Love, the Riskiest of Bets

Today’s post is by Juliet Vedral

“We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

It has never been difficult for me to say “I love you.” Maybe this is just my personality—I’m an ENFJ so that’s kind of our stock-in-trade. Maybe this is just my cultural background—I’m half-Italian and in some ways all the stereotypes of being passionate, emotive people are true. I hug my friends when I see them. I hug new friends after we’ve first met. It’s not hard for me to show love. Except when it costs me.

I am now over four months into a relationship that has gone from a casual, “why not?” set-up to serious conversations about serious, life-altering matters. I’ve discovered that the rules of dating are primarily defensive strategies, the cousins of the job interview technique. You carefully edit out the bad to highlight the good. Weaknesses are re-cast to appear as strengths, making you appear wonderfully vulnerable (but not high-maintenance or a mess). Above all, you guard your heart and do not give it away to just anyone.

But the strategies that work in dating will kill a relationship. When you realize that the other person is not “just anyone” it’s terrifying to open your heart, revealing its cracks and broken ruins, the messiness, the clutter, and the strengths that really are weaknesses. It’s terrifying to love when the price tag is your supposed emotional safety and the coordinates of your secret hideout, located somewhere behind your baggage and to the left of our carefully constructed defenses.

And it’s most terrifying to love when you’re not sure you’ll be loved back.

Since I began my two-year residency with the Shalem Institute’s Young Adult Life and Leadership Initiative (YALLI), I’ve been on a journey to learn what it means to be Beloved by God. The question I’ve been asking myself nearly every day since November 2013 has been “what would my life look like if I truly embraced and knew (as far as it’s possible in this world) the love of God and lived out of that identity?”

The answer has never been one that makes me feel particularly “loved” in the sense of comfort or ease. Loving and being loved by God is a risky and unsafe endeavor. It usually involves self-denial and a choice to love and be vulnerable in situations in which I’d rather be defensive. You know, kind of exactly like Jesus, who was God’s Beloved Son. When considering love in the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom, I often feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

But it’s more likely that here in this confusing and broken world, I’m the one who needs a new definition. In God’s kingdom, love looks nothing like warm fuzziness or sentimentality, and most definitely nothing like our comfort. It looks like God descending to earth knowing exactly what it would cost and still not holding anything back. It looks like God keeping a standing appointment in the Garden, knowing full well that Adam and Eve chose knowledge of the world over knowledge of God’s love–and still calling to them. It looks like a bruised and bloodied man, taking up his cross, the very means of his own death, and carrying it while offering forgiveness and a prayer.

In God’s economy, the coffers of love are filled not through miserly saving and limited liabilities, but through spending and investing it even in places that are risky bets. Because in this world, everything is a risky bet.

And so I found myself recently wrestling with God over this issue of love, when it came to my relationship with this man. I didn’t want to love first—what if we didn’t work out? I didn’t even want to write about our relationship for fear of having any kind of record of our relationship should it end. As someone who has made a lot of unwise investments in love, I didn’t want to make another risky bet.

Which isn’t necessarily bad advice. Collective wisdom tells us to guard our hearts and to be careful in relationships, because we might get hurt. But we can get hurt in friendship. We can get hurt in our families. We can get hurt doing any small amount of living in this world. Avoiding pain is not having “life to the full.”

Yet the invitation to love kept coming. No assurances that my fears were unfounded or new reports that would show the soundness of my investment in loving this man fully. Just the invitation to trust. To experience what it is like to love in the way that God does and trust that God will not abandon me to my fears. God spends love the way that a drunk sailor whose ship has landed spends money—without any concern about running out of love. As God’s Beloved, we are called to do the same—to love extravagantly, knowing that God’s love will always be a direct deposit in our accounts. What would it look like to live a life of love every day, unconcerned with reciprocation or keeping a record of transactions, but in full obedience to the One we love?

Because isn’t that where we most encounter God? It’s not through self-protection, self-preservation, or less living. As the Beloved, Jesus didn’t hold back from loving this world because he drew from an endless source of love. The more we live and love freely, the more we can find God incarnate in the moments of joy and grief and pain and laughter.

