Do You Love Me?

As Easter approaches, I’ve been pondering the events surrounding Jesus’ death and the role played by the disciple Peter.

I’ve long been fascinated with Peter; many believers can relate to his bold passion for the Lord, as well as his anger, impatience and occasional foolishness. 🙋🏼‍♀️

During Holy Week, my thoughts have centered on Peter’s ultimate denial of Jesus as his beloved teacher was sentenced to death.

This is a man who, the night prior, initially rejected Jesus washing his feet, until Jesus said this:

“Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.'”

‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!'”

John 13:8-9

I get a chuckle out of Peter’s response, but it demonstrates his zeal for being a follower of Christ.

Later that night, when Jesus predicts Peter’s denial, he responds vehemently:

“Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

Matthew 26:35

At first, he follows up on this statement. When the Roman guards and priests come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter uses his sword to cut off one of their servant’s ears.

Jesus rebukes Peter, reminding him of His own power and purpose:

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Matthew 26:52

After Jesus’ arrest, the Bible says the disciples who were with him fled, except Peter and “another disciple,” probably John. They followed Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard, where they waited to hear news of his trial.

As Peter warmed himself beside a fire in the courtyard, he was asked three times if he knew Jesus, was a disciple, and was in the olive grove with Jesus when he was arrested. He strongly denied each of these.

“Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

Matthew 26:74

Peter was ready for a fight. He knew Jesus’ arrival meant revolution. What he failed to understand was the form that revolution would take: not the retaking of Israel by the sword, but retaking and renewing spirits lost without God.

When he realized his purpose for following Jesus didn’t totally align with Jesus’ mission, he probably felt angry and lost. Instead of leading the disciples to revolution, his teacher was brutally put to death. I wonder what Peter thought and felt in the days between Jesus’ arrest, death and ultimate resurrection.

The story doesn’t end there, though. We know Peter felt remorse for his actions and sought forgiveness. In his brokenness, he was rebuilt.

When the other disciples doubted the account of the women who found Jesus’ tomb empty, Peter rushed over to see for himself. He was also one of the first to encounter Jesus after his resurrection.

After Peter’s denial, Jesus’ death and resurrection, you can imagine that Peter’s faith was shaken. Jesus took special care to speak with him, forgive him, and let him know his work for the Kingdom of God was just beginning.

Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of God, Jesus renamed him.

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Matthew 16: 18

In Greek, the name comes from the word “Petros,” meaning “Rock,” as does its Aramaic counterpart, the name Cephas.

At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus challenges Peter three times: “Do you love me?”

There are various levels of significance this passage takes, with different kinds of love being referred to (you can read more in depth about that here).

Peter responds affirmatively to each of Jesus’ prompts: “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus then responds three separate times: “Feed my lambs; take care of my sheep; follow me.”

In his latest book, Pastor Tim Keller writes about a biblical pattern he calls “the Great Reversal.” This reversal is inherent in Jesus’ ministry: Instead of the Messiah people expected, who would come in power and glory, Jesus came to the world in humility and meekness, surprising his followers at every turn.

His ministry was not the political revolution the Jews hoped for, but one even more radical: a complete freeing of people from their sin. He lifted up people who were sick and poor. He healed those who were broken, both physically and spiritually. The ultimate reversal occurred when he conquered death and came back to life.

We can see the effects of this reversal demonstrated in Peter’s journey. Faced with his pride, he finally saw his weakness. Because of his true love for God, through recognition of sin and repentance, he was fully restored. Today, we see Peter’s ministry as vital to the founding of the early Christian church.

There is a message all believers can take from Peter’s life: those who love God will be tested. The world will break us, but God promises an ultimate restoration.

Like Peter, we have a choice: to acknowledge the sin we all carry, or to ignore it, letting it infest us with bitterness.

Once we see our sin, we open ourselves to the greatest gift of all: freedom into a good, everlasting life, bought through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Bound in Brokenness

Do you see yourself as broken?

It’s an interesting question to ask people. Some will respond yes, explaining histories of trauma, while others say no, just as emphatically.

“Broken” is an adjective described in the dictionary as, “having been fractured or damaged and no longer in one piece or in working order.”

When I look at the world, I see everyone as broken.

I believe one of the deepest and most integral parts of Christianity is acknowledging brokenness, both in the world and oneself. For me, much of that recognition has come in the past year.

Throughout my life, I’ve always tried to maintain a sense of composure: emotionally, physically, and mentally. This is a reaction to my childhood, when everything felt broken.

As an adult, I want to present myself to others as solid, stable in my identity and my life. Someone who knows where she is going, and has learned from where she’s been. I have written about many of my struggles, hoping both to encourage others in their own journeys and to heal myself. But still I am broken.

I struggle to escape from regrets over the things I’ve done, even though I’ve asked for forgiveness and live differently.

In my heart of hearts, I know I have been forgiven. Yet often I wonder if I will ever get out from under the shame of the past. Will I allow myself to feel the worthiness I know God bestows upon us all as His children?

