Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Idea of Him

Last night, I walked into a worship service at church in which hundreds of people were singing in full voice to God.  I stood in the back and just listened to the words: “Jesus paid it all.  All to him I owe.  Sin hath left a crimson stain.  He washed it white as snow.”  I felt suddenly and unexpectedly overcome, believing something was penetrating the defensive shell I had grown during my day at work.  But then, a line from a movie I have seen many times came into my mind:   “You love the idea of me, but not me, not really.”  Then, my heart tightened slightly and I was reminded of being warned as a kid to look both ways before crossing the street or not to talk to strangers.  I had not done anything wrong, but was headed into something and I needed to be cautioned.   

I don’t know exactly what busy street or stranger-filled environment I’m walking toward, but I heard Jesus’ warning to me:  “Be careful about loving the idea of me instead of me.”  “Do not take your eyes off me.”  I started to feel alert and saw some things I had not seen before about where certain relationships or tasks could lead me, the hard-working, overachieving, perfectionist that I can be. 

Jesus has given me the tools to know the difference – the difference between loving the idea of him and loving him.  According to the exchange between Jesus and Peter after Jesus had been resurrected, to love Jesus means to take care of and feed his sheep and to follow him.  (John 21:15-19)  John said: “This is love for God: obey his commands.”  (1 John 5:3)  Jesus described the greatest command as a two-part command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:37-39)  Jesus lived how to love, so there is no ambiguity there.  Every person he encountered, he met with love, truth, and grace.  He touched the untouchable.  He ate with the uninvited.  He saw the invisible.  He heard the silenced.  His heart broke for the brokenhearted.  He opened his arms wide to have his wrists nailed to a tree, dying for the sinner.

I know what it is to love the idea of Jesus:  I love that he died for me.  I love his example.  I love his wisdom and his parables.  I love that he was able to engage with the least desirable of his time.  I love to tell the story of Jesus.  It’s fascinating.  I love to encourage others to live like him.  I love to hear stories of the people who have given up everything – not just possessions, but control – to follow him.  I love to read and learn about how to love him and how follow him. 

And I know what it is to actually love Jesus:  It is all of the above . . . but it is so much more.  It is dirty.  It is hands-on.  It is hard.  It can seem illogical.  It is not a list of rules that I can just check off and move on.  It is freedom.  It is life-giving and life-living.  It is purpose.  Every person I encounter, I meet with love, truth, and grace.  I touch the untouchable.  I eat with the uninvited.  I see the invisible.  I hear the silenced.  My heart breaks for the brokenhearted.  I care for and feed his sheep.  It is not a part of my life, it is all of my life.  I open my arms wide and I follow him wherever he goes and whenever he calls.

I find that loving the idea of him is easier and more comfortable, especially when I’m tired, worn thin, sick, lonely, hungry, removed, or busy.  So, he has warned me: keep loving me, not just the idea of me. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Book Never Intended For Me

Many months ago, a friend of mine gave me the John Ortberg book called “Love Beyond Reason.”  This past Friday, for whatever reason, I picked it off my crowded shelf and began reading.  By Saturday morning, I was 50 or so pages in and I went to get a haircut.  I took the book with me just in case I had to wait.  When I arrived, there was no line and I went to the available hairdresser pretty quickly.  Now, this haircut establishment is one of those in-and-out places.  I don’t mess around with salons typically because my hair is short and, well, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong.  Plus, I am generally not into talking while my hair is being cut.  I don’t know where this comes from because I usually enjoy conversations with complete strangers.  In any event, I put the Ortberg book and my purse on the counter in the little haircut stall area.  

“Whatcha reading?” the stylist asked me and before I could get any words out, picked up the book, looked at the back.  “Good?” she asked.   If you know me at all, you know that this question kicked me into gear.   To me, this is an opening to engage in a conversation that matters, not just one about weather and coupons and hair products.

“Yeah, it is good.  It’s about moving God’s love from your head to your heart.”  (This is what the cover of the book says.)  She nodded and seemed mildly interested.  We talked for the rest of the time about the fact that she prefers a traditional church service to the more modern services.  I listened to her and understood what she was saying, but got the sense that maybe she preferred the traditional service because she was used to it, but that she’d been struggling to really connect with God in her life.  We talked a bit about that and she acknowledged that it may have been the case.  But, she was a little hard to penetrate and I didn’t want to make her too uncomfortable, seeing as how we’d just met.  

When she finished my hair, I paid and left.  As I climbed into the car to pull away, I had this sense that I should just go ahead and give her the Ortberg book, like it might be what she needs.  I was not clear on it though, I felt unsure.  Usually, when I’m feeling prompted by God, I don’t sense much, if any, uncertainty, so I took note of the uncertainty and drove home.  I continued reading the book Saturday and then some on Sunday and Monday.  All the while, though, I had this nagging feeling that this book was never intended for me.  It’s not that I didn’t like the book.  I did, very much.  But something was off.  I have never had this feeling about a book.  Remember when you were a kid and you got your allowance, or found five bucks, and you could not wait to spend it?  We have a saying for this: the money “is burning a hole in your pocket.”  This is how I felt about this book!  Like I needed to give it away.

