Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sing of your deliverance!

Here are ways for you to take ownership of your brothers and sisters:

  • Donate to VCDF's Annual Christmas Party in Thailand! One of my good friends works at this shelter and I get to hear all the time about the amazing things happening there. Information about the shelter is in the first link and there is a button to donate at the bottom of the second link

  • Donate or volunteer your time at the Hungry for God Home. This home houses young men, most of whom have been "aged out" of foster care. This means basically they are too old for the system. Of the 26,000 young people who are aged out every year, many end up homeless or incarcerated. Hungry for God Home seeks to take these young men in, encourage them, support them and help them lead fulfilling lives. This home has fallen on some hard times...consider giving either time or money this Advent Season

Monday, November 14, 2011

Half-hearted prayers answered wholly

Specifically answered prayers are big victories for me. I love Jesus but sometimes I feel as if I'm walking the path He's laid out for me on my own. I wander through life and ask Holy Spirit for help with big decisions, guidance, assurance, etc, but rarely do I have those moments of solid, beautiful realization. The moments where God is so close that every part of my body and Being responds accordingly. The moments when the hairs on my arm stand up on end, tears fall freely from my eyes and I feel full to overflowing.

This morning I prayed that I would be even more smitten with Jesus. I've gotten into the bad habit of assuming my prayers will not be answered...or at least not in the way I want them to be answered. I wake up in the morning with half-hearted words already on my lips. They are half-hearted not because my whole heart does not ache for their fulfillment, but because only half of my heart holds out hope that they will. God is mysterious and despite my lack of faith, I prefer Him that way.

But today my prayer was answered in the simplest of ways. As I was sending off emails and dealing with the mundane details of my life, a song came on Pandora that I had almost forgotten about. I was immediately bowled over again at the joy found in these words. Listen to it and let your heart be overwhelmed with the beauty of the God who created us.

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song,
The joy of my heart. and the boast of my tongue;
Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affections, and bound my soul fast. 
Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here;
Sin would reduce me to utter despair;
But, through Thy free goodness, my spirits revive,
And He that first made me still keeps me alive. 
Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart;
Dissolved by Thy goodness, I fall to the ground,
And weep to the praise of the mercy I’ve found. 
Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son;
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On giving and sacrifice

Boyfriend and I got into a (somewhat heated) discussion about giving and the slippery slope of guilt that inevitably comes with being an affluent, American Christian (at least compared to the majority of the world). I'd love to say that my mentality is always, "I can't spend $300 on a pair of boots! Some people don't even have shoes!", but I obviously don't always think that way. All you have to do is look at my lifestyle to know that there are certain areas that I find I can easily justify spending more than what I need to spend. And that really was the crux of the problem we were discussing; it's easy enough to say we should only live on what we need, but if I followed that to the letter I'd be living in a box with a few sweaters and some ramen noodles.

I have actually had this same conversation with multiple people in the past. Generally we come to the consensus that God does not have a hard and fast rule about giving that applies to every person and every situation. Rather, He requires of us only that we be open to giving (and maybe giving radically) if He calls us to do so. I think there is merit in this conclusion, but I don't think it goes far enough.

The Bible has a lot to say about money and giving and most of the time what it has to say is quite jarring and counter-intuitive. In Luke 21:1-4 we see the story of the Widow's Offering. Many wealthy people were giving lavish gifts out of their resources, but all the Widow had to offer was two copper coins. Yet Jesus said she had actually put in more than all the others because she had given out of her poverty. It was a sacrifice for her to give. And then we have the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:2-4: "In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people." The Macedonians considered it a joy to be able to sacrifice their own comfort in order to serve the body of Christ. 

So we are beginning to see here an emerging theme. Instead of being commended for their willingness to give, all these people were commended for their sacrifice in giving. This is fitting of our call as Christians to follow Jesus where He leads. If we're following Jesus, where will that ultimately lead us? What was the culmination of Christ's life on earth? It was His sacrifice, His self-giving, his love. According to Richard Beck (on his brilliant blog yesterday), love at its core, is courage in the face of death and neediness. In his explanation he quotes from Arthur McGill's book, "Death and Life: An American Theology":
[The love which is proclaimed in many churches] carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love as helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self. They speak of love as if the person who is loving had no problems, no needs...[The] proclamation is heard everywhere today. They say to people: "Since you have no unanswered needs, why don't you go out and help the other people who are in need?" But they never go on to add "If you do this, you too will be driven into need." By not stating the outcome of love they give the childish impression that Christian love is some kind of cornucopia where we can meet everybody's needs and problems and still have everything we need for ourselves!...Too often in our churches we hear the gospel of love without the gospel of need. Too often we hear the lie that to love is to help others without this help having any effect upon ourselves....The only love that has anything to do with Jesus Christ is a love that has no fear of need, of neediness, of poverty.

