Wednesday, September 28, 2005

I've got your "joy, joy, joy" right here!

You know those Christians who seem to be at peace with every circumstance that comes their way? The ones who boast the “peace of God” in the midst of a challenging situation? The ones who really have figured out what it means to “consider it pure joy they face trials of many kinds?” You know the type – the ones with the joy, joy, joy, down in their hearts? Blegh! I love them dearly, but I’m not particularly fond of them sometimes. I actually heard someone say recently that those people are “walking in the light,” as all Christians should. They implied that their peace and joy in the midst of trials was a true testimony to their strong faith and I had to object (cause that’s just how I am – I think we should rattle the cage every now and again). I would never go so far as to say that they are not genuine in their state of mind. I am certain they do feel God’s peace and are truly content. I’d even suggest that their faith is strong during those moments, because to deny that would be extremely judgmental and I’m sure everyone knows that I rarely rush to judgment (hehehe). What I do take objection to is the idea that THEY are the ones who walk in the light and the rest of us slackers need to pick up the pace. Ok, so maybe they didn’t use those words, but the implication was there. At the very least, I think the idea is worthy of closer examination.

Somewhere in the course of the conversation, the statement was made that Christians who have figured out how to find that joy in the midst of suffering are a pleasure to be around, that their joy sometimes rubs off on us when we aren’t so “chipper,” and that they are positive examples for our faith. A little background info…we had been previously discussing how our complaining and arguing during times of tribulation is sinful and how it can corrupt and compromise the faith of others (people who witness our temper tantrums). Then the conversation rolled around to how joyful Christians actually encourage our faith, not compromise it. So, me being me, I was forced to share my discomfort with the idea and assert that most often when I encounter Christians who appear to be joyful all the time, my faith is frustrated more than it is encouraged. There’s this nagging inside me that taunts, “No one is happy all the time, especially not when we’re struggling with some test of our faith.” And again I say, I’m not assuming their emotions are ingenuine; I’m only dispelling my reaction to their emotions.

Ok, so if you believe God in 1 Samuel 16:7 when He says, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” then isn’t it possible our definitions of joy and peace might be a little one-sided? I mean, we’ve decided that when someone is suffering and they appear to be happy, they must really be trusting God. They must be very confident in their faith. But truly, only God knows their hearts and where they stand in relation to Him. So why would I model my own faith after someone else’s reaction to struggles if I don’t know what lies beyond the surface? I’d rather rely on what I know to be true, not what I assume to be true. And this much I know…I know that God made us all different, with different reactions and different emotions and different approaches to life. And I believe He did that intentionally, to encourage us to spend time getting to know each other. We don’t fit a mold and I think that’s the beauty of fellowship – to discover what is unique in each of us and celebrate it. I mean honestly, even Jesus wasn’t walking around singing, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy down in my heart” at every minute, every day. He grieved. He was ambivalent, nonchalant, and even angry at times. But that is what attracted people to Him, his ability to reach different people on different levels.

So is it possible for me to actually compromise someone else’s faith? Hmmm…gonna go with ABSOLUTELY on this one! The minute I stop acknowledging that I need Jesus to help me through; I have truly misrepresented my God. When I’m going through some test or trial and I feel the need to complain or argue, where exactly is my focus? If every trial is from God and I’m complaining about my trials, then aren’t I complaining about God? Am I showing an unbelieving world that God is a mean, mean Grinch who seeks to hurt me as often as possible? Or am I complaining to God and asking Him for guidance? Am I trusting in His goodness and His plans for me? (Don’t I always seem to bring it back to this?) I guess what really feels unsettling is why I run to everyone else to validate my frustration. I complain because I want someone to acknowledge that I am justified in feeling wronged. I want support in my anger and the truth is that most often, it isn’t worthy of validation. And what I should be doing is running to God for comfort. WHY DO I DO THAT? When something wonderful happens to me, I call the one person I know will share in my excitement. And when I’m hurting, I call the one person who knows how to comfort and encourage me. Why is that one person rarely God? If I believed in His love for me, He would be my “one and only.” He would be the one I run to and the result of that intimacy would be genuine, uncompromised faith - trust in the middle of trials.

