Our Ohio snow is spectacularly beautiful. All gleaming white and sparkling crystals. We’ve explored the woods, gone sledding, tromped around in boots, and built cozy fires. Sunday morning, we woke to more snow, and if we were going to get to church, we were going to have to shovel. My sweet husband, who has done 90% of the shoveling, started bundling up. This time I grabbed my Oros, hat, and gloves, to join him. He didn’t ask me to. I just wanted to. Together we inhaled the crisp (9 degree) air, and shoveled the driveway. It took less than a half an hour as a team. And even though we didn’t talk much, there was something in the morning stillness, solidarity in the scrape of each other’s shovels, which was sweet and peaceful. We were in this together, and shoveling together is as much a part of our marriage as the romantic Italian dinner we went to on Friday night.
In a recent conversation with a friend the question came up: What’s the difference between saying, “I’m a Christian,” and having a “relationship” with God.
The question reminded me of my marriage, of deciding to go out and shovel. Stay with me here, they are related. It’s like asking, what’s the difference between saying, “I’m married” and “being in a relationship” with my husband? Aren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t saying “we’re Christians” mean we’re with God, part of His family. Of course. And not completely.
No matter if you’re married or single you’ve seen two people (at least in a movie) stand in front of a minister, rabbi, or some authorized person and say, “I do.” They exchange rings and sign a paper. Voila! They are officially married. The couple gets all the privileges that come with “being married”—a roommate, a date for the big events, and someone to sit next to at family gatherings. Legally, there are additional things a marriage offers that other relationships don’t. You can change your status not just on Facebook, but also on job and loan applications. If you marry someone who has better health insurance, hooray, now you get the benefits of their insurance. If you marry someone with a nicer home, you’ll probably choose to move into the better space, and bingo, you’ve upgraded your standard of living. In most states, if your spouse dies, you legally inherit their assets. All of these things come simply with the marriage status. It doesn’t require any investment in the relationship whatsoever.
It’s the same by saying, “I’m a Christian.” If you truly believe Jesus Christ died on a cross to take away your sins, and that because of His action, you will go to heaven, then you will. It’s like saying, “I do.” Ta da. You’re a Christian. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to read the Bible. You don’t have to belong to a small group or a Bible study. You’re in. It’s official. You get to go to heaven and live forever and ever in a place so incredible our human minds aren’t even capable of describing or predicting what it will be like—talk about a lifestyle upgrade. You get this major perk, just like the married folks get the ring, the house, and the insurance. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event you’ve seen John 3:16 on a sign, or shirt, or painted on someone’s face. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life. Sounds like a pretty good gig. And it is. But is that all we really want? Because Jesus offers so much more.
Let’s say you’re married and you and your spouse decide to cohabitate—be married solely for the status advantages. You decide to live your own lives, be responsible only for yourselves, go wherever you want whenever you want, even date other people, but cling to the “benefits” of marriage. Legally you can do that. You can never speak to each other, not share your hopes and dreams, not spend time with one another, not trust one another, and still get the health insurance. You can show up all decked out and nod and smile for the office parties and pictures, but skip all of the Italian dinners dipping your fork into your spouse’s risotto and clinking glasses toasting something silly that happened that week. If you skip the dinner, you’ll miss that moment in the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant when the idea you’ve been chewing on all day, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate, spills out, and together you navigate how to handle it.
You can also shovel by yourself.
You’ll miss out on all the richness of marriage. You’ll miss out on having your best friend also be your love interest. You’ll miss out on late night laugh attacks and someone to hold you when your heart hurts, and the one person in the room who truly understands you with a single glance. You’ll miss out on a completely unexpected and unprompted romantic kiss on a Monday morning before you head out to work, a walk on a Thursday evening around the neighborhood while the sun is setting, someone who will listen to the crazy rant going on in your head, someone to grab your hand when you hear the news, and someone to morph shoveling the driveway from a chore into a peaceful way to start your day. Sure, you’ll get the house, their new iPhone, and the life insurance when they die. But you’ll miss all the joys and depth of love in the every day moments.
It’s the same with Jesus. You can choose to say, “Wow, Jesus, what you did is cool. Thanks for dying for me. That was super nice. See you in heaven.” And then decide to cohabitate with Him, but not talking to Jesus about all the things on your heart—the dream you’re considering chasing, the decision someone you love is about to make, the safety of friends in a city where there’s a wildfire, how exhausted you are from your current work situation, the excitement of your upcoming audition. But then you miss out on the richness of the relationship, of knowing how much Jesus loves you. If we don’t talk to Him, don’t read His Word, when we’re at the end of our ropes how can He tell us, “I’m with you, always even to the end of the world.” If we don’t ask Him for advice, how can He guide us along the right paths? If we don’t hang out with Him, we’ll never experience the peace He’ll give us in the middle of a family argument, the love He’ll flood over us in the hospital room, the exuberant joy He’ll magnify when we get the acceptance letter or contract, the warmth of His hand on our shoulder as our nephews or kiddos take their first steps or walk down the aisle. There are no requirements. We will be saved. We’ll get the inheritance when we die. But we’ll miss the hope, joy, and love He offers every single day.
