The girl with pink hair

I went to a fast-food joint earlier this week, and the young lady in front of me was, well, different. Her hair was a shade of cotton candy pink that I’m pretty sure wasn’t her natural hair color. She had her body pierced in places that aren’t yet considered mainstream, and her clothes weren’t what you see in Sunday School every week—but they completed her image.

As it turned out, she and her friend sat at a table near mine, and I could hear their conversation—they weren’t being discreet. I’m not sure what I expected them to talk about, but I suppose I thought it might have something to do with the next punk rock concert or where the best party was this weekend. Most of my friends don’t have pink hair or piercings in random body parts, so I wasn’t sure what to expect—maybe I’d get the latest scoop on Birmingham’s devil worship hot spots? I couldn’t wait.

You’d probably never guess, so I’ll go ahead and spill it: They talked about their jobs, their friends, a couple of problems they were having, and something about her Dad.

In other words, it was pretty boring stuff, not nearly as exciting as I’d hoped.

It was just like what I talk about with friends when we go to lunch. Probably the same with you and your friends.

Not long after I figured out she might not be a devil-worshiper I got bored with my eavesdropping.

It’s pretty sad. The tempting thing to do is to make snap judgments about people, to put them in neat little boxes that are well-defined and clearly labeled. You look like this, so you must do that. You’re different from me, so I keep you at a distance. Stereotypes come easily.

Pink hair and body piercings? Parties, drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else.

Clean-cut, tailored suit, polished shoes? Respectable, law-abiding, church-going. Good guy.

Except it’s not so simple.

Truth is, we’re not so different from one another. I’ve done short-term mission work on the continents of Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa, and some of the cultural differences are significant—we look different, eat different food, wear different clothes.

But if you look beneath the culture, what you find is that they’re a lot like us, or maybe, we’re a lot like them. They want their kids to be healthy and to get a good education, and they worry about them. They want their marriages to be stronger. They’re concerned about their aging parents. They fret over their economic situation and disapprove of the government. They laugh and cry and eat and sleep.

But going a little deeper, the girl with pink hair and loud clothes and the guy with the clean-cut hair and suit and tie, as well as the Asian, the African, and the American all have the same problem.

We’re badly flawed, and deep down we know it. Because of what we’ve done, our relationship with God isn’t what it ought to be, and that’s caused us to struggle in other areas as well—our jobs, our marriages, our friendships, everything.

And we all have the same hope, no matter our past, no matter how bad. That hope is Jesus Christ, the one who came to bring us back to the Father. To restore us to wholeness. To give us life.

Instead of judging people by their clothing choices or body art, we ought to see them for what they are and what we are: people created in God’s image who have marred that image by the choices we’ve made.

And people for whom God gave everything to get us back. That, in essence, is the story of the Bible. That is the good news.

I doubt God even noticed that her hair was pink.

My way doesn’t work so well

Submitting to someone is tough to do, and it starts early. Ask the two-year-old who looks you in the eye and defiantly grabs the forbidden cookie. Or the seventh-grader who lives by the adage that rules were meant to be broken. You’ve seen it in the boundary-testing behavior of the sixteen-year-old who constantly has to rediscover that mom means what she says.

And, of course, we’ve seen it in us, and not just back when we were kids.

It all started in the beautiful nature park of Eden. Adam and Eve sought and found autonomy, but the fruit didn’t taste as good as they’d hoped. The lie they fell for was the one that suggested they could make their own rules, that God’s prohibition was rooted in his wanting to keep them from experiencing some kind of secret joy.

What they found was that deciding for themselves what was best wasn’t all the snake promised. It led to shame (within themselves), conflict (with each other), and alienation (from God). Not to mention what it did for childbirth and tilling the ground.

We’ve struggled to submit ever since, choosing to go our own way and make our own rules. The same spirit that motivates the cookie-grabbing two-year-old animates us as well: we want to do what we want to do.

Except it doesn’t work. At all.

It didn’t work when Adam and Eve tried it, it didn’t work with Cain, it didn’t work at Babel, it won’t work with us. In fact, that’s one of the purposes of the Bible—to give us a thorough account of what happens when sinful people live according to their self-centered wants outside of God.

