No Turning Back…

“In Love With Naked Fred”

They say being in love makes idiots of us.  I find the opposite is true.  REAL LOVE gives us nothing if not bright, sometimes blinding, clarity.  We know it when we see it, because it exposes everything—including our deepest, most hidden selves—to the one we love.

I showed up an hour and a half early at a listening party for Fred Hammond’s new CD, “God, Love & Romance.”  Me and, I assume, the couple hundred other people there were staking out “lose-my-mind-up-in-here” territory.  You know how your boy does it—rowdy praise and crazy worship.

Seated sixth row center, coat next to me, hoping folks would take the hint and leave me my elbowroom, I waited for the celebration to begin.  However, when the band didn’t warm up right away, and Fred came out and took a seat in the lone chair on the stage, I realized it would be a different kind of party.

Between talking and taking questions from the now packed room, he played songs from GL&R.  When I Come Home To You, The Proposal, You Are My Love Come True, Easier, Face It All, and others filled up the room.  A seductive jazz trumpet, some funky beats, and a wicked sweet bass played tag with agile vocals that have become a Fred Hammond signature.

I’m used to Fred being real and honest in his divine expression.  His spirit is very much the spirit of David, and more often than not his music has me dancing and singing unselfconsciously before my God, no matter the setting.

What I did not expect was this naked Fred Hammond, exposed and unguarded, talking about his divorce (“I tried.  She tried.  We failed.”), singleness (“I know what it’s like to go out on a first date, and another first date, and ANOTHER first date…”), and companionship (“…It’s nice to have somebody you want to come home to.  It’s all right to hang out with the fellas sometimes, but it’s good when a man wants to come home…”).

Most surprising to me though was how exposed I felt taking in his conversation and listening to the CD lyrics.

I don’t want to move too fast

Is it all right to hold her hand

It’s much too soon to love again

But it’s easier than being alone

Easier than crying

Crying alone…

All of Fred’s sharing seemed to strip away my own veneer.  His yearning uncovered my own.  His desire for marriage made mine more conspicuous to me.  His poetry beat in my chest.

My heart, you can have it.

My world, come live in it. 

Your touch, let me feel it.

Your love, girl, I need it…

My God, come on let’s serve Him.

One heart, serve Him together.

My life, come on let’s share it.

Have faith, ‘cause we can make it

The more I listened, the harder it was to hear, until finally, I put my head down and asked what I had not asked—been too afraid to ask—for a very long time.

Where is he, Lord?  Where is the man who would say this to me?

It is no wonder that we don’t allow our deepest desires to visit our conscious mind too often.  They rend the heart on their way to the surface when, in our humanity, we entertain the awful possibility that they may not come to pass.  In those moments, only God’s ear can hearken to our anguished whispers.  Only His eyes can see our fear without condemning it or patronizing us.  Only His heart is tender enough to soak up a tear or hold a fragile dream without crushing it.

Knowing this, I wondered why God would bring me to such a public place to be so vulnerable?  There was nowhere to go with my rawness.  There was nothing for me to do in this crowd but listen…

Darling you, you are my love come true, baby

Nobody else will do

You are the one that I have longed for in my dreams…

Then I heard it.  His voice was my voice.  Without a wife, without the life he desires in his hands, Fred Hammond sang, and not just for himself.  He sang for all who love, and for all who want to love and be loved.

Looking around the room, I saw men and women like me, exposed and vulnerable.  I saw something else.  Freedom.

To be naked and unashamed before Him and with each other.  This was God’s original plan for us.  Despite our best efforts to cover up and move through this life protecting ourselves, that plan has not changed.

When someone, certain of God’s love and hopeful in His promises, has the courage to show himself (or herself) to others, we who see are free to bring our collective longing to the surface and trust that same God.

Single, married, waiting or weary, we learn that because we are God’s, being IN LOVE is an option every day.

