Saturday, August 17, 2013

If Only I Could Grasp the Greatness of God

If only I could grasp the greatness of God.
My default view of God is much smaller than I cognitively know Him to be.
I want to be caught up in the wonder of who He is. The wonder of His creation. The wonder of his power.

I want to expect the unexpected. To pray for the unexpected.

I want to delight in the simple. To see the beauty in things I overlook.

I want to see God's face in every person I encounter. Because each one is created in His image.

I want to always know that He loves me. That His plans for me are excellent. Even when they are hard.

I want to be in awe of God's ability to see and know not only me, but every single person.

He loves me. He knows me. He desires a relationship with me.

And He loves the people around me. He knows them. He desires a relationship with each of them.

He loves the people I have never met. He knows them by name. He knows them inside out. He desires a relationship with each of them.          

How can that be?
And yet it is.
It's mind boggling.

How can I not be in awe?
How can I not fall on my knees and surrender every aspect of my life?
Not just in my mind but in the way I live my life, in the way I respond to stress and work and friends and family?

How can I not serve Him in every aspect of my life?

If only I could grasp the greatness of God.

Friday, August 16, 2013

25,550 Days And Elvis

"On Aug. 16, 1977, the singer Elvis Presley died at Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn., at age 42."

I'm not really an Elvis fan, but when I saw this blurb in this morning's New York Times, it caught my attention.  Elvis was only 42 years old.  Only 42? 

I remember that day. I remember thinking that Elvis was old and fat and addicted to prescription drugs. Of course he died. 

At the time, Elvis seemed ancient, and at age 17 I didn't understand that normal people gain weight as they get older. As for the drug addiction, let's just say I grew up in a sheltered home, and I pretty much thought death was an automatic consequence of using drugs.  

Only 42. That's eleven years younger than I am today. And let's just say I'm not thin. 

Only 42. That's young! 
Elvis had everything. At least, he had lots of money and fame and a big house. 
At the same time, he had nothing. 
And now he's known for great music and swivel-hip dancing and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

Lots of people impersonate him.

Every now and then you hear that Elvis didn't actually die, that he's alive and well and in witness protection or working in a gas station.  

Only 42. I don't think he expected to be dead by age 42. None of us do.
In reality, most of us don't actually think about dying. When we're young, it seems like we'll never get old. Hey, we'll never even get to be age 42.  We'll never gain weight. We'll never get bad knees. We'll never get dried out skin and age spots. 

And then time passes and we do.  

And then we stop getting old.  Because we die.

None of us know how long we have on this earth, but the Bible gives an estimate of 70 years.  In his book Selling Water by the River, Pastor Shane Hipps calculates 70 years x 365 days = 25,550 days. 

That's our estimated life. 
25,550 days. 
Some of us get a little more. Elvis got significantly fewer. 

Somehow this information is a little more disturbing than learning that the estimate is 70 years. If we use the number 70, the total doesn't change very often, but if we use the number 25,550, we have a 24-hour countdown clock that lets us see that the number is getting smaller every single day. And when we know how little time we have left, it makes us reconsider how we want to spend the time.  

Of my 25,550 days, I only have 6,000 remaining, give or take a hundred or so. 

How do I want to spend those days?
Who do I want to spend those days with?
Where do I want to go?

What will be my legacy? 
What will be yours?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tu et vous. Usted y ustedes. You and y'all.

We have a defect in Standard American English--we don't differentiate between the singular form of the second person (you) and the plural form of the second person (you). Most of the time we automatically know the difference. If someone approaches a group of people and says, "Hey! Do you want to go out for pizza?", we assume the question is for the entire group. If someone wants to address one person in the group, the person would use an individual's name. For example, "Erin, did you really post that blog about questioning God's promises?"

Some questions--and statements--are meant for the group, and some questions--and statements--are meant for individuals. Some languages, like French and Spanish, use different forms of the word "you" to designate singular and plural. If you live somewhere in the southern portion of the United States, you might differentiate singular and plural by saying "you" or "y'all," which is a contraction for "you all."

The rest of us tell the difference by looking at the context.
If "you" is in spoken form, how many people are in the room. Has a name been used to narrow the focus?

And if the word "you," is written, it is important to look at what was written before and what was written afterward.  That way we can tell.

And that brings me to Jeremiah 29:11, the verse author Chris Blumhofer has called the "most misused verse in the Bible." I don't know if that is actually true, but I do know that I start listening very carefully when I hear someone quote this verse:
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."
This sounds like a great promise. I don't have to worry. Everything's going to work out well--really well, actually. Everything I do will prosper. I will not be harmed. So I can have hope.

