with you.”

lydia stares at perry like he’s lost it. unfazed, he continues.

“and not just from tonight. i’ve known you for a long time. i know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again.

 

i walk with you to lunch and i know if it’s a good day, if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstore. i know what you order, and i know that on wednesdays you go to that dim sum parlor and i know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work.

 

and i know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and i know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…

 

i love you… …i love you… and i think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and i would be knocked out several times if i could just have that first kiss.

 

and i won’t, i won’t be distant. i’ll come back in the morning and i’ll call ya if you let me… but i still don’t drink coffee.”

“you’re real,” lydia asks, “aren’t you?”

Jesus’ love is like this holy fool’s love, who knows this woman in all of her odd idiosyncrasies, in all of her self doubt and shame, and who says he would be knocked out several times just to show her his love.

i mentioned before that those who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus weren’t really there to condemn the woman; they were there to condemn Jesus.

the stones they brought were really for Jesus, and the thing about those who throw stones is that it’s only a matter of time before they return. in the end, they came with more powerful stones: the force of Rome and the threat of crucifixion, if Jesus didn’t back down.

and of course He didn’t back down. nor did He overpower them.

He continued to pursue us in love and the Father in obedience, and it cost Jesus His life.

“I would be knocked out several times to show you my love…”

but, surprisingly, from the darkest of days following Jesus’ death, christians came to find that His death wasn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.

to their amazement, the earliest disciples found that the Father honored Jesus’ love and obedience by bringing Him back to life—and the promise they received from Jesus was that they and we, too, might find life in His life.

Jesus’ love is a costly love, but it means life from death. and not just after we die, but life from the kind of life that’s more properly described as death.

so that brings us back to where we started: how can we speak of God’s love in the midst of so much senseless suffering?

God’s love means that we in no way minimize or try to explain away the suffering in our world, the suffering in our life.

God doesn’t ignore our suffering, nor does God seem primarily concerned with explaining it. instead, God enters into our suffering, shares it, and redeems it—all of it, somehow.

to quote dostoyevsky again:

“i believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for…in the world’s finale, [that] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

for christians, we believe the suffering in this world is not the result of evil in an abstract sense, out there, but that it is inside of us, right here.

and in love, God pursues us and frees us from that evil and from certain death—death we feel, and from which we think there is no way out. and God does so at great cost to Himself.

and then, when we are freed from death to life, God calls us to go out and live in this new way of life so that others, too, might catch this life, like a good infection.

focus-christmas-caroling-dec-2016

“be kind to on another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” paul writes to the early church in the city of ephesus, read for us earlier.

“be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

rather than destroy the darkness inside us—the darkness that threatens to destroy us from the inside out, like cancer—Jesus touches and heals this darkness. and then He calls us to go out and be a light in the dark that remains, so that one day there will be no more dark, only the full light of His life, radiating throughout all of God’s creation.

for hayley: keeping my promise

for those who were there, for those who weren’t, these are the words i gave for my dear sister hayley dawn today. they are my final gift to her. i hope you enjoy them.

here’s the audio version:

if you have any special memories of hayley you’d like to share here, i would love to hear them. thank you all.

hi there. for those of you who might not know me, my name is ryan, and i am hayley’s oldest brother in-law. but to hayley, I was simply her brother.

thank you

on behalf of our family, i would like to start by thanking you all for joining with us to celebrate the life of our dear sister, daughter, niece, cousin, granddaughter and great granddaughter, hayley dawn hanowell. during this incredibly difficult time, your generosity, time, kind words and ceaseless prayer has been a ray of light in our lives. your support has been greater than we could ever ask for. so thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for all you’ve done.

wedding toast promise

two years ago, i stood in a room just down the hall from here with hayley, as she helped me run through the toast i would be giving to celebrate her sister leann’s wedding. she held the notes, while i ran through it, and she grinned and nodded her head in agreement. as i finished, she told me leann would love it, and she asked me if i would talk at her wedding someday. i promised her i would.

realizing this week i would not have the opportunity to fulfill that promise, i asked hayley’s parents, tim and rhonda, if it would be all right if i spoke at hayley’s memorial service. i am so incredibly thankful they agreed.

june 11 / may 1

hayley was born to tim and rhonda on june 11, 1990. she was watched over by her two older sisters, jennifer and leann, and she was adored by her entire family.

hayley passed away peacefully on saturday, may 1, at 11:06 p.m., in the presence of her loving family. she was just 19 years old.

