I used to be really turned off by the phrase, “the bride of Christ,” which people would use to describe the church. Maybe turned off isn’t the right way of saying it – I guess maybe just neutral. Naïve. It didn’t spark any sense of wonder, didn’t make me feel beautiful, and I couldn’t get my head past this idea that a bride was a bride just on her wedding day – after that, she’s a wife. But I guess maybe once a bride, always a bride?
If I look at that term in the latter fashion, it makes a lot of sense. One of Your really smart kids once said in a book that his wife had been married to five different men in her life – all of them were him. The implication, of course, is that people change within relationships. Our jobs change us, kids change us, moving changes us, arguing changes us, tragedy changes us, friendships change us, etc…
So lately I’ve been pondering this concept of change happening within a relationship, but You being the one who’s constant. That’s not possible in a human relationship, so it’s kinda weird, and in one sense, it’s so hard to believe that You are constant, but in another, since I’ve seen Your constancy in action in the past little while, I believe it so much more now.
I don’t find myself feeling so condemned when I miss church. Or when I slip up and revert to pornography to feel better, or gossiping about the people and things that annoy me, or when I fail to take care of my neighbor. No, I don’t feel condemnation – I just feel this sense of “you-know-better”ness. It’s as though You gave (and continue to give) me permission to do absolutely anything I want – and if it’s harmful, I’m hurting myself, and eventually, from a perspective of spiritual evolution, I’ll stop. I don’t even feel afraid of too much anymore – I’m not afraid of homeless people like I used to be, I’m not afraid of gay people like I used to be, I’m not scared of bars, I’m not scared of saying cuss words, I’m not afraid of missing church – and I can’t believe that’s because I’ve become callous, or regressed as a person, or given up my values. I don’t think that’s true at all.
Where was I going with all of that? Oh, yeah – You just…give us freedom. You give us unconditional love that is truly unfathomable. I’ve thought that I’ve loved unconditionally, and I’ve thought I’ve been loved unconditionally, but it turns out human love isn’t possibly perfect. So, I find it funny to think I used to listen to songs that said things like, “forever I love You,” or, “I love You endlessly” because really, I mean – at least in our terms – I don’t! And I don’t simply because I can’t! But then again, if our human concept of love doesn’t match the magnitude of Yours, then maybe neither does our human concept of grace. I guess Your version of grace is so far-reaching that it takes our weak little human love and makes it enough to fulfill Your greatest commandment to love You with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Could it be that the object of affection fulfills the affection, not the giver – at least in Your case?
Because I know I don’t love You perfectly. I won’t even claim that. I struggle to even say, “I love God,” because if you subscribe to a philosophy of love in which love implies choice, then I definitely don’t love You quite often – even if I want to. My love and faithfulness to You has proven to be as weak if not weaker than any girlfriend I’ve had, my family, or my friends.
And yet, Your constancy carries me and gives me freedom to fail, and learn from those mistakes. You know how I have this tendency to think that my worth to a girl (romantically) lies in the gestures I can make – the flowers, letters, chocolates, sentimental instagram posts, etc? Well, I think I did that with You. But it looked more like sermons, bible studies, big, long spiritual blogs, children’s church, playing guitar on the worship team – I presumed that that kept me on team Jesus. That You loved me simply because of all of the stuff I did. And I don’t in any way think You didn’t like that I did that, but I remember You had to strip it away.
I remember hearing You say, “you’re expendable, Jeff, and I’m going to show you how expendable you are.”
It’s been over a year since I last preached a sermon.
Almost a year since I played a guitar on a stage.
Haven’t led a Bible study in a long time.
Or led worship.
Or taught kids about You.
I’ve blogged, sure – but often times, those blogs have been for me, and in an attempt to grasp on to some shred of grace when I needed it.
Because I needed it bad this year.
I needed it bad when I went way too far with a girl who wasn’t my wife.
I needed it bad when I started cursing the church and complaining about it.
I needed it bad that night I was drunk.
I needed it bad when I held a grudge against my old roommate who owed me money.
I needed it bad when I lied to the guy who asked for food and I told him I didn’t have any money.
I needed it bad when I muttered under my breath about my exasperating co-worker.
I needed it bad when I skipped church because I just didn’t feel like it.
I needed it when my ego outweighed my compassion and my empathy (which time, right?)
Gosh, I needed it bad.
But here’s what’s kinda cool: I look at those things and I don’t “regret” them per se – I definitely won’t do some of them again and I strive not to do others – but in the past, I would have hated myself a lot more. I would have lingered on my mistakes uselessly – I definitely wouldn’t learn from them.
But You just love.
And I think I see now how You don’t need me. I think You’ve told me to put down all of my presuppositions of what You look like and act like and everything You want from me and just say, “Come eat at the table. Someone else will set the table, someone else will bake the bread and bring the wine, just come to the table.”
And at the table, I see not a bunch of needy people, but just people. Guests. Your guests. And Your guests may be republican or they may be democrat, they might be gay, they may be alcoholic, they may have had sex outside of marriage, they may use curse words, they may be orphans, they may be bastards, they may be famous, they may be homeless, but they’re Your guests all the same and I find myself complaining a lot less about who You invited since I just get to sit and dine too.
It’s almost as though that’s the best way I can love You – just sit at the table. Because all my other efforts seem futile, either that or I’m just bound to fail in some capacity, so I guess the best way I can love You is to love Your guests, right?
Is that it? Is that the secret? Time and time again, You bring me back to the book of Micah where it says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to live justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (that’s 6:8, for the readers.)
To live justly – to live within my means and to not gorge myself while my neighbor starves.
To love mercy – to forgive and to love forgiveness, to believe in giving second chances.
Walk humbly with your God – know who you are, know what you’re capable of, own and admit your mistakes, repent.
Easy enough, except where it’s not. Just…simpler than I thought.
I guess where I’m going, Lord, is that You’re positively incredible. That while some people think You’re just a construct that exists within the confined of human consciousness, I know that can’t be true. I don’t really trust my own ability to change, to be kinder to others, and kinder to myself. I don’t trust my own ability to die to my ego.
And, I ran away from it all long enough to know that it’s not all in my head. Oh, You know this already, but I spent months when the thought of opening the Bible made me want to vomit because I was either too scared that it’d “read my mail,” or too clueless with where to start. I argued with You for months about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I cried my eyes out because I couldn’t hear You, knowing I’d shut the door in Your face. I felt sick and short of breath feeling like I ran my faith into the ground.
But just like You said when You were incarnate…if you knock, the door will be opened (even if I slammed it.)
So I knocked in the form of walking into an old church, and You opened the door and let me in, where You invited me to the table through 50-70 older folks singing the old hymn, “come to the table of grace.”
Come to the table.
leave your sin. leave your preconceived notions of what God wants. leave your biases. leave your guitar and your big fancy bible study and all your books about ministry and all your big programs.
God, I love You. I’m not about to pretend that I do it well, or that I know how to measure that. But I hear You, and I see You in a place and a space where I never thought I would again, and I’m so glad I do. I’m so glad You don’t shut Yourself off from me. I think that loving You looks like honoring Your word, loving Your church, and loving my neighbor. I’ll do my best to do that, and You just tell me when You want more from me.