Maggie H. Johnson

Writer • Speaker

Page 2 of 31

My Soap Box

Several years ago, I began praying a very specific prayer: God, make me love the things you love. That short, seemingly insignificant request quickly became a defining moment. I was prepared to love things like systematic theology, trendy worship music, and evangelism. But I was not prepared to love the poor, the victim of domestic violence, the immigrant, the orphan, or the underprivileged.

One thing is clear to me now: God cares about justice (Micah 6:8; James 1:27; Isaiah 61:8; Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 140:12; Amos 5:24; Zechariah 7:9; Deuteronomy 16:20). Apart from the underlying tenor of redemption through Jesus Christ, God’s most prevalent concern, which is repeated from Genesis to Revelation, is justice. And because God cares about justice, that means I should too (Proverbs 29:7).

sparks image

As citizens of Heaven, we operate under different standards – those of grace, compassion, and forgiveness. We are governed by principles of the Kingdom, not of culture. And we like to talk about that when it comes to alcohol, premarital sex, marriage, and other hot-button topics. But there is an unsettling silence when it comes to doing justice. In his book Generous Justice, Pastor Tim Keller says,

If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Not long ago some friends of ours were approached by a single mom at their church. She and her two kids could no longer afford to live in their apartment and they needed a place to stay…indefinitely. She offered to pay as much as she could in rent, but the couple wouldn’t take her money. Our friends let this family move in and live in their house free of charge.

Much to our shock and disappointment, our friends were chastised by other Christians. You’re enabling her, they would say. What if they take advantage of your generosity, they warned. They should at least have to pay your increased water bill, they protested. Our friends came to us – distraught and confused – asking for advice. Had they done the wrong thing? Were they being foolish by letting this family stay with them for free?

My response was swift: “You did the right thing. You’re showing all of us what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.”

Then I pointed them to Isaiah 58, a passage that often feels like it was written specifically for the American church. God says, “Day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God” (v. 2). Ouch, God. As if we were a nation that does what’s right. As if we were obedient followers. The Israelites were doing the thing they thought would make God happy: Fasting. But while engrossed in their religious pursuits, they were simultaneously neglecting and mistreating the poor. So God calls them out: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (v. 5-7; emphasis mine)?

In Isaiah 58:10, God says to spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. Our friends were doing just that. They were spending themselves on behalf of this sister. They were letting her stay for free so she could get back on her feet. Letting this woman live with them was not going to make them go into debt or compromise their checking account, so they chose generosity over greed. They chose faith over fear.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Doing justice is the response to a God who rescued us when we were spiritually impoverished. We act justly because we know what it means to be in need. We pour ourselves out for those in need because Jesus poured himself out for us.

We can go to church every week as if we were devout Christians. The taste of alcohol may never cross our lips as if we wanted to do what’s right. But loving Jesus looks like doing justice.

Come Just As You Are

“Daddy, can we play that game?”

We’d played with barbies, with my plastic guns and superhero outfits, and even with my little playhouse. He would let me paint his nails and sing him songs. Daddy never said no when I asked to play, but this time was different.

This time the game was real.

The two of them had been going at it for hours. In a marital standoff, verbal assaults were flung with intention and doors were slammed for maximum impact. I watched intently, ready to re-enact this riveting game when Mama got tired later on. But it wasn’t a game, and Daddy didn’t want to play.

This wouldn’t be the last time my parents argued with fervor, and their interactions soon became familiar territory to my four year-old self. Healthy families intimidated me (and sometimes still do). I knew how to navigate tension, rage, and betrayal. But kindness and sincerity left me skeptical at best and aggressive at worst. So church was hard for me. All dressed up in our ironed clothes with curled locks, we would sing, “Come just as you are…”

Lies We Believe

Those words were a lie. I heard how the adults gossiped about the Girl with the Blue Hair, and how Jesus obviously was not pleased with her attire. Our song was not true. You cannot come just as you are.

It was then that I realized something terrible. The Girl with the Blue Hair could change her clothes. She could take out her piercings and dye her hair back to a natural color. She could change the things about herself that didn’t measure up. But I couldn’t.

