what holds us back: Galatians 4

IMG_4270

This is the home of the little matchstick girl by Hans Christian Anderson.  The image is drawn on the inside of the cover page in the edition I’ve had since I was a little girl.  Here is the first line:

IMG_4271

No one has bought any matches from the little matchstick girl all day.  She lost one slipper escaping a carriage.  A little boy ran off with the other.

IMG_4272

The little girl is afraid to go home because she knows her father will beat her for not selling any matches. So she kneels down in the snow and lights a match…  and she has a vision:

IMG_4273

 

The walls disappear, and she sees a feast.  The match goes out.  She lights another match, and she sees a beautiful Christmas tree.  The match goes out.  She lights another, and sees her Grandmother, the only person who was ever kind to her, who carries her up to heaven where there’s no cold or pain or little girls freezing to death alone in the streets with no one to notice.

It’s tragic.  And it was one of my favorite picture books as a child. But I don’t think it’s because I was a macabre child.  I think it’s because the story not only tells a deep truth about the disappointments of earth that children sense, but also points to the images of glory that can be found here.  It’s not just a story about how no matter how bad it gets down here on earth, there is always hope of heaven in our future.  That strain is there, of course, in the grandmother lifting the dying girl into the arms of Jesus, but it’s only part of the story.

One of the beautiful things Hans Christian Anderson did here was give this little girl an audience.  Every child who reads the story sees the little girl.  Every child cares.  Every child shivers in the cold with her.  Every child is outraged when she loses her slippers.  And most of all, every child is horrified that she can’t go home because she will be beaten for something that isn’t her fault.  In other words, children sense that by reading the story they are entering it, and that by entering they are helping.

In empathizing, every child also sees their own story reflected in hers.  Every child has been yelled at for something that wasn’t her fault.  Many children have been beaten for things that weren’t their fault.  Children know there’s something rotten in the state of the human heart.  Children sense that they were made to be treated the way the grandmother treats her – that we are all created to be loved, cared for, embraced and taken to a place of warmth.  Children read the story and sense we are all united in our pain but also in our need for love.

Another reason the story resonates on such a deep level, at least for me, is that it’s the gospel story.  Jesus was the poor outcast who was beaten and died alone for something that wasn’t His fault.  He died for all the many things we humans do wrong, every day.  His lonely death created a way for the rest of us to never have to be lonely again.

Jesus was, I think, the loneliest man who ever lived. When the woman at the well flirts with Him, and He tells her He can give her “living water,” she says, “hey, wait a minute.  I’ve heard there’s a Messiah coming.  Are you the Messiah?”

Yes, Jesus says.  I am.

It makes me cry.  Why?  Because it’s one of the few times someone sees Jesus.  It’s one of the first times someone has listened to Him.  She’s one of the first people who really understood who He was.  It’s not surprising that it took an outcast and marginalized person like the woman at the well to see Jesus.  Perhaps we humans have to be thrust outside the gates before we’re willing to look up to the heavens.  When we begin to realize that we are all the little matchstick girl, but that Jesus become the little matchstick girl on purpose to save us, we begin to realize the depth of God’s love for us.

The third and last way I think this story is one of tremendous hope – and the thing about it I loved best as a child – is the way the matches melt walls and show glimpses of glory.  Every struck match created magic.  In my experience, that, too, is part of the Christian journey.  God gives us incredible flashes of his glory if we’re willing to kneel in the snow and seek His light.  Sometimes He gives us visions or words.  Sometimes He speaks to us in a deep quiet knowing in our hearts.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the words of the Bible, making them come alive and pierce our hearts.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the kindness of a stranger.  Sometimes He speaks to us through friends or family.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the snow swirling in the sky or the wind whistling through the trees or the deep throated chuckles of a dove or the keening cry of a red tailed hawk.  Always His voice is heard, and sometimes it’s audible.

Those images of glory are the real story.  The darkness is not our story.  To hold onto the visions we see through struck matches is the story of faith.  To close our eyes to the darkness and hear the still small voice of love – or the great and roaring orchestra of the angels singing Holly, Holy, Holy – that is the hope that can sustain us through the cold and the dark and the inequities or the dread of going home looking like failures.

