Friday, May 27, 2016

The Burning Bush: Paying Attention and Asking Questions

I think I have always known the story about how God speaks to Moses through the burning bush.  That's what happens when you go to Sunday School. You hear the same stories over and over until they take on a tone of familiarity. And once you have the basics down, you tend to skim over the details.

Okay, maybe that's my own experience.  

As I'm going through the Bible, I'm trying to see new things, trying to notice the details that the Sunday School teachers may have glossed over in trying to present the story of God and humanity to small children. (By the way, this is in no way critical of my Sunday School education.)

So yesterday, I was reading about Moses and how he was shepherding his father-in-law's flocks in the desert when he decided to take the sheep to new territory. Who knows why he headed off to a new area. Was he bored? What he asking questions about his purpose in life? Was he wondering about the circumstances that had led him from prince of Egypt to shepherd watching someone else's flocks? Was he grateful his life had been saved? 

The Bible doesn't tell us. But it does tell us that he went to the other side of the desert, and while he was there, he saw flames. He went to check them out and discovered a bush burning, but to this was no ordinary fire.  He asks himself why the bush isn't totally burning up. That's what fires do. They burn things up and then they spread. This fire was doing neither of those things, and so he gets closer to check it out.  

And that's when the Special Messenger, the Holy God, speaks to Moses from the center of the bush.  

The rest of the story is pretty fascinating, but this is the part that stood out to me, maybe because I'm always asking myself how I can hear God's direction in my life more clearly. And so this is my takeaway from this short passage.   
  1. Moses goes someplace new. He does something a little out of the ordinary.  We're more likely to pay attention to our surroundings if they aren't completely familiar to us.   
I gravitate to the same places and do the same things the same way.  Not always, but mostly. This lowers my anxiety level and makes me feel in control. I don't have to think about what's new. I don't have to process what I see. I can just be. And while that's probably fine some of the time, if I don't venture into new places, I am probably missing opportunities to hear God's voice speak to me in new ways.  

      2.  Moses is paying attention! He notices something new, and he goes to check it out.  He's got questions, and he wants answers. 

He could have just said, "Hey! that's weird." But instead he moves closer.  I picture him circling the bush, examining it. It's always interesting to note that God doesn't speak to Moses until he approaches the bush. God doesn't call out, "Hey, Moses. Come over here." It's only when Moses moves toward God that God calls his name.  

Much of my life is lived in automatic pilot. I do the same things over and over. Facebook has a feature that reminds users of old posts from the same day. It was freaky how they could easily have been current posts. It's quite possible that I need to shake things up in my life.

Do I want to hear God? 
Do I want to make myself available to be used by him?  Do you? 
Are we more comfortable with the status quo? Why?

What holds us back from venturing into new territory? What keeps us from seeing what's going on around us? What prevents us from looking more closely? Asking questions? 

Of note, I tend to be a little fearful of heading in new directions, and it is reassuring to remember that Moses is too, but God uses him anyway. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

In the Beginning

My world revolves around me. 
It began the day I was born. 
Or perhaps the day I developed consciousness.
It's hard to see it any other way.  
And yet, when I see the world like this, 
I am wrong. 

In the beginning, God . . .
God created the earth. The sky. The stars. The sun.
God created the seas and the sea creatures. The land and the land creatures. 
God created humanity. 

And it was all good.  Until one day, humanity said, "I want to be like God." And then, in an attempt to be like God, humanity started to mess up the goodness. 
  • Eve disobeyed God.
  • So did Adam, but he blamed Eve. And God, who made Eve.
  • Cain killed his brother Abel.
  • Lamech killed someone else.
  • Violence spread, and God decided to destroy the earth.
  • He saved Noah, who did right. Except Noah didn't always do right, and he cursed his son with slavery.
  • And so on. And so on. Through the generations. People destroying the goodness God created. God intervening to set things right. People destroying the goodness God created, and God intervening to set things right. 
The story isn't about me. Or about Eve. Or Adam. Or Noah. Or any of the other people. In fact, when they saw the story as being about them, they totally messed things up. 