1 Timothy 4:4-5 says, “For everything God Created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Now there’s a thought. That means, even the trials and tests and suffering are good, because they are from God. I guess it’s all in the perspective. If everything God creates is good, then those circumstances I complain about are actually meant for good. So I should be receiving them with thanksgiving, because ultimately, my faith will be strengthened and God will prove Himself faithful once again. Wow, if only I lived that way on a consistent basis. God would truly be my one and only. But I digress; my faithless heart leads me astray.

We are all going to experience pain and suffering. Some of us will appear at peace in the midst of it. Some of us will appear to be crumbling under the weight of our circumstances. Some of us will appear unphased. Aren't appearances deceiving? So is it our shiny, happy, smiling faces during these times that matter or is it where we stand in relation to God? Am I turning my back on Him or am I running to Him? Can I rejoice in His love and faithfulness without rejoicing in my circumstances? I mean really, if He’s testing me, at least He hasn’t forgotten about me. One final thought. When our faith is tested and we “pass” the test by continuing to trust in God, our faith is proven. So really, it’s His continual faithfulness to us that lends credibility to our faith. Hmmm…God is good.

God be my God, my one and only. Take the place of all those things I turn to for comfort (even the mall). Let my wandering heart find its way back home. Help me to rejoice in your love. When all around has fallen, let your loving arms uplift me. Help me not to compromise the faith of another by failing to run to you. And please, oh please, do the same for my friends.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is their life beyond the red letters?

One of the women in my Bible Study was sharing an experience she had in Mongolia last year. She was on a missions trip and was instructed to meet with a group of women every day for one week straight to share the gospel message and hopefully lead them to salvation through Christ. This was her first missions trip and there was a huge language barrier, so to say she was slightly intimidated is a huge understatement. She prayed for God to give her the words to reach these women. At first, they seemed very disinterested, as if they were there out of obligation and not because they wanted to be. They were very distant and paid little attention to her as she spoke. Again, she was apprehensive and cried out to God. On the last day of the trip, she set aside the agenda given to her and began to share some very intimate glimpses into her life. She told the women of her husband’s recent infidelity with his secretary (they worked at a church together), his lack of interest in their marriage, and ultimate decision to leave her. She fought back tears as she related her feelings about the situation – her fears and her sadness – and struggled to maintain composure. She had a difficult time deciding just how much, if any, of the story to share, but felt God had led her to divulge to these women. And so she did. And a group of 15 women who had previously maintained a cold distance between themselves and her, suddenly changed. They literally shifted their chairs closer to her, forming a tight circle and stared intently, hanging on every word. At the close of the evening, they thanked her for sharing and immediately left the study. They returned several hours later with gifts they had purchased in the local shops and those who had no money actually went home to find some small token of their appreciation for her honesty. She had finally reached them, on the last night, in the eleventh hour. As she shared this experience with the women of our Bible Study, she added that many of them chose to give their lives to God that week and gave God the glory for strengthening her through this test of faith.

So as I pondered this experience, the same theme kept ringing in my mind. Is it possible to share the gospel without sharing the actual word of God? Can we share the gospel through our struggles – our thoughts, feelings, emotions and weaknesses? By just relating to someone and meeting them on their level? By being genuine and open and sharing our life experiences with them? So often when we are approaching non-believers, we go straight to the Bible - which isn’t necessarily a bad thing - but seem to miss out on something in the process. The protestors at the abortion clinics dispel the word of God to broken, lost souls who may need a friend more than a pamphlet telling them when a fetus becomes a human being. Sometimes an alcoholic may need a ride home more than the scriptural foundation for why drunkenness is a sin. And maybe sometimes it’s more important to try to understand why someone of another faith has chosen their belief system rather than convince them ours is the ‘right’ way. If we truly believe God has the power to save souls, maybe we should take an active interest in the lives of others, instead of trying to get them interested in what we believe. I think we can SHOW them God’s love on occasion. You know, focus on the works of God and not necessarily the words of God. Of course, every situation is different and calls for a different course of action (or reaction or no action). But I believe that’s what following Christ is all about. I mean, can we really decide how to approach someone or learn to relate to them if we haven’t taken the time to listen to them? You probably wouldn’t spend three hours sharing how pleased you are with the outcome of the latest election to a friend who lives in a communist nation. And I’d venture to guess you wouldn’t brag about your shiny, new Mazarati to the child you sponsor in a third world country. Christ met his followers on THEIR level – heard the cries of their hearts – and addressed them accordingly.

