Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tools in the Hands of The Master

I write a lot about control... our lack of control, how the demand for control hurts us, etc.  There are things we do have some semblance of control over, and then there are things we have no control over.  For example, we have reasonable control (one would hope) over our own actions.  We do not generally have control over outcomes, however, and we most certainly do not have control over someone else's actions.

This becomes particularly frustrating when your life situation is such that you are forced to deal with people who are something of a thorn in your side.  They are not respectful.  They are passive-aggressive.  They are manipulative.  They are gossips.  They look for opportunities to push your buttons in front of others as way to try and establish their alleged dominance.  And yet... for one reason or another, they are part of your life.

I've wrestled with this kind of situation a lot.  Anger is the typical response.  Anger at them, anger at myself (perhaps for feeling like I should have handled something differently), but if I am honest, there's a lot of anger toward God.  There is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, like in spite of what I do to establish and improve my life, this person is always there to throw a wrench into it or exploit my weaknesses.  They are there to be a thorn in your side, to make sure nothing goes smoothly, to be like a fly in your face.  The demand for "control", to finally have your life be the way you want it, is strong... and that is where a lot of bargaining ("God, haven't I dealt with this enough?") and resentment come in.

But this is also where the demand for control only hurts us.  Perhaps the first step we must learn is that our life is not our own and that we can rest and leave in the hands of God all things, particularly the things and people we cannot control.  God will deal with them.  In good time, He will.  And in the meantime, He is perfecting you through suffering.  They are an unwitting tool in the hands of the Master.  Every manipulative, selfish, childish, harmful, abusive thing they do, though itself bad, is ultimately just helping you become more like Jesus.  All of the chaos and peacelessness they sow in your life is ultimately a tool in God's hands to bring you to a place of greater inner stability and peace.

That is one of the great victories through the cross.  No matter what the enemy does, the Lord of all things uses it to accomplish good: to redeem, to perfect, to establish, to love, to save, to embrace, to embolden.  They may laugh at the moment, but God gets the last "laugh" with everything they have done.  Every selfish act, every passive-aggressive word, every ego-centric power-play is ultimately a gift to make you more into who God wants you to be, a gift to perfect you.

Not only can I learn to accept that I don't have control over this person or these situations, it is my hope to find peace and joy within it.  Rather than seeing these people as giants who can thwart and diminish all my plans, I can see them as both the sad fools and unwitting instruments of my redemption that they really are.  I can see them as tools in God's plan for me, and though I may not like it one bit, I can receive them from His hand.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Stigma of Online Dating

Though online dating (or as I would like to call it, "online meeting") is clearly here to stay, connecting countless people who are looking for new relationships, for many there is still a stigma attached to it.  I have experienced this personally.  I've used online dating sites before, and I've hidden it from my best friends because of the stigma attached.  Am I right to feel that way?  Are people right to look down on online dating?

I don't believe so...

Usually there are handful of negative connotations associated with using online dating sites...

1. Online dating sites are for people who are losers or who are "desperate."  You don't need an online dating site.  The right one will "come" when the time is right.

Reply:  If you are a full-time working adult who has children, how exactly will the right one "come" along?  You aren't 19 years old any longer.  Depending on the person, their lifestyle, and their situation, the potential for meeting new people who are looking for partners for long-term relationships drops off significantly.  So it makes you desperate because you use a tool that helps you meet other people who are looking for the same thing?  It makes you desperate because you don't want to rely on having a chance-meeting of your "soul-mate" at a grocery store, like in a movie, and you don't want to wait to get invited to a big party that has lots of level-headed, single, respectable members of the opposite sex (you know...those parties that either don't exist or which you rarely get invited to)?  Maybe you are at a place in life where you want to find a new partner but haven't the foggiest idea, due to your life situation, of how to meet one.  Guess you're stuck, then...  or you could do something so unbelievably degrading: join an online dating site.  Seriously, who are others to judge you?  Don't let them put their own hangups on you.  Sorry, that is crap.

