Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ecclesiastes 7-8: Don't Worry-Be Happy

Most of us remember Bobby McFerrin and that ridiculously catchy song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."  Oh, yes.  The whistle.  The rhythm.  The melody.  If you've clicked on the link, you're hearing it now, and it'll be in your head all day long.  I'll probably be humming this song as I listen to the sermon this morning in church.

I thought of this song as I read through Ecclesiastes 7 this morning.

Solomon writes, "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.  Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future."  

When times are good, be happy.  When times are not so good, you might as well be happy then too.  God is still God.  No matter what's going on, God is still good.  He's working things out for His good, for the good of the kingdom of God.  

It's not about you.

The thing is, when times are good, we tend to get a little self-righteous.  I'm financially successful because God has blessed me.  Because I've serve him well.  Because I've made good decisions.  Whatever.

I remember listening to a conversation back in 2006.  My friends were talking about how much their houses were worth and how God had provided for their retirement.  How they had made really good investment choices and were basically set for life.  (They each owned more than one house.)

And then the real estate market crashed and it didn't look so good for their futures.  

When all three of my kids attended church every weekend and did all the things "good Christian kids" are supposed to do, I thought Duane and I were amazing parents.  It was our wisdom, I assumed, our commitment to discipline and home schooling.  They would serve God wholeheartedly forever and ever.  

And then our oldest crashed.  Big time.  

I recently heard about someone who was leaving the church.  I'm okay with that.  Newbreak isn't the only place to worship.  Except that this person wasn't just leaving Newbreak, but was leaving God.  

Times were tough, and the question that stood out was:  Where is God in all this? 

We think God's present when things go well, and we think he has abandoned us when things don't go well.  

But it doesn't work that way.  Solomon says, "Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?"  

I think of so many Scriptures passages as I write this: 

In Romans 5:3-5, Paul admonishes us to rejoice in our sufferings because as we walk through them, God produces perseverance and character in our lives.  Which brings about hope in Christ--who is our only hope.

James 1:2 tells us to consider it pure joy when we experience trials of many kind.  

1 Peter 1:6-7 tells us to rejoice in our salvation in spite of the trials around us.  Because our salvation is far more valuable than anything else in our lives.  

Three different writers.  The same message.  Suffering produces beauty in our lives.  

And so where is God in this?  When we look directly at him, focusing on his love, on his character, we see him in the pain of our lives.  

The writer of Hebrews tells us to set our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our lives.   After all, Jesus suffered to the point of death, something none of us reading this passage have yet done.  His suffering was for us.  

And so, the writer concludes, we should "endure hardship as discipline" because God is strengthening us for his purposes.  

It does seem that I've traveled quite a ways from Ecclesiastes, but maybe not.  

When times are good, be happy.  
When times are bad, don't worry.  Look into the face of Jesus, see his love, his sacrifice.  Remember, he will do something incredibly valuable in your life if you will let him.

Ecclesiastes 6: Too Many Words

I knew exactly what I wanted to write about when I woke up this morning.  And then I went back to the Bible and found a new passage.  This time Solomon's really stepping on my toes.

In chapter 6, verse 11, he writes, "The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?"

Whoa.  Does he know what I do with my life?  

I talk.
I read.
I study.
I write.

Mostly I use words.  

And yet, there is meaning that extends beyond words, meaning that can't be contained by mere words. 

Think about love.  The more I write about it, the more I limit it's scope.  Love is expansive.  We can describe it, but we can't fully define it.  We need to experience it.  

And even then, there's more.  

If I limit the meaning of love to what I can say about it, it's not everything it can be.  

And God.  We can say a lot about Him, but there's always more to say.  I can try to describe his glory, but his glory is beyond description.  I can tell stories of what he's done, but there will always be more stories, and he reveals himself not only through what he's done in the past, but what he's doing right now and what he will do in the future.  

He's beyond understanding, beyond definition, beyond words.  

I can't limit him to what I can say about him.  I must experience his presence.  See him work in my life.  See him work in the lives of people around me. 

I know him through worship as much as I know him through what I read.
I know him through nature as much as through what I write.  

I know him through his people.  

Okay.  That's already too many words.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ecclesiastes 4-5: Two Are Better Than One

I love being married.  Obviously no one is perfect, but Duane's pretty awesome.  And we're good together.  After 32 years of marriage, we've learned to trust each other.  We've become a team and learned to depend on each other.  Duane is good at things I don't do well, and I'm good at things he doesn't do well.  

Solomon spends a lot of time describing meaningless situations in the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes, and in chapter 4, he says he saw a man who was all alone.  The man didn't have any sons or brothers.  I want to add that apparently he didn't have a wife or good friends either, but that's totally my addition.  

So essentially, he had nothing to do except work and he earned a lot of money.  Of course, no matter how much earned, it really wasn't enough.  And he wasn't happy because he was all alone.  His life was meaningless.

So Solomon writes:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.  If one falls down, his friend can help him up.  But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.  
Duane and I used to have a plaque with a portion of this passage inscribed on it.  Someone made it for us and gave it to us as a wedding gift.  Solomon wasn't talking about marriage in this passage, of course, but it applies.  When I'm down, Duane comforts me, and when Duane is struggling, I comfort him.  When I fear failure, Duane encourages me, and when he's uncertain about trying something new, he knows I believe in him.  We're better together than we are apart.

This passage isn't about marriage.  Solomon never says anything about women in this section.  And God does not exclude single men and women from lives of significance.

This passage is about living in community.  It's about making a difference when we join together with other people, focused on the same purpose.  We take care of each other.  We defend each other.   A group of three isn't easily broken.

And yet, it's not always that easy.  That's why Paul writes,
"If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your interests, but also to the interests of others."  (Philippians 2:1-4)
If we want to live lives of significance, full of meaning, we need other people.  Just as Duane and I are better together, just as he can do things I can't do, and visa versa, we have other people in our life that can do things neither one of us can do.  Together, as one body, we can do things that we can't do alone.

And so we need to take care of each other.  Forgive each other.  Love each other.  We need to humble ourselves and treat each other as better than ourselves.  Even Jesus humbled himself to the point of dying for our sin.

