a coming change

Category : faith, hope

It’s hard to believe 2010 is almost over.  Didn’t it only start a few weeks ago?  It’s been an amazing year with a lot of changes both personal and professional.  It’s been a year that God’s shown me his grace, mercy and outrageous generosity on more than one occasion.

Which is why I’m really looking forward to Christmas this year.  It’s going to be a time of new beginnings, and a reminder of just how amazing God is.  And I can’t wait to spend that time with my family, friends, and God.

As you’ve probably noticed, things have been quite a bit slower around here the last few months.  It’s in part because in the last year I’ve started a new job, I got married, and wrote a book.  As a result of all of this I’ve had to re-learn what it means to live out a life of faith.  It was one thing to live a life of faith by myself, it’s quite another when you have a wife (and daughter) involved!

Because of all of this, I’ve been working on a new super-secret project that I hope to reveal in the coming months.  Sooner if I can find the time.

Until then, I hope that you all have a Merry Christmas, and I’ll see you all  right after the new year!

bargaining with God

Category : God, faith, hope, taking action

My day started with being honked at.  Apparently I had committed the horrific act of coming to a stop at the end of my driveway.

I can only assume that they were honking as a “warning” to let me know that they were coming down the road.  However, it’s possible they were just cranky.  But this was not a good way to start out my day.  Few things get under my skin as quickly as bad drivers.  Since I wrote, “love your enemy and fellow drivers” I have tried to take a different approach to bad drivers.  But it’s never easy.

As I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that I need to stay calm, I followed this driver down the street.  Before long we came to a stop sign.  Of course we all know that a stop sign requires that we come to a “complete and full stop.”  Well this driver rolled right through it.  She barely slowed down.

That’s when I realized what had happened.  She had assumed that since she didn’t stop at intersections, I wouldn’t either.  Psychologists call this “projection.”  It’s the very simple idea that we project what we’re feeling and doing onto other people.  (This is why someone who is a compulsive liar always assumes everyone else is lying.)  She was honking because if our roles were reversed, she would have cut me off.

The sad thing is we do this with God all the time.  We project our own views, beliefs, and motives on him.  If you’ve ever tried to bargain with God, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  When we find ourselves in need of help, instead of just asking, we pray things like, “God if you just help me out now, I promise to give up drinking.”  Or “God, if you heal my kid, I will go to church every week.”

This is a very natural reaction.  It’s what we do with our families.  We tell our kids, “if you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.”  Or we tell our employees, “if you put in extra hours, then you can have a raise.”  We even bargain with ourselves, “if I go the gym tonight, I can have a piece of cake tomorrow.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bargaining.  Even God says some things are based on our behavior: “to those who are faithful in the small things, more things will be given.”  But when it comes to God’s love and mercy, we can’t bargain for that.  God doesn’t hold out on us until we earn enough credit.  We can’t be good enough to earn our way into his favor.  There’s nothing we have that we can offer to God in some kind of exchange.  It’s not like God has much need of your collection of baseball cards or your money.  Bargaining with God is not only theologically wrong, it doesn’t even make sense!

Instead we need to learn to receive God.  To accept his love, without any strings attached.   God’s love is absolute.   It is unconditional.  He’s not like you and I.  He’s truly radical and revolutionary.  And so is his behavior.

How do you add more to that?

photo provided by flickr user Nate Larimer

God gives us freedom

Category : God, different, hope

The last few weeks my church has been going on a Free Journey.  We’ve been exploring the fact that God’s desire for our lives is to set us free.  Contrast that to pretty much everything else in the world.  Political groups try to control what you eat, where you live, how you spend your time.  We’re told by our employers that we must show up at this time, and must take breaks at that time.  The TV tells us how we should look and what clothes we should wear.

Everything is about control.

Except God.

He’s about our freedom.

Could there be any more striking contrast?  Yet we stand around complaining about all of God’s rules.  I know because I’ve done it before.  For most of my life I’ve equated freedom as no rules.  It wasn’t until I was responsible for guiding a small child through life that I realized what rules are really for.  Rules give us freedom.  They set boundaries.  They allow us to know where to push so we can be free.

