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Watutu!

Recently I asked an acquaintance about the meaning of the word inscribed on her license plate. A license plate with the word "WATUTU!" on itMary explained that “Watutu” was not Swahili, as I had guessed, but what her young son had said when he was trying to learn how to say, “I love you.” Then she mentioned an uncomfortable encounter she once had regarding her personalized license plate. One day someone she didn’t know accosted her in a parking lot and began reaming her out, taking the word Watutu for a slur. Mary was taken off guard by the woman’s anger, since the word had no other meaning than what her son had accorded it. Perhaps that angry woman had just been itching for a fight.

Shortly after our conversation I was standing in the customer service line at the local grocery store. In front of me was an elderly woman carrying a package of Van de Kamp’s frozen fish. When she got to the counter, she pulled out the receipt for her groceries and pointed to the letters “vdk.” “I want to return this because it has vodka in it,” she informed the clerk. The startled clerk looked at the receipt and then pointed out that “vdk” did not stand for vodka but rather for the brand. After the woman left, I couldn’t help speculating. She must have been horrified to think that the store had been hawking vodka-injected fish. Or worse yet, perhaps she’d been buying Van de Kamp’s fish for many years, unknowingly imbibing the whole time.

The two incidents reminded me that in our world misunderstandings abound. Sometimes they spice things up by adding a little hilarity, as in the case of the frozen fish, but at other times they subtract from the peace, as in the case of the license plate. Perhaps we would all experience more peace if we were to make a habit of giving others the benefit of the doubt, remembering that Watutu simply means, “I love you.”   More

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Spiritual Plasticity

Until recently, scientists believed that injuries to the brain could not be healed. If you had a stroke, for instance, the common practice was to offer rehabilitative services only on a short-term basis because long-term therapies were thought to offer little hope. Now all that has changed. Research has shown that the brain is not static but plastic, meaning that with the right kind of exercise and stimulation, it has the ability to change and heal itself.An image of the network neurons in the brain

Based on these findings about the brain, a rehabilitation program has been developed that offers great promise for people with brain injuries or learning deficits. In this type of therapy, patients complete a series of finely honed exercises designed to stimulate specific areas of their brains. These exercises are designed to strengthen areas of weakness in their brains. Day after day, by faithfully challenging weaker areas of the brain, the patients form new neural pathways until eventually many of them are able to gain cognitive function. Though the program can be tedious, it’s hard to argue with its remarkable results.

Perhaps we need a spiritual version of this kind of brain therapy—one that can help our spirits grow stronger as we seek to follow the Lord. Come to think of it, perhaps we already have something like that. It’s called obedience. I have to admit that obedience has never been my favorite word. It’s sometimes tedious and often difficult. In many cases I’d much rather do what I want to do instead of what God wants me to do. Obedience challenges me spiritually to become the person God wants me to be. The more I obey, the stronger and more spiritually mature I will become because obedience creates pathways in my soul for God to work.

Like our brains, our spirits are capable of incredible growth and healing. If we want God’s shalom to characterize our lives, we have to be willing to obey him.  More

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The Guilt Train

Several years ago I took the train from Grand Rapids to Chicago to enjoy a day of shopping. A trip that would have taken three hours by car stretched into a five-and-a-half-hour journey. Mile after agonizing mile, we crawled along, watching cars whiz past on the highway. I felt disappointed, knowing that my time in Chicago would be cut short.

Like the slow train to Chicago, the guilt train has its share of passengers. At times we may find ourselves stuck on that train, afraid we will never get off. When that happens, we can remember that guilt is supposed to be a symptom of something wrong inside. Its function is to alert us to the presence of sin so we can take that sin to God and receive his forgiveness. But sometimes we wallow in the guilt, perhaps because we think we need to punish ourselves before God will take us back.

As Philip Yancey points out, “Guilt is not a state to cultivate or a mood you slip into for a few days. It sa train pulling by a station platformhould have directional movement, first pointing backward to the sin and then pointing forward to change. A person who feels no guilt can never find healing. Yet neither can a person who wallows in guilt. The sense of guilt only serves its designed purpose as a symptom if it presses us toward a cure.”(1)

Feeling guilty all the time? Ask yourself what’s behind those feelings. If you find that you are always feeling guilty about behavior that’s not sinful, confide in a mature Christian friend or counselor who may be able to help you break the habit. If you have done something wrong, ask God’s forgiveness and make steps toward changing. Whatever you do, remember that a ride on the guilt train isn’t supposed to take that long. Make a decision now to get off at the first possible stop.    More

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(1)  Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2003), 147.