Yes, two are better than one, and a cord of three strands isn't easily broken.  I love Duane, and I guard my relationship with him.  But that relationship alone isn't enough.  I have learned, and I am still learning, that I need other people.  I need to guard those relationships like I guard my relationship with Duane, and I need to make opportunities to develop and strengthen those relationships.

I'm not okay with "meaningless."  

Seasons: How to Live a Life That's Not Meaningless

My friend Jill's mom died last week, and Duane and I attended the funeral yesterday afternoon.  We're getting older; our parents are getting older.  It's a strange thing because we don't actually feel older, and we don't think our parents are getting older either. We don't think they will die, and yet both Duane and I lost our fathers about three years ago.  

It's part of life.  

Solomon put it this way:  There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . . 

And so we gathered together to say goodbye to a woman I've never met.  A woman who lived and loved, who laughed and sang and cried, who celebrated life and experienced disappointments.  

I think it says a lot about Jill's mom that Jill visited her nearly every day in the nursing home, even the days her mom didn't really know she was there.  

Jill's mom and dad moved to San Diego in 1976, when they were about 50 years old.  Shortly before, two sons became "Jesus people," and shortly after that Jill's mom and dad began their own relationship with Christ.  Jill was next, and finally the last daughter gave her life to Christ.  

Today all four children and their children serve God. One son is a pastor.  A grandson serves with his guitar and his voice.  Jill's dad is the chaplain in the nursing home where his wife lived.  In one way or another, they all give their lives away.  

Jill is one of those people I can always count on to pray for me.  She never judges.  She can see when I'm sad or disappointed or struggling.  And she stops to ask.  And then she prays for me right away.  She encourages. She loves unconditionally.  She serves faithfully.  She never complains.  

Once I asked Jill why she went to see her mom everyday.  I knew she was exhausted, working all day long, leading two life groups with her husband, and encouraging multiple young wives.  She told me her mother had encouraged her so much growing up that she wanted to give back. 

Solomon claims that life is meaningless, but I don't think anyone who knew Jill's mom would say that her life lacked meaning.  

And so I put forth this suggestion:  Our lives gain significance and meaning when we give them away in the name of Jesus.  

Jesus put it this way:  "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (Luke 9:23:25)

The legacy of Jill's mom continues, through the people whose lives she touched.  And now she spends her days with Jesus.  

None of us will live forever.  We're only here for a season, and we want our season to matter.  We can chase after the wind, as Solomon says, trying to find something that matters for eternity, or we can give our lives away.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Back to From Garden to City: Ecclesiastes 1-3

I started the year intending to make it through the entire Bible using Mark Batterson's From Garden to City reading plan.  It seemed like a good plan at the time.  But eventually I got bored and reading through the Old Testament prophets just dried me up spiritually.  And so I've sort of drifted from passage to passage without any direction.  And I'm going to confess that I haven't read the Bible every day.

It's a funny thing.  Or maybe not funny.  The more time I spend in God's Word, the closer I feel to God.  Because I'm reading/listening to his voice speak to me through the Bible, I hear his voice in my daily life.  And I remember what I'm reading.  And what I'm reading gets clearer to me.  And when it's clear, and when I'm thinking about what God's saying to me, I fall deeper in love with God and worship him as I go about my day.

Still, I struggle with reading plans because they don't really allow me to read what I want to read.  Following a plan keeps me in God's Word, but sometimes those passages in the plan just don't really speak to me.  And yet, if I don't have some kind of plan, I tend to read the same things over and over and skip passages that I'm not interested in.  I really do believe that the entire Bible is valuable, and so essentially I'm limiting God by not reading his entire word.

So I'm back to From Garden to City.  Sort of.  They started with James in October.  I like James so I started with that.  The next book was Ecclesiastes.  Followed by Leviticus.  And then Hebrews.  I love Hebrews and  I'm not a huge fan of Ecclesiastes or Leviticus so I thought about skipping ahead to Hebrews.  Maybe it's the legalist in me, or maybe it's the Holy Spirit, but I didn't feel good about that.  It felt like cheating.  (I kind of think this is the rule follower in me.)

And so here I am.  I've read Ecclesiastes 1-3, and it's not terribly inspiring.  In fact, it's pretty depressing.  Solomon, the wisest man in the world, examines life and concludes, "Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless."

We go through life.  We work hard and earn money and success.  Or we work hard and still don't have much.  We struggle with relationships.  We party.  We indulge ourselves in whatever we want.  Or we follow the rules.  And save our money.  And then we die.  But the earth keeps turning, the rivers keep flowing, and the sun rises and sets.  Just like it did before we were born.

And if we seek out wisdom, if we examine what is known and is not yet known, we learn that the more we know, the more we realize we don't know.  And that even if we knew it, it wouldn't change anything.  In fact, if we look too closely at what we've learned, we realize it's all pretty worthless.  We look at things one way now, and think the people who came before us were pretty foolish.  In a few years, ideas will shift, and those future people will think we're foolish.

Solomon was the first postmodernist.  Or maybe not because he does ask, "Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'?" As a result, Solomon comes to the only conclusion possible and he states, "So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me."

I'm going to just put myself out there and say that sometimes studying rhetoric is hard.  We look so closely at what people say and how they use words to manipulate points of view, and I start to wonder, "What's real?"
I ask, "Does anything matter?"

I desperately need God's Word to keep me grounded in some sort of truth, and yet sometimes I ask, "Is anything true? Do I only believe because I was raised this way?" And these kinds of thoughts are exactly why I don't like the book of Ecclesiastes.  I've been thinking this stuff since high school, and I prefer not to ask these questions.

And yet failure to openly ask the questions kept me from seeking God and his Truth.  You note I use a capital "T" here. When I began asking the questions, I began finding God. And by finding God, I don't mean that I learned a lot of stuff about him.  I mean that I began hearing his voice, through the words in the Bible and in other ways too.  At first I thought I was talking to myself.  But gradually I am learning to differentiate between my thoughts and God's thoughts.

And no, I don't think I'm crazy.