the phone call

five days earlier, on monday evening, we received a phone call encouraging us to come to the hospital to be with hayley, as she was not breathing and she was without a pulse when she arrived. fortunately, and we believe it was by God’s grace, the hospital staff was able to resuscitate her. however, she was still unconscious.

praying for a miracle

we spent the next several days at hayley’s bedside, praying for a miracle. for her to move her fingers, her toes or to open her eyes. we kept waiting for a miracle, but it never came. it was only after several days that we realized this was God’s miracle, that He had already revived our loving princess so that we could spend this time with her for several more days, so that we could hold her hand, so that we could talk with her, so that we could comb our fingers through her hair and kiss her forehead. and we are so incredibly thankful for that gift.

horrific nightmare

death is sad at 90. it is incredibly difficult at 50. but at 19, an unexpected death is a horrific nightmare of the worst possible sort. the kind you can’t wake up from, no matter how hard you try. even now, it doesn’t seem real. none of this does.

mourned well

with that being said, i want to tell you about the honor i had of spending those five days at hayley’s bedside with her family. and i want to tell you, they mourned well…

i had the privilege to see Hayley’s family come together during this time to worship their holy Creator. the same God who stitched together hayley dawn in her mother’s womb, even as she slowly left us. to see a father and mother sing songs of praise even as their daughter breathed her final breaths, that speaks volumes of their faith, and I am so incredibly honored to be a part of this family.

i can tell you this, God was glorified even in hayley’s death, because of this family’s faith.

enjoy her a little bit longer

we were blessed to hear favorite memories of hayley from friends and family over the past week. memories of what made her such a pleasure to be around. these memories helped us remember hayley, and to enjoy her a little bit longer.

we heard stories of her smile; that contagious grin, the kind that had the power to brighten up the darkest of days. we heard stories of hayley’s heart, and how she was always there for others during their time of need.

there for others

i remember going to a concert with hayley last summer, just the two of us. we had such a great time. the long drive provided lots of time to talk and catch up; and those memories are priceless. we didn’t get back until after midnight and, i didn’t find out about this until the next day, but after i dropped hayley off that night, she drove straight to be with her friend who was going through a very difficult time. to be by her side.

and she spent the entire night with her, and most of the next day, before going straight to work, without any sleep. so that she could be there for her friend. i was blown away when she told me that, but this is just one example of a time hayley put her own best interests aside for the sake of someone she loved.

beautifully humble

we went through tons of photos this past week. to put together slideshows and posters, and just to remember her. and photo after photo we found ourselves saying, “she was so beautiful…”

and you know what, the thing about hayley is that she was so incredibly humble. she was one of the prettiest girls in the room, but she didn’t act like it. she didn’t have to. everyone knew it.

mischievous side

and hayley had a mischievous side to her as well. she always did. you could see it in her smile. like she had either just finished doing something, or she knew she was about to do something, that would just drive you bananas. hayley was only 10 years old when i first started dating jennifer. she looked different back then; i can still picture her: this cute little girl, slightly pudgy, glasses, frizzy hair, but she was the same mischievous girl.

one of my favorite memories of hayley was when she was that age. it must’ve been the first time jen’s family had me over for dinner. i wasn’t talking much, it was still early on. and hayley was very quiet, the whole night she didn’t say much at all. but then, while we were all sitting around the table joking around after dinner, i spoke up to say something, and hayley immediately cut me off by saying, “you’re doing this (making her hand into a mouth and moving it as if it were talking), and i want you to do this (closing her hand-mouth).”…

we were all stunned. there was about five seconds where the breath was literally taken out of the room; we couldn’t believe that after not saying a word all night, she speaks up and says this to me! but that’s kind of the way things always were between us. she loved to give me a hard time, and i gave it right back. i loved that girl so much.

the journal

we heard a lot of stories about hayley this past week. we read the stories you wrote in her journal as we sat beside her bed each night in the hospital. we read stories of her selfless generosity, and how she was such an incredible giver. and even in her final days, hayley gave. to all of us.

she gave

hayley gave this community the opportunity to come together, to unite in prayer. more than 250 community members gathered this past saturday night, the night she passed away, to pray for her.

hayley gave her family the opportunity to share with others what their faith looks like in the face of the deepest, darkest loss.

hayley gave her sister leann the opportunity to do her hair, one last time. just like before all those school dances.

she gave ben the opportunity to get a few words in, for once.

she gave her oldest sister jen the opportunity to sing, at her bedside, to an audience of one.

she gave her parents the opportunity to share with others the incredible gift God blessed them with 19 years ago.

and she gave me the opportunity to share with others the love of Jesus Christ.

