Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Flattering Morning

I woke up refreshed this morning. It’s amazing the difference a good night’s rest will make.

I was out of coffee this morning which gave me the perfect excuse to go to Starbucks and get a “grande, sugar free hazelnut, no-room-but-a-dash-of-soy-milk, Americano.”

I got to the office at 6:55, chatted with our lovely receptionist and then headed up to the fourth floor of our Global Ministry Center (a.k.a. world headquarters).

The lights were off, cubes were quiet, and I was contently sipping my coffee as I checked my personal email accounts.

As I opened my school account, I came across an email from Liberty University.
We at the Liberty Journal have heard that you’ve been working at Compassion International. We feature many alumni stories and are very interested to hear yours. If you are interested, send me an email back about what you are doing now and what your job at Compassion International encompasses.

I could hardly believe it. It could be that I was a lucky draw for a hat of recently graduated names. But this is the second email that I have received from Liberty stating that they have heard about what I am doing here at Compassion.

My first email came from Johhnie Moore, one of our campus pastors. He personally wrote to tell me that he had heard about me and what I was doing and wanted me to know that he was “proud of me.”

The Lord has an incredible and mysterious way of letting us know that He sees us where we are and hears us when we call. More than that, He knows when we need a little encouragement; a sign or word of affirmation that what we are doing is in fact what He wants us doing.

Our God is an intimate God. He’s more than caring; He concerned. He’s enthralled by us.
He pursues us. This is the most precious truth to me right now.

I am wanted. I am desired. I am seen as a treasure being sought after, fought for, and defended.

I am made worthy because He sees me that way. I have done nothing to deserve it and I am freed from earning it. I have been blessed with the gift of value and significance because He said so.

It’s a beautiful day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music of the Heart

For those of you who know me at all, you know that I have an affinity for music. Not because I sing well or know how to play an instrument, although I wish I did. No, I take pleasure in music because of the way that I come to identify with it.

Perhaps I am even misleading in this. I identify and take pleasure in the word-pictures that are sung to a moving melody. The confessions, metaphors, and lyrics that are gently said, nearly whispered, in harmony and to the rhythm of an acoustic guitar or piano. There is something indescribably pure and innocent about music that I find solace in.

There are a handful of specific artists that seem to sing my life song. Songs that sing of enraptured joys, struggles, triumphs, the pains of growth and refinement, and the hope of plans yet to be realized.

Songs seem to be the conversations never had; feelings never expressed and therefore never understood. Instead of digging up the assortment of various past experiences, songs are the allusions but the not admissions of reality. Personal triumphs and tragedies. Loves had and loves lost. Moments of clarity and spiritual freedom followed by intense confusion and imprisonment to darker truths.

So why the seemingly unnecessary breakdown of songs?

Because it is the most intimate and lovely way of coming to the realization that we are not alone. Whatever we have faced in the past, are in the midst of now, or will soon come to terms with, chances are someone else has been there. There is someone, not physically but emotionally connected with us in that moment; in that place. Our thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes are met by the company of strangers.

Strangers that soon become confidants because, without saying it, they encapsulate what we are unable to communicate. They identify. Through the notes they choose to pin and the tones they choose to sing, they echo the emotions that lack description. They give substance to the intangible.

Not only is it an incredible talent, but it is a priceless gift for those who receive.

So that is why music is something of a treasure to me. It is that elusive, formless, and beautiful thing that brings the knowledge of being understood and heard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cliché, but true.

“You can’t out-give God.” We have all heard it. Every pastor says it during the part of the service when they take up tithes and offerings. It a trademark line; a way of convicting (or convincing you) that if you give to the Lord, He will give back to you.

For the longest time, before I actually started tithing, I thought it was “scammy;” a little on the disingenuous side.

And it bugged me.

“How can they say that? How do they know that the Lord will give back?”

Come to find out, my naivety was based on inexperience. Having started to work (for a living) this summer I decided to tithe, predominantly out of obligation and Biblical mandate, not because I wanted to. I also thought it would be a good way to test the theory.

*It should be noted that I don’t recommend this attitude. I’m simply being honest about where I was/am.

The first Sunday that I gave was particularly hard. With financial independence being only a few weeks old, I had suddenly and brutally realized the true value of money; how hard you had to work to earn it and how quickly and easily it seemed to be spent. I’m a frugal person by nature, so when I refer to spending money, I mean on basic necessities.

