Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We Are Family

Today at bible study, we were discussing Jesus' prayer for his disciples in John 17, specifically the line, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one." (John 17:11)

What does it mean for us to be one? We talked about the Body of Christ and how Paul called the believers many members of the same body and brothers and sisters in Christ. "Do we have to agree to be one?" asked one person. "How do we know whether someone is part of the Church? How do we know if we're one?"

Christian unity is an important topic for me. I feel that this is the number one way that we can show the rest of the world that we are different in a good way. When we are one, we love each other, we support each other, we look after each others' needs, we respect each others' opinions. I believe that what Jesus was praying for is that we really would be family in the most positive sense of the word. Jesus called himself the Son and prayed to a God he called Father, claiming that he was in the Father and the Father was in him. In the same way, Jesus wants us to be united to each other through him. He wants us to truly be brothers and sisters in Christ.

So here are a few of my thoughts about how the imagery of family can help us understand the concept of oneness through Christ:
  • You don't get to pick your family. If I become estranged from a family member, I cannot change our biological heritage. That person is my relative whether I acknowledge him or her or not. Likewise, God is the one who is putting together this Christian family, and the fact is that we Christians are brothers and sisters whether we want to be or not. I can no more declare who is and isn't a real brother or sister in Christ any more than I can say my biological sister isn't my sister. It's all up to God. I don't get to choose.
  • Family members don't always agree. I currently worship at a Lutheran church, so during the course of this Bible study conversation, one of the group members was talking about how Lutherans traditionally group themselves together on the basis of common ideology and theology. Lutherans split from Catholics during the Reformation because they didn't agree on several key points, and the Lutherans have continued to split from each other down through the years as more differences in opinion cropped up. It may be true that I could be uncomfortable having people whose views differ wildly from mine in the center circle of my spiritual circle, but I would be a fool to write off every family member with whom I have a significant disagreement. Others may take different approaches to serving Jesus, but as long as Jesus is our master, we are united in a very real way, whether we like it or not.
  • You ought to be able to rely on your family. Families are meant to be nurturing, supportive structures that help us grow to be the best and most successful versions of ourselves throughout our lives. Our family members are often the ones who help us when the going gets rough and celebrate with us when times are good. Jesus wants us to work towards having that same personal and supportive relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is the future that we are working towards—a heavenly family that lives in harmony, centered in Christ.
  • We are not the head of this family. God is. God calls the shots, and God decides what the family's goals are and who is doing a good job. If anybody gets kicked out of the family, it will be up to God to do the expelling, and if anyone is welcomed into the family, it will be because God invited that person to join. We may have hierarchies on Earth, but in God's family we are all equals, all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all called to do different tasks, and some of us are called to lead, but none of us has God-given authority to force other family members to do what we want. We should instead appeal to each other with love and humility, recognizing that God has created us as equals.
  • Harming or forcibly separating your family members should never be done lightly. It is true that sometimes when one family member gets violently out of hand, that person needs to be dealt with for the good and safety of the rest of the family. However, in a healthy family dynamic, no one would ever consider a family member to be disposable or replaceable. We do not engage in personal attacks on cherished loved ones lightly. Instead we try to have reasonable conversations. We talk about our feelings. We debate the issues. We try to find solutions to conflicts. We compromise and figure out whether we can agree to disagree. We apologize when we hurt one another. We put love before pride or anger. Each one of our brothers and sisters is special and unique, and we should think long and hard before trying to remove someone from the family dynamic. Sometimes when things go terribly wrong, estrangements can be necessary, but they should never be the result of a rash decision or a minor disagreement. We should be sad to have rifts with our brothers and sisters in Christ instead of aggressively partitioning ourselves off as we so often do. And we should remember that even if we become estranged from some of our fellow Christians, we cannot unilaterally declare that they are no longer members of the family.
I don't think of Christianity as an institution or a collection of church buildings or synod/diocese assemblies. It's not a conglomeration of bishops or a network of people who worship together on Sundays and try to ignore each other the rest of the week. We're a family. And while it's true that we're closer to some family members than to others, we ought to value everyone in the family. The center of this family is love, and we should remember that what unites us is the fact that we believe in Jesus, who commanded all of us to love God and one another.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ice Cream

My college roommate Elizabeth was a great person for me to live with. I tend to be a rather emotional individual, but Elizabeth was generally a very calm person. She didn't seem terribly perturbed by my occasional tears or my rants about the crazy things that were happening in my life. She was also a very thoughtful person who always tried hard to do and be her best. I was inspired by what a strong, confident person she seemed to be. I was frequently at war with myself, but Elizabeth seemed to be far more at peace with herself. I still wish I knew what her secret is.

Still, even the most steady people come up against roadblocks sometimes. There were a few occasions when Elizabeth couldn't figure out what to do. She would feel stuck or discouraged (rather like I felt most of the time). And when those times came, I would take her out for ice cream. "Ice cream solves everything," I would say, and we'd head off campus (a rather rare occurrence at our small college) and find some ice cream. Afterward, Elizabeth inevitably felt better, even if we hadn't managed to find a solution to her problem. After ice cream, the problems seemed more manageable, somehow. It worked every time.

So does ice cream really solve everything? Not for me, anyway—believe me, I've tried. But it wasn't the ice cream that was the point, really. It was the fact that I wanted to take her out and buy it for her. It was the act of friendship, the chance to stop worrying and feel happy for a little while, that made the difference for Elizabeth. Since she and I had a history of happy outings involving ice cream dating back to our freshman year, that was the best choice for me to make her feel happy. With a different friend it might have been something else, but with Elizabeth the magic cure was ice cream. (That, or the "possessed leg trick," a silly little spectacle that would probably still make her laugh every time if I could still get myself into a goofy enough mood to do it properly.)

I never had the power to solve Elizabeth's problems or to take away the fear or pain they might have caused her. Today I am still surrounded by people I care about whose lost loved ones I can't bring back, whose illnesses I can't cure, whose marriages I can't save, whose pain I can't take away. But taking away their pain isn't my job. As their friend, I'm supposed to give them joy and happiness to mix in with the pain so that its bite no longer feels so strong. I'm not supposed to solve their problems for them; I'm supposed to take them out for ice cream. Every bit of love I give makes a difference, even if the problems are still as large as ever. My friendship and support gives the people I love the strength to face their challenges, the will to keep going in spite of the pain.

I know that I am not the only person who feels helpless sometimes when I look into the tear-streaked face of someone I love, or I read the heart-wrenching words of someone who has lost something that she can never get back. All I can do is try to love and support that person in whatever way I can. I may never be able to make what happened to them OK, but I can help THEM feel OK about their lives in general, I can help them feel strong and happy enough to keep going in spite of it. I can let them know how special they are, how much their beautiful hearts transcend whatever dark thing has happened to them. I can take them out for ice cream. I can meet them for coffee and chocolate cake. I can hang out with them at their homes or write them a heartfelt letter or make them a present. I can take them to a movie or babysit their kids or bake them cookies. I can smile and tell them that I love them and that I care. I can be an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, a friend to laugh with.

It's easy to feel powerless when we think about the things that we can't do or change. But the truth is that we all have an amazing amount of power to improve the lives of the people we care about just by loving them. Something as seemingly insignificant as going out for ice cream can make all the difference to a friend in need.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Do I Know For Sure?

Most of us are troubled at one point or another by the lack of proof behind our faith. Most of us haven't seen a big flashy miracle to prove to us that God is real. We haven't seen a vision of the risen Christ to convince us that he is risen and is offering us salvation. We have to trust our hearts, take it on faith. So the skeptics are asking, "How do we know God loves us? How do we know there's life after death?" The answer is that we don't. We just trust based on what evidence we do have.

