Wednesday, February 14, 2018

From Philia to Agape - There's Love and There's LOVE

*Warning* I may rarely use the word or post about it these days, but I'm (gulp) Christian. This is a near transcript of the most recent message I gave, and I felt pressed to post it on my blog this week. HOWEVER - DO NOT FEAR! You have not reached a Christian blog, or a Fire and Brimstone Website. You have reached an inspirational website that sporadically posts about Jesus because ... well... I'm Stephanie, and I'm a Christian. ("Hi, Stephanie...")


John 13:34-35 – A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.

It’s the season of love – Valentine’s Day is here, where we eat too much candy, spend too much on dinner, buy greeting cards for approximately $10 apiece these days, spend fifty bucks on flowers that will die within a week, and celebrate in the name of what we call “love”.

Do I sound like a little bit of a curmudgeon? A little critical? Maybe. As many little girls did, I grew up seeing love through the eyes of Walt Disney, where everybody got what they wanted and lived happily ever after, there was a prince out there for every princess, and love always won in the end.

That’s not necessarily the case in the real world we live in right now. I suppose I should have figured that out right about the same time I figured out that woodland creatures weren’t going to talk to me or do my household chores.

The divorce rate stands at right around 50%, give or take. And before you get all holier-than-thou, you might be surprised to find out that the divorce rate of Christian couples is the same: 50%. That means for every two weddings we go to, one of those couples will statistically be divorced at some point down the line. My own first marriage ended in divorce after just two years married, and I was pretty jaded about that for awhile.

I spent a long time trying to fill that empty hole where love should have been. I didn’t trust men, or marriage, or even relationships for that matter. I was young and thought the world owed me happiness. I had left the church for over six years at that point in my life and clearly did not trust God to take care of this problem either. I wouldn’t even have been able to tell you that there was a God. I was alone. In my mind, I was alone.

Loneliness is one of the worst feelings in the world. It’s mixed with so many other emotions: depression, helplessness, sadness, sometimes anger. And when people are lonely, when they feel ‘alone’, they make choices they would not otherwise make.

Let me give you an example of a girl named Cassie. This isn’t her real name. But I met Cassie by chance a few weeks back. I’ve been trying to organize my house and get rid of things I don’t need since the beginning of the year, so I’ve been putting items up for sale online, mostly on the Facebook marketplace because it’s so easy to use. I had a small recliner for sale for twenty dollars, and she messaged me asking if she could come that night, on a Sunday, to buy it. I said sure, and awaited her arrival. I started loading, and then my neighbor and Cassie's friend finished loaded the recliner into the back of her van, and it was heavy and took quite awhile, and while we didn’t have the fourteen inches of snow we have now, it WAS very cold. And Cassie waited until that point to pull out her checkbook.

This was a red flag. Everybody that uses this online network to buy and sell knows that we are supposed to bring and accept only cash. But I certainly didn’t want to unload the recliner and have her come back again with cash. It was cold, and like I said, it had taken a long time. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and let her write me a check. She put her phone number on the top, too, so I felt safer, and she said, right before she pulled away, to wait until 4 pm the next day before I cashed it. As she drove off, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I had been duped, but I thought – you know, I am just not a very trusting person and I need to get over that.

I waited two days before I cashed Cassie’s check, took the twenty dollars, and got a few groceries. A few days after that, I got a notice from my bank that the check had not cleared, so they were deducting the $20 from my account – AND a $10 check fee. It was not because the check bounced. It was because the account it had been written from was a closed account. Cassie did not accidentally bounce a check. Cassie, on purpose, scammed me out of twenty dollars and cost me another ten in addition to that.

Well, I was pretty upset about this, of course. So I did the only logical thing and called Cassie’s number that she had written on the check to tell her what happened and ask her to meet me with the cash. And this may surprise you… because it surprised me… because I wasn’t thinking… but the phone number WAS NOT A REAL NUMBER. It was a closed phone account. Because, you see, Cassie did ALL of this on purpose.

Not having the ability to call her, I got back on Facebook to find her, and looked up some things on her page. I read a bit about her and found out that she was looking to get closer to God, and felt like she was running and was very tired. These were vague things she said, but it troubled me. I was still angry, but I tried to maintain my cool, and sent her a message to please make things right and give me the money back. She did not respond.

