Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Song

Construction starts early at San Diego Mesa College.  The music of jackhammers filled the air, accompanied by bulldozers, nail guns, backing beeps, machines I can't identify.  I walked across campus yesterday morning and tried to pray.  The noise makes it hard to think, let alone talk to an invisible God.

And then, the construction sounds stopped abruptly, and the steady din of progress was replaced by the trill of a bird.  The melody caught my attention, and I stopped to listen, looking up through the trees to see if I could catch a glimpse of the artist.

My eyes followed the sound of the song past the fourth floor of the G building to the roof, where a to gray bird with red neck sang boldly, perched on the edge of the roof.  He gazed across campus, looking past the eight-foot fences blocking the construction zone.  His song stood out in contrast with the construction zone noises of a moment before.

As I marveled at the beauty of the song, I realized that if the jackhammers hadn't stopped, I never would have heard the bird, but that wouldn't have stopped him from singing. His voice and his song would still be beautiful.  I never would have seen the bird, but he still would have been there, perched on the roof, looking out over the campus.

I thought about God.  Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that the Lord takes great delight in his people; he rejoices over us with singing.  I like that image and thought of it as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, listening to the bird, looking up to the top of the roof.

Sometimes I don't hear God's song.  The noises of my life block out his voice.  I get caught up in the things I have to do, in what-ifs and oh-nos.  I get busy, and I don't take time to listen.  But that doesn't mean God's not speaking.  It doesn't mean He isn't singing.  It doesn't mean He's not there.  It just means I'm not listening. I'm not noticing.

The jackhammers and backing beeps started up again.  I continued my walk to the library, but because I had paused to listen to the bird, because I had grown familiar with the notes of his song, I could still hear the bird's song punctuating the sounds of construction. I smiled, and my heart filled with joy.  I wondered if anyone else noticed the bird's song.  I wondered if anyone else was listening.

I tried to hear the bird's song when I came out of the library a few minutes later, but notes had disappeared.  I knew that didn't mean they were gone.  Somewhere, the bird is still singing.

Just as I had learned to listen for the voice of the bird in the midst of the noises of campus, I can learn to hear God's voice in the midst of the noises of my life.  And the more I hear his voice, the more I will remember: No matter what, God is still present.  No matter what, His voice is still there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Random Unconnected Details

It's supposed to hit 80 degrees today, but earlier this week San Diego experienced some extremely cold temperatures.  Duane had to scrape off a thick layer of ice from the windshield.  We started our days below 30 degrees, and the highs approached 60 degrees.

Okay.  That's not really cold for most of the country, and I know I sound like I'm whining, but these are cold temps for San Diego.  Remember, most of the year we wear flip flops.

The thermostat said the house was 70 degrees when I got home from work on Monday evening, but my fingers were numb, and so I turned up the heater to 72.  My fingers thawed out, and I turned off the heater.  On Tuesday morning, I didn't have to leave the house until noon; the thermostat said 62 degrees, and so I turned on the heater again.  This time my fingers never thawed, and after an hour or so, I realized that the heater never came on.

I wrapped up in a blanket and created lesson plans.
I knew Duane wouldn't be home until about 9:00 on Tuesday evening, and so I made dinner plans that involved the oven.  At least we would have a little bit of heat in the house.

Duane played around with the heater after he got home.  It wouldn't fire up at all.  He called a friend of ours who fixes heaters. Did we need a new one altogether?  Maybe.

He ate.  We watched TV.  We went upstairs to bed.

"By the way," I mentioned before climbing under the covers, "something else is broken too.  The outlet by the bathroom sink doesn't work.  I was blow drying my hair on Monday when it just stopped.  I thought I broke the dryer, but then I flat ironed my hair today, and it didn't work either.  I figured out it was the outlet."

"Why didn't you mention that before?" he asked.

He climbed out of bed and threw on a robe.  I was confused.

"That's probably what's wrong with the heater.  You blew a fuse or something."

"That doesn't make any sense at all," I said.  And it didn't.  The heater is in the garage. The outlet is in our upstairs bathroom.  Not only are they far apart, but all the other outlets in our bathroom and room worked just fine.

Nevertheless, Duane went downstairs.  I heard the heater come on full force.  He came back a few minutes later and plugged the hairdryer into the questionable outlet.  It worked just fine.