This story is about God. His goodness. His love. His mercy. 

Oh yes, I can learn about myself and what I should be doing and how I should live, but it's not my story. I am not the protagonist. And that's so hard because I am the only person whose thoughts I can hear in my head.  

Unless I learn to hear God's voice.  

The more I immerse myself in God's Word, His Scripture, the more I will hear God's voice. Which is kind of weird. But not.

The more I immerse myself in God's Word, His Scripture, the more I will see how God's story is still unfolding and how I can play a role in God's story.  I am not central. God is.  This is HIS story.  I am part of a larger narrative. 

It's not your story either. 
Together, we are part of this larger narrative. 

And so God leads, and we follow. Sometimes faithfully and sometimes not.
And when we get caught up in our own stories, we tend to mess things up.  Like Adam and Eve did. Like Cain did. Like Lamech did.

Ken Wytsma writes, "Life finds its harmony when we're centered on God, walking in faith, and experiencing the fullness of life He designed for us to experience."  

How can we do that? How can we get our eyes off ourselves and refocused on the true protagonist? 

To start with, we can read the story a new way, asking God to show us where He is at work and asking Him to give us power and courage to follow Him.   

It's not about me. 
It never is. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Well, it's been about a year. Time to start blogging again.

I should just let this blog go. I don't seem to be able to maintain it for more than a week. Or maybe a month. It seems like there's always something else to write. 

Lesson plans. Power points. Prompts. Handouts.  

And if I'm not writing for my students, I'm grading their papers.  

And if I'm not writing for my students or grading their papers, I'm trying to maintain healthy relationships with my family, my long-suffering husband Duane, my three adult children.  

And when I'm not doing any of those things, I'm tired, and I just don't want to do anything. I just want to shut down my brain and vegetate. Television is good for that.  

But most of my life is consumed with teaching, which I love.  I think I've always wanted to be a teacher. If tomorrow I won the lottery (which you have to play to win, so there's not much chance of that), I would still want to teach. Just not as much as I teach right now.  

The 2015-2016 school year has been brutal for me.  For a variety of very practical reasons, I took on eight classes for the semester. To give some context, five courses is considered full-time.  Eight classes was tough but doable as I only taught two courses and I was only at two schools. Plus, I believed this was a short-term thing and I would have a rest after the semester and Caitlin's wedding because I anticipated that I would have a very light spring schedule with only five classes.

I didn't think I would be back at SDSU again until fall.  Good news--they invited me back. Bad news--now I had eight classes again. This time I had five courses and I was at three schools. 

Long story short, after four weeks, I realized I was in over my head, and because two of the eight classes were short-term classes, I could give one away. I also made the decision at that time to take the summer off. 

And here I am. With a whole summer to breathe. 

I feel like I've been holding my breath for the last year, racing from here to there, trying to be the best teacher I can be, the best mom I can be, the best wife I can be.  

I haven't had time to be the best me I can be. I've lost touch with most of my friends. I've gained six pounds. I've stopped eating healthily. I haven't been to the dentist.  

In the hustle and bustle and the general busy-ness of trying to work to live and then finding out that I'm living to work, I have lost myself. In order to find myself, I need to look beyond myself because honestly, I'm only the best me I can be when I'm in touch with the one who made me.  

Spiritually, I'm worn out. I'm grateful God is gracious and merciful, but honestly, my heart for is not where I want it to be. I remember the days when I eagerly read God's word, when I memorized verses every week, when I joyfully sang along with worship music throughout the day. I felt God's presence throughout the day.  

I remember those days, and I wonder if they were real. And I wonder, if they were real, are they gone? 

By faith, I know that those days were real, and by faith, I know God is a God of restoration. I've been to the empty place before, and God has restored me.  

And I have a summer to breathe.  

Last summer's restoration process (I told you, I've been here before) included a 90-day Bible reading plan. Actually it took me about five months instead of three to get through the Bible, but I'm not sure the number of days matters at all. This was an amazing time of refreshing, of re-centering my life, not on my own crazy, mixed up story, but on God's story.

