I stood in the red pew of the Baptist church I attended in high school and sang a familiar song with the lyrics, "Oh the wonderful Cross - bids me come and die and find that I may truly live." My eyebrows furrowed as I sang, fully wanting to believe what I was singing but still not sure if I was giving up enough to be considered a sold-out Christian, one who had reached the goal of "true life" One thing was certain - I sure didn't feel like I was truly living. I felt like I was truly confused.
My high school journals are filled with prayers pleading that God would help me to surrender my life to Him. I really struggled with this because I felt (as many sixteen-year-olds do) like I had my life under control. Why did I need to lay my life down? Why did he want my life? And what did that even mean - to "lay down my life?" I really liked my life. Why would I want to lay something down that I loved so much?
I lived in the age of Acquire the Fire in Christian culture. This was a weekend conference (and lifestyle) where they convinced you that true surrender looked like no sex, no drugs, no alcohol - for the sake of the Kingdom and His glory! We were even encouraged to burn our secular CDs with any music that was not Christian. This is what truly pleased God. But, the more I stayed away from the populars and felt guilty about dancing to the music at homecoming, the further I felt from God. I was trying so hard to submit my life to him, but somehow the whole experience was driving me away from Him instead of pushing me towards him.
The summer before ninth grade, I went on a mission trip to the inner city of Washington, D.C., where we put on a VBS for the children in the projects at a Veteran Center downtown. The first day, we walked around and knocked on doors to invite the children to our VBS. As we walked from door to door, I started to recognize poverty, sadness, and brokenness in a way that I had never experienced before. I noticed the state of their downtrodden apartments, large numbers of people living in tiny spaces, and the lack of necessities that I had clearly taken for granted.
We provided these precious ones with lunch each day, played games, sang songs, and did silly dances about Jesus. Many of the families were fighting to survive. The children needed new clothes. I was appalled when children, just 3 or 4 years old, arrived at VBS alone. We didn't usually see the parents; the kids just showed up when it started and went home when it ended.
It was my first encounter with poverty and homelessness, and I was shocked that it existed to this extent in the United States. How did I not know? I knew that I was going to have to go back to my very-different-life and not be close to these kinds of people, and that made me feel very conflicted. I had experienced a sweetness in being close to those children - hearing their stories and playing with them and handing them their snack. When I was close to them, I was close to God. How could I just go back and do nothing? I had felt closer to God in that week in Washington, D.C. than I had in my whole life. Why? What was it about that trip that helped me experience Him in a way I hadn't before?
Although I think that mission trips can be unhelpful to the people and communities they are trying to serve (that is a whole different post!), I do think that they can bring us closer to poverty, injustice, and oppression. And proximity to brokenness is what breaks our hearts for it. And broken hearts causes us to draw close to God and take broken steps towards those very people. Proximity to the broken inspires action.
I recently started reading the Gospel of Matthew. I always forget that the Sermon on the Mount absolutely wrecks and convicts me - every.single.time. In this sermon, Jesus is beginning to introduce the ideas of His Kingdom -- where humility is magnified, following rules are the product of a changed heart (not the other way around), and the weak are strong. In true, Jesus-like fashion, He usurps everyone's expectations for what they think God's Kingdom will look like.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does this by blessing the very people we consider to be weak in our society.
He says blessed are the:
- poor in spirit
- those who mourn
- the meek
- those who hunger & thirst for righteousness
- the merciful
- the pure in heart
- the peacemakers
- the persecuted
- the insulted
For they will ...
- inherit the Kingdom of Heaven
- be comforted
- inherit the earth
- be filled
- be shown mercy
- see God
- be called children of God
- receive a great reward in Heaven
I've always been a little disappointed when reading through these beatitudes. Some are choices, such as being meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, or people who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But the others (such as being poor in spirit, a person who mourns, the persecuted, or the insulted) were not a choice, but rather a result of circumstance. And I was a little bummed that I couldn't be a recipient of God's comfort, or be called a child of God, or receive a great reward in heaven, simply because my circumstances did not place me in those dire situations. How could I force myself to be poor in spirit or persecuted or insulted?
