how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6

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Thank you, President Putin.  We the American people appreciate that you’ve reminded us to follow the rule of law.   We agree that sometimes governments in power can set up their opposition.  We value your reminder to use diplomacy first.  We agree that the shedding of innocent blood must be avoided at all costs.  We look forward to working together to try to help the Syrian people resolve their own internal conflict.  We say Amen to your admonition that God created us all equal.  Finally, we’re so glad that you recognize the positive power of freedom of the press, a freedom that enabled you to write a letter to us in today’s New York Times.   “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” by Vladimir V. Putin

President Putin’s letter to the American people reeks so strongly of hypocrisy that I nearly gagged from the fumes seeping in under my apartment door when I woke up this morning.  And yet the above is how I imagine Dale Carnegie might recommend responding to President Putin.  Why?  Because Carnegie knows that responding with humility accomplishes far more than lashing back in pride.  He knows the value of losing a battle in order win the war.

BBC World News posed the question this morning: do the American people WANT the Russian President telling us what to do?  It’s the wrong question.  Why?  Because in the battle of good against evil, we need to keep our eye on the prize.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Paul makes the stunning claim that it is better to be cheated than for a Christian to sue a fellow believer in a civil matter.  Read 1 Cor. 6.  It’s the kind of claim that sends shivers up our litigious American spines.  Seriously?  You mean if a Christian sister steals your money, you’re not supposed to sue her in a secular court?  Yes, that’s exactly what Saint Paul says.  He’s not against all legal action.  In Acts 22 and 25 he appealed to the Roman courts for his rights.  So why this advice here?  His reasoning is that when Jesus comes back, the Christians will judge even the angels.  So Paul asks: is there not even one Christian person who can fairly judge between Christians?  Why would a Christian assert their rights before someone who doesn’t respect or submit to the laws of God?  Paul says Christians should try to work these matters out amongst themselves, and to find an honest Christian arbiter, and if that’s not possible, it’s better to be cheated. God is the ultimate judge of wrongdoers, and Paul provides a long broad list of behaviors God rejects unless they’re covered by the cross.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus making the same kind of stunning claims as Saint Paul.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give to anyone who asks.  When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.  Luke 6:27-30.  These claims come bang up against our pride.  But our pride is based on the lie of our perfection. As Paul says, the reason we should let things drop if we have to, is that we’ve cheated other people, too.  The truth is that we’ve all hurt other people and taken things from them unjustly.  Sometimes we take their boyfriends and girlfriends, or even their spouses.  Sometimes we take their reputations.  Sometimes we take their belongings.  Sometimes we take their self-esteem.  We rob them of their dreams, dash their hopes and yell at them for being too sensitive when they protest.  When we realize we’ve done these things, we fling ourselves on God’s favor, mercy and goodness to release us from guilt.  We rely on the cross alone.  If we’re honest, we can never rely on our perfection.  And so we, in turn, would be fools not to offer that kind of forgiveness to others.  Who wants to live in a world of pure justice?  None of us would survive.  We need a world of grace.

Grace leads us even deeper into the heart of the matter.  The reason we can follow this off-putting advice about allowing ourselves to be cheated in certain circumstances, is that God’s grace proves to us we can trust God.  We grow to trust God more and more, the more we take in how kind He is.   We start to rely on God to rescue us.  And if God says we’re not to sue a fellow believer, and that we’re instead to try to get a Christian to judge between us, we’re to trust Him to bring good out of that situation.

Which brings us back to President Putin.  What’s our goal in Syria?   Is it a zero sum game, where either the Russians or the Americans win?  Or is the goal truly to help minimize evil in the world by using our influence to persuade governments to not kill their own citizens, and especially to never use chemical weapons?  If so, the kind of forgiving nature God calls us to counsels that we get off our high horse in the interest of achieving the greater good.  In this conflict the Russians have to date stymied our ability to work within the UN Security Council.  The fact that President Obama’s red line in the sand means there now seems room to maneuver within the diplomatic channels means that the most powerful thing President Obama can do right now is agree with the Russians.  Of course, everything Putin says is pure hypocrisy, but who cares?  ”What a GREAT idea!” our President can say to the Russian President.  ”I’m so glad you appealed to God and the law.”  And together, they can try to wipe out chemical weapons from the face of the planet, as difficult as that may be in practical terms.

Why do we Americans want to help the world?  Here is where we get to the worst thing President Putin said.  Putin is right to say that all are equal before God.  But he’s wrong to say that therefore none can claim to be exceptional.  It’s the other way around.  God sees us each as exceptional.  As Paul says, our body is as exceptional as God’s body.  We are all exceptionally loved by God.  How do we know?  Because God loved us so much, that even though we weren’t obeying His laws, God chose to be unjustly tortured and killed to set us free from the consequences of our sins.

That’s why the letter God wants us to worry about isn’t a letter written by any human hands.  We should pay no heed to those letters that point fingers and tell us what we’ve done wrong.  God wants us to tear up those letters of the law.  Instead, God asks us to look at His hands.  His liberating love for each of us is engraved there. His love letter to us is the one our hearts cry out for every day, in every way, in every hurt, injustice, crime and poison.  It’s the only letter worth reading, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the message of love there, we will find ourselves responding with humility instead of pride because our hearts have been melted down into rivers flowing with tears of repentance and gratitude.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love… and sometimes war

when we feel lost: Luke 15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

read Luke 15.  What does it mean when we say we feel lost?  It means we have lost our bearings – either literally or metaphorically.  Being lost doesn’t exist as an isolated state.  It implies that we have lost some thing, place, person or sense of purpose.  Being lost means that we have lost something to which we belong.

We all love belonging – as long as it doesn’t smother us.  But most things in life to which we belong are transient.  Life involves a constant leaving.  We are always on the move, always leaving people, places and things.  Sometimes we choose to leave.  Other times the choice is forced upon us.  Some losses are good and right. Children are supposed to leave home.  Adults are supposed to leave their parents when they marry.  Some losses are tragic.  Children are not supposed to die before their parents.  Marriages are supposed to last.  Limbs are supposed to stay attached to our bodies.  Other losses are annoying.  Hair is supposed to keep growing on top of our heads.  Our skin is supposed to stay smooth and clear.  Jobs are meant to be kept.  A sense of purpose is supposed to accompany our days.  But it doesn’t, not always, and not forever.  The things to which we feel we belong – the groups, organizations, and associations – are always changing, always shape shifting, always evaporating just as we reach out to grasp them.

All change, even change for the better, involves loss.  Life on this planet, therefore, involves daily, weekly, monthly and yearly losses.  Tiny and tremendous griefs punctuate our days.  It’s no wonder that we all feel a little lost.  The miracle is that we don’t feel completely lost, all the time.

In addition to all of our definable losses, we also have a vague sense of feeling lost for no discernible reason – a feeling that dogs us each day.  We will have just a momentary pang – a “who am I, and why am I here” kind of a feeling.  This sense of being lost can be fleeting, or it can linger, depending on our circumstances.  We can hide from the feeling.  We can bury it in work or play.  But a certain wistfulness creeps up on all of us and just makes us stop and wonder.

While we think being lost like this is a bad thing, it may not be.  There’s nothing wrong with anything that causes us to stop and wonder.  Knowing that everyone feels this way helps, too.  Sometimes, we are lost.  We have lost our way, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, who spends his entire inheritance in wild living.  We can lose our family, so engrossed in our own pursuits we have made no time for the less “exciting” but none the less real people to whom we’re related.  We can lose touch with reality, so high on our own achievements, goals and dreams, that we start to slip into the delusional thinking that we’re more important than other people.  We can lose our love for other people, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus tells these stories – so trapped in their self-righteousness they are furious Jesus eats with sinners.  It strikes me that the religious leaders’ anger stems from the fact that they know Jesus is right, and yet they feel completely unable to do anything about their self-righteousness.

