Friday, January 15, 2010

Natural Disaster

By now pretty much everyone who's the least bit plugged into the outside world has heard about the earthquake in Haiti. The devastation is heart-wrenching to consider. So many people killed, and even more left homeless in a city that's now a ruin. What will happen to the already weak government and economy of this struggling nation with all that infrastructure destroyed? Where will the people find food and shelter when they already had so little? The whole situation is just tragic.

Natural disasters like this one always bring up the same questions. "Where was God when this earthquake hit? Why didn't He stop it?" "Did God send this disaster to purposefully punish people?" "How can a benevolent, loving God allow such terrible things to happen?" I have a friend who cites disasters such as this earthquake when she asserts that if God exists He must be an asshole. These kinds of questions and accusations are hard for faithful Christians to address. We don't have a nice, simple answer ready when things like this happen. We can't fully explain the mind of God, and we can't produce proof of God's love that will convince the angry and heartbroken skeptics.

All I can say is that I continue to love God and to believe that God is love. I do not think that God sent this earthquake to punish anyone, and I don't think God is indifferent to the suffering of the Haitians whose entire world has fallen down before their eyes. I believe that God loves those people and is achingly sorry for their losses. I believe that He will be with the people consoling and healing all who will let Him into their lives. I don't know why God set up the world with natural forces that include earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes any more than I know why God engineered humans to have emotions as extreme as wrath and hate. I don't know the mind of God, but I do know that He loves me. I also know that there will be times in my life when I will suffer. I may not end up destitute or in excruciating pain, but even if I do God will still be with me. I trust that my suffering, however severe, will not last forever.

Natural disasters are so large that it's hard to grasp the scope of them. Still, I believe in something even larger: eternity. Sometimes I wonder if the suffering that seems so intolerable to us here on Earth seems more like a scraped knee to an eternal soul hundreds of years after the fact. When I was a child, small disasters seemed all-encompassing because they were more than I could handle. We're more capable as adults, but we still encounter disasters like this earthquake that challenge our ability to cope. Still, this isn't the final incarnation of our souls. Someday we will live eternally with God in heaven, freed from all suffering. What will these disasters seem like to us then? I can only speculate about the answer, and I don't want to belittle the suffering of those affected by disaster. The most important thing for Christians to do is to comfort and help anyone who's suffering, whether it's a child with a scraped knee or the residents of a city that's just been destroyed.

I know I have failed to adequately address the questions about God's role in this disaster. I can live with that. For me, faith is about trusting in God even when I don't understand exactly what's happening. I will not condemn God because of my own lack of understanding, and I will not waste my energy trying to answer questions about whether or not God is to blame. If I believe in love, then I must believe that my reaction requires something much greater than an assignment of blame—it requires action. I will not waste my energy endlessly debating God's role in this disaster because I ought to focus instead on figuring out what I can do to help. I fervently pray that I do come up with an adequate answer to that question.

What will I do to help? I wish that everyone could ask and answer that question when disaster strikes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Best Friends

I haven't had many people in my life whom I called my best friend. I'm not entirely sure why that is. Maybe I shy away from commitment. Perhaps I need more from my friends than one person can deliver. Or it could be (most optimistically) that I love all of my friends too much to set one above the others. I don't really know. I don't really think that having a best friend is a good or bad thing in and of itself. I think it depends on the personality and circumstances of the people involved. Personally, I've discovered that there are both pros and cons that go with not having a best friend.

  • Instead of having one best friend, I have a whole collection of best friends. I have my husband, the best friend who has promised to be committed to me no matter what. I have a best friend for when I want to just hang out. I have a best friend for when I want to discuss religion, philosophy, and life. I have a best friend for when I want to have fun. I have a best friend for when I want to be vulnerable and share my deepest self. I have best friends who talk sense into me and best friends who encourage and affirm me. I have best friends who help me relax and best friends who challenge me to be more loving and a better friend.
  • I'm not limiting myself to the character, advice, and support of one person. I have intimate enough relationships with more than one friend that I can feel safe dealing with personal issues with multiple people who have different viewpoints.
  • I have more people to ask when I need help. 
  • I have more time to spend with each of my friends because I'm not devoting the majority of my social time to just one relationship.
  • When I'm really upset, hurting, or in trouble, I don't know who to call. There isn't really one person who knows me inside and out that I know will be there for me under any and all circumstances. How do I choose who to count on and who to call when the chips are down?
  • Not having a best friend generally means that I'm not anyone's best friend either. I sometimes regret that I haven't made myself available to be chosen for this special honor in anyone's life.
  • I have to be sure to balance my life so that I maintain all of these special relationships. If I do have a whole host of best friends, that means I need to be aware of the needs of all of them, not just one person. 
  • I see people with their best friends, and sometimes I feel like I'm missing something. There they are, sharing the deepest part of their lives and feeling connected in a really special way. When I think back over the times when I did have someone like a best friend, that feeling of intimate and even unspoken connection is what I miss.
This list is only part of the story, however. There's a twist: God can be my best friend. I realize that sounds like a silly cliché, but I've realized that God actually can take care of all the items on these two lists. God can be whatever kind of friend I need. I can have fun with God, I can heal my heart with God, and I can be challenged and encouraged by God. God has all the answers and can help me through any situation if I sincerely ask for His assistance. God doesn't monopolize my time because He is with me all the time every day, even when I'm with other people. In fact, God is part of all my friendships with other people, and the love I feel for my friends strengthens my love for God (and vice versa).

