The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

October 3, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
0 comments

What do we really mean when we say we must proclaim the truth at all costs?

(Please see the note at the bottom of this post.)

Last week, autumn ran a high fever.  I took oddly sweat-prickled walks in an environment that would normally be associated with cr-words like crisp and crunch and crumble, used interchangeably for the air or the leaves or the desserts.  I found myself somewhat guiltily enjoying the hot sunshine because honestly, there was something a bit “off” about it.

This is true of many things; though something may be entirely appropriate and desirable in a certain setting, it can be discordant and a bit disturbing in a different context.  I think this can be especially true of our words.

Growing up we learn very quickly that certain statements, no matter how true they might be, should simply not be loudly proclaimed in a crowded aisle at Target.  The time for brutal honesty may not be a friend’s gallery opening or book release or to a woman who finally reveals herself after prepping two hours for a date.  I think we all can think of examples of this happening to us or our children.  (If you can’t, I’m certain my family has some extras to share with those less fortunate.)

Yes, it’s true that there are some things that need to be said even when the setting isn’t entirely perfect.  There are hard but necessary truths, proclamations against injustices or wrongs, which we shouldn’t keep to ourselves, even when the environment isn’t accommodating to them.  But lately I’m aware that there are times when we use the excuse of “hard but necessary truth” to shortcut the cultivation of that certain element in the environment that should always be abundantly present when speaking the truth: Love.

Last week my daughter did something that conjured up some particularly difficult feelings.  I was angry and afraid and, smack dab in the middle of that tense moment, out of those feelings I uttered something that was true… but that didn’t make it right.  I hurt my daughter and I hurt our relationship. In addition she most likely wasn’t even really able to consider what I was saying because in an environment of fear and anger she couldn’t feel safe to open her heart and her mind to receive my words.  I am sure this is why we’re admonished in scripture to speak the truth in love.  Truth may be absolutely valuable and necessary and appropriate, but if truth is dispelled in an environment that is not adequately saturated with love, it most likely won’t find a receptive target.

I’ve been considering this week if certain things being said by the church are exactly like that.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his treatise on love by saying,

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

1 Corinthians 13:1

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  Think of it!  Even if we speak truth as beautifully and powerfully as angels, if we don’t have love for the people of whom or with whom we speak, then all that is heard is discord!  Even if we’re offering our best points or our most poignant arguments, no matter which words we use or how well they’re spoken, if we don’t have love, all we’re creating is ugly noise.

The world says it this way, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”  The Bible says it this way,  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  How often does what we say and what we know mean nothing because we don’t have love for those with which we’re sharing?

When I’ve heard people in the church talk about this issue, they seem to be articulating a certain tension.  What we end up saying is something that sounds like, “Well, the truth is so important that we must proclaim it at any cost.”  Sometimes it feels like what that means is that we must proclaim the truth even if we neglect to show love to people in the meantime, as if the collateral damage of hurt people and estranged relationships is “worth the cost” of dropping some truth bombs. But actually then, isn’t what we’ve actually decided to do sometimes is act out of an economy in which we have too little love to spare?  If we are a people for whom love has been poured out in such great measure, even to death, then how can we possibly have so little of it to give away in the cause of truth?

Do we live in a scarcity of either truth or love?  Must we choose one or the other?  No! In the economy from which we’re operating, we have access to both through Christ.  In fact, truth and love are inseparable companions!  “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” 

All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

“Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.”

Brothers and sisters, I hope you do not hear this essay as me undervaluing the truth.  Instead, I hope that what I am communicating is that I value the truth so much that I am encouraging us to invest a little more love in it.  Truth is absolutely valuable and necessary and appropriate but, as I’m learning with my daughters, if truth is dispelled in an environment that is not adequately saturated with love, it most likely won’t find a receptive target.  What can we do to make love the environment in which truth is spoken, both together defining the all activities of children of God?  So here is the question I’m asking myself and others in the church:  Are there times in which we must take stock of how much love we have cultivated in our relationships with certain people or groups of people before we can appropriately dispense truth?

NOTE: After posting this, several of the comments on Facebook made me realize that I may have neglected to address a few important issues.  First of all, my overall aim with this post was to examine the way we sometimes haphazardly handle the truth.  When an issue is one that arouses strong or difficult emotions, we can sometimes find ourselves wanting to come out swinging- fight back, have our say- and speak out of anger or fear without considering or even caring how what we’re saying is received.  Our other instinct may be the opposite– to retreat and avoid the issue at all costs.  What I’m trying to explore in this post is NOT the idea that we should avoid speaking the truth if it is a hard or difficult truth or may cause some pain or hurt.  Rather, I’m proposing that we DO speak the truth, but that we choose the correct context in which to do it.  Sometimes that means examining our motives in sharing the truth.  Usually it means waiting for the right moment.  Almost always, I think, it is wise when sharing the truth to be sure that the person or people with whom we’re sharing a difficult truth know that we care about them and want the best for them.  The latter part of my essay explores the ways in which the church sometimes speaks the truth outside of the context of that kind of relationship.  I think that the church has pushed away a lot of people because we’ve tried to be truth-speakers without being love-givers.  Truth AND love.  Truth IN love. 

September 18, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
3 Comments

When you’re afraid to hope…

Sometimes, mostly when we’re younger, Hope is an animal of mythical proportions, comprised of features that would not dare, on this planet, to gather together on any single animal that grazes or soars or swims.  We like to hitch ourselves to those crazy creatures on occasion and take wild rides over the Milky Way and around our dreams.  Often, as we grow older, we might still use the word “hope” but it no longer is a creature vibrant and active in our life.  It becomes nothing more than a word that adds itself, flimsy and feeble, into a phrase that we use when don’t know how to do anything else.  I hope you feel better.  I hope she gets what she needed.  I hope the war ends soon.  Hope becomes a weak cover for our powerlessness.