And so when Jesus tells these angry people three stories of loss, it is heartening to know that in all three stories, the thing that was lost was found.  The shepherd found the lost sheep.  The woman found her lost coin.  And the prodigal son found himself – and in so doing, was able to go home.  So how do these three stories help us with all of our daily losses – both known and unknown?  Did someone lose us?  Or did we lose someone?  And how do we get found?

As always with Jesus’ parables, the characters that pepper his stories are human.  What kind of a shepherd loses his sheep, anyway?  A bad shepherd.  What kind of a woman loses a coin?  An improvident woman.  And what kind of a father would give his son half his estate?  A codependent father, one more intent on gaining his son’s approval than on being a good father.

Likewise, both sons in the parable of the prodigal son display their faults – some of which are their own responsibility, and others of which are the result of imperfect parenting.  Who can blame the younger son for wasting at least some of his inheritance – his father never should have given it to him in the first place.  And who can blame the older son for feeling slighted?  No one even bothers to tell him about the party.  He hears the music and dancing and has to ask one of the servants what is happening.

But imperfect parenting doesn’t account for all of the sons’ poor choices.  The younger son spent everything his father gave him.  He saved nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have stored up anything for his future.  The older son betrays years of pent-up anger.  Any marriage counselor worth their salt will tell you not to use the words “always” and “never” – because those words are just not true.  The older brother’s words to his father are peppered with “always” and “never”.  The older brother says he has “slaved” for his father “all these years”.  He says he has “never once” refused to do “a single thing” you told me to.  He says that in “all that time”  you “never” gave me even one young goat for a feast.  Has the older brother really “never” refused his father?  He seems pretty good at it here – he’s refusing to go into the party.  The older brother continues his exaggeration by saying that his younger brother has wasted his money on “prostitutes”.  But prostitutes are never mentioned.  The younger brother wasted his money in “wild living”.  The older brother jumped to the conclusion that his younger brother visited prostitutes, but he might not have.  The older brother is exaggerating to try to get his father to see how he has favored a brother who didn’t deserve it.  Exaggerating never helps us – it distracts our listener from hearing the truth – but we resort to it when we feel insecure; we exaggerate when we think the truth isn’t good enough.

What’s the truth?  The truth is that the father seems to have favored one son, and that the favored son is spoiled.  The truth is that the older son was slighted.  The truth is…. that we live in a world where fathers are imperfect and were sons are improvident or bitter. So why does Jesus tell this story?

Jesus tells a story of humans because that’s the only kind of behavior we humans can understand.  And yet in this parable about flawed human beings, the incarnation happens – God breaks through.  How?

God is nowhere and everywhere in this parable.  First, each of these three humans displays aspects of God.  The amazing humbling thing is that our perfect God works through broken imperfect people. The father mirrors God in his forgiveness. The prodigal son demonstrates salvation – we can “come to our senses” because we realize that abandoning God has put us on the path to starvation, loneliness and isolation.  The older son teaches us of the mercy of God: the older son reminds us that even when we choose to stay with God, we will still fall – we will grow resentful and exaggerate, nursing our wounds, and forgetting that we, too, are sinners saved by grace alone.  But just because we sin doesn’t change the fact that we are living in God’s house, and no one can take that away.

Second, insofar as the parables are about humans, they reveal God’s character through contrast.  The human father gave half his estate through the need for approval; God gave us all on the cross, not because He needed anything from us, but because giving is in His very nature.  The inheritance God gives us is everlasting and can never be wasted; it can never be taken away from us.  If we “spend” God’s love on other people – God will always fill us back up.  God’s arms are always open and available to us the moment we run home.  God never piles on, like the older brother.  He always forgives and always rejoices when we return.  Unlike the older brother, Jesus always did His father’s will.  Jesus had every right to resent us for being God’s children, but instead, He rejoices along with God when we repent and turn to God.

God’s character shines through the interstices of this story, revealing His love for each and every one of us – even though we are as clueless as sheep, as predictable as a rolling coin, and as pig-headed as a child who thinks he can make it out in the big bad world all by himself.  These are stories where God cracks open earth and lets us peer into heaven.  There are flashes of godliness sparking out of humanity, so that we, in our humanity, can get a glimpse of what godliness looks like.  We can see a human man, named Jesus, and through Him – unrobed and unmasked and lost on the cross – see God.  On the cross, Jesus Christ was lost so that we would never have to be.

The message under all the parables, the groundnote of God’s message to us is: I know you, and I love you anyway.  I know your heart. I know how you work.  I know your greed, your inordinate loves, your stubborness, your cheating habits, your selfishness, your inability to see any viewpoint but your own.  And yet despite our flaws, God can shine through – as light shines through cracks in jars of clay.  Because we have it backwards.  The parables shock us because we expect stories of people made perfect by God, but we get stories of imperfect people loved by a perfect God.  The stories move us to the place of tears, where we cry out to God – how can you?  How can you love me?

God’s answer is that He loves us because we belong to Him.  We may feel lost, but we never are.  We are all, as my friend Laddie recently put it, “just a phone call away from heartbreak,” and yet, we are also, all just a single cry away from healing.  A shepherd may lose his sheep.  A woman may lose her coin.  A son may lose his family.  But God never loses us.  He is always with us, always.  He loves us.  We belong to Him.  He belongs to us.  We are a family.  And unlike our earthly families, filled with imperfect parents and imperfect children, all the wounds in our heavenly family have been healed.  Jesus Christ took the punishment we deserve on the cross.  And so everything lost has been found.

So when we feel lost, or stuck in our pride, self-righteousness or anger – all we have to do is remember this: we have already been found, just as we are, and in the finding, we are found not wanting but having.  We have everything through the love of God.  Everything bad has been made untrue in Him.  We can trust Him with all the bad things in our lives, even if we don’t understand them.  He will restore our sense of self.  He will restore our sense of home.  He will restore our sense of purpose.  He will restore our ability to love others, even when they least deserve it – because He will remind us that that is the kind of love He has for us.

And by the way, the picture at the start of this blog was given to me by Tory Baker and hangs in my bedroom – because I love it.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 1, 2012

 

The Answer for a Broken Heart: Luke 14.

 

read Luke 14.  Every day, someone drips tears into the internet looking for answers for their broken heart.  Here’s a typical search engine:  ”i still love my ex-boyfriend and i still cry every time i think of him and i need a bible verse for the solitude.”  But what are we really looking for when someone breaks our hearts?

When someone breaks our heart, often we think we want to know why they dumped us.  But do we?  Do we really want to know how we weren’t enough?  Do we want to hear how we have a bad temper, a bad attitude or bad hair?  The thing is, when someone falls in love with us, they find those very same attributes adorable.  ”She’s passionate,” they say about our temper when they love us, and they say it in an admiring tone.  Or, “she’s got a great sense of humor,” they announce to their friends, about our unerring ability to find fault with every little thing we see.  ”Her hair is as wild as her personality,” they say, as if we were some kind of mountain lion, and they’re so proud they alone tamed us.

But when someone falls out of love with us, every one of those same characteristics – our passion, our sense of humor, and our appearance – becomes a source of contempt.  So I’m not sure we will ever get “truth” from an ex – even one who tries to honestly explain why they are breaking up with us.  The Bible says to speak the truth in love, and I think that’s because there’s no other kind.  Truth spoken in hatred is not truth.  It’s just violence.

Sometimes we will hear truth from an ex.  Sometimes people break up with us because we’re engaged in behaviors that are truly incompatible with a relationship.  If they still love us but pull away in order to protect themselves, they might be able to explain that lovingly:  ”I love you, but I can’t be with you while you’re buying blow on 125th street”; “I love you, but it’s not a marriage if you’ve got three mistresses”;  ”I love you but I can’t live with you if you drink a gallon of Tequila every morning for breakfast.”  Those kinds of truths, perhaps, can be learned from an ex, but most likely anyone who knows us well enough to know we have those problems, has already explained them to us – ad nauseum.  Plus, we probably already know these are problems and if we’re not changing them, it’s because we’re not ready.  We think we can’t change; we think we can’t live without those behaviors.  So those kinds of truths are probably not what we’re after when we think: “I wish I knew why he left me.”  What we really want to know goes deeper.  We want to know why someone fell out of love with us.