I think sharing the cry of our hearts and the touch of our hands and the warmth of our shoulders may be received a lot better in certain situations than reciting scripture verbatim. Don’t the red letters scream at all of us, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest?” They don’t necessarily admonish us to, “Read this to everyone you encounter who does not believe and all good things will be yours.” They offer comfort and a soft place to land, not always a jumping off point. Lead them to Jesus and He will speak. How we lead them to Jesus is where God’s discernment comes in. Do we share the Bible alone or do we share ourselves and how the word of God has changed us? Sometimes I get so exhausted in my own ‘walk’ with God and have nothing leftover to share anyway. Nichole Nordeman wrote a song describing the conflict between how perfect we strive to be for God and how short we fall. The chorus sings to us all that we can never be good enough, but God takes us as we are because He is the only one who can. There is one line that I love that really hits home for me. “At the end of myself, at the end of the day, I can find little else but the courage to say, ‘I need you, that’s all.’” Yep, that’s pretty much it for me. Sometimes it’s hard for us to muster up enough energy to keep believing ourselves, let alone try to find the right words to help someone else climb aboard the God train. So in those times, maybe sharing ourselves, our struggle and our human weakness is just as appropriate as sharing the word of God.
I’ll leave you with this…isn’t it our humanity that points to God’s divinity? Just a thought.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Can I get a witness?

I’ve been mulling over this whole idea of “blowing our witness” for God. I recently heard a woman discussing her son’s downward spiral of adultery, lies and complacence toward God. She alluded to the fact that through his actions (leaving his family and choosing to move in with another woman, outside of marriage), he had blown his witness. This grieved her terribly and it made me begin to question what exactly it is that we find so discomforting during these times. More specifically, what does it really mean to “blow our witness?”
If my witness is blown every time I sin, I am in serious trouble. I think if we try to approach the issue in terms of identifying and overcoming our sin, we become more like defendants than witnesses. We are looking for ways to justify our actions or at the very least, to explain them to an accusing world. Webster defines a witness as ‘one that gives evidence’ or ‘one who has personal knowledge of something.’ So what is it that we are called to bear witness to? What evidence are we to share as Christ-followers? If my witness is solely based on my sin, I’m defeated before I’ve even opened my mouth. I don’t need to testify about my sin; my actions speak loud enough. The evidence of my sin is pretty much laid out there for all to see and believe me, if I don’t put it out there, someone will find it sooner or later anyway (a former pastor likes to call these people ‘sin sniffers’).
So if my sin is not the be all and end all, what is this personal knowledge of which I am to bear witness? Could it be…God’s love and grace? Ok, so perhaps I am supposed to divulge my sin (maybe not all the gory details, but some allusion to the fact that I’m not perfect), but in so doing, do I not also express my need for Jesus? I think the greater witness is not that I’m fatally flawed, but that God is not and in my imperfection, my need for His love and grace prevails. So I pose this question to all of you and hope you’ll toss it around a little bit. Do we blow our witness by sinning or by failing to recognize and admit that we need Jesus? I suppose the two are somewhat interchangeable. It’s pretty inevitable that I will sin, but I think that to do so without simultaneously crying out to God for help would be a greater detriment to myself and again, send me right back to the defendant’s chair. No thanks, I’d rather be a witness to God’s love and grace, not a defendant fending off blows. So my prayer for all of you today is that you truly don’t blow your witness. We stand adored, not accused. Cry out to Him, fall down before Him, and never stop needing Him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

