Or, Why I Want a Wife and Not a Dog.
“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dallas is one odd place.
I’ve only been breathing Texas’s humid air for 54 days, but I’ve observed and almost taken part in a phenomenon that defines my neighborhood.
No, it’s not their use of “y’all” or their enthusiastic (and kind of creepy) love of their state.
I’m currently living in a part of Dallas where most of my neighbors are young professionals, starting their new post-college lives and young couples beginning their new lives together. At all hours of the day, from when the sun rises out of bed, to mid-day where hungry people scatter trying to find a meal, and the evening hours seem to be longer due to the sun not going in hiding until 9pm, I’ve seen it everywhere. Men and women. Young and old. Beautiful and ugly. Skinny and fat.
All of them are out walking their dogs.
Small dogs, big dogs. Dogs well-groomed and others who look like they’ve escaped from a P.O.W. camp, barking dogs and quiet ones, dogs who want to be pet and dogs who want to rip off your face. I’ve seen it all. It seems like everyone and their cousin has a dog in my neighborhood, which didn’t phase me until I saw a strange sight. I was riding my bicycle to work one afternoon and saw it, a familiar sight that I had forgotten since I moved out to Texas: a grandmother pushing her grandchild in a stroller. Since then, I haven’t seen any more children being pushed in strollers.
This troubles me greatly.
I don’t get much feedback or comments on this blog, but at this point, I’d like to think that someone out there will begin posting links about rescuing animals or asking why I’m anti-canine or bring up statistics on the increasing price of raising a child or simply point out that I’m making a huge assumption about my cul-de-sac. At first, I thought that Dallas was affected by certain group of aliens who took Texas children by a tractor beam, but then, I found confirmation at the grocery store. I’ve only shopped for groceries a total of five times since I’ve left Tempe, but I have seen a grand total of two kids, begging their mom for a sugar-coated treat or squirming in the very uncomfortable seat of a shopping cart.
Before I came out to Dallas, I had a couple of reservations about attending and being trained at a reformed seminary. For the past nine years, I have identified myself as someone who holds to reformed theology, but in all honesty, I didn’t like the attached baggage that comes with telling someone you’re a Calvinist or reformed. It seems like reformed theology has gained traction with many in my generation, but many people claim it without fully knowing what they believe. I have done this and don’t want to continue in calling myself something that I don’t know what I mean.
I also had (and still have) fears that I would become a more proud and arrogant pastor, who would cause more hurt than help towards Christ and people. Due to the increased knowledge and intellectual environment I was going to be in, I was afraid it would cause a deterioration of my ability and desire to love and care for people with weakness. People just like me. Plus, I have a strong dislike for the “Bible Belt” and Christian subcultures that have been created within it. But, that’s a conversation for another time. The second issue that I wrestled with was that I didn’t believe in one of the main convictions of reformed theology, infant baptism (paedo baptism). I had believed that water baptism was a declaration between God and the one being drenched in the water, of the person’s commitment and responsibility to living life that resembles Christ’s.
I dropped out of my summer course of Greek after three weeks, because I had prematurely burnt myself out. I had placed a level of expectation of performing well in school that was unrealistic, and ultimately crushing, because I had craved the approval of friends and family who were observing my new journey from a distance. I had also felt the need to prove myself to my biggest critic and cheerleader: myself. All of these expectations crushed me into a ragged mess, causing me sleepless nights, fatigue and weariness all day that wouldn’t leave me. Both burdens sucked the joy from my marrow, as I began to doubt and sink into depression about the calling that I have felt on my entire life to enter full time pastoral ministry, church planting and training.
One of my pastors back home once told me that he had trouble discerning me and giving me counsel because of me being a strong feeler and an equally strong thinker. As I’ve been trying to diagnosis the blues that have been keeping me down for the last month and a half, a common thread emerged.
Last week, I had one of the nastiest colds that I have had in a long time, which caused me to stay in bed for my four-day weekend. One evening, when my lower body had chills and my upper was burning up like Arizona summer, it hit me. Selfishness and fear had taken a firm choke hold on these people, including myself. I’m not saying that all of my neighbors are a bunch of selfish people and having a dog means you’re a selfish person, or that going to a seminary where you don’t fully align and dropping out during the summer transformed me into a selfish person. I can only speak for one person, me. And I was and will be selfish until I die.
I’m 25 years old, which in the eyes of many people is still very young and at times, I feel my age, but other times I feel older than what my driver’s license says I am. Since I was a young boy of 3 or 4, I have always wanted to be a husband and father and a pastor. These desires of mine have been trampled by women I’ve pursued, others have laughed at or behind an attitude of “niceness,” have accused me of idolatry with these desires or have said words like “well, it will happen when you least expect it” or “just wait and don’t focus on them.” I’ve searched the ins and outs of myself and found some good that comes from both of these desires, like being well-respected or having someone to share in my long-last name, but I’ve also seen that there’s bad in there too. For instance, why do I want to enter a profession that is constantly filled with discouragement and low salary? Or why give up my time, energy, and resources for people with my last name who will hurt me with their words and actions? I must be a sucker for punishment, I’ve thought, but I’ve realized something bigger and more beautiful is at stake.