The thing is, if we look at this verse all by itself, we miss the fact that "you" does not reference an individual, but a group of individuals, the people of Israel, who have just been exiled out of Jerusalem.

Thomas Turner, of the International Justice Mission, writes,
Like any author worth his salt, the writer in Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . ." (Jeremiah 29:4).
This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God's will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people--an entire nation. for all the grammarians out there, the "you" in Jeremiah 29:11 isn't singular, it's plural. 
Additionally, if we fail to look at the verse in context, we miss the fact that Jeremiah has just given the people a word from that Lord--they will be in exile for seventy years.  
Seventy years.

That means most of individuals listening to Jeremiah will never return to Israel. The future--the hope--the prosperity--are for the people of God as a whole, as a community.

And so this "you" extends beyond the group of people listening--to a community of people not even born yet.

That's pretty much the opposite of the way we normally interpret this verse.

Most of the time we gravitate toward interpreting Scripture individualistically.  That's natural.  We focus on the things that matter most to us as individuals.  We think about things that will benefit us individually.

And while it is true that God sees each of us uniquely, he sees even a sparrow fall to the ground and he can count the hairs on our head, it is also true that God has a kingdom mentality.  And he does what's best for his kingdom.

Think about Hebrews 11.  This is the passage that celebrates people who lived by faith. Some of them saw pieces of God's promises fulfilled. But none of them saw everything.  Some of them suffered and died for their faith.

The writer of Hebrews says these people "died in faith without receiving the full promises, although they say the fulfillment as though from a distance." They did it for us, so we could experience the promises of God.

Jeremiah 29:11 was written for a specific group of people at a specific period of time, and Turner asks whether or not it applies to us currently, if it is a promise we can cling to today.  Based on Hebrews 11, I believe it does.

Turner asserts that this verse does not "apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community." Rather, it "applies to both, functioning as one . . . worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption."

Turner references the book  Beyond Foundationalism by Stanley Grenz and John Franke, who explain that this promise "turns the gaze of its members toward the future," a future that unites a community through prayer and worship.  This is a collective future, one shared by generations and that in this way, "the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is bigger than any one of us--and far better."

I agree.
This verse is bigger than any one person. It is for all of us together. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Promises. Promises.

I used to have a Bible with a long list of God's promises.  Single words, matched with a Bible verse.
Safety and security of the true believer   John 5:24
God's constant care  1 Peter 5:7
God's great faithfulness  Hebrews 11:11
God's sufficient grace   2 Corinthians 9:8
God's eternal love  Jeremiah 31:3
God's abiding presence Philippians 2:12-13
God's answered prayer  John 14:13-14
God's victory over Satan   James 4:7

The list was very long, but I never paid much attention to it.  Why?  In my experience, I knew.  God can't really be counted on to come through for me.  I didn't blame Him.  I just figured God was disciplining me, teaching me, correcting me, transforming me.  That was more important than blessing.

In my experience, I knew.
God does not always answer prayers.  God does not always come through on His promises.

I had forgotten the story of Abraham.

Here's the story of explicit promises.
Genesis 12:2  I have plans to make a great people from your descendants. And I am going to put a special blessing on you and cause your reputation to grow so that you will become a blessing and example to others.

Genesis 12:7  I am going to give this land to your future generations.

Genesis 15:6  Look up at the stars, and try to count them all if you can.  There are too many of them to count.  Your descendants will be as many as the stars.

Up to this time, and at this point Abraham is in his 80s, he has no children and several years have passed between the first promise and the second.  Yet we know that he "believed God and trusted in His promises, so God counted it to his favor as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6).

Still, Abraham asks God, "How am I supposed to know I really will possess" the land?  (15:8).

Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and a "terrifying darkness" falls over him.  God reveals to him before he possesses the land, his descendants "will first be foreigners in a land that is not theirs. They will be made slaves there and will be oppressed for 400 years." After that God will deliver the people and they will emerge from that land with many possessions."  As for Abraham, he will rest with his fathers in peace and "be buried at a ripe old age."

God promised him the land. God kept His promises, but these promises were fulfilled over many generations. You could say they are in the promise of being fulfilled to this day.

This is somewhat disheartening if our hope is that God's promises will always lead us out of difficult or painful situations, that faithfulness and care mean monetary success, fulfilling and conflict-free relationships, and perpetual health.

That's not what it meant for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And yet God was--and is--faithful.
He leads us and guides us.
He grace comforts us in difficult times.

Just as he called Abraham into relationship with Him, He calls us into relationship with Him.
He is God.
He is glorious.
He loves us.
He will do whatever it takes to lead us to Him.
And there is enormous joy in this.
We can rejoice in everything. At all times.

God's promises are good.
They are true.

And yet, we can't make them into something they are not.