I couldn’t clean up my family. My past would always be dirty and unacceptable. A foundational belief quickly began to take root in my heart: I am too broken to be loved.

Many women struggle with the belief that they are inadequate, but I have wrestled with the lie that I am too much.

I’m too opinionated. I’m too direct. I’m too emotional. I’m too intense. I care too much. I over-analyze. I’m too controlling. I’m too competitive. I’m too dramatic. I’m too broken.

How could Jesus love me?

I found my answer in one of the most boring parts of the Bible: The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. At first glance this looks like an uneventful list of unimportant people, but with a little research, the passage comes alive. With a simple skim of the chapter, several names start to jump out: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and several other women. Women were not typically included in genealogies, so this caught my attention. But these weren’t just random, insignificant women…

Tamar is the first woman mentioned (v. 3) and her story is found in Genesis 38.  Tamar marries this guy named Er, but God ends up killing him because he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” (v. 7). Because Tamar’s husband died before getting her pregnant, Er’s brother Onan was responsible for doing the deed. But he also turned out to be wicked, so God killed him too. Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, was getting pretty worried. Every time one of his sons went to be with this woman, they ended up dead! Instead of providing for Tamar in her time of need, he sent her away to live as a widow for the rest of her life. But Tamar, being the resourceful woman that she was, had another plan. She disguised herself as a prostitute, ended up sleeping with her father-in-law, and gets pregnant.

The next woman named in Matthew 1 is Rahab – the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho. We know her story ends with faithfulness and belief, but her past is dark.

Then Ruth, who we all love. Her love story with Boaz is one for the ages, but have you seen her family tree? Ruth was a Moabite, and Genesis 19 tells us that Moabites have an incestuous origin.

When you think it can’t get any worse, we come to Matthew 1:6 where we find the woman who cannot even be named. Matthew calls her “Uriah’s wife” because he doesn’t want us to forget how she and King David first met.

Finally we come to Mary. The unwed, pregnant teen who birthed our Messiah.

This is our Jesus – whose family history is littered with incest, prostitution, adultery, and paganism. God knew we’d be afraid to come just as we are, and I think that’s why he gave us this background. We needed to know that Jesus came from a screwed up family. We needed to know the skeletons in his closet. Matthew intentionally left in all the sketchy parts of Jesus’ story so we would know: We really can come just as we are.

The Girl with the Blue Hair can come.

The husband addicted to pornography can come.

The hormonal teenager who is skeptical about religion can come.

The single mom, the widow, the victim, the pagan, the homewrecker. They can all come just as they are.

And so can you.

Jesus Wrecked My Life

He turned water into wine, made the blind see, and cast out demons. Jesus is in the business of doing miracles. Every time he comes around, someone gets healed. And in Revelation 21 he lets us know that he makes all things new. New is good, right? So, as much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out why my life didn’t become a beacon of goodness once I became his girl.

Why didn’t Jesus fix my life?

Despite the stories I’d heard from revival preachers and televangelists, I did not instantly stop craving attention from guys and my home life was still a tumultuous war zone. Following Jesus didn’t fix my problems. In some instances, he made them worse.

Jesus Wrecked My Life

Pursuing holiness won’t make you many friends. The word holy even means “to be set apart,” so loneliness quickly became a familiar friend. I have vivid memories of being made fun of by other girls in my Sunday school class, simply because I could recite that week’s memory verse. I skipped class the next week – roaming the church halls while my parents were in Big Church – but my folks found out, and I got grounded. As if that weren’t enough, I actually had a guy tell me that he wasn’t interested in me because I seemed “too innocent.” For a preteen who just decided to buy into the Jesus life, this was all a little jarring.

Fast forward.

I decided to attend a Bible college, and hoped that things would finally go right for me. Wrong. My undergrad days were riddled with toxic relationships, major health issues, and abuse.

I knew Jesus urged us to “count the cost” but no one said it would be this hard.

In one of his poems, William Yeats wrote:

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

The strongest bonds of love are forged in the places of excrement. That’s what I found out. Jesus completely wrecked my life. He dug into every corner of my heart, which was (and still is) indescribably painful. But I have experienced the truth of what Yeats was trying to say: Love is built in the trenches.