So what does that all mean for us?  It means that in this world, we can light a match of prayer and faith and see a vision of how things are through the lens of the gospel. We see, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once put it, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. He reminds us that when God looks at us, He sees not our failures but Jesus’ perfection.  And then the match dies out, and all we feel is our cold and loneliness and our sense that we are trapped.  We can feel like our own homes are places where we will be beaten – metaphorically and sometimes literally – for showing up empty handed.  We feel like there’s no one to help us and no hope.

But we have to hold onto the light.  We have to remember that God is the opposite of the father in that cold hovel.

God actually longs for us to come to Him empty handed.

Just as Paul says here that he is suffering “birth pangs until Christ is completely and permanently formed within you,” so Jesus died in labor.  Ga. 4:19.  He died to give us the new birth He tells Nicodemus about.  But instead of asking that we prove our worth in order to get this gift, He asks only that we come to Him humbly, knowing we can offer nothing worthy of true glory.  Human flesh can only give birth to flesh.  But the Spirit of God gives life to our spirits. And when we allow God to make us spirit filled, Paul says here we are like a desolate barren woman who breaks forth in a joyful shout, because we have “more children than she who has a husband.”  Gal. 4:27 (quoting Isaiah 54:1).  When we become born again with the living water of Christ, we become children of the free.  God’s Spirit in our hearts calls the Almighty God “daddy.”  Gal. 4:6.

And so it’s time to let go of all that holds us back from striking our last few matches.  The light God gives us is the light we all truly long for.  When we feel can’t sell a single match, God lights a flame in our hearts that will burn brightly forever.  When we lose our slippers, God tells us how beautiful are the feet that run to share the good news.  When we kneel in the snow and try to warm ourselves and fail, God whispers that He knows we can’t warm ourselves against the frost. We have to let go of the dark and see for the lie it is.  We can’t let the enemy “isolate” us.  Gal. 4:17.  Even when we feel alone, we are never alone.

Jesus is the Light of the World.  He is the love that we’ve always longed for.  He has good plans for our lives.  He has plans to prosper and not to harm us.  He promised never to leave or abandon us.  The visions that we see in the snow on the last day of the new year, are visions of how warm we can feel every day of every year, if we let Him in.  He wants us to open wide our doors.  He wants us to open our hearts.  He wants us to welcome Him in to dine with us. He wants us to remember that the lonelier we become, the more room there is for Him to fill us. That’s why the very snare the enemy sets for us can become the very thing that sets us free.

For if we turn to God in our pain instead of away, Jesus will be like that guest who gives us the never-ending pasta pot – the flask of oil that never runs out – the fire that never stops burning in our hearts, until it lights the whole world on fire with His love.  He welcomes us home, and His home is so capacious and warm and undemanding that the whole world is welcome.

And the snow and cold and unfair treatments can never hurt us again.

with love, Caroline Coleman, on the seventh day of the New Year.

on finding joy and hope in dating, marriage and divorce: 1 Cor 7 (and 6:13-20)

1 Cor. 6:15-7:40.  If you’re perfect, please don’t read this post.  It will tempt you to judge the rest of us.  But if you fall into the category of people who mess up relationships … take heart.

The first good news is that every marriage is over at “I do.”  The fat lady sings at every wedding.  Why?  Because two selfish people are agreeing to think of the other person first.  They’ll always fail.  So why is that good news?  Because we all have the same problem, and lots of marriages work, so there IS an answer.  So let’s look at some of the solutions for human frailty.  Ready?  Hold onto your hat (or chastity belt) because this chapter (and the end of the one before it) hits on EVERYTHING.

First, apparently there’s something especially hurtful about prostitution.  1 Cor. 6:13-20.   Paul invokes the language of marriage to say what happens when you sleep with a prostitute.  He’s implying that ALL sex involves an intimacy far deeper than most of us realize.  He implies that to sleep with someone you’re not married to is a kind of marriage.  So doing it actually rips our identities apart.  We’re supposed to honor God with our bodies.

