Lessons from the Water Park: What is Agape Love?

I blinked against the bright sunshine as happy children squealed around me. Magic Springs was full this particular afternoon. Full of hyped-up children and exhausted parents. Close to fifty little ankle biters scurried around me at the splash pad. Water sprayed in every direction and the scent of chlorine filled my nose. My own little guy had climbed up the stairs and gleefully gone down the slide at least seventy-two times and showed no signs of wearing out.

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We were in it for the long haul.

A four year old with big blue eyes caught my attention as he waddled up the stairs in his too-big arm floaties, stopping every now and then to tug up his sagging swim trunks. His parents were standing not far from me. Every now and then he’d glance back to make sure they were still there and greeted them with a toothy grin and a wave. They laughed and waved back. I smiled at his antics.

Five minutes passed when Mr. Floaties strutted by, smiling at me in that twinkly way he had. My amusement turned to alarm when I heard his parents stop him with a furious lecture. Both of them were scowling. Both of them had their hands on their hips looking like they were ready to do battle. What had the little guy done?

“Jesse, you have got to stop it, son! You keep letting everyone go ahead of you in line! It’s absolutely ridiculous. The other boys and girls keep cutting ahead of you and you actually let them do it! What is wrong with you?”

The father rounded on him once the irate mother stopped for breath. “Do you want to grow up and be a wimp? A pushover? Because that’s what will happen if you keep letting everyone go in front of you. Come on, son. Man up!”

spankyLittle Jesse looked helplessly between them and held up his hands in confusion. “I was just trying to be nice.”

The gesture reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals. There was nothing cute about his parents reaction, however.

The mother frowned. “You get back up there and be tough.”

Minutes later, the parents rewarded little Jesse with a high five when he proudly pushed another child out of his way so he could take his turn on the slide.

I had to turn away. Is this what we’ve come to? Scrap and claw for every inch of space? Refuse an act of consideration in order to ‘man up’ at the age of four? Condemn a child for showing kindness?

Don’t get me wrong. As someone who struggles with people pleasing, I get it. I have a child who battles the same issues…a child who struggles to let her voice be heard, to establish boundaries and stick with them. I know. I hear, but God forgive me if I ever use the need to set boundaries as an excuse to treat people with anything less than kindness and agape love.

Tim McGraw’s song “Humble and Kind” is more than just a nice little tune. It’s a challenge. Fruit of the Spirit on display to point hurting, broken people to Jesus. That is the goal…not ensuring our girls are the toughest or our boys are the manliest.

We are so worried about our children’s ACT scores and SATs, their future job markets and sports trophies, being tough and establishing boundaries, giving them a well-rounded childhood and opportunities, but how often do we see parents striving to make their children more loving? Sympathetic and empathetic? More concerned about showing agape love than they are about themselves?

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Agape love is action. It’s serving someone else despite our own feelings. It’s laying down our wants and needs and giving our resources to help someone else instead. Emotion may not even accompany agape love, but it’s doing the right thing because it’s what Jesus asked us to do. Yes, it can be difficult, but Jesus Himself left us the perfect example.

Think about this: on the very night He was betrayed, He knelt, humbled Himself and washed His disciples’ feet. You know, the guys who claimed to be his friends and in a few short hours would all run away, saying they never knew Him. His best friends, closest allies and confidantes would abandon Him to face death alone. Worse yet, Jesus knew they would flee, yet He chose to love and serve them anyway.

Let’s put it in another context. Here’s agape love: You hear your neighbors are about to turn you into the police for a crime you didn’t commit, but you decide to mow their lawn and wash their car anyway.

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Yeah. Agape love is powerful. That’s what this world needs more of. That’s what makes real men and women. Sacrificial love.

More than anything else, we need to be funneling the majority of our prayer and energy into molding our children to fall in love with Jesus. When they have a deep, abiding relationship with Him, they’ll learn to love like He does. Love like that transforms. It can’t help but be noticed. It turns the world upside down.

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good goal for us too.

 

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When You Can’t See God

Magic Springs wore me out last week.

Correction. The heat, combined with my children’s nonstop energy, wore me out.

The amusement park nestled in the outskirts of Hot Springs, Arkansas is a popular place to take families for summer fun where they can zoom down water slides, swim, splash in freeze zones, play games like bumper cars or catch a ride on numerous pulse-stopping roller coasters.

