Friday, March 25, 2011

The Quest: Clarification

Why are we fasting?

Until we know for sure, until we clarify that, we're just depriving ourselves of something for 40 days.  And maybe we'll feel like we accomplished something and feel really good about our spirituality.  

And I don't think any of us fast just to pat ourselves on the back.  Honestly, there are easier ways to improve our self-esteem.  

Sometimes we fast and pray for something specifically.  Like I spent a school year fasting every Monday for my kids.  A friend and I did this together, and then every Monday afternoon, my friend came over after work, and we prayed.  

When my son Jason started using drugs, quit school and his job and decided to move to Alabama, I fasted for ten days, begging God to change his heart.  It wasn't about the drugs or Alabama--I was asking God to speak to Jason's heart, and for Jason to open his heart to God's voice.  

That was eight years ago, and I'm still waiting.  

Fasting isn't a super-formula for answers to prayers.  And if we look at it like that, we can get really discouraged.  We might even get angry with God.  (We deprived ourselves, and he didn't even listen!)

During that ten-day fast, when I begged God everyday to intervene on Jason's behalf, I drew closer to God.  I got to know him better.  I listened to him more carefully.  

He comforted me.  He taught me to rely on him and trust him.  

And this is it.  We can pray about something specifically when we fast, but ultimately our fast is a quest to draw closer to God, to know him better.  

I think sometimes we forget that there's nothing more important than that.  And we best get to know God when we look at the face of Jesus.  He is the image of the invisible God, the exact representation of God.  When we see Jesus, we see God.  

Paul says nothing is more important than getting to know Jesus.  And yet we make so many things in our lives more important than getting to know him.  At least I do.  

I've been reading and praying through Brennan Manning's "19 Mercies: A Spiritual Retreat" at the end of newer editions of A Ragamuffin Gospel , and Manning urges us to ask ourselves the question that Jesus asked of his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

It's just not possible to answer that question authentically unless we take the time to get to know Jesus personally. Otherwise, if we're really honest, we're saying things like, "My pastor says you're Lord."  My friend says you're her joy.  My Bible study leader says you're the Savior of the world.  

We can repeat back what other people have said about Jesus, and we can even believe them, but until we begin to know him on a deep, intimate level, we're just talking.  

Manning writes: 
Describe the Christ you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self.  Describe Him as you would to a friend over coffee.  Describe not the deity you have heard about or been taught to believe exists, but only the Christ you have really encountered. (235)
So I've been thinking about this over the last few days.  Who is Jesus?  How do I know him?  How has he entered in my life?  When have I seen him move in my life, speak to my soul, correct me, advice me, teach me?  

I spent some time journaling, writing about how I know Jesus, who he is to me.  It's been interesting to remember times long ago.  I want more of those times.  I want to say with Paul - 
No matter how important something seems, I consider it worthless compared to the amazing privilege of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I gladly surrender all things.  In fact, I consider those things garbage if it means that I gain Christ and be found in him.  I can never be good enough, my broken life patterns get in the way, and I can never follow all the laws of righteousness.  So I cling to him.  He is my righteousness by faith.   
I want to know Christ.  I want to know the power of his resurrection.  I want to know the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.  I want to become like him in his death.  I want to obtain resurrection from the dead. 
And I don't know him enough yet.  There's so much more.  So I press on.  I keep moving forward to know Christ.  I put everything else aside, anything that gets in the way of knowing him, honoring him, serving him, following him.   
Nothing else matters.
I've taken a little liberty with the paraphrase, but you can read it here if you want.

But back to fasting.  When we give something up, something that's a huge part of our life, it's hard.  Sometimes it really does seem like it's not worth it.  I mean, God hears us when we're not fasting, right?  And God didn't say that we have to fast, did he?

But when we choose to give something up, when we choose to make knowing Jesus more important than the thing that we so desperately miss, we focus on Him, getting to know Him, listening to Him.

And really, nothing else matters compared to that.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Quest: Who are you?

Amnesia.  You know.  It's one of those devices we see on TV and in made-for-TV movies.  A woman, normally a suspect in a murder or an essential witness, gets hit on the head or has a car accident, or some other traumatic experience, and suddenly she don't know who she is and can't remember anything.  Sometimes it's a man, but normally it's a woman.  I don't know why.

Sometimes the story takes more shape.  Like in The Bourne Identity.  Jason Bourne's true identity gets wiped clean when he's trained as a CIA assassin.  He forgets his new identity after a failed attempt on his own life.  He wakes up on a fishing vessel and has no idea who he is.  Evading the CIA, he follows clues that lead him to the truth about his own life.  It's pretty intense.

Even when there are no car chases, bombs blowing up, or snipers, amnesia is intense.  We need our identity.  It defines us.    It tells us how we'll behave in any given situation.  

We need to know who we are.  

And yet, most of us struggle with knowing we are.  What we really want.  
And in difficult situations, like when we're on a serious quest to know God and become more like him, when we encounter trauma and drama and opposition, we tend to forget the little bit that we know.

That's why Pastor Mike's first point in last week's sermon, was that when we encounter those things, we need to remember who we are.  We need to remember whose we are.  

I've been reading Soulprint by Mark Batterson lately so I've already been thinking about exactly this question.  In this book, Batterson opens by saying, "There has never been and never will be anyone else like you.  But that isn't a testament to you.  It's a testament to the God who created you. . . . You owe it to yourself to be yourself.  But more important, you owe it to the One who designed you and destined you" (2).   