I don't understand electricity.  I don't understand wiring.  Although I know there's a completely rational explanation for this apparent miracle, I still don't understand it.

As I drifted off to sleep, I pondered how two seemingly unconnected things can be inexplicably connected, how one thing influences another even if it doesn't make obvious sense.

Sometimes we don't have to understand.  Sometimes apparently unrelated details have connections we are completely unaware of.  Sometimes we have to trust people who understand more than we do.

Sometimes we have to trust God, whose thoughts are beyond our thoughts, whose ways are beyond our ways--who sees the connections we cannot possibly understand.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What do you want to lay hold of during Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

I remember the first time I met someone who celebrated Ash Wednesday.  I was in ninth grade and came into my history class after lunch.  The girl I sat next to had a smudge on her forehead, and  I thought I should let her know.  She acted a little embarrassed and gave me a confusing explanation.  

I don't know how I made it all the way to age 15 without hearing about Ash Wednesday.  It seemed so odd to me to go to church and get ashes smudged on my face.  I'm not even sure what the ashes signify, although I suppose I could find out pretty easily if I actually wanted to.  

To this day, I've only seen a few people with ashes on their foreheads, and I've never done it before.  On the other hand, I have had the sign of the cross painted on my forehead with anointing oil.  

I suppose all faith traditions seem a little odd to people unfamiliar with them.  We raise our hands in worship or we kneel.  That doesn't surprise me, although I suppose it did at one point.  I've seen people face down on the floor, humbled before God.  That doesn't seem odd to me either, but I probably seems odd to others.   When you think about it, the floor is pretty nasty.  

This is a long introduction to a discussion on Lent.  Yes, Lent.  Another foreign tradition I was unfamiliar with until a few years ago.

I heard about it from Roman Catholic and Lutheran friends.  As in, "What are you giving up for Lent?"  

"I'm giving up sugar."
"I'm giving up wine."
"I"m giving up chocolate."

Over the past few years, I have observed Lent, although not traditionally.  I've given up TV.  I've given up meat.  I've given up various forms of technology.  

But Lent is more than giving things up.  Lent is more than fasting. 

Lent is all about considering Jesus.  Remembering his journey to the cross.  Remembering his life.  And his suffering.  And his death.  

Recently I've been reading author Margaret Feinberg's blog.  Last week she wrote about Lent and described the history of this Christian tradition, a time set aside for penitence, prayer, and self-denial.  She says it's all about "preparation and worship."  

She suggests that rather than ask what we are giving up for Lent, we should talk to God and ask, "What do you want me to lay hold of during Lent?"

She extols the wonders of Lent and challenges her readers with a series of questions as they move into the Lenten season.  
How will you choose to seek God during this time?
What expressions will your desire for God take?
What do you want to lay hold of in greater measure through Lent?  
These questions resonated with me.  
Sometimes we can reduce our Christian disciplines to what we do, like giving something up, and if we're good at following the rules, we feel like we have succeeded.

But Lent isn't about following rules.  It's about following Jesus.  Sitting in His presence.  Listening to His voice.  Getting to know Him.  

For a while now God has been calling me to seek Him in a new way.  In a way that allows me to reflect on his Awesomeness and his inexplicability.  

I may have made that word up.  Essentially it means that I can't explain Him.  I can read God's Word.  I can memorize it and meditate on it.  I can observe Him at work in lives around Him.  But I can never explain Him.  I can experience Him.  But I will never be able to explain that fully.  

God is Glorious.  And Holy.  And Wonderful.
I want to embrace the wonder of God.  The wonder of Jesus.  

So for Lent, I am not giving anything up.  
Instead, I am embracing new disciplines.
I am going to figure out how to observe a Sabbath, a real rest.

I am going to sit quietly before God and listen.  
I am going to ask Him what things He wants me to do, and I am going to do those things.  

Whether you're fasting something over this Lenten season or not, it's not too late to ask Feinberg's question:  What do you want to lay hold of during Lent?  What do you want God to show you?  What do you want to seek from God over the next 40 days leading to Easter?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Perceptions of Reality: There Must Be More

A while back, Frank Viola posted a blog that still haunts me. His title, which I have borrowed, says it all:  "There must be more."  
He wrote, "Several years after I began following the Lord, having had a taste of present-day Christianity from various and sundry stripes and flavors, a cry was birthed in my heart that wouldn’t be silenced."

