Love is Awesome

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Have you ever watched a romantic movie that made you laugh cynically as the leading man professes his love to the woman of his dreams? Maybe these are the thoughts going through your head: I can’t believe she’s buying this sappy load of crap. He’s only known this chick for like, a week. Love is not that awesome.

Do you shudder anytime you hear the name Edward? Do you shake your head whenever you see references to classic Disney princesses? Maybe you’ve seen comments on Facebook of new couples gushing about each other. Things like: “I’m so blessed to have so-and-so in my life! I just love walking our matching poodles on the beach together!” You’re thinking, maybe it’s time to hide this person’s posts.

If these statements ring true at all, I’d like to take some time defending those Facebook couples tipsy on love, those Disney princesses dressed in pink, and that movie with the guy who falls in love with the girl after knowing her for three days. Why? Because love is more awesome than even that.

I’d like to share a line from a song featured in a very popular romantic film called The Lion King. Elton John is singing about love, and he says, “It’s enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best” (from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). If a king, the most powerful person who has everything, and a vagabond, a person who has nothing, can be inspired by love, then maybe we underestimate just how awesome love is.

One of the critiques about Hollywood is the unrealistic expectations for love: He’s going to be my perfect match with great hair and a Taylor Lautner-esque body, and I won’t have to change because he’ll accept me just the way I am! He’ll see me as the beauty I know I am, and I’ll be his Disney princess, and he’ll be my prince. And we’ll live happily ever after, right?

Love is awesome, but I’m willing to admit that it’s not always happy, easy, or pretty. No one will completely understand us, but that’s because we are looking at the picture wrong if we are looking for a love that is non-confrontational, subordinate and submissive. Imagine a relationship where there is no challenge or disappointment or opportunities to face your mistakes. There is no need to sympathize, and no need for forgiveness. There is no chance to grow. Growing is important if you are going to be awesome at love.

So why am I a supporter of Jasmine and Aladdin, and why do I listen to the same cheesy love songs over and over? Even though Hollywood and Stephanie Meyers have served us a message about love with unrealistic expectations, it doesn’t mean a deep, powerful connection between two people is also unrealistic. I’ve just learned how to separate the fantasy from what lies at the heart: a simple, unabashed love. Although . . . magic carpets and living forever sound pretty nice. Nonetheless, I am aware people will let me down no matter who they are even if they do love me deeply. This knowledge does not crush me, or at least not yet. Still waiting for the moment the husband of my dreams wakes up and says, “Dang girl, grab a breath mint.”

So maybe those unrealistic hopes we have from these stories will not be completely satisfied by another person like being loved forever, seen as a totally gorgeous princess or even recognized for our full potential. That’s okay too, because someone else is there to do that. Jesus Christ is my prince charming, sees me exactly as who I am and who I can be. He’ll challenge me, make me grow, and I hope to meet these challenges. Even if I don’t, He’ll still love me just as much. He’s super handsome, has super God powers, flies on a magic carpet and lives forever. Well, maybe not the carpet part. He is a king who has lived the life of a poor man and He still believes in love. He’s watched all the terrible things I’ve done, and He’s seen what other people have done, and He still believes in love. He’ll “wait a thousand years” for us, and “a thousand more” — Christina Perri. My goal is that I love the way He loves, and if I can do that, butterflies are gonna soar in this stomach, and these knees might get a little weak. And if you think that’s super sappy, then I think I’ve made my point. Love is awesome, and if you don’t know how awesome love can be, then it might look a little silly.

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Inspired By . . . Lauren Grubaugh

Walking into Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles on a Friday morning is an experience that I truly struggle to find an accurate analogy for. I know because I tried – and failed. Tons of eager faces packed tightly into the small, yet bright and inviting building that stands in contrast to the surrounding area (Skid Row is just a few blocks away). Women carried children, groups came in to claim the small collection of seats, waiting to hear if their name would be called for the job lottery that week. There is little sense of privacy or escape as nearly all staff offices transparently declare their occupants to the hustle outside. I struggled to find a spot to stand as everyone, most bearing inked testimonies of their pasts, gathered around for the morning meeting led by Father Greg Boyle. Despite warnings that it would be, the whole experience felt slightly overwhelming.

It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in the chaos of this environment.

A person like Lauren Grubaugh.

Homeboy Industries is an organization that seeks to reach out to former gang members and the formerly incarcerated community of the at-risk LA area. “Homies,” the people the organization is geared toward helping, are given opportunities for employment at Homeboy itself as well as job training, tattoo removal services and various other types of real-world preparation classes. To the casual and curious visitor, there is no sense of pretense here. Upper level staff members mingle freely with homies coming and going. Tour groups  are not catered to and shown the neat and well-put together side of the operation. Rather, they are whisked into the pulse of the organism-like body that Homeboy is.