When your mom says “don’t touch the stove it’s hot.”  This isn’t some secret code for “the stove tastes like chocolate.”  She means the stove is flippin’ hot!

God is the same.  He knows that if you have sex with people you aren’t married to it’s going to cause problems.  He knows that when we don’t love our enemies we get caught up in a cycle of hate.  He knows that when we ignore him, we will find our lives being controlled, not set free.

Yet we rebel.  We seem to be happier having everything in the world control us, then trusting God, and following some pretty straight forward rules.  Humans are strange creatures.

problems don’t last forever

Category : Daneil, God, choice, hope, sin, trust

“His successor will send out a tax collector to maintain the royal splendor.  In a few years, however, he will be destroyed, yet not in anger or in battle.” (Daniel 11:20)

Why is it that the weekend flies by, but the work week takes forever?  Why do we find sitting through a lecture painful, but watching a movie easy?  Why does vacation come and go when our daily commute takes so long?

Unless someone has mastered time travel (if so, please let me know) then all of these things can be explained by one simple word: perception.

Perception is that finicky thing that changes our reality.  It makes us believe something has happened when it hasn’t.  It makes us hot when we should be cold, and cold when we should be hot (this is why you say “boy it’s hot” when it’s 50 degrees outside in February, but not when it’s 50 in August).

Perception can be a major obstacle to our faith.

Perception may tell us that we can never change, that nothing good will ever happen, and we will be stuck “here” forever.

We are most vulnerable to these tricks when we are suffering.  We somehow know that “all good things must come to an end” and “it’s too good to last”.  We even have clichés devoted to them.  But when it comes to pain and suffering we often forget that those things don’t last either.

This was true in Israel’s case.

After centuries of not listening to God, Israel finally found themselves overwhelmed by a powerful enemy (Babylon).  As part of their punishment for losing the war, many of their most highly educated men were taken captive to become slaves (this is what happened to Daniel).  While most of the women and children were just outright murdered.

Many Jews simply couldn’t believe this was happening.  They were God’s chosen people.  They had been set free from captivity already.  How could they be going back?!  They never really thought God would let something like this happen to them.  Although if they had paid attention to prophets like Jeremiah, they would have figured it out.

But nothing lasts forever.  At least not in this world.

And I think God was reminding them of this.  In the story of Daniel, God simply slipped two sentences into the conversation.  Gently saying, “you will see tax collectors gathering money for a powerful kingdom, but even in the midst of that, their country will fall apart.”

Not even captivity lasts forever.

That was a lesson that the Jews needed to remember.  Because they were going to spend a long, long time in captivity.  They had to know that there was hope.  They had to remember who to hope in.  Those were things they had forgotten.

Bad things don’t last forever.  Maybe we need to remember that from time to time.

politics and faith

Category : God, Jeremiah, barbarian, different, faith, hope, living a life of faith, trust

……….

Election day.  There may not be any other day that so many Americans get worked up and angry over.  Besides the obvious Sunday of football.  While some people say that elections are becoming more “vicious” and “partisan”, I think they’ve always been that way.  Last time I checked there haven’t been any pistol duels in Washington recently.

Politics can be exciting.  A lot can ride on an election.  We’ve seen this in the last few elections.  About a third of the country despised the direction of the USA under George Bush.  Now about a third of the country despises the direction of the USA under Obama.  We seem to be evenly balanced in our dislike of political trends.

So if there is so much tension, anger and animosity, why do we get so worked up about politics?

For some elections and politics represent the hope of change.  That’s what Obama campaigned on.  Although he wasn’t the first, he might have been the best at it.  For others it represents the continuation of the status quo. Their party gets to stay in power.  They get to call the shots.

Ultimately it boils down to one fact: elections can have profound consequences.

So what does this mean for someone who believes in God?  How do politics and faith mesh?  Especially when you are living out a life of faith?  I wish I had an answer for you.  I don’t know how you balance the two.  I don’t know if people of faith should be involved in politics.  I don’t know if they should stay out of politics.  There are certainly disadvantages to both choices.  And there are compelling reasons to do either.