As I wrote the check, my hand shook slightly because the amount which I wrote the check for was the same amount that I needed for gas, groceries, etc. Every other way that I could be using it suddenly came to mind and it made it that much harder to release into an offering plate.

The next day, Monday, as I drove to work, I glanced down about every 30 seconds to see how much gas I had. I had more than enough. But I wasn’t really looking at the gas gauge to see how much gas I had. I looked at the gas gauge in attempt to estimate how much money it would take to fill it up after every passing mile.

Irritated at myself for being more concerned with money that I would have thought, I asked the Lord for the strength of faith to trust Him, to rest in His goodness. Turns out, that is a lot easier said than done.

At the end of the day, I was on the phone with my mom catching up on the day’s events at home and among family.

“By the way,” she started, “I put some money in your account because I know how much driving you are doing and I know that gas is expensive. I just don’t want you to worry about it.”

I was speechless. I barely uttered a “thank you” for I was trying not to cry. I didn’t know how much she had deposited. It didn’t matter.

About an hour later, curiosity got the better of me and I checked my account online. Resting in the left column was an amount that was exactly double the amount which I had tithed.

I feel that elaborating on this will only dilute it. I don’t think I need to explain.

Good is good. He is faithful. End of story.
They were just like us

Have you ever read your Bible like a fiction novel? I don’t mean to imply that you should or that it is not completely true and non-fictional. It is conclusively the infallible word of God. I simply mean that sometimes, taking a step-back from the pre-determined and instructed form of studying it may grant us the perspective that is more potent and penetrating to our emotional souls than to our spiritual minds.

My favorite books of the Bible are more filled with characters and testimonies of the human struggle than with world history. For example, I prefer the gospels and Psalms over Numbers or Deuteronomy. I suspect that many may agree, but allow me to explain why.

Within the gospels is the story not only of our Savior, but of the men that followed. His disciples consisted of a collection of fishermen, tax-collectors, doctors, and writers. Normal. Average. Not particularly special for any other reason than the fact that they were called and responded.

That being said, I often find it encouraging to read the accounts of Jesus’ miracles (feeding the five thousand, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, ascending into heaven, etc.) not merely because of the signs and wonders of our God, but because of the response of his followers.

Doubt is not something that is new to our generation or to our culture. It is not something that is unique to you or me. It is in fact something that Jesus’ disciples struggled with. It is something that they dealt with in the midst of his presence!

Example: Matthew chapter eight, beginning in verse 23, Jesus and His disciples are boarding a boat to sail to the other side of the sea. When a “great storm arose” (ESV) His disciples woke Him up saying “Save us Lord, we are perishing!” (ESV) Only slightly dramatic.

What I find unbelievable is their lack of belief. Only a few days earlier, they had witnessed Jesus heal dozens of lame, sick, and diseased. More specifically, Jesus had gone to Peter’s home and healed his ailing mother. So why the lack of perfect, unwavering, faith? They were human.

In His midst, at times His only witnesses, they still fought and failed to believe completely without any doubt who He was. They heard Him speak, they watched Him die, and they ate breakfast with on the shore after the resurrection, and still the struggled. What a beautiful picture of God’s grace and patience with those He loves. Never condemning nor condescending for the inability to be filled with full assurance of faith.

It was not just His disciples who fought their flesh; the list includes David, the man after God’s own heart and John the Baptist, Christ’s forerunner. Let’s dive a little deeper.

The book of Psalms is one of my favorite books because of the display and of unashamed emotions, thoughts, and feelings felt by one man. Not only did he labor and toil in his faith walk with his God, but he was utterly honest and transparent about the state of his heart and soul. I think it is a beautiful mess; a lovely Pollock-type painting that reflects the magnificence and splendor of a God that can take anything we have and all that we are and shape it and make it into something that ultimately brings glory and honor to Him.

If He can take David, a lying, adulterous, murderer, and use Him to display His love, grace, and salvation to the nations, then I too am salvageable. And so are you.

John the Baptist, a giant in the faith was also human. In Matthew 11:11, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (NIV) No questions about it, he was a remarkable man. But he was hardly treated as one, and his faith faltered because of it.