This definition of love sounds a little intense, but does it require of every Christian their living out of a box, eating ramen noodles? Probably not. What it does require is that our giving be done in love, which is by default, sacrifice. What does this look like for each individual person? I don't know. But I do know that if my giving, whether time, money or resources, doesn't cost anything for me then there is likely not much love in it. My desire is that I would cultivate in my heart a readiness towards self-giving. It doesn't mean I won't ever get to enjoy little things ever again...after all, God is a good gift giver...but it does mean I will be looking for ways to live on less so others may experience more.

What do you think? What does God require of us when it comes to giving?
In what tangible ways can we cultivate a readiness for sacrifice?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The "In or Out" Gospel

How does one become a Christian? What marks you as one? Growing up I was told that I had to "believe and confess" that I was a sinner but that Jesus died to take away my sins. Practically this worked itself out as me saying the sinner's prayer with my parents at the kitchen table. Now was I a Christian? Maybe. But I certainly didn't understand all that it entailed. Later in life I began identifying my first mission trip as the point of real conversion. This was the point where I was jolted out of the illusion that I was the center of the universe; the point where I finally saw people and realized there was an actual need for a Savior.

But if you look at all of the above statements they revolve around one idea: that you must believe and understand correctly to be a Believer. I believed I was a sinner at age 6, even though I didn't understand all the implications. At 13 in the Dominican Republic I finally understood that we were hopeless without Jesus. In the Christian walk, whether we come right out and say it or not, believing/understanding equals inclusion in the faith. After all, this is the definition of orthodoxy: "orthos" meaning right or true and "praxy" meaning belief.

Over the years I have grown dissatisfied with this idea as a means to identify other Christians. As someone who loves to read theology and philosophy, I'm always pushing further and further into belief. As truth makes itself evident to me, my beliefs change accordingly. But not everyone is on the same track. I know people who love Jesus yet hold certain doctrines that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. As I'm sure they would say the same about me. Then you have Christians living in the underground church in China who only possess a small section of the Bible and the Holy Spirit to live on, whose faith is stronger than mine may ever be. I also know people who don't read theology at all, who believe the same things they were taught as a child and are completely content to continue doing so. I cannot doubt their love for the Lord and yet I know we will never believe all the same things.

And what are the "things"? What are the "main and plain", as my Aunt once asked me? I'm not actually going to answer that question here, not only because I don't feel qualified to do so, but because there is another point I'm driving at. And that is how our emphasis on right belief changes how we present the full, living, Gospel of Christ to "unbelievers" (as we commonly call them).

I want to make a quick disclaimer: I am not trying to downplay the importance of right belief. I wouldn't read theology at all if I thought that it didn't matter what you believe. My point here is to show that right belief is an inadequate way to label and categorize "Believers" from "unbelievers". Not only do I think this an inadequate way to categorize people, I think it does damage to the ultimate mission of every Christian: to proclaim the Good News to people who don't know it, that they are loved by God.

Consider these two methods of invitation into the the Life in Christ found in "The Tangible Kingdom Primer":
-Unbeliever is invited to church
-Unbeliever confesses belief
-Unbeliever repeats a prayer
-Believer joins church
-Cognitive discipleship focus: counting confessions
-Believing enables belonging

-Sojourner is invited to belong
-Sojourner confesses interest
-Sojourner experiences the good news
-Sojourner participates in community
-Experiential apprenticeship focus: transformation
-Belonging enables believing

In the incarnational approach believing is still a vital part of life, but the focus has shifted. This is the good news of the Gospel, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! In other words: while we still didn't believe all the right things, God invited us to be forgiven! While we were still fumbling our way through this life, God asked us to join him in His Life. How much would this change the way we encounter our family and friends who don't know Him yet if we would just let it? I fear we, myself included, have reduced the Gospel to an "in or out" mentality, when the good news is for everyone RIGHT NOW.

