Living the Gospel

When my daughter made a profession of faith at the age of five, I couldn’t help but worry. I remembered my own faith struggles as a young adult, and I’d heard too many testimonies of false professions. I wanted some way to guarantee that her faith was “real” and not simply a response to her subculture or an attempt to gain her parents’ approval. Turns out, one of us did have a false understanding of the gospel. But it wasn’t her; it was me.

This paragraph is from a piece I recently wrote about how easy it is for us to misunderstand the word “gospel.” For many of us, the “gospel” is synonymous with the specific doctrine of justification or that moment in time when we first realized our need of Christ. But the Scripture doesn’t talk about the gospel this way. Instead, it likens it to a “new life”–an all-encompassing reality, a way of living.

If we forget this, we can be tempted to try to progress in our Christian walk in a way that is fundamentally at odds with how we first came to Christ. We’ll see the point of conversion as a kind of running start, but then we’ll try to run the race through our own abilities. When we do–when we step away from the core principles of the gospel–several things will happen:

1. Our Christian walk will look and feel a whole lot like a religion of works.

2. We will develop Messiah complexes.

3. We will be overwhelmed by failure and live in defeat.

Instead, we must recognize that the gospel is not simply a starting point. It may begin at one point in time–much like my daughter’s profession of faith–but it can’t be contained to one point in time.

In many ways, I was putting too much stock in her profession as an event. I was looking at a new born baby and worrying whether or not she’d be able to run a marathon. Instead, I needed to celebrate the wonder of her birth and believe that just as God had given her spiritual life, He would also sustain and mature that life. Just as He had formed her tiny feet, through time, proper nutrition, and care, He would grow those feet to be able to run the race of faith. And just as her tiny spiritual lungs had filled with life-giving Holy Spirit breath, they would be filled by another and another and another. Each breath happening the same way the first one had—through faith, repentance, and dependence on a God who loved her and had given her life.

You can read the full article over at The Gospel-Centered Woman,

NaNoWriMo and the Sound of Silence

nanowrimo-logo (1)A friend asked recently whether I ever take breaks from writing, whether I found that my soul needs space just to breathe, to step away from it all. And I told her the truth: I try but it’s hard. I find it very difficult to take breaks. When I’m not writing, I’m reading or I’m thinking about writing. What I’ve learned is that in order to “take a break,” I actually have to replace the writing I typically do with a different form altogether.

So this month I’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to finally get a rough draft of that novel that has been lurking inside you for decades. Over the course of thirty days, participants attempt to write 50,000 words because “The world needs your novel!” (or so the NaNoWriMo site encourages us). I don’t know if I believe this, but I do know that I need to write a novel–if only for my own heart’s sake. My non-fiction writing tends to be serious, thought-provoking stuff, but honestly that can weigh on a girl.  I’ve been feeling the crush of ideas, marketing schedules, and writing deadlines; and I simply need a chance to step away for a bit. NaNoWriMo is that chance.

I grew up on Jane Austen, James Herriot, and P.G. Wodehouse. As an adult, I’ve fallen in love with Alexander McCall Smith and Adriana Trigiani. Not exactly literary powerhouses, but writers who love their characters and know how to make you love them too. So now, it’s my turn. I can’t promise that my fiction will be worth reading; I can’t promise that I’ll make it to 50,000 words; but if I find a way to learn a little, be humbled a lot, and regain a fresh vision for writing, NaNoWriMo will be a success. All that to say,  if it’s a little quiet around here during the month of November, don’t worry. I’m just listening to the voices in my head.

And to all you who are also NaNoWriMo-ing, happy writing!

Can Do: Rural Traditions, Food, and Life Full Circle

(via Robert Stutes)

One of the scariest places of my childhood was my grandma’s basement. It was dark, damp, and prone to flooding. Sometimes water would pool inches deep making half of it completely inaccessible. A musty smell hung in the air, the combination of damp stone, old household chemicals, and the outdated magazines piled high in the corner. It was both alluring and terrifying.

But the basement was also where my Grandma stored her canned goods–rows of jars lined the wooden shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. Beets, pears, green beans, tomatoes, lime pickles, grape juice, blackberry jelly, and applesauce. All waiting patiently in the damp darkness until we’d venture down the nearly vertical steps to retrieve them.

Today, my family’s canned goods sit on shelves in our basement, too; and yet, I have to admit that our basement can’t compete with Grandma’s. Good lighting and a sump pump have stolen all the mystery out of it. And for us, canning is less a necessity and more a choice–a way of life that allows us to tap into our rural roots and live close to the land. For grandma, though, canning was about survival, about preserving summer’s bounty for the dark, scarce days of winter.

I had a chance to reflect on this (and other things) in this piece at Her.meneutics: “When Rural Traditions Get Hipster Cred.”  I also got to reminisce a bit more with John Hall and Kathy Emmons on the John & Kathy Show on 101.5 WORD-FM out of Pittsburgh.  (Our conversation starts at 14:35.)