It's not like religion is the only thing that demands faith without proof from us. We make huge choices with limited information throughout our lives. How do we know which career to pursue? Where to live? Who to befriend? What priorities to set for our lives? We can't know for sure how those things will turn out, whether we'll be happy, whether we've made the right decision. But we take the information we have and we trust our hearts and we make a decision. What else can we do?

When I married my husband, I was 21 years old. He was my first boyfriend. I had been with him for less than two years, although we had been friends for about a year and a half before that. I had just finished college, and I didn't know what it was to live on my own as an adult, much less to do it with someone else. I didn't know how Michael would manage priorities or what kind of father or husband he would be. We hadn't lived together yet, and I didn't know how his habits and mine would integrate. I felt in my heart that he was the person I was supposed to marry, but I had no proof. Was he the right one? Would we be happy? How could I know for sure? I didn't. I was shaking from nerves when I walked down that aisle.

I'm glad I trusted my heart and made the choice to marry Michael. We're approaching our sixth anniversary, and while I've had my doubts from time to time, I truly believe that our marriage was the right choice and that we'll make it long-term. I trust what I see. I trust my heart.

Why do I believe in God? Because I know deep down inside that the Bible is right. I've read it and I've seen signs of Scriptural truths in my own life. I don't have proof—but I don't need proof. I have faith. Life has taught me that some things—often the most important things—have to be taken on faith. We'll never have enough objective proof to make a perfectly reasoned decision, but we have to keep on living anyway. That's what faith is all about. We don't know for sure, but we trust anyway. And it feels really wonderful when that trust is rewarded.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

With God All Things Are Possible

One of my favorite books is Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment in the five-book Belgariad series by David Eddings. It's a fantasy tale set in a fictional world in which a boy, Garion, is growing up in a country full of solid, practical, hardworking values, not knowing that there is magic all around him that will eventually become an integral part of his life. His idea of reality is challenged for the first time by an old storyteller who is more than he seems:

   "It's only a story," Garion said stubbornly, suddenly feeling very hardheaded and practical like any good Sendar. "It can't really be true. Why, Belgarath the Sorcerer would be—would be I don't know how old—and people don't live that long."
   "Seven thousand years," the old man said.
   "Belgarath the Sorcerer is seven thousand years old—perhaps a bit older."
   "That's impossible," Garion said.
   "Is it? How old are you?"
   "Nine—next Erastide."
   "And in nine years you've learned everything that's both possible and impossible? You're a remarkable boy, Garion."
Garion flushed. "Well," he said, somehow not quite so sure of himself, "the oldest man I ever heard of is old Weldrik over on Mildrin's farm. Durnik says he's over ninety, and that he's the oldest man in the district."
   "And it's a very big district, of course," the old man said solemnly.
   "How old are you?" Garion asked, not wanting to give up.
   "Old enough, boy," the old man said.
   "It's still only a story," Garion insisted.
   "Many good and solid men would say so," the old man told him, looking up at the stars, "—good men who'll live out their lives believing only in what they can see and touch. But there's a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what's possible and impossible?"
   "I think I'd rather live in the ordinary world," Garion said. "The other one sounds too complicated."

Sometimes we are all a bit like Garion, stubbornly wanting to believe only in what we can see and touch because it's less complicated. But as Christians, we also claim to believe in another world—a world in which God acts directly through signs and miracles, in which the sick are healed and the dead are raised and each of us has a part of God—the Holy Spirit—living inside us. Still, we're terrified to say that anything can happen. We need rules, restrictions, laws of nature to make us feel safe. We need to be able to say what is and isn't possible. But unfortunately for us, God doesn't work that way because He has no limits.

How often have we heard Christians around us making definitive statements about what is or isn't possible in our faith? Some people say that there aren't prophets anymore, that God doesn't speak directly to people like He did to Moses at the burning bush. Some people believe that the stories in the Bible are fables—that Jesus didn't really walk on water or feed 5,000 people. Others argue that even if miracles happened in the Bible, the same sorts of things don't happen anymore. Some think that God is nothing more than some sort of universal cosmic force and that angels and demons and even Satan don't exist at all. That stuff sounds like it came straight out of a fantasy book like the one I quoted above. It can't be real, can it?

Jesus tells his disciples (Matthew 19:23–26) that we as humans cannot achieve the things he talks about. We can't save ourselves from death. We can't make the world perfect or work miracles with our own power. But God makes anything possible. God made the laws of gravity and can defy them if He chooses. God made things both visible and invisible—who are we to say there are no angels or demons when not so long ago we didn't even know about bacteria? Who are we to say that miracles can't happen while also professing that Christ died for us? The rules don't matter to God as much as they matter to us. He made them and He can break them if He chooses to. He is wiser and more powerful than we could ever comprehend. The limitations that we try to place on God and His creation for our own peace of mind mean nothing to Him. With God, all things are possible.

If we want to truly be a part of God's magnificent plan, then we need to be open to all the possibilities—even the ones we never could have imagined were possible. What if on the day I began this blog I had decided instead that I couldn't possibly be wise enough at age 25 to say anything useful? What if Mother Theresa had decided that one woman couldn't make a difference? What if the disciples had decided that their experiences with the risen Christ must have been delusions brought on by excessive grief or mental illness? What then? There is more in this universe than we can see or touch. There's more even than we can imagine. When God calls us, He gives us the power to do things that we shouldn't be able to do on our own. Throughout our lives we may find ourselves succeeding when the odds were against us, surviving when doctors said we ought to have died, experiencing things so strange and wonderful that we may even question our own sanity. But if we are truly filled with the Spirit, we will ultimately accept the things that come from God, even if we didn't believe they were possible before they came into our lives.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Radical Love

Christianity is about love. People who say that it's about judgment, righteousness, morality, belief, or even grace have all named aspects of the religion but not its heart. Christianity has judgment tempered by love, righteousness and morality fueled by love, belief that leads to love, and grace that comes from love. Without love, none of the rest of it makes sense. Jesus himself told us that the whole thing boils down to two commandments: 1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. The wonderful thing about these commandments is that they support each other. The more we love God, the more we want to love people because God loves them. The more we devote ourselves to loving each other, the more we understand and appreciate the God who loves us.

There is nothing more important in a Christian life than love. Nothing should take precedence over it. But if we look around us, we see all kinds of things coming between us and love. Cultural values like privacy, independence, self-sufficiency, pride (or self-respect as we call it), and even some standards of propriety become walls between us and our neighbors that limit how we interact with them. We hold people at arm's length because we are afraid of so many things. We don't want others to see our innermost thoughts and feelings because they might judge us. We don't want to ask for help or be asked to give more than we think we have to give. We're afraid of wasting time or energy. We're afraid of getting hurt or letting someone else down. We're afraid that getting close to someone will upset our social structure or community. We're afraid of being seen as presumptuous or nosy. We don't want to interfere or do something that could be perceived as inappropriate. We don't want to risk devoting ourselves to people who might not reciprocate. And I'm not saying that those fears aren't valid or important—but I am saying that they are less important than the absolute necessity of love.

Loving, intimate, and personal relationships with other people teach us about healthy spirituality and being in relationship with God. We learn to trust and to accept and to work together. We learn to give and to take, to admit when we need help and to ask for it. We stop being so afraid when we know we have a network of close friends to support us. We become more generous. We're more willing to take risks and to grow. That's what Christian living is about. Christian love is not the kind of love that pats you on the head and tells you you're perfect just the way you are. It's the kind of love that challenges you to keep striving towards the best possible version of yourself both for your sake and the sake of the people whose lives you touch; it's the kind of love that says "It's going to be hard and it might hurt, but you'll be better for it, and I'll be there to hold your hand and support you every single step of the way." It's the kind of love that doesn't let us sit in our pews thinking about how lucky we are to be saved—instead it sends us out into the world to discover that the treasure we've been given is even greater than we had imagined.

