Let Love Lead the Way and Your Feelings Will Follow

The hard truth to the right above, showing just how rich I alone am among the world’s billions of people (not counting Kirsten’s salary too), comes from the ever helpful Global Rich List.

So Kirsten and I are blessed and grateful to have been asked to share a little this weekend on the Mill City Church winter get-away about​ how we’re working to overcome barriers to following Jesus. This is a preview of what I plan to share:

Kirsten and I were blessed to get some great marriage training (courtesy of Dr. Gwen White of Circle of Hope) as we started our married life 20 years ago at the ages of 20 and 21, respectively. That training was essential in laying the foundation that our marriage is still built on today, and part of it involved some education literally about how our bodies work, how they conspire to get us to fall in love, mate, and so carry on the species. Many of you may know this, but all those euphoric feelings, the butterflies in your stomach, your inability to take your eyes off each other, like so many things, those are the product of chemical changes in your brain, and the hard truth is that those chemicals, and the feelings you associate with them, don’t last. When you’re falling in love the feelings are so powerful though that it’s easy to act in loving, selfless, and sacrificial ways toward the one you’re in love with. Significantly, it’s easy to think those feelings will always be there and therefore to let them be the engine of your relationship. As I’ve said, though, the feelings don’t last; the chemicals wear off, and then what do you do? It’s crucial to remember those feelings aren’t love; they’re a biological tool God gave us to help us carry on the species. Real love, true and long lasting love, the kind that lasts longer than courtship, is a choice; it’s something you do, a decision you have to make every single day. If you’re lucky enough to get married, the “yes” you say to your spouse on your wedding day is certainly the first, but just as certainly not the last time you’ll ever have to say “yes” in that way. Every day you must wake up and choose your spouse again and again and again, Lord willing for as long as you both shall live. If, by God’s grace, you’re able to keep making that choice, to keep saying “yes” to your spouse in that way, you’ll discover something much deeper, more profound, and more transformative than simple feelings.  You’ll find that choosing your spouse each and every day, choosing to act in loving ways toward your spouse even when you may not feel like it, is a wellspring that can sustain a relationship for a lifetime. If you lead with love (which again, is a choice), your feelings will follow. If you try it the other way around, all bets are off. Another way of putting this is the old adage, “you can act yourself into a new way of feeling much quicker than you can feel yourself into a new way of acting.”