What would happen if I went out one night and rounded up my old hopes again?  If I tip-toed into the field where I’ve put them out to pasture and whistled for them, would they still come to me when I called?  Would they even recognize me in my own soft and domesticated middle-aged body?  Could I hitch myself to them again and would we be able to fly under the weight of my mortgage and my responsibilities and obligations and all the other baggage that comes with me now?

For some of us, a wild hope has become an unwelcome hope. We wouldn’t want to be accused of failing to tame those crazy things to accommodate the homes and communities and families and churches where we make our lives now.  Rather than allow them to run through our imaginations, feathers and scales and horns and wings making a horrible mess, we force them to sit nicely until they grow soft and domesticated like petting zoo creatures willing to politely nibble on treats offered by nice, suburban children.  Polite hopes are the kinds I’m supposed to keep at this stage of my life because the wilder ones are unbecoming a woman my age.  Better we introduce those to our children who can keep them in a more suitable habitat, at their ballet studio or circus class or soccer field.

When other mothers and I talk about their hopes, there’s almost always a nice, long beat.  I’d call it a pregnant pause, but it’s nothing nearly as fertile as that.  It’s more like the bubble you feel in your memory when something that seems important has temporarily resisted recall.  And then when a response does come, usually haltingly, it’s almost always linked very firmly to the phrase “my children.”  I think it is because we worry that if we have a hope for something separate from them, then it might mean that we have to be separated from them.

What if we do have a hope that doesn’t seem to fit very well into our lives? Our social circles? Our budget? Our schedule?  If we don’t see a practical way for our hope to come to fruition, should we let it go?  Over the last few years, it’s become more and more painful to hold onto  hopes  that seem incompatible with the life I am currently living.  How can I justify the risk of keeping those wild things if they only serve of reminders of more than this when I’m trying so hard to be content with just this.  If I have to choose between hope and contentment, contentment usually seems the safer of the two options.  But is there a place where both can dwell together?

There’s this that verse starts out Hebrews 11:

Usually when I read that verse I see it as a definition for faith.  It tells us what faith is and of course that is important to understand because without faith it is impossible to please God.  Recently, reading this verse I saw something different though.   I realized that without hope there is no faith!   If faith is the substance of things hoped for, then without hope we have nothing around which to form that faith substance.

In Psalm 33 it says that the eyes of the Lord are on those whose hope is in His steadfast love. He’s looking out for the Hopers! It pleases Him when we put our hope in His steadfast love that, we are told in another verse, never ceases and in His mercies that never come to an end; the ones that are new every morning!

This “every morning” part in particular is so encouraging to me.  Usually I can manage to eek up some hope for heaven and all the promises related to eternity with Jesus.  Heaven is surely Hope’s ultimate natural habitat.  But some seasons (pretty much literally the entire season of winter) it’s hard for me to allow myself to conjure up much hope for mornings in this broken and hurting place.  But the hope we have in God is not a resigning hope.  It is an active hope; one which we can wake up and expectantly seek out every morning of our lives.  Scripture tells us that His goodness and lovingkindness follows us all the days of our life, not just when we get to heaven.  We can and should hope to see God’s goodness in the land of the living!

It’s not that every dream I have ever had will be fulfilled, but to be afraid to hope is to neglect to grasp the fullness of who He is to us and how He is for us.  

To hope is not merely to wish. To hope is to come to know the One who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine.  It is to have faith- the substance of things hoped for- in Him who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

For us who know Jesus, Hope is more than a mythological creature to which we hitch ourselves on occasion and take wild rides over the Milky Way and around our dreams.  Hope is not something that we can only fully grasp when we get to heaven. Ours is a living hope! Our hope is a person who has loved us with an everlasting love and who draws us to Him with unfailing kindness.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

August 22, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
0 comments

When it’s time to admit you’re foolish and weak

Sometimes I wonder if Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap.  That adjective’s permanently affixed to his name as if Jesus Himself placed it there.  Actually, Thomas’ name never appears that way in scripture.  Reading through John, the whole story unfolds quite differently than how I had remembered. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, Thomas was not present.  Jesus stood in their midst but it isn’t until He revealed His wounds that they really recognized Him.  Later the disciples recalled this experience to Thomas and he responded by saying that he would not believe that it was the Lord until he could experience those wounds for himself.  Several days later, when Jesus appears again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, Thomas didn’t actually ask Jesus for that proof.  Jesus, unbidden, invited Thomas to touch His hands and His side.

Fanny Crosby, a prolific hymn writer and poet, composed a hymn which spoke about Jesus’ wounds as well.  The chorus goes:

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,

And redeemed by His side I shall stand!

I shall know Him, I shall know Him By the print of the nails in His hand.

All this attention to His wounds got me to thinking about them.

Why does Fanny Crosby care so much about His wounds?

In every bio I came across online, almost the first thing that was revealed about Fanny was that she was blind.   Though the world often considers blindness a disability, she understood it differently:

“It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”  

It’s revealing that this woman who is blind would focus on how she would know Jesus in heaven by seeing His wounds.  I wonder if someone for whom her life was defined primarily through a “brokenness” in her body might see a particular beauty in Jesus brokenness?  What humans see as proof that a person might not be fit for use by Him (a disability, a weakness, a person’s opposition to Him or sinfulness), in scripture God routinely reveals as the reason why He chose them.  If Jesus’ perfected resurrected body is a wounded body, couldn’t it be true that our broken and wounded places might fit, with no incongruity at all, into His picture of beauty and perfection for our lives as well?