When Jesus came into this world, he was considered by his society to be a radical. Although his message was based on Scriptural themes people were already familiar with, he was taking them to a whole new level. Today's American Christians are used to being mainstream, and it's time for us to remember what it means to be radicals. There's a hymn I love whose refrain proclaims "they'll know we are Christians by our love." Will they? If we want to stand out from all the rest of the mainstream "decent" people, we need to love more passionately, more radically than basic morality demands. We can't just stop at the boundaries of social convention—we need to be willing to break the rules if they get in our way. Right now the only Christian radicals people are talking about are the ones who are screaming about how people are going to Hell because God hates them for their sins. That's not what our religion is really about: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) That's the real point. That's what we need to be radical about. God loves us, and He wants us to love each other.

What does this mean? It means that we should be actively working to have more close friends and to be more open and honest with them. It means that we should be finding ways to go out of our way to be kind and helpful to other people. It means that we should be actively supporting our fellow Christians in their faith. It means we should be trying to get to know the people around us on a more personal level and taking more opportunities to tell them how special and beloved they are. It means that we should take the same loyalty we feel to our blood relatives and apply it to every person who reaches out to us. It means we should be thinking more actively and consciously about what's most important in our lives and going beyond what feels comfortable. We should be asking people to help us and offering to help others, including with very personal things. We should volunteer to comfort those who are mourning, celebrate with those who are happy, and support those who are working hard for God. We should be working together with one another to ensure that no one in our community feels alone or unsupported. Be a friend. Be a neighbor. Be a brother or sister in Christ.

If this is starting to sound like a lecture, it's only because I'm excited. The truth is that what I've written here is a message of hope. I am here to tell you that more is possible than we ever imagined. Relationships that we don't yet dare to have could one day be more rewarding than we could ever have predicted. Connections and growth that our cynical minds deem improbable are possible with the help of God. We have not even dreamed the wonders that God has in store for us, the marvelous experiences He is offering for the nourishment of our souls. God wants us to love each other because He knows we will benefit from it. He knows that love will make us happier and wiser and stronger. He will bless our love and make it fruitful in all the corners of our life. We needn't limit ourselves for the sake of fear or social conventions. When we break the rules for the sake of love, for the sake of God, God will support us and carry us far beyond the derision of the world. Don't settle for "good enough". Don't give up. Don't be afraid. There's more. I promise.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Be Still And Know That I Am God

I spent last weekend at a hermitage center called Pacem In Terris in St. Francis, Minnesota. I went there at the recommendation of a coworker to spend some time alone with God. I sat in a tiny little cabin with no electricity or plumbing (just a gas heater and light from a gas lamp) or out on the attached screened-in porch and I walked around in the woods and the prairie. I even sat down by a lake for a little while and looked out over the loose chunks of ice still dotting its surface even though it was 55 degrees out.

The point of the center is to give Christians a place to be alone with God. I was there to have a private conversation with God, to bask in his presence, and to rest from the hectic life that sometimes distracts me from him. I digested a lot of things that have happened in my life and talked with God about what was coming next. I asked for guidance and I thanked God for everything I have received so far. More than anything, I embraced the peace of being alone with God and recognizing that He has everything under control. He is my refuge, my strength, and my help in times of trouble.

Something very important happens when I am quiet and calm and fully aware of God's presence and His majesty—I stop being afraid. I'm not afraid of the challenges that are coming in my life, because I know God will be with me. I'm not afraid of failing at my calling, because I know that God designed me specifically for it so that I could do His work simply by following my deepest instincts. I am not afraid of being defeated or destroyed by naysayers or adversaries because God will give me strength. I am not afraid of being thought foolish for the choices I make in following God because God's wisdom so far surpasses ours that human wisdom is like foolishness in God's eyes. I am not afraid of being alone, rejected, or unloved because God loves me. I am not afraid of Satan or even of my own sinfulness because God saves me.

So many fears creep into my life when I am busy and distracted. Will God make my monthly budget work out? Will God get my husband a teaching job in this lousy economy? Will God help me get pregnant? Will God help me say the right thing when I am nervous about telling others about Him? Will God cure the nagging self doubt I feel or give me a future worth working for? The truth is that God will do much more than any of those things. He has given me life and a purpose and is providing every single thing I truly need to grow and thrive as a living soul. He does not spare me from all trials and challenges, but He rides them with me and carries me through to the other side. With God in my life, there are no limits—all things are possible.

God is more than I could ever imagine, and it is only when I am quiet and in communion with Him that I fully appreciate that concept. No matter what I learn or don't learn in this life, God will know more. No matter how well I understand myself or those around me, God understands us better. No matter how weak or strong I feel, God will lend me the power to do whatever He has asked of me. If God is with me, who can be against me? What is there to be afraid of?

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Actor Charlie Sheen has been making headlines for months now with his rants about what's wrong with everybody but him. He's coined several interesting catchphrases which he's trying to get trademarked so that he can use them to make more money, now that he's no longer the highest paid actor on television after getting fired from Two and a Half Men. One of Sheen's favorite new catchphrases is "WINNING!" This has caught on and now lots of people are saying it—some in jest and some in support of Sheen.

From where Charlie Sheen sits, he may actually think that he is a winner. After all, he's been earning piles of cash for years, he has access to all the drugs he wants and the delusion that he can "handle" their effects, and he's got two live-in "goddesses" who don't seem to mind that he's still married to Brooke Mueller. Big house, lots of money, lots of attention. Plenty to sate his various appetites. What more could a man want, right?

The sad thing is that there are actually people besides the drugged and delusional Sheen who think that he's "winning". Even those who don't think drug use is a good idea often agree that being famous and having piles of cash, a big house, and a hot girlfriend are goals to aspire to. Our society encourages to look up to the haves and to look down on the have-nots. People who can sell themselves effectively get admiration and people who cling exclusively to their integrity are labeled fools. American culture tells us that rich is better than poor (or even middle class), leading is better than following, praise is better than silence, beauty is better than kindness, having stuff will make us happy, and everyone prefers "winners".

But let us consider for a moment how these ideas compare to the goals of a Christian life:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’  
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
—Mark 10:17–23

This young man would have been considered a winner both in his society and ours. He was rich and he was morally upstanding. He was young and presumably healthy, and he addresses Jesus with respect, not arrogance or sarcasm. He seems like a pretty good guy, doesn't he? Jesus even loved him—and that's why he tried to tell this young man about true victory and how to obtain it. The things that we think of as victories here on Earth—amassing wealth, fame, security, or public approval—can actually hinder us from reaching the true victory of eternal life with God. It's like winning a battle only to lose the war. What good is that? Where was this young man's wealth going to get him in the long run? Where is Charlie Sheen's "winning" going to get him? 

From a Christian perspective, the truth is that we have to be willing to be losers to find true victory. We have to be able to risk being poor or unpopular. We have to be at peace with losing our lives in order to save them. True victory comes from God and may not always be apparent here on Earth. John the Baptist, who prepared the world to receive Jesus, lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey and dressed in camel's hair. A lot of people thought he was crazy. And yet Jesus said that "among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist." (Matthew 11:11) 

Would we be willing to leave everything we own behind and follow Jesus? Would we leave our families and our lives as the disciples did when they were called? Would we live out in the wilderness and preach a message that the respected leaders decry as insanity if God asked it of us? Can we give up everything we've gained in this life in order to inherit a better, truer kind of life, even if that life is invisible to most of the people around us? God is going to ask all of us hard questions, and every one of us is given tasks that challenge us. We will face hardships and temptations. But through all that we will gain a stronger relationship with God, and that will bring us true life. We will be REAL winners then.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You Are Qualified

Yesterday at Bible study, our small group was joined by a visitor I hadn't met before. At the end of our hour-long conversation, he asked me if I worked at the church. I told him no, and he said, "Wow! You can really testify!" He asked me if I was a minister or if I had ever thought about becoming one. I told him that perhaps I would be a sort of non-traditional minister. In a way, I already am.

