Monday, May 28, 2007

God's Present

God is not a deceiver, that he should offer to support us,
and then, when we lean upon Him, should slip away from us.
... St. Augustine

When things are going tough, it can be easier to turn towards God. As the old saying goes, "There are no atheists in the foxhole." Turning to God may be our first recourse but there are times that even when we turn to Him he feels far away. That's why St. Augustine's reminder that God is faithful to keep His promise is so important. Even when we don't feel His presence, God is present. He is working and active and involved in this great big world of ours. He's up to something, even when we feel like He hasn't shown up. He's here, even when He seems far away.

At times when God's presence is doubted, we may be tempted to suggest that while we've seen God's work being done before, we're not sure that He's doing anything right now. Some may suggest that although God created the world, His active involvement in our life can't be seen. (A central component to a worldview known as Diesm.) Others may think shorter-term and may feel that although that believe that God provided them a means of salvation and they trust Him for that, they can't see His daily involvement in a particular problem or solution. Still others, may trust that in the final analysis God will once again rule the world, and they believe the future is His, but for right now, they aren't so sure who's in control of the universe. However, while the past and the future are most definitely in God's hands so is the present. All time belongs to Him. He's working in the here and now just like He worked in the past and He will continue in the future. God's presence is in the present. This is His time, just like any other.

Turning to God when everything goes wrong may be an easy instinct to follow. Trusting that He's there even when we don't sense His presence is excruciatingly hard. However, where God's children are, He is working. God is present now.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

God Is

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means that God is love. It's a phrase that you hear frequently and yet, I think that we often interpret it to mean, "God shows love". We look at the things that God has done, sending His Son being the paramount example, and we think "oh yes, that shows God's love." Although God does show love, that's different from saying that He is love. He is love means that He's everything that love is. He's just, because love is just. He's kind because love is kind. He's gracious because love is gracious. He's the absence of fear because love obliterates it. He is everything that love is, because He is love.

Sometimes though we want God without wanting all that love demands. God sounds good to us as long as we relegate Him to the Person that we turn to when the world isn't working out the way we want. God seems like a good idea until we realize what love is. Love requires justice for wrong, but often we want to avoid that pain. Love requires sacrifice, but we strive for an easy life. Love requires involvement, but we don't want to participate. We want a safe God, but love is never safe.

C.S. Lewis was famous for making this point. In "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" little Lucy wonders whether Aslan, the Christ-figure, is safe. She is told that he's not safe but he is good. Later, in "The Silver Chair" another little girl approaches Aslan and discovers the same lesson. To quench her thirst she must approach the river. Her pathway is blocked by the Lion, and she too, must learn that to get what she needs sometimes requires progress into dangerous territory. Dangerous not because of what may be taken from her, but what she may required to give. Love demands that, because love requires risk.

To say that God is love means that all that we can learn about love we can learn from God. He, quite literally, is its personification. Maybe if we believed that a little more it would change our view of God. And our view of love.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Joyous Strength

I've been at this Christian thing for a while. A lot of times I relate to King Solomon: there's nothing new under the sun. I can quote Bible verses fairly accurately off the top of my head and can sing more worship songs than anyone (save God) could care to hear (If you doubt that - ask the art department where I work. They've been treated to a rousing rendition of "Father Abraham.) It's easy to get into a routine - a habitual expectation of how God will show up in my life. However, every once in a while, my arrogance is rocked and I realize that I have even begun to understand the depths of the mysteries of God. In short, I learn something new.

Nehemiah 8:10 states " . . .Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." I'm not sure when I first heard this, but it's been familiar to me for a long while. I've even suggested it to be used on Christian product. And yet, as I sat in the car after a frustrating day and listened to Chris Tomlin sing "How Great is Our God' it took on new meaning. I guess because I've always kind of twisted the verse in my mind to mean that when we rest in God, He provides us strength and joy. In reality, that's not at all what the verse says. The only joy that is talked about is God's. His joy, His pleasure that should be our focus. When we're focused on bringing Him glory, we're not worried about ourselves and our petty desires. We're not even focused on the blessings that God's given us. Our total focus is on God's happiness. Through this we get our strength. Our joy isn't the provision for our strength; His joy is. Because of it, we have reason to stop grieving. We have desire to move forward. And we have all the provision we need for today.