The Biblical way to look at falling in and out of love is to say that someone has a soft or hard heart toward us.  When our hearts are soft toward someone, their faults don’t bother us.  When our hearts harden, though, the other person can do no right in our eyes.  Every kind gesture is misinterpreted.  Every act of thoughtfulness is condemned.  Their personalities, figures and actions bother us.  It is the same, of course, in reverse, when their hearts harden toward us. Hard heartedness is a reciprocal thing -it’s easily contagious.  If someone’s heart hardens toward us, our heart hardens in response.

I don’t think we want answers when someone breaks our hearts.  We want them back – or at least we want back the wonderful feelings we had when we first fell in love, and the wonderful open trusting appreciative way we were with each other in that honeymoon period.  But often we can’t have them back.  So part of the reason why our hearts break is that we discover we cannot fix our relationships.  We cannot control other people.  We can’t make someone love us.  We can ask God to melt our hard heart toward other people.  We can ask God to melt their hard heart toward us.  But only God is in the business of melting a hard heart.  We can do nothing to melt it in our own strength, charm and looks.  Admitting that breaks us.

And here’s the transfiguring truth.  Being broken open feels like the worst thing in the world – but it’s really the best thing.  Being broken means we’re full to the brim with need.  And need is all we need to receive.  When we recognize we need, and need deeply, and need desperately, we will find Jesus, the true lover, who always loves us; who always has a soft heart toward us no matter what we’ve done; and who always wants us to find Him over and over again, every day, more and more.

We need only to admit we’ve fallen into a pit – a pit so deep we can’t get ourselves out of.  God invites the poor and needy to his feast.  He invites anyone who will come.  The only price of admission is to admit we can’t pay the full admission price.  That’s what Jesus is talking about here in Luke 14 when He says we would be foolish to start a project without calculating the cost.  We can’t complete the “project” of buying or earning our way to heaven, because we can’t be perfect.  Jesus knows that.  That’s why He paid the price for us.  The invitation is always open, always available, always crying out to anyone who is crying.

Jesus is the answer to our broken hearts.  But we have to discover that answer, in a real way, every single day, over and over again.  Why?  Because Jesus is alive.  We are called to a relationship with God, not to just some intellectual understanding.  So on this earth, our hearts will break over and over – and we can rejoice in that.  It means our hearts are soft.  They’re vulnerable.  They’re open and receptive.  And just as God is in the business of softening hard hearts, so He’s in the business of healing broken hearts.  He will heal our hearts over and over, one heart at a time, one day at a time – sometimes one minute at a time, one google search at a time.

Will He bring our ex back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But He will always, always bring our hearts back – into fullness, joy, softness and beauty.  He loves us.  He makes us lovable.  He transfigures and transforms us.  Just as water softens the earth so flowers can grow, so our tears soften our hearts, so God’s love can bloom within us, and gardens will grow out of the places of our deepest wounds.

And maybe, just maybe, that will open us up to receive love from unexpected places, places we could never have seen or imagined while our eyes were too full of tears about an ex.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks on January 30, 2012

 

Crazy stupid love: Luke 11

read Luke 11.

I have been trying to write about Luke 11 for a week now.  Yes, I went skiing in Canada.  Yes, I was surrounded by old friends and new.  But it wasn’t the powdery snow or the good skiing or the fine company that deterred me, but the chapter itself. I kept re-reading this chapter, and trying to understand it, and I kept running dry.

So I was going to write a long academic piece about epiphanies. I was going to quote James Joyce, and throw in a bit of literary criticism, and draw to a close by inviting you to let God lead you to an epiphany of your own.  But that was because I wasn’t having any epiphanies of my own.

And then I watched Crazy, Stupid Love with my daughter and I got it.

What troubled me most about Luke 11 was the story Jesus tells about the naggy neighbor.  Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, so He gives them The Lord’s Prayer, and then He tells them a story about a really rude naggy persistent neighbor.  Jesus said that if your neighbor asks you for a loaf of bread in the middle of the night, you will tell them to go away, and that your kids are in bed with you – but because of the man’s persistence, you will get up and give your neighbor what he asks for.

And that’s the lesson on how we’re supposed to pray?  I didn’t get it.  We’re supposed to nag God?  We’re supposed to bother Him?  We’re supposed to keep at Him?  Why?  Doesn’t He hear us the first time?  Didn’t Jesus tell us in the Sermon on the Mount not to repeat our words and babble as the pagans do?  So why would He tell us to keep on asking, seeking and knocking?

So I put off writing this and instead watched Crazy, Stupid Love.  At the end of the movie, the 13 year old boy who has had a relentless, unrequited crush on his 17 year old babysitter, finally gets cynical.  He starts to give a graduation speech in which he says there are no soul mates, and that true love doesn’t exist.  His father (Steve Carrell) leaps out of the grandstands, speeds to the podium, and says, “this isn’t my son.  My son believes in grand romantic gestures.  My son believes in soul mates.  My son knows that love never gives up.  My son is right.  Love never gives up.”

That was when I started to weep.  That’s what true love is like.  That’s the true love we all want.  We all want someone who will never give up on us – no matter how much we deserve it.  We want someone to keep believing in us, even when we’ve lost hope in ourselves.  We want someone to make grand romantic gestures for us.  We want someone to chase us, and keep chasing, and hunt us down, no matter how hard we try to hide.

The movie credits rolled, and I was still crying, and that was when I had my epiphany about Luke 11.  I wasn’t crying because I was feeling unloved or sorry for myself or abandoned.  I was crying because the movie was affirming something so wonderfully true it’s almost impossible to take in.

Jesus tells the story about the naggy neighbor because that’s how we humans relate to each other.  We are like this.  We give reluctantly.  We give because it will look embarrassing if we don’t.  We give so the other person will stop bothering us.  We give because we don’t want anyone else to hear about how closed-fisted we are.  We give because we think we have to.

But God doesn’t have to give anything to us.  He’s God.  He can do what He wants.  God gives because He wants to.  He gives because it gives Him joy to give.  God never gives up on us.  God is our soul mate.  God made the grandest romantic gesture of all – He gave up his life for us.  And our hearts always, always, respond to these romantic stories of people who believe in soul mates and true love and the triumph of persistence, because we were made in God’s image.  We were made in the image of a God who made people who believe in true love.  We were made by Love, for Love and in Love.

In our world, an epiphany has come to mean any kind of “ah ha” moment, but that is not it’s original meaning.  As Charles Baxter pointed out in his essay “Against Epiphanies,” an epiphany “in a traditional religious context, was the showing forth of the divinity of the Christ chid.  It was, quite literally, an awful moment.  Awe governed it.  To adapt this solemn moment for literary purposes… was a Promethean gesture:  It was an attempt to steal the fires of religion and place them, still burning, in literature.”

If an epiphany is the showing forth of the divinity of the Christ child, an epiphany is when it strikes you, like a stake through a vampire’s heart, that God loves you so much He died for you.  And like that stake through the vampire’s heart, a true epiphany slays us.  A revelation of God’s love kills the meanness, the pettiness, and the miserliness of us.  It strikes dead all that is small in us.  And in doing so, it enables in us the resurrection of Christ himself.

That’s why Jesus rails against his hosts at the end of Luke 11.  He is railing against the way that religious leaders teach that you can be big and expansive and loving all by yourself.  Jesus rails against religion.  He rails against the idea that by following rules – by ordering ourselves to be kind to our neighbor – that kindness can enter our hearts.   It just doesn’t work that way.  We long to be that way.  We were made to long for heroism and true love and sacrifice, but we’re not the hero.  God is.  Our heroism comes when we admit our need for God to be our Hero.  It arrives when we lay down our pride, and ask God himself to help us.  That’s when we who were mute in the face of our neighbor’s needs, suddenly find our voices.  That’s when we hear knocking on our doors, and a voice asking for a loaf of bread, and we leap out of bed, and get our children to let them in, and we cook them a feast.