The problem, Batterson says, is that "most of us live our entire lives as strangers to ourselves. . . . Our true identities get buried beneath the mistakes we've made, the insecurities we've acquired, and the lies we've believed.  We're held captive by others' expectations.  We're uncomfortable in our own skin.  We we spend far too much emotional, relational , and spiritual energy trying to be who we are not.  Why? Because it's easier.  And we think it's safer" (3).

Several years ago, before I started school again, I lay in bed and felt like such a failure.  I wanted so badly to give up the desire to write.  I feared failure.  I wondered if I had anything worth saying.  I wondered why anyone would listen to me.  I wondered why anyone would even like me.  

You see, I had something at the core of me, the desire to tell stories about life and living and God, and I had covered it over with all kinds of fears.  And then I wondered if this core was even there.  

Batterson says that at some point we lose ourselves (3).  

I'm not saying that God's plan is for me to be a wildly successful writer.  That's not the point.  The point is that I need to live out of the "soulprint" God made when he designed me, formed me (see Psalm 139).

We tend to think about what we're doing and where we're doing it.  It's not that those don't matter on some level, but the most important thing is who we are becoming.  Batterson asserts that this has "everything to do with the character of Christ being formed within [us] until [we] look and act and feel and talk and dream and love just like Jesus" (12).  

Batterson says that if we really want to know who we are, we need to look to Jesus, who created us.  He quotes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, who said, "Your real, new self . . . will not come as long as you are looking for it.  It will come when you are looking for Him" (117). 

In other words, "If you want to find yourself, you've got to look for God.  Ignoring God is like ignoring yourself" (117).  If we have the courage to stand before God, to focus on him, if we "have the courage to enter the unknown quadrant, [we'll] discover the dimensions of [our] God-given identity and God-ordained destiny that have eluded [us] for [our] entire lives" (118).  

We find ourselves in losing ourselves.  
If we are followers of Christ, then we belong to God.  We are his children.  He wants to live through us, breathe through us, move through us.  

It's no accident that I feel most like myself when I'm most focused on the "author and perfecter" of my faith (Hebrews 12:2).  It's no accident that my most wondrous life-defining adventures came when I was looking to God instead of creating a life plan.  

I'm not dismissing plans.  I'm just saying that we plan better when we listen to the one who made us, when we let him lead us and guide us.  When we let him show us who we are.  

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Intro. Done. For now.

Five minutes ago, as the Aztecs were winning against Temple, I completed the introduction to my thesis.  Technically, all I finished is a first draft, but considering that's all I've been working for about the last two weeks, I count this moment as a major victory.  

Sadly, more than half of this 20-page introduction was already written when I started working on it last month.  I just had to reorganize the information, add additional information, and include a few structural details.  A lot of structural details.  

I think writing may come easily for some writers, but not for me.  I simultaneously love and hate the precision of writing versus speech.  It's true that with writing I can choose exactly the right word and the most effective word order, but with those choices comes anguish.  Out of the many, many ways I can approach a topic, which one do I want to choose?  

I've been working on another piece of the thesis too over the last month.  The literature review.  This is where I summarize previous research and show that I'm adding to it.  I'm 80 percent there and just have to tie quotes together and show that I'm building on it.  

I really want to be able to take the intro and lit review and a chapter into my professors on Tuesday and ask them to review these things over Spring Break.  Once these are really done, once I have comments and suggestions for improvement, then I will feel like I'm making progress.  

But right at this moment, I'm just incredibly grateful to be done with something.   

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Quest: How big is your dream?

Every year, for the last three years, my friend Amanda has headed up north to attend Catalyst West.  The team at Catalyst compiles innovative speakers from technology, business, and the church so that Christian leaders can stay on top of cultural trends.  I'm a little jealous. I've been looking at the list of Catalyst speakers for years now and wishing I could go.

Still, I'm happy for her.  As the director of Give Clean Water, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide safe drinking water to every household in Fiji, she needs to stay on top of cultural trends.

Plus, she always purchases a DVD set of the speakers, and she always loans it to us so that we can watch.  That's almost as good as being there.

A few weeks ago Amanda loaned us the 2010 set, and since we're fasting TV, and since we already went for a walk around the lake, cooked dinner together, talked about a ton of things, and spent about an hour reading, we decided to watch one speaker before going to bed.

We started at the beginning, with Andy Stanley.

In the video, Stanley claims that "we will not dream and we will not lead into a tomorrow that's any larger than what we believe is possible."  In other words, we set our vision and our goal based on what we believe we can do or what God can do.  He says we start with huge dreams, but the realities of life, our experiences, our disappointments cause our "beliefs in what could be and what should be to shrink."  As a result, we limit our dreams and our visions.  And we limit what God can do through us.

I woke up around 3:00 this morning, thinking about this claim.  What do I believe is possible for God to do?  In Newbreak.  In Santee.  In my life group.

I could expand this list, but right now I'm praying for God to move in our little church, and I want to pray specifically rather than generally.  (Please feel free to allow this discussion to touch on other things in your life.  The principles stay the same.)

What do I want to ask God for?
Do I want to limit my vision to I think is possible?  Or what I've seen happen in the past?  Or do I want to ask--and believe God--for the totally impossible?

Give Clean Water's goal is to provide safe drinking water to every household in Fiji.  That's an enormous goal since only about half the population has access to that right now.  That means that they need to provide water filters to thousands and thousands of homes.  Financially and logistically, that's pretty much impossible.  But succeeding means changing the health, education, and earning power for more than a million people.  That means changing lives.

And that means that they must rely on God to move in people's hearts to donate money and time.  They also have to trust God to give them entry into isolated villages which are run by village elders.   It's an amazing vision.  (If you want more information about the project, or you would like to donate or go on a trip to help install filters, you can click on the link above.)

