The Perfect Writer

I’ve always thought, how can I write when there are people who hate me?  If I’m going to say something right and true and ground it in the Word of God, shouldn’t my life be in order first?  Shouldn’t I be able to say that I have healthy relationships that are either mended by closure or growing and flourishing?  Isn’t it essential to prove that I “practice what I preach” and also demonstrate that it works?

What a terrific standard to trying living up to, right?  Zero relational hardships.  That’s just barely on this side of impossible, I’d say.  I wish very much that it were possible and I do go through temporary delusions that it might be, but reality is never far behind.

Some of my scarred relationships are earned.  I either didn’t love the person well enough, or without meaning to I caused them harm.  Other times, I’ve done nothing wrong and tried at all cost to respond well in an uncomfortable situation no matter how difficult, becoming a “yes” person and appeasing to the point of losing myself entirely. While playing this role I’ve discovered that it’s easy to let someone else dominate both the conversation and the direction of the relationship.  That’s also not healthy, and it’s certainly not thriving.

If I’m fairer with myself I realize that I do have healthy, thriving relationships.  The fact that some aren’t doesn’t take away from those that are.  I am only half of every relationship, and the ugly truth about a broken world is that the other side doesn’t always want closure or growth.  The beautiful truth of God however is that when both sides do practice His love in relationship, it does work, and I can certainly demonstrate that.

Ultimately, whether I’m relationally successful or I’m not has very little to do with whether I’m capable of doing what I know I’m called by God to do.  For the sake of God’s Holy reflection, I wish that everyone who took on the task of writing apologetically had a perfect testimony of grace, forgiveness, redemption, and restoration.  I certainly wish my own story was more tidy.  But when I dig into the lives of some of my long-dead writing mentors – AW Tozer, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien – I find that these people have messy histories.  One was considered a cold, absent father by at least 2 of his children, and those were the ones willing to be interviewed. Another refused love to the person closest to him for much of their relationship.  All of them were faithless men as adults before discovering Christ.

This was a blow to the way I viewed these people at first.  I recognized that God deserves better characters defending Him.  But who are the better people for the job?  Where are the ones with perfect records?  If they existed, we’d certainly want to hear from them, wouldn’t we?  Try opening the Bible.  It’s the only work done by perfect hands, perfect minds, and perfect love.  If after starting there we still need additional insight into how God’s Word interacts with the human experience, we have no choice but to turn to the prayerfully led but still-flawed thoughts of another broken person.

Lewis and Tozer are some of the voices that have shaped our modern understanding of what God is trying to reveal through his ancient Scriptures.  The Bible hasn’t changed, but our grasp of what it means for us today has been filtered through these men’s lives.  Their understandings aren’t perfect.  Their relationships weren’t whole.  Their own hearts were never mended in some cases.  But we do not fail to recognize the wisdom in what they shared when they put aside their failings and let God’s Word do a lot of the talking.  We received from them a body of human expression that makes Scripture that much richer and more approachable.  The things they had to say were not God’s own words, but they honored God’s Word by defending it, applying it to everyday life, and even by failing to live up to it.

Isn’t it amazing how you can bring glory to God’s truth even by failing it?  In humility, we separate our choices from the Bible in those moments and say, “That one was all me.  That’s what I look like when I walk without the Lord.”  It doesn’t break the standard, it upholds the standard.  Being a fool for God is immeasurably better than being falsely thought wise.  The admission of failure serves to point toward God’s perfection.

So can I have a broken relationship (or three) and still write?  Yes.  It’s taken a long time to resolve this issue in my heart, but I finally came to a place where I realized that if I stopped following where I understood God to be leading, it would mean that my failures were greater than what He can accomplish through me.  It was my mistake for believing that my works could ever get in the way of His.  At most, I’m a footnote on just one page, appearing in a single chapter of His book on eternity.  Insignificance never feels as good as the moment realize you simply can’t make a mistake bigger than God can redeem.


