Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ambivalence vs. Acceptance

I've been known to extol the benefits of ambivalence. Being unconcerned about what happens creates lower stress, healthier outlooks, and reduces the likelihood of unmet expectations. Ambivalence can be the way to go, especially when your goal is to be as unattached as possible.

Despite my praise for ambivalence, I'm very bad at practicing it. I remember the day in 5th grade where I decided I wasn't going to care so much. Unfortunately that just manifested itself in an unwillingness to express my emotions. Ironically, I still cared a lot, it was just that no one knew it. My pseudo-ambivalence actually led to more stress because I had all these emotions brewing inside with no outlet. I just wasn't wired for ambivalence. Doing my best has always been how I've gone about life, and resigning myself to less than that was unacceptable.

Today, however, I did realize that there was an alternative. Instead of ambivalence, I could practice acceptance. Usually, this word is used to describe relationships between people, but it doesn't have to be used that way. It can also mean a willingness to consider those things in life that we can have an impact on and choosing to accept things outside of that circumference. Very few things in life are radically different as a result of our actions, so why worry about them? We can waste valuable time, energy and resources trying to change things for which we lack control, or we can accept that sometimes this is the way things are. It doesn't mean that we stop caring, it just means that we acknowledge that God hasn't willed us His throne. He's still on it, and the things that are in His hands, aren't in ours.

I'm confident that an attitude of acceptance breeds peace. It's why we can have confidence in God's repeated commandment to not fear. When we take things as they come, there's no place for anticipating despair. And that's the place I want to be.


Dust & Dumpsters

Organization is a strength of mine. Give me time and I can probably figure out a quick way to accomplish a given task. Maybe it was because my dad was a Marine, but very early on I caught on to the whole concept of divide and conquer. I knew that if you broke any challenges up into smaller tasks eventually you could overcome. Figuring out the next step to take was usually the most challenging part. Once you had that covered, the rest usually fell into place.

Because I'm such a big fan of organization, I'm not a fan of stuff. Stuff clutters. Stuff gets in the way. And stuff makes organization more difficult. Organization, like a lot of things in life, benefits from simplicity. For example, the person who is always behind schedule is usually not that way because that's how they want to be. Usually they're running behind despite all the best intentions of getting everything done that they wanted. Whether it's an actual material possessions or its unnecessary activity, stuff has ruined their plans. Planing (another one of my favorite activities) can usually prevent a lot of tardiness, but the best of plans break down for lack of organization or the abundance of too much stuff.

Yet despite my aversion to stuff, I find myself placing way too much importance on it. The silliest things can cause me concerns. Today, I came home and was missing a bowl. And despite knowing that the value of this bowl was extremely negligible, not knowing where it was bothered me. Not because i was worried that I might have to replace it. No, I was worried because it was "mine" and I didn't know where it was. I couldn't account for its absence - and since it wasn't a camera or an ATM card there was little chance that I had lost it - and I immediately felt my sense of possession increase. MY bowl was missing - and that meant there was something wrong in the world.

And there was something wrong. But not what I originally thought. What was wrong was that I wasted so much time even thinking about it, when I ache so little for the person begging on the street. What was wrong was that I searched for the bowl, when I don't spend the time to call a friend in need. And what was wrong was that I had even bothered to figure out that the bowl was missing, when I can't be bothered to count the number of friends who don't know their Savior. It wasn't the missing bowl that was the problem, it was my focus on it.

Everything in this life is going to end up as dust or in the dumpster. Every THING. And I would no sooner take the time to organize the things in my trash than I would try to categorize dust bunnies. And yet its my things that I feel ownership of. It's my possessions that create a sense of entitlement.

Thank God He didn't give me what I was entitled to. Maybe I can give up everything else that's mine too.


Be Quiet

Be Quiet

Growing up my sister and I weren't allowed to say "shut up". In fact, I, along with numerous other students, had to write an essay in my mother's class for using those forbidden words. My mom's opinion was that the words "shut up" were neither nice nor necessary, so we didn't need to say it. Like so many other things in life, she was probably right.

Nowadays, when I do hear someone use the formally outlawed phrase, its usually at the point of exasperation. We encourage another to stop talking because we are no longer interested in what they have to say. We want them to stop so that we can start. More often than not the purpose of telling someone to be silent is to allow us to express our opinion or present our philosophy. Rarely do we tell another to be quiet because its what's best for them.

This, however, is exactly what God instructs us to do. He tells us to be silent before His presence (Zechariah 2:13) and the reason for the admonishment isn't because He's in a hard-fought battle with us for supremacy, it's because He wants us to more fully appreciate His presence. We are silent because words can not express His majesty. We are silent because even our questions would do an injustice to His wisdom. We are silent because what He was to say is pure and we should be waiting patiently for Him to speak. We are instructed to be quiet for our good, not His. He knows that its only when our mouths are closed that our other senses will be more in-tuned to recognize His holiness.

Zechariah commands the people to be quiet because God is rising from His holy dwelling. God, in other words, is getting ready to act. And when that happens, no words are necessary.


Silence promotes the presence of God, prevents many harsh
and proud words, and suppresses many dangers in the way of
ridiculing or harshly judging our neighbors... If you are
faithful in keeping silence when it is not necessary to speak,
God will preserve you from evil when it is right for you to
... Francois Fenelon (1651-1715)


Moving to Australia

"I think I'll moved to Australia". That's a common refrain that I emit when I'm having a rough day. For the uninitiated, it comes from a poem titled "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day". Alexander's plight is that of many fifth graders - he's picked on by his brothers, his teachers and his parents. His solution is to go to the land Down Under, until his mother reminds him they have bad days there too.

It turns out, Alexander might have known what he was talking about. In a recent news story (http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070108/ts_nm/australia_life_dc), it was documented that Australians live longer than other nationals. The strange thing is indigenous Australians actually have shorter lifespans; it's the people like Alexander who move there that benefit from the extended time on Earth. The longer lifetime may mean that you have more opportunities for bad days, but it seems to me that there's at least an equal chance that you'll have greater opportunities for good ones.

After all, it's not the days that we have that define us. We, instead, should be defining the days. "Good" or "bad" is a matter of perception, or probably more appropriately, a matter of response. Sure, things that are categorically bad are going to occur. But how we choose to let those things influence us and dictate who we will be, is ultimately what determines their worth. Good or bad is not determined by the circumstance, its determined by us.

And there's a Biblical case to be made for this as well. After all, "to live is Christ, to die is gain". Regardless of what happens on this Earth, the ultimate outcome is secure. Good or bad - everything can be used to glorify our Savior - if that's what we desire. And if that's what happens, then the longer life of the Australians, or the shorten life of the one who seems to die prematurely, isn't what determines the nature of our days. It's the ability to further His kingdom.

I still wouldn't mind visiting the other side of the Equator. There are definitely some days where I wouldn't mind moving there. But I have to believe that regardless of where I reside, God can use my days for His glory. Even in Australia.


Relationship Imperfection

I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Maybe that's because I'm a girl. Maybe it's because I'm an observer of human behavior. Maybe it's because I just sent in what should be the final academic work of my career and I have nothing else to occupy my time. Whatever it is, relationships have been on my mind.

Something that is interesting to note about relationships is that everyone has them. Even the most stringent anti-socialist still has some sort of relationships. Their only relationship might be with the Starbucks barista that they see every morning on their way to the office at which they arrive only to sit in an isolated cubicle, but that still counts in the relationship category.

(Random side note - there was this great Law & Order episode about a District Attorney who was killed and they discovered that this attorney, who had served as trial and appeal lawyer on hundreds of cases wasn't who he said he purported to be. And although this guy was dedicated to keeping to himself in hopes of maintaining his charade - even he had relationships).