But back to Solomon and his search for meaning.  He tried a lot of things, and he never did find meaning, not in wisdom and not in indulgence and not really even in work, although he does state that if we find satisfaction in our work, we are indeed blessed.

We're like animals, according to Solomon. Nothing more.  Nothing less.
And yet, we do search for meaning.  We have eternity in our hearts, according to Solomon (3:11), and so we keep chasing after that which we "cannot fathom."

We desire Truth and Meaning and Significance.  And we just can't quite find it.
Tomorrow chapters 4 and 5.

James: Mirrors

It seems my friend Val and I have been prompting each other to think about Scripture.  Always a good thing.  Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."  Val and I are both women, but you get the idea.

After I wrote about faith without works being dead, Val wrote from James 1:22-25.  I'm going to paraphrase:
Don't just listen to the words from the Bible.  And don't just read them.  Put the words into practice.  Otherwise you're like a woman who looks at her face in the mirror and then immediately forgets what she looks like.  
That totally resonates with me.  I picture myself a certain way.  In that image, I'm about 35 so there aren't any wrinkles.  In those days I hardly ever wore makeup--except for mascara.  My hair is much blonder than it is now.  I weigh about 15 pounds less than what the scale says now.

And then I look in the mirror and the image is a little disconcerting.  I see a woman who is several years older than the picture I have in my mind, and she weighs more than I'm comfortable with.   She needs a haircut, but is too lazy or too cheap or too busy to go get one.  I see spots and wrinkles.  I think, "She needs to start eating better.  She needs to exercise.  She needs to get her hair cut.  Maybe colored."

And then I walk away, and I forget all of that.  I don't eat better.  I don't exercise.  I don't call and make an appointment to get my hair cut.  And if I bothered to put on lipstick before I left the mirror, I don't reapply even though I know it's worn off.

In the same way, when we hear a sermon or participate in a deep discussion in our Life Groups, when we encounter God's presence in worship, when we read God's Word, the Holy Spirit often reveals things about ourselves that we aren't comfortable with. Perhaps he convicts us of sin.  Maybe spending too much.  Or watching too much T.V.  Or lack of forgiveness.  Or being unkind or unloving.

And we confess our sin.  We beg forgiveness, and we walk away, ready to change. But then we forget.  And we don't change.  Kind of like the way I always mean to exercise, but I don't.  If I could see the image in the mirror all the time, I would definitely have motivation to change!

Sometimes the fact that I know I've failed to exercise or eat right means I don't WANT to look into the mirror.  At that point, even more things don't get taken care of.  Maybe I don't pluck my eyebrows.  Or take my makeup off at night.  Make sure my clothes look okay.  You get the idea--if I never look into the mirror because I don't like what I see, I don't take care of things that need taken care of.

And so I want to take this metaphor back to the passage.  James 1:24 tells us that we will be blessed when we look intently into God's perfect law (the Bible) that gives freedom and also put the ideas into practice.  The more time we spend in God's Word, the more God's Spirit equips us to live what we see there.

Val wrote this:
I need God to direct me.  I need the Holy Spirit to guide me and convict me.  I need his word to be my sword.  Think of a jungle.  What defensive weapon is most needed?  A machete to create a path.  You see, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is not only useful against spiritual and earthly foes; it can be used to make our path straight and visible!  We cannot walk the path God has put before us on this jungle without the sword to clear the path.  In order to even see what direction we should go, we need that sword!  The word of God is alive and it will keep us alive, but we need to wield that sword and follow the path it creates.  We have not yet arrived at our destination. We are still on a journey, a blessed journey. 

Back to the mirror analogy.  I mentioned that sometimes I don't even want to look into the mirror. I  don't always like what I see there.  But if I don't, I actually end up looking pretty awful.  

We might want to avoid spending time in God's Word precisely because it makes us feel bad about the way we look spiritually, but it's important to remember Romans 8:1.  There is no condemnation in Christ.  God's Word isn't there to condemn us, but to empower us.  There is freedom in God's Word.  There is freedom when we allow him to equip us and give us strength.  When we begin to put the words into practice.  

Okay.  I could write on the book of James for another week, but it's time to move on.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

James 2-3: Faith and Works and Wisdom

Reading:  James 1-4

When I was a kid, I memorized Ephesians 2:8-9
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
I get it.  Sort of.  There is no checkoff list that saves us.  No formula that gives us entry into God's family.  No algorithm for receiving forgiveness of sins.  

But then we read all those verses about fruit.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness . . .
And John 15 tells us that if we don't bear fruit, we'll be chopped off and thrown into the fire.  (Don't you love metaphors?)

To complicate matters even more, James places enormous importance on what someone does.  In James 1:26-27, he writes that if anyone thinks he's religious, but he doesn't watch what comes out of his mouth, his religion is worthless.

And I know we like to say that Christianity isn't a religion--it's a relationship, so let's revise the statement a little bit.  If anyone thinks he (or she) has an intimate relationship with God, but his (or her) words are cruel/rude/gossipy, maybe that relationship isn't as close as he (or she) thinks.

And then James gets even tougher.  He writes, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

I don't even know what to do what that.  I think I get the "being polluted" part, but maybe not.  We can't really see air pollution most of the time, and we can't really tell if water is safe to drink until we actually drink it and get sick--or not.  So I think there may be pollution in my life that I'm not even aware of.  That's sort of how it goes.

And as for caring for orphans and widows in their distress, I don't know very many of those.

James shifts gears, talks about the way we treat people, and then asks, "What good is it if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?"

What if he (or she) talks about God's love, but doesn't extend mercy--the kind that includes actions?
According to James, that person's faith is essentially worthless.
In James 2:17 and 26, he says that it's dead.

Hebrews 11 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for.  It's the evidence of things we can't see.  Faith is not an intangible belief.  When we have faith, real faith, it changes us.  It changes the way we think and the way we respond to situations.  It changes what we do.

When we have faith, real faith, God's Spirit lives inside of us, and our lives produce fruit.  We live differently.  We care about different things.

Yes, it is possible to do good things without faith.  But James claims that it's not possible to have faith unless we also do good things.  The doing flows out of the faith.

Like fruit.