It’s not easy, but nothing good ever was.

C.S. Lewis was a master storyteller who wrote about the kingdom of God, sometimes subtly and others times overtly. I’ve often felt that his stories illustrate my own journey with Jesus. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace, an annoying and pretentious boy, gets turned into a dragon – a manifestation of the selfishness that resides in his heart. After much soul-searching, Eustace tries to tear off his dragon skin so he can be a boy again. But no matter how hard he tries, the dragon skin will not come off.

“You will have to let me undress you,” says Aslan the Lion.

Eustace was pretty desperate by this point. Aslan had sharp claws that would undoubtedly cause severe pain, but Eustace agreed to let him peel off the dragon skin anyway. Aslan was his only hope.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times,  only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.

I am Eustace. I’m selfish, stingy, and always think of myself first. My heart is hard and it takes the excruciating power of Jesus to break through. But I’m desperate, friends. I’m desperate for healing and clear vision and grace. Jesus took all that I held most dear and smashed it on the altar of my pride. He tore idols – one by one – from my white-knuckled grip. It’s painful, but it’s the work of transformation.

For years I sang the words of Hillsong and begged God to “take it all.” Then he did. It’s true: Jesus wrecked my life. He flipped it upside down and changed my course.

Love built His mansion in the place of my excrement.

Books I’m Reading in 2016

I have a tendency to burn myself out on mildly interesting obligations instead of reserving space for the things that truly light my fire. This will forever be my struggle, I suppose. It’s a constant resetting of priorities and passions. I can hear my mama’s voice whispering, “You can’t pour out of an empty well,” and that’s when I know it’s time to rearrange my life once again.

My spirit is one that needs inordinate amounts of blank space to flourish. It needs quiet mornings, soft music, strong coffee, provocative books, and soul food. It needs crackling fires, vulnerable confessions, and acoustic guitars.

I’m planning several things this year in an attempt to nurture this quiet place in my spirit. Writing retreats, more reading, and intentional time spent cooking to name a few. For accountability reasons, I’m sharing with you, my reader-friends, the books I’ll be devouring this year.

all the books 2016

  1. Overrated by Eugene Cho: Eugene Cho is a pastor and visionary. I’ve been following him on Twitter for quite some time, and when his new book came out, I knew I wanted to read it. The subtitle of this book is “Are we more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world?” The subtitle alone makes me antsy to crack open the cover of Cho’s first book. My day job is working in development at a non-profit, and social justice is what fills my days. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to care about your cause in a way that elicits action, and that can be incredibly discouraging. I’m anticipating thought-provoking, soul-stirring passages from this book that will speak straight to my heart.
  2. Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle: I’ve already started reading this captivating memoir. L’Engle removes a veil and lets us peek into the joys and heartaches of her life. She particularly focuses on her marriage to Hugh Franklin. Several friends have recommended this book to me, and I can already see why. With just a few chapters under my belt, I find L’Engle’s transparency calming and her humor unassuming. I’ve heard that the story gets harder to read due to tragedy, but I don’t want to avoid the hard parts. How can I face the tragedy of my own life if I cannot hear the grief of another?
  3. Saving Casper by Jim Henderson &  Matt Casper: This is a follow-up book of sorts. A few years ago, I read a book by these same guys called “Jim and Casper Go to Church.” In the first book, a pastor named Jim Henderson hires an atheist named Matt Casper to attend and critique churches all over America. In a nutshell, I loved the book. But Henderson caught a lot of flack from Christians because not once did he attempt to convert Casper. He simply listened and had honest dialogue about faith, churches, and well-meaning Christians. So, I’m assuming that’s how “Saving Casper” came to be. The subtitle reads, “A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Why We Need to Change the Conversion Conversation.” This one feels so personal, reader-friends. I wholeheartedly believe that the Church needs to do better here.
  4. Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist: Okay. So I’ve already read this book, and it’s convinced me that Shauna and I would be the best of friends if we actually knew each other. She’s passionate about in-your-face community, loving people by feeding them, and hearty recipes. I LOVE ALL OF THOSE THINGS TOO, YOU GUYS. Instead of reading this one again, I’ll be meeting up with some fellow Shauna fans to cook through the recipes scattered throughout her book. Cannot. Wait.
  5. Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin: I heard Jen Wilkin speak at a conference I attended last year, and she is the real deal. In her book, Wilkin teaches women how to study the Bible and how to engage both their hearts and their minds. I’m expecting a lot from this one, I won’t lie. From my experience there are very few women’s material that does an adequate job engaging one’s mind. But after hearing Wilkin preach a few months back, I don’t think she will disappoint.
  6. I Suffer Not a Woman by Richard and Catherine Kroeger: Now onto the nitty gritty books. These are my favorite kinds – the ones that make me wrestle and reconsider. This husband-and-wife team came together to write book researching and revisiting the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which is one of the most hotly debated passages when it comes to gender roles and a woman’s place in church. This book was suggested to me by a friend about a year ago, and I’m just not getting around to it. I have no doubt it will be one of substance and depth.
  7. Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals by William J. Webb: Mr. Webb is a professor of biblical studies at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and this is the book in which he has chosen to address the hermeneutics of passages surrounding slaves, women, and homosexuals. From reviews I’ve read, Webb dives into the cultural analysis of these portions of Scripture and discusses them in light of proper hermeneutic. With high tension around all three of these groups – from human trafficking to gender inequality worldwide to gay marriage – what you think matters.
  8. Homemade Decadence by Joy Wilson: One of my cousins gave me this cookbook for Christmas! If you don’t already follow Joy the Baker, you’re missing out on all the good things in life. This is her second cookbook, and from what I’ve skimmed through, it looks incredible. Who needs a New Year’s resolution to lose weight when you’ve got the best dessert recipes this side of the Atlantic?!