There is no competition with God. I don't have to worry about being God's best friend, because I am special and chosen, and God shows me that that's enough. God has shown that He is committed to me above all else—He sent His son to die for me, and He is working every day to bring me closer to Him. God's commitment to others doesn't decrease His commitment to me, because unlike humans God has unlimited time, resources, energy, and dedication. In a way, I am one of billions of God's best friends, but that doesn't make me any less special to Him. God wants me to love Him first and best, but loving others helps me do that. God isn't jealous of my love for others—He encourages it! God nurtures my other friendships and teaches me how to be a good friend. He's eternally trustworthy, compassionate, and wise.

Whether or not I ever have a best friend on Earth, I am really lucky to have a special relationship with God. He can do things that no Earthly friend can do, so even when my friends fall short I can definitely count on God. Still, God teaches me to see the best in my friends, so I hope that by being best friends with God I will learn to love them all even more.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Today I am going to pick up my father from the airport. He lives in China, and I haven't seen him for about a year. We're not necessarily going to do anything very special or exciting while he's here—after all, it's snowy and cold, he can't skate or ski, and I can't afford Vikings playoff tickets, so there's not really a lot to do around here. Mostly we'll probably just sit around the house talking, watching movies, and playing games. He'll cook me Chinese food and I'll make him the kind of American food he hasn't had for a while. It'll be pretty laid back, and both of us will probably love it.

I think it's interesting that we get so excited about reunions when they're often such simple things. When we look forward to reunions, we aren't really thinking about what we're going to do but rather who we're going to be with. For some reason, simply spending time with loved ones we haven't seen for a while can be just as enjoyable as doing something exciting. With that in mind, I wanted to take a few minutes to think about why reunions are so special.
  • I don't stop loving people when I'm separated from them. My heart is strong and can hold on to the ones I love across space and time. The joy I feel at these reunions reminds me that the circumstances of life don't have to change things like love, and that's a comforting thought.
  • Reconnecting with someone reminds me how important all of my relationships are. I remember that each life that touches mine is special, unique, and irreplaceable. I miss my loved ones when I am away from them because each of them has a place in my heart that no one else can fill. When we come together again, that part of my heart rejoices in being complete once more.
  • We are all constantly growing. When I reconnect with people, I get to see how much they've changed in the time we've been apart, and they get to see how I'm different too. We can share our life journeys. Sometimes my loved ones and I go through good times and sometimes things are hard, but we are always growing and changing, and it's nice to know that's something we get to do together.
  • By talking with someone I haven't seen for a while, I can learn new things and imagine new experiences. I like hearing about lives that are different from mine, so it can be fun to listen to someone who's been living somewhere else talk about his or her life. Reconnecting with a friend or loved one can be almost like reading a good book or watching an interesting movie. 
  • Every reunion strengthens and revitalizes my relationships and my life. Relationships fade as we drift apart, but it's never too late to reawaken that spark through a reunion. We can always come back together again, and that's a joyful feeling when it happens. All that loving history returns, and it lends its strength not only to the relationship but to my spirit in general. Reconnecting with others strengthens the love that is at the foundation of my existence.
In the grand scheme of things, today is just going to be a regular day. I'll pick up my dad at the airport, take him to my church where we'll join my husband and other church members at a meatloaf and macaroni dinner, and then we'll go home where I'll inflate the air mattress that my dad will sleep on in the empty spare room. It won't be glamorous or exciting at all, but it will still be very special to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Special Moments