As a Christian, I am claiming to the world around me and to myself that I am no longer identified by my family, choices, words, thoughts or actions, but I am a son of the living God, fully accepted and fully loved by the same living God. Moreover, my life is to resemble his son, Jesus, in all that I say and do each day I have on this earth. Jesus himself said that the entire summation of what my life is to be about is that I am to love Him with my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. It’s easy to love and care for myself, but what Jesus is saying is that I am to stop loving myself and love Him with my all and to love broken, hypocritical people like me and place him and others above my own wishes, hopes and desires. Jesus himself lived this, as he freely gave up his rights as the King of the universe to rescue broken sinners like you and me. He continues to live it out by being the gracious king of all, who holds everything together by the power of his might and word, who looks on with compassion and justice to the same broken people who continue to fail and use his name for their own gain, and he still continues to supply mercy for all of their needs. I’m not saying I need to stop taking care of myself, because we all know I’ve got bad body odor.
What I’m trying to say, is that as Christians we model his life of denial of self and this should carry over into all areas of our lives. One example of this is marriage.
Marriage is much more than a definition of two people in love–it is a reflection of the greatest love of all time. It does not need our congressmen and women to define, because it was created and sustained by the One who calls those who are in Christ “beloved.” It’s meant to display the love between Jesus and his wayward bride, the Church. As much as she wanders from his loving and gracious hands, he relentlessly pursues after her and brings her back under his roof. His life, death and resurrection from the grave displayed loudly that nothing shall ever cause him to break his promise to his people–no amount of sin or faithfulness can ever change his steadfast love towards his beautiful, messy bride. This is the blueprint of how I am to love my wife, which scares me, but it also excites me to one day be the manifestation of this love.
On the other hand, baptism is not a declaration of how much anyone, including myself, will be faithful to Jesus, but it is a reminder of Jesus’ faithfulness even when I am not faithful in words, thoughts and deeds. When I resume seminary in the fall, I’m not going to rush through my studies so I can quickly return to my friends and family back in Arizona, but I want to soak up the material I am learning so I can be better able to serve those around me in my teaching and counsel, pointing them to one is trustworthy.
Here’s a hint, it’s not me.
I recently read an article by CNN’s belief blog that was reflecting on the one year anniversary of their blog on religion. I’ve read some of their articles from time to time, but what fascinated me was that in their summary, they were amazed at how people were still interested in Christianity and many people are still very religiously illiterate, which should not come as surprise because we’re not a “Christian” nation anymore. My job as a pastor is to help make Jesus the biggest and most beautiful thing in the lives of people, not help them grow in their love for America. I may not be able to answer all the questions people might have, but tension is okay, and I think God has designed tension in order for us to not lean on ourselves but to fully trust in Him, even when it’s not clear. That’s one of the scariest and most beautiful thing about God being sovereign, meaning he’s in control at all times–it means in our suffering and in our bliss, he’s not removed, but he’s a master potter, molding each of his children to be more like Jesus. I don’t think being married will cause all my selfishness to be removed, if anything, it will be more revealed and that’s okay, because I’m told in scripture that I am to love my wife as Jesus has loved me.
I’ll probably end up getting a dog eventually but I’m much more interested in the everlasting toil and joy that comes with laying down my life for those I love. When we love those who find it hard to love us back, we get a small glimpse of what Jesus did and does for his bride.
It’s a type of love that I have seen in the lives of many people in my life:
It’s the like the love I’ve saw when I was in the home of my friends Brent and Kristi, who are trying to raise four boys filled with true grit and plant a church filled with people who love Jesus and their neighbor.
It’s the love I hear when I listen to my friend Jeremy sing beautiful songs about the pain and redemption he’s felt in his life.
It’s like the love and toil I’ve seen my best friends, Mathew and Felicia, go through as they’ve faced obstacles and joys within their four years of marriage, which has brought three wonderful crazy kids.
It’s like the love that my older sister and brother-in-law have for the artistic community of Seattle and have started to take small steps forward in obtaining their dream of opening and curating a house for artists.
It’s like the love that has motivated my friend Sara to move out of this country and spend two years of her life caring for students in central Asia.
It’s like the love that I hope that Jalen, Jeremiah, Brandon, Kallon, Sean, Isaiah, Ty’len, Jaston, Praise, Daja, Brandelynn, and Lola get from me, when my voice cracks like I’m going through puberty again as I try to remind them to stay on task or when grace is given despite their failure to follow our classroom rules.
It’s a love that has caused me to weep for joy at the fact that Jesus died for all my sins and feel sorrow instead of guilt over my own sin–a love that will never let me go.