Borders We Need: Brexit, Boundaries, and Love

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My son recently started saying “me” and “I” with great frequency.  He shouts “Help me” when he falls down, “I want” when he desires a specific activity, or  points to something he’s playing with or eating saying “me, me,” as in mine.  I love it.  He is learning how to develop and express his needs, wants, and preferences.  He is finding himself, he is learning about where I end and he begins, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Recent studies on childhood development suggest that children aren’t cognitively ready to understand the concept of sharing until they are at least three or four.  That doesn’t mean they can’t act kindly toward other children at younger ages, it just means they don’t understand what it means to share themselves and their belongings. To the child soul these enforced episodes of “sharing” are confusing invasions on their fragile and developing personhood.  Yet most of us parents follow our children around, managing their social interactions and begging them to share anyway.  Typically, these futile interactions with toddlers just end in tears for all.

Children can’t share until they first learn to possess.  They can’t fully give until they first understand what it means to receive, and then to own.  Before they can grow into their social skills, they must first grow into an understanding of their individuality.  Learning to say “me” is crucial for valuing “you.”  A key part of developing as people is understanding where we end and others begin.

It is in finding out what it means to be me and not my mother, my father, my siblings, or other family members and friends, that we equip ourselves with the ability to become healthy individuals and learn how to interact with the world.  Relationships, even in their most foundational and early states, need borders.

For those who still believe in the need for defined boundaries – personal and national – in our increasingly borderless world, who recognize that sometimes “no” is said with deep love, this one is for you.

We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.  Self-autonomy is a foundational component of healthy living.  In order to love ourselves we must rule ourselves.  In order to rule ourselves, and protect ourselves from abuse, we must define ourselves.  We need to know what is ours and what is not.  We need to own all that is unique and personal about our body, soul, and mind. As we grow into this knowing, we grow into an appreciation for who we are and who we were created to be, as well as an acceptance of who and what we are not.

We cannot love that which we cannot define or differentiate.  If I don’t know where my body ends and yours begins, how can I properly take care of myself without trying to involve you in the process? If I don’t know what my opinions are in contrast to your opinions, how can I think for myself?  If I cannot express or choose my own likes or wants but rather let you choose them for me, how can I become autonomous?  If I can’t distinguish my rights and responsibilities from yours, how can I adequately protect myself from being used or from seeking to use and abuse others?

Boundaries are a foundational component of personhood, just as borders are an existential necessity of statehood.  In contemplating the current debate regarding the electoral success of Brexit, the British campaign to leave the EU, I was struck by these similarities.

C.S. Lewis writes in powerful terms about the proper love for country and the many ways this type of love can be distorted in Chapter 2 of The Four Loves.  He begins by describing a love of home, a Need-love or natural love, which can develop for the place where you were born or for the many places where you choose to live over the course of your life.  It is a love of the familiar and a love for the unique ways that your home conjours up that special feeling of comfort and belonging.  The foods, the customs, the peculiar ways life is lived, and how it is governed, all of these features uniquely shape the lives of those who dwell therein.

To define these facets of our home(s) and to cherish them is to love them for their own sake. He notes:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.

If foreigners were to invade and rule our home country and try to impose their customs on our way of life, Lewis continues, we would rightly call for a defense.   Likewise, it is not evil to defend yourself against those who would seek to control you – as an autonomous adult – in how to speak, dress, eat, think, and feel.  To merely love your home, your country, for all of the unique qualities and charming familiarities, to be willing to defend your home when threatened because of that love, is not evil.

Of course, love of country can be used for evil, just as love of self can turn demonic and cause innumerable pain.  But to purely love that which is distinct and familiar, to love that which differentiates our homes or ourselves from others, is natural and necessary.

If you cannot define aspects of a country that make it unique, if you cannot say where that country ends and another begins, then how can you love it?  What are you loving, protecting, or identifying with if not specific attributes, perspectives, or customs found within a distinct border?  People need to know where they begin and others end.  They need to appreciate those features that are uniquely theirs, and so, too, do countries.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

We need to define ourselves in order to love others. A significant part of being able to extend beyond ourselves in love for another person is to first know who and what we are.  Without that knowledge we easily become codependent or domineering in our relationships.  After I understand what it means to be “me,” as my son is so crucially discovering at the age of two,  I can understand and appreciate what it means for you to be you.  This is the foundation of empathy.

