Well, I NEVER...
On our first date, Steven asked to use the bathroom in my apartment before we went out. He spied a small cardboard box in my bathroom trash can and he told me years later that my thoughtless disposal of a fully recyclable item gave him serious pause about asking me out again.
Well into our 1.5 month engagement, I learned that Steven had in his possession a book he’d checked out from the library and kept because, well, he wanted it and it was out of print and it cost too much to buy. Aghast, I momentarily considered breaking off our engagement.
To both of us, the other had committed an unpardonable sin worthy of excommunication. Yet love (or, perhaps for Steven at that early juncture, more just physical attraction) transcended and made us question our most dearly held “rules”. The ways we divided people into categories - good versus bad; wanton, styrofoam-burning earth destroyer versus pious recycler; evil saboteur of the magical institutions known as libraries which are designed to benefit the commonwealth and provide literary education and pleasure to all which only works if EVERYONE FOLLOWS THE RULES versus respectful library patron - suddenly didn’t hold up to the reality and complexity of another human being. (To be honest, it’s probably for the best that the library book revelation occurred late as it did in our courtship. I was in way too deep by that point).
Relationships in general, and marriage in particular, have a way of composting our most dearly held “rules”: our absolutes - our can’ts, won’ts, don’ts and nevers. As the rules we use to delineate, to divide, to map our world into clear-cut categories collide with the reality of a flesh-and-blood, sinful, broken human being with whom we’re desperately in love, we can either save our rules and shrink our world and calcify our hearts more and more, or surrender our rules and stay and love. Before I met Steven, I would say that I never wanted to get married or have kids and furthermore I didn’t understand what compelled people to want to do either (yes, I was totally insufferable and out of touch with my own yearnings).
Then suddenly, here was this magical man who was convex in all the places I was concave and concave in all the places I was convex: who just fit me. He loved order when I tended toward chaos. He was brave when I was scared. He knew just what to say and how to say it in the way I needed when I was stammering and wordless.
And then, when he invited me to his family’s picnic on our third date (we move fast), I witnessed the way he interacted with his niece and it was so beautiful and touching that it began to excavate some deeply buried longing of my heart that had been tamped down with cynicism and fear. As I watched him play with her and heard her darling toddler giggles, the thought popped into my head, startling and unbidden: “he’d make a really good father”. It both terrified and exhilarated me, striking out into this particular uncharted territory of daydreaming. I didn’t even know how to hold a baby, and yet some of the oldest magic in the book was enchanting me and beginning to erode my nevers.
I remember our courtship and the way I was entranced by his laugh - so uninhibited and earnest and real - the easy way he moved, the way he made up little limericks on the spot and made me laugh more often than anyone I’d ever met, his complete lack of pretense and how he knew how to push the boundaries of decorum just as far as they needed to go to disarm and charm people. In short, he was perfect. Except when he wasn’t, and my can’ts and won’ts and alwayses and nevers butt up against this person I loved, this person I was covenanted to, and I had to choose.
God delights in surprise, in subverting our manmade kingdoms and our dimmed expectations. I’ll never have a baby, said Sarah. I always outwit everyone, Jacob thought (I imagine). And then there’s one of my favorite moments in the book of Acts: when God asks Ananias to go see Saul, lay hands on him and restore his vision. Ananias’ response was quite measured and contained, and he didn’t even ask God to repeat himself or exclaim “say WHAT? You want me to go see WHO?” He did, however, essentially say “Lord, you do know who this guy is and what he’s been doing… right?” Of course, this moment doesn’t represent so much the dismantling or an absolute as the presentation of a command that is so outrageous, so far out of the realm of plausibility that I doubt Ananias had even ever given it the consideration that would lead to the formation of a “won’t” or a “never”. Inasmuch as he thought of Saul it was probably to grieve the violence and loss of life that Saul perpetrated and assiduously avoid running into him. And now God is asking Ananias to intentionally seek him out!
Recently I was thinking about Paul and his murderous, Christ-hating past and I laughed out loud, wondering “who would hire that guy?! God would!” God would, because he didn’t look at Saul and only see an enemy and someone who was venomously and diametrically opposed to his purposes. He didn’t see the lost cause of all lost causes, like we would. Instead (I believe), he saw a passion for God gone horribly awry under the jurisdiction of human terms and rules, but a passion which, once brought under the ownership of Jesus Christ, could yield fruit 100 times what was sown - fruit of hope in the boundless redemptive promise of Him.
God delights in showing us how far his mercy and grace and redemption goes - and it’s always way beyond our human boundaries. We say things like “I could never forgive someone if they ____”. God says he would rather sacrifice everything than not forgive or follow the “rules” of karma or retaliation. We say perfectly reasonable things like “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget,” a not-so-clever ruse to actually not forgive and instead continue to remind our trespasser of his trespass. God says crazy stuff like “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) and “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17) and "love keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor 13). We crucified Love Himself, we denied Him three times, we held people’s coats while they stoned one of His anointed, and yet still God delights in pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible. We, the prodigal sons, come home to a lavish banquet. What a preposterously unfair equation! What an outrageously unbalanced scale! What a scandal! But even more: what a beautiful, great God.
Is it wrong to say that I understand the Pharisees? I do. I can see in them my own anxious attachment to the rules as they gape at Jesus’s flagrant disregard of them. “But you can’t just --- !” “Who do you think you are? We have rules around here!” I had rules around here, too, once. Big ones. I was pret-ty proud of them and they made me feel awfully self-righteous. But God is dismantling them one by one as He pulls me more deeply into trust and obedience and faith that following His Son is enough. More than enough. It’s everything. The yoke of my rules, my absolutes, my self-righteousness, my hypervigilance is hard. Cumbersome. His is easy.
God is not safe. He will take us far beyond our self-imposed brackets and the circles we’ve drawn around the things we think we can control. He’ll never lead us into sin, but He will take us past our man-made rules. Sometimes He’ll take us to a place where it feels like the bottom is dropping out and the center will not hold and where our white-knuckle grip yields nothing but greater and greater pain until we just let go. And there, watching our kingdoms fall and our once dearly-held rules demolish, we’ll realize they were no treasure at all. He is our treasure. And He chooses us. Miraculous.
P.S. God has a delightful sense of humor. The best ever, you might say. In addition to the “nevers” and “won’ts” I am also cautious these days about strong declarative statements concerning things that I dislike, I.e. “I HATE (insert band, food, etc.).” I find whenever I do this I have to eat my words or end up in curious situations such as one autumn evening when Steven and I were riding one of those rickety, jerky traveling carnival rides where the veil between life and death is thin and bolts seem to be working themselves looser with every turn and I thought as I listened to the Nickelback song blaring over the tinny loudspeakers “You know, they’re really not so bad!” True story. Be careful out there. God loves a joke!