Friday, April 30, 2010

An Open Letter to the Prophet Elijah

Dear Elijah,

Like many Christians, I greatly admire you. Your exploits and your gumption are the stuff of legend. As I read the exciting stories of your career as a prophet, I find myself unable to imagine what it would have been like even to witness what you did, much less to actually do it. You are like a Christian superhero—a man who accepted his calling, stood up to corrupt powers, and ultimately got carried off to heaven in a whirlwind. What a story! What a life! I can't tell you what a huge fan I am.

When I was first introduced to you in 1 Kings 17, you were already a prophet. You seemed so bold and confident, rebuking the evil king. But I don't know the story before that. When did you know you were a prophet? How did you receive your calling? Was there a burning bush or some sort of miracle? Was there a voice or a dream or a vision? Did you just know deep in your heart what God wanted you to become? Did you ever doubt your destiny? Were you afraid? Did you wonder sometimes if you were going crazy? How did you transform into the strong man of God that I met in 1 Kings 17? Was it easy, like following the path of least resistance, or did you struggle with it? Did you sleep at all the night before you confronted the king? Did your hands shake afterward? You look so stoic and calm there on the page, but I wonder what was going on inside your mind and your heart.

Later, after you had prayed successfully for the resurrection of the widow's son and had confronted Ahab again, you had a difficult period. Ahab and Jezebel sent a lot of goons after you, and you were on the run. You were frustrated then, and you prayed to God that you might die. And yet, in the midst of your fear and confusion and doubts, when God sent an angel to you, you listened and obeyed. I wonder sometimes if you argued at all with the angel about the raw deal you were getting or if you really were as absolutely obedient and virtuous as the story portrays you. Did you wonder during that long journey if God really cared about you or if you were just a pawn in a crazy supernatural game? Did you question whether following God's plan was the best choice for you? Did you worry that you might be discarded in the end when God was done using you? If you were afraid or disenchanted, it didn't show.

Did you ever wonder why God chose you to do all these things? Did you ever sit around wistfully remembering a time when your life was normal? Or did you feel a thrill of exhilaration every time you rebuked Ahab or performed a miracle, as if you were born to be this fearsome prophet? Did you want this life for yourself or did you long for a quieter existence? Sometimes I think you might have been the kind of no-nonsense person who didn't have time for such questions. Perhaps you never questioned what God asked of you and simply went with it. If not, you sure were good at hiding the conflict within you from everyone else—they were all cowed by your overwhelming air of authority. 

I don't know how you did it. I don't know how you kept your cool in front of Ahab or in the midst of all those people on the mountain when you were calling them out over their idolatry. I don't know how you retained your sanity in the midst of such crazy happenings. Sometimes it must have seemed like a dream or even a nightmare. Still, you held on. You did better than hold on—you excelled. In the end you were honored with a magnificent departure that has never been replicated. Your faith and obedience were rewarded, and you went down in history as one of Israel's most famous prophets, second only to Moses himself. You even got to be with Jesus during the Transfiguration.

Elijah, I wish I were more like you. Your story is one of inspiring success in the midst of incredible hardship. Your life was difficult and scary sometimes, but you persevered and prevailed. I wish I knew the secrets of your success. I wish I had your courage and your conviction. Like Elisha, I wish I could inherit a double portion of your spirit. Maybe someday when I finally make it to Heaven, I'll meet up with you and we can compare notes. In the meantime, I guess I'm on my own—which is to say that I'm with God, just like you were. He looked after you all right, so I expect that I'll be OK too.

Love, Kayla

Thursday, April 29, 2010


There's always a lot of discussion in the Christian community about what it means to be open and accepting to all people. After all, we're supposed to love everyone, right? God did create every one of us, and we are all precious in His sight. Not one of us is intrinsically past redemption, and Jesus would have us show kindness and respect to all people, no matter what they've done.