He's made a decision for God, but it's not enough.  His heart tells him there's more.
There's more to life than what he's experiencing.  
There more to faith than what he sees in the church.  
If God is infinite and awesome, then there there must be more than what he knows.
I felt the same cry birthed inside my heart in my early thirties. After a lifetime of church, a lifetime of learning memory verses, of viewing Christianity as the most rational choice any person can make, I started asking questions.
Is it worth it?
Why do we work so hard in church?
What’s the point?
Are our lives any different than any one else’s?
The questions scared me.
Walking away from the church, from my perception of faith, scared me because no matter how shallow my experience with God was, I knew God was real.
So there had to be more.
Sermons and songs tend to simplify complex multifaceted principles.  They make me feel that if I just read the Bible more, pray more, spend more time in ministry, or join another Life Group, then I'll experience "something more."  
But life is complex.  Nothing is simple.  And learning about someone just isn't the same as spending time with that person. 

I try to reflect those complexities in this blog.  I try to communicate the reality of experiencing God.  Nevertheless, sometimes I go back and read something I've written, and I think, "I'm giving pat answers.  That's not real."  
  • Real is opening my Bible and not knowing what to read.
  • Real is praying and wondering if the words go past the ceiling.
  • Real is messy disagreements between people who can't remember why they're friends.
  • Real is doubts and dry spells and wondering if God will break into my world and rescue me from my mistakes.  Real is wondering if he loves me enough to do that.  
I talk about real a lot in this blog.  I talk about complexities and disappointments and doubts, and I talk about God breaking into my world to show me that something more that I long for so much.

Sometimes I get glimpses of that something more, but only glimpses.  If I don't write them down, I forget them.  They cease to seem real; they're more like dreams.  
God does not work in five steps.  Or ten.  How do we experience the "more"?  How does "more" become "real"?  
There are no formulas. And God's always changing it up.
That's part of the difficulty.  And part of the beauty. 
That's the reality of God, and that's the reality of life.   
There is more. There is always more.
This year I'm committing to seeking more.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dear Jesus: You Promised a Happy Ending

The promises of Jesus: Peace. Joy.  Love. Forgiveness. Healing. Answers to prayer.  Abundant life.  It sounds lovely.

So why do we struggle with worry and disappointment? Why do we pray for healing and watch people die? Why do we live in shame and sadness? Why are we lonely? Where are the peace and joy?  Where is the unified community?  What's up?  This isn't what we signed up for.

Where's the happily ever after?  Where are the happy endings?

Maybe we're just looking at this the wrong way.  Maybe we have redefined peace, love, and joy in ways that focus on material comfort and the absence of pain or struggle. Maybe instead of wrestling with repentance and receiving the gift of forgiveness, we just want issue to go away.  Maybe building solid spiritual community is just hard.

Maybe we're just in a hurry.
We want the happy ending now instead of waiting until the ending.

Case in point: The story of Lazarus in John chapter 11.

The story begins when Jesus gets a message that his dear friend Lazarus is deathly ill. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live in Bethany, about a two-day trip, so Lazarus has already been sick for a few days when Jesus gets the message.  The passage tells us that Mary is the one who poured expensive perfume on Jesus' feet in anticipation of his death, and it reminds us that Jesus dearly loves this family.

Nevertheless, Jesus doesn't seem too concerned by the message.  He says, "Lazarus' sickness won't end in death, but will bring great glory to God."  He promises a happy ending, and then he continues doing whatever he is doing.  Two days later Jesus abruptly tells his disciples they're going to see Lazarus.

The thing is, his disciples don't really think this is a good idea.  The last time Jesus was in the neighborhood, some Jews tried to get Jesus killed, and there's a very real possibility this trip could be dangerous.  "Why would you go back?" they ask.

At this point, Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has gone to sleep.
This seems like good news to the disciples.  If Lazarus is sleeping peacefully, the sickness has probably run its course, and Lazarus is going to be fine.  It's definitely not a reason to risk all their lives.

But Jesus used "sleep" as a metaphor for "death."  Lazarus is dead.  In fact, Jesus tells His disciples He's glad He wasn't present when Lazarus died.  He tells them, "Now you will see and believe."