And it was into this strange fusion of chaos and love and warmth that my friend Lauren stepped into months before she brought me there. And it was here, amongst a culture entirely different from that of her own small hometown, that she found a home.

Lauren is a tall, white, young woman with a fresh degree from UCLA and a full ride scholarship to Fuller Theological Seminary for the upcoming fall. So aside from the fact that she is a fluent Spanish speaker, she hardly fits the description of the average person who walks through the door of Homeboy.

But Lauren is known and loved there. And it is easy to see why. Walking through the small yet packed facility, there is hardly a person that Lauren doesn’t say hello to. And if they are not acquainted, she is quick to introduce herself.

No one escapes her notice — the “homie” directing traffic at the parking lot around the corner, or the waitress at a local hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurant. Her friendliness and love for people is not limited to her work with Homeboy. Her tiny, one-room, appliance-devoid granny flat is filled with reminders to send people cards. Her inquisitive mind probes not only the depths of academia, but the more important caverns of human hearts.

Ever heard the phrase, “Youth is wasted on the young?” I will be daring enough to say that this is not a phrase Lauren will use when physical age catches up with her already old soul. Hers is one that seeks adventure and independence, but also one that has found such deep meaning and strength in a life lived with people.

“Conspire” is what she called it. It is a word associated with hooligans and their shenanigans. But it also means to “breathe together.” And at Homeboy, Lauren has found the opportunity and the group of people to do this with in a way quite opposite from what we would normally associate with such a provocative word.  She is “a part of a community” she says, “that conspires to do good and inspires people to be their true selves.”

Despite the chaos, it was refreshing to spend a day at Homeboy — to be greeted with warm hello’s and handshakes was no strange thing. To be welcomed with sincerity from everyone, from the homie cleaning the facility to one of the brains behind the whole operation, was a welcome surprise.

And this is why Lauren does well there. Because in her life, career and independence and the haughty self-advancement that often describes the driven women of this day are submitted to an understanding that people are better than success, that being in community with the marginalized is, as Lauren puts it, “life-giving.”

We left Homeboy that day a couple hours later than the normal closing time as Lauren was preparing for one of the organization’s biggest fundraisers the next evening. But we were stopped in the parking lot by a woman. My introverted mind and tired body was ready to peace out, but Lauren lent a sympathetic ear to the distresses of this woman. Because, you see, clocking out and exiting the building does not mean the end of the kind of work she does with Homeboy. It is an invitation to offer love to people in a way that isn’t required of her, when no one is watching, when she doesn’t receive anything in return.

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Within Arm’s Reach

I was working on a study last year at work, going through the notes of interviews with women in prostitution in Minnesota and preparing the data to send to our statistician for analysis. For the study, more than 100 women had been interviewed – asked intimate questions about their childhoods, the abuse they had suffered, and their experiences in prostitution. At the end of each hour and a half long interview, each woman was always asked if they had anything else they would like to add.

One woman’s response still haunts me: “Who the hell is going to help me?”

The truth was that we were trying to help her. The studies the organization has published have helped to shed light on the realities of prostitution in the US and around the world, exposing it as exploitation and abuse rather than as a viable occupation. Policy makers, educators, and other advocates have taken that work to enact real change that someday will hopefully tangibly help that woman too.

But what haunted me was that on that day, in that moment, I had no answer. Months after this interview had been recorded in an office hundreds of miles away, I sat feeling helpless to provide her with immediate, tangible help.

I’ve been reflecting on Nehemiah 1, in which Nehemiah hears about the Israelites who have survived the exile who are now living in shame and the wall of Jerusalem that has been broken and destroyed. Immediately Nehemiah begins to weep and mourn for days, praying and fasting before God. He then acts, and God uses him to miraculously change that situation.

Today, it seems that we are so bombarded with atrocities going on in the world that we can become desensitized to the things that ought to make us weep. It is more comfortable to remain far away; it is more comfortable to let our hearts build up callouses so that they cannot be so easily bruised or broken.

Yet it is okay to weep and, I think, we are called to it. We are called to have soft hearts and, more importantly, called to open our hearts to those who will cause our hearts to weep.

Last year, I worked for two organizations – one that did research and another that focused on policy, both concerning the fight to end human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children. While I was thankful for the work, I found that it was somehow too comfortable for how God was calling me. He wanted me closer, wanted me to open my heart not only to issues but to individuals. Since last year, I’ve changed positions to work with Agape International Missions. I weep a lot more these days, and it is good.

The reason I weep more is that now my heart, and not only my mind, are invested in this work because now I know not only the facts, but the individuals who must endure them each day. We work with about 8-12 girls at any given time who have been able to leave their lives of exploitation, and we are doing more outreach to young women who are still being exploited. When we do outreach, I go with our staff and my husband and simply have conversations with these young women. It is heartbreaking to hear about their lives – their loneliness, their lack of family, their lack of real love.