Honestly, I struggle with this a little bit.  I spent so much of my life trying to be good and do good things, and I had no faith.  My good things were worthless on their own.

I have spent a lot of time more recently focusing on "being."  Which is good.  But at some point, the being should lead to doing.  Should lead to active mercy.  And love.

As usual, I end without definitive answers to the questions I raise.  I'm okay with that.  Most of life has more questions than answers.

More on James 1: Joy in the trials

Yesterday I wrote about James' command to have joy in the struggles of life.  I suppose it's important to define what we mean by joy, and we could qualify that notion in such a way that we're not jumping up and down and celebrating when we "encounter various trials."  Still, no matter how we define joy, it's important to ask ourselves: How can we live out this passage?  What does this mean in our everyday lives and what does this mean in really difficult circumstances?  

A long-time friend of mine, Val Wilson, wrote this in response, and I asked if I could share it.  Incidentally, Val is an amazing worship leader, and you can find more about her and her CD by clicking on the link.  

James 1:2-5 -
 2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
Not exactly my favorite scripture.  I mean, I can read it and say, yes this is true because God says it, so this is what I'm supposed to do, but honestly,  As we've learned previously, we know that Heb. 12:2 says that Jesus endured the cross "for the joy set before him."  And, interestingly, right before that in verse 1 it says we are to persevere, just as James says.  In fact, here's the Hebrews passage: 
 1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Now, I am no theologian, so this is me shooting straight from the hip and, frankly, could be very wrong.  I don't know how to "feel" joy during the trial.  Sometimes, when I am able to completely surrender, I am filled with joy, but in all honesty, it doesn't remain indefinitely.  I've always struggled with the James passage because I just don't feel joy during the trials!  And as I sit and ponder this, I really don't know if that's actually the goal anyway.  Let's face it!  How can we feel a constant sense of joy when there is so much pain, overwhelming pain, pain that threatens to destroy us.  It seems rather inauthentic and for me to be false before God, who knows me better than I know myself, well that just doesn't make sense.
So, how do we go about allowing ourselves to feel the pain of the trial, yet experience the joy, and where does the wisdom come in that God promises?  Wisdom seems to be the key here.
Well I hope you can sense my struggle.  I hope I can find some answers.  I pulled out an old book my parents gave me by J. Vernon McGee.  He actually tied Hebrews 12 together with James 1 as well!  He agrees with my inauthenticity argument and says, "People piously say they have accepted God's will yet go around with a long face and weep half the time.  My friend, you are not reconciled to the will of God until you can rejoice."  He goes on to say that James is really discussing the attitude of our hearts towards the trial.  He says the joy is the result of the trial.  That doesn't necessarily sound to me like we need to be bouncing off the walls full of joy when our hearts are being ripped out from within us!  We have to go through the trial and somehow we find joy!  And joy comes from rejoicing!  Have you ever tried to rejoice when you feel you can't?  God just pours it out upon me when I try that!  I may have tears of pain flowing down my face simultaneously, but yes I feel joy!  Am I feeling joy in my actual circumstances?  Probably not, I'm feeling joy because God is giving it to me!  I just find it hard to stay in that place.
So patience (perseverance) and wisdom....patience is a fruit of the Spirit...we earn that by going through trials.  Wisdom God gives to us.  Would we be able to weather the trials better with more wisdom?  Certainly because we'd know what to do and what decisions to make!  I realize I'm throwing lots of stuff out there today and I'm not really developing it; I'm going to trust God to work some of this out in you and me...I haven't given myself enough time to digest this either!  But for me, here's my biggest take home lesson today. 
I will continue to struggle with considering it all joy to go through trials.  That's okay.  I will continue to be authentic before my God, who knows me best, and I will let him know of my struggle.  I will ask him for joy.  And I will rejoice.  I will rejoice in whatever I can in the moment.  There is more than enough grace here.  I can always rejoice in my Savior.  I can always rejoice in my salvation.  I can always rejoice in my forgiven and forgotten sins.  I can always rejoice in all that God has given me.  Sometimes I can even rejoice in the knowledge that God is going to work this trial out for my good and his glory.  But, if I can't get there right then, I will still rejoice.  I resolve to rejoice.  

But, I will also feel the pain of the struggle.  I'm certain Jesus felt the pain of his struggle and the joy set before him was the joy he has seated at the right hand of God, but I'm certain he still felt every single sting of the whip, every single blow to his body, every single strike of that hammer and every single inch of those nails piercing his body.  Will I then put myself above Christ and say I should not feel the pain?  I'd rather not feel the pain, but through the pain there is redemption.  Through the pain there is further resolve.  Through the pain I persevere.  I show God that I mean business and that I am truly willing to follow him and take up my cross daily when I feel the pain.  Without the pain of Jesus, we have no redemption.  

I am trusting that through my pain, others will find salvation and redemption, because somehow through my pain I will point the way to Jesus, and in this, yes, my friend, I rejoice and I count it all joy.  All of it, every single bit of it, every last ounce of pain and sorrow.  And remember, this is not about having a martyr-like attitude, it's all about resolve, patience, perseverance.  

I resolve this, I resolve to rejoice, every day, every minute, through every circumstance, through every trial and tribulation, and if God in his mercy removes the pain and pours out joy, then I will receive it and I will rejoice all the more.  But if God does not remove the trials, does not remove the pain, still I will rejoice, for this is my resolve, for my God is good to me, again, and again, and again and again.  He is the lifter of my head and this is the day the Lord has made, and I will rejoice and if I'm blessed to wake to another day tomorrow, yet again and still I will rejoice.  This is my resolve.  This is my God.  He will enable me.  He always does.

Monday, October 25, 2010

James 1-3: Count it all joy. Really?

From Garden to City reading:  James 1-3

I'm going to go on record and say I love the book of James. Most scholars believe the author was the brother of Jesus.  I'll go with that.  I do know that the author is nothing if not direct.  He really get to the point, and he doesn't mind if he sounds a little abrupt.

Most of the epistles begin with a blessing.  Sort of, "I thank God for you."  "Grace and blessings to you in the name of Jesus Christ."