Sometimes the project goes more slowly than they want, but they keep their eyes on the goal.  When you give clean water to someone, you give them a new future.

And when we introduce someone to a relationship with Jesus, we give them a new future.

But back to the dream.  If the dream is beyond what we can do naturally, then we pray that God will move supernaturally.  My dream, in this context, is that Newbreak Santee will fill up with people who long to know Jesus, that marriages will experience health, that people will meet Jesus, that it will be a source of life and hope and joy for hundreds of people.

This is the dream we started with, but sometimes it's hard.  Church planting is hard.  In the process of growing a church, people lose the initial excitement.  People get tired.  They miss their friends at other campuses.  Or they miss the really great facilities at the other campus.  And sometimes I wonder what it takes to grow a church.

The church is not mine, of course.  I know that.  It's also not Duane's.  This church belongs to God.  And he has his own purposes.  But we're talking about dreams and visions.  And I love this church.

And it doesn't matter if Newbreak is your church.  If you attend a church, or if you call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, then his dreams are your dreams.  And his dreams are big, bigger than anything we can ask for or imagine.  

Which brings us back to the 2 Chronicles 7:14, the Scripture passage I looked at yesterday, the passage from Pastor Mike's sermon, "The Quest: Reconsider".  I want to quote it using the Message version this time, and keep in mind this speaks to a corporate repentance, a corporate fast, like the one we're doing right now.
If my people, my God-defined people, respond by humbling themselves, praying, seeking my presence, and turning their backs on their wicked lives, I'll be there ready for you: I'll listen from heaven, forgive their sins, and restore the land to health.  
I'm thinking about how our dream is as a church, to be in a city, loving a city, impacting a city for Jesus.  I'm thinking about really ambitious that is.  I'm thinking about Santee and El Cajon and Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach and Tierrasanta.  I'm thinking about all the people in the neighborhoods surrounding our churches.

I'm wondering about our commitment to humility and prayer and honoring God in all we say and do.  Because  that's when God will begin the transformation and we'll see our dreams come to life.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Quest: Confession (and humility)

Whenever I post my blog on FB, I try to intro it with something clever that will make people want to read it.  Or I use a few compelling lines from the actual blog.  Again, something that will draw interest.  These are good rhetorical strategies.

Yesterday, I took a few lines out of the blog that I thought would get people to click on the link.  Here's what I posted:  
I think I use television the way some people use drugs.  It helps me check out from reality when my real world gets busy.  And now that I'm fasting television, I'm not checking out, and I'm tired.  And I know this is why God prompted me to fast television.  
I panicked almost immediately after shutting down the laptop and going into my next meeting.  What will people think?  Will they think I'm like a drug addict?  Will they judge me for watching too much TV?  Will they think me presumptuous because I claimed God prompted me to fast television?  Will they think I should have fasted more sacrificial like, say, food?

I wanted to delete the link or repost it, but say something else that sounded less confessional.  I know the exact line is in the blog, but in context it doesn't sound quite as bad.  I think.  

At any rate, I spent the afternoon in meetings and the link stayed on FB.  By the time I got home, I decided too much time had passed and whoever was going to see my open confession probably already had.  

As I drove home, though, I thought about confession.  It's hard.  I don't actually like people to know where my life isn't quite right.  Hey, I don't like even acknowledging that my life isn't nearly perfect.  I'm great at rationalization.  I like watching TV.  I like the shows I choose.  I like getting caught up in the stories I see on the screen.  And is it a problem to check out every now and then?  

Maybe TV is sin.  Maybe it isn't.  
I do know that it occupies an unhealthy place in my life, and that's sin.  I don't even think I want to change it.  And that's sin.  

Whatever, I know that my TV habit does not glorify God.  

And most times when I have something in my life that's not glorifying God and I choose not to change it, he makes it very clear.  Sometimes the clarification process isn't pleasant.  

But back to confession.  Years and years ago, when I was probably about ten, I memorized 1 John 1:9:  
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  
And so, every night before I went to bed, I would pray, forgive me for my sins.  Yeah.  That's about as deep as I would go with confession.  

Sometimes I would think of something specific.  Like, I lost my temper with Duane.  Forgive me again.  But mostly I justified my anger.  It was sin, but it wasn't REALLY bad.  I'll try to respond better next time.  

Confession, true confession, involves self-examination and discovery.  It also involves repentance or a desire to change, which to be authentic, incorporates humility and deep sadness that my actions, words, or attitudes have not honored God and may have hurt someone else.  Acknowledging that I can't fix myself.  Acknowledging that I need God.  I need his power.  I need his presence in my life, and I give myself over to him.  I no longer control myself.  

And because I am human, I will seize control again, I will judge someone or talk about someone or hurt someone or snap at someone, and I will need to confess my sin again.  

Last Wednesday, on Ash Wednesday, a day of confession, humility, and mourning over our sin, Mark Batterson wrote this post on his blog
Did you know that Martin Luther used to spend up to six hours in confession?  When I first read that I remember thinking that either he had lots of sin to confess or I don't know the first thing about confession.  I think it's the latter.  I think shallow confessions result in a shallow appreciation of God's grace.  Most of us have never spent more than six minutes in confession. 
Six minutes?  Try three.  

Batterson goes on to explain that when we take time to sit before God and examine ourselves, our lives, and our actions, it gives God time to speak to us about our motivations and allows us to surrender those as well.  