It was so great that I decided to go through the Bible again this summer.  

A lot of people say that reading the Bible rapidly doesn't allow for transformative meditation, important life change that can only happen when we focus on distinct words from God and intentionally allow them to seep into our lives. They say that can't happen when we are moving through Scripture rapidly.  

While I agree that it is essential to focus on individual passages and even verses and to apply them to our lives, I believe that the other type of reading also has value.  

When we go through Scripture rapidly, we get a sense of the continuity of God's story. We begin to get a holistic sense of what God is doing that can be missed if we only look at a few words.  

Thus, both types of reading have value, and something is lost if we don't prayerfully engage in both styles of reading. 

At any rate, I pulled out the reading plan in order to start today, I printed a copy, and was just about to start reading Genesis 1-12 and Psalms 1-2 when I remembered that last year, about a third of the way through the Bible, I wished I had been blogging my thoughts in response to the readings. 

And so here I am, creating context for what I hope will be a series of blogs that serve multiple purposes.

  • Reflecting on what God shows me about himself or His story or His story and my life allows me to record and remember these things for the future. 
  • Writing regularly improves my writing and inspires me to do more writing. 
  • Committing to a blog keeps me accountable to write and read. Just in case I think about quitting.  
I don't actually think anyone will read any of this, but I always write for an audience.  In a way, writing is a way of teaching, and my imaginary audience is a group of men and women who, for a variety of reasons, are also worn out trying to be the best they can.  They want a deeper relationship with God, but they're not sure how to go about it. They want something, but they're not sure what it is.  

Maybe I'm just writing for myself. It doesn't matter. 
Okay--off to Genesis.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Identity Theft: Labels

This post is in response to Newbreak's latest sermon series: Identity Theft.  

I have long been aware of the power of names or labels. For years I lived under the label "Not good enough. Yet." This label kept me waiting until I got better. I would write when I was a better writer. I would sing when I was a better singer. I would talk to people when I had something interesting to say. I would move forward when someone gave me the new label, "Good enough."

I was frustrated and discouraged because other people, whose efforts seemed less polished than mine, seemed to be given the label I desired: "Good enough." I felt misunderstood. When would I be good enough?

My pride kept me from doing anything that was less than good enough.

And then I realized that I would never be as good as I wanted to be, which was perfect. And that was okay. I would never be given opportunities until I stepped forward boldly, confident in my efforts, which were not perfect but which came from my heart. My responsibility wasn't to be perfect, but to continue to do the things God had called me to do.

And when I stopped living under this identity-stealing label "Not good enough. Yet.," I gave myself a new label: "In process." And so I began writing. My writing didn't need to be perfect. It was "in process" and getting better. I began speaking up and sharing my ideas. I began going to school. I became an "in process" teacher, getting better all the time. And I began applying this label to others. We are all "in process."

Changing the label changed my life.
In last Saturday's service, Pastor Mike asked each of us to write down a label, a false identity, one that was stealing out ability to live out our true identity. I felt like I had dealt with my false identity, and so I didn't know what to write.

And then Pastor Mike began to pray. As the Holy Spirit began to speak, I began to write: "Unloved." "Misunderstood." "Rejected."

Vignettes from the past flitted through my memory, and I could see myself being chosen last for sports teams. I saw myself ignored in small groups and large groups, my voice seemingly silent. I saw myself sitting alone, invisible, wanting friends, afraid to reach out to others, afraid of being rejected again.  Tears slipped down my cheeks as I relived my past.

One of the ways God has used me in the past is to disciple young women, to encourage them in their faith, to challenge them to follow their dreams or to follow Christ. My labels, my fears of rejection and being misunderstood, change the way I live; they limit my ability to do what God has asked me to do.

And as Pastor Mike prayed, I confessed that I cling to these labels as a means of protection. As long as I live with these names, I can limit the people I reach out to based on how I think I will be perceived. I don't take risks. I don't contact people who might not like me or my faith or my ideas.

