Friday, January 22, 2010

Putting it all Together Part 11 - Preaching to Myself and Other Drowning Rats

Then there are the days. . .Days when you wonder if this thing you set out to do will ever happen. If you have bitten off more than you can chew and think that you are going to choke on the bones. I would be lying to you if I said there is point in time when you get over it. If there is, I haven’t found it.

As most of you know we are putting together an event in February called Splendor and Holiness, and at the beginning we were all excited. Electrified might be a better word. We had carefully planned and prayed over our topic, we identified the need for Christians to learn more about worship, what it is and how to engage in it, and we had the means to make it happen. Several of our friends supported us as we fleshed out the idea, so we jumped. It was easy and it felt like flying, for awhile.

But something happens on the way to the realization of a dream. For those of us who have figured out how to dream and given ourselves permission to dream, that is the fun part. What isn’t so fun are the times that you wonder just how big of a fool are you going to look like if it doesn’t happen?

I think that sometimes as Christians we are told that following God’s lead should be easy, everything should fall into place with supernatural precision, and sometimes it does. Those are the great times, and you know you can’t fail. However, more often than not there is a time when everything seems to stop and you are left dangling over a cliff, waiting for something, anything to happen. God gets real quiet, and you realize just how big of a chance you took.

This is the place where most of us give up, where we think that we had a delusional moment and made a mistake. After all if we are serving God shouldn’t it be easier, safer? We begin to doubt our ability and God’s faithfulness. So pack it up, retreat to safer ground, and tell ourselves and our friends our excuses for why we stopped. I would be lying if I said I have not felt this way about the February event.

We have had many people say that they would be there, and we have had a few register, but there is an image of a theater in Muskogee with only a handful of people that I just can’t shake. It makes me feel a little sick to my stomach, and I worry if I will disappoint the friends that I have convinced to help me. Some bit of self preservation is screaming to get out while there is still time, keep my dignity intact.

In my more rational moments I have to wonder exactly where we got the idea that following God had anything to do with dignity. The truth is a lot of the time when God called people to great things the first thing they had to abandon was dignity. Noah built a stupid boat in his front yard, David danced through the streets in his underwear, the cowardly Gideon declared he could lead and army to victory, Hosea married a woman that would have shamed a sailor, and Peter made a fool of himself more times than I can count.

Maybe that is why these guys are our favorites. We all know what it is like to fall flat on our faces and make fools of ourselves. They took a risk, they even looked foolish as they did it, but they succeeded. They are remembered as men of faith and courage.

I have to wonder exactly what did Peter think as he lowered himself over the side of that boat. Did he leap out onto the waves with no fear? Or did he shake as he gripped tightly to the hull? Did he play out all the scenarios of how badly this could end for him? Or did he just see the chance to do what his Lord was doing? The Bible says that Peter saw the wind and was afraid. In that moment he began to sink, and I wonder how far down he got before he totally freaked out. Sometimes we see the pictures of Jesus pulling something resembling a drowned rat from among the waves, and yet, I have been told that Peter never made it past ankle deep before Jesus saved him.

Either way, any of you who have fallen know that a split second is all you need to envision your untimely demise. We see the wind and know the distance we have left to travel before we reach our destination. We feel the pressure of having to navigate the waves, and begin to doubt we will be able to do it. We feel the eyes of all the smart people who stayed on the boat and know they are thinking what fools we are while envying their safety. The thing is we know that if we can make it, if we can reach out and touch the object of our desire, no boat will ever be good enough again.

And the truth is, we never wanted sit on the stinking boat to begin with. We wanted to be the One who needs no boat, the One who did great things, and now empowers us to risk great things on his behalf. Striking out for the place you believe God is leading you is scary, but it is exciting and the grandest adventure we can ever know. How many times do think Peter sat around a fire and told friends about that night? How many times do you think his friends asked, “Can he do that for me?” I want a story like that for my life. How about you?

Can you leave the boat, brave the waves, and ignore the wind? There are times when it is easy, and there are times when it is the hardest thing we will ever do, but the good news is if we fail, if our gaze should wander to the elements cause of us fear, there is One who doesn’t mind pulling us drowning rats from the abyss.

Hope to see you in February!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Blue Skies Views from the Bottom the Well

Repost from June 11, 2008, in response to the questions that so many of you have asked over the past week. My prayers are with you all!

I have often wondered what did Joseph think when he sat at the bottom of that well, the one his brothers threw him into after he told them his dream. The dream where they would one day bow down before him. What other black thoughts must have followed when he wasted away in the Egyptian prison?