On Sunday, Pastor Mike looked at 2 Chronicles 7:14.  I want to examine the verse that comes before that too.  The people of Judah are celebrating the dedication of the temple that Solomon has built.  And then the Lord appears to Solomon at night.  The Lord says:
At times I might shut up the heavens so that no rain falls, or command grasshoppers to devour your crops or send plagues among you.  And then, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.  
Sometimes we will experience hardship in our lives.  Hardship that God has allowed.  Hopefully no drought, massive insect invasions, or plagues. But the land is destroyed.  We can't fix it, and we turn to God for help.  

Pastor Mike asked, What is the land you want restored?  
Is it family?  Marriage?  Children?  
If it finances and career?  
Is it your relationship with God?  
Where are you broken?  What has been destroyed? 

This is God's promise.  If we humble ourselves and pray, if we confess our sin, if we seek God and repent, truly repent, truly surrender the way we live, God will hear us and restore the land.  

Maybe the devastated land is not so personal.  Certainly, God is speaking to Solomon about the people of Judah.  

So maybe that devastated land is your neighborhood.  After the fires, we spent a lot of time begging God to move.  Or maybe you desire God to move in your community.  I desire to see God move in Santee, not just in Newbreak but all around Santee.  (I want that in all our Newbreak communities.)  How bad do I want that?  How badly do we as a community want that?  

Do we want it enough to humble ourselves and pray?  Do we want it enough to examine our lives and eliminate anything that keeps us from honoring and glorifying God? That's really what fasting is all about.  

Are we willing to let God speak to us and show us what to change?  Because his promise is that if we do that, he will heal the land.  

I know.  It's hard.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Quest: Fatigue

I'm tired.

I had a hard time waking up today at 5:45.  I hit traffic, and every light turned red just as I got close.  Of course, I got to school five minutes late.  

Worse, I try to pray and am constantly aware that I need to hurry up and pray effectively because I need to meditate on Scripture, get moving, make breakfast, pack my book bag, drive to school, grade papers, write my thesis . . . 

And so I'm out of breath even though I'm not actually expending any energy.  

Once I got to the drop-in tutor office, I tried to read the Bible, but basically lacked motivation.  Not really sure what to do today.  I could get out the stack of papers to grade.  Or I could do some research.  

Instead I've read the paper.  Sort of.  Remember, I'm a little distracted and a lot in a hurry.  So I've focused on Japan.  Which breaks my heart.  

Sometimes it's hard to shut down.  To stop the brainspin.  To stop trying to control my environment.  

I think that's why I like to watch television.  Basically, I join characters I know, I follow their stories, I figure out who committed the crime.  Or I travel to other countries and watch people choose houses to live in.  

I know it sounds lame, but it's familiar.  It doesn't require a lot of effort.  

I think I use television the way some people use drugs.  It helps me check out from reality.  And now that I'm fasting television, I'm not checking out, and I'm tired.  And I know this is why God prompted me to fast television.  

I'm in the drop-in tutoring office this morning, and between interruptions it's taken me more than two hours to write this short post.  That's only partly because of the students who drop in.  Mostly it's because I don't know what to say.  I mean, what do I do with this?  And I'm guessing I'm not the only one who gets burned out, who wants to step off the world for a few minutes or days.  

And as I type, as I ask questions about how to shake this sense of fatigue, this sense that I've been running and am out of breath, I remember Psalm 62. 

My soul finds rest in God alone.  
My salvation comes from him.  
He alone is my rock and salvation. 
He is my fortress.  I will never be shaken.  
Trust in him at all times.  
Pour out your heart to him for he is our refuge.  

God is my rest.  God is my comfort.  He is my rock.  He is my salvation.  
He sees what I think I need to get done.  And he knows what I really need to get done.  

And then Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, "Come to me if you are tired and feel like an enormous burden rests on your shoulders.  I will give you rest.  Do the things I have asked you to do and don't worry about the rest. Learn from me and follow my example.  I am gentle and humble.  I won't give you more than you can handle, and even it if seems like it, trust me."  


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Quest: Where are we going?

At our church, we tend to group several weeks of sermons into groups or sermon series.  It's a common practice in lots of churches.  It's a nice thing, really, because it allows us to get through a whole book of the Bible or to examine an idea through different angles.

During Lent, our series is the The Quest: Is the Journey Worth It?  

A quick video preceded Pastor Mike's sermon, and in the video, we heard nautical music and the sound of sea gulls.  An ancient ship sailed through rough waters until a sea serpent surrounded the ship and then lifted its head up under the ship, tossing it into the air.   At this point, the music got more urgent and we saw spinning compasses, and the ship sailed through the compasses.  

My description doesn't really do the clip justice.  You can click on the link above if you want to see what the video actually looked like.  

And I really do have a point.  The ship appeared to be sailing away from glaciers, or at least very barren blue mountains.  And it sailed into a sea monster that threatened anybody aboard.  It's an animated video so the people on board are very hypothetical.

I don't know where the ship is supposed to be going.  And it's impossible to know if a journey is worth it unless you know where you're headed.  

I mean, is the intended destination worth the sacrifice no matter what?  

When I started grad school, I made sure to write down why I was going back to school.  I was fairly certain there would be days when it wouldn't seem like the journey was worth it.  And there were.  Lots of them.  

Now that I'm close to finishing, I know my quest for an education has been worth it.  Honestly though, I don't know exactly where I'll end up.  There aren't a lot of jobs out there, and while I think I'm an amazing teacher, I'm pretty sure there are a lot of other amazing teachers out there.  But no matter what happens next fall, I love the road I'm on.  

But that's a personal quest.  

I think our Western culture focuses on individual goals and journeys, but as Christ-followers, we must never forget that we are on a corporate journey. 