Let me speak to my fellow writers out there for just a moment.  Have you ever started writing with a specific idea in mind, only to have God segue you into another thought entirely?  It happens to me all the time, more often than not, I’d say.  I think it happens to a lot of people who are open to God’s steering of their mental vehicle.  Can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked on a Francis Chan video named for one topic only to watch 25 minutes or so of him teaching a completely different topic, then have my world rocked by his wisdom and insight, and finally realize that his message has careened so wildly off-topic that I can’t be sure how we arrived at our current destination.  And yet every single time, I’m so glad for the ride he’s just invited me along for.  You can just tell with that man, you can tell that God isn’t a passenger in his car.  He’s the driver, the pilot, the captain.

I can’t pretend to say that I stand anywhere near to Mr. Chan on the scale of Godly wisdom, but I’d like to have enough confidence in my faith to say that when I recognize God’s voice, and I listen to it, the words tend to take me where I least expect.

Take tonight for example.  I came in here to talk about a throwback topic from 2 years ago when I made a Facebook poll asking my friends whether I should take back a single dollar bill that was given me by mistake while at the bank.  You see I was at Bed, Bath & Beyond the other day to buy coasters, and the clerk somehow forgot to ring them up before bagging them, and so I never got charged for them.  I realized only after I got home and found that the total on my receipt was 8 dollar and some change.  I knew the coasters to be 12.99 alone, so, you can see where my thinking was headed.  It wasn’t just a dollar this time…..  But I digress.  Because of course, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have the heart to write about that.

I’m rather uncomfortable with this topic because it’s such a personal one.  This one’s a heavy hitter for me, so if you start to feel a little beat up, just remember I’m right there with you.

When I sat down tonight, what flowed from my heart wasn’t about coasters or retail justice like I’d thought it would be.  No.  Here’s what God has laid on my heart.

Forgiveness.  No, not that kind of forgiveness.  Real forgiveness.  The kind that allows you to look someone in the eye for the first time in years.  The kind that begins to erase the pathways of pain in your mind.

Forgiveness is what allows people to change.  Did you know that?  It’s been my children that have taught me about the need for forgiveness, as well as to forgive and be forgiven.  I have seen how difficult it is to change a behavior if there is even one person in your life who treats you like they don’t believe you capable of it, and I’ve felt it for myself.  If you keep holding someone to an outdated standard of who you’ve known them to be, then barring a herculean effort on their part, the most likely outcome is that they’ll indeed always be that person when in your presence.  Think about that family member or friend who has let you down, disappointed you, or maybe they’ve even attacked you personally.  What do you expect from them?  Do you cringe internally whenever they’re near?  Yea, me too.  We all have those.  Those prickly people whom we have never learned to love, and because we can’t love them, we never allow them to change.

What if one day you woke up with amnesia, God forbid.  What if the very next time you shared a dinner table with the person you most dread being near, you had no recollection of any difficult past you’d shared with them?  Clean slate.  You wouldn’t expect him to bite your head off because the painful memory of him ever doing that is gone.  And why would you be scared of her?  As far as you can remember, she’s never belittled you.  Those little recollections of rejection……all gone.  No pain.  No fear.  No anxiety.

I believe – no, I know – that we are capable of something very akin to this, though not identical.  None of us has the power to completely shut down the stress response we endure when a difficult personality is present, but what I want you to consider for a moment is just whether it’s possible that you yourself are contributing to how difficult it feels to be around that person.  I submit to you that if you believe about that person that they can never change, then even without saying the words out loud in their presence, they know how you feel.  They know precisely the judgment and the rejection. That’s right, you’re not the only one who feels rejected.  So do they.  Mistakes have been made, without a doubt, but how does a person come back from mistakes that he or she has made?  Only one way.  Forgiveness.

Ideally, forgiveness is something to be sought out by the person who needs it, but as is the case with so much in a broken world, the people who do the most hurting are hurting so badly themselves that they don’t know the steps to take to ask for it.  Sometimes they’re blinded by pride, but other times it’s their own fear of rejection that stands in the way.  So I wonder if we all ought not to become better at extending the invitation of forgiveness.