I wonder because I know what it is to think that God has spoken to me, revealed some special thing that was about to happen in my life. The promise of a new tomorrow where for once all things will be as I had hoped that they could be,but always there seems to be dark time where the promise is lost in the reality of miserable moments. Moments where my ability to affect change is swept away from me, where the power is given to another and I must continue to live despite the pain of watching my hopes fade before I ever touched them.

I wonder if Joseph could see the sky in that pit. Did he see the brilliant blue as assurance that God still watched over him or did he feel mockery at its distance? Those years when he was forgotten in a prison did he resent the woman who
wrongly accused him or the God who allowed him to be placed there? Were there moments of anger, pain, and confusion? Or was he blissfully faithful that there would be a day when he saw his dream manifest? Did he reason away hope?

Did he think that perhaps he had merely been the victim of misplaced hope? Did he think God a liar? Did he believe that his pride and arrogance caused this catastrophe? Were there days when he regretted placing credence in the images that
filled his sleep? Did he weep over the death of dream? Or did he stoically accept his fate, believing that all would be well in the end?

I wish I knew. Maybe if we heard the fights, the inner battles he waged with himself, there would be a clue for those of us who wait for God to move on our behalf. Some instruction of how to handle those times when we sit in a pit listening
to our brothers squabble as to whether to kill us or not.

I don't know why dreams often have to die before they can be realized. Sometimes I think it is so that we never mistake this thing that God wants to give us is something we conjured up. Maybe it is so that others will see it truly is God who
brought it into being and not the work of human hands.

There is some comfort in that thought, but my faith isn't always that big. If it was would I mourn the dream? And yet even as I type that last line, I hear the words, "Jesus wept". He wept at the news that his friend had died.

It is a baffling thought really. Jesus wept. I mean wrap your head around the whole scenario for a moment. God incarnate the one who breathed life into the original man, the God who spoke the universe into existence, the God who knows all things - weeps over the death of a friend, the death of his dream.

And we are God's dream. Each of us is a reflection and product of his desire. His dream of relationship, his dream of passion and revelation. We are his dream.

As Jesus moved towards the grave of a man who was his friend, as you and I hope to one day know him, he saw his dream die. With one amazingly distinct difference, he knew that with a few simple words his friend would walk at his side once more.
His tears never made sense to me, but tonight I think I get it.

As we strive to attain a level of communion with God that allows us to walk in faith, even in the most extreme situations, we are not to be callous to the death of a dream. Grieving over the loss of something we hold dear is not a sign of
weakness or even a sign of a lack of faith. It is being human. Indeed, if I may be so bold - it is being God like.

God never asked us to be without emotion. He never demanded that we deny pain. He only asked that we seek him, become conformed to his image as presented through the humanity of Jesus.

There is some debate on how much Jesus realized about his deity while he lived on earth. Some claim that he knew he was God from the moment he was born, others say it was not until he sat in the temple questioning the rabbis. Still others
point to his baptism as the moment of revelation. And even if a time can be determined there is still the question of how much did Jesus know, how much of his God consciousness was he able to access in his human form.

I tend to believe it was limited in many ways. That he knew what he needed to know for the moment. To me it makes his time here more - well, human. It makes his knowledge of our experience more intimate, and his tears at Lazarus death less
hypocritical. It makes his grief real, and not merely a display. And I have to ask, what did he think as he made his way to the grave of his dream?

At what point, did he know that his words held the power to call a rotting body from the ground? At what point, did Joseph realize it was his God inspired words that pulled him from his captivity? Will I know that moment in my life? Will you
know yours?

I really don't know, but I do know that in the mean time it is okay to weep. It is okay to mourn. I am not relinquishing my faith by acknowledging my grief, and should this be a dream that finds resurrection - it will be beyond what I had ever
dreamt it could be.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Christianity is the school of hard knocks

The other day Emily wrote about church not being the same as school. In her post, she states life is the real test. I agree but just when you think you have the answers to the questions, life changes the questions.

Christianity is a lifelong learning process with small pop quizzes along the way. The good thing is the pop quizzes don’t count against your semester grade. What about quizzes do you remember? The questions you got right? Most people remember questions they got wrong.

