From the Outside Looking in

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What’s your current resident status?

“For the first time in years, he felt the deep sadness of exile, knowing that he was alone here, an outsider, and too alert to the ironies, the niceties, the manners, and indeed, the morals to be able to participate.” ― Colm Tóibín, The Master

As a sociologist I’ve been trained to take the perspective of the stranger. To try and see as much taken for granted as I could. When teaching classes, the big challenge is to help students to see all of the powerful influences of their situations, contexts and other people. We are the products of the world in which we live – in very specific ways. For example:

  • Family
  • School
  • Church
  • Friendships
  • Democracy & Freedom
  • Individualism
  • Money, greed and selfishness
  • Even our dreams…

In great ways and terrible ways, our society shapes who we are.

Now for the believer, here’s the irony – we live the transformative process of becoming strangers to this same world that made us (and still does).

I suppose we have to choose how we are going to live:

  1. As natives who remain in the broken garden
  2. Someone who can’t decide where he/she really belongs
  3. As outsiders who refuse to put down roots

Peter writes and urges believers to live here like a foreigner:

Beloved, remember you don’t belong in this world. You are resident aliens living in exile, so resist those desires of the flesh that battle against the soul.   -1 Peter 2:11 (The Voice)

Paul goes into even more detail when he describes the lives of all the men and women of faith who came before Christ. Even they believed that they were living like exiles here on earth, waiting for a real home one day to come:

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.    – Hebrews 11:13-16

When Peter and Paul were writing, they were living in a pagan world. I know theses days it’s sometimes hard to believe, but in the West we live in a culture that over hundreds of years has been dramatically shaped by the Christian faith. This doesn’t mean that our culture isn’t a mess and doesn’t mess people up. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still live like outsiders, anticipating one day our real home.

The daily challenge is to remain conscious of our REAL place in this world:

  • Fully engaged in the world around us (that means in the lives of people who cross your path) and at the same time, living as an immigrant (with no plans to assimilate).
  • Resisting the ever present temptation to “go native” and live in all the frenzy, fear and fuss of this age – believing that what we see with our eyes is all that matters.
  • Using a “long lense” of eternity to gain a perspective on things. The here and now, right this minute, in your face – so much that is urgent but seldom important.

What is your current resident status – are you a full blown citizen of the right now or an immigrant, making the most of your visit?

Where’s the Dentist When You Need One?

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. – I Peter 3:15

I’ve returned today from my third visit to the dentist. I still have my problem. I’m going to have to go back next week and hope it gets resolved. I had no idea that I would have to go through this sort of long and drawn out (month long) ordeal to just get a simple problem resolved. I went in today and was moved through a number of “stations” (not of the cross) thinking I was going to find relief. It wasn’t until I was led out into the office and charged a fee that I realized I not only didn’t get any fries, there was nothing even approaching a happy meal in my hands as I walked out of the building.

Once I stop being mad and frustrated, I try to put this all in perspective. I water the flowers and fix dinner. Think about it some more. After cleaning up and loading the dishwasher it gets a little easier to find that important alignment between everyday experience and some eternal truth.

I’m trying to get the dentist to solve a problem, how many visits is it going to take? I think there are people all around me who are looking for solutions to all kinds of problems. Some of these problems and really big and even eternal. I wonder if anyone looking for some truth has felt like I have trying to get a dentist to solve one little problem? Frustrated and considering just living with it.

“Ah, Misha, he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My wife has cancer. I’ve watched from across the room as she has interacted with total strangers she hasn’t even met. A clerk, healthcare worker, someone at the restaurant. They talk a little about her situation. She tells a little of her story, seasoned with faith, and then I can see eyes begin to fill with tears. I don’t think it’s always sympathy. I think many of these strangers have their own personal story with cancer that somehow relates. My wife has been able to deliver a little hope from out of nowhere.