We travel together as a community to live out God's mission on earth.  We travel together to see lives transformed as they unite with God, and I know that doesn't make a lot of sense unless you know what I'm talking about it.  

I know joy and peace and purpose when I live connected to God.  
Not all the time, mind you.  Life is hard.  
But even in the hard times, I know the joy and peace and purpose are coming.  And I can hang on because I know God loves me.  

And I want others to sense that that same joy and purpose.  I want to join with other Christ-followers to introduce people to Jesus.  

Not in a hit-your-head-with-a-Bible sort of way, but by loving others.  Yeah, I know it doesn't make a ton of sense.  

Some things don't.  Until you experience them.  Or until you ask God to help you understand them.  

And so we have begun fasting for Lent.  Because we want to fast together, as a community.  Not just with the community that is Newbreak, my church, but with a community of Christ-followers around the world.  

This is our quest.  We travel on that ancient ship reeling in rough waters, away from the barren hopeless mountains.  We travel with a group, and sometimes it feels as though the ship may capsize.  Occasionally a sea monster rears its ugly head and tosses the ship into the air.  Sometimes the journey is hard.  Sometimes we will be misunderstood.  Sometimes we will be tired.  But it's worth it.  

We fast to remind ourselves of why we started the journey in the first place.  
We also fast for individual prayer requests, but we must never forget this is a community fast.  To know Jesus and to make him known.  

We must never forget where we're going.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

Clean Monday

Until the age of ten, I attended a Presbyterian Church.  Easter meant a new dress, white shoes, an Easter basket filled with chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs, hidden around the yard.  It also meant the resurrection of Jesus, but I was a kid and didn't think about the profundity of that event.

When I got a little older, I attended an Evangelical Free Church, and mostly because I was older, I began thinking about the resurrection.  But I still wanted chocolate bunnies.

And then when I got married, at the ripe age of 18, I started attending Assembly of God churches.   Not much changed.

As far as I know, none of these churches observed Lent.  And we didn't think a lot about Jesus on the cross, or his betrayal, his incredible suffering, or his death.

And now I'm older, and I want to think about these things.  And so I'm joining millions of Christians in fasting during this time of year.

My fast starts today, Clean Monday.  I read about Clean Monday last week and mentioned it in a previous post.

I had never heard of it before, actually, and I was sort of curious as to its significance.  Have I mentioned how much I love Google and Wikipedia?

Roman Catholics start fasting on Ash Wednesday, but Eastern Orthodox Christians begin today.  The term Clean Monday describes leaving behind sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods.  Technically, the fast begins on the preceding Sunday night at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which ends with a Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness.  Worshipers bow down before one another and ask forgiveness, and in this way they begin Lent with a clean conscience and with a renewed sense of love for Christian community.

I wish I learned this earlier--this could have been a really profound thing to do with close friends or as a church.  The whole week is often known as "Clean Week" and worshipers go to Confession during the week and clean their houses totally thoroughly.  (I wonder if this was the beginning of Spring Cleaning, but that really is an irrelevant question.)

The theme of Clean Monday, to be read at the Sixth Hour, and I'm not positive what time that is but I think it's noon, is from Isaiah 1:1-20.  I totally missed the Sixth Hour, but I think it's worth taking the time to look at this because, in this time of fasting when we remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we hearts set on honoring him, by loving him and serving others.

Isaiah, speaking to the people of Israel, whose country is being completely torn apart, asks,
What makes you think I want your sacrifices?  I'm sick of watching you follow my law with your actions, but not with your hearts.  I'm really not interested in your worship services--you're worshiping with ceremonies, but not with your hearts.   
So I'm done.  I don't want your meaningless gifts, and as for your special days for fasting? they are all sinful and false.  When you lift up your hands in prayer, I don't see you because your your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.   
And I know you didn't actually kill anybody, but I see the way you treat people, people in the church and people out of the church.  I see the way you look at them; I hear the way you speak about them in your thoughts.   
So now, if you want me to hear you, wash yourselves and be clean.  Give up your evil ways and learn to do good.   
Seek justice, not just for the people you think deserve it, but for everyone.  Help the oppressed, even if you don't think they deserve to be helped.   
Defend the rights of the orphans and widows, the poor, the hopeless, even if you think they should take care of themselves.   
My heart is full of love and compassion.  Look at the life of Jesus, and you will see how I love you, how I love the people you despise.   
Let's settle this once and for all.  Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.  They are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.  You cannot make yourselves clean.  Only I can do that.  
Turn to me.  Follow me.  Become like me.  Obey my greatest command, to love one another.  And I will make you--your nation--your community--clean.   
I will hear your prayers.  I will bless you. 
But if you turn away, if you keep doing what you've been doing all along, with your fasts and your worthless ceremonies, you--as a nation--as a community--will be destroyed.
As I read through this passage and paraphrase it, I am struck by the fact that God's words are for those supposedly follow him, not for those who don't.  And so it follows that these words are for us.  How often do we begin to go through the motions of following God, but our hearts aren't quite in synch with what we are doing?

And so it seems good, once a year, to take time to return to God, as a community, as a church, as a global body of believers, and say, we want to love like you love.  We want to live in a way that pleases you.  We want to honor you.  We want to be clean.

Please make a clean.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pursuing New Goals (while finishing up the current goal)

It really does seem like I should just pursue the goal I've got.  Finishing school.  But for better or worse, life doesn't always allow us put blinders on and do that.  As I finish my thesis, I'm aware that I should be turning in my CV to community colleges around the county.  My graduation coincides with a lousy economy and with the worst education budget in a long time.  Maybe ever.  And so I have to consider other options, additional education.  How can I equip myself to teach other types of classes?