So, yes, there is a difference between saying we believe in God and being in a relationship with Him. And the beautiful, crazy thing is He lets us choose, which way we want to go. There’s no pressure. Jesus loves hanging out with us, but He wants that to be our choice. Just like we really hope our spouse or close friends want to spend time with us. We can start today, right now, simply by telling Jesus, “Good morning.” Sharing with Him what we’re hoping to get done today, what we’re worried about might happen, what’s on our minds, how we feel. It’s that easy. It’s like picking up a shovel and taking one scoop of snow.
THIS SCHOOL YEAR'S PLAYLIST
Happy New Year! I know the rest of the civilized world celebrates New Year’s on December 31, but December 31 means nothing to me. No major change occurs in my life in January.
The end of August, however, is full of change, excitement and potential. Ever since I was five it meant the beginning of a new school year; a new teacher, classrooms smelling of freshly cleaned desks, the potential of new friends, thick sweaters and stiff jeans hanging in my closet, the smell of sharpened pencils and new markers, more challenging dance steps in ballet, a piano book full of unlocked songs, the mega thick issue of Seventeen laden with the latest fall fashions, blank notebooks waiting to be stickered and doodled upon, and new music to celebrate and imprint this season of my life - the possibilities for the new school year were endless.
They still are. In late August there’s a shift in the weather, in people’s dress (it’s almost boot season – hooray!), in our family’s schedule and routine. There is more structure, are more commitments, are more deadlines, but with those come more productivity, more possibilities and more excitement. And for me, new music.
For every season in my life I have songs associated with it. There’s the New Order and Yaz we jammed to endlessly when I was on dance team.
The deep, mystical lyrics of Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) and Bono (U2) resonated throughout my college years. Songs swaying from beautiful ballads to punchy political protests to boppy dance tunes. It was the stuff introspective, formative college years were made of.
My writing has musical seasons too. Anytime I hear the strings and horns from Les Miserables they remind me of my character, Emma, in Angry. Anytime I hear Todd Agnew’s raspy voice I think of my book Hot, and the main character Lindsey. Jack Johnson reminds me of my friend and editor, Amy, as we both Pandora’d him simultaneously while she edited my book Skinny.
There are songs that take me back to spring breaks and slumber parties and countries I’ve visited and even my wedding. Songs take me back to special friends, family members, trials and triumphs.
Psalm 33:2-3 "Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy."
I’m eager to see the soundtrack God will lay for this school year. I’m currently riveted by bands ranging from Snow Patrol to Toby Mac to the powerful voice and lyrics of Holly Starr. Her songs encourage me to walk strong in God and remember He is always right beside me. This is a message I’ll carry in my virtual backpack as my new year commences.
How about you? What musical memories strum your heartstrings? What songs will be on your playlist this year?
HOW TO UNLOCK POTENTIAL
I recently went to see Snow Patrol play at a dated club in Cincinnati that holds about 1000 people. Let’s just say the last time I’d been to Bogart’s was when I was in college, and my friends and I were jamming to Royal Crescent Mob.
The place hadn’t changed a bit – not even the sticky concrete floors or the stench of stale beer or the dated wood paneling.
Half way through the show the band played their song, “Run”, and at the chorus the entire audience began chanting along with the lead singer, Gary Lightbody, “Light up light up as if you have a choice - even if you cannot hear my voice.” Bogart’s echoed with the inspiring lyrics. Goosebumps ran up my arms. For a moment, everybody in the crowded club shared something. From the stage I could see Lightbody’s eyes well up with tears. He drew his hand to his chest and at the end of the chorus shouted, “Bless your hearts.”
This is a band who has recorded and released five albums. This is the band who opened for U2 in their last tour, playing for stadiums full of tens of thousands of people, but that night, at a teeny, grungy club in Southern Ohio they were reminded they had potential. People identified with their music, sang their songs.
Potential. We all have it. We just need to be reminded every now and then.
Our God gives you everything you need. Makes you everything you’re to be.
2 Thessalonians 1:2
No matter where we are in the pursuit of our dreams, sketching out our plans or riding high in the rafters, we have days of discouragement, “no’s”, dings and doors slammed in our faces. But one fan singing along is all it takes to keep us going.
Who do you need to encourage today? Who do you know who doesn’t see their potential, but might, if only you pointed it out?
Laura L. Smith