In Luke 7, beginning in verse 19, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is in fact who He says He is. Lying in wait in a prison cell, mere hours from his unexpected execution, he began to question. Theologians, who contribute to the online source, provided the following commentary about doubt:
Often doubt brings reflection and growth. Such is the case with John's inquiries about Jesus. Not only does the Baptist get an answer that calls for his reflection, but Jesus uses the inquiry to help others consider anew the roles John and he have in God's plan. The psychological adversity of doubt carries the seed of real growth, when the answer is sought from God's perspective.
Lastly, let’s look at Peter. Ah, Peter. Perhaps one of the more famous disciples for reasons that don’t include steadfast faith or rational judgment. It’s for the very reason that he is my favorite. Here’s a prime example why: Matthew 14:28-30.
Peter is with the rest of the disciples on the boat on the fourth watch of the night. Jesus, who had sent them ahead, decided to meet up with them… on the water. As He comes walking out onto the waves, the guys flip out and scream “It’s a ghost!” (ESV)
If I were Jesus (everyone breathe a sigh of relief that I am not) I’m pretty sure I would roll my eyes and think to myself, “I probably could have picked better followers.” But in His patience, He calls Peter to walk out onto the water and meet Him. At this point, Peter jumps into the water and begins walking toward Jesus.
You would think that this miraculous event would have confirmed to Peter that Jesus was in fact the Son of God, which should have done away with all doubt. But leave it to Peter to get spooked by… the wind. In verse 30 it says “When [Peter] saw the wind he was afraid and beginning to sink, he called cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”
Reading this story makes me want to laugh in Peter’s face and scoff at just how silly he was. But I can’t. None of us can. Because we have all done the same thing. We are all like Peter.
In case you haven’t made the connection yet, let me let you in on something that I have recently discovered. If you (myself included) feel as though you need only to witness a “miracle” or need to literally and audibly hear the voice of God speaking to you in order for all doubt to be gone… you’re mistaken.
Jesus’ disciples lived, breathed, and tasted three years of ministry along side Jesus and were still unable to stay convinced. Be encouraged in this as I am: The weaknesses in their faith did not hinder Gods love for them or His patience with them. Instead, He continued to lead them and use them for His glory. Bottom line: God’s notoriety is not as dependent upon us as we think. In fact, He doesn’t need at all. Instead, He grants us the honor and privilege of being used by Him to bring Him praise.
No matter how many times you begin to sink when you see then wind, He will continue to reach out His hand and pull you up. Over. And over. And Over…
The Great Game of Spiritual Chess

Sunday was a great day. For a lot of reasons. For starters, the weather was absolutely stunning. Crystal clear blue skies that were merely intensified by the spectacular rays of sunshine that seemed to brighten everything they landed on; the warmth of the sun on my cheek as I sat outside with a friend over lunch felt like a gentl kiss, romancing my whole spirit. It was intoxicating. It was a great day to be in the house of the Lord, praising Him with His church, His bride.

Church was another reason that the day was extraordinary. We had a guest pastor…from Texas. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned that I am from Texas. His southern twang and use of distinctly southern adjectives and phrases made me feel right at home.

Now, I have been told on a number of occasions that I don’t sound like I’m from Texas. A fact that I am proud of. However, I do appreciate the southern draw, especially when I am far from the motherland.

The weight of his sermon and the Lord’s message through it was more comforting and encouraging then the way that he spoke. And that is the point of this blog.

It should be noted that much of what I am about to write is not my own idea or logic, but simply a recollection of what I heard and what the Lord showed me.

The sermon was entitled, “God Needs You.” When I first read the bulletin, I was alarmed to say the least. “No He doesn’t,” I thought to myself, “He’s God. He doesn’t need anything or anyone.” As he began to introduce himself and the sermon, he quickly got to his first point which was “God doesn’t need you.”

I furrowed my brow and cocked my head to the right. “What’s with this guy? Of all the pastors in Texas, and we get this guy?” Harsh, I know. But I’m being honest. He went on to untangle the figurative knot that he tied and suddenly what he said started to become clear and convicting.

Before the Lord can work in our lives, move in us, change us, speak to us, and teach us what He wants, we have to be willing. We have to invite Him to do so. In order for Him to act, we have to make the first move.

God is a gentleman and He is not going to force Himself on us. Matthew 7:7 is a prefect example of this concept. It says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (NIV). We must be the ones to move first and “ask,” “seek”, or “knock.”

When we ask Him to speak or show up, He will because He was invited. When we seek Him through His word or through prayer, He will be found because He wants us to want Him.

In the same way that He knocks and waits for the door our hearts to be open, when we knock on His door, He will answer it. But why would He open a door that has not been knocked on? We must knock first.