The other thing to note about relationships is that everyone has an opinion about them. More often than not, the opinion that they have has nothing to do with their own relationships, but is an opinion that they want to express on how someone else should be conducting the relationships in their lives. I can say from personal experience that there is no shortage of individuals who are more than willing to share just what they think you should do. And although their opinions might be diametrically opposed to one another, each individual thinks that their course of action is the one that's best to take. Filtered through their own experiences and perceptions, they are convinced that they have the key to making your relationships healthy.

Yet, despite the preponderance of amateur advice columnists, I have yet to meet a single person who has their relationships under control. Each of us have struggles, each of us have points of misunderstanding. No one can possibly know with a surety the exact right thing to do in your relationship because they've never experienced it anything quite like it. We like to categorize others' lives into relatable experiences in order to more fully understand the dynamics of a situation. But strive as we might -we'll never be fully able to relate to the relationship of another. Human beings are far too complex for us to completely understand a solitary figure, let alone understanding two and the nature of their interactions. We might try, but we will fail. Relationships are messy. They're not meant to be understood. Not that this stops us from trying.

And all of this is o.k. We don't have to understand another's experience to offer advice. Nor do we always have to have the answers. Oftentimes its our bad relationship experiences that help us empathize with others in their misfortunes. Oftentimes its the imperfections of relationships that make them the most sincere. And I think being o.k with that is part of the journey. Sometimes, relationships are just experiences to be had, people to touch, and lessons to be learned. They are not definitions to be sought, categories to be organized or benchmarks to be achieved. Relationships are about the people, not about the entity.

I'm certainly glad that Christ didn't try to figure me out before He was willing to be in relationship with me. Nor did He wait for me to proffer a definition. He loved me, not for what I could bring to the relationship, but for who I am: an imperfect being imperfectly seeking a relationship with Perfection.


The Company in the Wilderness

Fair warning - this is one of those blogs that will cause my mom concern. No need to worry, Mom, I'm just fine. Just being philosophical or theoretical or something that sounds intelligent). :-)

One of the great mysteries of the Christian walk are the times when God feels far away. Oftentimes, this follows moments of great happiness and joy. We ride the high of grateful exuberance and when the allure of the new blessing has faded away, we wonder where God is. We had confused pleasure with His presence and then we lost our sense of Him in the distraction of the days. We can feel like Dorothy seeking the Emerald City with nary a friendly face in sight.

These times, these moments of feeling like God's lost when we want to be lost in God, are not for the faint of heart. There can be moments of anguish as we search for what we thought we once knew. We strive towards God, hoping that we can somehow conjure that feeling of completeness that we thought we had obtained when times were good. We struggle, hoping to overcome the temptations that blight our path. And we persevere knowing that the faithfulness of God far exceeds our momentary feelings of betrayal.

The desperation drives us to our knees. And that's when we find what we've been seeking.

Its the moments in the wilderness that causes us to recognize the comforts that abound in God's presence. If we turn to Him in these moments, it's easy to see that the promises that He holds for us far outweigh the temporal joys of this life. When all else fails, He is faithful. When all else breaks, He holds firms. When all else is compromised, He remains true. No aroma is sweeter, no arms more satisfying than that which we experience when we find ourselves with Him. It is with Him that we find rest.

The wilderness can be a scary place to be unless you know the way. Or if you are with the One who created it. Then it becomes a great adventure.


Starting Off Right

"One thing I ask of the LORD,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple." - Psalm 27:4

Happy New Year!

As I think about starting another trip around the sun, I'm reminded of how much freedom a beginning can bring. Every 365.25 days we start another new year. With our thanks to Julius Caesar, this turning of the calendar gives us a new opportunity to become the people that we think we can be. Of course, January 1 is really just another day like any other, but the perception of its primacy creates expectations for improvement.

Experts will tell you that starting the new year with a bunch of pie-in-the sky resolutions is dangerous because you're not likely to be able to fulfill them. Instead, they caution, that you should create reasonable goals interspersed with milestones. In this way, you can obtain what you seek.

I don't know whether David wrote the passage above at the start of another new year, but in it, he does open the door to his heart to share with us his resolution. He has one goal in mind - to be where God is.

As I read the passage, I'm struck by two things. First, David takes such care to emphasize that this is his heart's desire, that he redundantly identifies it as both the "one thing" he asks, and the object which he seeks. He passionately articulates that for him, this is of preeminence.

Secondly - David says that he wants to be where God is because he desires to both 1) gaze upon His beauty and 2) to be in His temple. The Psalmist both wants to feel God's pleasure and experience His presence. Ill content to just experience God from afar - he desires an intimacy that requires physicality. He wants to both know His Father's love and to be in relationship with Him.

At the start of another new year, I think that's a wonderful resolution to make.


The Right Thing

Once you make up your mind never to stand waiting and
hesitating when your conscience tells you what you ought to
do, and you have got the key to every blessing that a sinner
can reasonably hope for.
... John Keble (1792-1866)

So often we struggle with where life takes us. We wonder if the decisions we are making are going to turn out for good or bad. When the road forks in many directions, we hope that somewhere we can find a spoon, or a knife, or something that will make choosing a little easier. Even choosing nothing, is choosing something. And so we take a step forward, hopeful that if its not the optimal option we'll have the opportunity to make up for it somewhere along the line.

When we're faced with this situation. it's an amoral decision we must make. There isn't a right or wrong - only a multitude of choices. This type of question is of the essay variety, not the true/false kind. When we are faced with a decision that demands a moral response, knowing the right thing to do may be easier, but actually doing it can still contain a great amount of difficulty. Moral certitude can be a weak propellant. Maybe because doing the right thing in a difficult situation is rarely the easy thing. It extracts a price and we wait to count the cost before taking the step.

But waiting isn't the antidote to what ails us. This is one of the few situations where quicker is better. The right course of action doesn't change and acting on our convictions only grows more difficult with each passing second. The good news - the more we act on our convictions, the more we'll be witnesses to God's faithfulness, and maybe that we'll help us do the right thing a little quicker next time.


The Arrival

It's Christmas - a time when families and friends gather together to celebrate. Hopefully, the occasions are marked with remembrances of Christ's birth. However, even the most secular amongst us often view this time as an opportunity to join with those that they love dear. They might not recognize the reason for the celebrations, but celebrate they do just the same.

I think its appropriate that as when remember Christ's first arrival on this Earth that we remember that our anticipation should be for His return. I was struck recently by one of the most common passages in Scripture, John 3:16. This verse tells of the coming of the Heavenly Son, sent as a babe to visit His Creation The subsequent verse tell us the purpose of this visit. "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him". (v. 17). Christ's arrival was a visit prompted by love seeking reconciliation.

I think its a motive we can all relate to. How many of us have arrived at our holiday celebrations longing to see again those that we love? How many have arrived seeking restoration? We know what its like to be separated; the holidays remind us of what it is to be together.

The noteworthy thing is that this was the purpose of Christ's first visit. The purpose of His second is much different. The Son's initial arrival was a demonstration of His love, upon His return Christ will be here to judge. His first visit was not about condemnation, but in the second all will be acknowledged before Him. "For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. 11It is written:
" 'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
'every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'' - Romans 14:10b-11

As we celebrate His first arrival, let us not neglect to anticipate His second. And to make sure that our response to each is the same.


The Self-Help Church

The Self-Help Church
Current mood: peaceful

"The Church is not a tribe for the improvement in holiness
of people who think it would be pleasant to be holy, a means
to the integration of character for those who cannot bear
their conflicts. It is a statement of the divine intention for
humanity." - Harold Loukes

I tell people that I am full of mystery and intrique. It started as a joke - probably a shameless attempt to get on the quote board - but like all really funny things, there's some truth to it. As I've often expressed, I'm not very good at expressing myself. People don't know what to make of me. I'm a girl that looks like she could be in high school who uses words like "stymied" in everyday conversation. I've (almost) completed my doctorate, but I couldn't figure out my friend's CD player. I talk when I'm tired and am silent when fully awake. I'll argue on behalf of someone else, but hate conflict when it pertains to m own defense. As the great philospphers of Green Day once sang, I'm a walking contradiction.