Why?  Because we know the One who loved us so much that He died so He could prepare a feast for us.  And even when we’re still miserly and pretend we don’t hear our neighbors knocking, God doesn’t give up on us.  God keeps on knocking at the door of our hearts.  Come on, God says.  I know you hear me.  ”Today, when you hear my voice, do not harden your hearts,” God said in the Bible.  Did you catch that?  It’s not today IF you hear my voice – it’s when.  God is knocking at the doors of our hearts all day long.  He knows that if we wake up, and get up, and open the door to His Love, no force on earth or in hell can shut that door.

posted by Caroline Coleman on January 20, 2012

on self-help and broken hearts: Luke 10

Read Luke 10.  Despite flagging booksales in so many areas, the self-help book market is thriving.  In an article in ABC News entitled “Want to get rich?  Write a self-help book,” the authors summarize the self-help message as one in which — wait for it — you have the power to help yourself.  The idea is that “we alone have the power within us to solve our problems, relieve our anxieties and pain, heal our illnesses, improve our golf game or get a promotion.”

Really?  If we alone have the power to do all that, then… why do we need self help books? Isn’t it a contradiction in terms?  I mean, honestly – if the self-help message were true, there would BE no self-help book industry.  If we could really help ourselves, we wouldn’t need the books.  Right?

In one of my favorite Sex in the City episodes, Charlotte tries to buy a self-help book with the wonderful title: STARTING OVER – ALL OVER AGAIN.  Charlotte can’t even buy the book because she is deterred by the number of sobbing women in the self-help section.

One of my friends is reading a self-help book called Wisdom of a Broken Heart.  Crack open any page, and it’s pretty easy to make fun of.   Your broken heart is actually good, it says.  You will learn from it.  You will grow from it.  You will be a better person.  Yes, yes, we think, as we dip into our third pint of Haagen-Daz while reading it.

“We should write a self-help book,” another friend told me in Florida after Christmas, as we ate lunch at a club on the ocean.  ”We’d make a killing.”  We laughed and eyed the ocean front mansions surrounding us.

But broken hearts are no laughing matter.  The Science Times reported yesterday that grief really can cause a heart attack:  ”The so-called broken heart syndrome is real.  The study… found that a persons’ heart attack risk is 21 times higher than normal the day after a loved one dies.”   21 times higher?  That’s huge.  Your heart can stop functioning, literally, when you are broken hearted.   The article goes on to explain the risk: “Over time the risk of an attack declines,  but it remains elevated within that first month.  In the first week after a loved one’s death, for example, the risk was six times higher than normal…..  Other studies have uncovered greater heart and mortality risks in the weeks and months after the loss of a spouse, a child or another loved one, but the new study is the first systematic look at the immediate effect.”  NY Times Jan. 10, 2012 D 5.

So how do we solve the problem of a broken heart?  Do broken hearts give wisdom?  All truth is God’s truth.  That means that while the self-help industry has part of the truth, only Jesus has the full truth.

Here’s the partial truth: broken hearts do give wisdom.  Yes, of course.  But not if you try to fix yourself all by yourself.  The message of the Bible is that we can’t fix ourselves.  The message is that we should give up trying.  The deepest wisdom of a broken heart is that we need God to fix our hearts.  He made them in the first place, after all.

And the message of the gospel is that God’s own Son had His heart broken on the cross, so that He could heal our heartbreaks.  Look at who Jesus is.  He says in this chapter that He saw Satan thrown out of heaven like a lightening bolt.  Just think about that.  As C.S. Lewis so famously put it in Mere Christianity, we cannot say Jesus was just a nice man who gave us a good example.  Either Jesus was insane, on the level of a man who thinks he’s a poached egg, or He really was the Son of God.

And as the Son of God, Jesus came to earth to mend our broken hearts.  His message is that our hearts are so broken God Himself was broken in order to mend them.

So what’s the true wisdom of a broken heart?  One of the ways God brings good out of our heartache is that heartbreak enables us to hear His message.  Broken hearts make us realize that we can’t heal ourselves.  Broken hearts make something leap inside us when we hear that Jesus was ‘filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”  Luke 10:21.  We wonder if we can have that joy, too.  The answer is yes.  The joy comes from God’s presence, and it exists irrespective of our circumstances.  This is the message that humans have been longing to hear since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Jesus’ love heals us of our hard hearts, too.  It heals us of our tendency to look the other way when someone is in need.  It enables us to have mercy on others, because we know how much mercy God has had on us.  And His love heals us of the tendency to overwork.  We are all Martha’s, running around cooking 10 dishes in order to win the approval of some imaginary judge and jury, when Jesus says we only need “one thing.”  Like Mary, all we need is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.

Yes, it’s that simple.  It’s so simple, I have to end this post here.  Because what else can I say?  Jesus can mend our broken hearts.  He wants to.  He isn’t just dying to – He died to.  And why would we let any power on earth stop Him from helping us when He loves us so much He left heaven so He could carry us there?

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 11, 2012

on being alone: Luke 9

read Luke 9.   After church on Sunday I wandered into Jimmy Choo Shoes.  A pretty, diminutive woman tried on a pair of peep-toe silver sparkly shoes with three inch heels. “They’re beautiful on you,” I told her.  They were.  They looked like something Dorothy would have worn.  ”Magical.”

“All I need to do is click my heels together three times,” she said, picking up on my reference immediately.

“Do you want to try the four inch heels,” the assistant asked her.

In answer, the woman in the silver shoes turned and wrapped her arms around her handsome diminutive boyfriend.  In the three inch heels, she came up to his nose.  She kissed him.  ”Perfect,” her boyfriend said, with a huge smile.

She bought the three inch heels.

It was a wonderful moment.  Like her shoes, it was magical.  And it affirmed the joys of being with someone.  Dominique Browning wrote movingly in an article called “Alone Again, Naturally” this weekend about why she thinks single women love their lives, but men can’t be alone more than three months.  She claims that men walk around alert for danger, and so feel vulnerable unless they have someone to watch their backs.  She says that men are “on guard” because that’s their job, and so they “don’t nest.”  She says that women, in contrast, love to nest in their homes:

“Most single women I know really love their lives.  Sometimes we suffer pangs of loneliness, sometimes we ache for the companionship of the mythic soul mate, but mostly we cherish our independence…. We love not being judged, not being criticized, not being hemmed in…. A marriage is a lot of work.  Strike that.  A man is a lot of work.  Anyone who has been in a bad marriage knows that its defining characteristic is the unspeakable loneliness in which one feels shrouded, a sense of isolation amplified by not being alone… Home is where I am supposed to feel safe…. I have observe that women who have escaped loudly troubled marriages often feel safer when they are alone.  To a woman, being home feels safe.”  NY Times January 8, 2012 p. 2 Styles.

What strikes me is not the gender divide, but that Browning is talking about what happens to anyone who has been wounded – both male and female. It makes you want to be alone.  It makes you lose trust.  It makes you prefer loneliness to criticism.  If you’re wounded enough, you just want to hide.  Women call that instinct nesting.  Men call it hiding out in their man caves.  No matter what you call it, it’s the same thing for both sexes.  Anyone who has escaped “loudly” troubled relationships often feel “safer” when they are alone.  But safe isn’t the kind of life we’re called to.  So is there a better way?

What sparked the article was that Browning fell while walking alone in a forest.  She lay alone on her back, and she heard a “voice in her head” which told her two things:  ”‘This is what happens when you live alone,’ it said.  ’You fall, and there is no one to help you up…. It is not good to live alone.’”

Whether Browning knew it or not, this advice came straight from the Bible. The first thing Browning heard was penned by King Solomon 3,000 years ago: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” Ecclesiastes 4:10-12.  The second thing the voice told Browning when she fell were the words God said right after He created Adam.  He said: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and so God made Eve.

I have no idea if Browning is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, if she was speaking to herself, or if God was speaking to her.  All I know is that when she fell, she heard Truth: it is not good for man to be alone, and if you fall, you have no one to help you.