2. Online dating sites attract weirdos.  You aren't going to find quality people in online dating sites.

Reply:  And you aren't going to find weirdos at bars, night clubs, or parties?  So what if you joined an online dating site?  Does that prove this wrong, by proving that there is at least one non-weirdo and therefore probably other decent people out there, or does the act of joining an online dating site prove that you actually are a weirdo (see #1 above)?  Online dating is certainly not the same as meeting people in person, and people may be able to "hide" things better at first, but the reality is that you bump into "weirdos" every day because everybody hides things about themselves.  It takes discernment and listening to your gut when it comes to letting anybody new into your life, regardless of how you meet them.

3. Online dating sites are superficial.  People just post pictures to get noticed.

Reply:  And again... you don't get that at bars, night clubs, parties, or really in any social setting?  Of course you do.  People go out and want to look nice.  And when that guy or girl notices you from across the room, is it because they noticed your personality or your face?  You can call that superficial all you want, but that's how it is.  Online dating is no exception.  But lots of people opt to not post photos of themselves for this very reason (among others).

4. I've heard horror stories of people who used online dating.

Reply:  Let's say it one more time... And you haven't heard horror stories of absolutely crazy and terrible relationships from people who met in other ways?  And nobody lied about themselves before online dating?  Riiiiight.  Online dating is a portal to meeting new people.  That is not going to change how people are.  People are all sinners with baggage -we are inherently complicated and dysfunctional (and because of the decline of our culture, we are probably getting worse).  Welcome to real life.  That has nothing to do with online dating.  Online didn't make them dysfunctional or immature.  It didn't make them rush into things blindly and foolishly.  That happens pretty well on its own, doesn't it?

Using a tool that sets you up with others who are single and looking does not take away the need to use your brain.  There are risks -some of those risks inherent to online dating, but many of them involving common sense.  You need to be careful with what information you share with people whose character you really don't know.

I'll admit one thing.  You can probably get a more informed initial impression of someone by meeting them through other more traditional routes.  That goes without saying.  But online dating is for discovering new people before you meet them in person.  It sets up an opportunity, a possibility, nothing more.  You get to decide what criteria are important, and it affords you the ability to learn some things about the other person before you meet them in person.  Maybe you won't waste your time after reading that they smoke or have 8 children.  Maybe, after listening to them freely offer up nasty information about their ex, you decide they aren't for you.  But if they pass through your deal-breakers, maybe they are working chatting with and maybe meeting in person at some point.  Again, you have to use your brain, your discernment, and your intuition just like with the rest of life and making life decisions.  Sorry, yeah... I knew you were hoping you didn't have to.

The bottom line is this.  Once you have kids and get settled into a family and a career of some sorts, your social circle loses much of its potential to expand.  If you are lucky, you wind up with a handful of close friends who are more like family to you, but the rest of your time is spent taking care of your children and working 40-plus hours a week to support them.  If you are lucky enough to go back to college, you will find yourself able to meet many more people, but how many of them are potential long-term friends or mates?  Most of them, if you are in your mid-30's for example, are much younger than you, usually don't have children, and are overall far less mature.

Therefore, as a late 20-something, 30-something, or 40-plus adult, your social opportunities for building relationships and meeting new people become generally limited to:

1. Your workplace -Many employers have policies prohibiting the dating of fellow employees, though you may meet new people who are friends of fellow employees.  If you work from home or don't work for a company with lots of opportunities like this, this is something of a dead end.

2. Your church -And that is only if you go to a small church or do something like join a home-group.  Are you really going to meet someone new and ask them to coffee during the 2-minute "greeting" time before the sermon?  Probably not.

3. Bars and night clubs -Really?  That is so much better than online dating?  Reality check.

4. Your childrens' school -You may meet other parents who are single or become friends with other parents who have single friends.  Possible, but not easy.  Unless your children "play" together, you usually don't get to know other parents very well.

5. Neighbors or existing friends -You meet neighbors and friends of neighbors, or bum off the ever-expanding social circles of your current friends. 

So maybe in your situation these five spheres above don't offer you very much by way of meeting new people.  And maybe there are other factors that get in the way and limit things even more.  What on earth is wrong with adding in another way to help you meet someone new, someone who is looking to meet someone new, as well?  Is it really so much worse than drinking another beer so that you can have the "courage" to go talk to that person at the bar?  Give me a break. 

