Amazing Grace on Good Friday

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11)

Jesus didn’t die for people who had cleaned themselves up, gotten their act together, stopped sinning of their own power and volition, or kept the Law perfectly.

He died for the weak. For the ungodly. For sinners. For his enemies.

That’s us. We weren’t just not “living our best life now.” Who would die for that? No, we were in opposition to God. We were thumbing our noses at him, flipping him off, and actively working against him because we wanted to do what we wanted to do.

And yet, he made it possible to be reconciled, restored, resurrected.

While we were his enemies.

That’s amazing grace.

And if he died for his weak, ungodly, sinning enemies, how should we treat those we view as weak, ungodly, sinning enemies?

If you’re a Christian, find someone today to whom you can show the love of Christ. If you’re not, thank you for indulging me in this post. And if you find the Christians you know to be unloving, please forgive us, because even when you’ve been reconciled with God, you still make mistakes and you still need grace. (I know I do.) Maybe do some reading of the Bible yourself (I’d suggest the Gospel of John and then the Book of Romans). Or better yet, team up and read it together. I’m certain great, spirited conversations will follow.

Cultivating Reasonable Expectations of Life in a World of Hyperbole

Perhaps like me you have noticed that we are living in an age where everything is AMAZING! Watch this video about this AMAZING girl! Look at photos of these fifty AMAZING bedrooms! Check out this AMAZING restaurant or this AMAZING cockatoo! If it’s not AMAZING, it’s STUNNING, SHOCKING, INCREDIBLE, LIFE-CHANGING, or UNBELIEVABLE!

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of this stuff isn’t AMAZING or any of its synonyms. At most, it’s amusing or interesting. For a moment. And then it’s forgotten.

Now, marketers and advertisers have always used hyperbole to sell products, but I find myself wondering if our age is perhaps unique in trying to sell ordinary life as AMAZING with, say, seriously overreaching claims about how much watching a two-minute video will alter your experience of the world FOR ALL TIME! Because these claims aren’t being made for products that might be sold and thus earn someone a profit. No one is making money from you watching a cute video about a cat who adopts an orphan piglet. And yet the online clamoring to get views and comments and likes is overwhelming.

I get it. No one wants to be ordinary. I don’t either. And to be honest, I’ve caught myself overdoing it when it comes to adjectives. But we seem to be living in a time where, rather than do something extraordinary, something worthy of comment or praise, we elevate the ordinary to the level of extraordinary, until everything we do, every meal we eat, every trip we take, every single thing that our child says is presented to others as a phenomenon unequaled in the history of the world. And this makes the truly ordinary stuff in your life, my life, seem pointless by comparison. Which seems dangerous. It seems like thinking that leads to depression or feelings of worthlessness or futility.

Conversely, the opposite also becomes true–that every little negative thing that happens is the WORST, most HORRIFIC, most HEARTBREAKING, most CULTURE-DESTROYING thing that has ever happened. Fearmongering news anchors or op-ed pieces chip away at our joy and our confidence. Unhappy Facebook friends drag us down with their consistent negativity.

What does this do to us, to our collective psyche? It breeds extremes of emotion and opinion that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We become living pendulums, swinging wildly from elation to despair, all imposed on us from the outside, from YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle. Rational thought and measured responses are employed less and less. After all, no one else in the comments section is thinking deeply and attempting to have a rational discussion about this issue, so why should I? I get more immediate reward for that zinger I just flung into the fray than for a long, drawn-out discussion based on empathy and research.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. It’s where we spend most of our time. It’s work, family, faith, and friends. It’s enjoying a concert (which, while not AMAZING or LIFE-CHANGING was enjoyable and entertaining). It’s helping your kid with his homework (for which parents should not expect accolades–it’s part of the job). It’s shoveling the driveway (without whining about it on Facebook in order to get sympathy from everyone else who also had to shovel). It’s folding the laundry (not the MOUNTAINS of laundry that are your own personal cross to bear). It’s feeding ordinary dog food to your very ordinary dog.

Why are we so afraid of this ordinary life?