As humans we strive to avoid pain and seek pleasure. God's Word tells us to seek His pleasure. Not because of what it will get us, but because His joy is the only thing that can fill the "God-shape hole" that each of us have (a concept that was, oddly enough, originally presented by Pascal - a scientist.) We develop more and more into the person that God's created us to be, when we seek Him above all else. Only then, do we build strength.

Mercy Me's new song states what our heart's desire should be:

Bring me joy, bring me peace
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings You glory
And I know there'll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that's what it takes to praise You
Jesus, bring the rain

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No Subject Line

One of my silly pet peeves is receiving e-mails that have no subject line. (If you happen to be someone who has sent me one of those e-mails than I apologize for publicly, yet annonymously railing against you. If you are someone who thinks it would now be funny to send me a bunch of e-mails without a subject line, please refrain. :-) ) I blame a former boss for this annoyance - he also asked that e-mails be sent with a short, yet informative subject line. In reality, though, this blame is misplaced. The truth is that I've grown to depend on those (hopefully few) words to tell me what is contained inside. Those words help me prioritize, sort, and recall. I need them. Without them, my whole system of preference and organization crumbles. With them, I can manage expectations, create shortcuts and generally anticipate events. They give me a preview and create a passageway for avoidance. They are, in short, a relied upon convenience.

In a lot of ways, I think it would be nice if life came with subject lines. Just imagine. I think they would read something like this:

- A Good Day
- Temper Lost
- Sorrow to Avoid
- Disappointment in Friends
- Promises Ahead
- Next Steps

Think how easy life would be to handle if we knew what each day contained. If we could anticipate the story before experiencing it. We could organize, prioritize, sort and recall. We could know the content before knowing the context.

The thing about e-mail subject lines is that they create the wrong impression. Sometimes we don't read what the e-mail contains because we think we already know what's inside. Or maybe we don't read the whole e-mail, once our initial hunch is seemingly verified. We ignore because we're ignorant of what's important. We respond based on perception. We act before understanding.

We'd probably do the same if every day came with its own subject line. We'd probably avoid the days like "Disappointment in Friends" assuming it meant that we would be disappointed, not that there was something we could do to prevent another's discouragement. We'd focus on the e-mails that said "A Good Day" not realizing that its often in the bad days that we learn the most. We wouldn't be burden by life's unexpectancies, but we wouldn't be blessed by life's surprises. In trying to manage life, we'd quelch it.

I still prefer e-mails with subject lines. But I'm glad that life comes without.

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Giving Up

I come from a long line of people who persevere. (Less kind people may say we're stubborn, obstinate or hard-headed, but we try not to listen to them. :-) ) Stick-to-it-ivness is highly valued in my family and throwing in the towel is not something you do lightly. In fact, growing up we were told it didn't matter what grades we got as long as we tried are hardest. Settling for less than our best wasn't an option. As long as it was up to us, we were going to achieve.

In a lot of ways, I believe these lessons were the right ones. So far life's torrents hasn't made any of us succumb to despair. We've all managed to survive - and every once in while, thrive. Life hasn't always been easy, but we manage to push through. Giving up isn't part of our bag of tricks. And although I believe that these lessons were the right ones, I've come to realize that there are other lessons that also must be learned. God does call us to give up - never on Him, but always on ourselves. He calls us to "lay down our life, pick up our cross and follow Him", to give up worldly recognition, money and fame to answer the call that He has for us. He wants us to give up the right to call the shots, and choose to listen to His direction. We must lay aside our own power and pick up His yoke. Giving up what we believe we're owed to embrace a grace we could never earn. Losing our lives, to have His. Sacrifice is never easy, but it's required in pursuit of Him.