Besides, I hope that I have demonstrated how online dating is not a crutch to begin with.  It is a tool to open up possibilities that your life situation may not currently have.  You weren't supposed to be 38 years old and single.  Your life was supposd to be settled.  That's why it is hard to find new people.  But here is one of many valid ways to find others looking for the same thing.

I say let the stigma die.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sunny Saturday

This is a world with amazing good in it.  But it is also a world with unspeakable evil and suffering in it.  How can these be reconciled?  How can sense be made of it?  I don't believe it can in this life. 

This is the world of the Nazi gas chambers, after all.  Whenever I am down, whenever I feel like there are things going on in my life that seem beyond my control, that seem to linger endlessly, I am tempted to turn inward in despair and fury. 

But then I remember the picture to the left.  I remember how those people sat in those concentration camps and watched their friends die in horrible, horrible ways.  Maybe they were next.  What could these people have done to stop it?  Nothing.  No self-help book could help them put up better boundaries or assert their way out of it.  No quaint, clever little sayings could help them "look on the bright side of things."

Thankfully, most of us will never have to endure what those poor souls endured in that hell on earth.  But we will all suffer in some way.  Sooner or later, it will come to us.  And we seldom have much input into how severe or how long it will be. 
So the same truth resounds for each of us.  If our view of life and the world does not accomodate suffering in some way, we will be perpetually frustrated and unable to cope with real life.

Now, to say that we must "accomodate" suffering is complex.  We should never say that suffering itself is good.  It is no friend to welcome in.  Nor should we come to some sort of defeated, apathetic position where we let it trample us as we pretend that it doesn't exist.  But we do need to have a realistic view of this world: it will never be heaven on earth.  With all of our great plans for the life ahead of us, if we do not have "room" for suffering in it, and if we cannot conceive of how suffering is a pathway to something better, then we will not deal well with suffering well when it comes... and it will come. 

Instead, we will crumple. Or we will destroy ourselves and others.  See, if life is only "life" if it is free from the negative influences and possibilities that the world has to offer -or in other words, if life is only "life" when it is always on our terms- then it will not take much for us to feel that our "life" is ruined, not worth living, and not much of a "life".

We can go around living in constant guard, like a caged animal, saying, "I can't let that happen," or "I can't let them do that to me," and we may or may not be able to prevent it.  But we will kill ourselves with the worry and anxiety.  We will crush ourselves with bitterness and a demand for control.  And for what?  Life is still life... even if those things do happen.  We can learn to live in parallel with the downsides of life.  We must if we want to survive and live in a way that is a blessing to God, ourselves, and others.  Praise God, you aren't standing in a gas chamber.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jehovah's Witnesses

I've changed over the years, and sometimes I get a pretty stark picture of it.  A moment ago, while sitting in my car at the park, sipping coffee and setting about my work on my computer, a very pleasant older woman gently said "good morning", tapped on my window, and offered to give me some literature.  I already knew what it was... an Awake magazine and a copy of The Watchtower.  She, and the woman sitting in the driver's seat of their little red compact car, were Jehovah's Witnesses.

Over the years, I've done a lot of research about them.  I do believe they are a cult.  I do believe they have some screwy and wrong beliefs.  And my ex wife's mother is a Jehovah's Witness.  But you know what?  I love her, still.

Some years back, I would have either refused the literature or taken it and tried to debate with the woman.  And then later I would have joked about saving the magazines for when I run out of toilet paper or need some kindling to start a fire or something like that.  But I didn't.  Why?

Well, I think there are lots of reasons.  I knew I was not in a position to stop working and have a long conversation with her.  I knew I didn't even have the energy.  I knew I was not going to sit there and debate the Trinity or try to tell her how the Watchtower organization is a fraud.  And what I saw was a woman, a very pleasant woman, who was just trying to do the right thing and tell people about God.

Despite the freaky things about them, I've got to hand it to them... they take it seriously.  There is something to admire about that.  And this woman did not come across as a stereotypical cold, dour legalist.  She was happy.  Sweet, even.  So, strangely, I admire her for having the conviction to do what she believes is right, even to disturb a stranger in the park to tell him "good morning" and hand him some literature.