One young woman we met had lost her family at a young age, and she moved up to Siem Reap to start working in the beer gardens where men can come to buy her for sex. Each night she has to binge drink with her customers to get them to keep purchasing alcohol, but at great harm to her own body. She told us that she once became so sick from all of the drinking that she could not leave her rented room for six days. She had no one but the security guard at her work who she begged to bring her medicine.

My heart now breaks for these women each day because I am within arm’s reach of them and because I am close enough to their pain for my heart to break. This also means that I am close enough to be able to tangibly offer them love and assistance.

God’s Word calls us to be close enough. We are to care for the widow and the orphan, the vulnerable and the oppressed (Psalm 82:3, James 1:27, Isaiah 1:17). Jesus modeled this to us in how He healed the sick and helped the hurting – He touched each one. He certainly did not have to, but He placed Himself within arm’s reach.

So, too, should we. We may not be able to go overseas, but we must be willing to go outside of being comfortable. We can spend time in prayer, opening our hearts to truly lift up those who are in need. We can spend time working with children who need mothers and mentors; we can spend time with the hurting in our churches, in our families, in our communities.

We’ve since been developing a relationship with the young woman from the beer garden. She has come to us now for medical care, and our prayer is that someday she’ll come wanting to leave the life completely – to know real relationship, family and love.

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How God Is Like a Frozen Dessert

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Were she better able to express her emotions, my two-year-old daughter, Georgia, would probably say that it’s no picnic being the youngest of three girls.

Sure, there’s lots of love, always someone to help you choose an appropriate pink-and-purple outfit. But you’re the lowest on the pecking order, someone’s always bossing you around, and when it comes to verbal humor, your language skills put you behind the joke for a long time.

For instance (apologies for some scatological humor — with three children under six, it’s unavoidable!): When Georgia first began talking, she pronounced “party” as “farty.” She also said “pee-pee” instead of “fairy.” In a family of little girls, “party” and “fairy” are common words, so Georgia unintentionally had her big sisters in stitches multiple times a day. They started devising ways to get her to use both words together. “Hey Georgia,” they’d ask, nudging each other, “want to go to a fairy party?”

Or take our spring break trip to Montreal, where Georgia stayed in a hotel for the first time; you can hardly blame her if she spent most of our visit wanting to return to the “toe-hell.”

The most recent example of Georgia’s verbal slips happened this Easter. I was reading the girls one of their favorite Easter books, Miss Fannie’s Hat by Jan Karon: a moving story about an old woman who donates her fanciest hat to a church auction. In the book, Miss Fannie’s favorite Bible verse is Matthew 19:26: “With God, all things are possible.”

When I read that verse, Georgia got really excited. She jumped up, babbled something urgently, and ran to the kitchen, where we heard her rummaging through the drawers. (Such is the fate of the third child that, if you run to the kitchen and rummage around in drawers, your parents won’t immediately rush to check on you; they’ll simply think, “At least she’s occupied!”)

Georgia returned minutes later, proudly chewing one of the plastic sticks from my popsicle mold, which I fill with juice in the summer to make popsicles for the girls. When I’d read Matthew 19:26, she’d understood me to say: “With God, all things are popsicle.”

For days, Georgia’s big sisters walked around saying, “With God, all things are popsicle!” and collapsing in giggles. I laughed too, but I also wondered if Georgia was on to something. This wouldn’t be the first time a child unwittingly enlightened me in spiritual matters. Does God have anything in common with a frozen dessert?

I think so. And I don’t mean catchy platitudes, like: Everything’s cool with God! or God’s always so refreshing!

The thing about popsicles is that the idea of them is much simpler than the reality. Most of us choose a popsicle when we need relief, something light and portable to cool us down. They seem like a quick and easy fix. So on those brutally hot summer days that we get in Vermont — when the windows are open and the fans are going, when the stifling air is filled with the smell of cow manure, when all you want is to sit in the wading pool (if it weren’t for the mosquitoes) — on THOSE days, I make popsicles as a treat for my girls.

And right away the squabbling starts. Our popsicle mold came with four differently colored plastic sticks. So before any licking begins, the girls fight for five minutes over who gets which color.

There’s a reason why I only make popsicles in the summer: it’s so I can put each one in a bowl, hand each bowl to a daughter, and immediately send each daughter outside. Because popsicles are messy. Whether you’re 2 or 102, that popsicle will melt all over you. Sure, you’ll get some sweet relief from the heat, but you’ll be left with sticky hands and embarrassing drip stains down your front.

What does this have to do with God?

Everything. As with popsicles, there’s a difference between my idea of God and the reality. When I was a kid, God seemed like a quick and easy fix: say a prayer and go to heaven, and in between be really good! I wasn’t big on messes then, either literal or spiritual.