Some of the people who have visited our Bible study have been a little intimidated by all the retired pastors in the group talking about old seminary classes or quoting Martin Luther. "I'm not a theologian," some of them have said. "I don't know if I can really add anything to the discussion." We would assure all of them that anyone can contribute something to a Bible study discussion, no matter how much (or how little) education or theological training they've had.

The truth is, anyone who approaches Scripture with respect and humility is qualified to interpret and discuss it with the help of the Holy Spirit. None of us, no matter how educated we are, are smart enough to uncover all of the wisdom God has hidden in His Word on our own, anyway. It's the Spirit who guides us to make sense of it all. Sure, any academic can tell you that secondary texts can be very helpful, but the most important thing is the primary text—in this case the Bible—and we all have access to that. Theological theories and writings can add depth to the discussion, or they can distract from key areas. The only absolutely necessary components to a fruitful Christian understanding of Scripture are the Word itself and the Holy Spirit. Lucky for us, the Holy Spirit isn't just reserved for the leaders and learned.

Just because you aren't a professional priest, pastor, or preacher does not mean you aren't a minister. Through the power of the Spirit, any one of us can minister to anyone else. When I inspired that man in Bible study with my insights and testimony, I was ministering to him, just the same as if I really had been an employee of the church as he initially assumed. When you take the words of Scripture to heart and live them out in service to others, you are ministering to them. When you share God's love or encourage someone's faith, you are a minister.

You are qualified to make a difference in the lives of others—not only that, but you're expected to. We can't just designate ministering to the paid pastoral professionals. We all have a role to play in the body of Christ—otherwise we'd just be dead weight. Each one of us has special God-given talents, and each one of us has access to the Spirit who will show us how to use them if we pay attention.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Don't Give Up

As humans, we have limitations. Our bodies and our minds can only take so much stress before we become sick or injured. We generally don't like to get anywhere close to our breaking points because it's excruciating. We are more inclined to stop when we get tired, to quit if our task becomes to punishing. In many cases, this is a very reasonable thing to do. If we commit to something that we cannot do, it could destroy us. In general, we only push ourselves to go past where it hurts, to work through the exhaustion, when it's something that we feel is genuinely important, something that matters more than any price we could pay to achieve it.

Following God is one of those things. Sometimes being a Christian is downright exhausting. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we American Christians mistakenly believe that it should be easy for us since we don't face much in the way of direct persecution, but being a Christian will always be hard, even if we live in a community full of other Christians. When we invest in God's work, our hearts will hurt when we see people suffering. We will cry when we want to do more than our resources will allow. We will be frustrated when there aren't enough hours in the day or enough volunteers to help with important work or enough ideas to solve every problem. It might feel tempting sometimes to give up, to say we don't care, to argue that the things that are going wrong aren't our problem.

It is true that all of God's workers need a little rest sometimes. Jesus went off by himself to pray on occasion, and the apostles must have put their feet up from time to time after a long day's work. But they didn't exit God's kingdom or leave their paths when they took a rest. They didn't throw up their hands and say, "I quit!" or decide that it just wasn't worth it anymore. If they had, their stories might have gone differently.

God charges each on of us with two things: love him and love our neighbors. God leads each of us on a personalized mission to fulfill those two commandments in a way that utilizes the gifts and spirit He gave each of us. But Satan doesn't want us to follow God's plan, so the number one thing he can do to stop us is convince us to give up. Here are a few of the lies he uses to try to do that:
  • Something else is more important. So God wants me to give to those in need—what about my retirement savings? So God wants me to spend time supporting other people in my community—what about how I want to spend my time? So God wants me to stand up for marginalized people—what if that destroys my precious popularity? So God wants me to leave everything behind and follow Him—what if I don't want to? We may find ourselves tempted to give up on God's plan so that we can pursue our own plans instead, but nothing we can devise will be of any lasting help to us if we shut out God.
  • I can't make a difference anyway. The problems of the world seem so big and we seem so small. We may not feel smart, talented, our powerful enough to make a real difference, but that's exactly why our participation is so essential. None of us can change the world alone, so it only works if we all work together. The more of us there are, the better work we can do. Every act of love counts. Every time any one of us helps someone else, we empower that person to make a difference too. We feed off each others' faith, and we all grow in God's spirit together. Every person makes a difference.
  • The world is nothing but pain, and I just want out. Sometimes we may feel like nobody loves us, that the world is a dark place, that there is no hope that things could get better. We stop working for the future because we don't believe that it holds any promise. We become depressed or bitter. Some of us may even attempt suicide. We don't just want to give up on God, we want to give up on life. We don't want to hurt anymore. But God is good, God is love, and He is moving through the world and in our lives even when we cannot feel Him. God loves us. Our brothers and sisters in Christ love us. There is a lot of violence and pain in the world, but there is also love and kindness and hope. There is the promise of a future in heaven if we can only persevere to the end, and there is also the promise that the Spirit will sustain us along the way and will heal our pain and sorrow little by little. 
  • I'm a screw-up, so I'd just mess it up. Well, yes, you will—but then God will fix it. Nobody but Jesus was perfect. All of us move both forward and backward on our faith journeys. We will do some really helpful things and we will also make mistakes. God will use all of our earnest efforts to create something good. Nobody is a total screw-up. God made all of us with special qualities and talents, and He imbued us all with the potential to do good in this world. So what if you've done a lot of bad in the past? That doesn't inhibit your ability to work for good in the future. God will stick with you, so stick with God.
What I write here I write for myself as much as I write it for anyone else. We mustn't give up. I have fallen prey to every lie I've listed above from time to time, but God always pulls me back to a more peaceful and productive place. I trust God. I know that somehow He's going to take all of the mess I see around me and make it right. I know He's going to give me the strength and the will to persevere, even when part of me wants desperately to give up. I believe even when I don't want to, and that's why I never give up entirely. We must all cling to God's love and use it to banish the lies of the devil.

I want to end with a link that a friend shared with me this week when I was hurting and I felt like giving up. I hope it touches you like it did me: "You Are Loved (Don't Give Up)" by Josh Groban

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Dangers of Prooftexting

Last Sunday, my pastor was preaching on the gospel account of Jesus's temptation in the wilderness and how the devil tried to use passages of scripture to lead Jesus astray. "The devil was slinging scripture like a preacher," he said, "and that is an important lesson to all of us. Just because someone knows the Bible chapter and verse doesn't necessarily mean that person is up to any good." There were a lot of chuckles from the congregation at that, but the pastor had no hint of a smile on his face. "No, it's not a joke," I whispered to my husband. "He's serious." And, frankly, he should be.

The best lies have a little truth mixed in with them, and the devil provides an excellent example of the dangers of prooftexting. The devil does not arrive in the desert with a flaming pitchfork in an attempt to openly beat Jesus into submission. He comes with arguments that he hopes will sound well-reasoned and convincing. Jesus is not fooled because he knows the mind of God so well that he can see how the devil is misusing scripture. But the devil is not content to lose to Jesus—he comes after us instead, trying to lead us astray by twisting God's truth.

Knowing the Bible chapter and verse, as my pastor put it, is not enough to help us identify and rebuff Satan's lies. Memorization won't cut it. We have to understand the underlying meaning of Scripture and have a feel for the unified message of God in order to spot a faulty interpretation. That means that if we don't want to be led astray by lies, we are going to have to invest some serious effort and prayer into grappling with Scripture and working through ideas together to reach a fuller understanding of God's will for us. It's hard work. It's much easier to be ignorant or content to follow any strong leader who takes us by the hand without thinking things through for ourselves. But we must take the hard path of discipline and discernment, because the stakes are very high.