My soul has a joyful center. Deep inside, there is a part of me that is constantly rejoicing in the wonderful truth of my existence: God made me, loves me, redeems me, and gives me many spectacular gifts. Although that joy is always with me, I am not constantly aware of it. Sometimes I get caught up in the pressures and distractions of daily life and that joy seems far away. It's far too easy to forget how blessed I am. Luckily, when I pay attention to the world around me, I find many special moments that remind me of that joy and bring it back to the forefront of my heart. Here are a few of the special moments I have experienced in the last few days.
  • A group of my college friends got together for a belated gift exchange this past weekend. We were all finally back together after returning from our holiday wanderings. A group of us were sitting around talking about nerdy things and having a good time. One of my friends remarked how nice it was to "have the family back together"—to be able to relax and be our nerdy selves, something we don't always feel like we can do at family holiday gatherings. It was so wonderful just to be there together, enjoying each other's company. In that moment I remembered why friendship is so special, and I was joyful.
  • A couple of nights ago I gave my husband a hug while he was wearing a soft new set of pajamas that his mother gave him for Christmas. It just felt so nice to hug him that I almost couldn't let go. I felt incredibly happy to be so close to someone who makes me feel fuzzy and warm inside and out. In that moment, I remembered that I am drawn to my husband in ways that defy logic or explanation, and I was joyful.
  • Yesterday I stepped outside the building where I work to take a walk across campus, and for the first time in a long time I wasn't met with a seeming Arctic blast. The sun was shining. It was 22 degrees. I didn't feel cold at all. Most of the ice on the sidewalks was gone. I got to actually enjoy the winter landscape as I walked because I wasn't shivering or trying to concentrate on not slipping on a huge sheet of ice. I remembered that God put some beautiful parts in winter too, and I was joyful.
  • Perhaps the best example I can give is a moment I experienced in church on Sunday. The pastor was about to baptize a baby. All of the babies who were baptized in 2009 were being recognized with their families, so there were lots of people standing up in front near the font. Then, just before we sang the baptismal hymn, the children were invited to come forward so they would be able to see the baptism. A seeming flood of beautiful little children poured up the aisle and around the font until the pastor was completely surrounded. He was smiling, and he looked incandescently happy. In that moment I remembered how precious each of those children and all of those babies are in the sight of God, and I remembered how beautiful it was to see God's love on the faces of others. As I looked at the smiling pastor, all those beautiful children, and all those happy families, I was deeply and profoundly joyful.
As I go through this day, I know that one of these special moments could appear at any time. That joy is eagerly waiting to overflow at the slightest incentive. Any number of tiny, seemingly insignificant encounters or sensations could remind me of just how beautiful my life and this creation truly are. God is truly good, and every time I consciously remember that, I am joyful.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Approval Addiction

I recently John Ortberg's book The Life You've Always Wanted for a book discussion group. One of his chapters is titled "A Life of Freedom: The Practice of Secrecy". In this chapter he talks about 'approval addiction', our need to seek approval from other people instead of focusing on serving God. As I read this chapter, I became painfully aware of how much I still care what other people think about me. Perhaps I thought this was something I had outgrown, but even though I don't spend as much time agonizing about other people's opinions as I did when I was a teenager, I am forced to admit that they still matter to me. Almost every day I engage in some sort of 'impression management'—the term John Ortberg uses for our attempts to manipulate other people's opinions of us through targeted words and actions.

I know that it's important for me to try to have good relationships with the people around me. I will need to be able to interact well with a wide variety of people in the course of my service to God. However, I don't need people to think of me as especially virtuous, smart, or talented in order for us to be able to work together or for them to be willing to accept help or kindness from me. If I simply live faithfully and lovingly without worrying about what others see or hear, I will be able to do the work God wants me to do in the lives of those around me. I certainly shouldn't lie about the kind of person I am or the things I believe, but I don't need to go out of my way to broadcast my deeds and virtues to others. That's what John Ortbergs idea of practicing secrecy is all about.

God wants us to do good things and to live righteously because we love Him and because we love the people around us, not because we want others to think we're awesome. If I choose not to tell others about how hard I'm working or the accomplishments I'm making, I give myself the power to leave behind my approval addiction and focus solely on the Kingdom of God. If I do something good both out of a desire to serve God and out of a desire for others to think well of me, I have split loyalties. I want my loyalty to be for God alone, so I need to stop trying to impress others. My good deeds need to be about love, not receiving compliments. That's why Jesus told his disciples not to give in secret and to fast without telling anyone. Then they would know why they were giving and fasting—for the love of God who could see everything they do.

I do want people to respect me enough to be able to interact comfortably with me when and if our paths intersect, and I want to have friends and acquaintances who like me. What I want most, however, is to serve God faithfully. I am not an overly boastful person, but I can still see traces of impression management in my life, and I want to eradicate them. If others think well of me, I want it to be because the love they see at the center of my life touches and encourages them. I don't want to waste my effort worrying about what others think about me or trying to change their opinions of me. Instead, I want to focus exclusively on loving God and my neighbors for the simple sake of pleasing God and doing good, whether I get applauded for it or not.
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