It leads to conflict, hopelessness, anxiety, rebellion, sickness, and death.

Our way isn’t the best way, and even though we know that intellectually it’s a hard lesson to live.

Will you meditate on a passage with me today, and then let it form the basis of your prayers?

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:7-8).

Father, I know that I so often choose my way instead of Yours, even when I know better. I let Satan convince me that living according to my rules is better than submitting to You. I know that Your commandments are holy and righteous and true, but I still struggle so hard to submit to them. Please help me. Help me see that disobedience brings disappointment and that You want only what is best for me. Enable me by Your Spirit to submit to You, and please mold my will so that over time it becomes Yours.

In the name of Your Son, Amen.

The Facebook me isn’t the real me

Chances are, you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or Google+ (or some combination of them) . . . They’ve completely changed how we stay in touch and share information with one another.

It’s pretty neat, really. Grandparents living hundreds of miles away can see their grandson’s touchdown almost as soon as the kicker lines up for the extra point. We can keep in touch with old friends we never see, helping us stay connected in ways that previous generations couldn’t. We can share the message of Jesus with people all over the globe.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming), it’s not all good, of course. Every tool that we use for good can be manipulated for bad, and social media sites aren’t any different. In fact, sometimes they discourage us.

The persona that most of us create online is something different than who we really are—have you ever noticed that? Whoever or whatever we wish we were shapes the messages we create and share. If we want people to think we’re busy, spiritual, pretty, smart, or whatever, we choose pictures and craft status updates that reinforce that. It’s a kind of pseudo-self that we create, sometimes more of what we wish we were than what we actually are.

I’m overgeneralizing, but there’s not a ton of authenticity on social media. If there were, it might look more like this:

You know how I’m always smiling in the pictures I post online? Sometimes I’m so discouraged I can hardly get up in the morning.

I quote Bible verses and cite Christian writers on Facebook, but no one knows I’m struggling with pornography.

I uploaded a bunch of pictures of my big happy family a minute ago, but my husband and I aren’t getting along, and those beautiful kids are driving me crazy.

And then there’s this: have you ever witnessed other people’s online “lives” and felt twinges of envy?

I wish my relationship with God was that good. I wish I looked like that. I wish I had that house. I wish my life was perfect.

Truth is, the guy quoting Bible verses and talking about his relationship with Jesus all the time struggles spiritually. The girl posting heavily edited selfies has a problem with her self-image, and the always-happy family has major meltdowns like every other family.

I’m not suggesting there’s necessarily a correlation between the kind of pictures or statuses we publish and what we struggle with (though there could be).

I’m just suggesting that we’ve all got issues. We all get discouraged and think the world’s falling apart. We’ve all had high points and low points in our walk with Christ. If we’re married with kids, then we’ve got imperfect marriages and flawed kids. The picture we posted online with all the kids smiling was the 78th picture we took (somebody was crying or mad in the first 77).

But for whatever reason, we’re not as open about our struggles, maybe because we don’t want to mess up the image we’ve crafted so carefully.

Authenticity is the buzzword for the millennials—supposedly they crave it more than the rest of us. I doubt that’s true, though—I think we’re all craving authenticity, and I wish we did a better job in the church of being open about our flaws.

We’re all in this thing together, and to the extent that Facebook and its cousins help create an encouraging community, I’m all for social media.

But I think a little bit of just being real wouldn’t hurt either.

When God doesn’t answer

Prayer is tough, isn’t it? Not simple, quick prayers, the kind you pray before meals—those aren’t that hard. But praying consistently and fervently takes discipline.

One of the reasons it’s hard is that we wonder why God sometimes doesn’t answer the way we want him to. As I struggle with this I keep being drawn back to a statement I read in Tim Keller’s new book on prayer: “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows” (p. 228).*

That’s pretty insightful, I think, and we’d do well to mull it over for a while. Truth is, prayer isn’t a simple, I-ask-and-God-gives-me-what-I-want kind of thing.