Right now, a Christian somewhere is telling a young girl that she's a whore who will certainly go to Hell because she had sex outside of marriage. (Never mind the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.) Right now, a Christian somewhere is claiming that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan must be the direct result of some evil on the part of the Japanese people. (Never mind the entire book of Job.) Right now, a Christian somewhere is turning away another Christian from fellowship or worship because he isn't the "right kind" of Christian. (Never mind Paul's assertion that we are all one body in Christ.) The list could go on and on.

And perhaps most dangerous of all, right now there are an alarming number of Christians who are smug in the belief that they don't need God's forgiveness or despairing in the conviction that they are too terrible to receive it. In the wilderness the devil was trying to convince Jesus to break away from the Father's plan and take action on His own. Today Satan is playing the same game with us, trying to tell us that we are or should be separated from God, trying to get us to leave the sheltering arms of the Father who loves and protects us.

We must not be taken in by this lie, even—and most especially—if it's couched in Biblical language. We are not beyond redemption. We are not doomed (or privileged, as the arrogant would assume) to get what we deserve. We should not be scattered to the winds and left to face our enemy alone. We must hold fast to the truth, the real truth, that is embodied in the entirety of Scripture. We must not take the bait of trying to proclaim right and wrong for ourselves but must remain obedient and diligent servants committed to earnestly seeking the will of God. And when we are taken in by the lies—as we most certainly will be from time to time—we must humbly ask God to set our feet on right paths once more.


A few hours ago, I was at a weekly Bible study I attend at my church, and we were looking at the readings for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent. We covered the temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden, the temptation of Jesus in the desert just after his baptism, and Paul's explanation about how Adam's sin brought death to all people but Jesus's sacrifice brought the free gift of redemption to all people. In the course of the discussion, a very interesting question came up.

"Why was the tree of good and evil even in the garden?" Why did God put something there and then ask Adam and Eve not to touch it? Why was the temptation to fall there in the first place? Later we remarked upon the fact that it was the Holy Spirit that led Jesus out into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. There was the question again: why? Why does God let us be tempted?

I think the answer is that God wants us to choose Him, and without temptation there is no choice to be made. God made us all in His image and endowed us with free will. Then He set us free to choose good or evil, and He's been working hard ever since to convince us to choose good, to choose Him. God could have made Eden without the tree of good and evil. He could have made a robotic Adam and Eve who only smiled and did exactly as He asked. But how can one truly love a machine with no independent thought? How could a person with no freedom to choose otherwise truly love God?

So choices are introduced. We have the chance to fail—to disobey, to eat the apple, to believe the devil's crafty lies. But then, through the free gift of Jesus Christ, we also have the choice to accept forgiveness and be reconciled to God. I find it heartening that when God threw Adam and Eve out of Eden, he did not destroy it—to me that symbolizes the hope that one day, thanks to Jesus, we can return.

Not one character in the Bible except Jesus chose God and righteousness every single time. Many of them made mistakes. But how glorious it was when they chose to follow God! Miraculous things happened. Difficult and tragic situations were turned around. Hope was restored. That is the power we have in our choices.

Temptation is real, and God is not the only being who wants us to choose Him. Satan is also trying to win us over to his side, and we have to be aware of the reality and impact of our choices. Both God and Satan are trying to convince us that theirs is the best way, and God is not going to make us deaf to the devil's cajoling. There aren't "good" people who always do good or "bad" people who always choose sin.

Every one of us has the chance—and the God-given right—to choose. We make thousands of these little choices every day, some for righteousness and some for sin. But there is a larger choice that transcends all of that, that defines who we are and where we are going. Do we choose to follow Jesus and to belong to God, or do we choose to follow Satan in an attempt to belong only to ourselves? That's a big choice, and it will guide everything we do in this life and beyond. We need to make sure that we are informed and that we are making the right choice. It's a big responsibility.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Be Kinder than Necessary

I had a friend in college who used quotes as a footer in her e-mail signature. One of them was, "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." By the time I met this friend, I already knew only too well what that quotation means, but I still have to remind myself every day of why it's important, why I must never forget, why I cannot stop striving to be kinder than necessary to every person.

I don't remember much about middle school. But even today, I still remember James. James was in my Spanish class when I was in ninth grade. That class was the center of my life at the time. I sat in a corner of the classroom with three other people: my friend Melissa; my first real crush, Matt; and James. Since the class consisted of a lot of little group exercises and study activities, the four of us spent a lot of time talking about things that were not always class-related.

At that point in time, James was a source of major irritation for me. He was frequently interrupting when I was trying to work my pathetic middle-schooler "magic" on Matt (who was reasonably friendly but never ended up "noticing" me). James was constantly asking really awkward and personal questions. He was like a class clown with feelings, someone who could laugh along with the people who were laughing at him but who also clearly wanted a personal connection. We weren't mean to him, but we still rebuffed him somewhat. He used to say hi to me in the halls, and I would feel so self-conscious and embarrassed. There weren't very many people lower on the social scale than me, and I was desperate for friends and acceptance. I didn't want to be stuck with unpopular James who made me squirmy with his direct commentary and his desire to be in my personal emotional space. I was a fourteen-year-old, and frankly, I was a bit of a self-centered idiot.

The next semester when we had new classes, I didn't see James around very much. I didn't notice when he was gone. Not until the day that I found out that he was really and truly gone—James had killed himself playing Russian roulette. It turns out that there was a lot I didn't know about the battle James was fighting until after he was dead. James had come from an abusive family, and I had no idea about the scars on his body because I had never seen him shirtless. He had been living with some kinder relatives while he was in Spanish class with me, but something in James' emotionally scarred mind made him run away from the people who loved him and go back to visit the crazy people who had abused him. That's where he was when he died.

I felt like a monster, a hypocrite, a terrible Christian. I went home and cried and cried. I still cry sometimes when I think about James. It was only after he died that I learned how to love him. Beyond his awkwardness, James was a nice boy. He was kind to me, going out of his way to recognize me and to give me his attention, and I did not give him much kindness in return. I'm not going to tell you that it was my fault that James died, that if I had been his one true friend he might have been OK. I don't know what would have happened. But I do know that kindness might have helped him, and that my kindness can still help others today.

I don't know who has been abused. I have no idea who has just lost a loved one or whose dear friend is sick or who is secretly dealing with depression. I don't know who is questioning faith or losing hope or desperate for a lifeline. I can't tell who is having a bad day or who feels invisible or under-appreciated. I do know, however, that it's likely that every person I meet will struggle with something like this, and every single person, no matter who they are, carries some care or pain on their hearts. Kindness is a salve that costs me very little to give but can make a world of difference to the recipient.

Since I have grown up, I have realized that I shouldn't need suicides to get my attention. People shouldn't have to be destitute for us to put forth extra effort and goodwill on their behalf. We should think not only of how to avoid wounding the vulnerable but also of how to build up all people in the service of a healthier and happier population. If there is one thing I can do to honor James's memory, it is to try to be kinder to all people, no matter how much or little I know about them—to be friendlier and more patient, understanding, and compassionate. Every single person is worth my time and effort, and they all deserve to be treated with love and respect. I want to be an ally to more of my neighbors in their daily battles both great and small.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Sickness and In Health

I'm sick right now, and it's kind of a drag. I'm not a fan of body aches, insomnia, or that annoying pressure that I get between my eyes sometimes that makes it hard for me to think. We all devote a reasonable amount of energy to not getting sick—we take vitamins and wash our hands and avoid sick people. We don't like to be slowed down, and we don't like the unpleasant (and sometimes painful) symptoms.

Still, a few of my happiest moments in life have arrived during an illness.