A couple of years ago we had a powerful experience of forgiveness with one of our own children.  I want to protect the privacy of the person here, so I won’t give most of the details.  It was a school conduct issue, a single occurrence that broke school policy and was stumbled into in a legitimately innocent way.  It was a serious infraction nonetheless, and something that quite frankly this particular son should have known better than to do.  When he came home from school that day, we had already received an email from the principle, and a lengthy phone call from his teacher, so we knew, and he knew that we knew.  He was emotionally devastated, and obviously had braced himself for the worst.

Now if you’ve ever been about the Shelby residence (especially during mealtime), you’ll already know that there can be bickering.  The dishes, clearing the table, not being too loud…don’t break the TV!….sit down, sit down, SIT DOWN!!  As parents, we do tend to bicker and we get after the children frequently for behavior we find inappropriate.  And I’m going to admit it right now, I’m a shouter.  It doesn’t happen often, maybe a few times a year, but when I’ve had it, I have HAD it, and I do shout in those moments.  However, when my son came out from school and could barely look at our faces, I can tell you there was no amount of misbehavior on his part that could’ve made me shout in that moment.  There was only love and forgiveness on my mind.  He was so ashamed, so far gone in his own mind, having committed the absolute worst sin possible for a small boy of his age, and the stress showed all over his body.  In his mind, he had no way back for what he’d done.

We knew our son had already been given the business by his school administrators, and he had lost some privileges going forward that year, which I would knew had to be humiliating for him.  We were disappointed, of course, but I did not even want to yell, and neither did Aaron.  He carried so much shame on his tiny shoulders already.  What he needed was forgiveness.  Without knowing that we loved him more than we cared about what he’d done, he never could’ve come back to us that day.  We told him he was not a bad person, not a bad son, not a bad student, and we invited him back into our favor by wiping away the mistake.  And it was only after forgiving his failure that he came to a place where he felt safe enough to really talk through what had happened that day.  Forgiveness became the path to the solution, not the other way around.

How can a person make their way back to you unless you allow them to through the gift of forgiveness?  The gift of being forgiven is the great equalizer that washes away the stains of the past.  It reaches out and says “Yes, you wronged me, but I am no better than you because I have wronged others as well.”  And that’s what we did with our son.  We explained to him that we had made mistakes, and then we told a few stories.  We shared what we learned from those experiences, and then we had a wonderful, genuine conversation about what it means to fail and then recover from failure.  I’ve never seen a kiddo more relieved than I did that day when we refused to condemn him for what he had done wrong.

What if we refused to condemn anyone for what they do wrong?  My son’s small shoulders were stooped with the weight and knowledge of his mistake.  How much heavier are the weights on adult shoulders who fully realize the implications of what they’ve done?  Go back to that person who sometimes causes discord in your life.  They know that they do that.  Oh sure, they don’t admit it; they don’t even apologize for it.  But truth is truth, and they know what their part is, and that’s the weight of what they live with.  How can they ever take hold of the new creation God wants them to be if you stand witness to their past?  Are you silently pointing to the old mistakes as though there is something to be gained for yourself in doing so?  It’s ok to admit it if you are, because I will be there with you.  Without realizing it, I have been forcing people into old molds for years, expecting history to repeat itself, rolling my eyes in smug self-righteousness when it does. But I hope you can agree with me that that’s sick.  It’s the symptom of a sickness to console yourself with an “I told you so” while someone in your life needs love.  It’s cruel to marginalize someone for being difficult when their only path to end the difficulty is authentic relationship, which may not even have been offered.

So what does this look like?  What are the concrete, self-help steps to reaching out in authentic relationship?  I’d love to give them to you, but I haven’t got them.  I’m pretty sure it’s not a formula you can type up in black and white anyhow, but if you ever come across such a thing, send it my way, will you?