In many ways, this piece and the subsequent conversation brought me full circle. I grew up about an hour south of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands, which is part of the greater Appalachian region. So it’s funny to me that a piece about canning and rural living would snag me a spot on a radio station out the “big city.” But I suppose that’s the way life often works. You spend years trying to find yourself only to discover that you’ve always known who you were–and for me, that means being a country girl whose canned goods sit on shelves in the basement just like grandma’s did.

Houses on Sand

houses on sand2If you show up at our church at 10:15 Sunday morning, you’ll find me in a small corner room, my knees wedged beneath a two-foot-tall table, surrounded by 4 and 5-year-olds. We’ll probably be in the middle of a Bible story by then; but if you come a little earlier, we might be using a hand play for a verse or singing a song to get the wiggles out. In our class, we know all the old standards: “Young David,” “This is the Day,” “I Will Enter His Gates,” and of course, “The Wise Man Built His House.”

Those of you who grew up in church probably know this last one (and might be already be singing along.) The lyrics are taken from Matthew 7: 24-27:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

“So build you life on the Lord Jesus Christ and the blessings will come down…”

There’s only one problem with this: it isn’t accurate. This isn’t the message of Matthew 7: 24-27.

Several weeks ago, I read this passage in its broader context and was hit with the unsettling realization that for 30+ years I’d been missing the whole point. I’d understood it as the tension between Jesus and “the world” and that a life of making the right choices would result in blessing. In reality, the parable of the wise and foolish man is about an entirely different tension.

Jesus used the story of the wise and foolish man to conclude His Sermon on the Mount. He had been addressing the crowds assembled on a Galilean hillside, giving them perhaps the most nuanced explanation of kingdom living of His earthly ministry. And like any good preacher, He finishes with an application and illustration. Those who hear His words and do them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock; those who reject them will do so at their own peril.

So what were these “words” that the people had to either accept or reject? What had Jesus just taught them?

Among other things, He’d given them the Beatitudes, teachings on divorce, advice about money, the Golden Rule, and warnings against false teachers. On the surface, these topics seem to be very different, and yet, they are united by one central thread. A thread that runs through the entire message, binding it together in a cohesive whole. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is calling people to a deeper understanding of their faith. He is internalizing the Law, pressing them past the superficiality of just “doing the right things.”

He warns them that their own righteousness will never be enough and will even deceive them. In fact, there are false prophets so deceitful that they trick even themselves, believing that they are doing their righteous acts in Jesus’ name. But far from calling the people to abandon the law, He is calling them to a better, more encompassing faith. A faith that actually changes them from the inside out. And he concludes all this with the warning to build your life on His words and on not “the sand.”

So what is “the sand?” The sand is our righteous works.

It is not the world’s system as we tend to envision it. It is not the danger of power or ambition or the love of money or lust or greed. Jesus is warning against the danger is self-reliance. We must not place our confidence in our ability to exceed the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Because if we do, when the storms come, when the thunder crashes, and the lightning strikes, everything we’ve been building—our families, our homes, our work, even our own sense of self—will collapse into one massive pile of twisted, broken wreckage.

Just look around you. Read the blogs. Hear the stories of men and women who tried for so long and so hard to be “righteous” people. They wore the right clothes, they had the right family structures, they used the right translations, they signed the right pledges, they listened to the right music, they had the right theology, and they went to the right churches.

But when the storms came, all of this “rightness” wasn’t enough.

Several weeks ago, I shared the story of Vyckie Garrison who walked away from a legalistic faith straight into the arms of atheism. Many Christians were confused by her story. They wondered how she made such a dramatic change. Why couldn’t she simply shift to a different, perhaps more moderate understanding of Christianity? Why couldn’t she simply become more “balanced”?

She couldn’t become more balanced because all the leveling in the world couldn’t change that her life had been built on the sand.

This is also why those who have grown up in other forms of legalism often walk away from “the faith.” This is why there are so many walking wounded among us. And this is why even those of us who think we’re building our lives on Jesus must be humble. Because the minute we look down on those who didn’t rely on Him, we reveal that our own hearts aren’t relying on Him either. We are putting our confidence in our own ability to be “wise” enough to embrace Him.

I understand why rules and roles and theological paradigms are so appealing. In an uncertain world, they give us safety. A checklist can tell me exactly who I’m supposed to be and where I fit in all this chaos and confusion. And for a time, it will make me feel stable and give me a sense of order. But when the storms come–and they will—the bottom will quite literally fall out because my “house” was really only ever resting on itself.

Instead, Jesus is calling us to something better. He’s calling us to be wise men and women, who know that we will never be enough in ourselves. He’s calling us to humility and the security that even if we aren’t, He is. And ultimately, He’s calling us to Himself.