Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Confessions Of A Recovering Change Junkie

My wife and I have a coffee plant named Clarence. My mom gave him to us the week before our wedding. I remember thinking a tropical plant like Clarence couldn't survive in a climate like ours, but appreciated the gift.

Despite my skepticism, Clarence has enjoyed his Tennessean home and grown over twice his original height since he came to live with us. My wife and I high five every time a new leaf sprouts and dream about roasting our first cup of anniversary coffee in about three years.

Over the last few months, we didn't see any new leaves on Clarence. He just sat there, green as ever, soaking in water and sunlight. But I was anxious to see more growth. I wanted him to become the coffee plant I pictured in my mind. Meanwhile, I failed to notice how his stem had thickened.

When God takes me through periods of growth, I feel energized and want to write fifty posts on what I learn. Those periods may cause me discomfort, but I know God is at work.

When I don't see any change in my life for a long period of time, I worry about my lack of visible growth. Am I becoming lukewarm? Have I acted to casually about my faith? Do I listen to God enough? How much of my house is built on sand? And so on.

My life as a Christian has more angst than I'd like to admit. Looking at where I am in life, I can obsess over how I'm not where I want to be while overlooking how far God has brought me. I keep looking for new leaves without noticing the strength building in my roots and stem.

I feel I should tell you I know my righteousness doesn't depend on how well I behave. Hebrews 10:1-11 explains how all the sacrifices and religious rituals could never make a person righteous. Only the payment Jesus made by offering himself as a sacrifice made it possible for us to have lasting righteousness.

Then verse 14 says, "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified."

In that sentence, I see a few things. First, Jesus does the real work. My role in that verse is passive. He has perfected. I am being sanctified. At most, I think my effort goes into responding to the work the Holy Spirit does in me. Second, I see that while I still go through a process of sanctification (that is, the act of being made holy), I am made perfect by Christ's perfect offering. I'm already holy while God makes me holy.

The last sentence may have sounded contradictory, but look at Clarence. He is a coffee plant, even though he's still becoming a plant that makes coffee. I might obsess over the change in his process of becoming a plant that will one day produce coffee, but he's already a coffee plant. I know in my head it will take years for him to make even the smallest batch of beans. In the meantime, his roots go deep.

I may not always have a thrilling story to tell people of what God's doing in my life. It's not all sprouting leaves. There are long periods of time where God works on my roots, my foundation, and reassuringly tells me "You're good. You're good."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Defining Characteristic Of Christianity.

I don't know if someone out there has a list of reasons why to like Christianity, but I'll say this next reason lands at #12. Why #12? I wore it in little league. Now you know.

Reason #12 why I like Christianity came to me while I read Isaiah 46:3-4. It says, "Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save."

Think about the above passage as if God said this about you:

"Listen (your name), I came up with the idea of you before you were born. I will take care of you from conception to death. Never at any point in your life will I not help you and carry you."

God might not use a double negative like that, but whatever. Aesop said God helps those who help themselves. God here simply says he helps you in everything throughout your entire life.

Over the last few years, I've written plenty of posts taking shots at my Baptist upbringing. But strict, behavior-focused, follow-the-rules-for-holiness lifestyles exist outside of Baptist churches. Maybe the Assemblies Of God church I attended in middle school had more fun singing and dancing during meetings, but they still didn't want me to go to the movies.

Most, if not every, world religion tells people to do and say certain things to achieve holiness. In Isaiah 46:1-2, God points out how the idols of the surrounding culture place burdens on people and offer no help or freedom. Then God says, "I'm not like that. I want to take those burdens from you. I want to carry you through the hard days you encounter. I want to do the work of your salvation."

Reason #12? I like Christianity because God doesn't expect me to live a perfect life. He wants me to pursue Him and allow Him to do the rest.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Praising God When I Don't Feel Like It

Please read the sentence after this next one. During my freshman year of college, I had to take a course called "Ordinary Citizens In Nazi Germany" as a part of my orientation. The class discussed how an educated society could agree to support a man like Hitler and what we should learn from it today. 