James say, "I'm James, the servant of God.  I'm writing to the twelve tribes who have been scattered."  You might recall that after Stephen's death, persecution of Christ followers broke out in Israel, and most of them fled Jerusalem.

It's safe to say their lives aren't too easy at this point.  But he doesn't say, "Life is hard.  I'm praying for you, that God will comfort you, that he'll meet your physical needs, that he'll bring you home."

He's way more direct than that.

He says, "Count it all joy when you encounter trials of many kinds."  In other words, thank God for the difficulty, no matter what it is.  Rejoice in the Lord always.

Because God's at work in your life.  Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Faith is hard.  You need to know how to hang on.

And so perseverance must "finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."    Which implies that the people he's talking to are not quire mature and may be lacking some things in their lives.

Sort of like us.  We never quite arrive at that point when we're totally mature, totally complete, not needing any further spiritual growth.

But the trials produce growth.

I used to be hesitant to claim that God spoke to me, but sometimes thoughts jump in my head from out of nowhere, and they point me directly to God, to his principles, and to his word.  And I would have to say these ideas don't originate in my own imagination.  I believe this is God's Spirit, counseling me.

Back in 2000, a week after my fortieth birthday, I discovered I was pregnant.  Jason was finishing up his senior year.  Kirsten was in tenth grade.  Caitlin was nine.  I was in shock; Duane was overjoyed.

Okay, this must be God's plan, I thought.  I can embrace this.  And so I did.  And then, at twelve weeks, I miscarried.  This was my second miscarriage, and I remembered that it took me at least six months to recover emotionally from the first one.  The pain was overwhelming, and I didn't think I had the strength to walk through that pain.

I was running some errands a few days later, and had just parked the car at Time Warner Cable, when I heard God whisper, "Remember James 1."

I knew exactly what it said.  It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but I picked up my Bible from the floor of the car, and I read this passage over and over.  The pain didn't go away for a long time, but I held on to this piece of encouragement.  God was at work in my life, and ultimately that's what I wanted.  Over time, I saw God do beautiful things through this period in my life.

Years later, our family entered a traumatic time when my adult son began using drugs and told me he no longer believed in the existence of God.  I prayed and cried and sought God's intervention, but the situation seemed to get more impossible.  One day, in the middle of my pleadings, God asked, "Have I ever disappointed you?"

And then I began remembering desperate points in my life.  You know how people say that at the point of death, their life flashed before their eyes?  It was like that, as I saw images of my life in my mind, as I remembered disappointments and fears, and as I remembered the ways God worked through those disappointments and fears.  No, God had never disappointed me.

In fact, in every instance, God did amazing and awesome things.  My desperate situations opened opportunities for God to work.

Count it all joy.  I could trust him with the loss of our baby.  I could trust him through Jason's struggles with faith.  I can trust him now.

I think it's significant that James starts this book with these words.  This is exactly what the "scattered tribes" need to hear.  Count it all joy.  God is at work.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

And so why should I seek the Holy Spirit?

Read Acts 8:1-25

In my imaginary world lots of people read this blog, and all of them click on the links and read the Scripture too. In the real world, I have no idea what happens.

So essentially I'll tell the story in my own words.  (Really, Luke does a much more thorough job.)

Stephen gets stoned, but before that, he preaches a super convicting sermon.  So Saul (later known as Paul) goes from house to house in Jerusalem, looking for men and women who have put their faith in Jesus.  And when he finds them, he puts them into prison.  He's not the only one--Stephen's death prompted an enormous persecution all over Jerusalem, and lots of followers of Christ flee the city.

The thing is, wherever they go, they can't help but share their stories about who Jesus is and what God is doing.  They even go to Samaria, and that's where our story starts.  Philip preaches in a Samarian town, and people start listening.  They pay even closer attention when they see all the miraculous signs he does.  Lame people walk.  Lives are radically transformed when evil spirits get cast out.

Samaritans want to get baptized in the name of Jesus.  Yes, Samaritans, the hated half-breeds who created their own version of following God Almighty.

When the church leaders in Jerusalem hear about this, they send Peter and John to find out what's going on.  And when they get there, they pray for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit.  And they do.

Except for Simon the magician.

And so he goes to Peter and John and offers them money.  "Hey guys," he says, "it would be totally awesome if you would pray for me so that I can do the stuff you do."  Remember, he was the guy doing awesome magic stuff before Philip showed up.

Obviously, Peter and John tell him no, he can't buy the gift of God.  They also tell him to repent of his wickedness and beg God for forgiveness.

Luke doesn't tell us what happened after that, and every time I read this, I wonder:  Did he repent?  Did he follow Jesus after this happened?  Was he ever a real follower of Jesus, or did he just jump on the bandwagon when everyone else did.  Apparently Simon's motives for wanting to receive the Holy Spirit were flawed, but what were those motives?

Which leads to a question I think is totally relevant:  Why do we want the Holy Spirit?
And another one:  Why does God give us the Holy Spirit?

(Remember, in Luke 11:11-13, Jesus tells us that our Heavenly Father will give us the Holy Spirit if we ask.)

In Forgotten God, Francis Chan asks similar questions, and so I'm going to include a passage from his book:  
Do you want to experience more of the Holy Spirit merely for your own benefit?  When the answer is yes, then we are no different from Simon the magician, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit’s power from the apostles . . .
The Holy Spirit is not a commodity to be bought or traded according to our individual wants, whims, or even our felt needs.  We absolutely cannot have this discussion about the Holy Spirit without calling our motives into question.
Right now I want you to take a break from reading and spend some time asking yourself why you want the Holy Spirit.  Is it for power?  Is it for your own betterment and purposes?  Or is it because you want to experience all that God has for you?  Is it because you love the church and desire to be a better servant to your sisters and brothers? (86) 
 I don't know what God wants to accomplish around me.  I don't know what God wants to accomplish around you.  I just know, if we want to see these things happens, we can't do these things on our own  We need to be totally surrendered to God.  We need to give him everything we have and allow him to fill us with everything he has.

And I don't know what that will look like in your life--I don't even know what that will look like in my life-- but I believe God can do anything. I'm so glad he can.  