More than a feeling

I began a six-week Bible study last Tuesday night and I think I’m kind of enjoying it. It’s pretty much the same as all the other Bible studies I’ve done – pretty basic stuff you learn early on – but basic is exactly what I need right now. I have a difficult time in women’s studies, because they sometimes feel very insincere and “plastic” (sorry, they do). It often feels like we claim to believe everything we’re “supposed” to believe, and sometimes, the reality of our faith falls through the cracks. I’ll explain. It seems to me that we excel at vocalizing our faith in God, but fail to vocalize those things we believe we shouldn’t feel as Christians. You know, the fact that we don’t always trust God; we don’t always believe He cares for us, and sometimes we believe He’s just plain mean. The warm, fuzzy things are easy to claim, but the negative feelings toward God that often overwhelm us get swept under the rug. So as I listened to the women in my group share their desire to trust God and to rely on His promises and to believe He has their best interests at heart, I came to a sudden realization that rattled me a little and yet, gave me an astounding hope I haven’t had in a really long time. Here it is kids…faith is not a feeling – at least not for me.

My Tuesday night study is on “The Testing of Your Faith.” We spent the first week sharing the times in our lives when our faith was tested and how we responded to the test. Nothing really struck me as new revelation; I felt like I had heard it all before. We’ve all been tested; we’ve probably all felt the same anger, resentment, hurt, frustration and depression during those times. Some of us have probably been fortunate enough to have found peace – through God – in the midst of it. Me? Not so much. Well, I’m sure I’ve had peace at some point during a struggle, but I probably attributed it to something or someone other than God and I think my definition of peace is probably skewed also. This week in my group, we explored the testing of our faith a little deeper and I was actually enlightened and consequently, encouraged. Somewhere in the midst of discussing what we believe – or better yet, what we fail to believe – when we’re tested, this idea of faith not being based solely on feelings crept up on me slowly and the longer I let it sink in, the more encouraged I felt.

I’m speaking only for myself when I say that faith is more often a choice than a feeling. When I’m burdened by some event or series of events, I stop believing. I don’t stop believing in God, but I stop believing that He cares for me and I stop believing in His promises. And that is an even more dangerous place to be. As a daughter cries to her father when she isn’t getting her way, “You don’t love me!” Such is my relationship with God. So I have to ask myself, “Am I going to wait for the warm, fuzzy feelings towards God to return, or am I going to choose to believe that He knows what’s best for me?” Faith is not a feeling; faith is a choice. When someone wrongs me and I confess to forgive them, I don’t always instantly feel forgiveness in such a way that I am able to forget the pain they’ve caused. Forgiveness is a choice. I choose to forgive and hope that trust will be re-built and the pain will soon diminish.

My feelings are very deceiving at times. The idea that I don’t need to rely on them when I’m being tested is actually quite comforting. When times are tough, I can choose to believe God cares for me and then rest on the hope that everything will work out for the best and I will be ok. I don’t mean to minimize the pain and suffering we feel when we’re being tested, but to shift the focus from my feelings to my response to those feelings seems to lift a burden off me I haven’t been able to shake in quite some time.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul tells the church at Thessalonica, “We speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” Wow! When God is testing our faith, He is actually testing our hearts. You mean, He may actually be more concerned about the condition of my heart than the actual circumstances I am trying to overcome? So when I’m tested, is my heart crying out for God or is it shutting down to Him and everyone else around me? Hmmm…do I really need to answer that one? It’s the difference between viewing God as the cause of my suffering and viewing Him as my ally and my friend, the one who will carry me through my suffering. Do I need Him or am I blaming Him?

Jesus asks Peter in Matthew 16:15, “Who do you say I am?” Is it possible when God is testing me that He is asking me the same question? How I am feeling about my present situation may matter much less at that moment than what I believe about God. Do I believe He is showing up in the midst of my pain? Do I believe He loves me? Or do I believe He has left the building? I guess a more appropriate question for me now is will I choose to believe He loves me or will I choose to believe He has failed me? I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the blame game feels more vindicating when we’re hurting, but it isn’t always about feelings, is it? And again I cry, “Father, where else am I to go? This world has nothing for me.”

