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Alone With Ourselves?

A statue of a young girl prayingWhy is it so hard for many of us to carve out a regular time for prayer? I suspect it has something to do with our drive to accomplish things combined with our fear of loneliness. Most of us find it far easier to rush around “getting things done” than to sit still even for a few moments with no other goal in mind than opening our hearts to God. When we do manage to pray, fears we have kept at bay by our constant activity may rush in. A thousand distracting thoughts may take hold. We can feel empty and alone, wondering why God seems elusive. We fill up the silence with constant petitions or chattering thoughts or nonstop spiritual reading, thinking we are the ones who have to control and direct the time.

Prayer, of course, is not meant to be a task we check off our lists but a time for being with the God we love. But what if we are afraid he won’t show up, validating our fears that we are unloved, unworthy, and unlistened to? Perhaps the first thing to do is to simply surrender that fear to God, imagining ourselves in his presence. Instead of lingering on our negative feelings or on the distractions that try to take hold, we simply let go of them, gently lifting our hearts to God. It may be helpful to pray through a brief Scripture passage, lingering on God’s Word as we pray it back to him.

Spending a few minutes this way each day will increase our appetites for prayer because we will find God is faithful and leads us in surprising ways. As we spend time in his presence, God may give us the courage to face ourselves truthfully, without harshness or condemnation. He may open our minds to his thoughts. He may give us his heart for others. Whatever God does within us and through us will be good, because it will be accomplished in love and for love.

The more we pray in this way, the more surprised we will be to look back on our formerly prayerless lives and discover that it was we, and not God, who had sometimes failed to show up.   More

(Image courtesy of joejoe77 at freeimages.com)

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Push, Push, Push!

A climber on a steep cliffI don’t understand the popularity of extreme sports. You will never see me schlepping a pack up K2 or scrambling up Mt. Everest’s icy peaks. Nor will you find me bouncing up and down at the end of a bungee cord or climbing into an Indy race car. The most dangerous sport you’ll catch me at will probably be Mario Kart. To my way of thinking, life is challenging enough without taking on an activity that could, with one miscalculation, end in death or maiming.

Why do some people find such joy in pushing the limits? Is it the rush they get from flirting with danger? Is it the feeling that they are somehow bigger than life or the belief that ordinary rules don’t apply to them?

Though most of us don’t engage in extreme sports, many of us have made pushing the limits a habit. We sleep less so we can do more. Push, push, push has become an American mantra. Unfortunately, it has also added tremendous stress to our lives.

Wayne Muller points out that “we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows . . . seasons and sunsets and great movements of seas and stars. . . . We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms. . . .

“To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself.”1

If you are living a rush, rush life, ask yourself why. Are you willing to pay the cost of regularly ignoring the God-given rhythms by which creation operates? Find a way to slow down and “surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies” so that as one of God’s creatures you can savor the secret of life.   More

1. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 69.

(Image courtesy of Cristinica at freeimages.com)

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Doubt Your Doubts

A dark tunnel with a light entrance at the endTimothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, advises Christians that “faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” He says, “People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. . . . It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them.”1

By saying this, I don’t think Keller is saying we should doubt God’s faithfulness whenever we encounter difficulty. This brand of doubting makes us weak, leading, as it does, to unbelief. Instead, Keller is arguing for a kind of intellectual honesty that requires us to grapple with hard questions in a way that will make our faith stronger, not weaker.

Keller has also famously advised skeptics to doubt their doubts about Christianity. Perhaps it would also be wise to advise the weakest among us to begin to doubt our doubts about God’s character. God says he is a loving Father, and we act as though we are orphans. God reveals himself as all-powerful, but we don’t think he can help us. God tells us he forgives, and we cling to our guilt.

The reason for our doubts? Sister Wendy Beckett archly observes that many who call themselves Christians may well have embraced a false god. “Sometimes I blush for those who think themselves Christian,” she says, “and yet the God they worship is cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful. Who could love such a God?”

She goes on to say, “I have the greatest admiration for atheists, because by definition they have rejected a false ‘God.’2 Her point, of course, is not that atheists are right in rejecting God, but that they are at least right in rejecting a caricature of God that contains more shadows than light. Though the God we love will always be mysterious, we can be sure of one thing—in him there is no darkness at all.   More

1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), xvi.

2. Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy on Prayer (New York: Harmony Books, 2006), 83.

(Image courtesy of  SailorJohn at freeimages.com)

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Perspective

Half of a walnut shellPerhaps you’ve heard of Bethany Hamilton, the thirteen-year-old surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. Her story is told in the movie Soul Surfer. Early on, we see Bethany attending a youth night at her church. Youth leader Sarah Hill, played by Carrie Underwood, is showing the group a series of zoomed-in photos, challenging them to guess what they’re looking at. When the second photo pops up on the screen, one of the boys guesses it’s a “dead, rotting brain.” While the teens are busy voicing their revulsion, Sarah zooms out, revealing the truth. They hadn’t been viewing anything half as gross as a rotting brain. It was merely an ordinary walnut. Sarah’s point was that when you’re too close to what’s happening, it can be tough to have perspective.

