Nice Mommy, Mean Mommy

On the way to school last week, my son, Will, spotted a house that was decked out with pumpkins, skeletons and spiderwebs. Will has a way of making dry yet amusing observations, especially for a six-year-old.

“I guess they’re ready for Halloween,” he said, without even a hint of enthusiasm.

But it got me thinking about the whole spooky season. I’ve always been puzzled by it. Not the dressing up as princesses and superheroes–there’s no mystery there. I mean the let’s-get-ourselves-scared-out-of-our wits aspect of Halloween.
When we lived in Florida we were blessed to have a pool in our backyard. We invented many games in that pool, but the boys’ favorite game was Nice Mommy, Mean Mommy. This is a game whereby I would bounce around the pool with one boy in each arm, kissing them and saying, “Awww, nice mommy…sweet, sweet, mommy…so, so sweet…” Then with facial expression turning vicious and a little growl through clenched teeth, I’d declare, “Mean Mommy!” Then Mean Mommy would thrash about, splashing and dunking two hysterically laughing little boys. It is surprisingly difficult to laugh and swim at the same time, and so twenty minutes or so of this routine and we were all exhausted and ready for the hot tub. We played Nice Mommy, Mean Mommy a few times at our swim club this past summer, but really it is a spectacle best reserved for your own backyard.
And even Baby Sam likes games with an element of fear. Hide-and-Seek gets the most laughs when he is startled to find me. And Sam much prefers to have his chubby little feet bitten rather than kissed, and frankly I’m happy to do either all day long.
These examples are innocuous little tales about the entertainment value of anticipation, but I think there is something deeper going on as well. I believe we are innately attracted to a certain aspect of the dreadful — this is hinted at in childhood but ripens as we mature. Consider the words of St. Augustine that were written nearly seventeen hundred years ago:
What is that which gleams through me and smites my heart
without wounding it? I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it, aglow in so
far as I am like it.
Augustine is describing the holiness of God as terrifying, and yet also appealing. I won’t pretend to have anything of Augustine’s spiritual insight, yet I know what he means about the smiting and the shuddering. Have you ever had the feeling that even contemplating the Holiness and Perfection of God is too much to endure? It makes me feel like Adam and Eve in the garden — like I need to run and hide.
So maybe the desire to be scared at Halloween can be explained, at least in part, as a perversion of our longing to experience the holiness of God. After all, a mere glimpse into His holiness is haunting. The great prophet, Isaiah, was petrified in God’s presence, crying out “Woe to me! I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5).
In Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the novice demon is told that “everything has to be twisted before it’s any use.” And everything in this fallen world is twisted, isn’t it? Even our cravings for the holy.
Boy am I thankful my little guys are still in the superhero phase!

This Ironic Paradoxical Life

Life is full of irony and paradoxes. My dictionary defines paradox as something that “seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth,” and suggests that an “essential feature of irony is the indirect presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which is occurs.”

Whatever, right? Processing that is like brainy boot camp. I’m almost too intellectually fat and lazy to work through it. Yet I find it ironically paradoxical that Sam, in the wisdom of his eighteen months of doing life, fights so hard against sleep. The child is never ready for bed. I’ve spent hours upon hours rocking him, giving much thought to why. Why does he fight it? And I think I’ve come up with the answer. It’s about control. We’re born with an “I’m calling the shots” attitude. We have an innate confidence that we know what we need. The paradox is that it is only in surrender that Sam gets the one thing he really does need: sleep.
This little nursery phenomenon represents the human story. We go through life thinking we know what we need and how to get it. Our perceived needs evolve over time so there is an ever-present striving. Many think life is about sex, status, and stuff, but the satisfaction these bring is fleeting. The hedonist knows that he will always need more pleasure, the billionaire CEO isn’t satisfied by status (see Oracle’s Larry Ellison), and things always fail to fulfill (See previous post, You, Happier.). Our real needs are to know where we came from, what our purpose is, how we are supposed to live, and what happens when we die. Written in our DNA is a need to explain the evil that is in this world, a desire for justice, a hunger for love, and a yearning for forgiveness. You can search the world over for answers to these questions. Different worldviews and religions offer different answers, and some can be very appealing. But Jesus Christ is unique in all of history because no other worldview or religion addresses all of these needs. (Ravi Zacharias often speaks to this. Learn more at www.rzim.org).
But just think about it. Jesus explains our origin, gives us transcendent meaning, provides a morality with which to live, and offers us eternal life. The Bible describes how evil entered our world and our hearts, it gives us guidance for how to mete out justice on earth and provides the hope of ultimate justice. The Bible also explains and satisfies our hunger of love. Finally, redemptive forgiveness is found in the person of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice not only pays for our sins, it obligates us to forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
So Jesus isn’t a set of rules. He’s an answer to the longings of our hearts. In fact, Jesus is THE ANSWER. And how do we take hold of Him and his gracious offer to satisfy our deepest needs? Just like Sam, only in surrender.
After thinking about this I’ve come up with my own definition of paradox. It is something that is true, but in our subjective analysis seems contradictory. It doesn’t seem like surrender could possibly be the answer, but it is. It doesn’t seem like God could be both three and one, but He is.
The fact that our “fallen little minds” (a favorite Joe Stowell line) can even recognize any paradox illustrates that there is something beyond our subjective comprehension. We operate in the dimensions of this world, but many things, including paradoxes, point to a dimension we don’t yet understand.
Someday Sam will recognize his need for sleep. He won’t fight anymore. And someday I’ll understand how it is that God is three and one. Until then I’ve got faith that I know what’s best for my son, and more importantly, I’ve got faith to believe that Jesus is God’s Son.