Why does Thomas care so much about His wounds?

Have you ever been in a circumstance in which it felt as if the hope that you held closest to your heart had been denied, only to hear from someone else around you that hers have been fulfilled?  Interestingly, in the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead, Thomas had been the disciple that seemed most eager to bear witness to that resurrection story.  It seems plausible that Thomas might have, in the time of grieving following Jesus’ death, held close to his heart a hope that he would witness another resurrection story featuring Jesus.  Yet when a resurrected Jesus did appear to His disciples, He did so at a time when Thomas was not present.  So imagine how Thomas felt when the other disciples ran excitedly to him, telling him about how they had born personal witness to the risen Savior.

If I were Thomas, I might have wondered if there were something about me that was less worthy or less important than the other disciples to have not been allowed to experience the resurrected Christ personally. And maybe Thomas was a man who didn’t just want to bear witness but wanted to literally dig deep, actually get his hands dirty, in this amazing thing that God was doing.  That Jesus allowed Thomas to do this, invited Him to touch and see Him in such a real and intimate way, is truly a testament to how well Jesus knew and loved him.   To Thomas, perhaps not only seeing but also being able to place his hands in the resurrected body of Jesus was confirmation that Jesus cared enough to give Thomas a special place in the resurrection story.

Why did the disciples care so much about His wounds?

A resurrected Jesus is a perfected Jesus.  I’ll admit that I have a hard time believing that Christians who appear too pretty or too perfect are real.  When I see a believer who presents the skin of her life as being smooth and unmarred, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’d be able to relate to a person like me whose stretchmarks and battle wounds pucker and pull at me still.  Disclosing scars is revealing the paths of our lives carved like a map across our identity.  We can look at them on each other and say, “I’ve been there too!”  Jesus came to earth as the Messiah (which means “God with us”), because He’s not only with us, He’s for us.  He became weak so that we would know that He understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses and therefore can be a perfect advocate on our behalf.  Jesus knew His wounds would allow the disciples to recognize and identify Him by where He’d been.  In this situation like in so many, wounds are authenticating.

Why did Jesus care so much about His wounds?

For Jesus, His wounds are not a source of shame.  His scars were not something to hide, they were something to reveal because Jesus’ wounds are not His ugliness, they are His beauty.  Jesus’ suffering was not his downfall, it was His glory.  Jesus made Himself weak to reveal God’s strength. In the same way, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  The truth is, sometimes to reveal God’s strength, we must disclose our weakness.  In fact, as we learn from Paul, sometimes our weakness is the thing in which we should boast.  The theme appears a lot in his writing in fact:

Admit that you are foolish and weak. For, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;" 1 Corinthians 1:27 | #foolish, #wise, #weak, #strong, #chosen, #god

I’m part of a group of women planning on event on September 20th at a church in Bloomington, MN called Three Stories.  The purpose of the event is to encourage women to reveal themselves and  share their stories, their real selves and real stories, so that the real Jesus may be revealed in and through them.  Find and follow us on Facebook to learn more.

August 20, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
7 Comments

A decidedly unspiritual post….

OK, I read it this morning too.  The sweet but inspiring post written for us moms with babies entering Kindergartner in the fall.  And I’m feeling the twinge.  Probably more than I’d like to admit.  But overall, I’m anticipating the fall with some….well, the word “glee” comes to mind but it’s not quite strong enough. Those moms who started the summer announcing to Facebook how excited they were to be at home with their kids for the next three months? I wasn’t one of them. I love my children, but they are aggressively engaging, infinitely energetic 3,4 and 5 year olds and I am an introvert.

Sure enough, we’re starting the countdown to preschool and kindergarten and I feel like the fairgrounds the day after everyone has packed up and gone home.  In fact, this almost literally describes the scene you might witness if you drove by my house right now: Dust covering everything, litter blowing in the wind, garbage repositories overflowing, manure…I won’t get too graphic, but you’re getting the picture, right?  It ain’t looking too pretty around these parts.  And the worst part is, I almost don’t care.

As I described yesterday, it’s been almost impossible for me to enjoy many parts of motherhood this week, including the sweet little snuggles my daughters seek from me when they get hurt.  I’m just so burned out.  Usually, I’m one of those moms who carefully maps out her children’s plates with each of the food groups.  But the last few days, here’s the basic meal “plan.”

Breakfast: Toast or cereal

Lunch: Nachos.  Not even the kind where you sneak some vegetables on top or toss on some salsa and call it a vegetable.  Solely tortilla chips with a can of black beans and some cheese sprinkled over the top,  heated up in the microwave.

Dinner:  Eggs.  Just eggs.

Deep from my somewhere inside, I’ve had a rumbling– remarkably like a stomach growling when it’s empty–growing louder and louder announcing that my body needs something.  I know what it is, but I’ve pretty much been ignoring it for…..oh, probably 6 years: A good old-fashioned break.  Instead, I have been listening to that voice in my head that tells me that the good moms, especially the ones who have God in their corner, just kind of fly through motherhood facing any strong winds they encounter with the grace of a movie star on the deck of a fake ship– head on, eyes forward, hair gently blowing in a way that perfectly complements dainty features, chin up, Buttercup!  Instead, every moment of motherhood lately makes me feel a lot more like this:


Each time a I hear the whining warning in the distance, anticipating the arrival of someone to tattle about her sister’s latest minor offense,

Each time someone announces she’s bored with a face full of expectation that I’m going to remedy that for her,

Each time someone stumbles towards me proudly toting her overflowing bucket of “grass soup” which is splashing all over the clean laundry I’ve finally managed to complete…

I’m whimpering inside.