In an ideal world, we would all have the perfect mate that even Browning admits we pine for.  We would all have the man that towers over us even in three inch heels.  But we don’t live in an ideal world.  We live in a fallen world – one where relationships break down, people abandon us, and we abandon people.  My skin crawls when married people tell me that “maybe it’s good for you to be alone.”  Yeah, right.  Why don’t you try it during your forties and THEN tell me that.  It’s not what my Bible says.  My Bible says what Ms. Browning heard when she fell: it’s NOT good for man to be alone.  While God allows suffering into our lives, He never rejoices in it.  He never calls bad good.  Don’t get me started.

One of the big reasons that so many of us are alone is the problem of selfishness – both our own and others.  One male blogger honed in on this like a lightning bolt in response to  Browning’s essay; he said her article is “a perfect mental x-ray of the kind of divorced woman who talks about her ‘bad marriage’ without considering – based on all the evidence she provides – it was she who made it so.”  The Macho Response.  Clearly, Browning’s jab that “men are work” touched a nerve.  The Macho blogger is suggesting that maybe women are work, too (something with which my ex-boyfriend would readily agree).  Given that we are all “work,” it’s no wonder that so many of us alone.  So what’s the solution?

What I wonder is whether it’s being alone that is really the problem.  Elizabeth Bishop has written a lovely essay called “On Being Alone,” in which she asks that why is it, that when there’s “nothing to fear … so many of us seem to dread being alone”?  She points out that there can be something quite lovely about being alone:  ”There is a peculiar quality about being alone, an atmosphere that no sounds or persons can ever give.  It is as if being with people were the Earth of the mind, the land with its hills and valleys, scent and music: but in being alone, the mind finds its Sea, the wide, quiet plane with different lights in the sky and different, more secret sounds…. Being alone can be fun; alone the mind can do what it wants to without even the velvet leash of sleep.  But we can never understand this while we stand on the shore with our backs to the water and cry after our companions.  Perhaps we shall never know the companion in ourselves who is with us all our lives, the nearness of our minds at all times to the rare person, whose heart quickens when a bird climbs high and alone in the clear air.”

Elizabeth Bishop is right.  Being alone can be fun.  If we think back to our most intense vivid moments, many of them occurred alone.  And yet being alone rests uneasily on us.  Why?

Perhaps the problem is that being alone strips from us the usual ways with which we block our hurts.  Just as an alcoholic who stops drinking finds himself confronting emotions he hasn’t dealt with in years, so when we find ourselves alone we confront wounded places inside ourselves we’ve been avoiding for a lifetime.  We find griefs.  We discover regrets.  We encounter guilt.  We recall betrayals.  We hear the constant refrain of our enemy (a/k/a the devil) that we haven’t done enough; we haven’t loved enough; we’ve failed because we are failures; we haven’t achieved enough; no one loves us and why should they – we’re unlovable.

No wonder we fear being alone.

And so when Jesus walked onto the scene 2,000 years ago and spoke of being alone, our first reaction can be to shy away from Him.  ”Take nothing for the journey,” he tells the disciples in Luke 9:3.  He “left the crowds to pray alone.”  Luke 9:18.  He told the crowds that if “you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”  Luke 9:24. When a man tells Jesus he will follow him wherever he goes, Jesus responds: “the Son of man has no place even to lay his head.” Luke 9:58.  Jesus tells another man not to even bury his father if he wants to follow Jesus.

What would motivate us to “give up” our lives, to travel without any extra clothes, to have no place to lay our heads, and to not bury our fathers?  Is Jesus calling us to live in a world with no peep-toe silver Jimmy Choo shoes with three inch heels?  And more to the point, is He calling us to live in a world without boyfriends, husbands, wives, parents and siblings?  That sounds awful.

The curious thing is that at the very same time as Jesus talked about being alone, the life He lived promoted and enabled community.  In this chapter, He calls his disciples “together”.  He tells them to stay “in the same house” in a town.  He feeds a meal to 5,000 people when the disciples asked him to “send the crowds away.”  Jesus has community even with prophets who died long ago; he talks to Moses and Elijah.  Jesus is asked to heal a boy so possessed by a demon that the boy was constantly screaming and foaming at the mouth: Jesus heals the boy “and gave him back to his father.”  Jesus tells the disciples to welcome children.  He rebukes the disciples for turning away someone not in their group: “Anyone who is not against you is for you.”

How do we reconcile this talk of sacrifice and solitude with the reality of the gospel community?  As always, the answer lies with the cross.  On the cross, Jesus was truly alone.  Not only was He abandoned by everyone He knew and loved, but God abandoned Him: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me,” Christ cried.  God abandoned Jesus as punishment for our sins; if God is all that is good, then the absence of God is, by definition, hell.  Jesus was truly alone – separate from God – on the cross.

Jesus was alone, so we would never have to be.  Jesus’ death means that He can come and live with us, even though He is holy and we are not.  His sacrificial death enables us to have community – with Him, and with each other.  He heals us, even from the fear of being in relationships after we’ve been hurt.  He heals other people; he can turn screamers into listeners.  All who believe in Him become brothers and sisters through His blood.

We need never fear being alone. We can walk into our loneliness.  We can walk around in it.  We can bump up against our wounded hurt places – and expose them to God’s healing light.  If, in the course of being alone, we realize that we are lonely, we can do something about it.  We can seek friends.  We can try new things.  We can take risks.  We can reach out to other people, who are perhaps just as lonely as we.  We can allow our hearts to be broken, all over again, because we know the One who will keep on healing us.

And sometimes we will still fall alone in a forest with no one to help us.  But even then, God is always with us.  Emmanuel comes closest when we need Him most.  Instead of fearing solitude, we can embrace it – because in doing so, we will be embraced by the One who loves us most of all.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 11, 2012

tuning the dial: Luke 7

read Luke 7.  My father can hardly talk any more.  Like a million other Americans, he has Parkinson’s disease, which affects your motor skills but not your intelligence.  I was dying to talk to him yesterday, so I called while taxis and trucks rumbled up Park Avenue, which made it even harder to hear him.  Every time he tried to speak, I had to say, “sorry, what?”  He repeated himself over and over, but I still couldn’t understand him.  Then I told him the real reason I had called.  I needed advice because I was anxious.  I was thinking about doing something that didn’t line up with what God says, because I had lost faith that God would take care of me. Dad said, as clear as a bell, “don’t rush the Lord.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear.  It helped me make a better decision the next day, and BOOM, just like that, my anxiety disappeared, and God’s supernatural peace returned.

So how did Dad get out a complete sentence right when I needed it?  He did it because he loves me.

It is miracles like this that help us believe the miracles here in Luke.  We believe Jesus made the mute speak.  We believe that Jesus touched the coffin of a widow’s only son, and “the dead boy sat up and began to talk.”  We see how when God’s Spirit touches people, they sit up and talk – no matter how “dead” they were only moments before.

It’s as if we are all radios that are tuned mostly to static.  But every now and then, something happens that makes someone turn a dial – and finally beautiful music comes through.  We move from empty noise to speaking profound wisdom.

Sometimes we turn the dial to the right channel because we long for things over which we have no control – like the sickness of a beloved servant here.  For me, eleven years ago, everything fell apart at the same time – my writing career, my marriage, and the happiness of one of my children – and I surrendered. God eventually did fix those problems that caused me to tune the dial, but what he did right away was fix my radio.  He gave me the desire to listen to Him – and more than listen, to obey.  Or at least, to want to.  Tuning your ears to the right channel allows the beauty of God’s presence to come in every day.

Once we know the sound of God’s voice, we crave it.  Every time we veer off course, we can hear the radio dial turn to the right channel, whispering to us of a better way.  I think of God’s voice as an internal GPS – NO NO NO DON’T GO THAT WAY PLEASE WHATEVER YOU DO!!!  Far too often, our GPS has to say: RECALCULATING.  We ignore His voice, and we head at top speed down a dead end.