The problem comes when I try to interpret these promises in a way that offers me what I want instead of what God wants for me--and what he wants for his ultimate glory. God can see beyond what will make me comfortable or safe today.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Someone Ahead: A New Kind of Mentor Part 2

I played with the title for about ten minutes and finally changed it six months later.  The first title was pretty random, something about the book of John, randomness, and mentoring. Honestly, it didn't make any sense at all, and so I shelved the post in the draft file and forgot about it. I was going through some old unfinished drafts, and I came across this one. Ah, I thought. I can link this to another post about mentoring.

I know nobody cares that much about titles or the way my brain bounces around, but I kind of like the way I think.

It connects all the elements of my life if I just look long enough.

Okay.  Enough randomness.  At least for the moment.  Oh--and if you're wondering about the guy smiling at the top of the page, that's Pastor Mike, the mentor I'll eventually get around to discussing. The one who consistently tells his church that we always need someone ahead, someone behind, and someone alongside us.

Our College-Age Life Group ended about a month ago. We finished an entire year of focusing on books of the New Testament, starting with the book of John.

We started studying John in September 2012, and I really thought we would finish the book before Christmas, but at that point we were only on chapter 10.  Apparently there's a lot to think about in each chapter.   When we resumed the group in January, we planned to finish John by Easter.  Technically, we only made it through chapter 20.

The Life Group members are all pretty busy with studying and working, so we decided to focus on the Bible rather than using a supplemental book.  There's nothing wrong with books, but we wanted to keep life simple.  We assign a chapter or two a week, we read carefully, and we mark or keep in mind the things that stand out to us, things that God shows us, and questions that we want to bring up in group.  There's not a lot of agenda, just a lot of reading and asking, "What do you want to show us, God?"

Sometimes I would read a chapter and think, "Oh, we'll finish this really fast.  There's not much to say."  I really didn't think there was that much to talk about in chapter 11, the chapter about Lazarus and dying, but as it turned out, we had lots to say.   In fact, I've filled my journal with really awesome nuggets from Sunday night, things I want to blog about someday.

The whole discussion always seemed rather unscripted and random, but randomness isn't always a bad thing. Randomness allows responsiveness to a situation.  It allows the opportunity to explore and pause and reference other Scripture passages including ones we've just read.  It allows discovery.

I'm not opposed to organized learning, but there's a season for everything. The last life group season was our season for more of less random discovery of Scripture.

I learned this Bible study technique from Pastor Mike, the lead pastor at Newbreak Church in San Diego.  Back when the church was small, fewer than 120 people, Pastor Mike asked if he could host a small group Bible study in our house.  I said yes, and for a couple of years, ten to twenty men and women sat in a circle every Tuesday night to study books of the Bible.  It took us about eight weeks to get through the book of First John, and that only has four chapters.

I learned to study the Bible from Pastor Mike, to write in the margins, to ask questions, like what are the complexities of that word?  I learned to consider ramifications of this analogy or that symbolism or Old Testament references?  I learned to appreciate the perspectives of different group members.  I learned that a Bible study isn't only about studying the Bible, but also about growing close to and praying for other group members.

I consider Pastor Mike to be one of my early mentors.  There was never an "official" mentor status--I suppose it was all rather random.  Most of my mentoring has been pretty random.  I was in the same place as someone who had things to teach me, and I learned by watching, asking questions.  I suppose that's how I've learned to mentor other people too.  Informally.  Randomly.

If we want mentors, if we want to learn from people who are ahead of us, we need to find a way to get in the same room with those people. Hosting Mike's Life Group seemed like a perfect opportunity. In other examples, I have joined ministries to be around people I wanted to learn. I have volunteered to serve them directly. Sometimes the people we wish would mentor us are maxed out on their schedules, but that doesn't mean we can't shadow them in other ways.

I maximized my opportunity to learn from Pastor Mike by studying the Bible ahead of time, so I could learn as much as possible.  I listened. I asked questions.  When he stepped out of the group after a few years, I continued the Bible study patterns I learned from him and began leading women's groups.

My husband, Duane, has his own Pastor Mike random mentoring stories. Most of these have to do with moving furniture or fixing things. He knew that if he was in the same room as Mike, he would learn things. He just never knew what he would learn. And so, whenever Mike asked for help, Duane said yes. He learned about church planting and raising teenagers and marriage. In hanging out with Pastor Mike, Duane learned how to be a pastor.

Sometimes it's hard to find mentors, those people who can teach us new things and ask challenging questions, those people who become examples and models for our lives. Those people are all around us, people who are following God with their whole hearts, who are doing the things we sense God is calling us to do. Sometimes those people mentor us directly, but if that's not what's happening, it doesn't mean we can't learn from them.