I posted her name on the Facebook Marketplace to warn people not to take a check from her, lest they also be scammed. And THEN things really took off. I received private messages from other people telling me they had also been scammed, or she had written bad checks to their business; I even got a message from a local prosecutor telling me to call the office because they had her name on a bad check list and could give me information. Someone else gave me her place of employment. Someone else gave me her actual address! Bombarded with all of this information, I didn’t know what to do, and so I prayed.

Then Cassie called me from a different phone number. I wasn’t home at the time and she said she was at my house and wanted to make it right, she would pay me thirty dollars to make up for it in cash. She said she would leave it at my house. I thanked her and took down the message from the internet, thinking it was all over. I texted my neighbor and asked her to grab the money from the mailbox just in case anyone found it and took it. In the two minutes between Cassie leaving the money and my neighbor going to pick it up… it miraculously wasn’t there! WHAT? I HAD BEEN DUPED AGAIN! Fool me once, shame on  you… fool me twice, and NOW I AM REALLLLLLY MAD! I called Cassie again and she said, okay, if you can wait until Friday I’ll give you forty dollars (which was tempting, because the entire purpose of this was that I needed money...) 

Now I had a choice. I could be fooled a third time, or I could stand my ground. “Cassie, no,” I said. “You did this on purpose. You didn’t bounce a check, you wrote it from a closed account. That’s illegal. I could turn you in. But I’m not going to do that because I think you want to do the right thing. I don’t want forty dollars, I just want the thirty you owe me. I need it tonight or I’m going to have to turn you in. You’ve done this to a lot of people, it’s not just me, and you know it isn’t right.” There was silence and then she sighed and said, “okay”. An hour later, there was thirty dollars in my mailbox in cash.

The story could end there. This sounds like I got what I wanted. But a verse would not leave me alone. It was haunting me.

2 Peter 1:5-7 says: Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with steadfastness, steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

It’s a process. So often, when we hear Jesus command us to love one another as He loved us, we think it can’t be done. Or else we think we’re failing because we can’t live up to that kind of a love, a love that would die for us. And DID die for us. We’re supposed to love one another as he loved us? Turn the other cheek to the point of death? How do we do that? How is that even possible?

But see, we don’t just start off with love. Did you know there are different types of love? Different words for love? In Ancient Greek, “Philia” means brotherly love, a term of affection. This is why Philadelphia is called City of Brotherly Love, it’s from that root 'Philia'. It’s a mutual kind of affection, so you typically have friends that love each other with this kind of love, not just one person who loves another that way without it being requited. The love that the disciples had for each other, that we have for each other as disciples, as Christians, it’s considered 'Philia' – a brotherly love. But the love of God for man and man for God is considered Agape love. It is the highest form of love, and this is the love to which we aspire – the love to bring all loves together. It embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance.

This is the love that 2 Peter 1:5-7 is building toward. This is the love that I needed to show to Cassie. And man, was it hard. And I’m a minister. But I was SO angry, and I felt so stupid, that I almost couldn’t do it.

Then I remember that emptiness that I had once felt, when I thought that love wasn’t real, that loneliness I felt when I thought there was no God. And I remembered Cassie’s words on her own page, about how she was feeling empty and tired of running, and wanted to be closer to God.
I exercised my self-control. I had faith, I had knowledge, I knew the Godly thing to do. I knew how I would treat a friend, with brotherly love… with Philia. But this was the final step. She had wronged me. I needed this love to be the love that Jesus called us to in John 13, that he commanded us to love with. This needed to be Agape love – unconditional regardless of the circumstance.

I sent her a message and said, “I’m not turning you in. I really appreciate that you did the right thing and paid me back. I see that you want to get closer with God, and I can help you with that if you want. I’m a minister, so it turns out you tried to scam the right person this time. Let me know if you want to talk.”

In the past two weeks, we have chatted back and forth a number of times, talked about her background, about her fears, and, most recently, she asked me for the number of a domestic abuse shelter locally. Cassie was more in need of help than anyone could have imagined, and God put her in my life for a reason, and me into hers.