And we had a short conversation about nothing at all, and we laughed.  And it humanized her.  She is just a woman, just like I am just a man.  She laughs, cries, feels joy and pain, gets up in the morning and gets dressed and eats breakfast, has friends, and falls asleep at night. 

So, from one person to another, even though I disagree with her, I wish her peace.  The gravity of the matters she disagrees on are not necessarily small.  I'm not saying truth doesn't matter.  I'm saying that I believe you need to be able to chill out and pick your battles and appreciate people for who they are and where they are at.  And you need to be able to recognize when someone is trying to love you, even if it is misguided.

Maybe I'm getting too fluffy in my old age :).  Maybe I should be warning her of God's impending judgment.  I don't know.  But at that moment, I just took what she had to give, her gift which she really believes is something good for me, and I appreciated it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Untitled Monday Morning Thoughts

People will do bad things to you.  They will treat you unfairly.  They will manipulate you.  They will push your buttons so that you look and act as the fool while they smell like a rose. 

And you really can't control it.  You can become wiser to stay away from them, but you really can't stop them, not completely.  Even the best of us fall prey to the games and manipulations of others.  And then we feel as fools for letting them twist their tendrils into us and control the situation. 

They enjoy showing their dominance.  They get a thrill out of seeing that they can still provoke the reactions they want and make things look the way they want.  They love the rush of feeling in control.  They make themselves tools in the hands of the enemy, for control and bondage are the of the system of the evil one.

It is frustrating and disheartening when you do your best and you still get this kind of garbage.  We may even begin to wonder... what's it all for?  What am I here for?  What does God even want me to do?

But the cross of Christ is proof that you don't need to "win" all the time to be doing what God has called you to do.  In fact, sometimes God's calling involves losing painfully.  To be even more blunt, sometimes the fact that you are a target is because of what you are doing right rather than what you are doing wrong.  If it was such with Jesus, are we greater than our Master?  Who can bear such a cross?  Who will bear such a cross?

And the cross of Christ shows us something else.  It shows us that letting go of control is where you find life.  On the other side of that death is resurrection.  When you sit and fume over what they did to you.  When your pride is wounded, you think to yourself, "To me?  How could they do that to me?!  I must be so clever and smart as to never fall for it again, to never let them get the better of me again!"  But you only set yourself up for a fall, making yourself even more guarded, more sensitive to their ploys and to the fear of losing the control you demand to keep.  So you become even more susceptible, even more reactive.  However, when you realize that this 'death' is an opportunity for death to self, an opporunity to let go of your iron grip on how you think things ought to go, you can bear it with more finesse.  See, when you die in this way, when you die to that control, you are not letting them "get away" with what they are free to do anyway.  You are freeing yourself from the burden of needing to find a way to win at their game -a game which is rigged to begin with, and you are freeing yourself to refuse to play it.

Let them try to hook you to argue with them.  Let them.  They may anger and humiliate you in a moment, but they only make themselves look as the fool and the aggressor.  And since you do not need to win at their game, you can choose to ignore it and bear the sting of their childish tantrum.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


I've spent many, many years trying to control my life.  I've spent many years with an agenda, a plan of how I thought -even demanded- things should go.  And you know what?  It didn't pan out.  Sometimes, many times even, it only made things painfully, inextricably worse. 

And I noticed something... a gulf grew between me and God.  Sometimes I would notice that I am angry with Him.  Other times I would notice how little I felt of His love, which I scarcely felt most of the time as it was.  Was this a test?  Was He holding out on me?  Was He mad at me because I was mad at Him?

Here's what I've found.  His love is there, like a steady stream, but I am the one who puts his hands up, refusing to receive it, demanding everything be on my terms.  And in so doing, I blind myself to it, I close off my senses to it, which only sends me deeper into my sense of isolation and self-sufficiency... to try to do things on my own, on my terms, to control my life on my terms, to control the interaction with others on my terms, all the more.

Now some people who have been through hardship believe that self-sufficiency is a good thing.  They confuse self-responsibility with self-sufficiency, however, because it is one thing to take responsibility for the decisions you've made in your life, but it is quite another to believe that your decisions control the course of your life.  They play into it, certainly.  But the decision of another person can just as easily (sometimes more easily) alter the course of your life permanently, and there is nothing you can do about it.  Then add in disease, tragedy, accidents, your own mistakes, acts of God, etc.  Truly, the only way you could reasonably hold that theory together is to shack yourself up in a hut way up in the woods, away from everybody and hopefully away from most natural disasters. 