Ok, so maybe this all seems very elementary, but frankly, I’ve always been too consumed by my feelings to look beyond them. And I truly believe that this time, it is God who is opening my eyes. And the beauty of it all is this: once again, for the first time in, oh, let’s say…forever, my response to this “discipline” was to utter, “I love you, Lord. Maybe not as perfectly as I should, but I really do love you.” And I did. This morning on my way to work, I actually felt led to cry out to God and I still do.

Artist Lenny Bruce said, “There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is.” Is it possible for us to forget the ‘what should be’ moments long enough to recognize the ‘what is’ in our lives? My ‘should be’ moments are usually characterized by an internal struggle with my emotions. I am attempting to sort out my emotions long enough to make sense of the situation and feel okay with it. But a ‘what is’ moment is not based on feeling okay with anything. My God says to be still and know that He is God. Knowledge is a product of our minds, not necessarily our hearts, which is where our feelings dwell. So what if, when my faith is being tested, I could do just that? I could simply be still and know, beyond all comprehension, that He is not just God, but He is my God and He cares for me deeply.

So who do you say that He is? Is He your creator? Is he your comforter? Is He your savior? And most importantly, is He your friend? Lord, help me to see beyond my complex feelings to the simple truth. Help me to be still and know.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Ask and you shall be further confused

So I’ve been feeling very hypocritical lately. I read some of the things I’ve written and I think, “I don’t really feel that way”, or “That’s not what I truly believe.” A lot of it reads as if I’m in complete agony and despair and trust me, I’m not. I feel as if I’m dispelling someone else’s truth and that bothers me. If I’m going to write with passion, I want to feel truly connected to my words and know that they are an accurate picture of where I am at, not just a way to connect with others. So after weeks of introspect and soul searching, I think I’ve got a clearer picture of where I stand in relation to God.

I got rear ended on the freeway about 2 weeks ago and I haven’t felt much like writing in quite some time. My car is pretty much totaled, my neck is severely sprained (so says my chiropractor), as is my back, and I’m terrified of driving. Here’s the strange part. Maybe I’m not coping, but I feel nothing (short of a pain in my neck). I’m basically numb. This strikes me as quite odd, considering that I – a girl who wears band-aids just for attention – am usually quite content to play the “woe is me” game with anyone who’ll listen. I really didn’t share the accident with the masses the way I usually do, but those who did find out had some words of comfort to offer. Apparently, God is not punishing me. God did not cause this to happen, nor does He wish me to suffer. God was not responsible for my car accident, the $9,000 damage to my car or the injuries that are healing slowly. God seems to have been looking the other way. And so I wonder…if every good and perfect gift is from above, if all good things are from God, if the slightest miracle produces a “To God be the glory” from the crowd…why then, are the bad things not from Him also? Doesn’t the sun shine on us all and the rain fall on us all? Didn’t God create them both? It seems to be that if He is to thank for every good blessing we get, He should take every bad thing that comes our way too. And what has really been eating away at me is this – who cares if the bad stuff is from Him? Is He wrong to discipline me out of love? Is he wrong to let bad stuff happen to me so that I might be strengthened by it? I’m not even sure if that’s what’s going on here, because what I’m really feeling is numb. I don’t feel persecuted, punished, picked on, or hard-pressed, but I don’t feel blessed either.

Sometimes faith feels like a game, and we are perpetual losers until the game ends. When this life is over, we win. We get to rest in the presence of God forever. I do believe that. I believe He is our creator and the creator of everything under the sun. It’s the life experiences I have a hard time with. Lately I’ve been feeling as if God is hardly concerned with what happens to us, but greatly concerned about where we stand in relation to Him. Everything under the sun is meaningless, right? Life is a series of random events, things we have little control over. The only things I feel I can control are my feelings toward Him. And frankly, I’m pretty tired of feeling numb. I’d like to get back to that place of wonder that I know I have been at before. I want to be closer to my Jesus. I want a happy medium between the anger I used to feel and the numbness I feel now. I want (yes, I’m gonna say it), I want a healthy balance. I think it’s possible the message of Christianity has been both over saturated and oversimplified. The salvation message is about as simple as it gets. You either believe it and live forever or you don’t and spend an eternity sans Jesus. There is no you in matters of salvation; there is only Christ crucified. But as far as all the other tenets of faith are concerned, I just don’t believe it’s that easy, and at this stage in the game, I’m not sure God intended it to be easy. And truly, I DON’T WANT IT TO BE THAT EASY.