And so I confessed: Father, forgive me for living out of false labels. I don't want these labels to control me. I want to live out of your power. Out of the identity you have given me.  

And then I heard the new label: "Loved." "Chosen."
This is an identity I know intellectually, but which is hard to walk in.  True identities often are. How do I reach out to people I don't know? How do I love with God's love? How do I live authentically, with openness and vulnerability, willing to follow God wherever He calls me? Knowing He loves me and that is all that matters? 

When Jesus says, "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy" (John 10:10, The Voice), the thief is Satan. He isn't trying to steal our money; he is isn't trying to kill our bodies or destroy our possessions. He is stealing, killing, destroying our true identities.

Jesus has come to give us joyful life, and Satan wants to take that away.
Satan takes my experiences and suggests labels like "rejected." I choose to live with those labels instead of the ones that God has given me. Living under these negative labels prevents me from participating in God's mission.

In Christ, I am a new creation. The old me is gone, and I have a new identity in Christ. I am adopted into God's family. I am chosen to serve God's purposes.

What are some of the labels that define you, limit your choices and your actions? What does God say about who you are?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Identity Theft: Dreamer

This post is in response to Newbreak's latest sermon series: Identity Theft.  

I first heard about the danger of identity theft on some kind of nighttime news show. It seemed pretty horrible. Someone can steal your name and your social security number and then open up credit accounts, destroying your credit and ruining your life. Pretty scary stuff. Back in those days, experts warned people to shred their mail to prevent this from happening. Of course that wouldn't prevent an unscrupulous store clerk from the dangers of identity theft.

Nowadays technology opens up apparently unlimited ways for someone to steal your identity. Unscrupulous people can research archives can access your history. I saw an article this morning warning that these criminals can steal your kids' social security numbers. There's an easier way to steal an identity. Most of our lives are posted online. Hackers can set up ways to see what we do on the internet and they can break into the data posted on sites we do business with.

So we set up firewalls and change our passwords so often we can't remember them. (Maybe that's just me.) And we're still exposed. The faster we come up with ways to prevent identity theft, the faster the thieves come up with ways to steal our identities, destroy our reputations, and take our money.

I'm not trying to minimize this type of identity theft, but at the end of the day, even if these thieves take my identity, I'm still me, and while my creditors may be confused, I'm not, and my friends and family aren't confused either.

There's another type of identity theft that may be more dangerous, at least to my true identity, the way I view myself and the way others view me. This identity theft changes the way I live, the choices I make, the way I interact with the people around me and with God.

Our true identities are often formed by the identities we assign to ourselves, and those identities or names we give ourselves have the power to shape our lives. They can open up possibilities; they can shut down our dreams. They can propel us to move forward; they can paralyze us so that we can't move at all.

Think about it. If I see myself as a dancer, I dance boldly and confidently. And I hone my skills. If I think I can't dance, then I just don't dance. Incidentally, I don't see myself as a dancer. I wish I were, but I gave that dream up long ago.

If I see myself as a student, I believe my efforts at learning will be successful, and so I move forward with conviction that I will do well in my classes. I keep up on my homework. I study. I put forth efforts to absorb the material. If I don't think I can learn, if I doubt my ability to succeed, then I think, why even try? (I have a lot of students who take on this pattern.)

If I see myself as a teacher, I teach. I watch my students and assess their learning. I critique my lesson plans and make them better.  If I think I am a writer, I think my writing has purpose and power. This gives me the power to write, and as I write, I get better. If I think I am not a writer, why bother writing? 

My identity is closely linked with learning, teaching, and writing. I believe God created me to use this identity for His glory, and He has used this identity to draw people closer to Him.

And yet, there have been moments when I doubted my identity. I was tempted to stop learning, thinking that I was too old to learn new things. I was tempted to give up my dream of becoming a teacher. I have given up my identity as a writer more than once.  

In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us that we are saved by grace; we did not earn our salvation, our acceptance into God's family. He adds that this salvation is not merely for our benefit, that we are God's masterpieces and He has prepared good works for us to accomplish. These are His dreams for us, and as we set out to do these works, He gives us strength to accomplish them. We are part of His family, and we join Him in reaching out to the rest of the world by beginning these works. 

