Ashes, ashes

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When my thoughts go to your younger years and I hear your deep voice cursing the time, my eyes fill with hot tears and I wonder if singing Jesus Loves Me with you as a toddler was enough.

I lit a fire this New Year and watched the hot embers fly high and burn out fast and fall cold and faltering to the ground and felt my mothering was the same.

A seed may die and defiantly sprout up to new life and grow a tree. But ashes, ashes, they just fall. Hot for a moment and that’s all.

I have no hope for these burned out years unless ashes can be traded. But who does that?

I don’t know how, but here I offer all my ashes. Will you take them Resurrected? Will you make them a crown?

Peacemaking

As much as it depends on me I’ll lose, I’ll defer, I’ll wait.

Not because I’m weak, even though I am. Not because I’m less than, even though I happily consider you greater. Not because I’m not able, not willing, not right. But because I want to walk with you through the night. Through the light. Through the hard days and long days and everyday normal days.

As much as it depends on me I’ll look for ways to bridge a connection between you and me and the everlasting.

As much as it depends on me I’ll make a home, a good pot of soup, a place to relax and laugh and hold each other. Not because I’m stuck here. Not because it’s home. But because I want you to know that home is a place you’ve only felt a little of here.

As much as it depends on me, I’ll keep walking with you. I’ll slow down, even stop, even wait, even ache, even bear the pain of all the shame that comes with forgiving. Not because I can’t escape. Not because there is no other way. Not because you are my only way to feel whole. But because I’ve already found the way.

I’m already promised Shalom. I’m already alive and free and no one can take that from me. I lay it down willingly.

Waiting

You could shine your face on me and I would be rescued from this degree of pain I can’t escape.

But you don’t.

You show me trees and leaves and shine light through the breeze and make fire in the branches with rays from the expanse of your power.

And I’m tired. But I’ll wait.

How long? How long until you shine your face in full and I don’t have to see you through metaphor?

Purity culture: The fruit of our “lawish hearts”- A book review

A Culture Born from our “Of Works-ness”

I’m listening to Dane Ortlund’s audiobook version of Gentle and Lowly- The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers on my commute to and from work. Driving home the other day, the narrator read the title of the 20th chapter, “Our lawish hearts. His lavish heart.” And as I reflected on what I’d read in Rachel Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture- Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, I realized our “lawish” hearts produced purity culture and it’s fallout.

So much of what I was read in Welcher’s book I am currently struggling with in raising my teen sons. Growing up, I didn’t read any of the books popular in the purity culture of the 1990’s. I was married for four years by the time I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. But I did grow up in a church and youth group that taught the lessons those books promoted. And I bought Every Man’s Battle for my nephew when he graduated from high school without ever reading it myself. I was guilty of what Rachel pointed out, “…we need more… conversation. Instead of trying to find the perfect book, let’s keep talking about sexuality and purity out loud.”

So many of us have tended to reach for a book to give to a teen when we should have been reaching for a conversation over their favorite fast food. Years have past since those early adult days when I was fresh out of a church culture strong on women’s modesty, submission and avoiding dating, but the weeds from those days are still popping up. I look at my sons who have not grown up in a church culture like I did, who in fact have grown up in a mostly secular culture, both in our home and in their school, and I wonder how in the world I’ll ever reach them with the hope of the gospel. And I fear they’ll believe the culture and use people, sex and power for their own pleasure and give no thought to the way of Jesus in their sexuality, relationships and manhood.

Welcher’s book examines how Purity Culture is the fruit of our tendency to to make rules or laws a savior that only Christ can be.

Dane Ortlund said, “Our natural of-works-ness is a resistance to Christ’s heart.” The books and methods of a generation of parents and leaders in the church, trying to ward off the culture that we viewed as causing teen pregnancy, STD’s and a disregard for family values, is a result of being what Ortlund refers to as an “of-works” people.