Once, I even had a friend remark to me that the intricacies of my (probably somewhat warped) personna ruined a long-held theory about Christians. They had been of the opinion that there were two types of believers - those who are raised in the Church and believe because that's what they've always known. These Christians have never "worked out their salvation" as Paul directs because they've never really thought about it. Or there were those who turned to Christianity to improve some aspect of their lives. The second type view the Church as a means of restoration and come from a variety of different contexts, but the defining feature is that the Church is a means of self-improvement. I didn't (and hopefully still don't!) fit into either of these categories.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of truth to what my friend observed. There are people in the Church who appear to be members of the community solely for the good that they think will be brought to their lives as a result. They see the Church as good group therapy, a way for them, or their kids, to be shown how to conduct their lives in a morally upstanding manner. For them, the Church is little more than a spiritual psychoanalytical group session - a good way to get their life back on track.

But this was never God's intention for the Church. As my pastor taught in a recent sermon, the Church was intended to be the foundation upon which God's plan was brought about on Earth. It is His means for bringing Him glory - and for drawing others to salvation. The Church is Christ's ambassadors, sent to do His work. As Harold Loukes comments above, the Church "is a statement of God's divine intention for humanity".

It's a shame that in many circles the Church has become less than that. It's an even greater shame that there are Christians who are content with this downgrade. We should want more. I know God does.

As for the second type of Christians, those who have been brought up in the Church and don't ever reason out their faith, we'll leave that discussion for another day. :)


It's All About Me

When the discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to discover they are not it."
--Bernard Bailey

I'm often struck by how much I think about me. I'm an introspective person, so maybe I have a heighten sense of this compared to most people, but really, have you stopped and thought about how much "you" were the topic of your internal conversation? "I" am how I perceive the world, how I make sense of what goes on around me, and how I evaluate my relationships. We talk in terms of what happens to us - as if the person on the freeway who cut in front purposefully tried to ruin "my" day. We judge people on how they treat "me" regardless of who they actually might be. We perceive, quite readily, that our experiences are what makes up reality and therefore our perception of reality is what's true.

It's amazing then that as Christians what happens to "us" is supposed to be the least of our concerns. First, our life is no longer our own - we've given it as a gift of love in response to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. Secondly, our back is covered; we have the Creator of the universe paving the path that we're to tread. There's no reason to be focused on what's going happen to along the way; ultimately our destination is paradise. Being freed from the focus on us allows us to focus on others and in helping to make sure that their arrival is also secured.

Perceiving the universe with me at the center might be ridiculously common. But let's hope we get a right perception of things before science proves how ridiculous it actually is.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Intoxication of Prosperity

It is by affliction chiefly that the heart of man is
purified, and that the thoughts are fixed on a better state.
Prosperity has power to intoxicate the imagination, to fix the
mind upon the present scene, to produce confidence and
elation, and to make him who enjoys affluence and honors
forget the hand by which they were bestowed.
... Samuel Johnson

I live in Orange County, CA a place known for its abundance. Although I never knew it growing up, by my peers' standards I would have been considered substantially worse off than they were. This never bothered me; I had everything I needed and more and I had something that most of them didn't - a well-functioning family. I was content and it was only as an adult that I realized how much material wealth they had in comparison to mine.

The wealth and prosperity in my hometown creates a desire among many to try and live here. There's the beach, the perpetual sunshine and all those good-looking people. It seems like a place where dreams come true. Whatever drama takes place in the OC is quickly resolved in forty-eight minutes (an hour if you add in commercials) and the drama always comes with a happy ending. What more can paradise afford? Sure there's the high cost of homes, but even paradise has its price.

But this is just an allusion. The happiness that seems to radiate from the sun's constant presence fades as night darkens the day. Everything that people possesses tempts them to believe that they have a barrier against discomfort and pain but they quickly realize the futility of this belief. Plastic surgery and good genes never prevented heartache. People think it's paradise, but it's still just a piece of Earth.

And as people try harder and harder to buy themselves a happy life, they fail to realize that its in adversity that development occurs. It's only through trials that we experience God's redemption. It's only through pain that we experience His healing touch. And it's only through heartache that we can truly appreciate His arms of love.

Prosperity creates a mirage of invincibility - a belief that everything will go right. But it's only when things go wrong that we realize what we truly possess.


Deck the Halls

If you were to visit my house, there would be little indication that Christmas is rapidly approaching. Besides the pile of gifts that are ungraciously stacked in my living room, evidence of the impending holidays is minimal. I've been blaming this on the fact that I've been having major electrical work done and efforts to decorate would be stymied by the workmen. But this is in reality just a convenient excuse. Even without the "scheduled" repair work, the chances of finding boughs of holly around my place are minimal. I'm just not that in to Christmas. (Although I do wonder . . .now that I have a roommate who's name is Holly - I'm pretty much situated for Christmas all year round, right?)

I'm not a complete Scrooge. I like Christmas music - although not when the radio stations play it before Thanksgiving. And I love looking at Christmas lights. I could even get into Christmas caroling as long as there's the promise of hot chocolate awaiting my return. But all the glitz and glitter; the decorations extrarodinaire; and the holiday themed clothing are just not my cup of tea. For me it takes everything that's sacred about Christmas and trivializes it. Its like its making a mockery out of the celebration.

I realize that for many this isn't the case. I come from a family who LOVES Christmas (almost as much as my friend, Alex, loves the Dallas Cowboys). For them, the hoopla of Christmas is part of what makes it special. The go to extremes because its a way to acknowledge the elaborate gift of our Savior's birth. In many ways, I wish I could be like them. For me though, I can't get into all the extravagance. I know that I'll lose myself in the trappings and forget the meaning. I'll worry so much about what seems obligatory that I won't be compelled to worship. And I'll focus so much on the holiday that I'll forget the Savior.

So my house remains undecorated. Christmas-themed clothes are not to be found in my newly organized closet. And the gifts, while wrapped, are not done so in a way that would cause anyone to envy. It's my way of not losing myself in the celebration and remembering the sacrifice.

Maybe one day I'll be able to do both. But until then I hope that at the very least, my halls are decked with love.

Fa La La La La, La La La La.

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The angel of the LORD encamps around
those who fear him, and delivers them.
-- Psalm 34:7 (ESV)

Being surrounded is usually thought of as a bad thing. It describes what happens when someone is trapped; when they have no where else to turn, and when their options are limited. Most of the time its used to demonstrate how enemy combatants win wars - they surround the opposition and attack.

But being surrounded can be a good thing. We can be surrounded by love, although few of us are. We can be surrounded by blessings, which we probably are even if we don't acknowledge it. Or we can be surrounded by God and His angels - who protect, defend and deliver us from our affliction. This is the opposite of the surrounding that happens by our enemy; they're surrounding us for our good.

How often, though, do we forget that this protection is there? In the moments of trial, we have warriors who have already taken up the battle on our behalf. And not just one warrior who is swooping down from his previous post to rescue us, but warriors who are stationed around our lives; soldiers who are fighting for us before we know that the battle is going on.

There's a verse in the Bible that cautions us to be careful - we may be entertaining angels unaware. Maybe we should also be grateful - those that surround us may come to our aid even when we don't know it.


The Season of Change

December was supposed to be my month. November hadn't turned out so great, and embracing the idea of positive self-talk, I had convinced myself that December would be better. Quite literally, I counted down the days until the new month began. And then it did. And things continued their tailspin.

Now before anyone gets too worried, none of my life's trials are currently that bad. There are people who are going through much worse. I recognize this and I'm grateful that my biggest personal concern is that I haven't had half of my electricity for the better part of the month. Yet giving mental assent to this fact hasn't helped my attitude much in the last few days. I beat. And I'm tired. And quite frankly, I want someone to rescue me.

But no one has. And in fact, several people have offered to help, but there's nothing they can do. It's surprising - for a girl who never asks for assistance - in the rare case that I would actually accept it, I have to do it on my own. No one can climb the incline for me.