So last week I told this man in far too many words that I wanted to love him, because he was God’s Beloved and therefore worthy of being loved well. I don’t know what will come of this relationship, but I what I do know is that I am my Beloved’s and He is mine. It turns out that despite the risk to my own comfort, God’s steadfast, unfailing love has proven to be the safest bet I could ever make. May God’s unfailing love rest upon you, even as you hope in him today.


JulietVedralJuliet Vedral is a member of the YALLI class of 2015. She is the editor of a literary magazine called The Wheelhouse Review and was recently the press secretary for Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter.

Grounded in Gratitude

 Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

“Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace.”

~John O’Donohue
The Bless the Space between Us

The days of 2014 are waning and I am venturing a guess that we all began this year somewhere else, whether in our inner lives or outer circumstances. Maybe we have physically relocated from one place to another. Maybe grief has changed us in its unwelcome and particular way. Maybe adventure has offered its hand for our enjoyment. Maybe the hours have called for quiet endurance, newfound courage, or a depth of trust we did not anticipate. Maybe love, belonging, welcome, and delicious satisfaction have surprised us as the full moon sometimes does at harvest, rising just above the horizon, golden and breathtaking. Maybe our initial resolutions for the year have been forgotten, but maybe we have pursued those intentions, evolving together through the long months.

Life has likely touched us in ways that have yet to reveal their true significance. Thanksgiving invites us to pause, consider our days, and offer a prayer of gratitude before the remaining weeks slip through our fingers in the headlong rush to January 1st–that shiny, symbolic day of beginning anew.

In my work as a hospital chaplain I see the full spectrum of human experience–birth and death, grief and celebration, days of waiting and moments of relief, heartbreak and healing. I recently had the tremendous privilege of being present with a young couple who brought their sick baby into the emergency room. What they assumed was a simple stomach virus revealed itself to be liver cancer. Their beloved son is not expected to live beyond his second birthday. Our moments together were filled with desolation, terror, and heartbreak. To my surprise they were also brimming with profound love. I will never forget the angelic boy with blonde curls sleeping peacefully upon his mother’s chest as she choked on her tears and grief. Buried beneath the pain was the pulsating presence of a mother’s indestructible love for her child, a love so real that her son could rest in her embrace. I found myself in a moment of strange and unexpected thanksgiving for the love that does not die.

What does it mean to be grateful in the midst of this untamed life? I wonder if practicing gratitude is a discipline of stability. Gratitude grounds us firmly wherever we find our feet at the moment, rooted in all the joy and disappointment of our very human lives. In expressing gratitude we say yes to life, choosing to accept again and again this gift of existence in all its beauty and terror. Gratitude is costly faithfulness, an offering of our commitment to both the gift and the Giver. In living gratefully we forgo our restless tendencies, choosing not to dissolve into our many distractions. In thanksgiving we offer ourselves as we truly are, taking our place once again at the table of life.

Gratitude leads us, through laughter and tears, to the solid ground beneath our shifting experience. May we rest there, embraced in the indestructible, pulsating heart of love.


Kate-CoffeySavannah Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

Photo by Leah Rampy


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Reclaiming Happiness

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey.

Happiness may be one of the most misunderstood and maligned virtues of our time.

Happiness is, on one hand, exalted as the supreme goal of existence. There is great pressure to be happy. If you are not happy, your life is not worth living and you must be doing something wrong. Shopping, traveling, and self-help are popular solutions to this problem. There are many paths to happiness and though every path is not right for every person there is certainly one for you and you should keep searching until you find it. If you find yourself still unhappy after about– oh, say, 50 years, or maybe just 50 minutes, you probably need professional help. Of course, sex, drugs, and rock and roll are always available to you. Whichever path you choose, your happiness depends on you, is fully within your control, and it is your responsibility to procure it.

On the other hand, our churches rarely have much to say about happiness because happiness completely misses the point. Life is about faithfulness, maturity, service, and perhaps “joy” (the more respectable cousin of happiness). Happiness is simply a fleeting distraction that holds no lasting value. Life is a test requiring great perseverance. God certainly isn’t interested in our happiness because God is much too serious for that. God wants us to grow up and if we aren’t happy, well, so be it. We are at least wise, mature, and orthodox. We have inherited our Puritan ancestors’ fear that if we encourage happiness we tacitly promote the licentious sex, drugs, and rock and roll mentioned earlier.