Praying for Peace

Streams in the Desert is a classic devotional, still going strong after more than eighty years. Perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity is that each day speaks words of encouragement to people who are distressed or suffering. Take this entry, for example, which addresses the topic of seemingly unanswered prayers. “Often it is simply the answer to our prayers that cause many of the difficulties in the Christian life. . . . We pray to the Lord, as His apostles did, saying, ‘Increase our faith!’ (Luke 17:5). Then our money seems to take wings and fly away; our children become critically ill; an employee becomes careless, slow, and wasteful; or some other new trial comes upon us, requiring more faith than we have ever before experienced.”(1)

It’s enough to make a person stop praying! When I wrote a book entitled The Peace God Promises, I should have known better. As I told friends afterward, I wrote the book in what became the least peaceful season of my life. One after the other, the crises kept mounting. Pleading for God’s help, I couldn’t help wondering whether he was pulling some kind of celestial joke on me.Turbulent stormy skies

If I could have set the tone for those months of “promised peace,” I would have been sitting on a beach somewhere enjoying perfect serenity. But in that setting, would I have had to wrestle so hard with the promises of peace that God has made to his people? Would I have been so keenly aware of my own need as I sat down to write every day? If God’s promises are real, if his truths are robust, then surely they should help me in my time of need. In fact, they did, though perhaps not always as soon as I wanted them to nor exactly how I had expected them to.

In the months that have followed, God’s peace has become more tangible to me than ever, though I can’t trace exactly how this happened. That’s why I would urge you not to give up, even if you have been seeking God’s peace and finding only turmoil. It may be God is answering your prayers in the only way that will yield more peace in your life in the years ahead.  More

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(1)  L. B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 192.

The Places That Scare You

Pema Chodron is the author of The Places That Scare You. An American Buddhist, she writes about the things that frighten us most, offering an Eastern take on how to deal with these. “We know that all is impermanent, we know that everything wears out,” she says. “We don’t like it that we age. We are afraid of wrinkles and sagging skin.”(1)  Instead of denying the truth about the impermanence of life, she suggests that we “relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.”(2)  While there’s some merit inwrinkles what she says, ultimately Buddhism doesn’t offer much consolation in the face of our own mortality.

How can we find true peace in the midst of our fears? As Christians, we can “relax into” the obvious truth of change because we have a Savior who will never abandon us. Instead of leaving us alone, he will show us the way through the places that scare us. But just how does he do that? Remember that Jesus is called the Word of God. He’s God’s message about what is real, true, and good. That means everything about him—his words, his actions, his reactions, his miracles, and his parables—communicates God and his plan to us. As the one who is also called the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2, NIV), Jesus blazes the way ahead, showing us both how to live and how to die.

In the end, we find courage not because we have discovered a method of dealing with our fears but because we have found a person who can help us overcome them. He’s the one who will lead us, wrinkles and all, safely home.    More

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(1) Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You (Boston: Shambala Publications, 2002), 18.

(2) Ibid., 19.

Blessing the Darkness

Larry Crabb says that we find God only when we need him. Simple words, but true. It’s like looking for the light switch in a dark room. No one goes searching for it until the sunlight has gone. Similarly, darkness can impel our search for God.

Several years ago I met the last survivor pulled from the wreckage after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. During our time together, Genelle Guzman-McMillan told me a story about flirting with faith but choosing to live without it. Then, on September 11, her world fell apart and she found herself in complete darkness, buried alive under a mountain of rubble.

“God, you’ve got to help me!” she prayed, lying beneath a stairwell. “You’ve got to show me a sign, show me a miracle, give me a second chance. Please save my life . . . and I promise I will do your will.”(1)

What shocked me most about Genelle’s story was not that she managed to survive after the North Tower collapsed on top of her but how she reflected on that experience. She told me she thanked God for it because it was a wake-up call. In the midst of impenetrable darkness, she discovered his light.

We, too, have foulightnd the light that is our salvation. Even so, there are times when we hit patches of darkness, when we don’t know what to do, when we feel challenged beyond our strength. Difficult as it can be to navigate our way through the darkness, it is precisely in the midst of it that we can find God.

Rather than giving in to the gloom that threatens us or those we love, let’s allow it to press us toward God, believing that he is near, whether or not we sense his presence. As Larry Crabb points out, “When we seek him with a stronger passion than we seek anything else (such as solutions or relief), we will find him. . . . After a long fall through darkness, we will land on the truth of his eternal, almighty, and loving character, and will believe he is always up to something good.”(2)     More

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(1)  Genelle’s remarkable story is told in Jim Cymbala, Breakthrough Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 69.

(2) Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 179.

 

Play Your Part

Any thestagespian worth her salt knows about the importance of preparation. You begin by memorizing your lines, imagining the scene, acting it out. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the first rehearsal. But when you make your entrance, everything goes haywire—apparently you’ve memorized the wrong part! The director stops the play to inquire just who you think you are and what you think you are saying. The whole thing is confusing, embarrassing, and frustrating. You’ve worked so hard and only succeeded in messing things up.

That’s a very rough analogy to convey what can happen in our own lives when we get our part of the story wrong, taking on a role God never asked us to play. When we come into relationship with Christ, we realize he is the main character in the story of salvation. That means he is also at the center of our personal stories. With the knowledge that we belong to Christ, we forsake the deep selfishness that once characterized us.