And there, in that self-sufficient bastion of control, you would die.  You would die because that control kills, and it removes from you the ability to do the one thing you were made to do:  receive love, particularly love from the Lord of all.  The tragedy of trying to control life, and relationships, on your own terms is that you destroy the "life" in them.  You destroy the possibility of truly receiving, and receiving with gratitude and peace.

It is like the "ring of power" in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.  It has a certain draw to it, an allure.  You can put it on and even disappear for a while, hiding behind people-pleasing and pleasant smiles, numbing your real feelings out for the sake of keeping things the way you want them to be or the way you wished they would be.  But it only kills you and everything around you.  It only opens you to dark, dark things.  It offers you only a lie.  And you cut yourself off from the love of the One, the Source, who made you to receive His love.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lutheran versus Reformed?

Do you know what I think the main difference between Lutheran and Reformed is? 

Sacraments?  No.  But that's true -they do view the sacraments differently. 

Still, I think it is this...  The Reformed emphasis, aside from being on the sovereignty of God, is similar to many other branches of Christianity -it is on us loving God.  We need to love God.  We search our hearts for what we love more than God (idols).  We confess how much we don't love Him as we ought.  We hear sermons about loving God for who He is rather than for what He gives us.  And sometimes we even try to make it Christ-centered by emphasizing the active and passive work of Christ in loving God perfectly as our substitute and dying for our failure to do so.  And that is all good.

But the Lutheran emphasis is different.  It has a different flavor.  It is mainly on God loving us.  The classical Lutheran tradition emphasizes God's love for us and how our biggest problem is in accepting that, in truly being open to that, in truly putting down our hands that want to do so much, to prove so much, to work so much, and to actually rest in His love, to allow Him to embrace us.  Rather than emphasizing our pursuit of Him, the classical Lutheran emphasis is on His pursuit of us, almost exclusively. 

You may be a Reformed person and disagree.  "Hey, we emphasize that, too."  Some do, sure, but that is not the predominant personality in my experience. 

But the Lutheran personality is something I appreciate more than I can explain in words in this brief post.  That sentiment, that paradigm, reflects my greatest area of poverty.  My greatest area of poverty is not in my religious zeal but in my inability to shut up and let God love me, my inability to allow Him to pursue me on His terms rather than constantly insisting on mine.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Making Alive

"Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself." (Jesus' words from John chapter 5)

"And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." (Jesus' words from John chapter 6)

What is the purpose of love?  What is love intended to do?  A typical Christian response might be to say that the purpose of love is to "serve another."  There is some truth to that, but that doesn't really answer the question.  That tells us what love does, but it doesn't tell us what love is intended to do.

Love purposes to make alive.  It purposes to call out and raise up the other person, to raise them up to life.  Jesus knows this, and in the end His love will be effectual for all those who are His.  He will literally call them out of death and raise them up.  That is the purpose of love.  That is what it is ultimately designed to do. 

We were created as communal, relational creatures.  Once God created Adam, the first thing he said was "It is not good for man to be alone."  He made us to live in relationships where we each call to one another and raise each other up with our love, just as He does with us.

This is why saying that love is to "serve" is insufficient.  When you serve someone and it falls on deaf ears, it hurts.  But why does it hurt, then?  Are you being selfish?  Are you attaching too many strings?  In some cases, perhaps.  But in the bigger picture of things, it hurts because you know that love is intended to make alive, and if the other person is deaf to it, that hurts.  You're love has fallen to the earth, and they have not turned their face toward you.

And yet these are the sufferings of God, the sufferings of Christ in this world.  When we know this kind of pain, we know a glimpse of His.  His sufferings are not a general, "Oh, look at how unhappy I am with what little Jimmy said to his mother."  His sufferings are ultimately about disappointed love.  The suffering of Christ in this world is literally about loving and forgiving the world and having the the world be indifferent toward His love, shun Him, and/or ultimately seek His death. 

This is the incredible beauty and the potential tragedy of love.  Love is to make alive.