Asking, seeking, and knocking all imply a certain amount of faith; a belief that when we do those things, He will in fact respond. One example that illustrates the importance of even the smallest faith on our part is found in Mark 6:5. Jesus returns to his hometown, but their unbelief and lack of faith kept Him from performing miracles there.

Did it physically keep Him from performing miracles? No. While He was fully man, He was simultaneously fully God. He could have done miraculous signs and wonders to convince them, but He chose not to because they did not think that He would or that He could. Bottom line: unless you believe that He can do what you ask, He won’t.

The last thing that the pastor elaborated on was, to me, the coolest part. When we do our part, which is natural, God will do His part, which is supernatural. He has not asked us to do or accomplish more than is humanly possible. But when we do as much as we can, He will do so much more than we knew to ask or pray for!

In Mark 16, beginning in verse 17 it says “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will ….lay hands on the sick and they will recover” (ESV).

Let’s break it down. If you lay your hands on a sick person and pray for healing, the physical act of you laying your hands on that person does not heal them. But it represents the faith that you have that God can heal them. So when we act on faith, He then will act in His faithfulness. He will be the reason for healing because by His supernatural power, He can heal them.

All this to say, Sunday was a good day.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I like to work out. And due to some extensive knee surgery in high school, I like to stick with the elliptical. Despite the fact that my gym has roughly seventy-two TV’s, they are never turned to any channel that I find interesting enough to keep my mind off my work out. Listening to music doesn’t help my attention span either. Talking with someone is my preference, but my lack of oxygen prohibits me from having a conversation much longer than three words. So how do I pass the time?

I have started listening to podcasted sermons on my ipod.

It has proven to be the best way to hold my attention and focus. Not only does is not get boring (because I haven’t heard them before like the songs on my play list) but I can actually work out longer because I am no longer constantly looking down at the clock on my machine. I’m concentrating on what is being said. Who knew?

A few days ago while “elliptizing,” I was listening to a sermon called “Hands and Feet” by Matt Chandler at The Village Church in Dallas, Texas. And something hit home… hard.

He was reading out of Matthew 25:31-40; pointing out that Jesus’ miracles were primarily preformed around the poor and the needy, those whose faith was their only possession.

In verse 31, Jesus is describing for his disciples the way in which believers and non-believers will be divided at judgment and on what basis they will be welcomed into the kingdom. In verse 35 he Jesus says, “I was hungry and you have me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” (ESV) It goes on to say that the righteous will answer “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and gave you drink.”

You all know what He says next. “Truly I say unto you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (ESV) I know that this may not be a new verse or a revolutionary concept, but stick with me. Where Mr. Chandler went from here was profound.

Most would read that passage and immediately think, “Ok, I have to do more; if feeding the hungry and clothing the naked is what is going to get me into heaven, then I need to pencil in my volunteer time at the local Salvation Army this Saturday.”

But again, we all know that you can not work or earn your way to heaven; Christianity is not a works based faith. So it would appear as though we are at a cross-roads. But in fact we are not.

We are at the very intersection where the law and grace meet. Turn left and you live for yourself. Sure to grow tired, worn, and eventually defeated, for the law leaves no room for error.
But turn right and you die to yourself and will be raised with the glory of Christ. And it is at this resurrection that something extraordinary happens. As Mr. Chandler described it “the way out of works-based mentality is this: doing what comes naturally when the gospel penetrates your heart and changes your spirit. It is not something you will or can do in your own strength, power or will, but is instead a natural outflow of progressive sanctification. It will happen because God has control of your whole being and He has changed your heart, mind and desires to reflect His.”

As this word began to sink in, I peddled slower and my heart rate began to stabilize. Then I realized, “If I want to be more like Christ, if I want to do His will, serve His people and be obedient with everything that He has blessed me with, than He will reveal to me what that looks like gradually as my faith grows and my dependence on Him deepens.”

If all of our questions and wonderings were answered or made clear in one sitting, why would anyone still feel the need to seek Him? They wouldn’t need to. There would be no need for relationship.

It seems as though I can not escape this lesson: In everything, no matter what, at all times, seek to know Him more and He will provide. He will provide us with the strength to do that which we can not do ourselves which is to display and reflect His goodness and grace more clearly to others. We are to be living testaments but all too often we get in the way; we speak up when no words are needed.

Matthew 7:16 says that “You will know them by their fruits.” (NASB)

As hard as it is for me (ask my boss), I am finally learning to shut up. Because at the end of the day, what I have to say is of no consequence. Instead I’m finding that what I have heard and learned from the Lord, will pour out of my life if I am fully and humbly surrendered and it probably won’t be verbal. It will flow forth as physical and spiritual necessity to be obedient to what I know.