Lewis aptly observes how this principle works with love for country:

How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

Properly balanced loves – both for who we are and for who or what we identify with – help us appreciate how others are different.  The common bond between all people is not that we share the same ideas or foods or preferences, but that we all possess the ability to have our own ideas, like our own foods, and live out our own preferences.  We share in our ability to love the particular, the specific, the defined, and the uniquely ours.

The problem comes when we want everyone else to think and act just as we do.  Or when we believe that all people should live in the same way and share our same customs, priorities, and values.  Our contemporary society is perilously edging closer to creating a world where borders, be they personal or communal, are no longer recognized or respected.  It is not enough to be left alone to live as we choose in our own homes, or in our own countries, for this is considered an offense or an affront to “humanity.”  But more on that later.

Because we are losing an understanding of borders we are losing an appreciation for differences – ironic in a world that supposedly loves “diversity.”  We cannot understand, appreciate, or defend the differences of other people if we lose the language and freedom that allows us to understand, appreciate, and define ourselves as distinct entities.

There is no need to be threatened by the fact that others choose or value something different than us.  Rather, through the experience of defining our own loves we can come to understand how someone else might appreciate foreign things or come to differing conclusions.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.  True evils result from the debasement of our loves.  One such evil particularly prone to surface in our abuses of how we love our ourselves and our countries is that of a superiority to those who are different.  It is a distortion of our proper loves to see ourselves as greater than others.

Keep in mind the admonition in 1 Corinthians that all members of the body are to be valued and cherished no matter the roles they provide.  That is the image of love we are to follow.  When such love is malformed, replaced by human rankings and castes, and taken to the extremes, it can lead to racism, improper dominion, and dehumanization.

Lewis addresses this type of superiority as “not a sentiment but a belief.” When love of country goes wrong it is no longer is capable of loving the other, and therefore ceases to properly love, or truthfully understand, itself.  He recounts:

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.

Lewis also notes how this type of superiority is tied to our understanding of history.  It is all well and good to derive a certain appreciation for the fables and strengths of our unique pasts. Yet it is downright unloving to believe that any country, just like any person, is lacking the presence of ugly betrayals, persecutions, and failures as facts in their own history.  The mere presence of failure or darkness is no reason to stop loving our countries or our persons.  But acknowledgment of our past mistakes act as a cautionary restriction to temper our appreciation for ourselves and help us view other people or nations with compassion.

As regards Brexit, so far as a person in the UK loves their country for its unique otherness, they have done nothing wrong or evil to assert that autonomy.  Many are suggesting they wish to define and control the borders and governance of their own nation.  Ownership of our personal lives, property, or country – and a desire to protect what we own if trespassed in some way – is not wrong.  It is a natural part of life.

The potential evil is found in those forces who wish for the British to leave the EU because they believe themselves somehow inherently superior to other nations, or to people who come to their country from other parts of the world.  To leave lacking an appreciation for those who wish to remain, to leave lacking respect for those who live differently, is where the danger lies.

No doubt that within the British electorate there are those who sought to define their nation’s boundaries on the premise of hatred and superiority.  But there are also those who merely wished to ensure the right for all British people, regardless of ethnicity or personal history, to choose how to rule and define themselves going into the future.

A question for the British citizenry as they work towards meting out the consequences of the vote to Leave is this: just how many of their own possess hatred for others vs healthy love for country?  As I expect they shall discover, not all people who love their county and wish to possess, rule, and protect it are racist xenophobic bigots.

Knowing yourself, and standing up for the right to control that self is not wrong.  Misunderstanding yourself and your history, believing that you can justly control and lord over others beyond your borders, or to hurt and belittle those who are different within, is the true problem.  Where this evil exists, it ought to be noted and condemned.  You cannot love your country if you hate all other countries, just as you cannot love yourself if you hate all other people.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.  It is not uncommon in the course of our relationships to realize that we need to realign how we interact with others.  Typically this need arises for our own protection.  Sometimes we need to say no because we too often say yes.  Sometimes we need to say no because what is asked of us invades our personhood or our rightly ordered places of autonomy.  Often these “no’s” come after realizing that somewhere along the way we failed to sufficiently understand, define, and advocate for our own limits.

We need to correct relationships that overstep proper borders in order to preserve our own sense of self.  Such redefinitions can be difficult and often are not without some type of relational cost.  Yet the assertion of our boundaries, and the ability to properly rule ourselves, is typically required for our ability to survive and thrive into the future.  Redefinitions of borders are necessary in order to continue loving ourselves, and thereby necessary for enlarging our ability to love others.