And I think some times are just like that. Like Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day, we have to recognize that every life has its seasons. Some are worse than others, some are better. I think I tend to hover around autumn - not too hot, not too cold, but always filled with change. I don't experience the majesty of spring or the destitution of winter, and somehow it all evens out for me in the end. Knowing that I know the One who causes every wind to blow and every leaf to fall, helps make autumn sustainable. After all, even a sparrow doesn't stumble without Him being aware.

Alexander wanted to move to Australia. I can certainly understand that feeling. But Australia has its autumns too. And at least if I'm in autumn, I can always look forward to the eternal Spring.

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Are You Ready?

Then Paul answered, "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, "The Lord's will be done." - Acts 21:13-14

Preparing for any time of testing is difficult. Whether it's a competitive game, a academic exercise, or a real-life circumstances, there's prepartion that is required before success can be anticipated. Preparation refines our skills, teaches us lessons, and builds our strength. If my life is any indication, usually we know when we're ready or if we're just going to try to get by on a wing and a prayer. We know because we have confidence that we have done the work necessary to achieve our goals.

I think sometimes though we don't undertake the same level of care with our spiritual preparation as we do making sure that we are ready for other events in our lives. We approach life with the recklessness of the rookie, rather than with the discipline of the battletorn soldier. We trust that our instincts will get us by, without refining what our instincts should be. We like to believe that God will supernaturally reinforce us without taking the time to build a foundation. Bad circumstances overwhelm us, because we never prepare for their eventual return.

In this case, and maybe in it only, what is true in athletics is also true spiritually. We can't hope to achieve readiness in the midst of the circumstance; readiness is achieved beforehand. Knowing that te purpose of this life is to bring God glory and to worship Him, our preparations should consist of becoming more adept at that. Our practice comes when things are good, when life is (relatively) carefree and we don't feel the desperate need for God that comes in times of trial. It is through this preparation that our skills are honed and our responses become instinctual. Right response is then not based on feeling, but on Who God is.

Paul had a very clear idea of what he would face as he entered Jerusalem. He made sure that he was ready to face it.

Are you?

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Wait & Hope

Recently I wrote about Jesus' instruction to watch and pray. When we don't know what to do, when we are faced with circumstances that are unfamiliar and when unnamed enemies surround us, this is should be our response. Watch and pray. Pray that God's will would be shown to us; watch that we don't fall into temptation.

Sometimes however the circumstances aren't unclear, they're just bad. Sometimes we know exactly what we should do, we just don't want to do it. And sometimes the enemies have names* and faces that justify our temerity.

When this is the situation we find ourselves in, there is another posture that we should take - wait and hope. In the familiar Isaiah 40 passage in which the prophet exhorts the chosen people in a time of trial, he reminds them that although God sometimes doesn't change our circumstances, He is always aware of them, and He provides what we need to overcome. Additionally, the prophet encourages the people, to "wait" (NKJ) or "hope" (NIV) in the Lord so that He may grant them renewed strength (vs. 31). Although taken from the same Hebrew word, I think that each of these constructs are illustrative of what our response should be. We should be waiting - not acting to change our circumstances when God has given us a path to travel, but patiently anticipating His action in our lives. And hoping - knowing that God is the only source of change and trusting His promise to achieve His glory. Hope is what makes the waiting bearable. Waiting is what causes our hope to grow.

There's a popular license plate frame that says "Always late, but worth the wait". God is never late, but He is always worth the wait. And that's enough reason to hope for all of us.

*Sometimes the name of our enemy is cancer. This deplorable disease has struck a good friend. If you feel so led, please pray for her. Cynthia's healing will come as a result of the prayers of God's people.


I Love This Song

It's a common refrain that's heard as I walk into the art department. It's almost always immediately followed by a sing-along and if, the art department is lucky, an impromptu dance performance. I love music. I always have. And whether it's a rocking song from the 90's, aflashback to the 80's, or my work-day theme song, it requires a lot of restraint for me not to belt out the words along with the radio. I can certainly relate to the guy I observed in Blockbuster who joined in on the Rascal Flatts videoplaying throughout the store. Music speaks to my soul and my soul wants to respond.

My affinity for music is probably why I like worship songs* so much. They express thoughts about God that just can't be conveyed with the spoken word. I haven't decided if it's because the lyrics blended with the melody bring a greater depth to the relationship, or if it's simply easier to capture and relate to thoughts expressed in rhyme, but either way, I know that my greatest moments of worship are often accompanied by music.

And this has been that way through the ages. Miriam sang as the Israelites escaped Egypt. Mary sang upon receiving her angelic greeting. And the most famous lyricist of them all, David, sang and danced at every occasion imaginable.

Maybe it's because music allows us to engage with our Maker in a manner that's reflective of His being. After all, God is essentially an artist; the greatest design in the world is reflected in creation. And especially for those non-artistic types like myself, music provides me one avenue of engaging with God in a manner that expresses His heart. So much of life and my relationship with God is based on who I am; music is expressive of Him.

The art department can look forward to many more random performances. And if they're fortune, they may even experience another dance-off. (If you weren't there – that's a story for another time). But none of these performances will compare with the ultimate show – when we're standing at our Maker's feet, singing along to His song.

*A quick sidebar to state a pet peeve – please note I said worship songs. Worship isn't exclusively about music. When preachers say, "And now that we've finished worship. . ", I want to scream, "So what are we doing for the rest of the church service – being entertained?"


When Good Enough, Isn't

And Joshua said, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? – Joshua 7: 7-8

I write a lot about being content. To me, it's really important to have peace with what God's given me, and what He's chosen for my life. It's easy to spend so much time worrying about what we don't have, that we neglect to be grateful for what we do.

Sometimes, however, being content is not what God has in store for us. Sometimes God desires for us to act in ways that may shake the normalcy of our lives. He wants us to follow His lead and to trust in the outcome. When the Israelites were destroyed by the Amorites, Joshua questioned why they couldn't be content to stay on the other side of the Jordan. But God's plan for the Israelites lives was to traverse the Jordan; being content with the "good enough" life on the wrong side of the Jordan, would have been the wrong thing to do.

And although I fear the times when God calls me to be un-content with the life that I've achieved, He's always been faithful to offer me an even better promise on the other side of the river.


As the world changes

"We're just waiting, waiting for the world to change".

In his anthem justifying Generation X's perceived ambivalence, John Mayer expresses what many of his cohorts believe – that the reason for their inaction is not lack of caring – it's because they believe that with the current power structures their ability for effectiveness is minimal. So, it's not that this age refuses to act, it's just that they refuse to act until things change.

There may be perfectly good reasons for this position, but I'm struck by how different it is from what the generations before believed. Imagine if America never acted in War World II because they were waiting until peace was restored. Imagine if civil rights leaders never protested because they were waiting until full rights of citizenship were bestowed. Imagine if Mother Theresa never held the hand of a dying man because she was waiting for the cure for AIDS.

Right actions shouldn't wait for circumstances to change. Right actions are correct regardless of the forces that impede them. This generation shouldn't be waiting for the world to change. They should change it.


Unasked Questions

The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD. – Joshua 9:14

I am terrible at expressing myself. Or maybe that's not exactly true. I'm pretty good at expressing my opinion on things, but I'm not very good at expressing anything that might be self-revelatory. It's why my co-workers instigated "Share Time with Natalie". I am so bad at talking about myself that they figured if they interrogated me every Monday morning, I would become a little more proficient. It's worked on some levels – and I'm forever grateful to them for that.

One of the main reason I'm so reluctant to express my feelings is because I figure that if someone acts they realize they ramifications of those actions including the potential to hurt my feelings. There seems little reason to mention something that seems so obvious to me, so instead of questioning what happened, I swallow my feelings and say it doesn't matter. It happened just today and despite the therapeutic nature of this blog, I still can't bring myself to ask the person if they realize what they did.