Habits – #3

HABIT #3:  YOUR CHOICE IS YOUR VOICE

I am not the sum of the voices that ring in my head, but rather the choices I make before bed.

I am three hours into a 13-hour flight from San Francisco to Singapore.  Despite the fact that the afternoon sun is shining on the nose of my Boeing 777, it is “evening” inside the plane. We’ve had our supper and dessert.  People are dozing under blankets, proverbial bumps on reclining, video-equipped, tray table-fitted logs.  The shades are down on the windows, so those of us who remain awake read, write, or watch movies with our lights on.

We play this game theoretically to get us ready for the time change at our destination. It makes sense in a make-every-minute-count sort of way.  We humans love to remind ourselves that we can control outcomes despite circumstances.  Well, not all humans, mostly just adult humans.

There’s a boy on this flight.  At least, I think it’s a boy.  Every 20 minutes or so, he flies past me, running as fast as he can, up the aisle on my side, and down the aisle on the other side of the plane.   He’s a blur really, but I can make out short black hair and pumping arms and legs.  I feel the wind of him more than see him, and since girls don’t usually run with such gusto, I assume the blur is a boy—a boy who chooses to run like he’s in an open field on a Saturday afternoon, despite his surroundings.

Children are little balls of combustible moments until we begin the work of turning them into “someone.”  My son “the doctor,” that little “troublemaker” who lives in the yellow house, the “fat girl with the alcoholic mother”…

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” we may ask them, because we desperately need the combustion to settle down and become a label.  We like labels. They appeal to the lazy coward in all of us called Humanity.

Labels tell us who to like, pity, or protect ourselves from without us having to do the tedious work of relating, learning, or forgiving faults and offense. Without them people just “are” whoever they want to be around us.  Expectation and predictability—read safety—go out the window.  They take up space in our brains reserved for surprise parties and crises, the place where we give ourselves permission to be powerless and caught off guard.

What would children become if we encouraged them to surprise us and keep us off our guard every day? If we didn’t have to collect the moments they throw at us and make sense of them, and we invited them to shatter our expectations, might they settle for being miraculous?  If we loved them more than our lazy coward, could they wake up every day and decide to put “be amazing” at the top of their To Do list?  What does it look like when the “running blur” is free to run into old age?

Many months later, I would have my answers.

My friend Sheralyn’s mother, Dr. Rosalyn M. Blake-Jones, age 75, is reciting poetry to me from her bed in a Florida nursing home.  It’s hard to make out some of the words.  Diabetes and a stroke have left her with a rebellious body, often going its own way, or not going, despite her efforts.

The verses—composed in her head because she cannot see or write—soar.  From memory she speaks of Forgiveness; of angry words and bitter emotion released from the prison of the heart, through explanation, and set free to be forgotten.  The flow and rhythm of her prose pass unhindered over halted speech and muscle tremors.  Her beauty is stunning and I am rapt.

Mommy—my name for her— is blind, but she guides me to a truth I could never have seen without her.  She is that black-haired boy on the plane, friend of the wind, choosing light and choosing joy instead of opting for what makes sense to the rest of us.

Sheralyn feeds her mother lunch, combs her hair and straightens up around her while we visit.  She knows I am in town to speak at a woman’s conference.  “Tell me what you talked about,” she says between bites, and then gives me her undivided attention.  She interrupts with the occasional “Oh!” or “That’s so beautiful!” to let me know that she is with me, present and accounted for.  Could I be so generous and helpless all at once?

We are not what happens to us or what is happening around us.  A doctor can tell us we are dying, but we decide how we’ll live our last days.  We can lose our legs, our money, or our spouse, but still move from regret to gratitude for what—and who—we have left.

Beyond my labels or my appearance—past what I do or what has been done to me—who am I really?  The raven boy and beautiful Rosalyn challenge me.  I don’t want to settle for a life that merely shouts, “I am what you see!”  I will keep choosing light and joy until it whispers, “You see who I am.”

Then I’ll be free.