There is no greater joy than this. 
And this is part of the abundant life Jesus promises in John 10:10 when he says, "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I came to give life with joy and abundance." 

To put the passage in terms of this discussion, Satan wants to steal your identity, your dreams, and your joy in joining Christ to reach the world. He wants to stop you from doing the things God planned for you long ago.   We need to become increasingly focused on Jesus and His plans for our lives so that we can experience the abundant life He promised. We need to allow Him to establish our identity and our dreams as well as to protect this identity from those who would steal it.  

Long ago I allowed the thief, the enemy of my soul, to begin erasing my identity, and out of desperation I cried out to Jesus to rescue me. I am so grateful that He did. He is restoring and recreating my identity and my dreams.  He is doing more than I could have imagined.  

I hesitate to think what my life would be like if I had let the enemy win.  

Priorities. Or Lack of Well-Defined Priorities.

WARNING: This blog is basically a synopsis of my existential angst, an inability to come to terms with myself. 

I have always wanted to be a writer. 

Technically, I have always wanted to be a writer, a teacher, and an actor. There was also a brief period of time when I wanted to be president of the United States, but I think that was mostly because I was told that women can't be presidents, and I thought that limitation was stupid. I still do.  

But back to my real ambitions. After eliminating actor from the list, I was down to two things I really wanted to be: writer and teacher. My challenge has always been that I don't know which one of these ambitions to focus on. 

Honestly, these two life goals are so intermingled in my head that I have a hard time separating them. And these two goals are also linked to my insatiable desire to learn.  

Let me explain: I learn in order to open up new worlds, to understand these worlds, to make my life richer and more interesting and more meaningful. Writing helps me make sense of what I learn and then internalize. It also allows me to pass on all the amazing things I learn about the world. Writing is a way of learning and teaching at the same time.  

Teaching is a way of interacting with people on a more personal level. I meet the most amazing students, and I want to pass on the joy of learning to them. I teach to open up new worlds to my students, to explain these worlds, in order to make their lives richer and more interesting and more meaningful.  

I want to do both things, to write and to teach. But pretty much I'm just teaching. Teaching is also the way I make money, something that was never on my list of ambitions but which is pretty important. 

By the way, when I say I'm pretty much just teaching, I don't mean that teaching is not valuable or meaningful. I just mean that I'm not doing the other thing that is valuable and meaningful. At least to me. 

And there's my dilemma: I'm not sure how to do both things at the same time. 

Last fall I had lunch with my friend Sara Dunn and her adorable little girl Zoe. This was a period of time when I thought my life was settling down and I would have time to write again, a period of time before I took on some extra classes that sent my life spiraling back into the crazy zone. Sara is also a blogger, but she blogs more often than I do. 

Sara has a knack for posing questions that make me rethink my life. And this time was no exception. 

"Are you still blogging," she asked. She is very straightforward, and I like that. 

I wanted to say yes, I was just on a writing hiatus because of my schedule, but I didn't know how to answer her question because I wasn't sure how long this indefinite hiatus would last. 

"Well, sort of," I hedged. "I'm just really busy right now, and so I haven't had time to write." I couldn't actually remember my last post. And I was sad because I could remember how much I loved writing and sort of wondered if I would ever start writing again.  It's not like I'm getting any younger. 

Sara knows that I tend to overpack my schedule. At least I think she knows that. I'm not good at hiding my flaws.

"Oh," she responded. "It's just not a priority right now." She is very straightforward.

That stung. I wanted to say, "Yes, writing is a priority. I just don't currently have time." 
But that's sort of the meaning of a priority. It's important enough to make the time. 

I don't remember what I actually said after that, but I did make a note to talk about this conversation in a blog. And here I am. Talking about this conversation in a blog. At least six  months later.

And that brings me back to my dilemma, one I have been thinking about for some time. Do I want to be a writer or a teacher? Can I be both? Can I prioritize my life so that I have room for both in my schedule--and also make room for relationships and reading and exercise and cooking and cleaning and all the other things that make up a life worth living? 