The good news is, God Himself took the ultimate dead end so that He could always give us other options.  God took our punishment on the cross, so He could always offer us forgiveness.

Sometimes, when there’s too much static, God sends us helpers.  He makes the mute speak and the dead talk.  Why?  He helps us for the same reason He touched the casket – because He has compassion.  He hates to see us cry, just as we hate to see our children cry.  God wants us to be able to enjoy beautiful music all day long.

When we are too much like Simon (the self-righteous religious leader at the end of this chapter) all we can hear is our own static.  We become consumed with a senseless internal refrain of pride.  The static comes from the lie that we’re better than other people.  The longer we journey with Jesus, however, the more we become like the woman here who sits at Jesus’ feet weeping.  Our tears clear the static.  Our tears bring us to the place where the only thing we want to hear is Him.  We weep when we realize the extent of His love, and that His love is not based on our behavior.  We weep when we discover He loves us no matter what – just as I heard the extent of my father’s love for me, coming in loud and clear, over all the noise Park Avenue and Parkinson’s could throw at us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 6, 2012

 

Throw away your resolutions: Luke 5

read Luke 5.   It’s the time of year when everyone is asking what our New Year’s resolutions are, so I googled: “do people keep their New Year’s resolution?” I had a pretty good idea of what the answer would be.  Sure enough, up popped an article with the gloomy title: New year’s resolutions doomed to failure, say psychologists.  The article cites a study that found that 78% of people who make resolutions – like losing weight, giving up smoking or drinking, gaining a qualification or starting a better relationship – fail.  The less than 25% who kept their resolutions did so by breaking their goals into smaller steps, rewarding themselves along the way, keeping a diary, telling their friends of their plans and treating occasional lapses as temporary setbacks.

If you’re like me, you immediately bump yourself into the less than 25% category.  No problem, we think.  We can do smaller steps, reward ourselves, cheer every time we delete a lecherous text from that hot guy we just met without texting back, and not over-react when we fail.   Sure, I lost weight this fall by texting my long-suffering friend Christina Culver every time I lost a pound.  But how did I do on losing my judgmentalism?  Or my black and white thinking?  What about my self-righteousness, or my desire to change other people?  How did I do at losing that weight?  If we’re honest, we will recall that we’ve had a 100% success rate on giving up things we don’t really care about, and a 100% failure rate on giving up things we love or think we need – until we find something we love or need more.

The article on failure of resolutions spawned a host of responses.  Clearly, it struck a nerve.  Most of the commentators wrote that resolutions are things to make every day, not on some arbitrary date.  Others said to resolve to do something positive – like take up a fun new sport or eat healthy food.  More than half of the people who commented on the article slid into sarcasm.  They said they had resolved to give up smoking – and that they were guaranteed to succeed as they don’t smoke.  They said they have resolved to give up resolutions.  They wrote they have promised to have more random casual hot sex with complete strangers.  In other words, people sense in themselves a desire to make resolutions, and an equal opposing powerful force in the opposite direction.  No matter how hard we try to mask our discouragement in humor, our words speak for themselves: we all fail at our deepest resolutions.

Here is my favorite comment on this discouraging article:  ”The New Year is a good time for resolutions, you can declare bankruptcy on the failure of the old year and start anew.  You are likely to fail – but there is a chance you will not.  And ‘broken’ resolutions might well pave the way for real changes later in the year.  Go for it.”  This writer has honed in on the Christian secret to real change: in failure and brokenness lies success.

Does this sound too good to be true?  Well, Christianity is too good to be true – how could God love us so much He died for us?  But the fact that God’s love for us is incomprehensible doesn’t make it any less true.  The Bible explains the true reason for the failure of our deepest resolutions: it says that we cannot change ourselves.  ”Can a leopard take away its spots?” God asks Jeremiah, and it’s a rhetorical question.  God goes on to say:  ”Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.”  Jeremiah 13:23.  But while the Bible begins by pointing out that we are doomed to failure at changing ourselves into perfect people, the Bible doesn’t end there.

Instead, you find a nuanced beautiful portrait of the Christian journey through our failure into the arms of forgiveness.  Look at the analogy Jesus makes at the end of Luke 5: Making resolutions is like trying to patch up torn clothing.  I lost 9 pounds but gained 4.  We give up drinking and break the speed limit.  We tell the truth except when we “have” to lie.  It’s called changing yourself by just trying harder.  That is what the Bible calls the “old covenant” – it’s the way of trying to earn your way to heaven by following the law.  No one can do it.  It’s doomed.  Have you looked at the Ten Commandments lately?  Can you honor your parents every single minute?  Can you never lie – ever?  Can you never want something your neighbor has – not even their 25 year old wife or adoring husband?  What about Rod Stewart’s baby blue Lambourghini (I happen to know he has one, as he just drove past me in it two days ago in Palm Beach).  Or can you love God above all else, all the time?  Really?  Honestly?

Of course not.  But that’s what we all try to do, all day long.  And we all fail.  It’s no wonder that half the world is addicted to alcohol, and the other half has a prescription for Xanax stashed in their medicine cupboards (I know YOU don’t … but everyone else does).

God offers us instead brand new clothes.  He offers to fill us with new wine. But the first step in the journey is to want the new clothing and new wine.  You would think that was obvious and that we would all want it, but it’s not.  As Luke points out: “no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.”  Luke 5:39.  That’s why it’s good to be broken.  It’s good to fail.  It’s great to find out that the old way is not just fine.  We all need to try to change ourselves in our own strength first.  When we fail, we finally ask for God’s help.  And God says: I don’t just want you to lose five pounds; I want to give you a whole new self – I want to give you myself, and change you completely.  What God wants is to fill us with the Holy Spirit – that’s what this new wine is that Jesus is talking about.

The first step is to know, like the tax collectors with whom Jesus eats, that you’re in need of a doctor.  Luke 5:27-31.  The first step is to know you’re sick; to know you’re a sinner.  It’s to know you need God’s forgiveness.  But instead of focusing on our own issues, how often do we find ourselves looking down our noses at other people, just as the religious leaders do here?  How often do we find ourselves thinking of others as “scum”?  There’s an ugliness inside all of us – a self-righteousness – that completely blocks us from loving other people.  How can you love someone if you think of them as “scum”?  Here is where the words of Jesus act like a mirror that shows us the look on our own faces:  ”It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt?”  Matthew 7:1-5 (the Message).  It’s when we start to notice these ugly tendencies in ourselves that there’s finally hope for us.  As Jesus puts it:  ”Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.  I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”  Luke 5:31.

When we realize we’re sick, we will do whatever it takes to find Jesus.  Because Jesus sees our ugliness, but instead of turning away in disgust, beckons us to Him for forgiveness and change.  Who wants to be ugly?   When we find the most beautiful thing, we will do whatever it takes to get it.  Like the man with leprosy here, we will not be too proud to bow our face to the ground and beg Jesus to heal us.  Luke 5:12.  Or like the paralyzed man, we will ask our friends to help us, instead of isolating ourselves in our pride and pretending we’re just fine.  We will literally rip the roof off a house if that’s what it takes to find God.  Luke 5:17-26.

Just as we all fail and succeed at different resolutions, so we all journey toward God’s help at different rates.  The good news is that God meets us wherever we are.  Some people, like Levi here, follow Jesus right away.  God says come, and they do.  Boom.  Luke 5:27.  Others of us are cautious, like Simon Peter, James and John.  We sail “too close to the shore,” in the words of Sir Frances Drake.  God has to lure us out – and He will.  First, God will step into our boat with us, then he asks us to go “deeper” and cast our nets places we think are empty, and if we do, He will provide a miracle.  Here is where we start to see the positive side of bankruptcy; when we cautious people take a small step toward obeying Him even though we think it’s hopeless, and we discover the rewards, we gain the courage to leave “everything” and follow Him.   Luke 5:1-11.  It takes most of us baby steps – and God is the perfect Father, holding out his arms to encourage us to walk, but there to catch us when we fall.   We all have different ways of moving from a crawl to walking, and God helps us no matter what our style.  It’s no wonder that David cries out with joy that God has taught him to “run” in the path of his commands.  Psalm 119.