After hours swimming in the hot sun, the older kids wanted to ride a coaster. My friend offered to watch my son play in the kiddie pool while I took one teenager, one preteen, and three giggling seven-year olds to ride the Arkansas Twister. arkansas twisterThere was virtually no line that day so we rode the wooden roller coaster several times. Five, six, seven…they didn’t want to stop.

After the third trip through, I got off and told them I would stay by the entrance and snap their pictures as they zoomed by. No problem. I got some great shots of the laughing troop of estrogen. The longer I stood, the warmer I became. Ninety-five degrees with eighty-nine percent humidity feels like you’re standing in a furnace while a llama licks your face. Soon I was sweating through my clothes and decided to find a bit of shade until the girls had ridden themselves empty.

I found the perfect spot right beside the exit stairs where passengers left the Twister. It put me as close as possible to the girls without actually sitting on the coaster with them. A bit of shade. Blessed relief. steps in shade

Another ten minutes passed when I heard a heartbroken wail. My oldest daughter descended the stairs with her arms around my youngest daughter who was sobbing.

“You see? Mom’s right there. There’s no reason to be upset.”

My heart sank. Poor Callie. My youngest daughter has battled anxiety for years. She carries a heavy burden on her small shoulders and though we’ve made tremendous strides, the old enemy of fear still rises up from time to time.

I patted the bench next to me. “Come here, sweetheart. Why are you crying?”

“Because…I…couldn’t…see you! I…saw you…before…and then…you…were gone.”

I tugged her close and kissed her hair. “That’s true but do you know why I changed spots? The heat was making me feel bad. I needed shade so I moved. But I didn’t just move any old place. I moved somewhere I would be closer to you if you needed me.”

Callie sniffed and looked around. “You are closer to us here, aren’t you?”

I smiled, “Yep. Let me ask you something. When you didn’t see me, what was the first thing you did? Pray or panic?”

She blinked. “I freaked out.”

“Yeah. And why did you freak out?”

She shrugged and scuffed the concrete with the toe of her shoe. “I guess because I assumed if I didn’t see you that you had left me.”

I squeezed her close. “Have I ever left you before?”

She shook her head. “No. Never.”

“And I never will. Just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean I’ve left. In this case, not being able to see me was a very good thing because I was actually closer to you than I was before.”

With a long pause, I realized God was capturing my attention at the same time I spoke truth and comfort to my child.

How many times have I wondered if God saw me, especially when I couldn’t feel His presence? How many times have I believed the lie that said it was up to me—my effort, my work and my eyes on Him—to keep our relationship close? And while a relationship, any relationship, is a two-way street, deep in my heart I know that anything left up to my own efforts is doomed to fail. That is where Grace moves in.

He draws me to Him. He comes after me when I stray. He sees my need and moves to fill the gaps in my crumbled, broken weakness. When fear rattles the doorknob, He is close…closer than eyes can see. deuteronomy 31 6

Sometimes we have to ignore what our fickle emotions scream at us, silence the lies of what we think we know and stand firm on the promises of God’s Word. He said He will never leave us. He says His love for us is incomprehensible. It is not dependent on anything we do or are unable to do. We need only let His grace move in and hold us.

I don’t have to see Him to know He’s there.

I startled back to the present when Callie offered a shaky smile and wiped the tears from her blotchy face. “I think I’m ready to ride it again. My friends are waiting for me.”

“Okay, sweetie. Only if you’re sure.”

She looked over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs.

“It’s okay, Mom. Now I know. Just because I can’t see you doesn’t mean you’re not there.”

The Seeing Blind

In this present darkness, most of us feel oppressed at every turn. We sense spiritual forces battling it out. Good versus evil. Angels versus demons. Light against shadows. We’ve been taught to be good soldiers for Christ. Take up our cross and fight. Fight for truth. Fight for our children. Fight, well, for everything.

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Speaking the truth is always the right thing to do. We must speak what God has declared to be true, omitting nothing. But one thing most of us forget is this: truth never needs a defender. It stands on its own. That’s what makes it truth.

And as far as the cosmic battle goes? The war has already been won. Yet some of us speak and argue and live our lives like the outcome of the spiritual war depends solely on our own effort.

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In the past few years, I’ve traveled to many churches, speaking and singing, sharing the transformative power Jesus has displayed in my life. One thing I’ve noticed is that far too many churches are pounding the horribleness of sin, which is true, but no mention is made of forgiveness for the sinner. We talk of the heartbreaking slaughter of millions of innocent babies through abortion, shake our heads and take up arms, yet how many women sit in the congregation silently bowing their head in shame because they were one of the scared souls who made a choice that has now haunted and scarred them forever?