I can hear the Count whispering in my ear, “I’ve just sucked one year of your life away.”  Every single one of those moments feels as powerfully life-draining as his creepy invention.

I just keep praying and praying for God to give me rest.  I’m imagining that I’ll experience this supernatural surge of energy sweeping through my body and mind and spirit, refreshing me like God himself has breathed new life into me.  But, to be perfectly honest, I’m just not feelin’ it.  And I keep wondering why.  What am I doing wrong?

Reading through Acts this morning, I got to the story of Saul’s conversion to Paul.  You remember probably, Saul literally had a supernatural encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus.  He was blinded for three days and then Jesus, through a vision, sent a man named Ananias to the house where Saul was staying so that Ananias could lay hands on him.  He did and immediately there fell from Saul’s eyes something like scales. He could see again! He got up and was baptized.  But here was my favorite verse from the passage I read this morning:

And he took food and was strengthened. (Acts 9:19)

Huh.  There had just been a series of miracles performed that would shape the church for millennium to come and what is the first thing Saul does to strengthen him for the work ahead? He eats food.  As simple as that. He took something as bodily and earthly as possible and he used it for the very practical purpose for which it was intended.  It wasn’t a meal that was supernaturally granted, the result of a miracle or the culmination of 40 days of fasting and prayer and worship.  Saul probably just grabbed some bread and put it in his mouth.

So this morning, I’m thinking of all the natural, bodily, earthly blessings of God and realizing how often I’ve taken them for granted.  Too frequently I’ve neglected to receive them as the gift I needed in the moment while I was waiting for something else much more miraculous to come along.  So friends if you are hungry, eat and if you are tired, rest and if you need some affection, find someone who will give you a hug and if you need to hear from a friend, call one and if you are looking for something meaningful to do with your life, bring a meal to the lonely lady on your street or call up your local foster care agency and ask how you can help.  Stop waiting for the supernatural and accept what God’s already put right in front of you in amazing abundance.  (Preaching to myself  big time on this one!)

August 19, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
0 comments

What if sometimes it is not more blessed to give than to receive?

The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about compassion. Moms are sort of the archetypical picture of compassion, soothing fevered brows and kissing scraped knees and all that.  But these days mothering feels to me more like small bodies hurtling in my direction and  plastering sweaty limbs and slimy hands across the surface of my skin like octopi, rudely demanding a band-aid or sympathetic utterance for even the smallest wound from a sister, a sidewalk or just the world at large. Frequently my body is mounded over by this small clump of humanity, buried under one child or three, all slurping greedily  from the well of a mother’s compassion.  Lately, I must admit, the well’s felt a little dry.

That press of broken bodies, that thirsty slurp of humanity’s need; that’s what I pictured Jesus experiencing when he returned to shore in Matthew 14.  Jesus, after hearing of John’s beheading, had withdrawn by boat to a solitary place. But no sooner does he reach shore than he finds that crowds of people are waiting for him, having followed him on foot from the surrounding cities. I’m can see myself in that position, desiring to withdraw only to find this extremely needy throng of people ready to pounce as soon as he sets his foot on shore. So when we’re told, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick,” I’m ashamed.

What’s hard for me to admit is that when I’ve been meditating on compassion these last few weeks, what I’ve actually been thinking about is not how I can give more, but how I feel like I need more. Lately, when I see my own miniature mob of needy humanity, I’ve wanted to take out a hammer and pound out a tall fence to surround myself to keep the slurpers from bleeding me completely dry. So reading how Jesus, in a single sentence and seemingly without even a second thought, immediately has compassion on the crowd— Well, it seems like an impossibly high standard to achieve.

For whatever reason, it’s a lot more comfortable to be in a position to give than to be in a position to receive. I’d rather be like Jesus than like the mob. Wouldn’t we all? But in my most private thoughts and the moments when my children are my only audience, I have to admit that I more closely resemble the broken masses than calm and collected Jesus, always ready to dispense infinite compassion.

So as I’ve been thinking about compassion, I was interested to read that the word actually comes from ‘compati’ which means “to suffer with.” Compati comes from ecclesiastical Latin which was a form of Latin developed to preach and otherwise communicate with ordinary people. Basically “compassion” is a word developed by the church out of a need to express the concept of “suffering with” to ordinary people. In a way it seems fitting since Jesus came to earth to suffer for and with ordinary people. Weak people. Needy people. But what we don’t like to admit is that needy and weak is the state in which every single one of us human beings exists (not just those other “ordinary” people).

But what about Jesus?  Certainly He is the one human being who has never experienced weakness, right? I don’t think that’s exactly true. After all we are told, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…” He experienced the body’s need for food and water and rest. He experienced the depths of human emotion and grief. He chose to take on human form, emptied Himself, and laid down his life to be crucified in weakness. Jesus’ body was broken under the weight of our sins before He was raised again by God’s power. So though Jesus is not inherently weak in the same sense that we are, He made himself weak in order to complete the glorious and glorifying work He was sent to do.

What I left out about Jesus’ encounter with the masses may actually be the most important fact: Upon close examination of the passage, we find that Jesus meets that great throng of human need after having already gone out on the boat to seclusion and returning to shore. As was his well-established habit when alone, Jesus likely spent a portion of His time talking with God, opening His heart, offering up needs, and receiving God’s strength and refreshment in full measure so that He was ready again to pour Himself out.

We have an enemy of our soul and one of his favorite devices is to convince us that we should be ashamed to admit our true state. The enemy wants to do all he can to keep us from acknowledging and acting out of the reality of our dependency on God because he never wants us to be in a position to ask for and accept all that God would offer us.