It’s my natural bent to try to guard myself or my kids from what I fear will overtake them with rules, methods, pledges, programs and other works. Rachel’s book looks back on the effects of purity culture and demonstrates that our attempts to live for the heart of Christ through programs that prevent undesired behaviors may be well intended, but this posture of living has damaging effects that actually make it harder to see the gospel in all it’s scandalous beauty. As Ortlund wrote, “You can live for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ.” Which position we take makes all the difference.

The Damaging Fruit of Purity Culture

“It’s a dangerous thing when married sex becomes the ‘finish line’ for sexual purity.”

When I read those words from the first chapter of Welcher’s book I felt challenged and grieved. For me, married sex had been the finish line for purity, but I had disqualified myself from the race two years before I got married.

In my teens I attended youth group and went to a youth camp where the speaker sent a rose to be passed around to the members of the audience. We were instructed to each hold the rose, smell it, look at it and pass it to the next person. While we waited our turn to handle the rose the speaker preached the dangers of pre-marital sex and the permanent damage that would be done to us if we had sex before we were married. Afterwards, I pledged to stay pure until marriage. Then I went on a walk with my friend who shared she had already had sex and felt lost. I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t have the gospel. All I had was a stay-pure program in one hand and a friend who felt rejected in another.

At sixteen I wrote a list of requirements I wanted in a husband and gave them to my dad in the form of a contract, asking him to give me a promise ring. My dad wasn’t a big spender and certainly wasn’t going to buy me a ring, but he was a carpenter, so he made me a hope chest and I put our signed contract to keep me pure in it.

Gosh, just writing this gives me the creeps. But it was well intended. I thought I was doing something that demonstrated my new zeal for the Jesus I had just recently decided to follow. I was trying to live for God’s smile, as Ortlund put it, not from his smile.

Less than a year later I met a long-haired boy with a pink corduroy hat and ripped, bleached Levi’s from the big city. I loved the way he made me feel and by the time I was seventeen we had sex. I was torn. I hadn’t lived up to my contract with God and my dad. I reasoned in my mind that I could make up for what I’d done by getting married. And in the two years before our wedding day I vacillated between guilt, shame and wanting to run away. I was disillusioned and confused.

Three Areas to Look for Purity Culture Weeds

Rachel’s book examines landscapes of life where purity culture’s efforts produced noxious weeds that must be separated from the fruit of the gospel when it comes to virginity, being a man or a woman, marriage, sex, sexual abuse, and what we tell the next generation. Of these, three stood out to me as good places we can start looking for weeds of purity culture in our lives.

Women

According to Welcher, women are delivered a confusing message through purity culture. On one had we’re told we’re responsible for guarding sexual purity because we’re less lust-driven than men and therefore we’re the “morally superior” ones with the skills to keep sex out of the picture until marriage. On the other hand we’re told we’re dangerous. If our bra strap shows, or our clothes are deemed to make us look too sexy, then we’re causing the prey-drive of the men around us to kick in and therefore we’re responsible if they go too far.

Like that slithering serpent of old, purity culture deceives us into blaming, shaming and hiding. Scripture, and the gospel tell men and women they both bear God’s image and they both receive the gift of being heirs with Christ of the kingdom he’s promised us. Rachel calls we who’ve tried using purity culture’s tactics of modest dressing and careful distancing from men in an attempt to be pure in God’s eyes, to see that our purity doesn’t come from our clothes, but from Christ.

Men

For men, purity culture paints a picture of manhood devoid of Christlikeness and pumped full of lust-steroids. Rachel calls those who’ve used the tactics of purity culture to excuse ungodly aggressive behavior from men and employ stereotypes to cast an image of biblical masculinity that’s lacking, to give those up for a gospel-born vision of men.

“Instead of teaching men to avoid women, a proactive strategy for battling sexual lust urges men to see women as neighbors,” who we are command by God to love as we love ourselves.