And I think it's the same for a lot of what happens in the world. We make so many assumptions about the cause of things based on our own experiences and perceptions. Rarely does this single-handedness take into account all the factors pertaining to a given circumstance. We do the same with God. We assume that when things happen, it must be the work of His hand, and so we make decisions based on that perception.

Sometimes, however, things happen that are contrary to God's plan for our lives. We perceive presence as acknowledgment of an open door, but it could be the exact opposite. And instead of stopping and ask God for His wisdom, we proceed on our own ignorance, and suffer the consequences as a result.

My feelings would probably be saved a lot of heartache if I was more willing to pause in a situation and talk with someone about what's happening. Going along like it doesn't matter has never turned out well for me. When the Israelites acted like God's opinion didn't matter, it didn't turn out well for them either. There's probably a lesson in that for all of us.

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Fifty-seven dollars. That's how much a seat costs at my church. Before you start questioning the theology of my church and wondering whether we sell tickets like church is a sporting event, $57 is the cost of the new chairs that we just purchased. Our pastor has been encouraging us to "buy our chair" – to help donate in order to defray some of the expense. It's a good idea and probably one that has a lot of merit. (However, as a side note, my dad thinks it really should be $28.50 since they use the chairs for two services. I think the congregation should wait until we go to three services – that's when it will be a really good investment). J

Now, talking about money at church is always a tough subject, and I happen to believe our pastor handles it better than most. But even with his dexterity, I had a hard time with the request for $57. Not because I don't believe that the church shouldn't be self-supported – I do. But it seemed like such a tragedy that the request was even made

I live in Orange County, CA – a place where the magnitude of material wealth is staggering. I don't know the statistics, but I would guess that if Orange County would fall off into the ocean, we'd still have a larger economy than a lot of developed nations. And the church I go to is filled with people who are benefactors of this wealth. They have been blessed materially in ways that many can't imagine. I would guess that many of them probably spend more than $57 on their Saturday night meal – so donating it to the church for the chair shouldn't be a problem. And yet, it often is.

I think the root of the problem lays in the fact that we think of the money we have as ours instead of God's. Somehow, we feel like we are doing Him a favor when we give it away – even to His church. We like to think it's our decision how we spend it – and if we choose to spend it on His work – well, then kudos for us.

But not really. Because the fact that we give anything to God isn't what's significant. The truly amazing part is that God even gives us the opportunity to participate in His work. He could have chosen otherwise. He could have chosen to accomplish His purposes here on Earth through His own volition. But instead, He allows us to join with Him – if we want to.

How often do we choose otherwise so that we can spend our resources on something else?


Martha's Bad Rap

For Sunday School graduates, the name Martha is associated with the woman who was so busy preparing dinner that she didn't realize that she was in the presence of her Savior. Martha is chided for being so worried about worldly things, that she wasn't concerned with things of heaven. Her sister, Mary, however is revered for her demonstration of worship at Jesus' feet.

Surely this wasn't the first time in history that one sister has been praised, while another was derided, and it certainly won't be the last. However, this portrayal is incomplete. While this might be the story that is most often associated with Martha, it's not the only time that she is mentioned in the Bible. At her brother's Lazurus' death she also plays a central role. This time however, she's the one who should be commended.

Lazurus had died and the sisters were grieving. When Jesus, their friend, finally came, it was Martha who ran out and greeted him. It was Martha who first acknowledged that had Jesus wanted to, He could have prevented Lazurus' death. It was Martha who testified that God would give Jesus whatever He asked. Finally, it was Martha who first made a profession of faith; she was the one who stated that Jesus was the Christ.

I'd like to think that maybe Mary learned the truth about worship from this experience. With Lazurus dead, she stayed at the house, while her sister Martha ran to the Lord's presence. Maybe it was her sister's example of real-life faith that caused her to realize the importance of learning who Christ was. Maybe her lifestyle of worship was the direct result of her sister's proclamation.

I don't know if this is the case, and this side of heaven I doubt I ever will. But maybe Martha's a model to follow after all.


The Death of a King

It was a moment I'll never forget. I had traveled to England for work and decided to stay a few extra days to be a tourist. For someone who had previously hated traveling, this was a big adventure. On my own, out of the country, with absolutely no plan.

As I strolled the streets of London, I was in awe of the city. At that time, I had never experienced what it was like to be in a place where you could walk for miles and see nothing but activity. I was alone, yet surrounded by people. I was one of the masses enjoying the mysteries of modern life.

And then I came to the castle. Buckingham Palace to be exact. The flag was up – the sign that the Queen was in residence. Unlike most tourists, I had decided not to take the tour and to this day, I have no clue what the palace looks like on the inside. But it didn't matter. I was dumbfounded. And for a girl who's not easily impressed, this was a moment of magic.

As I stared the flag, it hit me. This was their queen. And the palpable air of respect permeated my surroundings. Being raised in America, I'm used to public officials being elected. The Queen hadn't been elected; she was born into her position. I could no sooner ascend to her place than I could learn to fly. No desire, no volition, no action on my part could make us equal. She was the Queen; I was not.

Maybe it was the majesty of the moment, but it was only then that I realized the significance of saying that Christ, our King, had died for us. If I were an Englander, I would not be able to imagine a circumstance in which the Queen would choose to give her life for mine. But this is what the Heavenly King did. He gave up His birthright of royalty, to pay my penalty. What an Earthly queen could never be compelled to do, our Heavenly King did willingly on our behalf.

I still think I'm far from grasping the significance of that act. I think people who are familiar with a heritage of royalty probably have a better appreciation for it. But as I think back, I'm grateful for the night spent at the steps of the Queen. It helped prepare me for an eternity at the King's feet.

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The Work of God

"Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." John 6:28-29

Often times we are looking for what God wants us to do. We struggle with indecision; afraid of making the wrong move. We want to do what God wants but we can't discern His voice. People have abandoned their faith for lack of clear direction.

What God asks us to do, however, is quite simple – believe in the One He sent. So many times we think the focus is on us – "God what should I do? Where do you want me to go?" But really the focus should be on Him. And our moment of indecision should be washed away in faith.

This is easier to write than do. It's something I practice imperfectly at best. But, it's nevertheless the right thing. And sometimes knowing that makes the step next even easier.


The Color of Pumpkin

t's easy to tell when I'm embarrassed. Despite all my best attempts to prevent the color from flooding my face, I've never been able to accomplish it. My pale skin doesn't help matters. I might not wear my heart on my sleeve but I definitely wear my embarrassment on my cheeks.

The good news is that I've never had caused to be really embarrassed. Sure, I've had a few mishaps now and then (falling asleep in the middle of conducting training with a new employee),and I've said some things I probably shouldn't (refer to the previous example, along with about a dozen other things that have ended up on the quote board at work), but all-in-all, I've lead a life unworthy of headlines. I've said before I could be a great politician if I only liked politics. There would be very little dirt to uncover.

I was thinking about embarrassment because of a recent experience. One of my closest friends, who has been a huge part of my life for more than a decade, was embarrassed to call me for help simply because we've been out of touch for a while. One of the reasons I moved back to Orange County was so that I could be around her kids, and yet she was sheepish about asking me to spend a few hours helping out at a high school football game. She knew I would say yes – she even told me that. But she still felt like she shouldn't ask.

As I pondered this situation, it occurred to me – most of the time when we're embarrassed it has everything to do with our perception of ourselves and very little to do with the actual situation. We want to be the one person on Earth who has it all together – and yet none of us do. Our pride prevents us from laughing at experiences because we are too worried about the impression we've made. My friend didn't want to call me because of what it said about her – not because of me. She thought that because we hadn't talked she hadn't lived up to the expectations of friendship, and although we both were well aware of the situation, she didn't want to feel exposed.

I think exposure is half the fun of the experience. Learning to be vulnerable means learning to be real. That's one of the reasons we have a quote board at work. We all say stupid (I mean witty) things, we might as well all share them.