I may never understand why God calls me to give up the things in my life that I love. I may be asked to set aside the good in order to obtain the better. Oftentimes, the best can't be seen on this side of Glory. And although giving up is never easy, it helps to know in Who's hands I must fall.



The other day I got stuck between two people having a conversation and mentioned in an offhanded remarked that I felt trapped. Someone asked if I meant like a fish in a net, and I affirmed that the feeling was similar. Later, as three people discussed something about which I had absolutely no frame of reference I stated that I felt like a fish out of water. (Both of these remarks prompted an interesting discussion about what kind of fish I would be. A discussion that I was ill-equipped to have.) Without exactly meaning to, i had created an interesting parallel. Both times I was equated with a fish. Both times the analogy was apt.

Whether a fish is trapped in a net or happens to find themselves on shore, they are not in the environment that God intended for them. All the things that fish were created to do are not possible in either of those circumstances. In the first, the fish has had outside forces conspire to remove it from its natural environment. There is very little that a fish can do to affect change once they are in the net; the idea is to avoid it. In the second situation, the fish itself has acted to get outside of God's plans. Following what it thought was a better alternative created a situation in which it was unable to survive. The fish probably doesn't intend for that to be the end result. Nevertheless, it is.

Sometimes I think humans are not that much wiser. We let outside forces surround us and prevent us from following God's plans. Or, we ourselves think we know a better way, and so we jump out of the ocean of God's goodness, intent that there is a better life for us on the sand. There never is. God made us for one purpose - to give Him glory. Any time we act on our own we're supplanting that purpose with our own desires. Anytime we do that, we're trapped. We experience bondage, not freedom. We experience death, not life. We seek to do our own thing, and than find that our own thing is not worth pursuing. We've been given everything we need to live the life we're intended, if only we're content to be what God's called us.

I don't know what fish I would be. I'm grateful that I don't have to choose. I only hope that I can be the person that God intended and not let anything, whether outside forces or my own desires, prevent that.


Monday, May 21, 2007

A Good Year

I love birthdays. Whether mine or someone else's, there's just something great about the fact that everybody has a day where they are celebrated. Birthdays are the perfect time to reflect on where life has taken you, who you want to be, and the steps (or missteps) that you've taken a long the way. They are also a great occasion for remembering what is special about another person and for recognizing all that they've meant in our iives. All of that, and you get ice cream, and there's really just nothing else like them.

My love for birthdays is especially prescient because today happens to be mine. Being the introspective person that I am, I've spent the last week or so thinking about the previous year and how my life has changed. In a lot of ways, its been a tough year. Not because anything abhorently bad has happened. Thankfully it hasn't. But the year has brought a lot of experiences that have stretched my perception of myself. It's been a year of challenge as I've sought to define who I am without reference to what other people expect of me. In a lot of ways, this has been more difficult to deal with then when outside forces collaborate to bring about less-than-pleasant things. When things that are identifiably bad happen to you, other people come to your side and can engage in tangible activities to alleviate the situation. When the struggle is internal, that assistance is unavailable. You're left with just the reflection in the mirror. Time marches on, and whether you march with it, is dictated by how you respond to the questions that have been raised.

For lovers of fine wine, time is also extremely important. Bottles are chosen and priced based on the year of their creation. A "good year" occurs when the vintage achieves the level of fullness that the wine maker intended. A wine from a good year is treasured because it has achieve the objectives of its creator. Although I don't know a lot about wine-making I do know that not everything that the grapes go through is pleasant. They are processed, stomped upon and generally stripped of everything but their essence in order to produce a drink that will be enjoyed by thousands. The challenge with wine-making is that during this process the end result is not known immediately. There is an interim period where both wine-maker and wine-lovers must trust and hope that the process has its intended outcome. It is a time of waiting and of challenge, and it is only in retrospect that its effect can be seen.