Remember the old saying “Time heals”? Time has the power to put distance between us and the circumstances that caused our suffering. Though distance can’t erase our suffering, it can help us stand back a bit, enabling us to see a bigger picture. Often the only way to get to that bigger picture is by clinging to God, refusing to believe he has abandoned us. We also get there by listening for his voice, by reading his Word and praying, and by staying in touch with other believers who can support us through it.

When interviewed about the movie, Carrie Underwood later commented on how impressed she was when she met the real Bethany. “She didn’t ask, ‘Why me?’” Carrie noted, “but ‘What for?’”

Anyone who has suffered some kind of tragedy knows that “Why me?” questions aren’t off the table. God allows them. But often he doesn’t answer them. If you want an answer, the more productive question to ask is “What for?”

Bethany’s answer to her own “What for?” question about the shark attack was shaped by the intense media response to her story. To reporters who asked how she could respond so positively to what had happened, she simply replied, “I could never have embraced this many people with two arms.”   More

(Image courtesy of hisks at freeimages.com)

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Gutsy Guilt

I yelled at my daughter the other day. Truth be told, it wasn’t the first time. Though I want to become a more peaceful mom, I often find my own sin getting in the way. Like me, you may have sinful habits and patterns that get in the way of enjoying the peace God promises. Some of these may plunge you into prolonged periods of guilt. How can you remain confident of God’s fatherly love, despite your own frequent failings? John Piper has an interesting take on this problem.

To the fallen saint who knows the darkness is self-inflicted and feels the futility of looking for hope from a frowning judge, the Bible gives a shocking example of gutsy guilt. It pictures God’s failed prophet beneath a righteous frown, bearing his chastisement with brokenhearted boldness:A sad girl looking up

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light.  Micah 7:8-9, ESV

This is courageous contrition. Gutsy guilt. The saint has fallen. The darkness of God’s indignation is on him. He does not blow it off, but waits. And he throws in the face of his accuser the confidence that his indignant judge will plead his cause and execute justice for (not against) him. This is the application of justification to the fallen saint. Brokenhearted, gutsy guilt.1

Join me in admitting that you’re not a perfect person—that you have sins and failings too. As you do that, make a promise to yourself and to God that the next time you stumble, you will not wallow in guilt. Let’s accept God’s discipline, realizing that he is acting as a good father should. Instead of giving in to the enemy’s lies, let’s throw them back in his face, trusting in God’s unfailing love.   More

(1)  John Piper, quoted in Josh Etter, “Learn the Secret of Gutsy Guilt,” Desiring God (blog), accessed May 13, 2011, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/learn-the-secret-of-gutsy-guilt.

(Image courtesy of Morleys at freeimages.com)

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Fear Not!

A large spiderWhat are you afraid of? Your children getting kidnapped? A stock market crash? Public speaking? Spiders? Snakes? Bedbugs? The dentist? Heights? Failure? Flying? Rejection? Crowds? Darkness? Job loss? Illness? Affliction? Old age? Death? Whether our fears are triggered by creepy crawly creatures, being shut up in small spaces, or things that go bump in the night, all of us are afraid of something.

We know, of course, that some fears can be useful. For instance, if you are approaching a precipice, fear will cause you to stay clear of the edge, preventing a headlong fall. Fear of becoming incapacitated in old age may encourage you to adopt a healthy diet and a more active lifestyle. Fear of failing might motivate you to work harder.

Fear is not a problem unless it begins to control us. Being controlled by anything or anyone but God is a miserable, life-destroying experience. It keeps us locked up in our heads, unable to live the life we were meant to live or use the gifts we’ve been given.

Fortunately, we are not left to battle our fears alone. Pastor Rick Warren points out that there are 365 “Fear nots” in God’s Word—one for every day of the year. It seems obvious, he says, that “God is serious about you trusting Him.” The next time you feel assaulted by fear or anxiety, don’t try to battle it by yourself. Get out your Bible and find one of these verses. Remember that Paul calls God’s Word “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). Take hold of that sword today, and with God’s mighty power, stand strong against the fears that threaten your peace. More

(Image courtesy of mathgeek at freeimages.com.)

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The Gospel is Peace

One person reaching to shake hands with another.Most of us live in a world populated by people who don’t think like us. Either they don’t believe in Jesus at all or they don’t believe in Jesus the way we do. How can we live at peace with others even when our values and aspirations are worlds apart?

I like what John Piper has to say about the importance of daily being “stunned by grace in our lives.” As he told the staff at his church one day, “If we aren’t amazed by grace towards us, we will be a finger-pointing church mainly.” According to Piper, the key is to be more amazed that you are saved than that others are lost.(1)

Though I don’t care for finger pointing in general, I think Piper’s focus offers a healthy antidote to the notion that to get along with others in our multicultural, multi-theological world, you have to throw out your brains and your beliefs in order to pretend that all religions are equally valid.