I think I settled for being okay with not receiving the reward if I didn't have to experience the poverty, the mourning, the persecution, and the insults. Maybe those rewards could come in some different way, or maybe later in my life I would get there. But honestly, I'd be okay if I didn't have to.
And then the words creep back into my mind, "The Cross bids me come & die and find that I may truly live." And as I read more of the Bible, I find again and again that it is less about not cussing or having sex or doing drugs. It's about giving up our lives for the sake of another, about breaking the walls of oppression, and freeing the wrongly imprisoned. It's about protecting the vulnerable and standing up for the weak. It's about pursuing restoration and rebuilding brokenness. It's about sacrificing our actual lives. It always has been - because God himself sacrificed his own son at the Cross, where He traded His life for ours, where He broke down the walls of oppression that we built. He became the prisoner so that we could be set free. He became weak and vulnerable to protect us from our impending death and destruction from the sin that so binds us. He, supreme over all creation, abandoned his divine nature to get up close and personal with the world's brokenness and save us from it. His proximity to our brokenness caused him to break his own body to pull us out of the darkness, to re-unite us with our Creator - the One who loved us first.The actual Son of God experienced the most discomfort possible for the sake of our comfort.
But now, since we have been given so great a gift, should we capitalize upon our comfort? Or should we follow in the steps of Jesus in entering into discomfort for the sake of another's comfort?
Should we enter into broken system of foster care (and be broken by it) so that we can help restore families?
Should we break down the walls of oppression that exists in the history of racism in America to rebuild a nation?
Should we lay down our comforts of privacy, ease, and wealth so that we can invite people into our homes for however long they need a place to stay?
Should we welcome the refugee, the immigrant, the aged-out foster youth, the least of these, in order to point them to the One who welcomed us first?
In these actions (among many others), two things happen:
1) Entering into brokenness, oppression, and discomfort will most certainly cause mourning, persecution, insults, and a poor spirit.
2) Therefore, you will inherit the Kingdom of God. You will be comforted. You will be called a child of God. And you will receive a great reward in heaven.
I think God knew that for many of us, our faith would become our comfort. We would come to church on Sunday and listen to a sermon. We would read our Bibles and say our prayers and teach our kids about the Bible. But He knew that this kind of comfort was NOTHING compared to the comfort that God gives in our mourning and in our suffering. And so when we're comfortable, He nudges us into uncomfortable places -- so that we can receive His comfort.
It's all very backwards. Which is, again, very typical of our God.
For me, entering into the world of foster care is my step into brokenness. I had experienced this "surrendering" of my life in small bits and pieces before, but I had never entered into an uncomfortable, unfamiliar place of suffering and hardship like that of foster care. Foster care is a way that I can actively deny myself every day and follow Jesus - in a way that affects every aspect of my life - my home, my comfort, even my work. I wondered after my mission trip to Washington, D.C. "How can I go back and do nothing?" And this question lingered for the next ten years of my life. When I wasn't close to - and suffering for - the hurting, the broken, the poor in spirit - I didn't experience God in the same way. Foster care allows me to do something and experience God. I get to open my home to children who need one - for however long they need one. I get to develop relationships with birth families who may be perceived as less than deserving of grace and love. I get to offer hope and healing to precious ones who need it. And in the process of getting close and personal with brokenness, it breaks me, and Jesus walks closely beside me. You think what you need is wholeness -your idea of perfection and healing and everything you ever wanted. But you're really getting the good stuff when you mourn and receive the embrace of your Heavenly Father.
Maybe you're overwhelmed because you've never experienced this kind of closeness to God. Maybe God is nudging you into discomfort so that you can experience His true comfort. I don't think that foster care is the only way that you can do this, but I do think that cultivating a spirit of fostering can help us to get out of our comfortable bubbles and enter into broken places that make us uncomfortable and push us closer to the Father. Next week, I'll talk about specific ways that you can cultivate this "spirit of fostering" in your life.