The Holy Spirit: A Controversial Topic of Conversation

WARNING:  Controversial subject matter

I taught Five-Day-Clubs for Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) the summer I was 13 years old.  It was a fabulous experience, but I'm not going to talk about that.  A CEF employee drove the other teacher and me around to different Denver neighborhoods started, and one day, I can't remember why, he started talking about prophecy and speaking in tongues and how those things ended in the first century.

He offered biblical evidence based on 1 Corinthians 13, which said, ". . . where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears."

He defined "perfection" as the written Bible.  And since we all have one of those, prophecy, tongues, and knowledge were all obsolete.  

I listened quietly, and even though I went to a church that didn't practice any supernatural gifts, it seemed to me that his conclusion depended on a false definition of "perfection."  I didn't say anything at the time--I seemed to sense that disagreement would be futile.  Years later, when I was about 17, Pastor Olsen spent an entire month of Sunday night services demonstrating from Scripture that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was only for the early church.  It was the seventies and those Jesus People were doing things that threatened the integrity of the church.  

Again, I didn't think the Scriptures he used proved anything.  But I did start to get a sense of how controversial the subject of supernatural gifts and the baptism of the Holy Spirit can be.  

For me it was an academic subject.  As far as I knew, I didn't know anyone who spoke in tongues or prophesied.  And my only encounter with supernatural healing was a woman who said that she didn't even know one of her legs was longer than the other until an evangelist healed her.  I wondered why God would bother to heal someone whose legs worked just fine until she was told they didn't.  

And then I met Duane.  (sigh)
He went to an Assembly of God Church.  The church with crazy people who spoke in tongues during services and prophesied and did all kinds of things that made me uncomfortable when I visited.  But it was Duane's church, and Duane was amazing.  (sigh)

And so began my cautious relationship with anything related to the Holy Spirit.  

Eventually I went to the altar to be prayed for to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  I was told that if I said certain words, I was speaking in tongues.  That seemed ridiculous.  In fact, the whole thing seemed ridiculous.  I didn't really want to speak words I didn't understand.  

And yet Jesus had a lot to say about the Holy Spirit.  The Paul and the book of Acts had a lot to say about things like speaking on tongues.  There wasn't anything that said these things would continue forever.  But all the people who said the baptism and tongues and prophesy and healing would pass away seemed to be taking Scripture out of context to prove their point.  

I know all Christians have the Holy Spirit, but this seemed to be something more.  

And here's what I wanted:  I wanted everything God had to offer.  I wanted to love him.  I wanted freedom from my fears.  I wanted joy.  I wanted peace.  I wanted the Holy Spirit to work in my life.  

And if I had to speak in tongues to do that--well, I would just suck it up and trust God.  This wasn't about speaking in tongues.  This was about allowing God to work in my life and do whatever he wanted.  

I said I have a very cautious relationship with anything related to the Holy Spirit.  I'll tell you why:

  • I know some people I respect will think I've gone off the deep end.
  • I know I sound crazy, and I hate sounding crazy. I can't explain this.  I try not to.
  • I know some people get more focused on the supernatural events and exciting experiences than they do on actually surrendering their lives to God.  
  • Sometimes people see the supernatural in very natural events.  Or they make stuff up.  Like my mom's friend who never even knew one leg was longer than the other until she was healed. 
  • Or they use the baptism of the Holy Spirit to appear superior to other Christians.
  • Or they think that if they speak in tongues, they can live however they want to live.  That's just incredibly wrong.   
Sometimes I wish God would just deal in the realm of things that make sense, but I know that's just my own discomfort.  I don't want to limit God to things that make sense to me, as if I were the guardian of rationality.  

Our Lord can do anything, and if you doubt that, you haven't read the Bible recently.  Or you've turned events like Jonah in the belly of the fish or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or Lazarus into myths or metaphors. I think those events are real.  

The God who could do those things then can do anything he wants now.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wow! We never even heard of the Holy Spirit!

Pastor Mike has been speaking from the book of Acts for the past few weeks and so it's pretty obvious to begin thinking about the Holy Spirit.

I mean, none of that stuff could have happened without the power of the Holy Spirit.

And it would be easy to look at the book of Acts and say, "Oh yeah.  It's a historic account of what God did right after Jesus ascended into heaven, but the church is different now."

And it is, for the most part, but I want to know why.
After all, God's still pretty powerful.  He hasn't changed.
Is the book of Acts a historic account?  Or is it a model for the Church of today?

And what's the role of the Holy Spirit in today's Church?

You'll note that I capitalized "Church," and that's significant because I'm not talking about Newbreak, where I go to church.  I'm talking about the collective group of Christ followers, past, present, and future, in this country and around the world.

In this book titled Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, Francis Chan claims that the "benchmark of success in church services has become more about attendance than the movement of the Holy Spirit" (15) and as a result we're more interested in creating services that provide exciting entertainment that brings "self-focused consumers" in through the doors than we are in training "self-sacrificing servants attuned to the Holy Spirit" (16).

I think Chan might be right.
I know at times I spend more time trying to figure out problems than seeking the face of God.  Sometimes I forget to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me.  I forget to ask Him for help.  I just forget.

When Life Groups started up a few weeks ago, I was nervous.  My desire is that women connect to each other through the Life Group, of course, but more than that, my desire is that they fall more deeply in love with Jesus, that they become dependent on Him, that their lives are transformed by God's power.

And I can't make any of that happen through study or planning.  Those things only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Chan notes that when we read the book of Acts, we see that the "Holy Spirit is as essential to a believer's existence as air is to staying alive" (16).  Followers of Jesus Christ could do crazy things.  Like healing men who couldn't walk and raising people from the dead.  And despite the persecution, people kept getting baptized in the name of Jesus.

Chan asserts that there is a "big gap between what we read in Scripture about the Holy Spirit and how most believers and churches operate today" and observes that most of the time you'd have to look pretty hard to see the power of the Spirit at work in any obvious way.

And most of the time this doesn't even bother us.
We're kind of like those men and women in Acts 19 who get baptized with John's baptism, a baptism of repentance, and then meet Paul.  They're convicted of their sin--they know they need to change--but they don't really know Jesus, and when Paul asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed, they respond, saying, "We've never even heard of that--a Holy Spirit? God within us?"