It’s not a surprise to God how weak we are, He knows that we are dust. He created us from it. We should not be surprised by our weakness either. We shouldn’t feel shame when we realize that we’re just never going to be enough or have enough to give. Instead, we should take a cue from Jesus, who even though He was enough, still chose make His requests known to God and put Himself into a position to receive.  Sometimes we need to retreat, lay ourselves down before God so that we too could be raised by God’s power (not ours) out of the places we are weak and dead. He promises he will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He assures us He will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. But to truly know all that He is and does for us, we first must acknowledge that that weak and flickering and weary and faint IS what we are.

God will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. Jeremiah 31:25 | #god, #refresh, #weary, #satisfy

August 1, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
0 comments

When you wonder if you’re good enough, smart enough and whether or not God likes you

Sometime ago a part of me starting curling into itself self-protectively.  Soft at first, like a snail separated from its shell.  But after a few good hits from life , it hardened itself into a balled fist.

Once in a while, I use this fist to shake at my circumstances or other people who I feel have done me or others I care about some injustice.  Maybe even sometimes at God.  Most often, I use it to beat myself up.

See, you’ve proven again you don’t deserve any better.

You’ll never get anywhere good until you break that bad habit. 

That’s what you get for making that wrong decision. 

A couple of weeks ago reading John, I got to Chapter 3.  Maybe I had missed the clear truth of it before, sitting in the shadow of John 3:16 (the verse  it seems the whole world knows). But this time John 3:17 gleamed on the page:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

And almost immediately, that fist in my chest started to loosen.

Whenever I’ve read this verse in the past, I’ve thought mostly of condemnation in the sense of heaven vs. hell.  I know that through Jesus’ death, I am no longer sentenced to an eternity separated from God.  But I don’t think I’ve fully realized how He might also save me from all the other ways that we feel condemned along the way.

When we talk of a condemned man, we mean one that has been sentenced to death.  But there are lots of ways a person can lose a life before they actually die.  Though I know the truth of His perfect love, clenched in that fist is a dose of venomous doubt.  I find myself assuming that if I’d just done something a little differently…if I had loved God better or more purely… maybe things would have been better.  If life is an investigation to find what we’re made of, maybe He’s found me unworthy.  What if God has been taking first this thing and then another thing away,  even cutting off whole parts of who I am, all because He never really liked me much to begin with?  What if all He has in store for me is more and more death?

I love the story of the woman who was set to be stoned because of her adultery until Jesus says famously, “Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone.”

Her accusers leave one by one until only Jesus and the woman are left.  And so He asks her, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

I’d always just assumed this question was hypothetical since it’s obvious that not one remains of those who had sought to end her life.  But I wonder if maybe He’s asking the question because He knows that deep down inside, this woman might be standing there hearing one more voice of condemnation shouting at her:  Her own.   I imagine her trembling, waiting to hear the same echoed from Jesus.

But maybe just being in His presence, she’s understands the truth of who He is and who she is because of Him.  Maybe He knows she must speak that truth to her own soul. She answers him, “No one, Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Though He doesn’t say it in these exact words, I think His word tells those who believe in Him this: “See, they can’t condemn you.  I won’t condemn you.  Neither should you condemn yourself.”

John 15 is about the vine and the branches.  And it’s there that he distinguishes between pruning and condemnation.  Though both appear as a cutting away, pruning is done so that we can come into the fullness and fruitfulness of who we were created to be.  Condemnation is the end of something, pruning is the beginning.   Condemnation results in death, pruning results in an even more abundant life.

The voice telling any of us that we’re never going to be ___________ enough?  That we’ll always fall short of God’s favor?  That we’ll never experience God’s goodness or blessing until _________?  That voice is condemnation and there is no condemnation for those in Christ.  We had God’s love even when we were enemies to Him and through Christ we have His favor, goodness and grace in measure beyond what we can even fully understand.

His goodness and mercy are not just the rewards we receive when we finally get to heaven.  They don’t just follow our good days, our good choices and our good behavior.  Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life.

I’ll be the first one to admit that it doesn’t always feel that way.  Especially in those times, I’m trying to open that clenched fist and take in the truth, the anti-venom, that He (the one who identifies Himself as the resurrection and the life) has given to those who receive Him: God’s purpose in coming to earth wasn’t to bring us to death, it is to bring us to life.

July 28, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
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A Bible story that would make for some sensational reality tv

There is an ancient story of a time when God, having grown tired of the wayward tendencies of his people the Israelites, uses the life of the prophet Hosea as a real-life object lesson.

God commands Hosea to marry a woman who had or at least would have significant problems with fidelity and to start a family with her. What God called Hosea to do was pretty much beyond sensational.  It was the makings of a reality tv show of epic proportions.  But as would be the case for a reality series, there was not a big finale show with a trip around the world to the winner at the end. Hosea’s challenge wasn’t just a 6 week set-up to test the limits of the human body, mind and spirit or to entertain millions of viewers. It was this guy’s life. His whole life.  And ultimately, it is the story of what Jesus does for us.

Many of us have married a person knowing that we know is not absolutely perfect, but that is a far cry from what Hosea was called to do.  He was called to pledge his life to a person who is actually categorized in the divine text as a harlot or a prostitute, depending on which translation one is reading.   Though we’re not privy to the motivations or unfortunate circumstances leading to Gomer’s profession, we can assume she was not a person bent towards fidelity since God’s aim in setting up this situation was to paint a picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness towards Him.