Here’s what I do know, and even if I’d had a list to give you, I’d still tell you that this is of infinitely greater value:  God can move your heart and theirs.  You don’t need to have a plan, and I don’t need to worry about making the change happen myself.  Leave room for God.  Go into encounters with an open heart, and leave room for Him to work.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just shown up and done nothing more, only to see God working for me because I’ve finally gotten out of the way to let Him.  He can do this even without your help, but you cannot do it without His, so why not give him a little more room to work with?

While I don’t have a list of steps to take, I do have a personal list of things that make for a more joyful Christina, and they have led me to greater peace in conversation, stronger relationships, and a deeper acceptance of others.  So this is just my 2 cents, and I’m happy if you take it or if you leave it all, but it’s just what works for me.

Say fewer things.  Be flexible.  Smile, but only if it’s a natural smile.  Ask for forgiveness.  Treat people like you’ve forgiven them even if you’re still working it out in your heart.  Talk to people with respect.  Apologize.  Have fewer opinions, especially about things that just don’t matter.  Give God control of the schedule.  We all have the same 24 hours every day and why does it matter whether we’re napping or working or cooking or coloring or stuck in traffic?  Be careful about assumptions.  Care less about the detours and more about eternity.  Take in more than you put out.  Believe people, even when they say something crazy.  Find a healthy balance, not going too far one way, nor too far the other.  Encourage others.  Sing.  If you think of someone, or if you say a prayer for them, tell them.  Don’t be afraid to say I love you.  Pray, all the time.  Patience.  Trust God more than any human construct.  Be the friend you wish everyone else would be to you.  Be inclusive.  Throw a party every now and then, for the heck of it.    Forgive.  Forgive.  Forgive.

It bears repeating because if it’s needed once, it’s almost always needed more than once.  70 times 7 was not a math problem.  It also wasn’t a suggestion.

Who do you need to forgive?

July 7th

I’m a person of very strong faith.  There is just not much that brings everything to a full stop and makes me really doubt what I’ve found to be true time and time again about God or His promises. Do I reconsider? Sure.  Reevaluate? Constantly! Doubting though…that’s not something I struggle with very often.

There is one thing, however,  that really keeps me up at night, wondering about the existence-or at very least-the goodness of God.  That one thing is hearing of someone leaving this world while reportedly still an atheist.  Stephen Hawking’s death is a particularly startling one, because I’ve read many of his works and took from them a body of evidence that gave me a very strong suspicion that he was in fact a closet believer.  (More on that maybe another time.)

What really bothers me about this business of dying an atheist is the fact that faith in a Creator is, at least in part, a deeply selfish act of self-preservation.  Many in America feel that Christianity is about being better than someone else, or that it’s a mechanism to help life’s harsh realities be a bit softer.  Maybe some do abuse it that way, but I don’t personally know any of those “christians”. The believers I know and love would all tell you the same reason for their faith. We’re all dying of an incurable disease of self and self-centeredness, and there is no hope of waking up from it without the restorative powers of God Himself. Belief in Jesus is self-preservation.  We do it because we know that we’re sick, and ultimately dying.  Not to help us enjoy this life, but to help us endure after death.

Faith is humanity’s last feeble cry to a God that they find obviously unreachable on their own, but who professes Himself to be good and loving.  So we reach for Him, we trust Him to carry us from this life into the next.  We lean on Him, we depend on Him and “cast our cares” onto Him, because He is the only hope. Faith in God is not just a selfish act, of course, it’s much, much more, but it really can’t be denied that first and foremost, it’s a profound choice in favor of saving one’s own skin.

So when someone has what appears to be great confidence (but I suppose may turn out to really be great arrogance) about entering the afterlife without a loving God, I take sharp notice.  Freud did it.  Hawking did it. Sagan did it.  Nietzsche did it.  Why?  Why would they choose death salvation is offered freely?  Why alienate their only hope, which comes from a Father who so lovingly pursues?