How can we create a relational environment in which sojourners can belong so they can feel and see  aspects of the Gospel lived out?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I'd rather dance

My view of God has exploded over the last few years. It's been a gradual progression but I do remember waking up one morning to the realization that God no longer fit into my field of vision. He does not stay put. The ink I use to write about Him will inevitably bleed out and transform into something grander. He is more loving than I could have imagined. And best of all, His dreams for us are bolder and more radical than I ever thought they might be. They will not be chained or shackled by our own small interpretations of Scripture, of God's Story. His dreams are screaming to be realized in our lives if we will let them.

My spiritual growth has not come without a price, not without many deaths of ideas and notions that I held too dear. God has graciously loosened my grip on some of the thinking that held me in chains. I had to put to death the idea that somehow, someday I would have all the answers about God.. I've had to put to death the foul idea that nothing can be known about Him outside of the Bible. I've allowed myself to dare to dream that God might actually be more  loving than I imagine. Each of these things has loosened my chains little by little, but lately I've found myself entangled in a new chain. I have had to fight cynicism on a daily basis so God can remain huge in my feeble view of Him. It's hard for me to look at my old way of life without feeling cynical and judgmental. Even though the process of getting me where I am took years, for some reason I expect everyone to be on the same page as me right now. How is it possible for me to experience a revitalization of my own life (even in spite of my stubborn heart) and look at the same God who did the work and not trust that He is capable of doing the same for someone else?

So I've been obsessively listening to the new Gungor album, Ghosts Upon the Earth. No joke- just over and over and over again. You know when an album comes along at just the right time, with all the right words?
Anyways, I was reading the band's thoughts about what went into each song and a few things stood out to me regarding my battle with cynicism. Lisa Gungor explains a scenario similar to mine:
"It felt as though we were meager little ants who were discovering that the traditional way of digging into the earth is bogus.  But in spite of the discovery, we were still forced to succumb to the great ant tradition – clawing and scraping, shoving dirt into our mouth and spitting it out again."
I realized the way I was doing life, the way I was worshipping God, the way I was "loving" people was all wrong. And yet each morning I woke up with a fresh day, a new batch of questions and the realization that I am still a part of this forward motion. I'm still a cog in the clockwork. I must join the great cloud of Saints who continued to strive to live a better Way. Michael Gungor continues by talking about his own cynicism:
"Instead of allowing all of your unanswered questions to fully consume your joy, just enjoy the dance.  To me, that’s largely what faith has become. Yes, I have my doubts and questions and everything else, but at the end of the day, it’s not what questions I have in my mind but whether I’m going to join the dance or sit on the outside and sneer.  I’d rather dance. "
What are you cynical about today; what are you jaded about? Is it politics? The church? Your job? Life in general?  Whatever it is, don't allow it to chain you anymore. Keep walking. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Join the dance, even if it makes you a fool.  Allow your jaded heart to be healed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

remember that time when I actually blogged? that was awesome

So it's been a while since I've posted on here. A few major and minor things and a whole lot of laziness lead to my reprieve from the blogging world. I started finding it hard to come up with an edge to any of the ideas I had for posts. I also started kind of this boy- so you know, there's that. Actually, there's just been a lot of  transition in my life that, I admit, would have probably made for some good blogging. But ultimately, I needed the chance to just transition without scheming how I could turn it into a hilarious little anecdote that would boost my readership. So even though it will probably be boring to most, I will give a brief recap of the past few months as a way to say, "I'm baaaaaaack!" before we get back to regular blogging. Who doesn't love a good recap?

1. So there's this boy...he's pretty cute and nice and after years of being branded "SINGLE" on Facebook, I have made the switch to "In a relationship". As Boyfriend has heard many times since we started dating, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing." I don't know how to date. I don't know the right things to say in every situation. I don't know how to include someone else in the personal world that I've done JUST fine running on my own up until now. I don't know how to walk in high heeled shoes without looking like a man would if he had to wear high heeled shoes. But despite all these things I'm having fun, and I am learning. Boyfriend and I are a lot the same on things and a lot different on other things, but he's being pretty gracious and patient as I figure everything out...not to mention how many serious talks I've made him sit through. Expect a post soon about how the checklist that was mandatory in almost every church youth group I ever attended has made dating harder than necessary. You know, the one where you make a list of all the things you want in a husband? Yea that one.