We all remember the snarky comment overheard by the subject of the comment; the smashed finger and the resulting creative language overheard by the person we talked to about Jesus. The great thing about life is we have the opportunity to re-take the quiz

Also, life provides real world, in the world, in your face, get your hands dirty experience. How many times have you thought “If only I had…” or “I wish I would have…”? The neat thing is you will probably get a second chance to attempt to put action to your words.

The best parallel I can think of, for the Christian life, is the school of hard knocks. We get bruises, scuffs, bangs, and cuts as we live. These heal but the experience gained allows us to be wiser, smarter, and better able to minister to those around us.

So the next time you miss the answer to one of life’s questions, don’t ignore the question. Be sure to take note of what you got wrong. You will get another chance to answer the question.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Go ahead, make my day.

You can only teach yourself. You can only learn the technique of learning. –Clint Eastwood

The memorization and regurgitation of facts has become our working definition of learning. As children we are placed in class rooms where our teacher writes a series of words or numbers upon a board, we copy them, and then we recite them when called upon. Seldom do the words connect with our real lives or have any bearing upon our reality. As children we know this. We question when will we ever need to know the value of pie, the dates of the French Revolution, or even the chemical composition of chewing gum (bubble gum is a whole other matter). The good adults in our lives assure us that we will need this information one day and we should be good students and learn what the teacher says.

As adults we then become the ones who perpetuate the myth when our children are the ones asking the question. We tell them that they will one day need to know this information, and we secretly wonder when exactly did we ever need to know what we were taught in school. Of course if we are good parents we never voice this thought out loud, because we don’t want our children to grow up to be idiots.

The thing is even in the midst of what may now seem to have been pointless exercises in obscure facts, we did learn something. We learned our idea of education, of what it means to be taught. We know that if someone is teaching us something they are to communicate certain facts on the topic which we in turn should be able to recite if called upon. We learned that education often has little to do with our real lives, that educators do not teach life lessons as much as they teach us abstractions and principles that we have a hard time integrating in our day to day activities.

Unfortunately, somewhere we adopted this model into our Biblical teaching as well. We turned Bible study into Bible trivia, and Church stopped being a place where went to experience God with other believers and became a place where we learned about God. We studied God, Jesus, and the Bible like we are going to have a test next Friday, so bring your notes. We got points for attendance, memorizing the right verses, and being able to give the proper answer when called upon.

The problem is we forgot that life is the test. You can’t cram for this one, and like it or not being able to quote the proper verse doesn’t get you a one hundred. Somewhere along the way Christianity stopped being relational and became something that happens after opening prayer but before the fried chicken. Being a good Christian became more about how many Sunday mornings you actually made it to a building and less about loving your neighbor. We turned it into an exercise and not a walk.

Maybe this is why we have a hard time with the transition from the class room of the church to real life. We don’t know how to make our faith a part of our life. Maybe when we started referring to the church as a place with class rooms and teachers, instead of as a body of believers and a family that we lost sight of the fact it is about more than knowing the right answer. Maybe when God became a school teacher and not a father, we forgot that he loves us and doesn’t just give us a grade.

Maybe this why so many people have become disillusioned with Christianity. We have presented it like a list of facts to memorize, and life is a problem to be solved. Maybe when we started teaching Christianity as an abstraction and principles instead of as a way of life, we forgot how to make the shift from information to understanding. Maybe when we stopped teaching people the technique of learning and told them the answers we bypassed an important step in our faith. We skipped the beauty and joy discovery through experience and learning.

We don’t grade relationships by the number of facts we know about another person. We don’t rank friendships by another’s ability to rattle off random thing we may have said. We don’t keep score with people we really love by totaling up their right answers to our questions. We gauge the depth by how well they understand us, by how much they affect our lives and vice versa. Everything else is a byproduct of the time we spend experiencing their presence. And we should all know that knowing about a person is not the same as knowing someone.

It is in the experience that we learn to know someone, that we learn how to learn about them. We discover how to ask a question, how to read their expression, or hear what they are saying beyond the words.

So study, read your Bible, gather with other believers, but do it so that you can experience the one who made you. Do it so that you can learn about this God who loves you more than you can imagine, but remember he isn’t an algebra problem. We don’t get to solve him, figure him out, or define him. That is not our job, our privilege is to know and experience him in this life, in this reality. The disciplines teach us how to draw near to God, being there teaches us how to learn from him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One is NOT the loneliest number

Lately I’ve been thinking about being only one person.  What can one person do, accomplish, achieve, or change?  When examining your actions from your point of view, it seems fruitless and overwhelming to work, fix, spend, or give.  But what if you use God’s point of view?