Sometimes I wish that’s the way it was, because I usually think I know what I need. I’d like for God just to see things the way I see them and do them the way I want them done. I’ve also found that my requests almost always involve asking God to take me down the road with the least amount of pain or difficulty possible.

And then there are some verses that seem to suggest that God might do whatever we ask:

“Ask, and it will be given to you . . . For everyone who asks receives . . .” (Matt 7:7,8).

That sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?

Or this one:

“You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jam 4:2).

Taken together—and out of the context of the whole Bible—someone might start thinking that all you have to do is just ask for whatever you want. God becomes the magic genie who grants the request.

But if you’ve been praying long, you know it doesn’t work like that. Either God isn’t listening, or he’s got some other agenda in mind.

Of course God does have an agenda, and that’s where the statement from Keller helps us. God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.

I had a professor once who referred to God as the “One who knows the end before the beginning begins.”

That’s what makes him uniquely qualified to answer our prayers according to his own agenda—his plan that is nothing less than working things out for his glory and our ultimate good (cf. Rom 8:28). Sometimes that’s hard to swallow when we’re hurting, but knowing that God isn’t just flippantly dismissing our requests because he doesn’t care helps us to submit to his will . . . and keep trusting him.

In fact, we wouldn’t want a God who could be manipulated into doing whatever we wanted, would we? That kind of God would be something less than the One we worship.

So keep praying, and keep praying big prayers, but be thankful that the God you pray to will answer according to what he knows to be best.

*Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. New York, NY: Dutton, 2014.

Starting over (again)

We’re about two weeks into 2015 . . . are you still on your diet? Maybe you’re not guilty of making and breaking resolutions, but some of us have been. One year I signed a year-long contract at a gym in January so I would be fit and in shape by the end of the year.

I think I went four times. I think it takes more than that to get fit and in shape.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with making resolutions, of course. It’s just that they must be grounded in something more substantive than the guilt we feel about spending much of November and December eating everything in sight and washing it down with a few dozen hours of ESPN.

I’m not writing this to add to your guilt or to make your commitment to lose 30 pounds by spring seem hopeless. I’m not even trying to convince you to make some kind of special spiritual resolution like reading through the Bible this year (though that would do us all good).

I just want to ask you to spend some time today reflecting on you and God.

Maybe 2014 was a tough year for you spiritually, perhaps because sickness or relationship problems or stress or the all-consuming job took so much of you that you had little left for God. Or maybe you got mad at him for allowing some of those things to happen.

Or it could be that you struggled spiritually in spite of having a reasonably problem-free year—no major sickness, no job catastrophes, no worse-than-normal stress. Or maybe “in spite of” isn’t the right phrase, because for whatever reason the good times sometimes cause us to look away from God.

Regardless, though, we are where we are. Probably none of us are where we want to be or maybe where we ought to be. We’ve made more compromises than we should have and neglected some of our spiritual disciplines.

Good thing we’ve got a fresh start today—not because it’s January but because our God is one who delights in new beginnings. We know that because of how Jesus spent his time and the kind of people who hung around him.

It’s incredible, really. He gave new life to a girl from the wrong side of town whose reputation caused the suit-and-tie types to give her a wide berth if they accidentally encountered her in the marketplace.

He refused to add condemnation to an already embarrassed woman who was dragged out of a bed that belonged to a man she wasn’t married to.

In his stories he made heroes out of people who were shunned and mocked by the religious establishment. The half-breed Samaritans, the traitorous tax collectors, the sore-covered homeless, the nearly penniless widows.

It’s funny, though. The religious guys? The ones who had it all figured out and were ready to straighten everybody else out?

They couldn’t stand him. He loved them like he loved everybody, of course, but he refused to allow their self-righteousness to stand uncontested.

So if you’re starting 2015 somewhere that you’re not proud of, take heart. Look up and see Jesus—our God who absolutely loves fresh starts.

He’s thrilled to reach down, pick you up, and limp beside you.

And no, he won’t love you any less if your gym attendance lapses as quickly as mine did.

Here’s to a God-honoring, faith-building 2015 . . .