When I was in 8th grade, my showchoir was invited to perform at the White House employees' Christmas party. Nearly our whole choir got sick. I think one kid even threw up in a bathroom at the White House. I felt like crap, but I could still sing, and I remember how beautiful the surroundings were and how intoxicating the smell of all that pine was (the place was filled with live Christmas trees, and there were live greenery garlands around all the doors). I have a marvelous photograph of myself looking up in awe at the iconic portrait of George Washington as I was walking into the East Room to sing. Sickness and all, I wouldn't trade that day for anything.

Later, when I was a sophomore in college, I spent a trimester in Ireland. It was an incredible and challenging time of self-discovery for me. I caught a cold during my last week there. I remember feeling all fuzzy in the head, and I went into my bedroom in the cottage where I was staying, opened the windows, and crawled under the covers to take a nap. I remember how blissful I felt as the smell of all that wonderful green grass wafted over me and I snuggled deeper into the soft sheets. I was actually grateful that I had a cold that day because it gave me the excuse to stop working and experience this wonderful moment of absolute tranquility. I might have missed it if I had been well.

Just last night as I was bumbling my way to bed with my stuffy head, I stopped for a moment to look at an embroidery sampler that a friend made for me as a wedding gift. It has my husband's name and mine and our wedding date, and it bears the following verse from Ezekiel: "I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them. Then they will be My people and I shall be their God." I stopped for a minute to stare at it as I internalized the words. There I stood, sick and moderately miserable, but God was there with me, promising to put a new spirit within me. All the aches and the pains of my body faded away as I remembered with joy the incredible promise God has made to me, the promise that transcends all sickness and hardship.

I have another wall hanging in my home that reads, "Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain." I truly believe that God gives good gifts in all circumstances, and that we can find joy even in sickness. When I married my husband, I promised to love and be faithful to him for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. What are our marriage vows but a reflection of God's promises to us? He will be with me in sickness and in health, every single day of my life. No hardship can separate me from him, and no sickness and take away my joy. I am blessed to be a beloved daughter of God, even now while I have a headache and an overabundance of snot. I am so happy. I am so loved.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Picture of Law and Gospel

It seems like Christians love to argue about law and gospel. Does the law mean that we are still at risk of damnation when we sin, even if we believe in Jesus? Does the gospel mean that the law is obsolete? Do we need the law anymore? Should we still be concerned about sin, or should we just focus on loving each other? Are people confusing grace with a blank check to do whatever we want?

It all seems very complicated. We are, after all, both sinners and beloved children of God at the same time, and that's a hard thing to wrap one's head around. So I've decided to try to explain it (to the best of my understanding) with a diagram:
Imagine that the spiritual world—our true existence, so to speak—has two dimensions. Spiritual life is one and death is the other. Life is tied to righteousness and death is tied to sin. When God is telling his people to choose whether or not they will serve Him in the promised land, He declares, "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction." (Deuteronomy 30:15) He tells the people that following Him leads to life, and rejecting Him (sin) leads to destruction. These two dimensions are separated by the law, which tells us how to choose righteousness and warns us to avoid sin.

God gives us life, and the law instructs us on how to keep it. However, none of us can keep the law perfectly. None of us can always please God and avoid sin. As much as we want life, sometimes we court death instead. We all have a reckless and rebellious streak in us. So when that happens, we end up "on the wrong side of the law", so to speak:

Uh-oh. This is not where we want to be. It doesn't feel at all good to be covered in sin, and what's worse sin is contagious—by hanging out on this dimension, we inevitably bring spiritual, emotional, and/or physical harm to ourselves and those around us. When our sin drags us over to the wrong dimension, we usually have one of three reactions:

  • Denial. We're not sinners. We haven't done anything wrong. That big wall labeled 'law' is all in our imagination, so how could we possibly be on the wrong side of it? Everything is fine, and this side of the spectrum is no different from the other side. This approach is bound to get us into trouble. Just because we say nothing is wrong doesn't mean nothing is wrong. Our sin will continue to pollute our lives and those around us until we face up to it.
  • Atonement. We try to climb back over the wall to the righteousness side by atoning for what we've done. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work. We aren't really capable of rescuing ourselves from our own sin, and our righteous deeds simply aren't going to erase the failures that dumped us over here in the first place. The sad fact is that law is a bit like a one-way door—it convicts us of our sins but has no power to pronounce parole for good behavior.
  • Repentance. This is the only real way to get back to the side of life. When we ask God to forgive us, the sin that sent us over here in the first place is erased, and voila:
 We're back on the side of life again! Of course, that forgiveness erases the act, but not all of the damage that act caused. We may still be hurt, and some other people may be too. But we are back on the side of life and on our way to recovery. We cannot get back across that wall on our own—we need God to carry us.

I hope that this diagram points out a few important truths:
  • This is not some tiresome exercise in legalism. This picture does not tell the story of an angry God who wants to punish us for breaking the law and crossing into the realm of sin. The truth is that God wants us to be on the side of life, and he teaches us righteousness because righteousness leads to life. It is the sin itself that harms us, and that is why God warns us so strenuously not to sin. If He wanted to, God could just leave us there to suffer, but He doesn't. The second we humbly ask Him to make things right, He accepts our apology and carries us back over to life.
  • The law serves a useful function, even for those who believe in grace. It's kind of a guidepost that helps us figure out where we are on the spectrum. Without the law, we may not realize it when we cross over into the bad land of sin and death. By pointing out what we've done wrong, the law reminds us that we need to get help to go back to where we want to be.
  • We don't want to be righteous just so we can be God's little 'A' students. We want to be righteous because we want to live. We want our souls to flourish and be healthy. We want to have joy. This spectrum should not be an exercise in pride. The fact is that we only ever made it to the side of righteousness in the first place because God put us there Himself, and on our own we'd be mired in the land of sin and death before the day is out. Every one of us. Even Mother Theresa would have been lost without God's mercy and forgiveness. None of us can stand in the land of the living by our own power.
So, really, I think law and gospel are partners. Neither one makes complete sense without the gospel. Law shows us where we are on the spectrum, and gospel helps us get to where we want to be. Without the law, how would we know that we need to move? We would never take advantage of the gospel if we didn't know we needed it. Without the gospel, the law is very depressing. We find ourselves in a dark land with no way to get out. But together, law and gospel provide us with the clarity and help we need to successfully navigate our faith.

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    Investing in Community

    Sometimes I worry about our insular, independent culture. We have a huge focus on self-sufficiency, privacy, and personal space. Each of us is a bit of an island, and that can make us feel isolated and unsupported. We keep both our joys and our sorrows to ourselves so as not to impose our feelings or our business on other people. We think of interaction as a bother or an invasion—either to ourselves or to the other person. We create a small list of loved ones whom we allow ourselves to "trouble" with our personal business and our private feelings, and we carefully hide our personal thoughts and feelings from everyone else. I don't like this, and I don't think it's what Jesus wanted for us.

    Lots of people talk about their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but have we forgotten the second great commandment: love your neighbor as yourself? If we thought that "love God" means to simply avoid making Him angry, then it would make sense to interpret "love your neighbor" as simply endeavoring to do no harm to anyone. But if we truly believe that the commandment to love God means that we should have a personal relationship with Him in which we share our joy and our pain, our hopes and our fears, then why would we think we should keep our neighbors at a distance? Should we not also love our neighbors through personal relationships? Should we not volunteer to help them when we see them in need or ask for their support when we are struggling ourselves? Should we not band together in the knowledge that two are more powerful than one?