God is not limited by time, distance or space.  God can use one person to change, accomplish or achieve a lot.  God has a way of multiplying a Christian’s actions -  one dollar becomes a thousand dollars , one hour becomes a 100 hours.  We tend to limit God to a 2 dimensional-like framework when instead God operates in a 3D-like, present and future frame.  Let me provide a couple of examples of God multiplying one’s actions.

In Riga Talsi, Latvia, one woman prayed for God to provide schooling for her developmentally challenged daughter.  God gave the woman a vision for a Christian school in a non-Christian country.  Fifteen years later, the school is providing a strong Christian witness to the community.  The school provides a Christian based education to Latvian children.  School graduates have developed a mission heart and are out in the local and world mission fields.  The school facilities are one of the few accessible by handicapped people and the facilities are used frequently by this group.  The students and faculty minister to local orphans who are basically ignored by the Latvian government.  The orphans have a loving, caring environment to find God loves them.
One woman’s pray.  One woman creating a Christian school.  One woman affecting the world, one student at a time.  One woman changing a city, one family at a time.  One woman showing God’s love, one orphan at a time.

Another example is a very quiet, confident young woman with a heart for missions who listens to God.  She spends college semester breaks and summer breaks traveling, with a ministry team, to places that don’t have running water, electricity, television, Wiis, or, God forbid, a Wal-Mart.  She is bringing the Gospel to one country, one person at a time.  She desires to be in the remote places of the world bringing God’s message to lonely, hurting people.  She goes to places the world considers unsafe, unclean, and undesirable.  Recently she spent, what sounded like, more time traveling to a small island country in the Indian Ocean than ministering to people.  She was fine with the situation.

One college age woman with a mission heart.  One woman willing to spend more time traveling than ministering.  One woman willing to not have creature comforts.  One woman desiring to minister and serve in places other than the United States.

You may not have the calling to start a Christian school or travel to remote geographic places but God can use you to make a difference.  Do you have a job and tithe on your salary?  Do you speak kindly to the Wal-Mart checker having a hectic day?  Do you publicly pray before eating?  Do engage in conversation with the server at Red Lobster?

God uses small, single actions to accomplish great things.  We limit our potential to affect change by thinking we are only one person.  God has the ability to multiple one person’s action into a great work.  I think Three Dog Night was incorrect with the song title “One is the loneliest number”.

Writer's Note: The Latvian city was incorrectly identified due to a misbehaving neuron.  The neuron has been fired.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Job, John the Baptist, and Hospital Gowns. Any questions?

If we have one flaw as Christians, I would have to say it isn’t nominal faith, habitual sin, or even hypocrisy. It is something that goes so deep within us that we do not even see it for the problem it is. Maybe it is because our problem is also our greatest strength. One of those double edged sword dilemmas and one we really don’t know how to address. So we ignore it, build barriers and blinds to keep us from getting to close to it, and politely steer people away from it when we can.

The problem is we have the answer to everything, and I mean that quite literally. We know the answer to all of life’s difficulties, the mysteries of the universe, the meaning of life, the purpose of evil . . . we know the answer to it all. Issues and concerns that have razed the mind of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known and we have the answer.

The problem is we don’t know as much as we think we do. Yes, we have the answer – his name is Jesus, but we don’t know what he does, we don’t understand what he does, and we certainly cannot answer every question that life throws at us. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to make this distinction.

We get so comfortable having the answer that we forget to ask the important questions. We don’t say, “Hey, Jesus, I don’t get this. Life isn’t making sense, and I really need some answers.” We mutter to ourselves and assure our friends that we are just having faith like it is some mantra that will ward off the doubt and confusion that can haunt our souls.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some things in life that will always be a matter of faith. For these things there will be no easy explanations. For those things we cling to the knowledge that Jesus does love us and he is there in the midst of lives working out his plans and purposes. For some things we need to rest in that assurance, but when did we get the idea that faith meant not asking the question?

John the Baptist once sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah or should he look for another, and a lot of people have criticized John’s doubts. However, what we often miss is that John did the right thing. He had a question. He had a concern, and who wouldn’t? Here he had baptized Jesus, proclaimed him to be the chosen one of God, lived a life dedicated to showing the people that God’s promises were being fulfilled in this person of Jesus, but at this point John was rotting in jail cell and there would be no great escape for him.