But that's not the whole story. We are also called to live to a high standard of conduct. As Christians, we're supposed to be as a people set apart, a righteous community dedicated to God. We often fall short of that ideal, but we still strive for it. We don't want to encourage people to do whatever they want in the name of acceptance, or we won't have any community standards at all. We don't simply accept that some people are thieves or pedophiles and just let it go with no response. We have to be able to address conduct and try to hold ourselves accountable for the good and health of the community and out of service and devotion to God.

So where's the balance between judgment and acceptance? Many people explain it by saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." That language turns some people off, but it at its heart it gets to the deeper issue. Unfortunately, that distinction is sometimes hard to make.

Let me start with myself. I have to accept that I am a flawed person. I make mistakes, and I don't always live up to the goals I set for myself. There are things I wish I could change about myself that I simply can't change. In order to go forward with God and my neighbors, I have to learn to accept myself and love myself, flawed as I am. At the same time, I need to be able to tell the difference between my successes and my failures so that I can learn from them. I need to be able to admit that I've done something bad without condemning myself as a bad person. There are some things I just can't do, but that's OK. I do the things that I can do and I leave the rest up to God, and I thank everyone who supports me in that.

So many of the issues we discuss are charged. If we tell someone that they we don't think they're the best person to perform a particular task because of things they've done and choices they've made, are we failing to be accepting? I don't necessarily think so. I honestly wouldn't choose someone with questionable theology or a reckless lifestyle to teach Sunday School to my children. But let's put this in context—I also wouldn't chose someone who can't explain topics well, has no patience, or isn't interested in discussing Bible stories. Our suitability for specific tasks has to do with a lot more than our track record—it also has to do with our personalities, gifts, and calling.

We probably shouldn't authoritatively dictate what other people can and can't do (except where we need to have a say about how their actions affect us directly). Still, our thoughts about someone's suitability to do a particular task is not a question of acceptance. We aren't evaluating whether they're good enough to live, after all. I would simply note that none of us is an expert on what other people are qualified to do. As someone who had persecuted Christians and perhaps even aided murder, Paul probably doesn't seem like a good choice for an evangelist. But God turned him into one, and He can work similar miracles in us. As Christians, we should use good judgment but remain open to the work of God's hand.

In the meantime, we are called to accept everyone. That means that nobody has to pass a test in order to earn love, forgiveness, respect, or even our attention or company. I should be able to speak to, associate with, or do something kind for anyone—including people whose actions I find reprehensible. I won't help them do the things I disagree with, but I can be kind and civil to them in all other respects. If I can help others and think they would appreciate my help, I should help—no matter whether or not I think they've "earned" it. Acceptance means that I worship with everyone who is willing to worship with me, I talk to everyone who's willing to talk to me (and sometimes people who aren't), and I work for the good of all people, both directly and indirectly.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Life Is Wonderful

A friend recently made me a mix CD, and the opening track was "Life Is Wonderful" by Jason Mraz. Not being much of a Jason Mraz fan, I'd never heard it before, but after one listen the song had captured me. From the few Jason Mraz tunes I've heard on the radio, I knew he likes to use clever wordplay, but I was unprepared for how deeply these seemingly simple lyrics would strike me. I don't know anything about Jason Mraz and whether or not he had God in mind when he wrote this song, but listening to it tells me something true about my faith.

It takes a crane to build a crane
It takes two floors to make a story
It takes an egg to make a hen
It takes a hen to make an egg
There's no end to what I'm saying

It takes a thought to make a word
And it takes some words to make an action
It takes some work to make it work
It takes some good to make it hurt
It takes some bad for satisfaction

Ah la la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la la la life goes full circle
Ah la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la

At the beginning of the first verse, I thought this was just going to be another clever wordplay song about paradoxes and trivia. Which came first—the chicken or the egg? But the rest of the song recolored the first verse for me. We live in a marvelously complex world, don't we? It does take a hen to make an egg and an egg to make a hen, and each of us is made up of billions of complex organic parts that all work together in amazing and sometimes mysterious ways. What an amazing world God has created! We can observe it, but we can't always explain it. I listened to this song as I walked to Bible study yesterday, and as I looked around at the world around me, I was overcome with awe. The sky was so blue and there were all different kinds of blooming trees with foliage ranging from verdant green to blushing pink. There were birds and butterflies and passersby on bicycles, and God created all of it. In that moment, all I could do was breathe it all in and feel amazed and blessed.