This doesn't seem like the happy ending Jesus promised.

The thing is, this isn't the end.
It looks bad.  It looks like the end.
But it's not.

You know the story.  Jesus is visibly moved by the sisters' sorrow.  He loves this family.
He goes with them to the tomb and tells the people following them to move the stone covering that tomb.  He lifts His eyes toward heaven, and thanks God for listening to Him.

He calls for Lazarus to come out.
And then, the man who was dead walked out of his tomb, still wrapped in his burial shroud.  Everyone cheers.  The impossible has happened.  The sisters hug their brother. They hug Jesus. The mourners go home.  Martha cooks up some dinner for Jesus and His disciples.

A happy ending. Just like Jesus promised.
It's just that the ending came a little later than everyone thought it would.

How many times do we despair when we think God has not come through?  How many times do we give up hope when things don't turn out the way we want?  The way we planned?

It looks like the end, and it's not the end we want.

But maybe it's not really the end.  Maybe the the story is still happening.  Maybe God's still at work.

That was definitely true with Lazarus.
It's also true with us.

God's telling a story that brings glory to Him.  That draws us closer to Him.
And it's not the end until it's the end.

Let's enjoy the story.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Happily Ever After

This morning I woke up early, got up to brew some coffee, and returned to drink it in bed.  Duane had turned on the TV and flipped around to a movie I remember from somewhere in my childhood.  Daddy Long Legs, the story of a French orphan who is rescued by an anonymous rich American.  She writes letters to her unknown benefactor, calling him Daddy Long Legs because of the shadow he cast when he visited the orphanage years before.  He is the uncle of her roommate, so they meet and fall in love despite the vast age gap.  She does not realize until graduation that the man she loves and the uncle of her friend are the same person.

The original book was good.  The movie was better.  Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire.  What's not to like?

I got caught up in the movie, and as I watched, I began to see the themes of the movie in a new light, themes that reflected unhealthy thought patterns in my own life.

You see I grew up in a world of sanitized fairy tales, fanciful, imaginative fiction, and Hollywood musicals.  Songs.  Romance.  Happy endings for people who are good and kind and patient.  Unhappy endings for people who are evil and cruel and try to take things into their own hands.

Even though I knew all of these stories were outside the realm of reality, somewhere deep inside of my heart, I believed.  I believed in beautiful maidens rescued by handsome princes who saw their hidden beauty.   I found my prince when I was 16, and we married when I was 18.  (That's another story entirely.)  Nevertheless, there are other kinds of princes, and I waited for them patiently.  I approached life passively.

Someone, someday would see my innate potential.
I would be discovered.
Scholarships.  Fame.  Honor.  Book contracts.
Fortunate surprises awaited the good, the kind, and the patient.

Life isn't quite like that.  I'm not saying that it isn't filled with serendipities, lovely unexpected surprises that catch us off guard and fill us with joy.

I'm just saying that most of the time we need to live proactively. We need to work hard. There is no "spoonful of sugar" that makes my house clean itself.  I cannot sprinkle weight loss powder on my food and automatically lose weight and gain six-pack abs.  My bestselling book does not write itself.  I do not decide to go to grad school one day and walk out with a teaching contract the next day.

Even in marriage.  Happy ever after does not come without a few arguments, disagreements, and sleepless nights.

No matter how we define success, it very rarely comes out of nowhere.

Some years ago, God's word to me was "move."  I didn't know what this meant, and then I began a long journey of cautiously moving toward dreams I let go of decades ago.  I still get sidetracked, sometimes because of fear and sometimes because I take a wrong turn. Sometimes I encounter detours that have nothing to do with me.

There are no happy ending guarantees.  Sometimes God has another plan entirely, and I just have to trust that His plans are better than my own.  This is not passive thinking--it is surrender to a God whose ways are beyond my ways, whose thoughts are beyond my thoughts.

Nevertheless, I'm done waiting for my metaphorical prince to rescue me.  If I want to move forward, I must search for and and ask for opportunities.  That doesn't mean that I'm not still trusting God.  It just means that I'm getting ready for whatever God has for me in the future.

Just as it's true that sometimes opportunities that come out of nowhere, it's also true that I need to prepare for those serendipitous moments.  I want to be ready to follow God no matter where He's leading.