Just like me, searching for a dentist and experiencing a great deal of frustration, there are people everywhere who can’t find satisfying answers to big questions.

Just like everyone else, there are believers who are in the middle of life with all of its triumph and tragedy. People everywhere, waiting for a kindness from a stranger who will share their life and a word of truth.

“You cannot do a kindness too soon,
for you never know how soon it will be too late.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The End of Another Semester

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

The older I get, I feel as if I’m getting dumber and dumber. I just assumed wisdom automatically came with age.

I attend college graduation ceremonies at the end of each semester. What a celebration they are, every single time. I often remark to friends, as often as I attend, I myself still never seem to graduate.

Each year, I get to see the anticipation and anxiety as students approach the end of another semester and many, their last semester. Graduation from college is a tremendous rite of passage in life. It’s an important doorway into adulthood and so many dreams about the future.

Think of all the other important life passages people pass through:

  • Getting your driver’s license
  • Your first paycheck
  • Graduating high school
  • The first date
  • Marriage
  • Children, one by one
  • The big promotion

The journey of living is one filled with doorways. We pass through them, sometimes prepared but so often uncertain about what lies ahead. I can’t even remember what was going on during my three different college level graduations. It’s almost certain that I’m now in decline – I can’t remember most of last week! I do know that I’m learning lessons again and again – until they become “automatic” and I no longer have to ponder too long at the same crossroads.

“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” ― Mark Twain

When it comes to teaching and mentoring young people who are deliberately marching every day into a bold and frightening future, there are two contradictory lessons to be wrestled with:

  1. We have to pass through one door to proceed to the next. Sometimes this is too difficult for us because a part of us remains in the past with some unfinished business. Sometimes we leave someone important behind, because we need to or because we have no choice. We get stuck and can’t move because a part of us is too wounded to travel any further. There’s just too much pain and change threatens another possibility of hurt.
  2. The only life we are assured of having is the one we hold in our hand today. While dreaming and building a ship to sail on the winds of tomorrow is an important part of who we are – it is still an intangible hope. The risk is losing today and all of its opportunities while we long for the future. We just can’t miss today and all that it holds while peering out the window watching for tomorrow.

Semester after semester, watching all those college graduates strut, stroll and march across the stage to accept their diploma and pose for pictures, I sometimes wonder about what awaits at the other end of the stage. Once the happy family and friends have all left, the next chapter awaits.

Like two sides of the same coin, it’s always a tremendous challenge to balance these two great lessons about living. My wife is now trying to find her post brain surgery balance as she practices walking straight lines. It’s probably a similar feat, keeping one eye on our dreams about tomorrow while still seeking all the blessings in today’s path.

“Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:41

 

A Slow Death

Why should I feel discouraged and why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, a constant Friend is He,
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Civilia D. Martin (1905)

 

A friend shared this week about two of his co-workers who were experiencing the most terrible crises in their lives. A bunch of us prayed with our friend, that he would be enabled as an inspiration and help to his friends during their tribulations.

“If your Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed, for He will provide a deeper portion of Christ in your suffering. The softest pillow will be placed under your head though you must set your bare feet among thorns.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

None of us are really immune from being touched in some way by tragedy. These days, when I bump into monsters in the dark, my question is no longer, “why me?” but instead, “what’s going to happen to me?”

In an earlier post I asked this question about Joseph…

What happened to him during those years in slavery and prison that transformed him into a man who could calmly walk into the court of the most powerful king on earth and bear witness of the power of God?

I was thinking about it again the other day, always reflecting within the boundaries of my own perpetual midlife crisis…when am I going to get out of this quicksand?

Remember, up until the moment Joseph was jumped by his own brothers, beaten and bloodied, dropped into a pit and then sold into slavery…his father had made him the center of their universe. He was younger, didn’t have to work so much, and got to dress really well. In his world it was all about him.