John had guts. Nothing in his life had been easy, he chose to go where God led him, live the life that would most effectively demonstrate God’s intentions for a nation. He didn’t take the easy road, and even in this question he showed his courage to confront the issues in his life that did not make sense to him. He had a question, a valid one, and he asked the right person.

He realized he had more to learn, and was not content to simply have blind faith. He knew that as man he needed answers, and sometimes we are in the same situation. Life doesn’t make sense and we have doubts, but we push them aside as if they did not exist, act like we are okay with what is happening to us, but really we are quietly dying inside trying to avoid our fear. Our fear that our faith is inadequate or maybe even the fear that even God doesn't have a "good" answer, or worse, that God takes some sort of sadistic glee in our agony. We confuse denial with faith and feel holy about it.

Asking the questions doesn’t mean that we are entitled to an answer. God doesn’t owe it to us, and that is not what I am saying, but when we ask the questions we open the door to learn more. We take down the defenses and make way for true relationship. A relationship where I can be honest enough to say, “My faith is weak, and I don’t understand you. I love you, but I don’t get this. Can you help me understand?” Sometimes the answer is, “Because I’m Daddy and I said so.” Other times the answer is greater than we imagined, and have not because we asked not.

Job had a lot of questions when his life fell apart, and he confronted God, even accusing God of being unjust. He presented his questions to the One who had the answers, and he wasn’t shy about declaring his hurt feelings. Chapter after chapter of his story is Job’s protest, and his honest language with God is a challenge for God to vindicate his actions. He asked why this was allowed to happen, but God never answers Job’s question. He simply shows up. Job gets to experience God’s presence in his life. And after all, isn't experiencing God what faith is all about?

Having the Answer is the greatest gift we could have ever been given, but Jesus is not a band-aid to be slapped on over our wounds. He is the Great Physician and great physicians examine and probe the aches and pains. They get to know their patient as we wear those rather drafty hospital gowns. Asking the question is kind of like that revealing yourself in whole new way to the one who has the cure, opening the door to presence so that we can experience him. And those list of problems so many people site with Christianity, nominalism, sin, and hypocrisy, all begin to heal as we experience him.

So ask your questions. He’s big enough to handle them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Coffee, Mice, God, and other good things

Define the word “good.” Take some time and really think about what this word means to you.

Did you think of your favorite food? A person that you love? An enjoyable pastime? A place where you had moment of joy? How do you define “good”?

Maybe you immediately added “for you” to the word, and your image was vitamins, exercise, or going to church. Is this the right way to define “good”?

This question puzzles me. I like good things and I believe the things I like are good. So if I don’t like something it is “bad”, and I stay away from it. For me good is a cold Mountain Dew and Snickers bar first thing in the morning, followed by cup after cup of coffee so strong a mouse could trot across it without sinking. Good is sushi with a friend, a great road trip, and an intriguing book. Bad is the dentist, diet pop, and fast food burgers. Bad is aerobics, Will Farrell movies, and being alone on a Saturday night.

We all have our list of good and bad things. I just have to wonder how often our definitions are in conflict with the people around me. My ex-roomate hates Mountain Dew, the peanuts in a Snickers bar make Nathan break out, and the thought of drinking my coffee makes David shudder. So are these things good?

The Bible talks a lot about the things that are good. We talk about how all things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28). So what is this good that all things are working together for?

Is it stuff I like? Things you like?

Or are we depending on our definition a little too much? Are we being just a little narcissistic when we read this verse and treat it like our own personal guarantee that all things are going to be good? What if the definition goes farther than what we like? Or even what is good for us? What if good is something bigger than a single individual?

There was once a man who called Jesus “good Teacher.” Jesus responded with only God is good. (Matthew 19:17) Wait a minute. . . if we accept Jesus’ definition of good, then we have to totally reevaluate how we define the word. It stops being about the things I do or don’t like, and becomes about the things God likes.

And what does God like? The answer is easy really. Paul gives it away in the next verse of Romans – that we be conformed to the image of his Son, that he may be the first born of many. Good isn’t about whether not we like something, it isn’t even about eating our spinach, it’s about becoming more like our savior.

Good is about having a relationship with the only one who is truly good. Paul isn’t writing us a promise that we like all the things about the process of becoming conformed to Jesus’ image, he is reminding us that all the hard stuff is worth it. He encouraging us not to become embittered with the process and remember where we are heading – deeper into relationship with a God who loves us.

So the next time someone tells you to have a good day, watched a good movie, or that they just read a really good book, stop to ask yourself is it good? Really?