What if we haven’t?  What if we don’t think we ever can?

The biblical answer to prostitution is to just stop.  Run.  Flee.  But the key here is to not HATE ourselves.  That’s probably what leads us down the wrong path in the first place.  We’re supposed to believe God forgives.  Pride can’t ask for help.  So we need to swallow our pride.  We can go out and learn how to have healthy relationships.

What about two people who are in love and can’t keep their hands off each other?  Paul says they should get married.  (“because of the temptation to impurity and to avoid immorality, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband.”  1 Cor. 7:2).  Paul thinks being single is a fabulous thing, and can give us space to serve God and get to know Him better.  But Paul recognizes that most of us get lonely.   For anyone who’s been in the dating scene long enough, and has yet to experience that urban myth of The One Night Stand that Became a Marriage, the idea of living in an 18th century world where men call women up, ask them out in advance, discuss their dreams, reveal their characters, demonstrate their communication skills, and prove that they’re willing to work with us so we can learn how to love each other better — and then drop to one knee and promise undying love, sounds awfully refreshing.

If we can’t seem to find the right person to marry, we should never give up.  If we’re a woman, we can take care of ourselves, look and act the best we can, get out there, and believe that if a man doesn’t want us, he’s not the right one.  If we’re a man, we can keep asking women out.  God is a matchmaker.  He made Eve for Adam.  He found Rebecca for Isaac.  He gave Boaz to Ruth.  Jesus turned water into wine for a WEDDING.  But we have to have hope.  Otherwise we’ll cling to the wrong relationships and try to MAKE them work.  All we’ll do is make ourselves miserable.  We need to let the wrong doors gently close, and trust God to open the right ones.

So what if we’re dating someone and we just don’t want to marry them?  What if we went into dating them with the best of intentions, but we find a disquietude in our hearts?  Paul says don’t tie the knot.  He says if you WANT to marry them, go ahead.  But if you don’t, you can break it off.  God gives us room to change our minds.  1 Cor. 7:36.  Dating is just dating.  We shouldn’t guilt ourselves into committing to someone.  God calls us to peace.  If we don’t have peace about something, we can’t do it.

Paul’s sex advice to the married is simple: have it.  He says it’s actually wrong to withhold sex from your spouse.  I can’t tell you the number of married people I hear complain to the world at large that their spouse won’t sleep with them. They announce it at parties, lunches, in crowded rooms, and at dinners.  Why do they expose their spouse like that? It’s because deep down they KNOW they’re being wronged.  They have an existential despair that won’t stay quiet.

So WHY do married people withhold sex from each other?  It’s generally not because of a low sex drive, but for a whole host of other reasons including: addictions; porn; obsession (with work, art, self, free time, children or any other thing we humans make idols of); rage; anxiety; depression; perfectionism; medications; blame; guilt; childhood abuse; a failure to separate from parents; hurt feelings that haven’t been discussed, apologized for and forgiven; an inability to know or articulate our needs; passivity; aggression; anger at parents; soul wounds; bitterness; holding grudges; being quick to take offense; a lack of empathy; a stubborn inability to consider another person’s viewpoint; and inappropriate boundaries with other people, male or female.

The world is full of hurting people.  And hurting people hurt people.

Jesus, the master of economy, sums up the problems in marriage with one phrase.  He said that Moses allowed divorce “because your hearts are hard.”  We humans get hard hearts toward each other, and it causes us to feel like we don’t “love” them.  It causes us to cut them off, sexually and emotionally.

So what’s the solution?  How do we prop up our marriages?  How do we similarly  strengthen intimacy and communication in all our relationships?

The first thing to recognize is that we can never MAKE someone love us.  We can’t make them be well.  We can’t control anyone else.

If we’re dating them and they don’t want to be with us, we let them go.  We don’t stalk.  We don’t harangue.  We don’t beg, plead, or devise schemes of walking past their desk or front door.  We don’t become best friends with their mothers.  We leave them alone and trust God to bring us someone better.