Laughing at myself didn't come naturally – it was something I had to learn. But now I don't mind sharing about being scarred of "the brown dog with ears" or the alligator I thought I saw on the Toll Road, or even how I said that one of my co-workers face was red – like a pumpkin.



Think Happy Thoughts
- Go To Your Happy Place

- There's No Place Like Home

- You're Good Enough, Smart Enough, and Gosh Darn it, People Like You

In popular culture as in life, we are constantly admonished to think positively. A friend told me that his dad use to coach him to practice "positive self-talk" when playing sports. If memory serves me correctly (and the chances of that are slim), the purpose was to focus on playing well instead of dwelling on the mistakes that had been made. Good advice. So much so that it's become a catch-phrase at work to help us get through some tough days.

The fact is all of the above is probably good advice. Thinking positively and focusing on the good things in life is a much better alternative than focusing on the negative. However, as recently reported by Business Week (scroll down), it actually might be better to not think positively. Not that the authors suggest that we should think negatively. Instead, recent research suggests that people are happier when they practice ambivalence; when they are content with the outcome because their expectations are reduced. Thinking positively means that you are looking for good things to come your way. Ambivalence means that you take life as it comes - and deal with the results. It may not qualify you for working at Disneyland, but it may make dealing with life outside of the happiest place on Earth a little easier.

Practicing ambivalence isn't meant to be equated with a lack of care. Instead it means recognizing that just like good intentions, positive expectations have little actual impact. Heightened expectations means that you have a heighten awareness of when they are unfulfilled. Choosing to experience life rather than expecting something from it, might be the better way to go.


The Price of A Prayer

How much would you pay for a prayer? Not how much would you pray to know that your prayer would be answered, but what is someone else's outpouring to God worth to you? What is the cost of knowing the inner despair of another's soul?

Soon we'll know the answer to that question. Yahoo News recently reported that a man found a bunch of prayer letters washed up on the beach. Addressed to a now-deceased pastor, the prayers ranged from humorous requests to win the lottery to serious requests for assistance. Most of them were never opened until they appeared on the sand.

In a society where it seems like even people's souls have a price tag, the man is auctioning the letters on E-bay. It's just another example of the sacred becoming secular, of profaning for profit. Even the unspoken prayers of a soul in anguish are no longer protected. They're just another means of exposure and intrigue.

Imagine if you were one of those people whose letters were being sold; if a stranger could now read about the abuse you suffered or the grief you experienced. What would you do if your prayers were put on public display so that another could make a buck?

Thankfully, while there may be some embarrassment and unresolved issues, the people who wrote the letters have little need of real worry. Although the letters remained unopened, their Father in heaven heard their prayers long ago. And He's already paid the greatest price.


Kadesh Barnea

"And when the LORD sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, "Go up and take possession of the land I have given you." But you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You did not trust him or obey him" – Deuteronomy 9:23

It was a moment of decision. All of God's promises were about to be fulfilled. Obedience was the only thing that was needed. He had guided them each step of the way, they had to keep following. And they didn't.

My pastor often refers to the Kadesh Barnea's in our lives – the moments of decisions where we choose whether to follow God. He pulls the reference from the time when the Israelites had to choose whether to go up and fight the occupants of the promised land, or whether they would let their fear prevent their obedience. They choose the latter, and were forced to endure many more years of suffering and defeat.

What I've rarely heard discussed is that the Israelites did go up and fight. After they said "no" then they said "yes" – and they were defeated. They tried to circumvent God's punishment by doing what He said – just after the fact. They thought intentions were just as good as actions – and they were wrong.

I think we do the same thing. We are called to something, we say "no" and we realize that we've made a mistake. Instead of asking God what He wants us to do now we continue to try to find our own way, while ostensibly convincing ourselves that we are following Him. It rarely works. He calls us to act in a moment in time. Our job is to obey when we hear His voice. When we choose differently, our job is to seek His voice again – not to attempt to do it ourselves because our pride mingled with guilt convinces us that we can make it right. We can't make it right. Only the One who sees the whole picture can.

It's sometimes difficult to recognize when were at Kadesh Barnea. The Israelites had disobeyed before and sometimes God is His mercy withheld punishment. Kadesh Barnea, though, changed the course of history. That's why it's important to always seek His voice and to follow after His ways.


Watch & Pray

"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap . . . Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." - Luke 21: 34, 36

I used to tell people that I was a world-class worrier. (When I said it, it sounded like a world-class warrior – which I am definitely not). I am the only person I know who got stress headaches in fourth grade. What I had to worry about back then, I have no idea, but I created something and whatever it was, I figured that if I thought about it enough, I'd be able to change the situation.

My skills at worrying only improved with time. Being an introspective person I thought about the world's problems as well as my own. Somehow, I figured that it was my responsibility to do everything I could to right all wrongs. And if there was nothing, the least I could do was think. What I couldn't control, I could try to solve.

I realized a few years ago how unproductive this was. Not only was it compromising my health, but I realized that worrying never changed the situation. I faced what many people consider the ultimate concern – what would happen when I die – and I realized I knew the end of the story. If the finale was taken care of, there was no need to worry about the intermission. The ending was going to be the same regardless, and even if I didn't know when or how, I knew what my destination was going to be.

What I hadn't considered until recently was how quickly I forget. Having dealt with the ultimate concern, I still get stressed over some little things in life. Not as often as I used to, and with a lot more humor, but I still worry. It's silly and pointless and I know that, but I let life's burdens get me down. And my burdens aren't even that great to bear.

The Gospel of Luke provides the remedy. Watch and Pray. Watch – be aware of what is around, the temptation to doubt, and what difficulties there may be. Pray – to walk with wisdom, resist when necessary, and overcome defeat. With these two armaments, we can avoid life's anxieties and rest in Christ's peace.

Worrying never accomplished much for me; I doubt it did for anyone else. When I follow Christ's instructions my thoughts are on Him and I'm mindful of all that's under His command. I am no longer consumed with my thoughts but I'm focused on all He is. And if that's not a cure for worrying, I don't know what is.

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Meeting the Unexpected

Meeting the Unexpected

It must have been an experience. Ten lepers come to Jesus and all of them ask to be healed. He gives a command. They leave. Only one comes back to thank Him for the cure.

Every time I've heard this story the focus has been on the one who returns. He was the one who understood what it meant to have a grateful heart. All of them were healed; he was the only one with the right response.

But what about the other nine? They were healed too and received everything they asked for. In all likelihood they went on to lead full and productive lives. If nothing else, there lives were immensely improved. No longer were they outcasts, separated from their families. No longer were they forbidden to enter God's Temple. Their lives – both physically and socially – had been restored. All their expectation were met.

The one that return, though, was blessed in a way that the others weren't. He got to experience Jesus' presence again. All of them were healed physically. Only the one choose to dwell in His presence.

How often do we do the same? We ask God for something, He gives it, and we enjoy the gift. We may even give an obligatory response of praise. But do we dwell in the Giver's presence. Do we acknowledge that the only reason the gift is good is due to the One who gave it?

I'm afraid this is rarely the case. We settle for met expectations. And bypass the blessings from the gift that we never anticipated, the need that was met even though we never expected it.


God's Work

One of my best friends is a nurse in Africa. Day in a day out she works with children and adults infected by AIDS; she cares for them, educates them, and tries to be God's ambassador of love. Juli is one of my heroes. Because of her sacrifice, countless lives will be saved.

Oftentimes when I look at my own life I'm amazed at the call God's given me. It easy to feel that it's inadequate compared with the burden that I imagine Juli bears. I work in a comfortable office, with wonderful people, who challenge me professionally and personally. My family has always lived within driving distance. My friends are never more than a phone call away. It's easy to wonder if I'm missing something; if somehow I've missed out on what God asks of me because my life is filled to abundance.