In the context of love of country, Brexit provides an example of how a nation might need to reassert their borders, and their control thereof, to ensure survival as a distinct state.  Again, where that redefinition of borders is motivated by a hatred of others it is wrong.  But where it is founded in a healthy love of self it is understandable and legitimate.

One of the great blessings in choosing ownership and love of self is the ability to control how we use and manage our borders.  Merely asserting autonomy is not a decision to shut-out all people or to advocate isolation from the world.  In fact, rightly ordered personal autonomy can help us extend more grace and love to others.

We can love even as we seek to protect ourselves from those who would misuse or abuse us and our borders.  Just because people who transgress our boundaries or who disrespect our natural rights to self-governance are put at a new distance, does not that mean we have to close ourselves off to all relationships.

Those who respect our attempts to redefine our borders as we grow into our autonomy over the years are our dearest friends and allies.  Those who find offense at our choice to live, think, feel, believe, and govern differently are probably not of the sort we should hold nearest and dearest, or allow unlimited access to our lives or countries, in the first place.  The choice to protect ourselves from invasions, even of a bureaucratic nature, is natural and reasonable.

The British people now have a collective opportunity and responsibility to rise to the challenge of redefinition of borders.  This task is not just for those who voted Leave, but also for those who voted Remain.  There is room for a multitude of ways to walk out the process of leaving the EU behind and reasserting the independence of the United Kingdom (or the individual statehood of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

These choices are much like those presented to the character played by Julia Roberts in the film Runaway Bride.  Chronically co-dependant in her relationships, she needed an opportunity to step back and choose for herself something as small as the way she liked to eat eggs, for she had always ordered whatever her string of fiancee’s liked as her own.  In the end she decided she didn’t actually like eggs, not in any form.  This is exactly the kind of process we all go through when we need to step back, individually or collectively, and redefine ourselves and our boundaries.

The task when undergoing efforts to reclaim our borders is to stay grounded in a healthy love for identity of self and to see this self-love as a means to respect and understand others.  This task does not preclude the hardships that come during seasons where we must define and assert our borders.  There will always be prices paid and sacrifices made when reasserting ourselves as other and unique.  But the costs are well worth the price of staying whole and distinct, be it in our personhood or our chosen statehood.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

Without borders we lose our identity and thereby our purpose.  In spite of all these truths, there is a prevailing trend in our society to suggest that borders themselves are the cause of conflict.  Confident and unique identity, be it personal or national, is perceived as a threat to harmony and peace.  Because our loves are often distorted and abused in practice, all loves for the particular are held in suspicion.  It is thought better to leave boundaries aside all together, or to not stand up for them when threatened, for that is surely the best path to peace, harmony, and relationships.

It is argued that we must all come to believe, act, govern, and live the same way, for this is the inevitable and desirable end of mankind on earth.  Those who resist progress toward an enlightened multicultural cosmopolitan borderless society are bigoted, backwards, or even considered aggressive for merely thinking or choosing differently than their neighbors.

Perhaps the precedent for this type of thinking began in our contemporary society with traditionalists forcibly trying to keep a status quo of the past.  But now aggression with no respect for borders belongs to the intolerant tolerance found within our progressive globalism.

Lewis deals with this concept as well, noting that without borders countries and people are left with a “false transcendence,” one where the only recourse left for mankind is in “presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light”:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds–wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine–I become insufferable…If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

If we cannot love and define our country as unique and separate, we risk putting our actions out of order.  Wars are no longer just about protecting boundaries and homes, they are about defending universals.  Relationships cease to be about respecting and interacting with individuals, they are about the idea of the abstract category each person represents to us and all that we wish to derive from those roles (Family, Spouse, Friend, etc.).

This is the type of oppressive thinking which leads us into perpetual warfare and conflict. There will always be an “enemy” somewhere not living as we think they ought (i.e. not like us) or not upholding the values we deem to be best.  Here we find no room for compromise, negotiation, or a retreat within our own borders, for borders are no longer respected.  The only victory recognized by the borderless is one of complete subjugation where all differences deemed unacceptable or threatening within a person or a country are wiped clean.

Whether it is relational warfare or the actual use of military might, wars and conquests based on these attempts to subdue in the name of eternals are the epitome of death and destruction.  They leave us unhinged, disconnected from purpose, detached from unique loves, and free to attack at will.  The justification for our ruler’s choices, or for the way we treat others, gets confused with the will and role of God.