But what I do know is God warns us to be careful of believing too much in human-only solutions.

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who depends on flesh for his strength
and whose heart turns away from the LORD.”

(Jeremiah 17: 5)

For many believers I think politics has taken on a primary importance because at their core, they don’t fully trust that God is in charge.  They aren’t quite on board with believing that God really is acting.  I recognize that paints with a broad brush.  I know many Christians who are fully on board with God’s plans.  But I also know many people who don’t know what it means to submit to God and trust him.  And there are some days I can’t fault them for that.  When we hear news of disaster, rape, murder, or other horrific things, it’s easy to wonder exactly how all this fits into some kind of “plan.”

God, though, is very clear on this.  We need to trust him in all circumstances.  Not just when things are running smoothly.  That’s the point of the book of Job.  Job needed to trust God, not because Job’s life was good, but because God is, well, God.

God hammers this point home to Jeremiah too.

“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
(Jeremiah 17: 7-8)

Jeremiah’s mission was to deliver a message of destruction and punishment to his country.  That’s not easy sailing.  But God reminds him – don’t place your trust in the human solution.  Place your trust in my solution.

Whatever your politics, if you are a believer than it is your responsibility to put your trust in God, not in elections.  Elections can be important.  God may even want you to be involved.  But never at the expense of your first allegiance: to the Kingdom.

healing a broken heart

1

Category : God, Romans, different, faith, hope, shame, trust

……….

My girlfriend has the most annoying cat known to man.  This is the type of cat who the minute you sit down jumps into your lap.  He’s the type of cat who can’t go five minutes without craving attention.  He’s the type of cat you almost always step on, because he’d rather be under foot (literally) than in another room.  I have never seen a cat who wants more human interaction.

We often joke that he’s “broken.”

But the sad reality is, he is broken.  He is what is sometimes called a “rescue cat.”  That’s a cat who was mistreated and been removed from a home.  In Ben’s case, he was abused as a kitten.  Mistreated in cruel ways.  And because of that he’s developed an unhealthy need for attention.

So what does Ben have to do with living out a life of faith?  Simple.  That cat is a reflection of many of us.

Many of us walk around broken.  We carry the wounds of abuse, sexual assault, cruelty and vindictiveness.  We are weighed down by those horrible acts.  And in response we turn to unhealthy fixations.  We may crave attention.  Crave validation.  Crave sex, drugs, or alcohol.  Anything to make the pain stop.  Even for a moment.

Yet we have something that Ben, the cat, can never experience.  We have a redeeming God who is actively trying to rework our lives to bring in new meaning.  We no longer have to be confined by our pain.  We can be set free.

Sometimes people will say, “all things work for good for those who believe.“  And they take that to mean that everything, no matter how horrible is God’s will.

It isn’t.

God doesn’t want you to suffer any more than he wants that Ben (the cat) to suffer.

What that phrase really means is that God can take your suffering and change the meaning.  Your pain can be used for something other than bondage.  It can be used as a platform for healing and growth.  I once heard Wess Stafford, President and CEO of Compassion International, speak.  He shared his experience of torture and abuse at the hands of people his parents trusted to take care of him.  How do you overcome that horror?

The truth is, on your own you can’t.  On your own you end up like Ben.  Broken.  But with God’s help, Wess’ story is one of redemption.  One of hope.  It’s about God being bigger than the most terrifying things in the world.  It’s about God redeeming a moment, and using it to touch millions of kids around the world.

That’s what that verse means.  That’s what it means when all things work for good.

We don’t have to remain broken.  We can ask God to redeem us, to change the meaning of our pain.  And you know what?  He will.

blessed are those who mourn

Category : Jesus, Matthew, bible, faith, hope

……….

In the history of R3 I don’t think I’ve ever gone close to two weeks without a “serious” post.  In fact it’s rare that I miss a single post during the week.  But such was the case for the last two weeks.  What I thought was going to keep me down for a few days turned out to floor me for nearly a week.