As part of an attempt to educate myself on getting jobs in community colleges, I met Donna, who started out teaching French at community colleges in the area.  She quickly learned what seems obvious--there aren't that many jobs for French teachers in an area where most people want to speak Spanish.  And so she began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), something she could do with an MA in a language other than English.  Ultimately she returned to school to get a second MA in English.

We talked after the panel discussion, and she suggested that with my background (BA in both French and English), maybe I might be interested in an ESL certificate.  For a while now, I've been frustrated with my inability to help my students who are not native English speakers.  Some of their errors follow patterns I recognize and help them correct, but sometimes I just don't know what to do.  I started looking into the ESL certification program just so to better equip myself to meet the needs of the students I'll have in the future.

Donna invited me to visit one of her classes, which I did on Monday.  I fell in love with the students and the program of study.  Here is a room full of students from all over the world.  They're here, in the United States, and Donna not only gets to introduce them to American English, but also to American history and culture.  My writing students are in the class because it's required, and not all of them care about writing.  Most of them just want to pass.  But these students actually want to learn.

And so I decided to go after that ESL certificate, and I wished I had decided to do that sooner because there's a community college internship I could apply for and get ESL experience.  But I thought the deadline for the program had passed.

On Wednesday, I learned that the deadline for that program wasn't at the end of February, like I previously thought, but was today, Friday.  And so on Thursday I went and got college transcripts for all my work.  And today I wrote a personal essay, scanned the transcripts, and sent them off to the program with a CV.

We'll see how that goes.

But I'm sort of proud of myself.  Normally I don't move that fast.  And I don't think ahead.  And I freak out over things.  And get anxious.  But this time I made a decision and got it done.

This week I also learned that I probably won't finish my thesis by the spring graduation deadline.  I might, but probably not.  It'll be close.  And I know I'll finish.  And I think that's good enough.

After that I'll need to find jobs.  And I'll need to trust God to lead me and provide.  Like I said, it's a lousy time to look for teaching jobs.

Still, it's nice to see I can break a few broken patterns along the way.  

Learning to Listen

On Wednesday morning, I sat with my Bible in my hands and asked myself what I should read.  For a long time I followed the From Garden to City reading plan and then I read Acts to get ready for a study I was writing and then I read various Psalms just to breathe life into my faith.  Now, for the last two months I've been reading the book of John with my Life Group. But we finished the book of John, and that left me without any direction.

I mentally went through the various books of the Bible, and felt at a loss.  I turned to the book of Psalms, intending to start there.  I suppose there's no bad place to read.  It's just that some books speak to me more powerfully at certain times than others.

And then it occurred to me that maybe I should ask God what to read.

I know.  For a lot of people, this would be the first thing they would do.  For better or worse, I usually make these kinds of decisions based on logic.  What is this book about?  What is God working on in my life right now?  What book will speak most powerfully to that issue?

But a close friend had just responded to one of my blogs, sharing that she is learning the discipline of asking God to enter into even the smallest areas of her life, like what she should wear and what she should eat for lunch.  My first reaction to her email is that God doesn't actually care about what we wear or eat.  But I know that's not true.  I actually changed clothes last Sunday morning because I decided what I had on wouldn't really please him.  And as for eating, I know that I make choices that don't please him.

My friend's goal is to learn God's voice as she goes about the day.  And I want that too.  And so I asked God what I should read.

And then I turned to First Corinthians.  I don't know why.  And I don't know if this was God's choice or mine.  But it seemed good to start there, and it was.

Lately I've been so fixated on finishing school and teaching that it's hard to keep my eyes on Jesus.  Really on him.  He's important in my life, but I don't think he is the center of my life.  And I have learned that me and my agenda become the center of my life, I lose my equilibrium.  Not right away, but gradually.  I stop loving wholeheartedly.  I get judgmental.  I lose patience.  I become anxious.

First Corinthians, with its discussions of the world's wisdom versus the power of God, establishes the priorities I want to have in my life.  Education and knowledge are valuable, but not as valuable as knowing God.

I've been reading the first three to five chapters for the last three days now, and I suppose I'll blog about some of those things, but I want to start with the beginning, which holds a sort of promise.

Let me paraphrase chapter 1, verses 4-9.  By the way, this is Paul speaking to the church at Corinth.
Through Christ, God has enriched you in every way, through eloquent words and knowledge.  And this confirms that everything you know about Jesus is true. You have every spiritual gift you need--some in your own life and some in the lives of people around you.  And God will keep you strong through the end of your life so that when you meet God the Father face to face, you won't be ashamed by the stuff you've done that's not pleasing, but you'll know that you are forgiven because of Jesus.  God has called you into fellowship with Jesus, and he is faithful to do all of this.  
I do get distracted sometimes.  Sometimes because of work hours or school projects.  Sometimes because of circumstances I don't like.  Sometimes because everything actually is going pretty well.

And I am not alone in this tendency to get distracted.
I am also not on my own.  None of us are.

As we live in community, relying on the spiritual gifts God has given us, as we rely on others in our circle and the gifts God has given them, we grow stronger.  We learn to listen to God's voice, through this community, through Scripture, through our hearts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trying to Understand Lent

Today is the first day of Lent.  Unless you are Eastern Orthodox.  Actually it's a little confusing.

Not that I really know that much about Lent, and apologize for seeming like an expert in the title to this post.  A few years ago I did some research and learned that after Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the number of people converting to Christianity went way up.  Obviously, these new believers didn't know much about Jesus and so Lent was established to prepare and teach those who were going to get baptized on Easter.  Come to think of it, Easter is a great day to get baptized.  After all, we celebrate Jesus' resurrection on Easter, and Romans 6 tells us that our baptism represents our death and resurrection.