Rachel draws men to remove their personal-purity blinders and take a broad view of the community God calls his people to live in. She calls those tainted by the lust-focused weeds of purity culture to look up at the character of Christ and the gift he has given them as they put their trust in him.

There is a high view from which men and women should see themselves, and it is not the view purity culture has tried to produce through its rhetoric. God said he made man and woman in his own image. And Christ has given us his own spirit, his promised faithful love and he will never stop making us more like him. Welcher encourages men to look to Christ, their hope of glory right alongside their sisters, mothers, wives, and friends.

What Will I Tell My Kids?

This is the question that has haunted me from before I began reading this book. What will I tell my kids about what to believe about sex, marriage, girls, women, lust, porn, and abuse?

Call it coincidence, but even as I write this my senior in high school son walked in the door. I stopped to ask him for a few minutes of his time. I asked him if he feels like Jesus impacts his everyday life and relationships. His answer was, “Mom, I get told all the time by so and so (he named names) that my relationships should be about marriage. But I don’t think so mom. Yeah, I think Jesus wants me to treat others with respect and dignity, but I don’t think I have to think about marriage just because I like a girl.”

I was gobsmacked. He had no idea I was reading this book or writing this review. Listening to him, I realized, there’s a lot of pressure in our culture, whether from purity culture’s children (in high school with my son), or from the current spirit of the age, to conform to that culture’s idea of what relationships should look like. And as a mom, I don’t need to give my son a book or program, I need to spend time with him, listening to him, asking him questions and helping him remember Jesus.

As Rachel points out in her book, the message we give our kids about sexuality, marriage, singleness and the gospel is important. I know my tendency as an “of works” person with a “lawish” heart naturally wants to hand my sons a manual or a class or commitment that will keep them from the pain of sexual sin and idolatry. But it won’t work. If I want to give my sons a message that will not spring up life-choking weeds and breed disillusionment and confusion, I’ll leave the books and extrabiblical practices to the side and point them to the beauty of what Jesus has done for them.

My son confessed today that he doesn’t think about Jesus very much. I told him, “Well he thinks about you. A lot! And he likes you! He wants you! He’ll never give up on you! And I love you too.”

Rachel’s book exposes that at the bottom of all of purity culture’s “relational leveraging, fear stuffing, nervousness, score-keeping, neurotic-controlling and anxiety-festering silliness” you find a “gospel deficit.” ( a phrase from Ortlund’s book)

We all need people in the church to help us see when we go down the path our fallen nature is bent toward, trying to achieve godliness with our own methods. Rachel does that. And her book loves the Church in doing so. I for one am thankful to have read it at this time in my life. I needed to be redirected back to the gospel as the only hope and power for me and my sons.

  • References and quotes from Ortlund are taken from Gentle and Lowly- The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers by Dane Ortlund

A weight of glory

This morning before I headed out the door for work, when you were about to jump in your truck and drive to school, I looked up at your face anxious about what you don’t want to face, curious about what you won’t say until it’s too late and then you’ll want to find a way to make space for a debate-

and I grabbed your green eyes with my teary ones and laid a mantle on you like a weighted blanket. The kind they use for overstimulated senses. And I said,

“Son, you can run. You can deflect and avoid reflecting on the truth, but you were born to know the One who made you curious. You can’t get away. He’ll never stop pursuing you. He wants you.” And you rested.

Your shoulders settled. Your eyes relaxed. Your fingers stopped. And I stopped too. Stopped worrying about you for a minute standing under that weight of glory.

The question is, is Jesus worth it?

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Today at church we sang, “O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide. Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

As we sang, years of hard marriage and longings for good things I don’t have filled my eyes with burning tears. And a gentle voice asked my soul, “Is Jesus worth it? Is his blood really precious to you?” Tears broke over the dam of my resistant eyelids. “Yes, yes he is worth it. Yes his life spilled out for me is precious beyond measure. And yes I’ll lay down all that I long for and take your outstretched hand.”

Marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Relationship with anyone is hard. Life brings pain and suffering. Attempts to escape end up being our chains. And in all our efforts as Christians to follow Christ, the question is, is Jesus worth it?

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And what is that purpose? Romans 8:29 answers. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

God’s purpose for his people is to conform us to the image of his Son. God’s purpose for my life is to make me like Jesus. He may or may not attain that purpose through all the good things I long for. But God is going to use all the hard things in my life to make me more like Jesus. The question is, is that what I want? Do I want to be made like Jesus more than anything else.

If my husband never bends his knee to Jesus. If my sons never speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. If my home is never filled with songs and laughter. If my job continues to be hard and drain me of energy. If the ministry I lead never flourishes the way I dream it will. If I never get to do the things I long to do, but God makes me like Christ, is that enough for me?

1 Peter 1: 13-21 calls us to sober up because so often we’re intoxicated with ideas that aren’t reality. The truth of the Christian life is not that God is going to give you your best life now. The truth of the Christian life is that God is going to make you like Jesus. Whatever it takes! And so the question is, is the “precious blood of Christ” that has purchased my life and set me on a course of promised redemption- the final end being made like Jesus; it that worth it?

I want so badly to stand next to my husband on a Sunday morning and hear him sing praises to God with me. I so badly want my sons to walk with Jesus and experience his deep love for them. I so badly want to be fruitful in ministry and see my friends hope in Jesus with me. But if they don’t and if I spend my life loving them well, is Jesus worth it?

I’ve never seen this Jesus, but compelled by his love I cry, “Yes! Yes he’s worth it! Jesus is worth my life!” So, even if my life is grieved by longings unfulfilled, Jesus is worth spending my life loving these I long for well. To be like him eclipses all other longings. With Job I cry:

Oh that my words were written!
    Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
    they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.[b]
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    My heart faints within me!
– Job 19:23-27

And with the Psalmist I preach to myself:

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
    when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
– Psalm 17:15

The problem with starting over and the hope of redemption

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In the past weeks I’ve heard nearly the same quote from every weary person I’ve encountered, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over.” Today, the sun rose on 2021 and death, disease and evil are still among us. Even in us.

New years bring with them an idea that we can wipe our lives free of all the wrongs the previous year produced and start fresh with a clean slate. The problem is every new year brings with it the scars and thorns and weeds of the previous year. And I think more than any other year I’ve lived through, 2020 seems to have left us with a hope that maybe now that the calendar says 2021, we can all start over and things will be better.

We all have a desire to be whole. To be complete. To be healthy in our mind and body. To be happy and fulfilled. That desire is insatiable and drives us to look for something to help us get it. I’ve seen it in my own life and in the lives of those I love, the attempt to achieve wholeness by starting over with a new calendar year or attempting to wipe the slate of our lives clean by purging ourselves of difficult relationships. But it doesn’t work. The problem with that plan is we throw babies out with our dirty bathwater. We live in a broken world and even if the world around us was wiped clean of its brokenness, within us the same seed of brokenness is germinating, ready to spread its strangling seeds everywhere we go.

My teenage son, in his struggle to believe this message of Jesus dying for his sins, has asked me, “Why doesn’t God just destroy everything and start over? Why is he leaving us like this?“ He asks the question we’re all asking every time we try achieving wholeness with a new year or relationship, job or routine. 

God proved that wiping the slate clean or wiping the world clean of the evil we do to each other won’t rid the world of evil unless there are no people in the world. In the book of Genesis we read the flood story. God rid the world of people, save Noah and his family, but Noah and his family gave birth to corruption and people who gave birth to the evils of history we all are aware of.

I love a good purge. I like to clean, put things where they go, and make ideal lists and goals. The problem is… life and me. Relationships and the rhythms of our lives are impacted by the brokenness in all of us. Trying to make things better is good. But we can never start over.  

So what am I to do in my quest for wholeness? Redemption and resurrection is my only hope for wholeness. 