We talk about staying away from vices like pornography and the foul decay it brings to our minds, while a teenage boy on the back row struggles with the images his brain refuses to erase…images he was forced to see by an abusive father who thought showing such things to his young son would ‘make a man out of him’.

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Alcoholics and adulterers, drug users and ex-cons, the hot-tempered and misfits. They are desperately trying to hide their past. To fit in. To pretend it never happened. That the scars they wear are not visible still.

And while we’re busy shaking our fists at sin, and the world’s system, boycotting and ranting on social media about the very things Jesus told us the world would never understand, the hurting Jesus entrusted to our care are bleeding at our feet. And we don’t even notice. We’re so consumed with our righteous indignation, we’re blinded to the broken.

My personal opinion is this: generally speaking, the world should know us by what we’re for…not by what we’re against.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is not a call to stop fighting the good fight. Far from it. But in our zeal, may we be careful to keep compassion before campaigns. Truth should never trample love.

The gospel was never meant to shame the sinner. The gospel of Jesus is Good News. The God of the universe not only sees you, but outrageously, desperately loves you so much He died to make you His. This is a scandalous love. This is what we should be shouting through the streets. This is what we should be flooding through social media. This is the One Who can transform your life from broken to beautiful. Jesus.

In our lists of all the things that God is and what God does and doesn’t do, what He embraces and what He cannot, let us never forget this most beautiful, fundamental, and scandalous truth…the truth that all else rests upon: God is love.

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The Mean Stepsister

 

fairytaleRedemption is a beautiful thing. There is something so poignant, something almost sweeping and, dare I say, romantic about someone with power and position plucking a nobody from the crowd and claiming them as their own. Perhaps that’s why I’ve so frequently heard the Gospel compared to a fairy tale story. A king sweeping the lonely girl away to a land where all her dreams come true.

Not long ago, I heard someone compare what God has done to the story of Cinderella. I understand the gist of this kind of thinking, but it just doesn’t ring true. Not for me. See, Cinderella was pure and sweet and perfect. She deserved to win the heart of the prince. We root for her from the very beginning. We see how blameless she is. We witness the unjust circumstances thrust upon her and pray that all will be right in the end. And it is.

But I’m not Cinderella.

I’m not perfect. I’m the one setting traps for the mice and chasing the too-cheerful birds away with a broom. Too often I’m the selfish, mean stepsister, demanding my own way, wanting what I want now! stepsisterScheming, manipulating, taking whatever scraps of affection are dropped my way because, deep down, I’m so hungry for love, I’m sick with it. The only way I know to get love is to whine, parade, beg, and needle. Be more. Say more. Be seen. Be heard. And I turn myself into a royal pain in the process.

So there I stand in the middle of the crowded ballroom, watching all the beautiful girls around me, feeling ugly and out-of-place. My Jimmy Choos are actually knock-offs I found in a bargain basement and they pinch my toes. My spanx are too tight and I feel fat. Worse yet, I know how cruel I can be to those I love most. I see the bright eyes and dazzling smiles of all the other women and I know…I’ll never measure up. The Prince will never want me.

But then He turns to me and smiles. He extends his hand and asks me to dance. Me? No. I shake my head. Tears burn my eyes. He doesn’t understand. If He only knew. If He could only see the ugliness inside. hand

“No, my Lord,” I cry, tears weaving warm tracks down my face, “I’m not worthy. I’m ugly and mean. Broken. You don’t want me.”

The Prince smiles and tucks my hand into his. “Ah, but don’t you know? I mend the broken.”

The Gospel is not a message of God reaching down to elevate those who already have it together. The Good News is that He laid down His life and rose again to save broken and messy people who cannot save themselves. The Gospel is power, dynamite, revolutionary…an inside-out and upside-down message of hope for the unlovable.

It turns murderers into preachers.

It changes thieves into saints.

It transforms mean stepsisters into Cinderellas.

And isn’t that good news?

 

The Little Girl from the Land of Gray

Once upon a time, a sad girl lived in a dark, dreary land. As far as the eye could see, the land was gray. No colorful flowers danced in the breeze. There were no trees or sunshine, just bleak gray clouds and barren fields of dirt. There were many people but no one was happy. land of gray

The mean ruler of the Land of Darkness kept all the people chained in irons, wrist to wrist and foot to foot. If anyone tried to escape, they would only fall, entangled in the shackles binding them.