And can I make room for listening to God? Making sure that my life and my schedule follow His plans and His mission and not the one that's so very fuzzy in my head? 

I think it comes down to priorities, something I have already established that I am not good at establishing. 


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Power of ONE: The Church

This blog is a response to the current sermon series at Newbreak Church. To watch the message, you can log on to Newbreak's website and watch ONE: One Direction

When I was a kid, we went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. If there was a special event or we sang in the choir, we went again.

And that was it. Church-related activities took place in the church.  Well, we were supposed to read the Bible and pray everyday, but mostly I just felt guilty because I didn't.

A few years ago, people started saying, "Don't just go to church; be the church."

In other words, don't just learn more about God with other people who already believe in God; instead, serve people outside church. Serve your community. Hand out water. Feed the homeless. Clean the canyons. Do something.

Going to church is good. Going to church gives us the opportunity to worship God with other Christ followers.  Hebrews 10:25 instructs followers of Jesus Christ to gather together in order to "inspire each other to greater love and to righteous deeds." When we go to church, we hear God's Word proclaimed and explained, and we're challenged to follow Christ in our daily lives.

Being the church, or serving the community, is also good--and essential. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the end of days, when he gathers together the nations. He separates people into two categories, those who have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, nursed the sick, and visited prisoners. He honors those who lived lives of service and rejects those who did not, saying,"whenever you saw a brother hungry or cold, when you saw a sister weak and without friends, when you saw the least of these and ignored their suffering, so you ignored me." If we don't serve the people around us, we are missing a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

And so both of these actions, going to church and being the church, are biblical.
And although they both use the same word: church, they are using the word in two different ways. When we say, "go to church," the word church denotes a place. When I say, "be the church," the word church denotes a certain type of behavior representative of service.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure how to define the word church when used this way.

Definitions matter. Otherwise we're using the same words, but we're talking about two entirely different things, which is bound to result in misunderstanding or disagreement.

To clarify discussions, we need to make sure we're talking about the same things.
How should we define the word church?  More importantly, what definition can we form by examining the way the New Testament uses the word church? What is it? How does it function? What is its purpose?

This discussion could fill a book (and many books have been written to address these questions), and blog format is adequate to fully explore the topic; nevertheless, I do want to join the discussion.

In Ephesians, Paul describes the church as the " body of Christ." This is a beautiful image; Christ is the head, and we are are all united functioning together as his hands and his feet. Just as our physical bodies were designed to work together rather than individually, Christ's body is designed to function today. We are not individuals in the body of Christ; we are a team. Christ is the head, and we are his body, responding to his direction, working in conjunction with each other.

My two hands can do different things at the same time, but they must all work toward the same purpose, moving in the same direction, at the same time. Think of it a pianist. Each hand, even each finger, plays different keys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Individually, the effect isn't that exciting, but together, the music can be incredible. Each digit works with the others to achieve melodies and harmonies and rhythms. The feet work the pedals to sustain notes. All parts, even other parts I have not discussed, are essential.

This is the body of Christ. We need each other. Individually, we are fairly insignificant. Together we can do magnificent things.

And so we gather together regularly, at least once a week, to make sure we are moving in the same direction, learning the same things, working toward the same purpose. That's the "go to church" part. And then we work together toward that purpose. That's the "be the church" part.

Together we worship God, glorifying His name, Together we illustrate the power of unity. Together we embody His heart of love and service. Together we show the power of Christ, that so many individuals can humble themselves and allow the power of God to empower them.

I can go to church without being part of the church, and I can do good things on my own without being the church. The goal is to be part of the body of Christ, something I will probably be learning my entire life.

Of note, this sermon series is specifically about Newbreak church, but there when the New Testament speaks of the body of Christ, it is describing the entire body of believers. I've never heard this discussed before, but I wonder if perhap each individual church body could be described as a part of the larger body. If that is the case, then we must learn how to work together in a unified way to glorify the name of God.