When I get sick I usually go in a very set pattern, and it lasts just about 3 days.  This time it was different.  In fact, even though it’s been 15 days since I first got sick, I’m still not feeling 100%.  This is near record territory for those of you scoring at home.  But in the course of all that something interesting happened – I was reminded how grateful I am for my health.  Most days I don’t give my health a second thought.  And I never really think about how lucky I am not to have any health issues.  But these last two weeks have given me many opportunities to do just that.

Sometimes the Bible says some pretty crazy things.  For instance, Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  I’m not even sure I really understand what that means.  At least not fully.  To be honest I don’t even want to think about that!  I don’t want to be blessed because I’m mourning.  I want to be blessed because I have a nice car and a nice house.  I want to be blessed because my life is easy!

Yet after being sick I can see how mourning leads to being blessed.

When we suffer we face a choice.  We can become bitter and angry, and that suffering holds us in place.  How many movie villains have their origin in just such a scenario?  How many of us have our identities rooted in pain?  Our other choice is to not let suffering control us.  It’s a chance to embrace mourning as part of a natural healing process.  It’s an opportunity to try and learn something from mourning.  Even if all we learn is that we need more of God.

Because I went through a time of “suffering” I now more fully appreciate what it means to be healthy.  Without losing my health, I never would have really understand what it meant to be healthy in the first place.  Sure, in the big scheme of things this wasn’t catastrophic.  But you don’t always need to have a catastrophe to learn from God.

I think this type of knowledge was what Jesus was driving at.  God’s Kingdom is often upside-down.   And this is just one more example.  Jesus knew that.  He knew that suffering can lead to appreciation.  Which is why he tells us such a counter-intuitive thing.  Maybe we should all embrace our mourning instead of trying to run from it.  Maybe it’s true, “blessed are those who mourn. “

Jesus keeps his promise his way

Category : Jesus, different, faith, hope, prayer, trust

……….

One of the hardest things to do as a Christian is to trust in the promises of God.  We want to throw our own promises into the mix.  When we read that God gives us freedom, we think, “well that must mean I can retire with a six figure salary.”  When we hear Jesus say that we will be blessed, we think, “that’s great, that must mean I will have an easy life.”

Yet it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these things don’t always happen.  Is it any surprise that we become quickly disillusioned when our prayers “aren’t answered”?

I grew up believing in the religious “check box god.”  This was a god who would reward you if you just managed to get enough points or answer the questions correctly.  As long as you could do that it didn’t matter what was in your heart or how you lived your life.  Avoiding making a “big” mistake was all that mattered.  And of course “big” was defined as any mistake you hadn’t made before.

But that’s not what Jesus had in mind.

Jesus keeps his promises his way.  We can’t allow ourselves to insert our promises and call them God’s.  It doesn’t work that way.

I was reminded of this in my daily blog reading.  Jim Hamilton a pastor and professor discussed his experience with starting a church.

Sunday after Sunday, month after month, the same four families and a few singles gathered for worship at Baptist Church of the Redeemer.  As this happened, the Lord slowly disabused me of the notion that the church was going to grow because of me.  It hurts to have your pride molded into humility, but it feels good, too, and how liberating!  Not to mention the way others prefer humility to pride.

Through this experience, I learned that Jesus keeps His promise to build His church.  I learned the power of the Word of God.  And I learned – or made progress in learning – to love people.

As I’ve been out of work for 9 months now, I can’t even tell you how many times I have let my assumptions become what I thought was a promise from God.  And it was in those moments that I’ve been most tempted to turn away from him.  But Jesus keeps his promises.  He’s never let me down.  I just need to trust that his promises will be kept in his way, not mine.

forgiveness

Category : Jesus, Matthew, bible, different, hope, living a life of faith

……….

Think for a moment about someone you really dislike.  Maybe you even hate them.  Maybe they’ve hurt you.  Maybe they’ve lied to you.  Or maybe you just find them annoying.  Are you thinking about them?  Good.  Now what are the first three things that pop into your head?  Is one of them forgiveness?  Because it should be.