    It seems to me that Paul had a very good reason for writing so eloquently about how we Christians are all members of one body. We are meant to work together and to be responsible and responsive to one another. We think too much in terms of "me and mine" when we could be stronger and healthier if we more often thought in terms of "us" and "ours". Why do we not not more often pool our resources with others—our money, our possessions, our space, our time, our thoughts and feelings? I'm not necessarily advocating radical socialism here. But I see it as a strength—not a weakness—that I am planning for my mother to move in with me and that I am increasingly more willing to confide my personal thoughts and feelings to more and more people. I want my children to be welcome in other people's homes. I want to give to those who find themselves without something they need without them feeling like they owe me. I want my home to be filled with people and joy. I want a large circle of friends that I can share my dreams and my struggles with. I want to be myself openly as much as possible, and I want to see the true essence of the people around me.

    Why should we hide what God has given us? Why should we see each other as anything less but brothers and sisters? Are we not all creations of the same God? Are we not all offered redemption through the same Christ? Are we not all imperfect beings who need all the help we can get, including from each other? Do we not all have something good to offer to those around us? It's time for us to become more proactive about using our gifts and less standoffish about sharing our pain or our "private" business. After all, God said that it was not good for Adam to be alone. He designed us to function with others, to help each other through community. When we work together for the good of all, we are inevitably at our best.

    Being a good Christian is not about being locked away like a hermit studying holy things. After all, Christianity is not an intellectual exercise or a collection of beliefs—it is a way of life, and our life is given meaning through our interactions with God and each other. We need our neighbors so that we have someone to serve and someone to share the good news with as much as we need them to help us when we are not strong enough to bear our burdens alone. All of this interaction is right and good. Christians are supposed to invest in their communities. It's a challenging thing to do, because getting involved and opening up takes energy and it makes us vulnerable to others. But it is an investment worth making, for I believe that countless blessings will come upon those who accept the challenge.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Be Prepared

    When it comes to socializing or leisure time, I don't mind flying by the seat of my pants. When it comes to important and serious parts of my life, however, I like to have a plan. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive plan or a far-reaching plan or a rigid plan. I'm OK with flexibility, and I'm willing to change my plan when circumstances change. But I like to feel like I have at least some handle on what's going on, that I have a strategy that will help me succeed. I like to feel prepared.

    Some people might say that I'm fooling myself with all this planning. I don't have any control over most of what happens in this world or even in my life. I don't know whether my house will be burglarized, whether someone will steal my identity, whether someone I love will die in an accident, even whether I myself will wake up tomorrow. I don't know how to put enough money away to provide for my family's future. I'm not even quite sure how this year's finances are going to turn out—there are so many variables. To a planner, all of this may seem a bit depressing. Am I really just throwing myself into the arms of fate and hoping against hope that everything will turn out OK?

    Yes and no.

    While it is true that I can try to take certain precautions, I can never be completely prepared for any eventuality. I could spend hours worrying myself sick about the weaknesses in my financial portfolio or the gaps in my education. Or I could call to mind some soothing words of Jesus: "I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? . . . Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:25–27, 34) 

    After all, didn't Jesus send his disciples out with no provisions at all? "Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt." (Mark 6:8–9) Yet, is it fair to say that Jesus sent out his disciples unprepared? Were the ready for this incredible journey? Yes and no. They certainly didn't have a detailed plan for any eventuality, but they had an overarching faith that guided them. They were prepared in a more general sort of way, and all of us can emulate their example.

    So all plans, logistics, finances, and random chance aside, I can feel confident knowing that there are certain things I can do to be prepared for anything:
    • Read the Bible. Any time I find myself in a huge dilemma or embroiled in a big problem, chances are that I can find something in Scripture that can help me figure out what to do. In fact, I should read the Bible over and over, even when I'm not in trouble. The more I read it and think about it, the easier it will be for me to use it when I really need it. 
    • Pray. I find that it's a good idea to ask God's opinion when there are difficult decisions to be made. I may not always get a straight answer, but listening for God helps me to feel calmer, reminds me that He's in charge instead of me. And sometimes inspiration does come.
    • Build a living support system. No matter what happens to me—good or bad—I'm going to need family and friends. Their advice will help me make both big and small decisions, and their support will help me through everyday and crazy experiences. I should dedicate a significant portion of my energy to nurturing a wide variety of relationships. As we help each other, the road will become easier for all of us.
    • Embrace love. No matter what happens, love is real and it is a fuel unlike any other. Knowing that I am loved convinces me to trust when I would rather panic, pushes me to keep trying when I would rather give up. God loves me, and so do my family and friends. Even when my loved ones can't offer the tangible support I may want, their love means that I am never alone. There is no problem too big for God, and there is nothing that can stop me from being with Him in the end.
    I don't have to make the decisions all by myself. I don't have to create a plan for every contingency. God is my navigator and my family and friends are my co-pilots and my supporters. It may get sloppy sometimes, but I know that in the end I'm going to get where I wanted to go. Sometimes I may have to wing it, but my life is in the hands of a higher power who is much kinder than random chance. 

    The truth is that as long as I have God, the love and teachings of Jesus Christ, and my loved ones, I will always be prepared.

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Blessed Are You

    Yesterday was kind of a rough day for me. Things were really stressful at work, and I felt overwhelmed. I thought to myself, where is the light at the end of the tunnel? When will things get easier? I was feeling frustrated and sad and helpless. It didn't seem fair that all my hard work wasn't enough.

    I forced myself to take a break and go to the noon Bible study at my church, where we gather once a week to look at the readings for the coming Sunday's service. When I saw that the gospel text was the Beatitudes, I thought to myself, "That's nice—it's a lovely reading." But then as a woman sitting nearby began to read the passage, my eyes teared up. It felt as if God had sent those words especially to me, knowing I would need them on this trying day.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  
    Blessed are those who mourn,  for they will be comforted.  
    Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  
    Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  
    Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  
    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  
    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3–12)

    How many times have I felt weak, sad, timid, sorrowful? How many times have I tried to find peace or yearned for goodness to return to the Earth? A time or two I have even felt persecuted for my faith. But at all of those times, I was blessed. Yesterday, when I felt like everything was coming apart and there was nothing I could do about it, I was blessed. I am blessed even today, as I write this late post that should have been ready yesterday. The fact is that I am blessed every day, and when the going gets tough, that's really important.

    Being blessed makes a difference. When things are bad, the fact that I am blessed gives me hope that someday they will get better, that today while I suffer I will not suffer alone. Being blessed means I am receiving grace and strength that help me to better weather the storms of life and to work to make things better for everyone else who is stuck in the storm with me. Being blessed means tempering sorrow with love, weakening oppression with hope, defining suffering as temporary. 

    There may be times when by worldly standards I'm pretty much screwed. I may find myself in any number of hopeless situations, trapped with no escape. But if those moments come, I will also be blessed, and that means I will have hope when things look hopeless and joy when I'm in pain. Things won't be quite so bad, and I will know that someday they be even better. Look at the promises in the Beatitudes. Those are big. They're beautiful. They're real.

    I am blessed, and so are you.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Forgiveness and Logical Consequence

    A few months ago, I wrote a few short pieces for an article in my college's alumni magazine entitled "Life 101". The article was full of advice from alumni about various practical topics. One of the sections I wrote was about how to forgive others, and it was based on my interview with a local Catholic priest. He had lots of great advice, including the short excerpt below:

    "Separate forgiveness from justice. Forgiveness shouldn't preclude justice (or vice versa). In the sacrament of confession, sometimes the priest will give a person an act of penance to perform (such as prayers and charitable works or giving); likewise, when we forgive people who commit terrible crimes, those people still have to complete their course of rehabilitation. We have a strong need for justice, but we should be willing to forgive even before justice is rendered."