I finally brought these thoughts to Aaron, and in the way that only he can, he gave the simple reply that the answer I’d been looking for, unastonishingly, was pride.  I immediately knew that he was right (and asked myself for a hundredth time why I always wrestle with something so long before asking for his view on it).  I should have known, it’s always pride in the end, every sin that ever was.  It’s the simple act of saying “I know better than God.”

These famous names, all the ones I’ve listed and so many more, refused to believe in a God that they didn’t understand, Aaron explained. In the bright minds of these people, their own ability to comprehend a thing is what makes the thing believable or unbelievable. To paraphrase CS Lewis though, if God could be fully understood by our finite and clumsy minds, would He really be God to us?  No.  A God that fits inside the mind of a mortal could only disappoint. So in the end, for these brilliant men, it was their brilliance that deceived them into unbelief.  They simply thought too much of themselves, and left no room for God.

Isn’t this metaphorical of the America of today?  My understanding, my feelings, my wants, my desires, my regrets, my fears….  All are elevated to a position that is thought so sacred and so worthy of attention that laws are made from it, courts are backed up litigating it, relationships are thrown away, and abuses of liberty are rampant. All because we know best.  I shouldn’t be pregnant. My marriage is a mistake. She’s not worthy of reconciliation.  My regrets are his responsibility.  He’s not my president.  I won’t share space with that woman.  That was a smug look on that clerk.  The waitress brought my food out cold.  That child is disturbing my peace.

We throw people away in the most dismissive way in our hearts.  It’s who we are.  We pay exorbitant amounts of money to throw people away.  We spend countless hours, we pursue frivolous lawsuits, we cry and complain until companies bend the knee to our overactive sense of self.  We punish all who dare to offend and we alienate those few people who have the courage to speak the truth in love. We block someone out if they say things we don’t like.

My 6-year-old Benjamin, who is especially emotionally driven, covers his ears whenever Aaron or I try to correct him, no matter how loving or how gentle we are.  He refuses to hear the truth because, in his own words, “The truth hurts my feelings!!”  He is so right.  We are too fragile to hear the truth.  Are our feelings really more important than solid, stable, reliable truth?  Can we continue to bend what’s true to our own sensibilities?

After mulling all of this over for a few weeks, I’ve realized that I was asking the wrong question all along.  I never really doubted that God existed or that He was good, but rather how these people could choose such a thing for themselves.  So now the real question remains; after a life of throwing away others, wasn’t it really themselves they were regarding as worthless?  For who could throw away his own soul, when the alternative of saving it costs him nothing?

Something else I’ve learned through this experience is that every single verse in the Bible is life.  That sounds palpably obvious to Christian readers, I know, but if we admit it, we are all guilty of considering this or that passage in Scripture to be “flyover country.”  The older I get, and the more I learn about the nature of God and the nature of men, the more I realize that God has made every single verse with the power of life stored inside. “Lean not on your own understanding.”  That one was there all along, ready to address the problem of deficit that exists in our ability to comprehend the whole of God’s plan.  It’s always been there, stealthily reminding us “Hey, one day you’re going to need this very encouragement.  I’m here when you’re ready.”

Or another verse which says “you judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life..”  Wow.  I didn’t even know about that one until yesterday while I was playing catch-up in the summer reading our church is doing.  That one was just sitting there waiting for me to find.  Isn’t there life in that verse?  When I read it, I see God teaching us that even in not choosing, we are still choosing.  We judge ourselves worthy or unworthy of eternity.  Powerful freedom there.

How about Romans 1:25? “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself…”  What does that mean?  I think it speaks to the illusions that we so easily convince ourselves of.

At least one of you reading this worships sex, even though it’s a created thing, unworthy of your worship.  You don’t even realize that it’s a kind of worship, but it is.  Has sex been elevated to such a position of priority that other decisions are secondary to it?  Does your living arrangement or your very beliefs about God submit to your sexual desires?