I don’t want to be a neurotic crazy lady standing in the streets screaming, “Why, Why? Oh, the horror!” But I think confusion is the journey, the relationship. God is an enigma and if He were not, why would we have a need to pursue Him? It’s His mystery that keeps me yearning to know Him more. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from my faith and here it is, plain and simple. I want to be confused. I want to be challenged. I want to be asked the tough questions I’d prefer to put out of my mind. I want to dive into the dangerous subjects I try tirelessly to dance around. I want to struggle with my sin and feel convicted, which I haven’t in a really long time. I don’t want to have all the answers, but I sure as Hell want to discuss the questions ad nauseum. When Jesus spoke, a lot of people were confused, but didn’t that make them pursue Him more? Didn’t they want desperately to understand Him? So let me be perfectly clear. MY wants are not for everyone. There are countless people who want nothing short of simplicity and that’s fine, but that’s not my cup of tea.

You see, a lot of people are driven by emotion and for them, I think faith is probably not a stretch, but I’m not one of those people. I don’t stand beneath the cross and shudder, because I’m pretty far removed from my emotions most of the time. The cross feels quite fictional to me about 98% of the time. I am very analytical. I love a good debate. I don’t want to accept anything at face value. I am driven by reason and logic and let’s be honest, there is nothing logical about Christianity! It doesn’t make sense; God doesn’t make sense. So what do I do without blind faith and without reason to rest on? How do I get to the hope when I want desperately for it to make sense first?

I’ve been wrestling with this notion of entering Heaven as a child. What does that mean? I think I’ve always believed it to mean, well, basically, dumb ourselves down. We should stop doubting and running and questioning and just accept that what He says is true because He is the parent and He said so! I don’t believe that anymore. Children are not dumb; they are inquisitive and I think that is what God intended. Haven’t you ever listened to a child who is just beginning to discover that there is a world around them? “Why is the sky blue? Where do babies come from? Why do birds fly? Why can’t I have everything I want?” They want it all to make sense. They want to understand where they fit into the puzzle. They want to know there is a reason for it all. And what do parents want? They don’t want their children to have all the answers. They want them, above all else, to know that they are loved. Isn’t that what God wants for us? I think we are to enter Heaven as children, not dumb and blindly trusting, but adoring Jesus and being adored by Him. It isn’t the questions that matter, nor is it the answers. That stuff is meaningless. What matters is that we seek Him. That we come to Him. That we spend a lifetime longing for someone who is somewhat of an enigma. And I want that again. When I have children of my own, I don’t want them to go to church to learn what they should believe or how they should live their lives. I want them to learn that they have a Jesus and that He doesn’t always make sense, but that’s what makes Him fun and exciting.

I think God has me exactly where He wants me and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I may never FEEL moved again, but that’s ok. Honestly, I think God knows me pretty well. He knows I thrive on chaos and confusion. He knows I love to challenge everything and make waves. He knows I live for the journey, not the destination. He knows I love the downs sometimes more than the ups and the lows sometimes more than the highs. And He knows that I will always come home to Him, no matter where my feeble mind leads me. And now I’ll tell you what I know. I know there are no other arms that could stretch wide enough to cover my failures. I know there is no one here on Earth who will never fail me. I know there was no greater sacrifice and there never will be. And I know that He loves me and that’s ok, at least for now.

Oh, one more thing. As far as my accident was concerned. I think I’m done with “some way” prayers. No more, “God, if there is some way you can help me out of this one, some way you could make this happen for me, some way you could fix this, confirm this or shut the door on this one, some way….” Perhaps I should’ve been more specific.
May God confuse you all so you'll never stop seeking!