I keep trying to imagine the dynamics of this relationship.  The dinner conversations.  The introductions to each other’s families.  What they might have liked to do on date night together.  Hosea is a prophet of God, most likely having built his lifestyle around principles of order, clean-living, solitude, and meditation.  Gomer is a woman who appears to have a little more chaos in her life, maybe a partier, not one who likes to stay in one place or with one person for very long. This was not a set-up for a traditionally loving and mutually beneficial marriage relationship.  It really is a nearly unimaginable union!  But in the end, it becomes a beautiful story of redemption and restoration and ultimately it really is a perfect illustration of God’s love for us.  

So Hosea is called to take this deeply broken, potentially untrustworthy woman into his home and share everything that was his with her and love her as a wife.   He must deliberately and tenderly weave together his  life and his flesh as one with a person who appears to be  significantly challenged in regards to her psychological and/or moral wholeness and may even be physically ravaged by the demands and consequences of her trade.

Soon after Hosea married Gomer, they started a family and had three children together.  Reading the story, it’s possible that at least the last two children they shared may not have even been Hosea’s biologically. What we know for sure is that Gomer cheated on Hosea with at least one other lover.  And when Gomer had left Hosea for that other man and eventually found herself destitute and  enslaved,  Hosea is told  to find her and redeem her life,  buying her back out of slavery and taking her again as his wife.

I don’t know if I would have read the story the same way 5 years ago, but I’ve found myself  identifying in an oddly strong way with Gomer.  I didn’t realize how much my life was built around other “lovers” until those lovers had started coming up short and I found myself beat down, stripped bare and worn so very thin I could hardly recognize myself anymore. I can read the second chapter of Hosea, which is actually a description of wayward Israel, and it starts to sound uncomfortably familiar.

If you do actually go to scripture and read Hosea 2 you are in for some salty language especially if you look at a version like The Message.  Hosea tells Israel that if they don’t change their ways, God will strip her bare and make her like a desert, a parched land dying of thirst. Except it gets worse, much worse, as you read on.  In fact, I can’t even bring myself to write it here because it is deeply disturbing for me to think of God talking like this to Israel or to me.  This passage is painful to get through because it leaves absolutely no doubt how seriously God has been offended by the infidelity of His people.

How could God do something so severe when He has promised to bless and to love his people with an everlasting love?  My best guess is that God wouldn’t actually have to do this to Israel (or Gomer or me).  Continuing in her ways would lead her to this wilderness place and God is perhaps just warning her that he will honor her free will and let her do this to herself if she continues to fight against his best for her.  But there are many better-trained and better-read professional theologians who I will leave to battle out that one.

The way I came to appreciate and even cherish this story, though, is not by starting at the beginning of Hosea and cringing my way through the graphic descriptions of harlotry and infidelity and God’s offense at it.  I somehow was first directed to Hosea 2:14, where it describes how God calls her out to the wilderness to woo her and speak tenderly to her.  Eventually, I came to read through verse 20 and heard my heart’s desire articulated in the words I found there.  I had been in a barren wasteland, destitute in my soul and feeling definitively un-worthy of wooing and yet yearning for the Lord to speak tenderly to me.  I desperately needed water and wondered if I’d ever bear fruit again.  I wished that my Valley of Trouble could turn into Door of Hope. I longed to know, truly know, my identity as a beloved of God rather than someone who felt herself too often operating out of fear.

Only after seeing my own heart splayed out on the page so plainly did I back up in scripture and also begin hear myself reflected in the words describing wayward Israel at the beginning of Hosea 2.  I wasn’t literally engaging in prostitution, but I started to realize that I certainly had pretty well fooled myself into thinking I did not really need God all that much.  Like Israel, I’d gone to other people and other places to get my needs met.  I’d relied on my intellectual abilities and achievements, on my career successes, on my social connections, on affirmation from other people and my own good deeds to establish my identity and fulfill my desires.

I had a relationship with God, but I think I mostly found myself going to Him when all my other options failed me.  I wouldn’t have been able to say that was the case then, but I think the real test of how dependent on these other lovers I was- how much I trusted in them more than I trusted in God- was that if I didn’t feel like God was getting me what I wanted fast enough or in the way that I thought I should get it, I was oh-too-quickly turning to my own tricks to get what I wanted some other way.  As the story goes, I was saying, “Ok, well if He’s not gonna do it then  ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’” And then, just like Israel, when I got what I wanted I would say, “‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.’”   I’d unknowingly harbored somewhere deep inside the false belief that my natural abilities or my hard work or my good deeds should be enough to let me have a certain kind of life.  It’s not that everything I was doing was wrong, but I certainly wasn’t acknowledging God and God only as the meeter of my needs or seeing him as my provider of only good things.  I was running myself ragged to do it myself, afraid to put my faith in someone who might disappoint me like every other lover had.

But God’s love for me is so deep that he wasn’t going to allow me to keep up that exhausting and ugly way of doing things forever.  After some very painful years of kicking against the goads I came to realize that I was on a road towards where I thought was best, but really I was just doing everything I could to settle for less than what God wanted for me and bloodying myself in the process.   I found myself in a placed hedged with thorns, walled in to prevent wandering away, with no open paths to successfully pursue and gain my own desires.  Slowly I realized that it was God “who gave [me] the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which [I] used for Baal.”  Even when I am not fully faithful to him, He has been fully faithful to me.  He was the source of my every good thing.  And ultimately, it is His faithfulness and lovingkindness and mercy that have brought me back home to Him.

July 26, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
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So you’ve got all the latest. Now what?