2. My job is ending. I've been a nanny for five years, almost three of which were with my current family. And now the mother is quitting her job to stay at home and I'm moving on. I've been gearing up to move on from nannying for a while, but now the trigger is actually being pulled and I still don't know what the next step is. I want to do something I'm passionate about, but that pesky little fact that I never went to college is rearing it's ugly head.

3. I've started work on my own to promote child sponsorships for a Thai-run children's shelter in Chiang Mai that houses kids pulled from the sex trade. This is something I've been wanting to get involved in for a while but have only just started following through on. Coincidentally, this is something I would really love to do as a career. Expect a post soon detailing what is currently happening in the global sex trade and how it has so profoundly broken my heart.

4. God has still been relatively silent. But I have had some sweet times of communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ that have done much to re-energize me and stoke the little ember of faith in my heart. My community has been my lifeline as I've walked through the desert of doubt- truly a representation of Christ in the flesh to me.  And Jesus is still just as beautiful.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Dark Cloud of Unknowing

If you've read this blog even just a little bit, it's easy to pick up that I struggle greatly with my ability to have faith when it comes to knowing God. The truth is, it has been a long time, maybe years since I have clearly felt or heard the voice of God in an irrefutable way. Radio silence. And yet I cannot seem to abandon Him, or is it He won't abandon me? Either way, I find myself in a holding pattern. A frustratingly long holding pattern. I haven't known how to proceed. How do I keep praying without doing it out of mere obligation and guilt? How do I read the Bible without disintegrating into a quivering heap of questions in the corner of my room? How am I to relate to my Christian friends who ARE hearing from God?

As I've been slowly savoring my way through The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, a desire has sprung up in me to begin practicing contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is a discipline in silencing the self in order to make room to just be with God. Contrary to my original hopes, it's almost never a spiritual experience. It does not promise an encounter with God, it does not promise my questions answered. Contemplative prayer is a call to relinquish all control...something which I unfortunately hold onto, white knuckled. "God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control, every need to astound. The presence of God may, as often as not, be perceived as an absence. God is revealed in what others may blithely disregard as a barren nothingness."

Sam Keen, a noted author and philosopher, hits the nail on the head when he says:
A psychoanalysis of chatter would suggest that our over-verbalization is an effort to avoid something which is fearful- silence. But why should silence be threatening? Because words are a way of structuring, manipulating, and controlling; thus, when they are absent the specter of loss of control arises. If we cannot name it, we cannot control it. Naming gives us power. Hence, silence is impotence, the surrender of control. Control is power and power is safety.
At the heart of contemplative prayer is a deep longing for God alone. This is hard. I come to God in prayer with frantic requests for my friends, for me. I tell Him what I want from Him. Ironically, despite the fact that my petitions are mostly selfish in nature, the thing I want most is just Him. I talk and talk and I ask and I ask because hearing my own voice is at least better then hearing nothing at all. But at my core I only want Him; sometimes so badly that sometimes it's a physical ache. Far from making me apathetic, His silence only makes me long for Him more. My mind may only grasp at the edges of God but my heart beats fully, painfully for Him. Belden Lane continues in Solace...
"A dark cloud always separates the believer from her deepest desire, a God beyond the reach of human reason. It is a frustrating darkness through which the mind cannot see, yet it serves to intensify the longing for that which is loved. The only way the thick cloud can be pierced is by a 'sharp dart of longing love,' by utterly forgetting oneself in the quest for what is loved above everything else....The ego is relinquished, along with its constant flow of chatter and illusion of control, so that love may happen. Love, after all, is the only way God can be known." soon as I move into my new house and get my own room again (and turn it into my "hidey hole of peace and tranquility"), I will begin the practice of contemplative prayer. I don't know what to expect.  In fact, I think I'm going to try and have no expectations at all. I'm ready to meet with God, even if that means silence, in a place bigger than the pitiful space I've carved out for Him.

Have you ever practiced contemplative prayer? What happened/didn't happen?