The funny thing is if you ask Juli, she'd say her life is filled with abundance too. She once told me that people's impression is that she's suffering in Africa, but in reality, it's her home. She loves what she does and although it can be challenging and brimming with despair, she knows that she's where she's supposed to be. Therefore, her calling, while unbearable to most, is a joy and comfort to her.

George MacDonald once challenged that while we think God's work must be hard, what He's promised is a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. MacDonald goes on to articulate that sometimes when we are so consumed with wondering what great sacrifice and burden God is going to call us to next, we focus on the future and lose sight of the "easy" work that He's called us to today. We become ambivalent about doing the light tasks that He's given us because we consider them of no great importance. We treat God's call as insignificant because we are unaware of its value and its impact.

It's easy to see the value of Juli's call. Sometimes it's harder to see the value of mine. But I've come to believe that what is expected of both of us is to do the work that God has given us to the best of our ability. I can no sooner dictate what the outcome of my work is than I could guess the impact of the life that Juli's work saves. The reality is, whatever the impact, neither will be the result of mine or Juli's efforts. It will be because of the work that God is doing. And He can just as easily use a girl in an office as He can a nurse in Kenya.


The Age of Transition

The Age of Transition

Becoming an adult is not all it's cracked up to be. First, you never really arrive. Second, unlike any other time in life, "what's next" is never clearly defined. Thirdly, there's all those bills you have to pay. Like Meredith observed on Grey's Anatomy, although there's more freedom, there's a ton of responsibility. And sometimes, responsibility is hard to bear.

In talking with people who are at a similar life stage that I'm at, I realize that many of them are struggling to define their adult years. For most of history, this has been the age where people get married, have families and start a stage in life where they are caring for others. If adulthood didn't look like that, it almost certainly was about establishing yourself in a chosen profession and working your way to the next promotion. In a time where unmarried households have now surpassed married ones, and multiple places of employment is considered a good thing, this expectancy is rarely ever met.

The sad thing is that many young adults struggle during this time because they feel incomplete. They don't know where they are being led or what their future will look like. Recently, as I've been reading through the Gospels, I've been struck how in both Mark and Luke it says when Jesus was tempted the Spirit had led him out into the desert. I'm a firm believer that God doesn't tempt us (see the book of James), but I do believe that God leads us to places where we have to rely and trust in Him. For many of us, transitioning into adulthood is such a time as this.

When Jesus was in the desert He didn't have any of the comforts of Earth - no friends, no food, and no shelter. What He did have, He depended upon solely - namely communion with His Heavenly Father. It was through this process of being stripped of everything but trust in God and in His promises that He was prepared for His future ministry.

We think upon becoming an adult that our preparation is complete - that we should be ready to unleash on the world all the greatness that is us. But this is rarely the case. Instead, God often needs to refine us further so that we are willing to lay aside the dreams we had for our life in order to follow His call. He needs to strip us of what we have to give us that which we could never dream. Its for our good and His glory.

Oh, and in case you're starting to feel a little behind schedule and are wondering when God will reveal His great plan for your life -Jesus was 30 when He was led into the desert. His Earthly ministry lasted just three years. And He changed the world.


A Simple Life of Worship

A Simple Life of Worship

It's not easy to live simply. It's much easier to get wrapped up in the cult of consumerism that pervades our American culture. I attribute this to the fact that most of us live in excess. If you're reading this in all likelihood your basic needs are met and you probably have several things in your closet that you've forgotten are even there. We are used to having more than we need. Living simply takes practice if only becomes so much of our social interactions are built upon giving and receiving. Everywhere we go we get stuff – whether its groceries, gas, or promotional trinkets for the hometown football team.

However, living simply is a great remedy for many of the supposed problems we face. When you don't have a lot of stuff, you don't worry about it breaking. Maintenance concerns cease to exist and you don't have to buy all the things necessary to care for what you already have. Reducing how much stuff you accumulate not only reduces your concerns, but it puts fewer constraints on relationship, it helps keep work and money in the proper perspective and it generally makes contentedness easier to achieve.

Living simply, however, is about more than just possessing fewer things. In my view, it is about enjoying the ordinariness of life, finding beauty in the commonplace, laughing often and recognizing that the cares of this world are temporal. When one is not distracted by the worries of Earth, it's easier to keep our eyes on our Savior – the One who should be the object of our time, attention and worship, anyway. Worship, in its essence, is acclaiming that which already exists – namely that God is God and we're not. There's nothing more simple than that.

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I like being happy.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but I'm convinced its not. Some people prefer misery. Whether they like the attention that comes with pity or they just find it easier to point out what they dislike, they choose, through their own volition, to dwell in the smut of life rather than flourishing in the richness of possibility. They choose to be discontent.

It really is easy to point out the things that we are missing. It's easy to recognize what others have that we haven't or to announce how life has cheated us out of what we believe we deserve. Sometimes, searching for the goodness that life offers is quite a chore. We look at our lives, and if we're like most people on this Earth, it hasn't exactly turned out the way we planned. It may be that our job's not good enough, our spouse's not good enough, or we don't have either of the above. If its not one of those things, than for each of us there's something that we wish were different, something that we wish made a little more sense or offered a little more respite.

But life rarely does turn out as we planned. Most of the time, if we're honest, it turns out better. I'm convinced that God wants to pour down His blessings on His children and that most of the time when life's hard, its the result of our own actions. But even when this is not the case, even when there are inexplicable mysteries of pain and suffering, we can still choose to be content. Because contentment is not dependent on what we have or what we are missing. Contentedness is dependent on trusting the One who has it all and in recognizing all the blessings that He's given us despite what we deserve.


The Disillusionment of Activity

Maybe it was because I had been gone a few weeks. Maybe time dragged because I had forgotten all that needed to be said. Maybe it was an anomaly - the result of a busy time of year. Or maybe the announcements at church really had taken up a huge amount of time.

It seems like a strange thing to notice, yet it couldn't help but catch my attention. As I sat in church this week and heard announcement after announcement, I was convinced they had exponentially grown in length. There were at least two ministries that were brand new, countless invitations to go away for the weekend or spend another night out (it's a family church, but I'm not sure how people actually spend time with their family), not to mention the revolving slide show of announcements that usually greets us as we walked in (I was late this week so maybe we did without - but I doubt it). And the church is just barely a year old!

Now, I love my church. I have a lot of good friends there and I think we have one of the best pastor teachers that exist. And I get the benefit of all the activities. You want to make sure that everyone has a place to be "plugged in" (And if not, we now have a new ministry to accomplish that!). And you want to make sure that people are both serving and being served. But I have to wonder if its all really necessary Is all the activity contributing something of value and of worth?

Some of the best times of Christian fellowship that I have had happen far away from the church doors. They weren't the result of planned activities or structured ministries. They came as a result of people who shared a common faith seeking to live life together - To support one another, to love one another, to encourage each other on in our journeys. Life was meant to be lived - not to be a ceaseless barrage of events. I fear sometimes that the modern church spends so much time doing that we've forgotten how to be.

The sad thing about the current structure is that you rarely get the benefits of the church body. Everything is so fragmented - there's one class for one stage of life, another class for the other. You don't really get to experience the beauty of diversity because you self-select into groups of people with whom you are similar. And that's o.k. But is it helping us live life of significance?

As much as I can remember from Scripture, Jesus never commanded us to do anything just for the sake of doing. In a twist of irony, it was Mary, the sister who rested at Jesus feet who received the commendation, not Martha who in the modern church would be responsible for the hospitality ministry. And even Jesus Himself often went alone to a quiet place to pray, a privilege we rarely afford to our servant leaders. Jesus' ministry wasn't primarily about doing - although He did a lot. It was primarily about investing in 12 men and teaching them how they should be.

I fear that today the activities are a result of uncertainty. We don't know the right thing to do, so we just do something. We've lost our way on what it means to live as the Christian church. But doing something isn't the same as doing something significant, and eventually the disillusionment of activity catches up with us all.