Habits – #2

HABIT #2: DON’T KEEP OPPORTUNITIES WAITING

The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity

The time to act on anything is not a moment sooner or later than you are able to.  You have no guarantee that an open door will remain open, no assurances that your power to act in a circumstance will not expire.

An opportunity presents itself as a gift, designed for us to be used by us to make our lives better.  But gifts are ours to keep for as long as we want them.  An opportunity is not a gift.  It is a provision, and a perishable one at that.

Like a fortuitous wind on the seas, we find it courting our sails, offering us a lift here or a push there.  What we do not hear in the wind—and what we will never hear—is a pledge to remain.  “Use me now!” she urgently whispers instead, “Tomorrow is not mine to give you.”

Opportunities only appear when we are ready to receive them, when our hearts and minds are open to seeing, and our circumstances have made room.  They’re never early or tardy.

They are, however, jealous.  If you keep them waiting, or allow fear to distract you from them, they will move on.

Habits – #1

Over the weekend, I spoke at a church in Palm Bay Florida.  I think I learned more than I taught about a blind man named Bartimaeus.  For the next week or so, I will be posting about him.   You can check him out in Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, and Luke 18:35-43 if you’ve a mind to, but what I’ll be sharing are a few habits I’d like to incorporate into my life in light of what I read.  Hopefully they’ll stand on their own with or without the passage.  I hope you think so.

HABIT #1:  RID YOURSELF OF IGNORANCE

There are two ways to rid yourself of ignorance:  REPENT of it through your learning, or CONSENT to it and let it be swallowed up by your stupidity.

Even without power in our circumstances, we still have access to definition, explanation, hearing, and believing.  Learning creates space in our lives for moments that can recreate us.  Tomorrow may come with yesterday’s problems, but revelation gives us another tool for the challenge or maybe a way of escape that we didn’t see before.

When we settle for just what we already know, we can only live our current moments over and over again.  We make the same decisions, choose the same men (or women), and halt in the same posture no matter the situation.

In ignorance, night becomes day, but we remain asleep as the world moves ahead around us.  We view our circumstances through a darkened lens, pray to an unimpressive God, and show Him to others as limited and fathomable.

Curiosity keeps the mind supple.  Understanding makes our hope elastic.  Learning–the bridge between the two–puts Forever within our grasp.

“Big Baby” by Michelle Jones

As I write this column from the upstairs bedroom of my brother’s San Francisco loft, an argument ensues downstairs.  Pilar Brielle and Landon Asher—my 9-month-old godchildren—want what they want, and apparently their parents are not giving it to them fast enough.

The twins are loud and insistent.  That is to be expected.  What’s hilarious to me are my brother Tim and his wife Denise trying to reason with them.  They speak in smooth, patronizing tones, the way a psychiatrist talks to a guy in a straight jacket.

“Pi-laarr?  Your bottle is almost ready, okay?”

“WHAAAAAAA!!!!”

“Landon… Landon?”

“WHAAAAAAAA!!!!”

Hearing the conversation in the babies’ heads, I imagine it goes something like this:

“Bla-blaah?  Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, blah?”

“I’M HUNGRY! YOU!  FOOD LADY!  BRING FOOD!”

“Blah-blah… Blah-blah?”

“HEY! I’M HUNGRY! GIANT MAN!  HELP FOOD LADY!  NOW!!”

This, uh, discussion goes on for a few minutes before the grownups abandon reasoning and scramble to shove bottles or baby food in where all the noise is coming out.  As soon as they do, there is blissful peace, punctuated by sweet sucking sounds.

The parents feel competent, heroic even.  They have stopped the babies from crying and righted the world, as they know it.  The babies let them bask in this illusion.  So do I.  It is obvious to me that the infants run this asylum.  Tim and Denise are staff—unpaid staff—working their tails off for a reward of catnaps and baby food stained clothes.