I get the desire to “sell” one’s experiences as bigger and better than they are. I’m in marketing. My whole job is to persuade you to exchange your money for a book that, let’s face it, probably won’t CHANGE YOUR LIFE, even if it does help you in some way. But as much as our self-centered, consumer culture pushes us to make our lives appear AMAZING, we are most of us very ordinary. And that’s fine. If you’re looking for a reason to feel special, looking for deeper meaning in this life, I would advise you to look somewhere other than the internet. Look to God. Look to the impact you are having on your kids. Look to a service you can perform on behalf of your fellow man. Look to charity and forgiveness and truly loving your neighbor. Most of it could not honestly be described as AMAZING or SHOCKING or UNBELIEVABLE. But it would make a heck of a lot more difference in the world than another damn BuzzFeed article.

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?

Entering a Season of Joyful Anticipation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m still recovering from a fantastic extended weekend of great food, family, friends new and old, and lots and lots of cleaning up. I managed to somehow be involved in three Thanksgivings: one at my in-laws’ with fifteen people; a quick visit to my aunt & uncle’s house to see them, my parents, and one of my cousins; and one at home a couple days later with eleven people that I actually prepared singlehandedly.

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It ended up being a very multicultural Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law invited four international students who wouldn’t be able to be home over the holiday. Our Kenyan friend Grace we have known since she was nine and her father Jeremiah was attending seminary in Grand Rapids. She brought three friends: Korean Grace who grew up in China, Korean Grace who grew up in India, and Nigerian Oyin who grew up in Nigeria. The meal we had at our home on Sunday night was our little family and eight Bhutanese-Nepali friends from one of the congregations that uses our church building for their church services.

It was fun to share the story of the first Thanksgiving with our Nepali friends who had never heard it. And it was fun to discover, through my mother-in-law’s careful genealogical research over many years, that my husband Zach has two ancestors who were actually on the Mayflower! Thinking about that distant connection gave new meaning to the very old story.

And as Advent began on Sunday, Zach (who is also my pastor, in case you didn’t know) made a poignant connection for me. The same distance in time that exists between us modern Americans and the Mayflower existed between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as a baby in the manger. Four hundred years. Four hundred years from when God said this:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6

to when God said this:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17

I think about those four hundred years of waiting, listening, wishing for a word from one’s God, wishing for fulfillment of a promise. And I believe I shall think on it all during Advent, in a time in our world when it can feel like God is silent and everyone simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”

Tonight we’ll finally have time to decorate the house for Christmas. On our pre-lit tree, I believe there are four hundred lights. One tiny light for every dark year of anguished waiting. Altogether they make a bright and beautiful light and will point me toward the one Light that was soon to make His humble entrance into His creation, in order to redeem it.

So Much for Which to Be Thankful

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US and therefore we are all beginning to think of the things for which we are most grateful. We’re also beginning to stress about food preparation, where all these guests are going to sit, and whether it’s worth it to go out shopping on Friday amongst the hordes to save a few bucks. But mostly, let’s hope, we are counting our blessings. I thought I’d share a few with you.

I am thankful…

…for a husband who is caring, talented, funny, and supportive

…for a son who is enthusiastic and hilarious and so, so sweet

…for a warm home with a fireplace and a well-stocked pantry

…that we found a new home for our cat and that our son’s allergies have greatly improved

…that last night I reached 50,000 words on my WIP and became a winner of National Novel Writing Month

…that my extended family is intact and that we all enjoy spending time together

…that I have a few days of relaxation coming up during which I can chat with people I don’t get to see often enough and quilt a baby quilt for a friend

…for a good job at a great company where I feel our collective work makes a difference in people’s lives

…for a beautiful, if broken, earth to care for and enjoy

That’s just a short list. I could go on, but you’d probably stop reading because it would get too long.

Most importantly, I’m not thankful for these things in some vague “I’m happy about these things” way. You can’t just be thankful for something. You also have to be thankful to someone for providing those things. So this Thanksgiving, and every day, I am thankful to God for these material blessings. And I’m most thankful to Him for creating everything that is, for creating it “good,” for not abandoning that creation when it turned against Him, and for sending His Son to redeem it. Because Thanksgiving, to me, is the first step into the Advent season, when we wait with joyful anticipation for God’s long-promised and yet still somehow unexpected gift: Jesus.

If you live in America, I hope that no matter what your faith you have time to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. I hope you’ll take time to count your blessings. I hope you’ll meditate on the story of the first Thanksgiving. And I hope especially for those of you who don’t know what you believe about God, that you’ll feel the pull, either a gentle tug or a disorienting jerk, of the One who knew you before you were born and who has lovingly sustained you, even to this very moment.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!