The sad girl always wondered what was just beyond the boundary of the Land of Darkness but chained as she was, she feared she would never know. Still, each day she wondered if there wasn’t something more than the gray, miserable kingdom she lived in. Every day was the same. Empty. Hopeless. Gray. girl from land of gray

One morning, the girl lifted her head from the pile of dust she lay in, the distant thrum of pounding hooves shaking the earth beneath her. Standing to her feet, she squinted, seeing a rider drawing closer on horseback. He was unlike anyone she’d ever beheld.

This stranger sat tall and strong in the gleaming saddle of his white horse. Colorful sashes of crimson and purple adorned his steed. This man was not from the Land of Darkness. He was beautiful, full of brilliant light. A glittering crown sat upon his head. This was no mere man. Surely this must be a king.

His eyes roved over the field filled with hopeless, dirty people. The girl cowered in shame, embarrassed by her filth and ragged clothes. man and horse 2

Suddenly, the King’s eyes collided with hers. Smiling gently, he held out his hand. “Come, little one. I want you for my daughter.”

The sad girl was astounded. She couldn’t breathe, shocked that a King so majestic and powerful would choose her. Before she could utter a word, the evil ruler of the Land of Darkness heard the commotion and came running from his shadowed tower, snarling at the King from the unknown land.

“You can’t have her! She’s mine. See these chains? She’s a wicked girl and must pay for the wrong she’s done.”

The King studied the evil ruler before his gaze flickered back to the girl. “Let me pay for her crimes instead. I will pay whatever debt she owes if, in return, you let her go free.”

Her hopes dashed, the sad little girl cried. With all the wrong she’d done, the kind King would be unwilling to pay the debt. Her crimes were too great, too terrible for such a gesture.

To her horror and dismay, the mean ruler began to tell the majestic King all of her crimes. She dropped her head in disgrace as the mean ruler took sick delight in proclaiming her failures. Shame burned her from the inside out.

The evil ruler grinned, his eyes glinting like shards of glass. “If you still want such a wicked wretch for a daughter, the price is life for life. That is my demand.”

The King nodded. “It will be done.”

Before the girl could protest, He dismounted from his horse and knelt in the gray piles of dirt at his feet. “Life for life.”

bloody handsThe evil ruler was delighted, cruel as he was, and called his soldiers to beat the King with whips. The lashes cut deep. As the King cried out in pain, blood soaked his shredded back. The girl was helpless to do anything but weep into her hands. She knew the evil ruler of the Land of Darkness. He would not stop until he had killed the beautiful King.

The beating seemed to go on for hours, each scream of agony more terrible than the last. Then the world grew silent. The King lay still in the crimson-pooled dust. The girl knew he was dead and she sobbed, her heart broken for all he’d suffered for she knew wasn’t worth the price the evil ruler had demanded.

The horrid man loomed over her, his eyes narrow, hissing through his teeth. “See what your wickedness has done, you worthless girl? Your sin was too great. It killed this King and you’ll forever be my prisoner.”

But then, something amazing happened. The King slowly opened his eyes. Pushing up from the dust, he slowly stood to his feet. The sad girl’s heart leaped for joy. He wasn’t dead any longer! She trembled to see that where the deep lashes of the whip had cut his back, there were now only scars.

The King faced the evil ruler. “It is done, as you have demanded. Life for life. She is now mine if she chooses to come with me.”

Turning towards the astounded girl, the King held out his hand and smiled gently.

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“Do you trust me?”

 The little girl nodded, her heart bursting, overwhelmed that this King would pay so great a debt to free her.

She reached out and placed her small hand in his, noting how the bumpy scars that marred his once perfect skin felt so strong and tight as He grasped her fingers.

 The King placed a royal robe around her shoulders. With his own hands, he wiped the grime from her face and placed a glittering crown atop her head. Pulling her onto his horse, the great King carried her away from the Land of Darkness and declared the girl to be his daughter, the princess of the Kingdom of Light and his heir. callie-crown

Likewise, the once sad girl found true joy with the great King. He became the daddy she had always longed for. His unconditional love gave her joy and freedom that she’d never known.

They lived happily ever after.

One thing I forgot to mention—this story isn’t really a fairy tale at all. It’s truth. I know because it happened to me. If you’ve been redeemed, this your story as well.

Embrace this jaw-dropping truth tightly around your mind, Little Girl from the Land of Gray. Wrap it around your mind like a tiara. You are loved. You are redeemed. You are the adopted daughter of the King. You are wanted. You are His.

Let Him transform your life. Live. You are free, ransomed from the Land of Gray and carried into the Kingdom of Light.

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“He has delivered us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…” ~Colossians 1:13