I tell myself this story: that I carry my shame with me as a reminder of where I have been and how God has redeemed me. Perhaps the truth is, I carry it like armor. I’m deeply afraid I don’t deserve good things or good relationships, that if people really knew me, they would reject me. I’m afraid if I lay down my shame, I’ll forget my sins and go back to them. So I keep them close.

There are two sides to salvation, though. First is understanding one’s sins and need for salvation, as Paul says to Timothy:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.

1 Timothy 1:15

I have no problem acknowledging that: “I am the worst.” All our sins are equal in God’s eyes.

The flip side is harder for me to live out: God gives grace and blots out our sins once we repent of them.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

Lately, I’ve been peeling my armor off, bit by bit, if just for a while. I’m fortunate to have friends who listen to me without judgement, with open hearts and arms. They make me understand I am valued in spite of the worst things I’ve done.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all carry a heavy burden. We are bound in brokenness; it’s a component of humanity. Understanding it helps us gain empathy for ourselves and for others, and it helps us heal.

I encourage you to examine your life: where are your broken pieces? What do you hold onto as armor? Maybe it’s time you work on laying it down and stepping out of shame and into freedom.

There’s a song I love where the lyrics call God, “A rock of refuge where my pride is broken/ where we are built upon like living stone.”

I choose to think of my brokenness as a fissure, the heart of which God is using to rebuild me. He is at work carving and molding me into what He wants me to be. It’s painful, and it may take a lifetime, but I am confident of this: it will be worth the end result.

May 7, 2020

In a world where everything is loud, where my brain screams, spins endlessly from the moment I awaken, nature is full of God’s peace.

But nature is not silent. Breezes ripple, leaves and twigs crackle as wildlife scurry about. Birds chirp, rivers bustle and roar.

Yet the sounds are made for reflection. Nothing artificial or contrived, they beg our bodies to stop and drink it in; feel the breeze chill our skin and sunshine cheer our smiles.

It is a powerful peace, one that separates us from the fears of the outside world. But if we can find that peace so close to home, why can’t we seem to keep it in our hearts?

Don’t neglect your mental health this holiday season

Originally published in the Williamson Herald

The holiday season is here, but it just doesn’t feel the same.  

As temperatures drop and activities move indoors, doctors and scientists are concerned that coronavirus cases will spread faster. Public health experts have urged Americans to minimize their travel and gathering sizes over the holidays.

As the days darken earlier, it can feel like a darkness has descended upon our lives.

Over the past few weeks, friends have shared their depression about canceled plans and loved ones who are sick or at risk, and the feeling that many in our society do not care about the health of the rest. Add the aftermath of one of the most highly charged elections in U.S. history, and you have a recipe for anxiety.

I’ve struggled with bouts of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for over a decade. In my senior year of high school, I attempted suicide on a Tuesday, went to an inpatient center for two days, and returned to school on Friday. At the time, I didn’t speak of it to anyone but my closest friends.

I struggled to find meaning for years after that, and received hours of professional therapy. I’ve found a reason to live, and a purpose for my life. But I know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning. I still feel hopeless and discouraged by our world at times. And I know how it feels to feel nothing at all.

If you’ve experienced these emotions lately, you aren’t alone.

Dr. Amanda Harrell of Nashville Psychotherapy Solutions in Brentwood says she has seen an uptick in mental health concerns from clients she counsels.

“If they already had pre-existing mental illness before this, it’s been exacerbated,” she says. “And people who don’t usually experience symptoms, they are. There’s just so much at one time.” Here are some practical ideas on how to cope with anxiety and depression during this season.

  1. Pay attention to what your body needs

    Have you been getting enough sleep, or sleeping too much? Drinking enough water? Drinking too much alcohol? Experiencing chronic pain? All these things can affect your mental state. Becoming aware of and getting a handle on your physical problems first can help improve your mental health. If you do have an underlying mental health condition, make sure you are treating it appropriately, either with talk therapy, medication, or both.

  2. Recognize your need for socialization

    Reducing social interactions has impacted almost all of us in a negative way. “Not going to church or Bible studies or book clubs, I think all of that provided different mood benefits that we didn’t realize until they’re gone,” Dr. Harrell says. Stay in touch with your support system any way you can, whether though FaceTime, phone calls, socially distanced meetups, or writing letters. Dr. Harrell suggests participating ins Zoom social events. As she has told clients, “It’s not the same, but in terms of trying to help you cope, it’s better than nothing.”

  3. Put down the phone

    I have often found myself stuck in the spiral of checking various social media apps at the end of the day, growing more frustrated with every click and swipe. In addition to evidence about the negative effects of social media, research shows using a phone right before bed suppresses sleep. Try setting a timer on your social media apps to limit the amount of time you spend each day. Before bed, instead of picking up your phone, set it across the room and pick up a book or journal.

  4. Get outside and get moving

    When you don’t feel like doing anything, your last priority may be to exercise. This is where discipline comes in. If you make it to the gym or complete even a 10-minute at-home workout, you will feel better about yourself, and gain a small dose of confidence. Over time, those workouts add up to improve strength, endurance, and mental well-being.