The class wholly bummed me out. Like, we had a solid week of critiquing propaganda films followed by a week of holocaust footage. During a Michigan winter? You try to stay cheerful. 

Before each class, I began to listen to The Promise Ring's "Why Did We Ever Meet?" By "listen", I mean "dance around the room and sing at top volume". In my mind, I was defying the winter, the horrible class videos, and my crusty professor's emotionless, mustachioed commentary. 

And for the mile-long walk from my dorm to the humanities building, my plan worked. I chose to sing something uplifting despite how I actually felt, and it made me feel better. 

I didn't come up with this idea. In Psalm 42, the writer says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God." Doesn't that make you stop for a minute? In this worship song, the writer reassures himself he will praise God again in the middle of the song! 

A friend once told me he didn't sing during times of worship because he seldom felt honest singing along. "If I don't feel like praising God, then why would I sing 'I will praise you'?" At the time, I couldn't argue with him. But now I see the flaw in his thinking. I mean, thirteen years later, but still, I see it now. 

The Psalmist sang praise and worship to God even when he acknowledged his real feelings. I sang and danced because I wanted my feelings to change. 

But more than this, it's a question of who or what we think deserves our worship. If you were to choose  to honor how you felt over honoring God, then aren't you worshiping your feelings? Haven't you made your emotions your god? 

Have you ever felt like you didn't want to worship God? What did you do?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Letting Transformation Happen - Or, how I learned to look at Romans 12:2 in a new way

As a person who sometimes writes words, I try to pay attention to grammar. I mean, sometimes I try to pay attention to grammar. Other times, I toss formality to the side and say to heck with it.

Thanks to great English teachers, though, I gained a keen awareness of overusing passive tense. See how I tried to avoid the landmine there? "I am keenly aware" to "I gained a keen awareness", aaaand sidestep...

But sometimes we need to use passive tense. Sometimes it's the best way to say what needs to be said. Like the two passives in that last sentence. And now two sentence fragments which would probably have passives. Did anyone else start counting? Okay, I'll stop doing that now.

As I prepared my discussion notes for a youth group meeting, I learned how Paul intentionally worded Romans 12:2. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

In Enjoying God's Grace, Terry Virgo highlights the phrase "be transformed" and says this comes through God's work in us. At various stages of my life, I've taken this verse to mean I had to try very hard to renew my mind by changing my behavior. Without exception, this led to disappointment. My behavior couldn't bring me salvation, so how could I expect it to sanctify me as well?

I had one of the youths read Proverbs 23:6-7 and we talked about how our thoughts reflect what's in our heart. And if I've learned anything about grace, I've learned I need to let God change my heart.

So how do we let God transform our hearts and our minds? One youth said we have to have a humble and responsive attitude to whatever God might put on our hearts. In other words, don't resist the changes He wants to do in you.

Anyone else out there try really hard to change themselves? Have you ever experienced God changing your heart and mind outside of your own effort?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Should I Listen For What God Has To Say?

To anyone who has read the Press for any length of time, you should know I believe God still speaks to people. Sometimes, the things God says are useful for other people. Prophets, by and large, are not always men with unkempt beards in the desert. Sometimes they look like my friend, Sean.

About four years ago, Sean told me he felt like God wanted him to tell me something. He handled it very well. First, he prayed about what he heard for several days. Second, he asked other leaders in the church what they thought of the word and if they thought he should share it with me. But that's just an aside. I want to focus more on what he actually said. 

"God knows you want to serve Him as your Lord. But I think God wants you to know Him as your father." 

Every so often, I would pray about this word and get a little more understanding each time. The other night, A light clicked when I heard someone read John 15:15. 

"No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."

We do still serve God, sure. Just before, in verse 14, Jesus says, "You are my friends if you do what I command you." At first, this might sound like the neighborhood bully giving you orders and threatening to not be friends with you if you refuse. But if we know God in terms intimate enough to call Him friend and father, then we would also know who He is and what authority He holds.