I’ve always been afraid to admit this, even to myself, because I feel like it reveals some sort of horrible truth about me.  I hate the book The Giving Tree.  I know the “right” reaction to this children’s classic picture book is to be deeply touched and inspired by the unconditionally loving and generous actions of the tree.  But I always end the book feeling kind of sick to my stomach and pretty much just really sad.  This huge, beautiful, thriving tree gets slowly hacked to pieces by the boy-turning-into-man whom she loves.  At the end of the book the tree is nothing but a nearly dead stump because he kept asking and she just kept giving.  I mean, tell me that doesn’t sound kind of like the plot to some demented horror story or psychological thriller!   Except for children?

But honestly, it is sort of an apt description for motherhood.  At least in the early years of being a mom and especially in this era where parenting has become both an art and a science.  I mean, what mother doesn’t want to give all of the best parts of herself to her children?  It’s practically instinctual.  I know many moms feel deeply satisfied by the calling of motherhood, but there’s also pain inherent in sacrifice.  Especially for those of us who have a hard time letting go of an impossibly unrealistic vision for our  life in which we think we’ll be able to give the best parts of ourselves to our families (and our jobs and our communities and our churches and our husbands) and yet somehow not be left as a virtually unrecognizable, hacked-up, stumpy remnant of our former selves.  And yes, hopefully most of us have slightly better boundaries than the Giving Tree.  But even though I try, there’s still something deep down inside of me that feels wrong every time I choose to put my own oxygen mask on first.

People tell me that there will be life beyond these years.  I only sort of believe them.  Mostly, I just feel like by time I’m done raising my children, I’ll be much, much more tired and my skills and experiences will be much, much less relevant.

We live in a time in which “irrelevant” becomes reality at an alarming rate.  I noticed awhile back that a certain trendy retailer was selling the jeans I would have worn in high school as “vintage denim” for $175.  To be honest, though I like to think I’m not someone who cares much about such things, it took my breath away realizing how quickly my prime time had come. and passed. and was already being recycled as vintage!  I’m still years from my 20th high school reunion and had assumed, judging from previous generations’ rather predictably regular fashion cycles, that I had 30 years before that fashion would come back again.  But it seems as if we’ve reached an age when most things in life cycle through at an almost panic-inducing pace.

It’s not just trends that become outdated quickly, it’s everything: Technology, information, best practices, best friends.  Almost everything is available at our fingertips in a flash and, with a push of a button, being sent to our homes for our instant gratification.  News becomes irrelevant in the time it would have previously taken us to read the paper, let alone investigate, write and print a new one.  No sooner have I figured out the best way to parent (bye-bye Tiger Mom and Helicopter Mom, hello Free Range mom?), eat healthfully (my flax seed supply from Costco expired before I moved on to chia seeds. What’s in today’s smoothie?) or even tie my shoes before it’s the wrong way again.  Our constant, easy access to information and social media compels us to sit spellbound in front of a screen all day as relationship statuses and the states of nations and the latest superfoods scroll past us, literally changing by the minute!

The downfall of our generation is that we’re spending so much time and energy trying to figure out how to keep up with the best that life has to offer that we’re missing out on most of it.  Stepping away from that constantly streaming source of information to be present in whatever moment we’re actually living leaves us with itchy thumbs and restless sensory input systems, anxious that we’re not online to ingest whatever we think it is that might make us most relevant in the conference room or cocktail party.  We’re so scared of missing out on the latest things, that we’re missing out on the greatest things.

So back to that Giving Tree.  I don’t think that this children’s book is about unconditional love.  Something else is at play there—a desperate scrambling to give and to get whatever each could in order to have value in a world that is passing away.  They were both operating in a finite system.  This story is tragic because there is no sense of eternity.  Neither character is giving a second thought to investing in things that might actually last beyond the passing of a few short years here on earth.

I’m trying to remind myself that what the world tells me makes my life significant is almost always a lie.  Spending all of our time trying to remain relevant can be easily-justified but far too often becomes an all-consuming distraction from that which gives our lives and our existence the greatest meaning: relating to an eternal God whose love for us and plan for us transcends all that is passing away.  Our kids don’t need all the best this world or even their parents have to offer; they need to know that even when they don’t have everything they can still have eternity.  Our significance to this world has nothing to do with things on which this culture places tremendous value such as our weight, age, our job, twitter follower count or the correct adaptation of whichever “best practice” or philosophy is en vogue.  In fact, it has everything to do with convincing them the exact opposite is true:

“People are like grass;
their beauty is like a flower in the field.
The grass withers and the flower fades.
But the word of the Lord remains forever.

And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:24-25

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

John 17:3

 

July 14, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
0 comments

When you find yourself in THAT place. Again. Still. (Or: It’s ok if everything’s not ok)

In the same way any word transforms itself into a virtually indistinguishable collection of lines and curves after having been written over and over again, I’ve begun to wonder what exactly is the meaning of that phrase so often dispensed as a mantra during times of suffering: It’s all going to be okay.  I’m not trying to disparage those who have used it (and I admit, I’ve probably used it myself) but I’m asking because I genuinely don’t think I understand anymore: What do people mean when they say it?  I think mostly our intentions are good.  Perhaps it is a hope or a wish or a prayer because it certainly can’t be a promise or a statement of fact.

What is ok?  When does everything turn out that way?  Because maybe some things get better, but some things only get worse.  And for each of us, surely there are some things that never will be ok.  I don’t know about you, but I know for me there are days when people saying everything is going to be okay just feels like an accusation, as if everything doesn’t seem that way for me because there’s something wrong with me.  Maybe who I am or what I do or at least with my way of perceiving the world somehow prevents me from arriving at this promised state of OK-ness and staying there.

It’s not that I’m unaware of the beauty and mystery of life here on Earth. I am awed by it.  But it seems you’d have to be willfully ignorant or blind to not also be aware of the persistence with which death and decay lays its claim on everything and everyone who dares to pass another day here.  Yes, there is beauty in the mess of it.  But there IS the mess of it.