At any rate, Lent became a time of committed study and prayer to prepare for baptism, and since baptism welcomed these new believers into the Christian community, the entire church community joined together in study and prayer.  As part of the preparation, the Church joined together in fasting.  At first the fast was a few days, and over time, the fast became 40 days, the same number of days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning his ministry that culminated in crucifixion and then resurrection.

Today, Lent is part of the liturgical calendar, and Christians all over the world observe Lent, with its focus on Jesus' life, and the commitment to prayer and fasting.  Over the years the fasting part has looked like a lot of different things, but I'll get to that later.

Most Western Christians begin Lent today, Ash Wednesday.  The forty-day fast begins today and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.  The Sundays during that time period don't count because every Sunday is sort of a mini-Easter, a celebration of the resurrection.  (Incidentally, Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday and that's why Christians traditionally attend church on Sundays.)  I don't know if fasting stops on those Sundays or not.

Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin Lent next Monday, also known as Clean Monday, and the forty days end on Good Friday.

Whether you start Lent today or on Monday doesn't really matter.  At least in my opinion.  These are man-made traditions.

However, there's something really powerful in dedicating forty days to remember Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and to prepare to celebrate his resurrection.  I think we tend to forget the deep sorrow the disciples felt when they watched Jesus die, and the wonder and the joy and the amazement they experienced when they saw him living and walking and speaking--only days after his death.  We take these things for granted, and I suspect sorrow, changed to wonder, joy, and amazement at this miracle that gives us life would change the way we relate to God.

At any rate, fasting is a part of this.  If you read through the Old and New Testaments, you will see God's people fasting.  Fasting creates awareness of our need for God and dependent on God for strength.  It reminds us that we are small, but God is big.  Fasting, whether for one day or three days is hard.  Fasting for forty days is harder.

 I read about Lenten fasts over the years, and some of them are pretty complicated.  Some fasts banned animal products.  Other fasts included bread and water only.  Some restricted the hours that food could be consumed.

Generally, Lenten fasts were stricter in the Middle Ages than they are now, and most people choose one or two items to fast from.  For example, one person might fast coffee or alcohol and another might choose to adopt a vegan diet, staying away from meat, eggs, and dairy.  Other people fast non-food items like television or Facebook.

Although Newbreak, the church I attend, doesn't observe the liturgical calendar, this year we are following Lent and we'll begin an all-church fast.  Last night in our Life Group, we talked about fasting, what it is, and what it isn't.  We talked about our experiences fasting, and about our all-church fast.  One woman is going to fast for the very first time.  Two people in our group plan to begin a liquid diet.

On Saturday, March 12, John Paul, M.D., a doctor who attends our church, will talk about medical aspects of fasting.  If you're reading this before that event and you live in San Diego, you might want to sign up to attend the seminar.

I haven't decided what to fast yet, but I'm learning toward a fast of all animal products from my diet, with a few days of fasting all foods.  Honestly, I find it really hard to fast.  On the other hand, God has shown me unique things every time I have been faithful in surrendering things to him.

Over the next few weeks, I'll probably write many posts on this Lenten theme.  I want to take this time to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.  I want to draw close to God and let him speak to me.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #16: It's for your own good . . .

I can't remember whether my mom or dad every disciplined me saying, "It's for your own good."  I don't think so.  Maybe I saw it on T.V.

You know the scene.  The kid has done something naughty.  It doesn't matter what.  And the parent stands above the child, about to administer a spanking, or maybe he/she has put the kid on restriction or taken away some kind of privilege and then says, "I'm doing this for your own good."  Another line might follow, "You'll thank me for this some day."

I certainly never said this to my own kids, but I thought it.

I needed to teach them to obey rules, to tell the truth, to be kind to consider others' feelings, to follow through on projects, and I administered multiple forms of discipline in order to make sure they learned these things.  I'm pretty sure some of these forms were ineffective and some were just stupid, but I can promise that I never did any of these things maliciously.  I believed my kids would be better off.

Incidentally, I don't know that they are thanking me for those days.  But that's another topic, and I don't consider myself an expert on childrearing.

Sometimes discipline involved requiring my kids to keep doing something they wanted to quit.  Jason and Kirsten wanted to quit gymnastics when it got hard.  Kirsten and Caitlin wanted to quit debate at midseason.  More than once.  Caitlin wanted to quit piano.  Every time I made them stick it out.  I think they actually do thank me for that.

Oh yeah, and sometimes kids don't want to eat vegetables.  They would rather have cookies.  And the mom or dad has to say, "No more cookies. Eat your _____________."  (Fill in the blank with broccoli or chicken or green beans.)

My point, and I really do have one, is that sometimes parents have a longer perspective as to what will benefit their kids and what will harm them. And sometimes they have to discipline them.  For their own good. And sometimes they have to require their kids to do something the kids don't want to do.

And I think God's like that.  He has a longer perspective than we do, and he knows what will benefit us and what will harm us.  Sometimes he disciplines us, and it's not pleasant.  And sometimes he requires us to do something we don't want to do.  And sometimes we have to walk through something we don't want to walk through.  And it's for our own good.  He knows what's best for us.

Remember, all through the book of John, Jesus hints that he will have to die, but he will rise gain from the dead.  And the disciples don't even question him because first they can't stand the thought that Jesus will die, and next, resurrection from the dead doesn't actually make any sense.

But in John 14-16, Jesus starts to get really serious about explaining this concept.  He tells them he's going to leave and it's for their own good.