The pendulum swings back and forth causing so much confusion that even a sweet, Southern girl may resort to swearing in sheer frustration. Both perspectives are distortions of something inherently good. As distortions they are unlivable. Happiness is either pie in the sky, always just out of reach, or it is the dangerous enemy of mature faith, and as such, is illegitimate. We live either as slaves to the seduction of happiness, or as martyrs in the rejection of it.

What would a livable and faithful pursuit of happiness look like? It might begin with knowing that God is happy. Maybe God even desires our happiness. The Biblical story bears witness to this time and again. God apparently creates from sheer delight, reveling in divine artistry and calling creation good. God sees that Adam is lonely and provides a partner, presumably for their mutual help and happiness. Even the law and 10 great rules are given in an effort to preserve happiness in community. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 claim happiness and the dignity of human life without denying the pain and suffering we experience. What if we deeply trusted the goodness and extravagance of a God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment?” (I Timothy 6:17)

If true happiness is rooted in the very nature of God, and God is Love, then we also know happiness involves the giving and receiving of love. Have you noticed, when your heart is filled with love, the craving for “too much” of everything else relents? Or, when you share true presence with your children, their behavior improves? How different would our experience of sex be if the focus was less on seduction and need-gratification, and more about mutual, loving self-offering? Overeating might lose it’s appeal if we were satisfied with enough love every day. Can human love satisfy our every need? No. To seek sufficient love solely from human relationships only changes the focus of the addiction. God is the bottomless source of love. But we grossly underestimate our power to love and sow happiness.

My mom has cooked dinner for my dad repeatedly in their 40-year marriage. I have never once heard my dad complain that the corn is tough or the chicken bland. He simply sits down and relishes whatever she makes. My mother offers him happiness in the meal and he offers her happiness in his response. What if we each decide to cook-up love in the best way we can and then pull up a chair and relish the love-offering of others? I think we might find ourselves transformed into people of deep and abiding happiness.

An ancient hymn, thought to be one of the earliest songs of the Christian church, imagines Jesus as the Phos Hilaron—the “Happy Light.” Legend says it was composed by an old man on his way to being martyred. The executioner’s arm was paralyzed until the elderly bishop had finished his song. May this be true for all of us—may we be given as many days as we need to fully sing our song of love and may true happiness be the result.


Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

Children, Chaos, and Contemplation

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef

There is never a dull moment at our house. My wife and I have four children—amid the flurry of homework assignments, birthday parties, sibling spats, and dinnertime squabbles—there’s a lot of constant noise and movement.

beach-jumpingOne of the delightful things about having young children is their unbridled enthusiasm and overwhelming energy. They are fully present, without a sense that there is anything else to be. They are fully in the moment. This is a gift of being a child, not being weighed down by thoughts of the future, or by a sense of responsibility, or worry. They are right here, right now.

The downside is that everything is so important, and when something doesn’t go their way, right now, it’s reason for complaining, crying, sometimes even—panic. Spilling milk really is something to cry over. A favorite toy breaking feels like the apocalypse. Even as I write this there is fighting in the sandbox. (Don’t worry – we have plenty of moments of calm and laughter as well in our household!)

I long as a parent to be able to maintain an inner calm amid all this outer chaos and confusion. I find that I am very seldom able to cultivate that on the spot. It is something I need to consciously develop in other moments, so that when the chaos comes, I have a reserve of calm from which to draw. It might be a daily time of prayer and silence, a quiet walk outside, Scripture reading, or some other practice. Daily I drive our children to school, about 15 or so minutes through a beautiful, rural landscape. I find this to be a very calming time—at least, the quiet drive home after dropping them off! Soaking in the scenery, I give thanks for the children I have, I look forward to what the day brings, and I have time to connect, in quiet, with God.

Of course the chaos doesn’t wait for me to be contemplatively grounded to begin! As any parent knows—these scenes erupt without a moment’s notice. When this happens, there are times when I haven’t centered myself, and it is only too easy to be caught up in the noise, and even add to it.

“She ate my last French fry!”  

“He always gets to go first!”

“I never get to do anything fun.”

“But I’m not tired!”