Being Used

Most of the time when we think of being used it conjures up negative conotations. We don't want to be used. Generally, it means someone is taking advantage of us or expending us on behalf of accomplishing their own goals. It devalues us as we become a means to an end.

Scripture, however, encourages us to be used. We don't like to hear that as it goes against our culture of self esteem and warm fuzzies. Yet, as I try to justify or explain away what Scripture seems to teach, I can not come to any other conclusion. We're taught to lay down our desires and our wishes. We're exhorted to give what we have and then some. We're commanded to take up the cross and turn the other cheek.

None of this is easy. Or rather, none of it is easy in practice. Because many of us have heard it so much, it rolls off our tongues and yet doesn't penetrate our hearts. We say things like "I know I'm supposed to live for others, but Jesus never intended us to be a doormat". And maybe He didn't. But time and time again, He expended Himself on behalf of the crowd. Time and time again, when He needed rest, He worked; when He was hungry, He fed, and when He needed His Father's love, He dispensed it to others.

The truth is, we are means to an end. We were put on this Earth to reflect the Father's glory. That is our purpose. There is no higher calling, there is no greater gift. And while it's foolish to live for ourselves, living for the Giver of life makes perfect sense.


The Unexpected

Finding forgotten money in your pocket.

A letter from a long-lost friend.

A stolen kiss.

These things and more are special not just because of their essence but because their arrival is unexpected.

Most of the time when we consider expectations we think of expectations unfulfilled. Life is built on a series of beliefs regarding what's going to happen next and how life is going to turn out to be. Life rarely, if ever, matches our anticipation. Instead, in both good ways and bad, it takes a turn towards the unexpected.

The challenge is to welcome those things that are not what we thought of them; to embrace those times that turned out different from our plans. If we trust in our Maker and are following His commands, we have to believe that these shifts and changes are for His glory. The more we fight them, the more we are fighting His will for our life, and are restlessly adverting what He's called us to be.

Having expectations is not bad. Clinging to them despite changing circumstances is. When we resist, we risk being incontent and we miss out on all the good that comes from the unexpected.


Good-bye Time

As mentioned previously in this space, I hate good-byes. For me, there's nothing good about them and if I had it my way, I would never have another one again.

This thought is especially poignant because tonight I said good-bye to a good friend. I have every reason to be happy for him - he's following God's call in his life, he's getting married to a great girl , and he's finally going home, but the selfish part of me is sad. Despite having good intentions of seeing him again, his presence here in California was symbolic of a particular season in my life. His leaving is symbolic of the fact that this season will soon change.

Life is like that. Even when we anticipate the changing season, it can be bittersweet. I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted individual and I still don't like change. It seems to bring about a loss of control and with that, a lack of certainity. The only sane response, and yet one of the hardest, is trust.

Goodbyes are hard because all you see is what you're losing. Trusting that the greater gain is bigger than the lost is not easy. In my case, tonight, it's easy to see all that will be gained for my friend. It feels like the lost is mine to bear. But I trust that the coming season will bring good to both of us. And I know it will be all the more sweet because I will have yet another great friend with which to share it.

A Better Mouse Trap

It wasn't one of my finer moments. The strategy was simple - by employing shock and awe tactics scare the mice that had invaded my condo to either surrender or to return beyond their own borders. I had marched into Home Depot, equipped myself with the necessary accoutrements (that's for you, Ralph) and went on the attack. Except there was one minor problem - I couldn't figure out how to use the mouse trap.

Now if you're like me you're probably thinking, 'it's a mouse trap, how difficult can it be?" That is an excellent question. The answer - surprisingly, maybe even astonishingly, so. Now mind you this wasn't some new fangled, high-tech mouse trap. It was your standard wooden base, metal lever, disposable weapon of choice that had been used for generations, and despite all my years of wasted education, I couldn't figure it out.

The concept of making a better mouse trap is a tried and true one. Throughout my years of business school it was repeatedly preached. After a while you realize it's not a better mouse trap that's needed. What you need is to differentiate your mouse trap from the rest, to somehow take the commonness of the trap and make it desirable to the masses.

In a way, that's what we all need. We need something to set us apart, to make us feel special in a sea of ordinariness. To some how, in some way, feel like we offer a value that can't be realized in the other mouse traps of this world. Although we may look and act the same, there's something that makes us different and therefore wanted.

The mouse trap that I had purchased at Home Depot seemed simple. And to the person who showed me how to use it, it was. But that's because he understood it; I thought I did, but I was wrong. How many relationships suffer from the same fate?


The Extraordinary

Recently there has been a spate of advertisements for a show called Heroes. Despite not knowing what the show is about, the tagline struck me. It asks "Were you made for something extraordinary?"

I believe the answer is universally "Yes". We each have a purpose that only we can fulfill - and our purpose has nothing to do with us. It is to serve God in whatever capacity He has called us to. And to do so with utter abandon.

Although we are constantly taught about the heroes of the Bible, we forget about the others who had minor but significant roles in the salvation story - the innkeeper, the owner of the Palm Sunday colt, the man who provided the Upper Room. May we not forget that our role but be small, but its impact huge, and may we live life extraordinarily.


Being Nice

(A friend challenged me to write a blog with no words over two syllables. I believe this accomplishes that).

Every once in a while I'm accused of being too nice. This doesn't happen often so it's not something I worry about. Plus, of all the things to be accused of, this is far from the worse. When someone suggests that my niceness may be a bad thing, my most common response is "I'm really not that nice". People may argue and take offense at my remark, and while I value their feedback, I know myself better than they do, and the truth is, niceness is not something I possess a lot of. I can be nice, but a strain of niceness is not pulsing through my body. It, in other words, does not define me.

I think one of the reasons people argue is that in today's world, niceness is often valued far above anything else. Calling someone "mean" is a violent insult. To be nice is more highly prized than being right. My mom faces this with her junior high students when they've done something they shouldn't. They'll say that she's yelling at them and being mean, when (as those who know my mom can attest) my mom is the type of person who rarely raises her voice. She's likely talking sternly to them, but she's not yelling. Her students though are used to being coddled and told their feelings are what matters most. And as I can attest, being on the wrong end of my mother's justice is not always good for your feelings, but far more often than not, her actions are right.

While this pertains to junior high students it also pertains to the world at large. This week the Pope got into some deep trouble because of some comments he made about Islam. People were upset at his remarks – not always because they thought they were wrong– but because they viewed them as mean. Whether or not what he said was true seemed to get lost in the debate. What mattered was that he had caused offense.

In a similar vein, I was talking with a friend the other day who told me that he wasn't that nice of a person. This bluntness surprised me and I started to argue. Later, though, I realized that he's right. He's not nice - at least not in the "Mary Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar-there's always a bright side" type of way - which is how I think most people mean it. But he's a great guy and I'm pretty sure that if I needed him - he'd be there (he might argue that point after he reads this blog). I'm also pretty sure that he gives his heart one hundred percent to those he loves and that he wants to be the type of man that he'd be proud of. You hang around long enough and he'll be sure to offend you, but he's real – and that's saying something that most "nice" people can't.

That's because niceness is so easily faked. Someone does not have to be sincere to be nice; they just have to get along with those around them. Whether or not their beliefs correspond with their actions does not matter. A lot of times it seems that people are nice because they want other people to think they are, not because a deep love for their fellow human being compels them. A precious few choose instead to be real. They give up being nice for the sake of being nice and instead align their action with what is right, trusting that in doing so their actions will show love. It's a tough road to follow because it means, like the Pope, you may get into some deep trouble. Doing what's right is not always the quickest way to win friends and there's a real chance that that people won't like you. But we aren't called to be nice or to be liked, we're called to love. And love compels us to align our actions with what's good, noble and pure, despite what people may think.

When Christ was on Earth, He caused a lot of offense. His actions, though, were always informed by love. So should ours. After all, love is a much higher aim than niceness – and a greater challenge to achieve.


Better Things Ahead: January 2007

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Better Things Ahead