I wonder if failure to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit and invite him into our lives is one of the reasons we don't see lives transformed when people receive Jesus into their hearts.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why so many young people, who still believe in God, are walking away from the church.  Without the power of the Holy Spirit, church attendance and behavior modification just doesn't make much sense.

And I wonder if this is one of the reasons why so many of my friends, men and women who have served wholeheartedly for so many years, prefer to worship at home.

Chan suggests that people are running away from church and even God's Word because they feel like something is missing in our churches, and he concludes that the "missing something is actually a missing Someone--namely, the Holy Spirit" (16).

He says,
Without Him, people operate in their own strength and only accomplish human-size results.  The world is not moved by love or actions that are of human creation.  And the church is not empowered to live differently from any other gathering of people without the Holy Spirit.  But when believers live in the power of the Spirit, the evidence in their lives is supernatural.  The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice.
I don't want to walk into my Life Group without being filled with the Holy Spirit, God's Spirit.  I don't want to minister to anyone without it.  I don't even want to go to school without it.  I think I'm a better teacher, and I'm convinced my students sense God living within me when I'm filled with the Spirit.

I don't want to do what I can do on my own.  I want to live empowered by God's Spirit, listening to his voice.

And so lately I've been asking God: What does that look like?  What have I settled for?  How can I seek the filling of the Holy Spirit?

Lack of Focus Leads to . . .


It's been well over a week since I wrote in this blog last.  It's not for lack of ideas.  I have LOTS of ideas.  It's not for lack of time, although if you asked me, I would say I'm busy.  And although I've sat down to write and been interrupted by multiple things in the last week-and-a-half since I last wrote, the truth is I could have time if I made myself have time.  Unfortunately, this failure to write has spread to failure to work on my thesis, something that needs to happen so I can finish school in the spring.

The problem is more complex, and I'm kind of hoping I'll figure out a solution if I sit here and write.  That happens sometimes.

You see, this blog isn't just an outlet for my ideas.  It's a form of obedience.  Years and years ago, I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I'm not sure if I decided, or I heard God telling me I needed to write.  I'm pretty sure it's the latter, but I'm hesitant to make that claim because it seems to also claim that what I write is profound and, well, important.

Nevertheless, it does seem that God uses me when I use words.

The problem is I tend to lack confidence and self-discipline.  As in, I often think anyone could say what I saw and why do I need to join the many unemployed, unpublished writers in the world?  That leads to lack of self-discipline.  If what I write is mediocre, why submit myself to the painful process of writing?

And so I read my Bible and think of what I hope are fabulous things to say, but I know I can't say them all, and so I think, "I need to choose one or two things to write."  But I don't choose.  And when I don't choose something, I am in essence choosing nothing.

Similarly, the task of a thesis is so daunting, and I think to myself, I don't have two hours to sit and really get going on this thing so I don't even put in 30 minutes.

Life is good.
I'm content.  
I love my husband and my children.
I love my friends and feel loved by them.
I'm making new friendships and renewing old friendships.

I'm not motivated.

And that would be fine except that I still hear the nagging voice in my head:  Write!
And I get the feeling that when I don't actually write, I'm disobeying the one who made me, who created me to love words and think of ways to communicate biblical truths.

We can define disobedience in a few ways.
First, disobedience can look like doing something we are told not to do.
It can also be failing to do something we have been told to do.

And that's where I am.

Failure to write gets in the way of reading the Bible.  I am stuck on about three passages right now.  I have things to say, and I'm not saying them.  I don't feel freedom to move on, and I don't want to read the things I've already read.  Because then I'm reminded I need to write.  

Failure to write also gets in the way of doing other things I need to do.  I put them doing those things because I know I need to write, but then I don't write and so I'm not getting anything done.

Sometimes we just do things because we know we need to do things.
There's value in self-discipline, in training ourselves to do things that we don't feel like doing at the moment.

Like exercise.  Or turning down a piece of cheesecake.
Or reading the Bible daily and memorizing Scripture.
Or writing on a daily basis.

I'm in training.
We all are.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Willing to Die - Empowered to Live

In Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to be willing to carry their own crosses, even to die for what they believe.  This commandment comes with a promise--and a warning, and Jesus says that "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."  After all, "[w]hat good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?"  (Luke 9:23-25)

In other words, there's more to life than what we see.  And when we give our lives to Christ, when live for him and his purposes instead of our own, we may lose our lives, but we gain so much more.  

There's an advantage to living for Jesus even if it costs us along the way.  

Similarly, John writes, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

When Jesus died, he took the punishment for our sin and purchased salvation for all who believe.  In so doing, in "falling to the ground" and dying, he produced many seeds.  We are those seeds, several times removed.  Are we willing to be planted?  Are we willing to "fall to the ground and die"?  

Most Christians answer "yes."  In theory, we know this is the right answer.  The thing is, it's just not that easy.  

I can be a generally good person, basically nice and kind, most of the time.  But I can't live like that without the power of the Holy Spirit inside of me.  

And so that's our focus.  Eyes on Jesus.  Praying to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Asking to be empowered to serve God's purposes rather than our own.  Asking for strength to carry our crosses, to die to ourselves.  

Yesterday Pastor Mike told the Stephen, the first person to die for his commitment to Christ.  Even before he was stoned, his life demonstrated his commitment to serving God..  So, in life, he ministered to men and women, strengthening the church.  In death, he served as a catalyst that spread the Gospel beyond Jerusalem.    He "fell to the ground and died" and in so doing, his life produced many new lives.  

Even for Stephen.  Luke tells us that, just before he was stoned, "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."  

Stephen lost his life, and he saved his life.  He died, and he death brought about life.  

And so I'm thinking about a few things. 

Pastor Mike asked two questions:
"Am I willing to die for my faith?"
"Am I willing to live for my faith?"

In theory, the answer is yes.  
In reality, my answers vary depending on how I'm feeling on any given day and what God's asking me to do.  On my own, I just don't have what it takes to "carry my cross" or "fall to the ground and die."  And sometimes living for God's purposes on a moment by moment basis is harder than actually dying.  