It is not our place to tell another autonomous individual how they must feel, think, believe, or act (although we may certainly enforce a consequence when those actions break laws or disrespect established boundaries).  We cannot force a certain type of lifestyle, set of preferences, or acts of personhood on another at will, even when it is perceived to be for their own benefit.

Likewise, the power afforded to a state, or a union of states, is not meant to force others to be made in their own image.  Such is not the purpose of any government or form of governance.  Unless, of course, it be the divine governance of God, and even He allows room for choice in pursuit of his purposes and the reflection of his image.  Choice to exist apart from Him is a critical component of the highest love, the love He offers to His creation.

Natural love, as Lewis defines love of country, is separate from our higher callings to affection, eros, and the most beautiful of all, charity.  Although Need-love is not the same sentiment as that which we encounter in most of our personal relationships or in our relationship with God, commitments to things like our home and our country act as models to help train or prepare us for accepting and growing into the higher spiritual loves of this life.

We shouldn’t worship or idolize our countries, but we can love them.  As part of that properly ordered love we need to define what they are and what they are not.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

While we continually grow into our true selves, we can change how we use and manage our borders.  Self-awareness and appreciation creates a foundation for relationship and a respect for those whose countries or attributes differ from our own.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

In loving others we must protect ourselves from any deceitful notion that we are secretly better than those who live, think, or act differently than us.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

When we discover that we are in a relationship that has confused the boundary of what is mine and what is yours then it is time to reassert who we are.  Sometimes we must say no, and sometimes we must say goodbye.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

If we try to live without boundaries we lose guidance on how to respect and interact with others.  Lacking self-definition, we risk turning into the very tyrants we fear from abuses of patriotic and self-love.  Without borders we loose our identity and thereby our purpose.

There are so many ways we can choose to manage our edges and our internals, for good or ill.  But in order to give, in order to relate, in order to love, we must be able to define, own, and protect.  These are the borders we need.

 

For further reading on the importance of borders as a foundation for love, I suggest Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

In Memoriam: Christina Grimmie, My Friend

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Christina with my Grandmother at my wedding

My wedding reception had just finished and I was trying to get back to my room to change shoes. After hobbling up a flight of stairs with throbbing feet and a cumbersome dress I realized that I did not have a card key to access the lodge hallway where the bridal party rooms were located.  As I was debating if I could make it back downstairs on my own, and honestly starting to feel quite lonely, a graceful, quiet soul appeared on the landing where I was waiting.  I explained to Christina my predicament, she helped me get in, and then we walked together to our neighboring rooms.

I will never forget this moment.

She told me how beautiful I was. I told her how beautiful she sang.  I thanked her for coming to make my wedding so special.  She thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of our story.  And then I told her something that proved to be more true than ever in the following years. I told her that while we may not be related by blood, her family was our family and I couldn’t imagine celebrating that day without them.  Their family, as she reminded me in that moment, liked to tell everyone that my family are the nicest people they know. But in that moment I knew the truth of who the nicest among us truly was.  We hugged, and we went our own ways.

Yesterday, Christina Grimmie went from ushering others to worship at the throne of the Lord through her beautiful life to standing before Him in heaven at the age of 22.

For those who are left behind, for those experiencing a tremendous grief, for those trying to make sense of the senseless, for those wishing they could just do something, this one is for you.

This is the Story of the Son of God

Hanging on a cross for me*

She was loving.  Christina’s love was genuine.  She loved her family, her pets, and her fans.  She loved music.  In an age full of manipulation and image crafting, Christina was true to herself and how God made her.  She was determined to be faithful to who she was and who God was calling her to be.  She ignored voices telling her to be or do something she wasn’t because she knew her fans and she had a vision for how to love them and minister to them through pop music. She loved others and she loved herself for she knew that God loves us all.

The causes she supported with her celebrity weren’t publicity stunts, they were accurate reflections of her heart.  When she said she loved her fans, she really and truly meant it with her whole being.  She received her success with deep humility, and used it to tirelessly serve those whom she inspired.  Christina gave to her family, just as they gave to her.  She sacrificed for others, and she sacrificed for God.  To all of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally, we know the depth of the love she offered and modeled.  Christina Grimmie was loving.