That’s all I’ve got on my list so far! Do you have any recommendations? What books are on your list? Let’s make 2016 the year we flourish. Let’s do things that fill us up. I’ll start by cracking a book.

What Hope?

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I don’t like waiting to make changes to my life, so the alterations usually come well before January 1st.

But I do like words.

Each year I choose one word to guide me. If our words are the outpouring of what resides in our hearts, I want to make sure the well of my soul is inclined toward things good and right. We dispense out of our mouths the very same things that we put into our minds, so I want my meditation to be intentional. For 12 whole months, I want to dig deep roots. This year my word is Hope.

Wisconsin Winter

We lost our growing babe in November – the day before Thanksgiving, to be exact. It was a whirlwind experience. One minute we waited to hear a heartbeat and the next we were scheduling surgery. And then we weren’t going home for Thanksgiving, we weren’t making my office into a nursery, and we weren’t picking our names. To cope I ate my weight in sushi while wearing the same ugly Christmas sweater for a week straight.

The end of 2015 was a doozy for us. We got angry, let it out at the wrong times, ignored phone calls, vented, and cried. And let’s just be honest – it hasn’t even been two months, so we’re still doing some of that. We don’t bounce back quickly. I don’t think we were made to either. We weren’t made to “be strong” or “keep our heads up.” We were made to lean into our weaknesses. We are lacking, which is precisely why we need hope. Hope acknowledges that something is missing.

The writer of Hebrews says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” That’s exactly what I need: firm and secure. I need something to steady my heart when grief overwhelms. But what is this hope? If you read back a little in Hebrews 6, you’ll see that this hope is God’s promise to keep us. Verse 17 says that “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear.” That’s why Jesus came into the picture. Jesus – the unchanging, all-sufficient One. Jesus is our hope.

Now there’s something that can anchor me.

Paul wrote in Romans 5:5, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts.” This is the real deal, reader-friends. And if it doesn’t affect things like miscarriage and loss then it’s not worth believing. But it has affected me. This hope has been a balm to my injured heart. Is there still pain? Yes, absolutely. Am I still having a hard time wrestling through all of this with God? You know it.

But I feel anchored.

We are better cared for than we realize and more deeply loved than we know. I will choose to believe it even on the dark night of the soul. Hope is my 2016 word, reader-friends. How about you? What words will you be soaking on this year?

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2017 Maggie H. Johnson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