Forgiveness.  That’s not something I like to even think about, let alone do.  I have a very hard time backing down from arguments.  I like to be right, and I’m not afraid to fight to be seen as “right.”  So when someone does something that harms me, I have a hard time letting go.

R3 focuses a lot on the idea of living out your faith.  And for a Christian, forgiveness is a major part of that life.  But I really struggle with it.  Intellectually I understand what’s going on.  I even get why God would ask us to do it.  But it’s just hard to pull the trigger on forgiveness.  It’s so much easier to hate.

That’s why I find Jesus’ interaction with Peter so interesting.  And scary.

Jesus radically raises the bar for forgiveness.  When Peter asks him how many times he should forgive someone, Peter suggests seven would be a good number.  Now in Jewish culture you were obligated to forgive someone 3 times.  So Peter was going above and beyond what was expected.  Plus, he chose the number 7 knowing full well that in Jewish culture it  implied a “completeness”.  Peter was trying to say he would forgive someone a lot, more than maybe anyone else.  He thought he was doing something good, going way above and beyond his duty as a Jew.

But this still wasn’t what Jesus was looking for.  Jesus isn’t interested in us “trying harder.”  He’s interested in our lives radically changing.  So he told Peter, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus wanted to make the point that there isn’t some magical number you hit and then you’re “good.”  Instead, it’s about changing your heart and aligning yourself with God’s forgiving nature.

In the end it was Peter who ultimately needed to receive that forgiveness which Jesus spoke of.  As Jesus was lead away by authorities, Peter had a chance to show support, all he had to do was simply say he knew Jesus.  Yet three times Peter denied even knowing him.  Peter abandoned Jesus when Jesus needed a friend the most.  Yet Jesus still forgave Peter, and actually went on to use him to build the Jerusalem church.

I may never figure out how to forgive people 77 times.  I may only be able to do it once.  But I am grateful that God is forgiving.  Because I know  I certainly need it.  And maybe, right now, the best thing I can do is simply struggle with the idea of forgiveness.  Maybe it’s that struggle in applying Jesus’ teachings to our lives that ultimately builds our faith.  And in turn, allows us to forgive 77 times.

real people, real pain

1

Category : bible, failure, faith, hope, trust

……….

Life is filled with problems.  Often unexpected ones.  And while I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist, there is no doubt that we all will be blindsided by at least one major catastrophe in our lives.  And many little problems too.

I think this economic recession is an example.  I never dreamed that stores like Circuit City would fold.  And when I drive around town I am shocked by the number of empty office buildings.  Each one of those office buildings is a dream that’s been shattered.

These shattered dreams, though, allow me to find comfort in the Bible.

I know that sounds shocking.  But stay with me for a minute – the Bible is filled with stories of people being murdered, sold into slavery, invaded, and generally run out of town.  There are entire books of the Bible devoted to stories of suffering and pain.  You can’t read for very long without noticing it.

Have you ever wondered why the stories don’t hold back?  Have you ever wondered why there are stories of people railing against God in their anger and despair?  Stories of people questioning why God isn’t showing up as their dreams are being torn apart.

It’s because the Bible is filled with real people and real pain.

And so as my dreams are crushed, I can find comfort in the pages of the Bible because I know I’m not alone.  I know that what I’m experiencing other people have as well.  I know that they were able to trust God no matter how hard it got and I can too.  After all these years the Bible remains as relevant to us, as it did to the original audience.

This is why the Psalm 73 really hits home.  Asaph (the writer) has been where I am.  He sees that while he struggles people who go along ignoring God seem to be rewarded.  He’s noticed that even when you do the right thing, you sometimes end up worse for it.  But he also realized that if he trusted God, in the end, he would be all right.  As close as Asaph was to the brink, he held on:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”

(Psalm 73: 2-3)

If God was faithful to him, then I am reminded that God will be faithful to me.  And so I hold on no matter how close to the brink I get.