Yesterday, I got on a plane to Phoenix for a court hearing there.  I read the book much of the way.  Then, Tuesday evening, I was talking to a friend and told him the story of the hair stylist and the book.  I told him I thought I would take the book to her when I returned from Phoenix.  At the end of our call, he said, “Well, I can’t wait to hear what the purpose of your trip to Phoenix is.”  We hung up.  What he meant was that he couldn’t wait to hear what God’s purpose for my trip was.  He and I both knew there was one, but we didn’t know what it was yet.  I did have this lingering sense, way back in my mind, that the purpose had something to do with the book.

My hearing this morning went as predicted.  I got on an earlier flight home than anticipated and was at about 37,000 feet, finishing the last 10 pages of the book, when I realized the trip was coming to an end.  Perhaps there was no divine reason for the hours of flying and the evening in 106-degree weather after all.  I was in a middle seat and the woman to my right seemed bored and antsy.  She was well-dressed, very tan, in her 60s probably.  She played various games on her I-phone, closed her eyes, and looked out the window.  As I read the final few words in the book, I stole a glance at her and thought maybe I should tell her I finished my book, and ask if she might be interested in reading it.  Like I had been with the hair stylist, though, I was hesitant, unsure.  My hands started to sweat as I played this out in my mind, wondering what she might say, whether she would think this was a ridiculous idea.  She would think I was a little nuts to even talk to her.  The best plane etiquette, everyone knows, is to keep quiet.    

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder for another two hours without words and she continued to bounce from one activity to another.  I couldn’t pull the trigger, couldn’t find the words.  We landed and pulled up to the gate.  We stood up with the “ding” of the seat belt sign and as we were standing there, I turned to her and said, “I finished my book.  Any interest?”  This was the best I could come up with.  She asked what it was and I showed it to her, telling her, “It’s about God’s love.”  She pushed her hand toward me and said, “No.  No thanks.  I’m not into religious stuff.”  I said, “Oh, sure.  No problem.  Just thought I’d ask.”  “We are going to need a lot of love from God, though,” she said.  Unsure of what she meant and with no more time to discuss it, I muttered, “Yes.  Have a good visit here.”  We parted.

And still I had this book with me.  And still it was burning a hole in my pocket.  The reality was, though, that there were not likely to be any more encounters.  I’ve done the arrival at O’Hare deal many times and after I step off the plane, there are no more conversations.  The path is clear: walk through Terminal C, down the escalators, through the colorful, moving walkways, back up the escalators and through Terminal B, down the escalators to the baggage claim area, down another set of escalators to the parking garage, more moving walkways to elevator center 3, out the doors, to the car.  And this is precisely what I did today.  

I pulled up to the parking attendant window to pay the exorbitant O’Hare overnight rate and caught a glimpse of Antoinette, a young, African-American woman in a blue or black uniform.  I couldn’t tell because her booth was dark.  Her name tag was posted outside the window.  I handed her my parking ticket and credit card.  Keep in mind that no one ever talks to the parking attendants.  Okay, I’ll speak for myself: I don’t.  Not for any malicious reason, but usually by this point in my trip, I’m anxious to get home, the price tag is always so high and I tend to think the parking attendants set the rates (they clearly don’t), and there is always a long line of cars behind me.  Anyway, as I handed her my parking ticket, I noticed something.  She was reading a book.  Before I knew it, the words were out of my mouth, “What are you reading?”  She looked startled and kind of mumbled the title.  I heard only “Terry McMillan.”  

“Is it good?” I asked.  Now she was looking at me.  Something passed between us.  Something like: “Hey, we’re both human beings and we can talk to each other.  How cool!”

“Well, I just started it.  I’m only on page two.”  Then she offered a beautiful smile.  Really.  I suddenly felt drawn to her presence.  She returned my credit card and receipt.

“Are you looking for more books?” I asked.  This time, I felt no hesitancy in my spirit.  I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the book.  “I finished this one on the plane.  Want to give it a try?”  I handed it to her and she looked at it, flipped it over.  “It’s about God’s love,” I said.  

“Oh,” she said, “Yes, thank you.  Thank you so much.”  Again, with the amazing smile.  Again, something passed between us.  Love, I think.    

“You’re welcome,” I said and drove away.  Tears came into my eyes, as I understood what I believed to be God’s purpose for my trip to Phoenix.

That book was never intended for me.  And it wasn’t intended for the hair stylist or the lady next to me on the plane.  It was for Antoinette.  I don't know why.  I don't know what impact it will have.  I only know that it was intended just for her.