Later, between flipping Landon upside down and clapping with Pilar (clearly I was hired for my entertainment value), I marveled at how eagerly we all doted on them.  It seemed obvious at first.  You wait on babies because they’re needy, right?  Right.  And they let you because they know they’re needy, right?  Wrong.  Babies don’t know that they need you.  They know what they want.  Big difference.

Babies are haughty.  They are entitled superior little beings.  You will never hear a baby described as “humble.”  Humility appreciates its own smallness and understands its own helplessness.  Humility asks for—it doesn’t demand—what it wants.  Landon and Pilar are lots of cute, soft, sweet smelling (most of the time) things, but there is not a humble bone in their pudgy little bodies.

Jesus tells us to come to Him as a child not a baby.  It occurs to me that in some of my dealings with Him, I have come like Landon, grabbing and snatching what I want, or like Pilar, with an ear-splitting scream demanding it NOW!

Children are not babies.  Like babies, they are smaller than we are, and they do need a lot of help, but the difference is they know it.  They are aware that someone must take care of them lest they starve or go naked.  They wait to be picked up at school.  They call you mom and dad, not Sally and Dave or What’s-your-name.

Children don’t—as a rule—order their parents around fearlessly (unless somebody’s not doing their job).  They don’t expect to pay the gas bill because they know they have no responsibility in that area.

The difference between a baby and a child is in the attitude.  Babies are arrogant.  They demand that their needs are met and they don’t care how.  One hand with a bottle or a dry diaper is as good as another.  Children have learned to be confident.  They know what they want, but they also know where to go to get it.

A “good” child doesn’t accept a ride from a stranger.  She doesn’t expect an allowance from any grownup passing by with cash.  If he has a booboo that needs kissing, only one pair of lips will do.  When she brings a trophy home, nobody’s attagirl matters as much as mom’s or dad’s.

Come, as a child, not a baby.  Come.  Approach.  Move from where you are to get what you need from the One who is waiting for you with everything in His hand.  Come, don’t sit and pout, rant and rail, scream, accuse, put your hands on your hips, flip your wig, or storm off in a huff because you’re tired of waiting.  Come expecting, not snatching and grabbing.  Come to your Father, not a stranger, as a beloved son or daughter, not an orphan.

Landon can’t walk yet, and he’s not fond of crawling, but every day he waits for my brother—his daddy—to come home from work.  He listens for the key in the door, and when it opens, the sight is hysterical.  No matter what Landon is doing, he stops, drops to the floor, and scoots like a tadpole toward the “Hey Little Man!” coming from the giant man who rocks him to sleep every night.

He’s learning.  When I grow up, I want to be just like him.

“Beautiful” by Michelle Jones

I woke up in my imagination this morning with the man I hope will be my husband one day.  He doesn’t actually exist, but I call him Naked Fred, for reasons I will explain on another day.

From brow to sole, he is Love. It is the sexiest thing about him. (I suspect it will always be that way, even after he becomes a physical reality.) This morning he asked me, “Do you know how beautiful you are?” I wondered about that. Do I?

We all have some idea of whether we are beautiful or not. “How beautiful” is another thing altogether. That assumes some standard I must compare myself to. There are as many standards as there are people, right? So which one matters?

This morning, I came to this conclusion: I know how beautiful I think I am, but my hope is that my thoughts agree with God BEFORE I meet someone whose thoughts agree with me. That will be a romance for the ages.

“Coming Clean” by Michelle Jones

Are you one of those people who gives your teeth an extra good brush and floss when you have to see the dentist?  Do you wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, or tidy up before the housekeeper arrives?  How about shampoo your hair prior to a salon visit?

I don’t like using labels like “compulsive,”  “neurotic,” or “three sandwiches short of a picnic.”  Partly because I think labels alienate people, but mostly because I prefer my given name or an approved nickname.