Three decades later, here’s what I’ve learned:

LIFE IS MESSY. It’s messy whether or not you’re trying to experience God, but God is certainly not a “quick and easy fix.” It sometimes feels like the closer I am to God, the messier things get. People I love are sick and sad, senseless things happen, and there’s no way I can be “really good” — I’m the biggest mess of all. I’m walking through life with sticky hands and embarrassing drip stains down my front. Even people who love God squabble over silly things — the equivalent of fighting over the color of your popsicle stick when the popsicles are all the same. Honestly, I rarely think about heaven anymore; there’s way too much to deal with right here.

So why bother with God — or popsicles? Well, I’ve also learned that you can’t get to the joy without the mess. You can go through life avoiding popsicles, sidestepping sick and sad people, obsessively washing your hands and scrubbing your clothes — but where’s the joy in that? Popsicles — and God — may not be quick and easy fixes, but sometimes they’re the only thing that brings relief, and through the mess there’s incredible joy to be had.

I hope that one day, Georgia herself will find that with God, all things are popsicle.

Posted in Adversity, Parenting, Theology & Philosophy | 1 Comment

Women of the Gospel of Grace

I really don’t like housecleaning. When I think about it, it’s not really the actual cleaning that bothers me, it’s that by the time I have finished doing the dishes and picking up everything off the floor, I am done. I no longer have the energy or interest or self-discipline to clean the sink or vacuum the rug. I avoid it, I procrastinate, I hire a friend to clean. 

I cannot remember the last time I made my bed (sorry, babe).  I have read blogs and collected tips on Pinterest and made cleaning schedules for myself.  I have tried cleaning one hour every day, as well as saving it all up for one marathon cleaning day each week. I have not been able to maintain any of those ideas.  I do well for a while, then I start to remember how much I like doing almost anything else, and I start rationalizing, and before I know it I feel condemnation and shame.  “Well, So-and-So’s house never looks like this when I come over!” 

I sink into a bit of a funk and give up pretty much altogether. How many of you can testify to how motivating shame and condemnation is? Exactly. That seems to ultimately be where I end up each time. It will probably never be my strength; I may never have total complete victory over it. But I feel far more peaceful and free when I remember that I am not being graded by my Father for my housekeeping skills, or lack thereof. 

I have to remind myself on a regular basis that He loves me, and my family loves me, and in whatever way I can show honor and love to them on this day can just come from my heart. Some days that will mean clean underwear and no hair in the sink; other days it will just mean I gave them a hug and a kiss and got dinner on the table. I find this verse helps:  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

I would like to point out that this is not an exhaustive list of all the things that cannot separate us from the love of God. “Nothing” pretty much means nothing. I looked it up. Most days, NOTHING is just what I am struggling with most.

  • My quick temper and tendency to raise my voice will not separate me from Him.
  • My desire to get out of serving my children today will not separate me from Him.
  • My bad attitude toward housework will not separate me from Him.
  • My tendency to compare my performance as a mom with others will not separate me from Him. It might make me miserable, but it will not keep me from Him.

When I stay awake to the reality of grace, it frees me to respond to my husbands, kids, friends and neighbors in love. I do not have to prove anything, I do not need to demand my own way, I do not have to take offense and then act out hurtfully because of my pride. At times I still will, because I am a weak vessel who is prone to sin and selfishness. But my God responds to my failure with mercy, grace, and love. He calls me beloved and beautiful daughter. Not disappointing. Never not good enough. I am hidden in Christ, who was perfect for me.

Will I try not to do these things? Of course, but I am just being real. And hopefully, with the Lord’s help, each time I sin against my family, I will be humble enough to ask for forgiveness, to try to bind up the wound I have created, and point to the Savior who I need so desperately.  My kids don’t need me to perfect, they need to know that is not an option OR an expectation for any of us. They need to see me blow it and then acknowledge it. They need to see me receive the Lord’s kindness and mercy, be incredibly thankful that the price of sin has been paid on my behalf, and get back up again. This is what they need from me, which is lucky, because from an eternal perspective, it is really all I have to offer!

I (seem to always) love what Ann Voskamp says about keeping it real. I leave you with these wise and wonderful words . . .

We are women who live the Gospel of Grace and we’re done with perfection because we’re the Everyday Prodigals who are wasteful in love and extravagant in grace and recklessly spending our attention on the mercies of the Prodigal God. God wants Prodigal Parents — not perfect parents. Lavish in love, extravagant in truth, big spenders of grace.

And there will be tears and there will be laughter — because  what messes our life up most — is the expectation of what our life is supposed to look like — and there will be a mess of dishes in the sink and a ring of grime in the bathtub and the clock will just keep on ticking and we’ll grab onto someone right in the kitchen and just hold on and let go. It won’t be perfect — but we’ll be prodigals.

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