Even so, a funny thing can happen over the course of time. Some of us begin to lose our grip on the story we believe in. Forgetting who the Hero is, we begin to act and think as though everything depends on us and very little on God. Instead of rehearsing what Christ has done for us by committing his promises to memory, for instance, we begin to rehearse all the wrong lines—“I’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that promotion” or “God couldn’t possibly save my marriage” or “God must not love me because he hasn’t answered my prayers the way I asked him to.” Lines like these will cause us to mess up.

The good news about messing up, of course, is that doing so may help us wake up to the fact that we’ve forgotten the big story that should guide our lives. If you’ve nudged Jesus into a minor role in your life, ask God’s forgiveness, telling him you want the show to go on—but this time with Christ in the lead.  More

Just So

It’s easy to think that peace comes from having everything just so. A clean house. Clean children. Everything and everyone in their proper place. Consider a couple of postings on a blog entitled I Am Neurotic:

Every file, folder, song, picture, etc., must be alphabetized and spelled correctly before booksMessyI can open the file. If I find them uncorrected I will spend the rest of my free time assorting and respelling every file in the computer’s hard drive.(1)

Ever since I started school at 5 years old I have had an obsession with the teacher erasing the chalkboard entirely. Most would rub the eraser around but leave stray lines and continue writing. I would stare at the stray lines and it would drive me crazy the remainder of the class. I would get hot and get headaches. I am 22 years old and in college and nothing has BooksNeatchanged.(2)

If you know anyone who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, you know that his or her life is far from peaceful. But what does any of this have to do with the ordinary, run-of-the-mill perfectionist? Only this—that our search for peace will never bear fruit if we insist on trying to control all the unruly bits and pieces of our lives.

If you are frustrated because of all the things you can’t control, try bringing them one by one into the presence of the Lord. Ask him to help you sort through the pile, deciding which ones to let go and which ones to hold on to. He can give you wisdom and grace to deal with the things in your life that are threatening your peace.  More

(1) “Musical Order,” I Am Neurotic (blog), June 6, 2008, http://iamneurotic.com/2008/06/06/musical-order.

(2) “Clean Chalkboard = Sane Students,” I Am Neurotic (blog), April 19, 2011,http://iamneurotic.com/2008/06/18/clean-chalk-board-sane-students.

Faith Will Take You Places

The life of faith is meant to be active, dynamic, and adventurous, not dull, suffocating, and restrictive. Some people say that faith isA boy riding a bicycle on the beach a verb. I like to think of it as a bike with large, sturdy wheels. As with most bikes, this one only works when you climb on and start pedaling. In other words, you have to do something with the faith you’ve been given if you want it to take you where God is leading.

Scripture tells us that we have to stand firm in faith, live by faith, receive by faith, continue in faith, contend for the faith, put on faith, hold on to faith, keep faith, share faith, and conquer through faith. You get the picture. In order to be the kind of people God wants us to be, do the kinds of things he wants us to do, and live the kind of life he created us for, we need to act on the faith we have. Yes, there are times when we need to be still, when we need to wait patiently for God’s direction. But even then, faith goes into action, enabling us to trust that God will speak to us as we come to him in prayer and that he will lead us when we seek his guidance.

Do you want to live a fruitful life? Do you want to experience God? Do you want to become more like the Jesus you love? Then say good-bye to comfort and ease and safety and doing everything your way, and say hello to a life of faith and adventure. Tell the Lord you’re tired of straddling the fence and living like everyone around you, caught up with worldly cares and concerns. Tell him you can’t go on without a living, vital faith. Ask him today to help you respond in faith to whatever he asks. Then put your faith into action by believing he will answer that prayer.   More

What the Heart Believes

Numerous clinical studies have shown a strong brain-body connection, indicating that what our brains think can significantly impact our health. A few years ago, an experiment was conducted in which professional actors spent a day working on one of two scenes—either an upbeat one or a depressing one. At the end of the day, researchers measured the actors’ immune responsiveness. Guess what? Actors who spent the day working on the uplifting scene showed increased immune responsiveness, while actors assigned to the sad scene showed decreased responsiveness.1

It strikes me that faith has a similar power to influence our spiritual health. By making the comparison, I am not implying that faith is merely a matter of positive thinking. It’s not. Faith is a divine gift that enables us to perceive the truth and respond accordingly. It gives meaning and purpose to the universe and our place in it. As Paul says, those who belong to Christ walk by faith and not by sight. It is faith that enables us to take hold of the truest and most important story in the world—the one that God is telling. Faith puts us smacheartk-dab in the middle of the narrative because we are part of Christ’s body and the story of salvation is still unfolding.

Of course, the life of faith has its share of anguish and difficulty. Exercising our faith does not always feel uplifting. But ultimately, faith is what fuels our hope and enables us to perceive what God is doing in the world. It is also what gives meaning to our struggles and confers value on our obedience. In the end, what our hearts believe is what will most significantly impact our sense of God’s peace. More

(1) Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 144.