Psalm 84:5-7

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.

In these days of the old covenant, the presence of God was in a particular and specific place and could only be accessed fully through prescribed and meticulously enacted rites and rituals.  Three times a year the men were called to make a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to encounter God in a special way.  The Psalmist for some reason was not able to make the journey to have this divine encounter.  He is envying those who are on their way there.

BUT He is also cognizant that going there inevitably takes pilgrims through this particular valley known as Baca, which is a predictably difficult passage.  In other translations, it’s called the Valley of Weeping. In these present days of the new covenant we know that the Psalmist’s verses serve as an allegory for our pilgrimage to our forever home in heaven, commonly referred to in scripture as Zion.

I love the word picture created in Psalm 84.  I can strongly identify with the deep yearning the writer expresses.  Fueled by both desperation and devotion for the One he loves, the traveler has become intimately acquainted with the path he must take, going over it again and again; tracing it, carving it even, into his soul.  He has done more than just carry a map around, He has made his heart a place where the Way and His ways have become etched into the fiber of his being.  Almost as if they’re tattooed there.

But the Psalmist is not glossing over the difficulty of the journey. He speaks matter-of-factly about the suffering.  There’s no way around it, we must go through it.  He doesn’t just say that it’ll all be ok, he outlines what others have done to make it survivable, even to find refreshment there.

The Psalmist calls the sojourner blessed who, going through the Valley of Weeping, makes it a spring.  At first, I wondered if the writer was referring to a traveler so cheerful and with such capacity for optimism that even the Valley of Weeping would have been for him like a beautiful oasis.  But then I came across some notes that clarified that the way through this valley was so perilous that some of the pilgrims would actually take time as they traveled to create places of respite and refreshment.  They’d dig a well to collect the rains when they fell or perhaps even lay stones to bolster the path from eroding.

I think of all the times when we wonder why we’ve found ourselves in a particularly difficult place.  Again. Or still.  Shouldering a shovel and bending low under the weight of another day.  It feels like a punishment.  Or like we’ve lost our way.  But what if, instead, we’ve been called to remain here awhile so that we can be the one who makes the valley of weeping into a place of refreshment.  Who finds her only way to survive is to dig deeply to gather the Living Water.  Her only way through is to pick-up rocks, clinging to His promises, and lay them into stepping stones to make the path less treacherous as she goes. And to, perhaps most importantly of all, transform the landscape of a valley of weeping so that it’s more navigable for others who come after or maybe even for ourselves next time around.

Psalm 84:5 starts out using a singular subject: the man whose strength is in God.  But by verse 6, the writer has already begun speaking of plural subjects; many people passing through the valley and going from strength to strength. How profoundly the pilgrimage changed for those that followed the first one who began the tradition of spring-building and path-laying!

Is it strange that I am comforted by the acknowledgement that difficulty, weeping even, is a predictable part of our passage?  Life here feels hard because it is hard!  And that doesn’t mean we’re going the wrong way or that God has forsaken us or even that we’re somehow failing as people if we experience and actually acknowledge the difficulty. Instead, blessed is the person who, knowing with equal certainty that there will be difficulty AND that God will provide the rains to we need to refresh us, makes the valley of weeping into a place of springs!  We are a people who offer, through Jesus, profound hope and practical help.  We do not need to rely on tired platitudes.  We have much, much more in Christ.

This work of re-landscaping a valley of weeping is holy work and it is excruciatingly difficult work. It is part of what we are called to as co-laborers with Christ.  It’s practically the family business: transforming barren wastelands into verdant oases.

July 2, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
1 Comment

Four things you need to know about Hobby Lobby before you panic (or let your friends panic)

 

  1. The decision of the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case does not mean that Americans or even Hobby Lobby employees will no longer have access to all of the same contraceptives to which they currently have access.  In fact, Hobby Lobby offered employees coverage for 16 of the 20 FDA approved contraceptives mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  Additionally, employees could/can still work for Hobby Lobby and use any legal contraceptives they wished to use.  Though the owners of Hobby Lobby felt that paying  for employees’ use of a particular few contraceptives violated their deeply-held religious convictions, employees could/can still access them, often at little or no cost through other existing venues (including many funded by the federal government.)  In fact, the Federal government had already designed and implemented one program for employees to have access to insurance coverage for contraceptives if they can’t access them through their (religious non-profit corporation) employers.  A similar program could be and probably will be designed.     
  2. This Supreme Court did not decide that all businesses should be afforded the same rights as individuals.  An important distinction of this case was that Hobby Lobby is a closely-held corporation which a very small group of people own and operate.  The courts upheld the rights of individuals who have deeply-held religious convictions and happen to own corporations.  This decision allows the owners of Hobby Lobby to not have to violate their religious beliefs in order to continue to operate their business in the United States. 
  3. This Supreme Court decision does not create any new laws related to human rights or reproductive freedoms.  The decision relates to one single mandate within the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and was heavily based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which is a 1993 law signed into law by President Clinton designed to prevent laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.  Congress makes laws.  The Supreme Court decides whether these laws (or the Constitution) are being violated.  Citizens can decide whether to re-elect their representatives to Congress and we all can continue to lobby for legal and policy reforms.
  4. This case does not provide a wide open door through which every single other owner of every single other company would be able to deny access to health care for their employees.  The Supreme Court made it clear that this decision was based on the case’s ability to meet the criteria of RFRA and was limited to this particular mandate within the ACA and only applies to closely-held corporations.   Any other companies that wish to bring forward a suit will have to comply with existing laws and make their own case if they wish to challenge the application or Constitutionality of a law. As Justice Alito pointed out, “Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”