    I’m also a big believer in the power of nature, and there’s a myriad of studies to back that feeling up. Even a 20-30 minute walk on a trail can improve your mood and energy. Some of my local favorites are Radnor Lake, Bicentennial Park, and Smith Park.

  5. Consider light therapy

    For those with SAD like me, light therapy may be useful. Many therapists recommend using a light box that emits 10,000 lux (a measurement of light strength) to use when you awake each morning. The bright light stimulates cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, which controls the circadian rhythm. I use my “Happy Light” in the mornings while reading or writing for about 30 minutes, shining it on the side of my face. For me, the increase in energy is noticeable. Consult your doctor or therapist before beginning, as those with certain conditions might experience issues.

  6. Spend time engaged in spirituality

    As a Christian, I spend some time each morning praying, reading, and meditating on the Bible. Dr. Harrell says if you have a spiritual side, it can be especially helpful to embrace it. “That’s maybe one of the things you can do, even with COVID restrictions,” she says. Try adding a daily meditation practice or checking out books that make you think more deeply about your faith. The Williamson County Public Library even has a curbside service!

  7. Embrace the volunteer spirit

    When I’m caught up in self-pity, I’ve found helping others gives me perspective and a sense of gratitude. “Volunteering is a great way to not only help the fellow man, but to improve your mood, and get you out of your head,”says Dr. Harrell. You don’t have to look far to find people in need of support right now. You might start with your local community or faith group.

Thinking through Biblical doctrine

How many 17-year-olds have walked away from a relationship with God because of a struggle to understand the idea of predestination?

I’m not sure, but I was one of them.

I write these words not to mount my spiritual high horse, but to note the irony of a faith journey come full circle: the doctrines of predestination and others are grains of sand that irritate my thoughts at the present.

I bring this up, because as a young Christian, I think it’s important to recognize the struggle to understand theology.

We all learn in different ways. Some Christians are content to study a topic with their church in a series. Some of us need to take it a step further, to get down in the weeds and grapple with the philosophical implications of the Bible.

Theology is simply “the study of the nature of God.” If we’re not actively trying to understand the God we follow, we do a disservice to him and to our own relationship with him. It’s healthy and necessary to seek a deeper understanding of the faith we have chosen to stake our lives on.

As someone my father once warned against being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” I try to keep grounded in the practical consequences of faith. As the prophet Micah wrote,

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

If this is our call from God, it is one of both inward and outward devotion.  How do we learn to act according to God’s justice, and to love his mercy? By studying his Word (Scripture) and better understanding his nature.

So where does doctrine come into play? If you read enough Scripture, inevitably, you have questions. I often pull out my laptop after reading a chapter to search for a reference, which  leads me down a rabbit hole of more questions.

Lately, I’ve been coming back to the doctrine of election. This is the idea that God has chosen, or elected, certain people to be saved. In a larger sense, it means He is an independent actor, one who has already predestined those who will be saved for heaven.

There’s a historical difference in opinions, with the Calvinist school of thought advocating that God chooses who will be saved. The Arminians diverge, saying that while God chooses who will be saved, there is a free will component, i.e., it is the human’s choice to accept or reject that gift.

Typically, Methodists and Baptists subscribe to the second school of thought, while Presbyterians lean towards the Calvinist doctrine, although it varies from church to church.

When I was 17, I struggled mightily with the idea that God has predestined the outcome of all things. I couldn’t reconcile the negatives in the world with the idea that a good God would allow such evil events. I chose instead to believe that God was powerful, but frightening, a being I wanted nothing to do with. If someone asked me what I believed during this time, I’d say God existed, but I didn’t believe he was good.

How do you act towards a God of terrible power? You run away from any mention of him.

What changed, what convinced me that God was not just good, but the Ultimate Good? Believe it or not, reading the Stephen King novel Under the Dome was the impetus. It spurred so many questions about life after death and a higher power I could ignore no longer.

Soon after, I took a college course about the history of religion in the United States. It left me with more questions, and some answers. I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on a plane ride from Orange County to New York for my journalism residency. By the time we touched down at JFK, I was convinced: I had to give Christianity another shot.

For me, this meant reading the Bible, trying to attend church, and generally thinking about what being a Christian meant I could and could not do. I later learned it was more of a should and should not do.

I still hadn’t forgotten the question of predestination. I began to understand it in a different way; a God who knows the outcome of all things exists on a different plane from our own. He is literally so high above us, we cannot fathom the ramification of his decisions. God knowing what will happen doesn’t necessarily remove our capacity to be independent, free actors of our own accord.

Think of it like this: God could see a billion outcomes simultaneously, and know how each of our individual decisions would impact every possible scenario. I think of it as the craziest permutation imaginable.

That’s how I have come to reconcile my own free will with an all-powerful God, but I’m not done yet. I’m still trying to understand more, every day.

Once we grasp the basic tenets of salvation, it’s up to us to decide how to respond to it. If Jesus Christ really sacrificed his life on a cross so that we could be free from the smallest to the largest sins, then everything we do should be a response to that incredible, undeserved gift of grace.

How will you respond?