  • He's going to prepare a place for them.  (John 14:1-3).
  • He'll come back for them. (John 1:3)
  • The Father will send a Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to live in them.  (John 14:15)
  • He leave them with peace and they shouldn't worry.  (John 14:27)
  • Troubles will come while he's gone and people will try to kill them.  (John 16:2-3)
Hmmm.  So far it doesn't sound that good.  

But Jesus says, "I've been telling you these things, and I know I'm kind of freaking you out, but this is the truth.  It's for your own good that I'm going away.  Because if I don't go away, the Holy Spirit won't come to live inside of you.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will guide you in truth, he will remind you about what I've been saying all along, and he'll reveal the Father's truth to you."  
  • If Jesus doesn't go, the disciples (and us) can't be filled with the Holy Spirit. 
  • If Jesus doesn't go, the Holy Spirit doesn't convict people of their sin. 
  • If Jesus doesn't go, the disciples won't want to leave Jerusalem to spread the good news.  And we all benefit from that one  
But they don't know that at the time.  All the know is that Jesus has brought life into their lives and they can't stand for him to leave.  

If you're a Christ follower, if you've spent much time reading Scripture, then you know this story pretty well and it makes perfect sense.  You know why Jesus had to die, you know he doesn't stay dead, and you know the Holy Spirit came, people were persecuted, and the Church spread across most of the known world.  Happy ending.  

But what about what you're going through right now?  You've lost your job and you wonder how you'll make ends meet.  Certainly this isn't for your own good.  Your son--or your daughter--is turning the house upside  down.  How is that for your own good?  How is that for your benefit?  Your marriage feels miserable, like you'll never be happy.  How is that good?  Or life just seems miserable, and you wonder why even continue.  

I don't know.  I can't answer the questions you're asking.  I do know that I've been through enough of those situations that I know God is faithful.  That he has a long perspective.  That sometimes the things that seem the toughest, the hardest to face, actually transform my life in surprising, joyful ways.  

And somehow in the process, we learn to trust the God who made us.  
We learn to rely on his faithfulness.  
We learn to lean on him when we don't understand.  

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #15: Focus

At the beginning of our Life Group quarter, each member chose a word, something to pray for, something that encapsulated what we would like from God.

My word is focus. I think I said that in a previous post and so I did a random internet search to find that particular post, and apparently I use that word frequently.  Really, I had no idea.

On the other hand, the things we focus on have the power to shape the way we view the world.

Now, that's not why I chose the word.  I chose the word focus because lately I feel very distracted and at the time I wasn't actually working on my thesis.  I wanted to focus on my thesis and get it done so that I can graduate so I can get a job and focus on other things.

And so I set up an accountability system with a friend who's writing a textbook.  Essentially we will get together to check on progress every two or three weeks and in the off weeks, we'll bug each other by email to hopefully stay on track.

And after that I created a plan, what I need to do, with some actual dates.  So far, I've missed my deadline for writing the introduction, but I'm working on it, and so I'm making headway.  So I suppose you could say I'm learning to focus.

Except that I still have interruptions.  Making dinner.  Taking time to have coffee with a friend I haven't seen in six months.  Responding to a friend's family emergency.  Helping my son with a paper.  Listening to my daughter talk about her life.

In other words, living and caring for other people get in the way of things like writing a thesis.

And it's not like I've eliminated the other distractions in my life, like when I'm on the computer, I check my email every fifteen minutes or so.  I also check Facebook.  And sometimes I get bored and watch an episode of House Hunters or Law and Order SVU.

I justify this by telling myself that I need "me" time.  And I'm not saying that "me" time isn't valuable, but as I reflected on my frustrations with lack of focus, I realized that I want all my time to be "me" time.  Technically, writing a thesis is "me" time.

And I also realized that what I need more than "me" time and more then thesis time, is God time.  And what I need more than focus on the thesis is focus on God.  Because when I focus on God, the other things seem to fall in place.  I get great ideas on how to organize my evidence, how to link paragraphs, what words to use.  And I enjoy laughing with friends and feel refreshed when I am with them.

More than that, I stay connected to the God who made me, who motivates me, who loves me.

  • Hebrews 12:2 instructs us to fix our eyes on Jesus.  In other words, to focus on him.  
  • Matthew 6:33 instructs us to seek first the Kingdom of God and then all the other things will fall into place.  
  • John 15 tells us Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we want to bear fruit, if we want our lives to matter, we want to remain in him.  

I don't know why I forget to focus on Jesus.  I don't know why I forget to "remain" in him.  And yet, I do, and I don't think I'm alone.

And so the question arises, how do we focus on Jesus, how do we remain in him, when somehow we've gotten distracted, disconnected, and our vision has become blurry.

Normally I start by reading the Psalms.  Worship, either through music or prayer or meditating on God's Word helps me to focus on God, to remember him throughout my day.  And when I remember him, I talk to him.  And when I talk to him, I remember what he says in his word.  And when I do that, I experience his love. And so it's kind of this circle thing.

But when I lose focus, I have to start somewhere.  I don't always "feel" like reading the Psalms or other favorite Scriptures, but I do it anyway.

And, and there's one other thing about remaining.  Jesus wants us to obey his commandments, and this is his commandment, that we love one another.

I really do want to finish my thesis.  But more than that, I want to focus on the God, who has given me everything, who has given me a mind for learning and words to write and insight in research.  I want to focus on him because "those who love their life in this world will lose it and those who care nothing for it in this world will keep it for eternity" (John 12:25)

I want to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  I want to remain in him.  I want to focus on him.

Nothing else matters more than that.