    I also wrote a section about how to survive your children's teenage years, for which I interviewed a wonderful lady who had raised three children and 13 foster children with her husband. Most of the foster children had been abused, so it was important for the home to be a safe place where people talked out their problems without violence and no one got worked up over accidents. She told me about how she and her husband tried not to have a lot of little, picky household rules, instead focusing on a few really important rules. When a rule was broken, there were consequences, but there was also love and forgiveness:

    "A lot of families have a family doctor or a family lawyer; we had a family probation officer. He told us that knowing where the kids came from might explain their behavior but couldn't ever excuse it. He taught us the expression logical consequence. When things go badly, kids have to take responsibility for what they've done."

    Writing these two pieces gave me some valuable insight into the complicated dynamics of forgiveness. In my own words, here are some of the things I learned:

    • It's important to forgive people, even when they make terrible mistakes. Forgiveness frees us from the negative feelings of hurt, anger, betrayal, and outrage that might otherwise consume us. If we wait for justice to forgive but justice never comes, we will be condemned to suffer with the negative feelings that only forgiveness could release.
    • Forgiving someone isn't the same thing as letting them off the hook. It doesn't mean that everything's better, that the incident is forgotten, or that consequences are eliminated. When I forgive someone, I think of that person again as someone with both good and bad qualities who sometimes makes bad decisions instead of thinking of him/her only as the person who committed such-and-such terrible act. After forgiveness, there are no more murderers, thieves, adulterers, or backstabbers. There are only people whose pasts include transgressions but whose futures still hold potential promise. Nevertheless, people whose past includes crime may still have prison time in their futures, even if the label "criminal" has disappeared.
    • It is always a kindness to forgive someone, but smoothing over incidents and protecting others from logical consequences is not always kind. If we love someone, sometimes the best thing we can do is stand back and let that person learn an important lesson by paying for his/her mistake. If the woman I interviewed had covered up for her foster children when they broke the law, those children might have learned that they could get away with breaking more and more laws, thereby landing themselves into even bigger trouble.
    • Logical consequences are not the same thing as punishment. If we are truly forgiving others, then revenge should not be a motive for us. Logical consequences teach lessons, restore order, and protect others—they are not the same thing as punishments intended to cause suffering. 
    Even God, who forgives us our sins, does not spare us from all consequences. Our sin does hurt us and others, and forgiveness doesn't undo that pain—it can only transcend it. Forgiveness isn't a free pass that lets us do whatever we want and escape the consequences afterward; it's a treatment for the very real wounds that sin causes. It would, of course, be infinitely better if we didn't sin at all, but in a fallen world where that is impossible, forgiveness is essential to save us all from being destroyed by the damage done by both ourselves and others.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    You Are the New Day

    The community choir I sing with has started practicing repertoire for a February concert. One of the pieces on the program is "You Are the New Day". This song is a bit of a choir standard in the United States, and although I had heard it performed, I'd never sung it myself. I don't know that I had really stopped to listen to the lyrics before, but right now they speak to me:

    (1) I will love you more than me
    and more than yesterday
    If you can but prove to me
    you are the new day

    (2) Send the sun in time for dawn
    Let the birds all hail the morning
    Love of life will urge me say
    you are the new day

    (3) When I lay me down at night
    knowing we must pay
    Thoughts occur that this night 
    might stay yesterday

    (4) Thoughts that we as humans small
    could slow worlds and end it all
    lie around me where they fall
    before the new day

    (5) One more day when time is running out
    for everyone
    Like a breath I knew would come 
    I reach for the new day

    (6) Hope is my philosophy
    Just needs days in which to be
    Love of life means hope for me
    borne on a new day 

    You are the new day

    I don't know who wrote this song or the circumstances of its creation. I have no idea whether or not the author was Christian or whether he meant this song to be about faith, hope, or simply gentle optimism. 

    To me, it is a song of encouragement that I sing to God, to remind myself of how much I trust Him to put things right. He is the new day, the one who gives me fresh beginnings and heals my broken spirit. Each stanza of this song has something positive to say to me about my relationship with God:

    1. I do love God more than I love myself because He is more than I could ever be on my own. He is the author of all my days.
    2. God gives me this beautiful world where morning never fails to come. I see all the wonderful things He has made, and that makes me love Him more.
    3. I stain each day with sin, but God's grace washes away my transgressions and leaves them in my past, making each new day fresh and new for me.
    4. No matter what a horrible mess we humans make of everything, God will put it right. Though we destroy this entire Earth with our sin, there will still be a new day when God creates a new Earth, free from evil.
    5. Just when I think I can't make it, God renews my strength. Just when I think that everything is falling apart, God rebuilds my life out of the ashes. When I die and the darkness closes in, God will usher me into a brand new life. There will ALWAYS be a new day, thanks to God.
    6. How can despair hold me when I have so many new days to look forward to? God's grace is such a beautiful gift, and hope is its natural byproduct. No matter how dark things may seem, God's goodness and the promise of his mercy overcomes it all. 

    The new day is coming. God, my beloved Father, Savior, and Guide is the new day.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Just Keep Swimming

    The Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo is the story of a fish named Marlin who is searching for his lost son, Nemo. Marlin's journey is desperate and fraught with peril, but he shares it with a friend he meets along the way named Dory. In a humorous reference to real-life fish, Dory is hindered by a very brief short-term memory. She has trouble remembering where she and Marlin are or what they're doing. She's frequently confused, but even in the face of danger, she remains upbeat. Marlin is often hopeless, but Dory is always ready to keep going. "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming," she sings to herself.

    It's very easy to laugh at Dory, her mindless optimism, and her "Just keep swimming" mantra, but without Dory, Marlin would have failed in his quest to find his son. She spurred him on when he felt that everything was hopeless. She wouldn't quit, and she didn't let Marlin quit either. There were points in the movie when it seemed like they would never find Nemo, but that didn't stop Dory. You could dismiss Dory's buoyant spirit as the product of a limited mind, but I think to do so would be to miss an important lesson.

    There are times in my life when I feel like Marlin. I am engaged in a task that seems hopeless, striving against an obstacle that feels too big for me. I am being sabotaged at every turn, pushed and prodded by forces that seem determined to break me. I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel or the way out of the valley. I'm just here, with no idea about how to get to a better place. I'm lost or stuck or defeated. Logic suggests my cause is hopeless. But even when all seems lost, I know I will do well to remember Dory and to "just keep swimming".

    I remind myself that things often seemed hopeless to the apostles and the prophets. After all, several of them died violent deaths, so for some of them death itself was the only light at the end of the tunnel of their suffering. But that doesn't mean they should have given up. Their work was important even though it was difficult and painful, and their efforts were successful even though they were left unfinished. Sometimes we have tasks that are too big for us to finish alone, but that doesn't make our work meaningless. Sometimes we suffer with no end in sight, but we do have the promise of a happy ending—eventually we will be with God, and we even get glimpses of that joy in our relationship with Him here on Earth. Even now, in the valleys of our struggles, God is with us, sustaining us and offering us grace. No matter how miserable I feel, I know that my life is greater than my suffering, more beautiful than darkness, and worth more than I can appreciate at the time.

    When my spirit is broken, I must remind myself that God's love and mercy are real and that joy exists somewhere in the midst of the darkness. When my heart suffers, I must remember that proof of God's love is all around me and that no hardship can tarnish His promises to me. When my mind is cynical and my faith falters, I must find the part deep inside of me that will never forget that God is real and that His love conquers all. God never promised me an easy ride. He didn't even promise that this world would be fair or that if I worked hard enough I would reap the virtues I have sown in this life. Sometimes people will hurt me, and sometimes I will get kicked down and trampled for things that aren't my fault at all. But that is no sign that God has abandoned me or that I should give up. It means that God is strengthening me, giving me whatever I need to persevere, even if it feels like I'm only squeaking by.

    I may not be able to see the way out or to imagine the successful completion of the many challenges before me, but everything WILL be all right. As daunting as things may sometimes seem, all I really have to do is just keep swimming. In the end, God will take care of the rest.
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