At times I’ve given in to the chaos, or even added to it. This not only exacerbates the situation, but it models to the kids that such behavior is OK—not only for them, but even for adults. Here’s where being centered is so crucial. When I’m calm within—I can sense what is happening and allow myself to pull back a moment to seek clarity above the fray. In these moments, the one thing that helps me more than anything is perspective. I try to see the situation from outside it. When I’m able to seek that bit of detachment, things seem to quickly scale to their appropriate place in the scheme of things. Sometimes I just need to remember to breathe, or hold onto a phrase such as “they’re just kids, after all.” Or: “this too shall pass.” Other times I tap into contemplative moments I enjoyed earlier.

Naturally I try to help the child see the larger perspective I’m trying to hold on to. “No more French fries? Well, they’re not that healthy anyway, and maybe we can have a yummy snack later.” But this often only goes so far. “But Dad…!” I can’t remove my child’s sense of imminent frustration, disappointment, or anger. I can’t remove them from the situation. It is a natural desire to help the child see what I see. To help him ‘figure it out.’

Yet what has the most impact, I think, is to simply be that presence of peace. Even if my children don’t understand it, they’ll experience it, and it will register somewhere for them, even if subconsciously. When I remain calm, the equation changes. There is now a presence of peace absorbing the cacophony. There’s a word of encouragement. A hand to hold. A hug to receive. A smile. Peace.

I’m a long, long ways from being a perfect parent, but I love it. I’m grateful for the daily gifts my children bring me—and my prayer is that my presence is also a gift to them.


Bryan Berghoef is a pastor and writer (and parent of four!) who helps curate Shalem’s social media content and provides technical support for Shalem’s online courses. You can see more of his writing at pubtheologian.com. You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bryberg.

Becoming Love

Today’s post is written by Kate Coffey.

I’ve been told there are only two states of being: fear and love. All the other inner landscapes that seem so real are simply shadows of one or the other.

Just as we are rarely aware of the air we breathe, we often consider it normal to live fearfully, barely noticing the weight we carry. We use seemingly benign pet names for our fear: anxiety, stress, concern.

There is plenty of evidence of course to justify our fear. Pain, loneliness, and loss are part of the human experience and no one escapes this reality. All our efforts to survive and to protect those we love will in fact, one day, end in death. And the journey from here to there is fraught with difficulty.

forest_Christy

In his book Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Michael Meade recounts a story of a young seeker who finds a wise teacher and his students living in a forest. All good teachers ask good questions and this one is no different. The sage asks the pupils to answer one question, “What do you love most in the whole world?” Some students answer truth, wisdom, their families, or the teacher. The young seeker hesitates to answer when it is his turn. Finally realizing he must speak the truth of his heart no matter how absurd it may sound, he answers that he most loves his family’s cow, the companion of his childhood. “I love the sound of its lowing and the shape of its great back that I used to ride upon. I love the swelling of its belly, its great teats, and the sweet milk it would pour out so freely. I love the curving horns on its head and its deep dark eyes. Above all things, I love that cow.”

The sage instructs the students to return to their huts and meditate on the thing they love most. When the meditation time ends the young seeker cannot be found. When he is finally found, still in his hut, the teacher instructs him to end his meditation and rejoin the others. The seeker softly replies, “I would love to come and join you, however I’m afraid that the horns on my head are too big to fit through the doorway.” In his meditation he had become what he most loved.

Love is the only force strong enough to overcome fear. We must become what we love if we are to be equal to the challenges of our days. “Become what you love” could easily sound like a simplistic prescription that holds no practical value, written only for starry-eyed novices. How is this supposed to help when the cherished child of your heart may have cancer and you can only wait in terror for the diagnosis? What good is becoming what you love when your beloved is traveling to China and the plane never arrives, anywhere? How does love help make the decisions that are so murky with consequences so far-reaching? Becoming love in the face of rejection and the apparent loss of love sounds ludicrous.

Although the arts of surrender, acceptance, and radical trust in the face of fear are necessary disciplines, they are not enough on their own to awaken our intrinsic power and courage. Emptying ourselves of willfulness is only half the equation. Love will not keep us from feeling fear or experiencing pain, but love is the courage and delight of our souls, empowering our presence for every difficulty. In love we come to know the wisdom and beauty of our deepest selves and any response we then make to our outer circumstances will be empowered by our inner flame.

What does your heart love the most? Live from that love.