As anyone who has encountered the living God will tell you, it’s when we finally abandon trying to change ourselves, and beg for God’s help with the humility of a leper or lame man that we encounter the divine.  When we do, we weep.  Look at Peter’s response to the miracle of the full nets.  He tells Jesus to get away from him, for he is a sinful man.  Luke 5:8.   When we meet God, we move from seeing our need to seeing our sinfulness – and we cry.  We feel, deeply, and perhaps for the first time, the depth of our humanity – but in the very same moment, we also feel God’s love for us.  Here, in the truth and love that IS God, we find the solution to every failed resolution: we find God Himself.  We find we can’t just patch ourselves up with resolutions – like the woman I met on New Year’s Eve who told me, “every year I resolve to be more organized,” while her husband stood behind her rolling his eyes.  Instead, God calls us to be cleansed, healed, transformed, and made new.

When God makes us new, changes happen organically.  We, like Christ here, discover we want to be alone in the wilderness to pray.  We don’t just “resolve” to spend more time praying – instead, we discover that more beauty lies in God’s presence than anything or anyone in this world can offer.  We seek God out.  We want to pray.  We, too, like the disciples, discover God makes us fishers of men; we share about God not because we think we know better than anyone, but because God fills us with His compassion for other people.  God’s presence gives us so much peace and joy that we want to share it with others.  Our hearts overflow so abundantly that if we tried to keep in our euphoria, the very rocks would cry out.

We are the rocks that cry out.  Our hard hearts melt.  We cry when our hearts melt.  We cry when our hearts become soft.  We cry when we see Jesus.  We cry because we’re melting.  We cry because God Himself was not too proud to step into a little boat in order to talk to us.  We cry because God suffered all the agonies of hell to tear the roof off our hearts.  We cry because God beckons us to live with Him and be his love.  It’s no wonder that when the crowds here saw Jesus, they “pressed in on him to listen to the word of God.”  What else can we do when we encounter love but press in, as close as we can, and stay there.  Where else can we go?

When we press in close to Jesus like this, and beg Him to forgive our failures and fill us instead with His Spirit, we begin to pray, along with Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wilder seas …. Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars.”  We long to lose sight of the land.  We long to let go of our resolutions.  Instead, we find more joy in pressing close to Jesus.

If we really want to make a New Year’s resolution that will stick, we can ask God what He wants to change in us.  We can pray along with David that God would show us what to work on:  ”Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”  Psalm 139:23-24.    To the extent we “let go and let God,” we will succeed.  This process hurts.  It involves a death – a death of our pride, our sense of mastery, and our illusion that we can be at the helm of our own lives.

The results, as the disciples found when their nets started breaking and the ships sinking, are overwhelming.  The path of everlasting life breaks all the tools of our trade.  That’s because God puts us on a brand new ship – one in which all the starry skies of heaven open to us.  Our hearts open, and love flows out, like blood from a divine wound.  God’s love for us changes us from the inside out.  I know, God cries out, I know, the leopard can’t change his own spots, but I can change them for you.  God took the punishment for our spots – our failed resolutions – on the cross so He can clothe us with His beauty.  He clothes us with brand new spotless clothes.  He gives us clothing that is better than anything I saw this week for sale on Worth Avenue (yes, even Pucci).  God clothes us with Himself.  All we have to do is want.

And if you’re anything like me, wanting is what we humans do best.

“Throw away your resolutions” posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 4, 2012

how to have victory over pain: Mark 13

read Mark 13.  When one of my nieces was five years old, she fell and cut her head.  Before giving her stitches, the emergency room doctor took out an enormous needle and shot her in the head with novocaine, right in the very place that hurt.  Tears filled her eyes.  ”I wasn’t very good at that,” she said.  Her reaction made her mother and I cry.  Why?  Because she was so very good at handling that shot.  She just didn’t realize it.  She thought the pain meant she had failed.

Sometimes the only thing we can do with pain is endure it.  If the pain is bad enough, sometimes just enduring pain is a victory.  But the thing to hold on to is that pain itself doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  Our enemy (and if you’ve been reading this blog or the Bible for any length of time, you will know that the Bible says we humans have an enemy, a/k/a the devil, who tries to destroy our lives, our happiness and our destiny through accusations and lies) tells us that pain means we’re a failure.  But that is a lie.  Pain does hurt.  Pain should make us cry.   Just because you suffer doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  There’s a way have victory, even in the midst of pain.

In the 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus discusses the terrible events that will happen before He comes again.  He doesn’t sugarcoat them.  He says we will experience war, earthquakes, betrayals, hatred, great anguish, false messiahs, and the darkening of the sun, moon and stars. He says no one except God knows when this will happen, not even Jesus.  But when it’s done, He will come again.

Some chapters in the Bible are warm and fuzzy.  Others, like this one, are full of fire and brimstone.  But even in this chapter, God combines love with truth in a way that lights our hair on fire – without burning it.

The key to understanding the beauty of this chapter lies in the analogy Christ makes here to birthing pains.  v. 8.  Birth always involves pain, no matter how strong the epidural.  But you tolerate the pain because you have no choice.  You transcend the pain by focusing on the joy to come.  And when you hold your child, you forget the pain completely.

In the same breath that Christ discusses these unpleasant details, he assures us not to be afraid.  He moves from discussing the “great anguish” to making an analogy with a sweet little fig tree.  He assures us that he who endures to the end will be saved.

The reason Christ could be positive here is because of something that He knew, but that His listeners had yet to see: the cross.  Jesus Christ experienced the worst of every one of these prophecies on the cross, to enable a way for the rest of us to endure them.  Jesus was betrayed.  He was hated.  The earth quaked when he died.  The sun darkened.  He cried out in great anguish.  God turned his back on Jesus.  Jesus was desecrated.  Jesus labored in pain in order to give birth to us.  And like a mother in delivery, he endured the cross for the joy set before Him. Hebrews 12:2.

Christ didn’t just endure the pain of the cross for the Second Coming.  He endured that pain for the joy of being able to have a relationship with us now.  Because of the cross, salvation is available to all of us, any of us, right this very second. All you have to do is ask.

And if you’re in pain right now,  I’m sorry.  So is God.  So is everyone who loves you, and lots of people who don’t even know you.  No matter what you’re going through, watch for Jesus.  You will see the God who loves you in the midst of the pain.  His heart breaks with yours.  He knows how you feel.  He experienced what you are feeling, and more, on the cross so that He can be with you now, no matter what.  You can endure pain and have victory with Christ holding your hand.  In some strange supernatural God kind of magic, if you cling to Christ in your pain, you will find gardens growing out of any wilderness in your life, no matter how desolate things might appear.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 19, 2011

the secret to giving: Mark 12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

read Mark 12.   It’s almost Christmas, and every corner has a Santa Claus ringing a bell, reminding us to be filled with the Christmas spirit.  But what do we do when we don’t feel like giving?

At first glance, Mark 12 seems to confirm our worst fears.  Stories of giving God everything abound.  And yet, if you walk around in the stories, you start to discover that when God asks us to give Him everything we live on, it’s something entirely different than we thought.  In God’s math, we get to give.  We get to give to God the things we don’t want, and receive from Him the things we do.  Consider this:

The chapter opens with Jesus telling a story of tenant farmers who maim and then kill in order to avoid giving the vineyard owner his share.  The tenant farmers say want to own the vineyard, yet this is impossible because the owner, apparently, has enough power at his disposal to kill every one of the tenant farmers.  The workers are deluded.  As so often happens in the parables, it’s not just some of the people whose behavior is strange; it’s also the vineyard owner.  Why, if the owner has this great power at his disposal, does he continue to send just one man at a time to collect his share?  Why not crush these upstart tenant farmers the moment they hurt the first collector?  Is the owner, too, deluded?  Is he a bad manager?  Is he as codependent as the hopelessly hopeful wife of an alcoholic who wakes up with her husband snoring in a drunken heap beside her and thinks: maybe today will be different?  Nobody’s behavior in this parable makes sense.