The idea of redemption is that something broken is purchased and made good or whole again. The Bible tells me that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection purchased my broken life. I now live in that regenerating truth. No matter what happens, Jesus will make all things work for me to make me whole, like Jesus. 

I believe in the resurrection. I believe Jesus is the life that has overcome death. And I believe his resurrection life lives in me.

There’s an image in the Bible that always helps me capture this hope of resurrection. The tree. In the Bible, God’s people are depicted as his plantings, as trees whose roots go down deep and wide into the rich soil of God’s grace, mercy, truth and love. This tree is growing in us through a seed of faith in Christ. And it’s becoming a tree so big and massive, with a root system so wide, no weed, no storm, no disease can choke it out.

What about justice you ask? Shouldn’t we try to make things better and get rid of disease and abuse and corruption? Yes! Yes we should. But the way to do it is through redemption and hope in resurrection. It’s not through vengeance. It’s not through killing off evil with another abusive evil. It’s through Christ’s redeeming love. It’s through a subversive hope. It’s through planting yourself among the thorns of this life, sending your roots deep down into the love of Christ. Do this and your life will plant seeds of faith all around you and spring up new life in that same soil, choking out the poisonous weeds among you.

It’s a vulnerable life Jesus calls us to. In contrast to the self-preserving life that throws babies out with bathwater and wipes slates clean and cuts people off- it’s dangerous and even deadly. But it is the only way. It is the way Jesus is making all things new.

 The hope for our wholeness and the world is not a flood, or vaccine, not a new president or technology. The hope for the whole world and our wholeness is not marriage or singleness or a better local church or routine. The hope for our wholeness and the whole world is Christ’s redemption and resurrection. If we live in his redemption nothing is in vain- no evil, no pain, no suffering, no sin, no loss, no destruction, no disease. If Christ is our resurrection one day His tree of life will choke out all the weeds.

This year

This year I watched the world burn
with anger and lies
I watched my sons wallow in the mire
and I prayed.

This year I watched my friends build theories about conspiracies
and I watched my neighbors wave their flags high.

This year I heard cries for justice from the least of us among us and felt strange disdain from those who I thought would claim the fame of Jesus and gladly refrain from blaming

…but they didn’t.

This year I heard a woman say, “I can’t bear the grief anymore,” while one side of her body tried to dragged her to the floor and I stood close and propped her up and helped her see the ones she loves through the window on the third floor.

This year I cried for deliverance
“How long,” can I keep asking you to grant repentance?

This year I felt overwhelmed by the throngs of elders left alone to let someone else find them shelter

and we stood by.

This year I sat next to Job and decided to shut my mouth and hold
his hand.

This year I opened my mouth and said, “Follow Jesus with me!” to the friend who cried not knowing what she could possibly do with her falling apart life.

This year I realized I couldn’t see past the thorn in my side and the plank in my eye and almost decided to give up.

But what? What is there to let go of except the delusion and illusion that this coming year or another person would bring Shalom.

This year made me long more for home
and King
and the ones he’s redeemed.

In me

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there’s a dancer

a singer

a crafter

a word-wielder

In me there’s a hospital builder

a wound washer

a home maker

a child discipler

In me there’s a shepherdess

a prophetess

a pianist

a lyricist

In me there’s a warrior

a defender

a rescuer

a runner

a strong-armed carrier

In me there’s a companion

a champion

a queen on her knees

making way for the weak

In me there’s a servant

a diligent worker happy to labor till the day

her King scandalously bows to say

“Well done. Be seated. Let me serve you, my beloved.”

Christ, in me. My hope of glory.

Whatever you do this Christmas

Come

with your indifference

with your mocking

with your doubts

with your questions

come with your lies

with your rejection

with your acceptance

with your imperfections

come with your health

with your doctrine

with your thoughts

with your past

come with your burdens

with your poverty

with your riches

with your fear

whatever you do just come near

to the king come to set you free