I have a very good relationship with my dad. Like most dads out there, he used to expect me to obey him without justifying his reasons. But there came a point where he stopped using the "do it because I told you" line and started letting me in on the big picture. Despite my tendency to argue, seeing his vision for what we needed to accomplish motivated me to follow his plan.

And so, God speaks to His friends. Learning how to hear is one thing, learning to listen another, and understanding His heart behind the words yet another. When we read a command in the Bible or feel the Holy Spirit put something on our hearts, we can have the assurance it comes from a close friend and loving father who wants us to join in what He does in the world.

This is why I want people to know how to hear what God has to say.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is It Possible To Understand The Bible?

Nearly every social group, whether among friends or coworkers, has someone who knows everything. That isn't to say the person actually does know everything, but they definitely talk as if they do. Cars? They've fixed every problem with their brother-in-law's toolkit. Computers? Yeah, they took a class. Russian literature? You know you're in for an earful when they open by spelling "Dostoevsky" (me? I Googled it).

Recently, it occurred to me why every group has a know-it-all. Because to some degree, we're all know-it-alls. Maybe we don't pretend to have a grip on mathematics or global economics, but we will exhibit a deep well of hubris when it comes to subjects familiar to us.

Jesus dealt with this attitude all the time. Pharisees, (the lawyers) for example. They knew the words of the Bible and all kinds of loopholes in the Law. But they missed the point of the Bible, the purpose of the Law. Zealots (the Tea Party types) probably memorized every possible scripture foretelling the coming Messiah. But instead of a political upheaval, they got a humble teacher who told them it wouldn't happen the way they thought or when they thought it should.

Now, anyone could easily read this and try to say interpretation messes with the truth of the Bible. Or maybe they would say the Bible never made sense in the first place.

I may be in the minority when I say this, but I think the Bible might only make sense when God explains it.

Luke 24 tells the story of two men walking to Emmaus after Jesus has died and talking about the reports of his resurrection. Jesus appears next to them and joins the conversation, but verse 16 says "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." Jesus asks them what they're talking about, and one of the men replies, "Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" Jesus plays dumb and asks, "What things?" The men begin to tell Jesus about... Jesus, and how they hoped He would be the one to save them. Then, they go on to tell him about some weird reports of how He had come back to life.

Jesus, still unrecognized, says, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And going all the way back to the books Moses had written and all the prophetic books, Jesus explained how all the scriptures pointed to what had just happened in Jerusalem.

It wasn't until they had walked together over seven miles and sat down to dinner that "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him."

A lot of Christians might consider Paul one of the smartest people who ever lived. A Roman-era Ben Stein. He studied under the best Bible teachers and gained respect with the Jewish leaders. We're not told this explicitly in the Bible, but I'll bet he was the know-it-all in his group of friends.

Long after Paul's conversion, he told the Corinthian church, "Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."

I don't want to claim the Bible can only benefit someone by way of a mystical experience. The people following Jesus, Paul, the Zealots, and the Pharisees all gained good knowledge from God's word. By hearing and reading scripture, they gained more knowledge, not less. However, the knowledge doesn't seem to make sense as a whole unless the Spirit reveals the meaning.

Do you have trouble understanding the Bible? Have you ever felt the Holy Spirit reveal something to you in it?

Monday, June 25, 2012

It's Important To Remember How To Live Life And Not Only Write About It.

Ahhhh... That was nice. Anybody still there? Well, if you are, we might have more fun now.

As I'm sure many weblog writers know, I arrived at a point where I wasn't living life so much as I compiled content interesting enough to write. Imagine the state of my faith when I only read the Bible to find my next weblog post, and when I only prayed to hear God give me some new insight I could share with my tiny group of readers. 

Then after hearing a message from Francis Chan at Verge 2012, I decided to take some time to remember what it felt like to read and pray just so I could experience God's presence. It was good to get away from finding ways to make myself interesting by talking about God and instead become interested in God Himself again. 

But I'm currently preparing a post I think someone may need to read. Stay tuned.