Consequently, in a lot of ways, I have come to believe that this past year of my life has been a good one. I trust that whatever road God is leading me down, He is the One doing the leading. The Creator has a purpose and a plan, and just like every step before, this past year has been a part of that process. My job, just like the grape's, it not to worry about what I'm going through, but to make sure that I'm responding appropriately. The year has been one of challenge and heartache, but its also been one of growth and blessing. It's been a year that's changed me, that has caused me to realize who I am at my essence, and to be stripped of much of what I believed to be true about myself. It's also been a year of grace, as I've seen God's faithfulness time and time again.

In the final outcome, I believe that I will look back upon this year as a year of transformation. And maybe that's what a good year, in both life and in wine-making, is really all about.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Showing Up

Showing Up

It's a common phrase in Christian circles when something happens that conforms to what we want. "God was really working in that situation", we say and the evidence of this, is apparently us acquiring what we prayed for. We know that we've talked to God about our desires and when we obtain them we think that God's power is demonstrated. It's a simple case of cause and effect.

The problem with that theory is that there are a lot of times that we don't get what we want, and yet, God is still on His throne. Just because we can't trace the cause and effect doesn't mean that God's not accomplishing His purposes. God's working even when we don't acknowledge it. As Rob Bell says "God is always present. We're the ones that show up."

And therein lies our challenge. We need to show up to participate in what God is already doing. We need to see where He's working and want to be a part of it. We shouldn't be looking for God accomplishing what we want, but we should be seeking to be a part of His purpose. Showing up sounds easy, but it requires that we don't have our own agenda, or our own expectations of what should be. We're open to the possibilities of what He's doing, and we're listening to His still small voice so we know where we should be.

As children, we don't understand the power of showing up, because its what we're doing already. We don't plan and strategize, we just accept where we are and look how to make the most of the experience. Children don't have to be convinced that God created the world or that He's working in their lives. They have to be convinced that He's not.

When God commanded us to "become like little children" it was not only a reminder to trust Him without inhibition but to see His work wherever we happen to be. He's always on His throne, He's always commanding His Creation. We just have to be willing to experience it.

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The Power of Substitution

In math, "the substitution method is used to eliminate one of the variables by replacement when solving a system of equations." Basically, you replace an unlike variable for a similar variable in order to solve the problem. You hope that if the substitution is equivalent that you'll get the answer you need.

In life its often the same. People substitute pursuit of a career for time with family. They substitute alcohol for happiness. They substitute sex for love. Every time they hope that the substitute contains enough of the characteristics of what they really want that the substitute will fill the need. It rarely does. But it doesn't keep them from trying.

We do it in relationships too. We pass the time with Mr or Mrs. Right Now, instead of waiting for the Right One. We use people for the companionship that they provide even if the future of the relationship is untenable. We try to convince ourselves that what we're doing is o.k., knowing the whole time that we settling for something that's less than what we're made for. In human relationships and in our relationship with God, we accept the inferior because we're scared of the power of the perfect. We try to eliminate our real need by substituting something of like qualities. We do it to solve our problems, seldom realizing that we're creating new ones.

Humans are made for realness not for forgery. We're wired for the genuine, destined for what's true. Substitution is a poor excuse and an unhealthy proposition. The only way to really solve the equation is to know what we're missing in the first place.


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Holding On Too Tight

By afflictions, God is spoiling us [i.e., taking away from us] of what otherwise might have spoiled us. When he makes the world too hot for us to hold, we let it go. - John Powell

Growing up I had a license plate frame that said "Not Spoiled, Blessed." I was always a little self-conscience about it because it seemed very Orange County, but it was a gift from my parents, and so it stayed. (In fact when my mother reads this she'll be a little sad that she was a part of anything that caused me the slightest discomfort. It's o.k. Mom - I survived.) Desspite my awkwardness the license plate frame surely conveyed some truth. I was definitely blessed.

The problem with the frame was the perception that it engendered that somehow what made me bless were the possessions that I had. This was not the case, not because I didn't have nice things, for I most certainly did, but they weren't my truest source of blessings. That came from the fact that I was a sinner saved by grace, a saying that makes a poor license plate frame but contains everlasting glory. The problem is that most people won't make the distinction between the two. They will be left with the thought that somehow what I have dictates who I am, and the condition of my being. This happens a lot. People hold on so tight to what they have that it begins to define them. When we are defined by what we own, we cease to be defined by God.