But the verse goes on. Our world is not only composed of many interlocking parts, it's also filled with conflicting emotions. We experience joy and pain, love and sadness, and all of it swirls together to form our life story. We get hurt because we dare to care, but our love is rewarded most strongly when we suffer for it. The more work we put in, the more something means to us, and each drop of blood or sweat can be precious. God put us here to learn about him and to grow in love, and sometimes that hurts. We have growing pains and suffer betrayals, but along the way we learn the beautiful truth about what really matters. We experience good and bad as our lives come full circle, but along the way we learn that life is wonderful, as is the God who gave it to us.

It takes a night to make it dawn
And it takes a day to make you yawn, brother
And it takes some old to make you young
It takes some cold to know the sun
It takes the one to have the other

And it takes no time to fall in love
But it takes years to know what love is
And it takes some fears to make you trust
It takes those tears to make it rust
It takes the dust to have it polished, yeah
Ah la la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la la la life goes full circle
Ah la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la

Sometimes I think that God allows us to experience night (both real and figurative) so that we can learn what dawn really means. It's a blessing to be able to more fully comprehend the joy of the morning and the triumph over all darkness—even the grave. The burdens we bear for God make us stronger, and perseverance is healthy for our hearts. We experience so much in this life without truly understanding what it means. God has permeated our lives with layers of divine meaning, and it takes us a lifetime of learning and spiritual guidance to even begin to comprehend what's there. But God truly does use all things for the benefit of those who love him—even fears, tears, rust and dust. In the end we will be polished and perfected, and we will spend eternity living with our loving Father. Life is wonderful, indeed!

Click here to read the full lyrics to the song or to listen to it. (The "Listen Now" link is in the upper left corner of the page, beneath the title and beside the picture.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Our lives are a combination of our own efforts and the efforts of others. When we were small children, we did very little for ourselves. As infants, we couldn't even feed or dress ourselves. Other people (mostly our parents) had to do everything for us because we could do nothing for ourselves. Later, we became more independent. Many of us relished the feeling of being able to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we might have even scorned the idea of taking help because as adults we didn't think we needed it anymore. The truth is that while we are expected to progress past a stage where we need help with everything, we're never going to mature to the point that we don't need help ever again.

Even those people who vehemently attest that they would never accept help can't escape all the benefits of cooperation. Anyone who has a job that necessitates them to work with other people gets help sometimes. Anyone who drives on the Interstate is aided by the drivers who adjust their speed or change lanes to allow him/her to feed in. All of us get help from unseen Providence, whether we're willing to admit it or not. The truth is that there's no shame in getting help. We can do many things on our own, but we all have weaknesses. It's OK to accept help to compensate for our weaknesses. Even when we're at our best, we still might want help—with a little help we can sometimes transform adequate efforts into extraordinary results.

Accepting help doesn't mean that our own actions and efforts don't matter. Consider Moses for a moment. He confronted Pharaoh, led the Israelites out of Egypt, and parted the Red Sea. He didn't do any of this on his own. God told Moses what to say to Pharaoh, empowered him to be a leader, and lent divine power to the miracle at the Red Sea. Although these things were done by the power of God, Moses and his actions were integral to all of them. Moses himself did not unleash the power that parted the Red Sea, but God still need him to stretch his hand out over the sea. How else could the people have been sure that the miracle was from God and was connected to the message that Moses had delivered? God used Moses to reach his people, and Moses' own choices and actions had everything to do with that.