And so, I'm thinking about how I really need God's strength if I want to live a radical life that matters for the kingdom of God.  And that means I need to seek God's Spirit.  Today.  


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nothing--not even lights and hair--can separate me from God's love.

Yes.  That was an odd title.  If you want to understand, you'll have to read the post right before this one. I'm back to studying for my small group, and Day Two of our study referenced Romans 8.  You know, the one that starts by saying there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  And then tells us that all things work together for God.  Of course, that doesn't mean a life with only happy stories, but it does mean that God's achieve his purposes.  So far I've never been disappointed.  

The thing is, the road to God's purposes sometimes gets rocky.  Sometimes it's all uphill.  Sometimes life is hard. And I think that's one of the reasons Paul includes this next section from Romans 8:38-39:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God.   Nothing can make God love us more, and nothing can make God love us less.  He loves us.  This is absolute.

Sometimes we don't feel God's love.  But even then he loves us.  Sometimes, like David, we feel like God has abandoned us.  But he still love us.

Sometimes, when I don't know how God's going to work things out, and I have questions about the future, I think that God will just give me what I deserve.  He won't deliver me.  He won't rescue me.  He doesn't love me.  At least not as much as he loves other people.

This summer was one of those times.  I just felt like maybe if I had managed my finances better maybe I wouldn't need a job.  Or at least not as bad.  I thought maybe I shouldn't go to school.  Or I should quit.

I was afraid God wouldn't do anything and then . . . I don't know what I thought would happen, but I didn't feel God's love.

And so sometimes--I went back and forth between trusting God and not trusting God--I felt separated from God's love.  But he never stopped loving me.

I'm grateful for the days when I really could rest in God's love.  But I'm also grateful for the days when I struggled.  Because that's when I learned the most about who God is and how much he actually loves me.

He loves me right now, as I feel a little overwhelmed and flustered.  At least I'm not as overwhelmed and flustered as I was when I woke up this morning.

Okay.  On with my day.  I don't think I'm going to make it over to the church by 8:30, but it'll be fine.

Did you ever have one of those mornings?

Okay.  I just walked downstairs, and Duane asked, "What's wrong?"  I think I scared him because he was completely silent when I told him the story.

Apparently I have reached the point in the semester that I feel like I have too much to do because even the little things are starting to annoy me.

For example, it took forever to get the conditioner out of my hair this morning.  And after 15 minutes of blow drying the hair, it's still very wet underneath.  And when I started to walk out of the bedroom to come downstairs and write about God's love, I turned off the light.  And then I saw there was another light and so I turned that one off.  And then I saw the ceiling fan light was on, and I didn't want to climb on the bed and turn that off so I just flipped it off on the switch, which means that the fan went off too and our bedroom will get warm.  And then I saw that the lighted makeup mirror light was on.  That's when I groaned loudly, a sound that apparently instilled fear in Duane.  I turned that one off too.

It's not just lights and hair.  It's pretty much everything.  When I walked downstairs to make coffee, the counter was covered with ants, and so I had to put all the dishes away in order to spray the counter.  And when I finished medical reports for one of my jobs, I realized I hadn't changed the dates on any of the templates and so I have to go back and fix them all.

And then I'll mark 20 more student papers and write a paper of my own and fix lunch for my family and get to church by 8:30 this morning.

And I'm wondering if I'm the only one who has mornings like this.  It's sort of silly, really.  I know everything's fine.  I'll finish on time.  Sort of.  And God still loves me.  And I don't feel like I'm wasting time.

I'm just frustrated.  I think it might be better to think about God's love.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stories don't always have a happy ending.

I'm sitting down to do the study for my Life Group, and all of a sudden, I'm thinking, these are hard questions.

First, we look at the story of Peter and John, who get thrown into prison for healing a man who can't walk. (Acts 3-4)  Their trial the next day gives them the opportunity to share their faith.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, these "unschooled and ordinary men" (4:13) give an courageous, impassioned, educated defense, and more people commit their lives to Jesus.  The elders and the leaders can't figure out how to punish Peter and John so they let them go.  Happy ending.

But then we look at Hebrews 11:35-38.  Not every story has a happy ending.  Some followers of Jesus Christ ended up in chains, stoned, beaten.  Some were sawed in two.  They went about "destitute, persecuted, and mistreated" (verse 37).  Definitely not a happy ending.

To complicate matters, Romans 8:28 tells us that "God works for the good for those who love him . . ."  It's hard to see how sawed in two pieces can be good.

And Jesus himself tells us that we should deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.  (Check out Luke 9:23-25.)

I grew up in a church where taking up our crosses meant putting up with whatever garbage life threw at you while smiling.  Seriously.  No complaining.  You've got a cold? Lousy parents?  Rude husband?  A rotten boss? Be joyful. This is your cross.

I'm thinking that people who don't follow Christ also experience illness and dysfunctional relationships.

The people listening to Jesus in the first century knew what a crucifixion was like.  I don't think they had the same images we do.  And if there is any doubt that this is a radical call to serve God, he continues: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.  What good is for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his own soul?"

And so my Life Group study asks me, "What does it mean to take up my cross?  What does it mean to lose my own life?"

Honestly.  I'm not sure I want to answer the question because that means that I'll have to start listening more carefully to God's voice and less to my own desires.

And I guess that's the answer.  For Jesus, this meant actual physical death.  You remember his anguished prayer, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. . . . My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."

Living for God's purpose instead of my own.  Actively and passionately seeking God so that his goals become my goals.  Even when it doesn't look good for me.  

And even when it doesn't look good for me, it is good, because God reveals his greatness through my struggles and my losses.  

Can I walk into that with open arms?  Rejoicing in God's purposes and his plans?  Do I want to do that, or do I want to hang on to a few things that are just for me?  

I think that sometimes, instead of carrying my cross, willing to stop and plant it into the ground and be nailed up on it, I try to protect myself from getting hurt.  Through circumstances.  By other people.  

Obviously, God already knows that, and there is no condemnation in Christ so I'm not ashamed of my failures, but that doesn't mean I'm excused from this radical call to faith.  God's still pushing me to more.