I say all of this because when I was a young person I was in love with Jesus. My parents were “Christian,” but my “Christian” mother abused me and my “Christian” father enabled her abuse even while trying to bear the brunt of as much of it as he could. I always say therefore that as a very young person I was “able to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” I grew up in the Assemblies of God, which if you don’t know is a Pentecostal denomination; and the church of my youth was a large suburban mega-church that I have so many questions about now. They had a great worship experience, though, and I learned to immerse myself in it, to lose myself in the feeling of being loved by God in ways that my parents never could or would. That dependence on God coupled with the amazing love of one particular family from school and that of my youngest but much older half-sister sustained me through that very difficult childhood. My courtship with Jesus lasted until I turned 20 and went to inner-city Philly one summer to do a mission experience in which for about two months I was part of a team with 8 other college students with whom I lived in a SW Philly church building, where we ran a day camp, sunday school, and youth group for the neighborhood kids. I always say that during that summer “I was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” I could talk for hours about the things I did and saw that summer and how it changed me, but what I later found is that the proverbial “bridge” I built between my suffering and the world’s could be traveled in both directions. Sometimes my encounter with the suffering other, which, according to Scripture, is really an encounter with Jesus, sometimes that encounter can take me right back into my own personal suffering in potentially debilitating ways. I think this is why Henri Nouwen offers us the notion of a “wounded healer.” It’s why Jesus gets associated with the “suffering servant” we read about in Isaiah 53.
What all of this meant for me, though, is that after that summer in Philly, upon my return to the serene, beautiful small “Christian” college campus on the north shore of Boston where I was again surrounded by relatively “rich” white “Christian” college kids like myself, I was confronted really for the first time with a question that I could not answer and which my relationship with Jesus up to that point gave me no help with. Put simply, I kept wondering how in the world I could possibly justify being there in that serene environment while kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia. Writ large, I wonder right this second how I can possibly justify being here while, according to UNICEF, 22,000 children will die today due to poverty. Meanwhile struggle not to eat my feelings and get fat, or as is the case right now, to lose all the fat I’ve gained recently. I wonder what all this says about me, and I wonder what it says about Jesus. If I have access to so much food that I can store the excess on my bones in terribly unhealthy ways while 22,000 kids will die today because they can’t get enough or the right kind of food, does that mean God loves me more than them? Yes, this situation is certainly a product of the color of my skin and the time and place I was born into, but isn’t God still in charge? Sure, all this is happening on my watch, but it’s also happening on his. When will he do something? Why won’t he just fix it all?
The quintessential struggle of my adult life in terms of my faith, the biggest barrier that keeps me from following Jesus like I want to, is doubt, and I’ve usually framed this doubt as having to do with the why of faith, with all the problematic passages in the Bible that can be real barriers themselves when Jesus isn’t the lens through which we read the whole thing. I also often talk about my doubt as having to with all the inappropriate questions we keep asking the Bible and expecting it to answer that usually result from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is for. I talk about my doubt, too, as having to do with my lack of trust, to be really, really honest, in all of you. I look at some “Christians,” especially the ones who usually get talked about in the news, and shake my head as I wonder again how in the world we can both have Jesus as our leader. One way I’ve been able to keep making an effort to try to follow Jesus is by understanding that doing so is less about what I believe about Jesus; it’s less about my ability to give intellectual assent to a series of propositions about the faith, and is instead more about whether I simply believe Jesus. If discipleship, which is the charge we were given in the Great Commission, is really about following Jesus, about putting one foot in front of the other along the path he leads us down just like the first disciples did, then it can’t really happen in a classroom. It’s easy to say a prayer and follow some rules, including rules about what to believe. It’s hard to put your faith in a living being who wants to have a real relationship with you in the day to day. So what I’m realizing is that my doubt has had less to do with all the big questions about Jesus and more to do with Jesus himself. I haven’t just been doubting “Christianity” after all; I’ve been doubting Christ. My courtship with Jesus has long been over. I’m not quite so enamored anymore.
Yet I know that God is love, that we were made in and for love, and that the possibility of right, loving relationships with God, one another, and God’s good world is the good news that is worth proclaiming. So just like in my marriage, I’m working now to keep leading with that love, trusting that the feelings will follow. I’m working not just to believe in propositions about Jesus; I’m working to believe Jesus. I’m working to trust that he loves those 22,000 kids that will die today just as much as he loves me and my own two kids. We often hear it said in this community that “generosity isn’t something God wants from you; it’s something God wants for you.” There’s a powerful truth in that simple phrase. If we were really made in and for love, and love is something you do, then we were made for this. We were made to lay down our lives each and every day not just for our friends but for our neighbors near and far, especially those who are suffering. I’m working, then, to trust that inasmuch as we are the church, as we are the body of Christ and the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, then we are the ones we seek. We are a big part of the answer to our prayers. Jesus answers the suffering of the world by sending the world his church, by sending you and I to feed those starving kids, to love them as much as we love our own, for they belong to Jesus and therefore they belong to us. Kids in NE Mpls. aren’t starving like kids in Africa, to be sure, but as you all well know many of them go hungry, especially on the weekend, but not this weekend. Thankfully this weekend some of them are a little less hungry because of you, because of our efforts through The Sheridan Story. That work has made it a little easier for me to trust you, for I look at you and I see people who must be following the same leader I’m trying to follow, Jesus, and that, in turn, makes it a little easier for me to follow too. For that, I thank you.

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