Chapter 5 of James has a lot to say about this subject. Primarily it encourages readers to remember that everything in this world is going to burn. When we aren't willing to sacrifice material gain for heavenly glory our balance sheet is out of whack. Oftentimes God will work in our lives to correct this imbalance. He'll use the things that we've placed ahead of Him to show us His proper place. God makes a poor second fiddle, and in His love for us, He'll spoil that which supplants Him.

Being spoiled isn't a bad thing, if what we are spoiled for is any work but what God has intended. If we are completely useless except in bringing Him glory, if we can offer nothing but all that we have, than we truly are blessed.

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Counted Blessings

It was one of those days that nothing went according to plan, and the amazing thing was, I was remarkably o.k. with it. I spent the weekend visiting friends and what was intended to be an afternoon party lasted long into the evening. Despite the fact that my social calendar called for something different, I didn't mind. I was exactly where I needed to be.

Each of us have friends that we can have fun with, people who make us laugh and who we enjoy each other's company. Some friends though supercede these barriers. They're invested in our lives and we're invested in their's. They are the kind of people who are precious to us just as gems are precious to many collectors. They can not be replaced or supplanted. They are truly gifts from above.

Sometimes we neglect to remember these blessings. In the busyness of life, its hard to take time to count our treasures. We often don't even recognize all that we have until its taken away. As I drove away from my prolonged visit I was a bit sad because hanging out with these people who I rarely see showed me what I was missing when they weren't a part of my life. These are people who I can be real with, who will call me on the carpet when I need to be, who will love me regardless, and who will both cry and laugh with me as the occasion demands. As one of my friends commented as she left, they are the people who I hope are my neighbors in heaven.

I may not count my blessings every day, but when circumstances converge and an account is warranted, I'm so grateful for all I've been given.

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Recently, a friend shared with me a story of his weekend spent volunteering with the Special Olympics. During the soccer matches members of the other team who were not challenged by any physical disabilities (both disable and non-disable players were in the game) apparently were challenged by understanding the purpose of the Special Olympics as they felt it necessary to use the avenue as an opportunity to show off their shooting techniques and run up the score. Today, I read a story of a coach who got in a fight with an 18 year-old Pee Wee referee because the referee had ejected the coach for cursing in front of his 5-6 year old players. As one of my coworkers said upon hearing these stories, "the world's gone mad."

What's interesting to me about each of the stories is the perspectives that the chief actors must have had. Obviously the soccer players felt that their actions were appropriate for the setting even if they totally missed the purpose of the Special Olympics. Additionally, I'm guessing he Pee Wee coach felt his actions (both the cursing and the fighting) were entirely acceptable given the situation. If you asked any of these participants, they probably felt that their behavior was warranted and entirely justifiable. The fact that most dispassionate observers would disagree would probably not sway them. They probably figure that mere observers probably just couldn't understand.

I think we all can get like that some times. It's so easy to see a situation from our vantage point that it just seems to be the only view available. We believe that if others really understood it the way that we did, then they too would see things our way. The fact that they aren't tarnished by emotional involvement only makes their analysis seem, well, analytical. We truly believe that our perspective is the right one.

Rarely though does one person have a monopoly on a given situation. Life on this Earth is filled with complex interactions each influenced by the history and experience of the individuals. Thankfully, our Judge is not tainted by these perceptions, however our relationships on Earth must be. We can't be impartial, we can't have a clear perception. We are all influenced by the person we choose to be.

Maybe that's why God said "mercy triumphs over judgment!" (James 2:13) Granting mercy doesn't require a perfect perceptive, bestowing judgment does.

Bypassing on judging the soccer players or the Pee Wee coach isn't easy. Their actions seem so blatantly wrong. But extending mercy assures that we take one step away from becoming them.

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Better Things Ahead: May 2007

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Better Things Ahead