you are loved

i know hayley would want me to say something to you all, right now, so i will. i know she would want me to tell you that you are loved. even if you don’t think so, even if you feel all alone, you are not. not ever.

at your deepest, darkest moments, you have a God who cares for you more than you will ever know, and He is rooting for you, that you would turn to Him, rather than to drugs, alcohol, cutting or anything else that takes life, rather than gives it. that you would turn to Him, so that He can give you life.

our family is here

and i know hayley would want me to say this. if you are hurting, if you are suffering and don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, our family is here for you. not because we are perfect, but because He is. not because we have it all figured out, but because, in Christ, we have the strength to face each day in the anticipation of one day worshiping Him face to face.

until that day, we seek to glorify Him in this place. and by loving you, we can share the love He has shown us. not because we deserve it, but because He is love, and because His desire is to show us all that love.

pray for you

and so, if you are hurting, and if you feel all alone, i would like to personally pray for you following this service. i’ll wait up here in front, and i’ll be here for as long as it takes. please come find me. this is something i would like to do for you, because i know it is something that would make my sister smile.

thank God

so, once again, from the bottom of our hearts, our family would like to thank you for your kind words, your support and, most of all, your prayers during this time. we will continue to need it for the days, weeks, months and even years to come. as we continue to grieve and heal from this pain. we have truly been blessed by your generosity. thank you. and thank God for giving us hayley.

He’s sorry [re-post]

i wrote these words for my dear sister hayley dawn in august. rather than share them with her right away, i thought i would wait for the appropriate time. that time came unexpectedly this past week, at her bedside, with much tears.

hayley dawn, i love you with all my heart, and i know you are now dancing in His presence. i know you are now home.

someday

you’re not likely to read this any time soon, but my heart is heavy this morning with words i feel He wants you to know. so, my hope, as i put these thoughts to words, is that you may someday read them. and on that day, the day He has already ordained, i hope He will use these words to speak directly to your heart.

He’s sorry

i feel like He wants to tell you He’s sorry. He’s sorry that things aren’t more clear for you now. He’s sorry it’s not easier to see how much He loves you. how overwhelming His love is for you, and how He has done more than you will ever know to show you that.

He’s sorry for the pain you’re going through now. but, more importantly, He wants you to know that your pain pales in comparison to the pain He feels for you. and that pain, His pain, pales in comparison to the love He has for you.

from a step to a sprint

He wants you to know that He has done everything to make it better. He wants you to know that He has paid the highest price to make a path from your feet to Himself. He wants you to know that He is cheering you on every single day, that you would take one step in faith toward Him. and one more tomorrow. and another the next day. and He looks forward to the day when those small steps will turn into a brisk walk. and from a brisk walk to a jog. and finally from a jog into a full on sprint into His outstretched arms.

He wants you to know that His desire is for your heart, and that you would joyfully hand it over to Him. and you would, if only you could see, clearly, how deep His love is for you. how much deeper it is than any other love you have ever known.

He wants you to know how He longs to hold you in His arms. and someday He will.

your return home

even though that day is so distant that you can’t see it now, He can. and He is looking forward to that day with great excitement and anticipation. excitement to celebrate your return home.

imputed righteousness: how He could look on us with love

i’m not one who enjoys road trips. the long driving. i never have. but i do enjoy a short two-hour drive up and down i-5 every so often. the monotony of the straight freeway lanes, with curves just subtle enough to remind you you’re driving, provide a welcome break from the busyness of life. and a much-appreciated opportunity to sink deep into my thoughts. some of my favorite thinking time is spent between those dashed white lines, speeding by at a much quicker pace than my thoughts.

it was on a recent drive that a friend and i were talking. we were talking about relationships, and he confessed to me that he often struggles with a fear that leaves him wondering if anyone could really love him. even as a friend. the irony of the conversation is that these aren’t the words you’d expect to hear from this guy. those who know him best would have no problem telling you why he’s such an incredible person to be around. even those who don’t know him as closely could point out things they admire in him. and yet, here he was, pouring out a serious fear of his heart. and so i listened. intently. taking each word at face value, and trying not to allow the bias of my friendship to squelch the point he was making.

and it was then, while listening to him walk through this fear, that i realized he wasn’t alone in thinking this way. i realized that, deep down, i too often wonder how anyone could love me. were they to know the deepest depths of my heart. were they to know those thoughts i hope never move past the far corners of my mind. were they to know how truly self-centered i am.

and it’s no wonder he feels this way. for, even the best of us, on our best days, are still struggling with the same nature. a nature that pleads for us to focus on ourselves. to feed our own desires, and to forget about others.

and i think it’s when we’re most honest with ourselves, when we’re most aware of this truth, i believe it’s at those moments that we sit back and wonder to ourselves, “how could someone else every truly love me?”

better than i deserve

i was grabbing breakfast for lunch with another friend recently. a friend who had moved away, but who had recently returned to visit. it was over our mid-day breakfast, as sunlight poured through the restaurant’s window-lined wall, filling the space with rays of light that danced across each table and conversation, that he asked me a question that has stuck with me ever since.