Someone else worships nature, even though its sole purpose (which it fulfills brilliantly) is to reveal the invisible attributes of God (Rom 1:20), not to become God itself. Nature is a part of this creation, and it deserves our respect in caring for it, but it isn’t sacred. It does not bear the image of God, it only gives witness of Him.  So we protect it, and we preserve it, and we give thanks for all it does for us.  But we do not go to it for restoration and we certainly can’t put hope in its ability to carry us from this life to the next.

Lastly, most of us can say we’ve been guilty of worshiping the self, and prioritizing our own agenda above things that there can be no doubt belong higher.  I once saw authentic love described as “seeking the highest good of others,” but oh it’s so hard to place someone else’s good above my own.  Now we’re back to “my feelings, my needs…”

The beginning of wisdom is saying I care less about my own thoughts and opinions and more about what God thinks.  This belief is why you’ll never catch Aaron or myself at a Bible study that does not ask about the mind and the intentions and the heart of God.  If God is the originator of everything, than His thoughts and His ways are the ONLY ones that count.  I must submit my own understanding to His.  My heart is hopelessly wicked and incurable.  It’s unstable, and it knows no truth apart from what it wants.  Despite knowing the disease of my own heart, I find safety and comfort in following my heart.  It thinks it knows best.  And so I dabble with atheism myself, without realizing, and I have seasons where I pretend that I am God.  That’s when things go badly.

Ultimately I always return to the place where I need God to right my ship and give me a true heading.  And with God as my compass, I can safely turn away from my own understandings, and follow THE Truth; the only living Truth who has a demonstrated ability to protect and preserve the one part of me that’s worth saving – my soul.

I’d like to share a lengthy but worthy quote from Max Lucado:

Paul was writing to Corinthian Christians, people who had been schooled in the Greek philosophy of a shadowy afterlife. Someone was convincing them that corpses couldn’t be raised, neither theirs nor Christ’s. The apostle couldn’t bear such a thought. “Let me go over the Message with you one final time” (1 Cor. 15:1 MSG). With the insistence of an attorney in closing arguments, he reviewed the facts: “[ Jesus] was raised from death on the third day… he presented himself alive to Peter… his closest followers… more than five hundred of his followers… James… the rest of those he commissioned… and… finally… to me” (1 Cor. 15:4–8 MSG).

Line up the witnesses, he offered. Call them out one by one. Let each person who saw the resurrected Christ say so. Better pack a lunch and clear your calendar, for more than five hundred testifiers are willing to speak up.

Do you see Paul’s logic? If one person claimed a post-cross encounter with Christ, disregard it. If a dozen people offered depositions, chalk it up to mob hysteria. But fifty people? A hundred? Three hundred? When one testimony expands to hundreds, disbelief becomes belief. Paul knew, not handfuls, but hundreds of eyewitnesses. Peter. James. John. The followers, the gathering of five hundred disciples, and Paul himself. They saw Jesus. They saw him physically.

They saw him factually. They didn’t see a phantom or experience a sentiment. Grave eulogies often include such phrases as “She’ll live on forever in my heart.” Jesus’ followers weren’t saying this. They saw Jesus “in the flesh.” When he appeared to the disciples, he assured them, “It is I myself!” (Luke 24:39 NIV).

Five hundred witnesses left a still-resounding testimony: It’s SAFE to die.

It’s safe to die.  What an outlandish statement!  Death….What could ever make it safe?  I wouldn’t dare try to make that crossing on my own power. Who’s power then? Who has authority over death?  We must be talking unfathomable power, more than we could ever grasp with our minds.

Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” I don’t know about Stephen Hawking, but there is no way I’m finishing this ride without putting my faith in someone who Himself has first defeated death. To do so would be to judge myself unworthy of God’s best, and if I look to my own understanding, it’s easy to lean that way.  But it’s God who says I am loved, I am wanted, I have been spared for a purpose.  I am worthy of eternity, and so is Stephen Hawking.  I hope I meet him there.