Yes, I do all of these things.  One of them might, by itself, seem a bit quirky.  Two might deem an individual eccentric or maybe a little peculiar.  Once counting begins to feel like compiling though (and don’t get me started on my whole laundry obsession!), I think we’ve moved on from quirks and peculiarities to symptoms of deeper things.

It didn’t take much prayer to diagnosis my issue.  God was obviously interested in making a point.  Underlying each of my foibles—and possibly yours—is the basic belief that people never get things as clean as you want them unless you give them a little help, a head start, if you will, to raise them to your standard.  I see it as a favor really, though I must confess that I also mentally take some of the credit for great outcomes.

This may not seem like such a big deal when we’re talking about teeth or dishes, but we are a different story.  Redeeming an unclean soul is a much bigger job.  It’s a God-sized job, and we can’t contribute in any way.  On our best day, our standard is no standard at all compared to His.  His standard is PERFECTION.

On Easter—Resurrection Sunday—we celebrate and acknowledge our zero involvement in our salvation.  Jesus died to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, not help us with something we’re merely struggling to do better.  God sacrificed His Son to do more than just clean up our behavior.  He is “making us clean,” something we have no power or desire to be on our own.

There is a line in the movie “The Philadelphia Story” where Katherine Hepburn says to Cary Grant, “Oh Dexter!  I’m such an unholy mess of a girl!”  That’s my anthem more often than I’d like to admit.

I wish I did things well and right even most of the time, but I don’t.  I’m terrible with my money.  I am overweight.  Right now, my apartment is a mess.  My relationship with my mom could be better, and with my two older brothers.  Envy, dishonesty, hopelessness, depravity, meanness, and cowardice all live in me, waiting for permission to speak.

I am an unholy mess, but Jesus died—and beat death by rising again—for this unholy mess.  By His Spirit, I am becoming new day by day.  If I have any grace to replace my taste for vengeance, it is because He gave it to me.  If there’s any correction in me, it sprang from His wisdom.

We have no gifts to offer the world except that He empowers us with them.  We have no purpose that was not born in His imagination.  There is no forgiveness for an offense that wasn’t driven through the spikes that nailed Him to that cross.

Without Him, we are nothing and we can do nothing, least of all become clean.  And if we can say anything at all to God, or can hear anything from Him, it is because Jesus made a way for it.

Like David, I wonder sometimes, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8: 4)

I try not to spend too much time there.  It’s too easy to wallow in my own unworthiness and forget what I’m worth to God.  I am priceless to Him, and He proved that when He bought me with all that He had.  If I’m never good enough for someone else—if I am never pretty enough or smart enough or nice enough to meet another person’s standard—I have proof that I am worth a King’s ransom!

You got a bad deal, Lord.  That’s what I used to think.  Paying so much to get so little didn’t make sense to me for a very long time.  But Love, I have learned, is about giving, not getting the best deal.  To pay everything for nothing is PERFECT LOVE.

To take an unholy mess of a girl, and give her the power to become Your beloved daughter… That’s just GLORIOUS.

(Wow.  I thought I was obsessive about my laundry!)

Psalt for My Wounds – #2 by Michelle Jones

To every sister or brother who has forgotten to care for me, there is One whose thoughts of me number the sands of the sea.  He knows and numbered every hair on my head.  He considered me an eternity before the first one broke the surface of my skin.  So, because He remembers me like that, I can remember to forget your hand against me.  I can choose not to withhold my favor from you, because I have more than enough to spare.

I will lift up my eyes to see the pain in your heart, which does not excuse you, but helps to explain you.  I will know that while I may not have deserved hatred from you, it is certain that I have, at times, hated and harmed others; mistreated, rejected, and ignored them, and then went on with my life without a backward glance.

I elect to remind myself that there are some things I have done to people to protect, comfort, or please myself that they don’t even know about.  That makes me cruel, a coward, and a liar.  Can I really despise you?