When we think of love, we think of the ones we get along with, that we want to be with. We think of our spouse, our children, our parents perhaps, our friends, our Jesus. But God is, day by day, putting other people in our life that we need to take steps to reach. We need to take steps in our own life,  in our own abilities to love others without judgment, so that we can help them get to know the kind of love we know. The Agape love of the Father for each of us. He has that same love for everyone. He loves Cassie, in all her emptiness and mess, just as much as He loves you and me.

Jesus told a parable once about two people who had been forgiven a debt – when he’s in the house of Simon, and the woman is anointing his feet with oil and tears, and Simon is disgusted because the woman is a sinner. Jesus says in Luke 7, “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender – One owed 500 denarii and one owed 50. Neither had the money to pay him back, so he forgave both debts. Now which one will love him more? Simon replied, I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven. You have judged correctly, said Jesus.” This woman was a sinner, but God loved her as much as he loved Simon. The woman, however, would end up loving God more because of all of the lavish love and forgiveness he gave her, which she did not receive from others.

I can’t help but wonder what Cassie’s life is going to be like when she realizes that she’s not empty and lost, but that she is lavished with love by the Creator of the Universe, our Father God, and that He sent His son Jesus Christ to die for her.

I know how my life changed when I found True Love. His Love. His Agape Love.


THIS is the greatest of all commandments, and THIS is what we’re to be known for. THIS is how Jesus said that people will know that we are His disciples. It’s easy to love people who love us back. It’s easy to forgive people we know care about us. But it’s our CALLING to love everyone else, too.

Stephanie Jean

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Backstage

I had the pleasure of writing a feature-length article on a community theatre for a local magazine, and it inspired me to think about how much I love theatre once again. I have my mother to thank for this, as she took me to see traveling Broadway shows like Hair at age 12 (yes, they were naked; no, I didn't freak out) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at age 14 or so (yes, the one with Donny Osmond; no, I didn't get to see him because it was his understudy that night.) I've been told so often in my life what a performer I was as a child, and I see that same reflection in the little clone I gave birth to a couple of years ago. It's funny, though, that in the past decade and a half since I was on a real stage for the first time, I've become much more comfortable -- and joyful -- behind the scenes.

If you knew me in high school, I was awkward both socially and in the looks department, so I tended to stick with people I trusted not to make fun of me. (I think there were like, three of them.) I took Theatre Arts my freshman year and would have taken four years of it if they hadn't pulled it from the curriculum immediately after I fell in love with it. On the stage, I could be someone else. It was okay for people to look at me, because I wasn't "me". I was a particular character. If I screwed something up, I could play it off as though it were on purpose. But being in front of a crowd as Stephanie was, and is yet, highly uncomfortable for me.

The following year, I joined choir. I was myself, yes... but in a sea of people, so it was still safe to be on stage. Since there were voices much better than mine, I didn't get a solo until my senior year, and the fears that ravaged me then are the same ones that ravage me now whenever I stand as myself in front of a large group of people who are all looking to me to entertain them, educate them, or inspire them. Yet:

I've been a teacher at both the high school and college levels.
I am a minister, giving messages at least once a month.
I sing -- it's rare these days, but it still happens upon occasion.

However, I get the most happiness out of what I do in the background. As a director in theatre, as a writer on this blog for my ministry, and as a mentor to students overseas who will likely never see my face a single time in their lives. I like this because I've come to the conclusion that MY life... is not about me.

Helping others to reach their potential is the reason I'm on this Earth. Sure, I have dreams and aspirations of my own... but they mostly have that common thread. The book I want to write? It's to help others learn to love themselves and to love other people. The child I gave birth to? It's to be able to help him grow into a good human being from the moment of his very first breath. The man I married? It's to help him achieve his highest calling in life. I've been given the ability to encourage and support up to 25 high school students a year from a completely different country while teaching them necessary skills for college in the United States. It's not about me. It's about the One who placed me where He placed me, and the people into whose lives I have been woven by Him.

I used to want to be famous. This was because I figured if I were famous, people would have to like me. Now, I couldn't possibly care less if people like me or not. I have a life to live, a purpose to fulfill, a journey to trek. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate the world and everything in it. Some days I'm full of joy and ambition. Some days I don't want to get out of bed. But every day, I learn something new, experience something new, grow a little bit, and find the strength to keep on moving.

Contrary to the Hokey Pokey lyrics, THAT'S actually what it's all about.

Stephanie Jean