It's the same with  you and me. Sometimes we need help from God or from other people to do the work we've been given to do. Accepting help in those situations is a credit to us—it's the path to victory, not an admission of defeat. Still, it's also important for us to work hard to reach our goals, and we are no longer children who can rely on others for everything. Accepting help doesn't mean giving up on our own efforts. Instead, when we combine our own work with the help of others, we can often get a magnificent result. Because I know that, I ask God to help me feel more comfortable asking for and accepting help. Likewise, I want to become more willing to offer my help to others in any way I can. Together we can all make a big difference in the world. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lessons from Mom

I learned much of what I know about love by paying attention to my mom. People say that there's nothing quite like a mother's love, and although I have no children of my own, I can confirm that they're right. I've seen that strong and abiding love in my own mother. The Bible tells us all about love, but seeing those concepts acted out in the world around them helps us to truly understand and internalize them. Scripture told me a lot about love, and then my Mom showed me what those passages were talking about. Because of that, I understood and embraced love from an early age and grew into a stable person with a strong heart.

My Mom has taught me a lot of things. These are just a few:
  • Sometimes you have to put someone else's needs before yours. I didn't always know all the pressures Mom was under. She took care of me the same, whether she was having a good day or a bad one. She did things for me when she would probably have rather been doing something else. She made sure I got what I needed, even when she might not have been getting everything she needed herself. 
  • It's OK to get angry—just don't stay angry. My mom has a temper now and then, but it only lasts about 30 minutes. Give her a half hour and she's fine again. No grudges, no having to suck up for what you did, no guilt trips. She uses her moment of anger to completely purge the negativity from her system, and then she's over it. The offense is all gone. I am forgiven. The anger was never a weapon or a means of control. That's why I learned not to be afraid of anger—it doesn't have to last very long, and it doesn't have to ruin anything. The anger is brief, but the love abides strong as ever before, during, and after it. 
  • It's acceptable and necessary to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves. I remember the day I was playing in the public pool and a bunch of big boys were throwing pool toys at me. I tried to get out of the pool to escape them, and one of them grabbed my foot and tried to pull me back in. That's when my mom looked up from the book she was reading, saw what he was doing, and yelled, "You let go of my daughter!" in a very strident voice. The lifeguard seemed affronted that my mom had dared to disturb the peace and tranquility of the public pool, but she wouldn't back down. She had a right to defend me, and if she hadn't stepped in I could have been hurt. That's not the only time my Mom stepped in to defend me, even when it might cause other people to think she was strange. My elementary school teacher probably thought mom was a nuisance (and I was a wimp) when she went to the principal to discuss the fact that the other kids were mercilessly picking on me all day every day. But she didn't care what anyone thought. She cared about me. I know now that peace, decorum, routines, and even social norms can be tossed by the wayside when someone's in trouble. Love means putting yourself out there when someone else needs help, even if it makes other people look at you funny because you dare to step outside the typical.
  • The best gifts are personal. When I was a kid, my mom made a lot of my presents. Mom's presents were made with love and built to last. They weren't made out of cheap plastic parts that would break if I accidentally sat on them (I did that a lot). They weren't generic things that anyone could have. They were special. Later as I got older, Mom gave me other kids of personal gifts like homemade birthday cards with poems she had written. She made me an afghan when I went off to college, and she made my birthday cake nearly every year. Some of the best gifts she gave me were the memories we made together and the fun times we had. Mom never tried to prove her love with money and expensive gifts. She showed me she cared by investing herself into the things she gave me, and I got the message loud and clear.
  • It's OK to need someone to talk to, and it's OK to ask for help. Everybody needs a shoulder to cry on sometimes, and that's OK. Mom's always there when I need to talk through a problem with equal amounts of sympathy and wisdom to share. Now that I'm all grown up, sometimes the sympathy and wisdom can go both ways, and that's a good thing. God created us to be social creatures for a reason, and we're stronger when we stick together. Even though we live in different states, my mom and I are still together in some really important ways, and that makes both of us stronger. 
  • The truest love lasts a lifetime. It changes and evolves over the course of a relationships, but it doesn't fade. My mom's love for me wasn't confined to the years when I was tiny and adorable or even to the time when I needed her to meet all of my needs. She still loved me when I became independent and self-sufficient, and she still loves me today when I live far away and only call a couple of times a month. The love changes, but it stays strong, and I can count on it.
Happy birthday, Mom. You've taught me a lot, and I'm lucky to have you.
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