To the brothers and sisters who have offended me, welcome to the family.  We are kin.  We have all—more often we know or would like to say—fallen woefully short of loving as we are loved by One who let Himself be killed for our offenses against His Father.  Because of Him, His Father can call me His own.  Because of Him, I have, above all things, a reason to keep holding onto you, and a way to love you as I desire to be loved—AS I AM LOVED.

To any brother or sister who would try to steal my joy, it is not necessary.  I see that I have enough to share.  That and more I offer you freely from my overrunning cup.  Like water through cracks in stony ground, please receive all that I have, and let something green and tender grow up between us.

Stop Smashing the Angels! by Michelle Jones

My mother seemed pretty average to me for most of my life.  Like many she cooked, worked, and expected chores and good grades in return for lodging my siblings and me in her uterus for 9 months and then putting a roof over our heads after that.  She did do some uniquely wonderful things though that I didn’t really appreciate until I was grown and on my own.

Good meal etiquette mattered to my mom.  We knew how to set a table at a young age, and eat with one hand in our lap until we needed to use the knife.  We didn’t talk with a full mouth, or chew with our mouths open.  Eating with elbows on the table particularly bothered her, and whenever she saw it, she would tell us to “Stop smashing the angels.”

A little history:  She explained to us once that whenever you ate a meal, God stationed angels around your plate.  I imagined they were very small and had good eyes and quick reflexes, because she said they purified your food, and kept you from choking on fish bones and such.

Elbows on the table in our house meant squashing these benevolent celestials and presumably leaving yourself defenseless against all sorts of gastro-catastrophes.  I couldn’t be sure if there was room in Heaven for angel killers with food poisoning, but I was not willing to risk it.  None of us were.  We took it for granted that the angels were there, and for the most part, we kept our elbows in check.

Many years and many meals later, I’m still certain the angels are with me; only now, I have scripture to back me up.

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? Hebrews 1: 14

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Psalm 34: 7

For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. Psalm 91:11

Lately I have been challenged by the notion of those tiny angels around my plate.  Mom never said anything about them watching out for my elbows.  They just watched out for me.  In return, I respected their presence and their position.  My table manners were proof of my regard for them.  That said, I wonder:

Do I take God’s presence for granted?  Do I recognize His position in my life, and if I do, is it provable by my actions?

If we’re honest, most of us don’t really like the idea of availability and accessibility as presumptive qualities.  We want the option to bestow or withhold our gifts at will, when it feels right to us.  Open for caring 24-7?  Who does that?

God does that.

“I will never leave you or forsake you,” He says.  We should believe that, and yet, how many times have we secretly wondered if—not when—He would act on our behalf in a circumstance?  Faith doesn’t wonder about God showing up.  Faith assumes He’s here already—even if He is invisible—and acts accordingly.

More than anything else, the names of God communicate a passionate determination to be close to us, as a protector, comforter, and defender.  He is jealous and fiercely possessive, tenderly affectionate, eternally devoted.  He demands our whole heart, mind, strength, and soul.  He gave all that He had to have us in the Person of His Son, Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

This is not the behavior of someone who loves at arms length, or who takes time off from loving us.  Our God is not content to sit on the edge of a dish and look at us.  He will not be satisfied until there is no space between us, until He is the breath inflating our lungs, the rush of blood through our veins, the thump-thump pulsing in our chest.

He is Jehovah-Shammah, The Lord who is present and accounted for, not just watching us live, but giving us life.

What then is my response?

If I know He is with me, am I calling out to Him?  If I am certain He is God, am I worshiping Him?  If I believe He is omnipotent, am I letting go of the reins?  If I am convinced that He is faithful, do I trust Him?  If I know that I was worth dying for, will I refuse to barter myself for the attention and approval of men?

The Lord can be our Shepherd, if we’ll be His sheep.  He’ll find us green pastures, but He won’t make us eat.  The still water, the rod, the staff, the anointing oil—none of it matters if we insist on going our own way.

Oh, to have the wisdom and courage, in all things, to let God be God; to keep my elbows at my sides and let His angels run free!

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