Because some in the church have been harsh and condemning in their treatment of people who don’t think like they do, it is tempting to conclude that disagreeing is always wrong. Better to keep peace by skirting the issues, pretending they don’t exist. But that would be foolish. Instead of buying into an ideal of political correctness, we need to learn how to contend for the faith in a way that persuades, not merely through the power of our words, but also through the power of the love we put into those words.

Our goal as Christians is not to win arguments but to spread the gospel so that others might join us on the side of marveling at the stunning grace of God.  More

(1) John Piper, “How Do You Remain Humble?,” The Christian Post, May 6, 2011, accessed May 13, 2011, http://www.christianpost.com/news/how-do-you-remain-humble-50129.

(Image courtesy of intuitives at freeimages.com.)

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Don’t Lose Your Mitzvah

Putting a coin in a tzedakah boxOkay, it’s time to learn a little Hebrew. Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that is translated “commandment.” But unlike the word commandment, which may sound onerous to many of us, mitzvah has a positive connotation. Rather than being a dreary burden, doing a mitzvah is more like an opportunity, a chance to bless God and participate in his work by blessing someone else.

Let’s take a look at another Hebrew word: tzedakah. It’s a specific type of mitzvah. The word tzedakah is sometimes translated “charity,” but this is somewhat misleading since tzedakah is considered an obligation—something that justice requires—rather than something people do out of the kindness of their hearts. As with many other ethical matters, Jewish rabbis have had countless discussions regarding the importance of tzedakah, identifying eight degrees of giving. The lowest degree is to give grudgingly. The next degree is to give less than you should but cheerfully. The eighth and highest degree is to give in a way that enables others to support themselves.

Many Jewish people have tzedakah boxes in their houses, where they can set money aside to be given to those in need. The rabbis say it’s not just giving that’s important but how you contribute. Give away your time and money with a smile and an attitude of respect, and you will have done a mitzvah. Give it with disdain, and you will have lost your mitzvah.

As Christians, we are called by God to participate in his work by giving to those in need. It’s a way of spreading his peace, extending it to others. Perhaps you can remind yourself of this opportunity by obtaining your own tzedakah box, depositing money every week that you intend to give to those in need.   More

(Image courtesy of pjlibrary.org.)

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Cumber

A stick figure man trying to pull a heavy loadEver try running when you’re overweight? No fun, is it? The same is true when you’re running the spiritual race Paul speaks of. Imagine trying to run the Boston Marathon in a fat suit while dragging everything you own along with you, and you will get a sense of what I’m talking about. The problem comes down to what the Quakers call “cumber”—the unnecessary accumulation of material goods that clutter our lives and distract us from the things of God.

I like the way Paul speaks about running straight to the goal and having “purpose in every step.” What a way to think about our lives! To be honest, I don’t often think that way. I’m guessing you don’t either. But I want to.

How can we get rid of things that encumber us, that keep us from focusing more of our time and energy on seeking first the Kingdom of God? We can begin by taking time to identify and deal with the things in our lives that make us feel spiritually flabby and overweight.

Even if you only have time for a tiny step today, take it. Do something small—clean out a drawer, give away some clothes; just begin the process. As you lighten your load, you may find it easier to run the spiritual race. Ask God today to help you aim straight at the goal, with purpose in every step.  More

(Image courtesy of nkzs at freeimages.com.)

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The “Speak Wall”

A student reading posts covering the "Speak Wall"“I’m lonelier than you might think.”

“My smile hides a lot about me.”

“I have attempted suicide.”

“All I want is to be loved.”

Students at Grand Rapids Christian High School have posted these and other messages on something called the “Speak Wall.” Unlike social networking sites such as Facebook, this is a literal wall—a place where they can tack up an anonymous note telling the truth about themselves without anyone knowing who they are. Students can also post notes of encouragement in response to another’s gutsy self-disclosure. The story of the eight-hundred-foot wall recently made front-page news in the Grand Rapids Press.(1)

But what is so newsworthy about teenage angst? Perhaps the story hit the press because it occurred at a school with the reputation of catering to students who already have it made. The Speak Wall gives voice to the widespread brokenness of even the most privileged among us.

I wonder what would happen were we to construct a Speak Wall in our churches and workplaces. Would we find similar brokenness? I suspect we would. We might even add our own plaintive notes to the wall.

However you are feeling right now, know that you are not the only one who struggles. Join me in crying out to God, letting prayer become your personal Speak Wall. Pray honestly and with hope for yourself and for others. And then do your best to forge connections with other believers so you can say what’s on your heart—and listen to what’s on theirs.   More

(1) Tom Rademacher, “Students Share All on ‘Speak Wall,’” Grand Rapids Press, May 6, 2011.

(See The Grand Rapids Press story and more images at http://photos.mlive.com/grandrapidspress/2011/05/the_speak_wall.html).

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