You, Happier.

Last week I went in Best Buy with a broken camera and a broken cell phone, and an hour later I walked out with…a broken camera and a broken cell phone. Actually it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t merely that three wild and destructive little guys were in tow. Something about contracts and upgrades, and finally “oh fooey, I’ll have to come back.” But since the four of us spent a good sixty minutes in there, I had ample opportunity to consider the banners hanging from the rafters. You, Happier.

Do you think stuff from Best Buy will make you happy? The latest greatest gadgets, and the turbo fastest, blu-ray, bluetooth? Will that make you happier? And by the way, I know there’s not really a blu-ray bluetooth, at least not yet. What I’m saying is that although it might seem silly–gadgets having anything to do with happiness–those banners wouldn’t be there unless some marketing guru and some not so meager focus group agreed the “You, Happier.” campaign works. Major corporations like Best Buy don’t often make New Coke mistakes. New products and marketing strategies aren’t just thrown into the marketplace to see if they stick. Somebody somewhere has analysis that proves just how effective those two little words are.
And maybe it’s not so silly anyway. After all, who doesn’t want to be happier? All of us have a longing in our hearts for more. The rub lies in identifying more of what. And oh how glorious to know what it is not! And it ain’t stuff. I’ve lived among some very well-to-do people–Washington attorneys, lobbyists, and overachieving physicians–the kind of people who have gadgets coming out of their ears. From my experience the relationship between stuff and happiness may actually be inversely correlated. The more stuff you have, the less happy you are. Certainly, it’s not a hard and fast rule. There are some happy people who have lots of things. And I’m not exactly techno-deprived myself. But as much as I use and appreciate my iPod and my cell phone and my laptop, these are mere conveniences. They have nothing to do with my happiness.
My joy is derived from purpose, not possessions. And I believe every person’s purpose is the same: to glorify God, our loving Creator and enjoy Him forever (See Westminster Shorter Catechism). He’s given us different gifts (Romans 12: 6), and so the ways in which we glorify Him are as varied as we are, but what joy, what energy to do whatever it is you and I were created to do. And what futility to pursue possessions as a means to anything more than a pile of stuff.
So, You, Happier.? Not at Best Buy, not apart from God.
The words of Lewis on this issue are hard to beat:
“God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Mere Christianity)
Or perhaps even better:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)
Amen. Let us aim beyond best buys and mud pies!

Kiss of Grace

The prodigal son is one of my favorite Bible stories. It is so rich that it seems there’s a fresh insight every time I read it or hear it taught. If you haven’t read it recently, and by recently I mean sometime today, take a minute and savor it. (Luke 15:11-32).

Could there be a better picture of grace? There’s just something ingrained in us that gravitates toward hearts that forgive, toward souls that love regardless of performance. Does it melt your heart that the father sees him while he is still a long way off? And when he spots his son he takes off running to meet him. Running. Have you ever seen a middle-aged man running to greet a son? I never have. I’ve witnessed reunions of families I do not know in airports. My eyes have stung to see a father cling to his son, so proud, so filled with joy to fold him into his arms again. But none of us has ever witnessed a reunion like Jesus describes.

First of all, I don’t know anyone who demanded their inheritance early, received it without reservation, and then squandered it in Vegas. And in our humanness it is very difficult to imagine that when the What-Happens-in-Vegas-Stays-in-Vegas dude crawls home to Daddy he receives a warm reception, a downright bash thrown in his honor. No questions asked. No condemnation. No disapproving looks. No lectures. We cannot fathom it because it is not a human story.

It is a supernatural story about divine grace. We are the lost children. God is the loving father, watching for us, waiting patiently, spotting us while we are yet a long way off. He runs to us, and even when we’ve made a total mess of our lives, His heart is filled with compassion. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, what we’ve squandered away, He throws his arms around us and He kisses us.

Even though the parable is primarily about our relationship with our Heavenly Father, there is much we can apply to our earthly relationships. It was pointed out to me the other day that the father in the parable kisses the son before the son even has a chance to give his spiel about sinning against heaven and his dad. Isn’t that indicting? What if the next time someone wrongs you, you kiss them and throw your arms around them even before they have a chance to explain themselves. In fact, how about just once forgiving someone without a single condition, without a single demand. Now, that’s grace. Isn’t it fun to think about how that person would react?

By power of the Spirit, I am determined to try it. I’ll let you know how it goes.

And even though I never can get any of you to comment, I sure would love to hear about your own kiss of grace.