But it ends with a Bride and Groom

Standing By a Glassy Sea

She was faithful.  Christina’s faith was real.  It truly permeated her life and influenced her decisions, even at a young age.  Through her knowledge of scripture to her prayer life, she privately practiced the faith she came so publicly to claim.  She faced plenty of challenges, disappointment, failures and deep pain in her young life, and yet she always turned to God for healing and guidance.  She might not have been recording “Christian” music or serving on a worship team, but no one who knew her could ever charge that she sought to use her gifts for anything other than the Glory of God.  Christina Grimmie was faithful.

Oh, Death Where is Your Sting 

Because I’ll Be there Singing

She had hope. I remember when she and her friend Sarah were very young and first spent a visit at our home writing songs that they asked to perform for us before leaving.  These mini concerts became a regular tradition for our get togethers with the Grimmie’s, long before Christina uploaded her first video to share with the world.  I can earnestly say that watching God’s hand unfold in her life story from early childhood until now has inspired me time and again in remarkable ways.  God gave her a vision and a dream early on in her life and she believed in it with abandon.

She believed in it so much that she kept working toward it, tirelessly, endlessly, passionately, even when she had no clear path for success.  She had hope that God meant what he was speaking over her heart and into her life.  She had hope that no matter the obstacles, He could bring it to pass and that He would not forget her and her dreams.  She had hope that no matter the number of closed doors she encountered along the way, there was still a future for her.  For those of us who saw that hope in a young girl from South Jersey singing from our balconies and in our living rooms, who was self-taught and self-driven, we saw hope in action.  Christina Grimmie had hope.

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord Almighty

She transformed others for good.  As Christina was performing on The Voice, I heard God speak over her an anointing while we were watching her cover of Drake’s song, “Hold on. We’re going home.”  What I heard that night was a reminder that this, too, was a manifestation of the gospel.  What she had accomplished was an act of taking something that seems to be worldly and hollow at its core and transforming it into something truly beautiful and meaningful.  So many of her covers infused this love and beauty into whatever she chose to sing.

The secret to her professional success in this world, beyond her talent, unique personality, and infectious joy, came in how she used her artistry to touch our hearts and remind us that there really is a Creator of this universe who is Love.  God used Christina’s life, as I believe He will continue to use her earthly legacy, every time she breathed His life, the life and freedom of Christ, into the music she performed.

As her family, her friends, her fans, we were all touched by her time walking along side us and we can honestly say that we are better off having known her.  She helped to transform our lives through her kindness, her testimony, and the work of her hands.  Christina Grimmie transformed others for good.

Who Was and Is and Is to Come

Her story is not over.  For those of you, like myself and my family, who have followed Christina’s journey from childhood on up, there is a particular pain to see her name so publicly renowned today.  We all prayed and hoped and believed a day would come when she would reach this level of recognition for her talents.  Never, never, never, could we have ever imagined that day would come because of how she died.  It is almost too much, too cruel.

It does not end like this.  It does not end in tragedy, just as it did not start in tragedy.  The headlines that now bring her story to the rest of the world are neither the beginning nor the end.  Much like the Savior she loved, the tragic and heedless nature of her death may call attention to her life, but it does not define who she was, is, and will be.

We will miss her here.  We will miss her so much.  We will miss her and all the things we will miss out sharing with her in this earthly life that ended so soon.  I recall on my wedding weekend talking to Christina and her mom at different times about how she was so inspired by the story of how my husband and I met through the divine hand of God.  I remember how she said our story gave her hope for what kind of man God had in store for her, in His timing, and the importance of waiting on God to fulfill these desires of your heart.

In so many ways, it hurts knowing that she never met that man on earth and that we will never have the joy of celebrating her wedding together, as she so powerfully helped me celebrate mine.  And yet – and yet – I know that Christina met her bridegroom last night while she stood all in white.

Her story has just begun.  Her life, her eternal life, began anew last night.  If we thought that she sang beautifully in this earth I can only imagine just how glorious she sounds today.  I know that her life and her heart is fulfilled.  I know that she is loved in ways we can only dream of.  I know that she is whole.

Each time we think of her life and the way that God used it, we continue her story here as well.  When we listen to her music, or watch her videos, or tell others about her, we continue the act of transformation she began.  When we think on how much she was and did in her 22 years and we choose to be and do even a fraction of that with our own, her story lives on.  When we choose to love, to be faithful, to hope, and to use our gifts to transform this world for good, we keep her life’s purpose alive and we point to the life that she now lives.  Christina Grimmie’s story is not over.