Comfort in Company

I take comfort in being able to identify with people. I like knowing that I am not alone. For example, the other night while my roommates and I were watching the Olympics I randomly spoke up and asked, “When you moved into your first apartment and really broke ground for your independence, were you nervous? Were you anxious at all about how it would all work out and whether or not you really had what it took to do it?”

The looked at one another and smiled (they are both slightly older and therefore much wiser). With simple nods and loving explanations they recapped their first-time apartment experiences.

There is something about knowing that you are not the first one on the boat headed down a new river that is reassuring. You put in and push off into calm and fluid waters; gently flowing forward with soft ripples tenderly breaking the glassy surface. Yet, it is inevitable that rapids will come; turbulent waters will approach, especially when it rains and the waters rise. More than being afraid of the rapids, I tend to be afraid that I am and will be the only one to face those particular waters.

I have never been one for white water-rafting. I don’t get a thrill from putting myself in potentially dangerous situations. Ironically though, every time I have gone (and by that I mean, pressured to go), I always end up having a great time. I think there are several reasons for this.

For starters, there have always been eight to twelve other people that I know in the boat with me. So, if I end up going overboard, someone is going with me. Secondly, we have always had an experienced guide who had traversed that very river numerous times. He knows every nook and cranny of the waterway; where the placid and temperate areas are that are good for rest, the areas to avoid, and most importantly, he knows what rapids are coming up and when. He has plowed through them countless times and understands where and how to steer into them. That’s right; into them.

By steering dead ahead into a rapid, you will get shot through to the other side with little help or need from you own paddle. The strength and force of so much water will carry the boat, and its occupants, over the boulder(s), which create the rapids.

If you steer to the side though, chances are your boat will get caught in an undercurrent and you will get sucked into the rapid. It’s not a guarantee that you will flip, but it will take an enormous amount of power and team work from everyone in the boat to get the boat up and out of the crevice. Is it doable? Yes. It is difficult? Yes.

But the guide instructs, calling out commands and directions, telling the people on the right side of the boat to paddle one way and the people on the left side of the boat to paddle the other way.

I remember going down a river with class four rapids (they are measured on a scale of one to five; five being the biggest). Our guide would not tell us how many rapids we would face or when they were coming until they were nearly in sight. It was smart of his part because if I had known what I would be facing from the beginning, I would have jumped overboard and swam ashore.

I think it’s the same with God. If He showed us everything we would encounter along the way, we wouldn’t stick around to see how He would carry us through it. We wouldn’t enjoy the ride because we would be distracted with what laid ahead. We would not enjoy the quiet places; the parts of the river that are meant for swimming and picture-taking.

When turbulent waters do come though, He sits calmly in the back of the boat, steering and instructing us as to what we are supposed to do with our own paddles.

One thing about white-water rafting that is inevitable is getting wet. Outside of the mandatory splash fights, you will most likely get wet when you conquer the rapids. If I had to choose a part of the adventure that I enjoy most, that would be it. Getting splashed.

It is initially shockingly cold. But, on the back side of the rapid, when the water evens out and you can coast, it is so refreshing. As the trip goes on, it eventually evaporates, but not without relieving you from the heat of the sun. It serves a purpose. It renews and revives excitement. It energizes your spirit; it awakens your senses.

When you look back at what you went through, you can smile and breathe a sigh, not relief, but of belief. Belief that your guide, your God, was there, piloting your boat and your life. Never alarmed or overpowered, but in total and complete control. When you turn back around to face the front and gaze out on the water, rest assured that in the same way he steered your way through the previous rapids, He will continue to guide you in the future.

He has no reason to jump ship. He is neither afraid nor unaware of what’s to come. On the contrary, He has permitted the boulders to fall where they may and He plans on using the rough waters to mold and shape you, to strengthen you faith and forearms. The paddle He has equipped you with, His Word, will cut through any water and will propel you forward in the way you are to go.

As quickly as the rapids come, they pass. You are on the other side before you know it and you are one rapid experience stronger, more assured, and confident that you can handle the rest of the river. Not because you and your paddle saved the day, but because your guide knew where he was going and how to get there.

So grab your paddle, strap on your life-jacket, and jump in the boat. Get ready for the ride of a lifetime. And remember, you’re not alone.