“so i have a relationship question for you,” he said, focusing a conversation that had previously just been a time of catching up.

“you’re a pretty good-looking guy,” he began, to which i immediately interrupted with laughter. completely unsure of where the conversation was heading.

“well,” he continued, “people always told me how great a guy i was growing up. that i had good looks and a great sense of humor. that i was smart, and that i would find an amazing girl. that she’d be beautiful. and, i mean, i am seeing this girl now, and she’s great, but sometimes i wonder if i could do better, you know? do you ever wonder about that?”

“man, that’s a great question,” i replied, finishing the pancakes i had been chewing. “and you’re certainly not the first guy to think that way,” i continued. “but, i guess i would say, i know that i already have much better than i deserve, you know? i mean, she knows the deepest, darkest parts of my heart. and yet, for some reason, she’s still willing to love me. and that blows my mind. and so, even though those thoughts might come, even though those lies might be whispered in my ear by the evil one, i have to remind myself that i already have far better than i could ever ask for.”

he nodded in agreement. i took a drink of my orange juice, and we carried on.

with God

and i think that fear, that anyone could ever truly love us, is true for our relationship with God, as it is for others.

for those of us who are deeply aware of the pain we’ve caused, of the wrong we’ve done, we struggle with believing God could ever truly love us. for, if we’re so aware of our failures, and if He is all-knowing, then is certainly just as aware of them. and even if our knowledge of Him is only a shallow memory of sunday school lessons from our childhood, we know that He is good, holy and perfect. and if He is perfect, and if He really does desire us to be perfect, or at the very least good, we simply cannot fathom what He would possibly want with us.

and so we rule ourselves out. we don’t even bother approaching Him because we figure the door will be closed in our face. that is the sad reality so many face. and that logic prevents so many from ever knowing a deep, love-filled relationship with their heavenly Father.

trash bags

after listening to my friend pour out his heart on this drive, i gave my best attempt to explain how i thought this worked. how he – and in turn anyone – could be loved by someone else.

i began by telling him that there were many, many things in him that others appreciate. i shared with him the ways in which i see him blessing others lives’. through compassion. through generosity. by caring and by showing others that care in incredible ways.

and then i told him that he’s not the only one who thinks this way. i reminded him that most of us are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short. but, at the same time, i told him often times it’s only others in our lives who can see through all that badness to the glimmers of goodness in us. like a small treasure hidden in a trash bag filled with rotting food scraps, our friends are the ones who can see through the filth (for often times it’s only our true friends who we allow to see the filth) to the glimmer of goodness. and it’s that glimmer that we hold on to. that we try to bring out in our friends. for that faint glimmer of charity, of compassion, of care, that’s what we strive to bring out even further. out of the darkness and into the light.

and, when we realize we’re all in the same boat, that this is true for all of us, that’s when we allow ourselves to love and to be loved.

cannot look upon us

but what about God? is the same true for Him? does He look upon us, in our darkness, to see a faint glimmer of goodness, and love us for that goodness?

some people will tell you that’s true. some people will tell you He loves them because they’ve done this, or because they do that. but i don’t think that’s the case.

you see, i think we have it right when we feel an overwhelming sense of shame at the idea of God even looking upon us. in our shame. in our guilt. i think all those times we choose our own ways, our own desires, over His desire for our life, i think that all adds up to this horrific scene. so ghastly that He cannot even look upon it, in His righteousness. were we to see the cumulative result of our sin, of our selfishness, of our anger, of our pride, of our thoughts, of our desires, it would be too terrible for even us, in our unrighteousness, to take in. like looking upon someone whose body was completely covered in open, oozing sores, gasping for breath, longing for the cold, healing touch of anything or anyone. it would be a sight that we would be forced to turn our heads from.

and i think it’s those moments, when we’re most aware of the depth of our failings, i think it’s then that we’re closest to the humility God desires from us. that sort of an approach to the Father, i believe, is what He desires from us. not one full of pride, or feeling as though you have every right to approach Him because of some faint glimmer of goodness in your life. rather, i think the proper approach, as we see in His word, is an approach that realizes we don’t deserve to approach Him. and that, if it weren’t for Him and for His work, then the mere act of coming before Him in prayer would not even be possible.