This is the Story of a Bride in White 

Singing on Her Wedding Day

Of the God who was and is to stand before a Bride who Sings

Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord God Almighty

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* The words in Italics are the lyrics to the song “Holy (Wedding Day)” by City Harmonic.  This was one of the songs Christina sang at my wedding.  It is the song that she sang as I walked down the aisle on May 11th, 2013.  Never before has this song meant so much to me.  Our glassy sea was upon the shores of Lake Tahoe.  Hers are the glorious seas of Heaven.

My Hair: A Soliloquy on Beauty

Lady Gaga wrote a popular song about being as free as her – ironically, often fake – hair, but can we really find true beauty and freedom in something as fleeting and temporal as our hair?

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I love my hair.  No, really.  I deeply love my hair.  Down to every last tendril and sun-streaked split end.  It wasn’t always this way.  In fact, I used to hate my hair.  Thick, frizzy, tangle-prone, and all around hard to manage, it was a nightmare to deal with as an awkward and semi-hygienically challenged adolescent.  But sometime in my early twenties my views on these tresses began to change.  Instead of looking in the mirror only to see an enemy to slay (or chop off) at periodic intervals, I began to understand that it was a great gift and perhaps even the crown of my outward beauty.  I came to embrace my hair, and with it I embraced my femininity and my unique beauty bestowed upon me by a loving creator.

In Christian circles, particularly among young girls who struggle with low self-esteem or body image, there is a tendency to emphasize interior beauty as the chief marker of development or maturity.  I learned all about this view in my younger years and I suppose these teachings did help to sustain my vision for the future through the seasons of life when all I beheld in my reflection was an ugly duckling unworthy of love.  I knew all the verses, and all the catch phrases, that taught my fellow self-deprecating peers and I to look after our interior life instead of concerning ourselves with the exterior particularities of our body.

We clung to the words of 1 Peter 3:3-4, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” In short, we told ourselves that it was OK if we were overweight, or if we hated how we looked in pictures, or if we neglected our appearance, so long as we desired and cultivated a beautiful spirit.

What I failed to understand, what we all failed to see, was the interconnected nature of interior and exterior beauty.  It is not that we were wrong to suggest that interior beauty is of higher (or highest) value, but we neglected the quiet reality that a vital part of refining our interior life is embracing our embodied selves with joy and respect.  So long as I hated and abused my outward appearance, so long as I hated my hair or my body or my face, my sense of self was incomplete and my internal growth was stunted.  I needed both an internal refining and an external blossoming to be fully open to the transforming work of the Spirit in me.

I have long observed that even the most classically beautiful people, when lacking internal maturity or depth, can be rendered unlovely upon closer acquaintance.  So too can our estimation of the beauty for a seemingly “plain” person with a kindhearted and wise soul increase over time.

A great deal of developing the internal life of both men and women is changing our eyes to see the beauty of God in his creatures.  This means that as we grow in faith our understanding of beauty alters.  Instead of merely appreciating the symmetry of a face or the striking color of someone’s eyes, we come to appreciate all that is good, or all that is God, in the people we see and pass by each day.  This also means that we will begin to see all that is not of him as truly ugly or unattractive.

When I embraced my hair, began to grow it out, and started caring for it properly, I did so as an outward sign of my readiness to embrace the goodness of God in the whole of my life.  Not merely the whole of my interior life, but of my entire being – body and soul alike.  Through a painstaking process of self re-definition meted out in prayer and community, I realized that all this time when I looked in the mirror and saw something ugly staring back at me I was actually seeing the ugliness of my interior life showing through.  It was the dark gaping reflection of the deep set and festering places of my heart that I refused to turn over to God.

I had hardened myself to the idea that I could ever be truly beautiful or attractive and I refused to let God make me whole again.  I was intelligent and spiritual and caring.  I thought this was good enough, for to care about my outward beauty was to face up to the realities of my pain, heartache, and fear.  I had bought into a dualist lie and used it to keep myself from the very thing I wanted the most: womanly maturity and womanly beauty.

So long as I precluded the possibility of being beautiful on the outside I could never be fully beautiful on the inside.

We cannot neglect the interior life for the sake of petty externals, and we must always be on guard against the formation of little vanities and prides that crowd out the still small voice beckoning for the continual transformation of our eternal natures.  But I have learned, through my hair, that there is no piece of our lives that is shut off from the healing touch of the Father, our creator.  To come before him with open hands, relinquishing all that is ugly and broken, and ask for his help in making us fully lovely is to embody the beauty of Proverbs 31.  It is to accept the beauty of God’s grace.