If we’re married to someone who doesn’t seem to love us, we can ask God to help us.  We ask him to help us keep loving them.  We can pray for them and trust God to bring good out of even the worst situations.  We can ask Him to give us a soft heart, even to someone who has a hard heart to us.

It’s in this spirit of not being able to control other people, I think, that Paul says here if our non-believing spouse wants to leave, we let them go.  If they want to stay, wonderful.  God will help us.  But if they want to go, there’s NOTHING we can do about it.  We let them go and cling to Jesus instead.   We’re to pour out our heart instead to God.  He is the Truth.  He will show us if we’ve been abandoned.  Denial is a useful short term coping mechanism, but God wants us to open our eyes.  If our spouse is outta there — even if he or she is a coward and lies and says they’re there for us, baby — we’re free.  And when we hear other people are getting divorced, we’re supposed to hug them, never condemn.

Having said that, if we’re the one with the hard heart toward our spouse — if we’re the ones who are dying to be alone or wish we could marry someone else —  there’s a cure.  There’s a heart softener.   If we hate the person we’re married to; if the very sight of them makes our skin crawl; if they put on their finest clothes and all we can think is that they’re ugly; it’s not over.  God knows how to make the unwanted wanted.  He’s in the business of softening hearts.  He can show us what we’re REALLY mad at, and I can promise you it has nothing to do with our spouse’s haircut.  It’s perhaps that they’ve hurt our feelings, legitimately or not, and we or they haven’t acknowledged it.  We haven’t felt listened to in a way that feels loving.  They’ve hurt us, and so we want to hurt them back.  One of the ways we humans do that is by despising the other person in our heart.

So if every other man/woman on the planet looks more attractive than our spouse, it doesn’t mean we need a divorce.  It’s just a clue.  It’s a sign to get going.  We can sign up for that couples counseling.  We can crack open our bibles.  We can watch the movie FIREPROOF.  We can read THE LOVE DARE.  We can watch Joyce Meyer every day on TV.  We can read Emerson Eggerich’s LOVE AND RESPECT.  We can ask our spouse out, and act as if we’re on a first date.  We can ask ourselves how we would talk to our spouse if we just met them, and do it.  We can remember our manners.   We can always say please and thank you.  We can focus on the good.  We can assume the best about their actions, every time.  We can ask why they do certain things, without rancor, and listen to their answers.  We can do all those chores they asked us to do.  We can stop stonewalling them.  We don’t wait for them to change first.  We take responsibility for the part WE can control.  As it says in the LOVE DARE, why do we think God gives us such incredible insights into our spouse’s faults?  It’s NOT so we can crunch them under our stilettos.  It’s so we can PRAY for them.  We can trust that God is the God of miracles.  He may or may not change our spouse.  But if we get on our knees and beg God to help us love our spouse again – watch out.  The heart he changes will be our own.

When I have relationship problems, I don’t ask my single friends for advice.  I’m worried they’ll say: CUT HIM LOOSE!!!  Instead, I ask my friends who have made their marriages work over 20+ years.  They always say the same thing, no matter which one I ask.  They tell me to be patient.  They empathize — with me AND the man I’m dating.  They remind me men can have trouble expressing their emotions.  They say that you get through the daily bumps by focusing on what you’re building together.  And they say again, be patient.  I sigh.  I know they’re right.  But I’m not so good at patient.

Which brings me to my last point.  For those of us who’ve messed up every single one of these helpful boundaries and guidelines provided for male female relationships, there’s the best news of all:

The cross.

There was one perfect person in human history.  He was God.  And He died because He KNOWS we mess up.  He just wants us to say we’re sorry and turn to His open arms.  God is the lover who never disappoints, no matter how often we do.  And if we let Him start to help us, we can celebrate our lives no matter what’s going on.  God always rejoices in our progress – even if it’s the smallest of baby steps.  Like sighing right now and asking for His help.

with love from Caroline, a fellow sinner who is as adored by God as you are.