let me try to explain.

given to us

imagine finding out your favorite band is on tour and that they will be playing in your hometown. you’ve always wanted to see them perform live, and now you have the opportunity. you happily buy tickets to the show and store them away where you know they will be safe. but, each day, you take them out and look at them in great anticipation.

the night of the concert you find out, through some dumb luck, that you have been granted backstage passes. you cannot believe it. you are overwhelmed with excitement. for now, not only will you be able to see your favorite band perform, but you will have access to all the benefits that lie behind the curtain. in a way, you will have the opportunity to be treated as an actual member of the band, even though, of course, you are not.

and that, in a way, is how God’s love for us works. for we are treated as Sons and Daughters of His kingdom, even though we have failed to live up to those titles time and time again. even on our best days, we would fall severely short of ever being able to earn that title. and, yet, in our good fortune, or, rather, because of His goodness and His love and His sacrifice, we are granted that title through the laying down of a perfect life. The perfect life. the life of the Father’s true son, Jesus Christ.

for, in Him, through His blood. and through His resurrection. we are not only forgiven for all those times we fail to live in His light, as we should, but through Christ, we are granted His righteousness. His righteousness is given to us. because of Christ, the Father looks on us as He looks on His Son. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. our sin-blemished garments are exchanged for His robes of white. perfect. holy. as He is holy. and as He is perfect.

new clothes

and so, even though His desire for us to be perfect doesn’t change, our fears of ever approaching Him in our unrighteousness become invalid. what once was a very real fear no longer holds us back from coming to Him. for, it is only in Him, and because of Him, that we can approach Him. because now, as a result of His Son, He sees us as perfect. just as He calls us to be.

He is not tricked. this is not some sort of magic trick the Son pulled on the Father to allow us to be loved by a mean, grumpy father. no, it is a Father-ordained sacrifice of the deepest sort. it is a holy and perfect Life laid down, for our sake. Jesus’ death, for us, was very real. His pain. His anguish. His separation from the Father. it was all very real, and it was all for our sake. the great exchange, as it is called. His righteousness, given to us, in exchange for our unrighteousness. in exchange for our trash. in exchange for our garbage. dressed in our unrighteousness, He was so ghastly that the Father could not even look upon Him. for, this once, the Father turned His face away from the Son He had spent all of eternity with, in love. because of us. or, rather, for us.

it is a gift i pray you will never take for granted. and it is a gift i pray you will help share with others. and, when you feel as though your sin is too dark for Him to ever look upon you, that it is so dark that you cannot approach Him, i pray you would be reminded that He is handing you new clothes. His Son’s clothes. and i pray, as you put them on, that you would feel His warmth pouring over you. healing you. and lifting up your head. in the knowledge that where darkness once resided, now only light exists. and that through your new wardrobe, He is making His home in you. and it is that home that allows the Father to look upon you with love.

He’s sorry

someday
you’re not likely to read this any time soon, but my heart is heavy this morning with words i feel He wants you to know. so, my hope, as i put these thoughts to words, is that you may someday read them. and on that day, the day He has already ordained, i hope He will use these words to speak directly to your heart.

He’s sorry
i feel like He wants to tell you He’s sorry. He’s sorry that things aren’t more clear for you now. He’s sorry it’s not easier to see how much He loves you. how overwhelming His love is for you, and how He has done more than you will ever know to show you that.

He’s sorry for the pain you’re going through now. but, more importantly, He wants you to know that your pain pales in comparison to the pain He feels for you. and that pain, His pain, pales in comparison to the love He has for you.

from a step to a sprint
He wants you to know that He has done everything to make it better. He wants you to know that He has paid the highest price to make a path from your feet to Himself. He wants you to know that He is cheering you on every single day, that you would take one step in faith toward Him. and one more tomorrow. and another the next day. and He looks forward to the day when those small steps will turn into a brisk walk. and from a brisk walk to a jog. and finally from a jog into a full on sprint into His outstretched arms.

He wants you to know that His desire is for your heart, and that you would joyfully hand it over to Him. and you would, if only you could see, clearly, how deep His love is for you. how much deeper it is than any other love you have ever known.

He wants you to know how He longs to hold you in His arms. and someday He will.

your return home
even though that day is so distant that you can’t see it now, He can. and He is looking forward to that day with great excitement and anticipation. excitement to celebrate your return home.