Let none of us be so prideful as to tell God which places in our lives are beyond his redemption and transformation.  May we all come to know in time what it is like to see in the mirror clearly, and for that mirror to reflect the purity of God’s beautiful goodness.

She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Proverbs 31:25-26, 30

Happily Ever Always

Why aren’t we able to create or sustain heartfelt images of goodness?

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Everything I have ever learned about writing or story-telling, either in classes or through the media of our age, emphasizes that there is no plot worth telling without a crisis, a climax, or a great trial.  The characters of depth – the roles which actors clamor over and are in turn praised most consistently for portraying – are the ones who are dark, twisted, and complex.  Genius, we are taught, is displayed through intricate articulations of the hardships, disappointments, and perverse things of this life.  In short, you cannot have a good story without having a great evil.

Goodness is most often thought of and therefore portrayed as flat, dull, and even insincere.  The tales which tell of good things or redemption typically hold off to depict these values until the very end and we are left with the iconic, and perhaps now ironic, “happily ever after” which no one actually dares to maintain for anything longer than a fleeting moment.  The evil may be vanquished and overcome in the final minute or on the last page, but I would wager that most of these yarns were only able to show the good in contrast to a more complete vision of the bad.  A triumph can mark an end but it rarely, if ever in our stories, becomes a genuine beginning.

It is natural for our anecdotes and legends to mirror the experiences of our lives and the sad truth is that evil, sin, and injustice are an undeniable part of our existence.  It is therefore little wonder we glance askew at happy tales, thinking that these must either be shallow in message or that they couldn’t possibly be the whole or real story.  This reality, we assume, must involve hypocrisy, tragedy, and the truth of our depravity laid out naked and bare.  Even through our occasional sappy tears at “feel good” plots we undercut the happy endings of our times, ever aware of the foibles of humanity.  The climactic marriage scenes, you think, could easily follow into divorce; the sports triumphs may lead to tales of drug abuse, injuries, and public disgrace; the redeemed man will more likely than not lapse back into the problems and addictions of his past.

But what of redemption that lasts?  How can we claim that salvation is transformational and the ultimate fulfillment of our existence if we cannot even sustain images, characters, and tales of goodness without dabbling in evil to keep things interesting or “real”? I am not an advocate of smoothing over the difficulties of this world or the truth of our own flaws and sinful natures, but it certainly seems that we should consider more intentionally how to restore a proper sense of the the good in the sagas we write and tell.

If we all acknowledge that the need to depict evil in our stories stems from our daily reality, then why is it that we attribute such imaginative mastery to those who craft these dark characters and plots?  The hard thing is not to tell of what we already know but to tell of that which we do not know, or rather, of what we can only see in part.  It is a much higher calling to depict the good – with the penetrating and rich qualities this ought to entail – than to merely replicate the bad which we are constantly mired in.

Evil, even in its most startling forms, requires little creativity or inspiration to conjure up.  We find it every time we read the news, step outside our front door, or examine our own hearts.  Perhaps this is why we see so few examples of genuine goodness in our art, because “the good” is what demands true talent, imagination, and hours of reflection to fashion and bring into being.

I don’t necessarily advocate the perspective of artists like Thomas Kinkade who seek to depict life as they think it would have been without the introduction of original sin into the order of creation.  Neither do I think it possible to achieve complete perfection or holiness in this age, either in our lives or our creative endeavors.  But what I do promote, and what I earnestly desire a new generation of artists and writers to undertake, is a concerted effort to depict what life can and will be like through the active and complete redemption of this world. These efforts will be incomplete, perhaps some will even be false or misguided, but why else have we been gifted with the power of the baptized imagination if not to envision something beautiful and whole amidst the destruction and brokenness of our present reality?

I am daily convinced that our redeemed imaginations are to be used as a means of communicating hope to this world.  God’s goodness as a rich and constantly unfolding actuality, not merely as a foil for the more compelling evil or as a line tagged on to the end of a story, is what we all hunger for.  May we ponder anew how to be vessels that introduce this true good into the world through the stories we tell, the characters we devise, and the images we create.

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

~ Psalm 27:13-14

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

~ Romans 12:21

This essay was originally posted April 8, 2011 on my tumblr blog.