After Jesus tells the parable, he ends by quoting a cryptic verse from the Hebrew Scriptures about how the stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.  Anyone with the smallest familiarity with Christianity senses immediately that Jesus is talking about Himself.  He is the rejected one who becomes the cornerstone of salvation.  But what does this rejected stone have to do in the context of giving?  What is it that we reject that becomes the key ingredient on which we can build a new home – a place, unlike that of the hoarders, where we can actually live?

The chapter then tells of how the religious leaders try to trap Jesus by asking him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, the conquering Roman ruler. They seem to be hoping for an Occupy Wall Street moment.  Jesus finesses their question by asking for a Roman coin (suggesting that Jesus apparently carries no money), asking whose picture is on it, and responding: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”  Jesus’ reply “amazes” the religious leaders.  I’m not sure why.  The religious leaders are portrayed in the gospels as so hard-hearted that they don’t understand anything.  They are an image of the terrible danger of self-righteousness.  What about Jesus’ reply breaks through to them?   Is it because they recognize that on one level, if God really is God, then everything belongs to God, so Jesus is saying we are to give to God everything?  Or is it because even self-righteousness is no match for the way Jesus’ answer suggests that when we ask God about how much money we’re supposed to give, we’re asking the wrong question?  Jesus’ response raises the question: what does belong to God?  What are we supposed to give to Him?  Perhaps it is the very question that starts to amaze us.  Perhaps, somewhere in the asking of this question – what are we supposed to give God – we start to sense that God wants us to give something completely different than we thought.

Next, people who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead ask Jesus about marriage in heaven.  Okay.  So if these people don’t believe in the resurrection, they can’t believe in their question.  Are they, too, just trying to trap Him?  Jesus tells them that there is no marriage in heaven.  I’ve always found this a little sad.  If you’re single on this earth, or if your marriage isn’t everything you hoped for, isn’t heaven the place where we finally get to have our knights in shining armor? Apparently, there is a profound sense in which Jesus is our bridegroom, and in which marriage to Him satisfies our deepest desire for a perfect union.  I’m not sure we can understand that, this side of heaven, except in moments of encounters with the divine which fill us with the supernatural peace and joy we’ve always longed for but can’t sustain on our own.  After explaining that we won’t be married in heaven, Jesus then dishes out to his questioners what sounds like a reprimand:  ”Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures and you don’t know the power of God… he is the God of the living, not the dead.  You have made a serious error.”  The reprimand feels like a slap in the face –  as stinging to us, reading it over 2,000 years later.  Is it possible that, we, too, in being terrified of what God is asking us to give, are underestimating the power of God?  Are we, too, forgetting that God promises to give us life?  Again, one has the nagging feeling that one is missing something.  But what? What is our serious error?

One man apparently starts to get it.  He asks a question of Jesus not to trap Him, but out of a serious desire to understand.  He gives us hope that if we approach God with a sincere desire to understand, He will answer our questions.  The man asks which is the most important commandment.  Just like the religious leaders, he seems to be asking about quantity – how do you number and prioritize?  Jesus tells Him to love God with his heart, soul, mind and strength and to love his neighbor as Himself.

Oh, is that all?  WHAT!   Love God with everything and love our neighbor as ourselves?  It sounds impossible.

It is.

We can’t love God like that.  We can’t love our neighbors like that. We can’t love ourselves like that. Half the time we don’t even want to.  In confronting this truth, however, is where the secret of this chapter begins to unfurl.  Perhaps, here in our inadequacy, lies the mystery of what God wants us to give to Him.  Perhaps God is asking not for our money, or for our ability to make a list, but for the truth about our hearts.  Perhaps God is begging us to give Him our inadequacy.  Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to give to Him our very inability to give.

Jesus drives this counter-intuitive point home by saying that when we humans do “good”, we do so for praise.   He points out that the more proudly someone parades around seeking praise for their generosity, the more likely it is that that very person cheats.  And they don’t cheat the rich, Jesus says.  They cheat the “widows” – the people whom the Bible calls the most under-championed sector of society.  They cheat the people who have no voice.  They cheat the people who can’t complain, so that only God sees what’s going on.

This brings us to the end of the chapter.  Jesus praises a widow who places two small coins, known in other translations as mites, into the collection box in the Temple.  Jesus says that while others gave a tiny part of their surplus, “she, poor as she is, has given everything she has to live on.”  v. 44.

That floored me.  Oh, no, I thought.  God is asking me to give Him everything.  I can’t.

Three days went by with me being unable to write this.  Then it hit me that the widow only put in two mites.  She didn’t put in very much.  Yet Jesus praised her.  What if I tell God that I don’t have very much to give Him?

The answer is: He will leap for joy.

Because suddenly, we stumble upon our inadequacy.  And in the moment of recognizing our inadequacy, we simultaneously recognize God’s kindness.  We forget God is kind.  It’s strange, but we seem to have some kind of built-in collective forgetfulness when it comes to the attributes of God.  We really don’t seem to be able to hold on to the thought that God is good, kind, forgiving, and loving.  We think He is a cruel taskmaster, come to demand we hand over to him power of attorney to our bank accounts and walk around in smelly clothes, to be beaten up and lit on fire like those poor homeless men who sleep on the subway until they happen to meet some restless teens with matches in their pockets.

God loves us.  He asks that we come to Him with just our two mites.  He asks that we give to Him all our bad stuff.  We get to give to Him our pride – the thing that prevents us from living joyful lives.  God wants us to give Him our self-righteousness – the lie that prevents us from loving others, because we live under the delusion that we’re better than other people.  God is begging us to give to Him our miserliness – the hoarding part of us that resents having to share what we achieve, even when we achieve it by standing on the shoulders of giants.  These qualities – pride, self-righteousness and greed – are the cornerstones of miserable lives.  We have more cornerstones – vanity, jealousy, lust, coveting and fear.  This is “everything we have to live on”, and we would happily toss these mites into the collection box.

Here’s the cornerstone of the new home: Jesus makes up the difference between our two mites, and what it really costs to build God’s Home. Jesus paid the price for the construction of the heavenly home where we can live with God.  Jesus paid the price by giving everything He had.  Jesus gave up his life in order to give us life.  He went to the cross, and nailed our pride to it.  If even a bad manager will finally break down and level the insubordinate tenant farmers, Jesus was the one who stepped in the gap, paid the price owed by the farmers, and gave them what they wanted: ownership.

All He asks is that we remember.  We so often resent the death of our pride, just as those tenant farmers resented having to give to the vineyard owner his share.  We forget that while the death of pride, self-righteousness and greed hurts, in the end it brings joy, freedom and a supernatural ability to love ourselves, God and our neighbors.  When God looks at us, He sees us through the covering of Jesus’ perfection.  He sees us as perfect, because Jesus takes our two mites and, like a divine Rumplestiltskin, spins them into gold, over and over again.

So we, poor as we are, can do our Christmas shopping with light hearts.  Buy what you can afford.  Give what you have decided in your heart to give.  Make a list.  Check it twice. The New York Times reported recently that it makes people nervous if you give them an expensive present; it makes them fear they have to somehow repay you.  Give to humans not to buy their love, because that will backfire, but out of the fullness you receive from God.  Giving to earn praise or affection will never work.

Most of all, give grace to others – because God, in his kindness, mercy and love, gives us everything, when we deserve it least.

So go buy something especially nice for that truly horrible person on your list.  Buy a present for the person who drives you crazy.  Buy a gift for restless violent teens with nothing but matches in their pockets.  Buy a present for someone who hates you.  Send it anonymously.  Imagine their smile.  You know how they will feel.  You, too, have received a present you don’t deserve.   You, too, can admit you only have two mites, and still have joy. Remembering that fills us with light brighter than a star that once rose in the East and came to rest over a child born in a manger, because there was no room for him anywhere else.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 16, 2011