What happens to us on the inside when our world collapses, what we thought we could depend upon, what we had built and all the careful plans we had made? What’s the game plan when:

  • kids grow up and make all the wrong decisions
  • your career falls apart out of the blue
  • the spouse you always depended upon takes flight
  • your health becomes the most urgent crisis – right now
  • God doesn’t seem to answer anymore

How do we survive while imprisoned by tragedy? How do we make it one more day – and then month after month? Peter advises us to bow down (worship), submit your will and fears, then let God carry your heavy baggage. Sometimes this is a moment-by-moment act, every time the fear hits.

So bow down under God’s strong hand; then when the time comes, God will lift you up. Since God cares for you, let Him carry all your burdens and worries. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 (The Voice)

No one else here has ever or will ever care about you as much as God does and always will. Do you believe this? Do you trust this? Are you willing to put it to the test? It’s not a once-and-for-all decision. It’s something you have to do each and every day of your life, until it becomes a habit, like dreaming.

Something happened to Joseph in that dark prison. He probably spent more than ten years of his life locked up with not much hope for his future. But something happened. His God never left him alone, never stopped working something eternal in his life. He started using God’s gifts instead of his own charms – he let God take care of his problems. He became a different person who loved others, forgave his brothers and looked out for the interest of his family and a whole nation first.

“Whatever direction the wind blows, it will blow us to the Lord. His hand will direct us safely to the heavenly shore to find the weight of eternal glory. As we look back to our pains and suffering, we shall see that suffering is not worthy to be compared to our first night’s welcome home in heaven. If we could smell of heaven and our country above, our crosses would not bite us. Lay all your loads by faith on Christ, ease yourself, and let Him bear all. He can, He does, and He will bear you.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

Seems like the Joseph who went in to prison stayed behind and a new man emerged, ready to change the world because he had surrendered something his father had built but God wanted to transform.

What a turnaround.

It took time.

It meant being willing to become someone new.

What Kind of Savior?

image

What does your idea of God look like? How does it shape the way you have built your relationship with Jesus?

It all depends on where you think you are right now.

  • Are you sinking in a leaky boat?
  • Are you sailing around the bright blue sea in cruise ship?

Our perspective – definition of the situation – will always shape the way we approach God. Recent research revealed that Americans can be divided into four different broad categories based on their description of the God they believe:

  1. A benevolent God who is active in our lives in a positive way
  2. An authoritarian God is active in the world and our lives and is angry, handing out punishment
  3. A critical God who is not really active in the world but will in the afterlife hand out punishments
  4. A distant God who is a cosmic force and does not really hold opinions about human actions

All living in the same country, reading the same Bible, yet having developed very different ideas about who God is. Hard to imagine, huh?

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ― Anne Lamott

How do your current circumstances shape your perspective about God? What kind of Savior are you praying to each day? Someone who needs to help you with your dinner reservation on that cruise ship?  Or maybe you are in desperate need of someone to help you plug up all the holes in your life raft?

Is God here for you? Or are you here for God?

When you are trying to figure out who God is – the best place to look is at Jesus. Go to the Gospels and read what he said and look at what he did.  I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me. If you have trouble believing based on My words, believe because of the things I have done. – John 14:11 (The Voice)

When you are trying to figure out who God is…

  1. Don’t let your personal circumstances dominate your definition of God
  2. Think about how the society around you has shaped your perspective about God
  3. Listen to the way people you trust talk about God, really listen
  4. It never hurts to open your heart and mind and learn more about God – He’s too much to easily explain

For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life.  Here’s the point. God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction. (John 3:16-17, The Voice)

But There Are Giants in the Land!

“Fear is a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.” ― Donald Miller

When’s the last time you came face to face with a giant? How did it make you feel? Afraid, uncertain, faithless, ready to run?

Giants come in all sorts of disguises.

  • Some rear their ugly heads, over and over, pushing back and preventing us from making important transitions to the next step.
  • There are monsters that seem to lurk very near. We believe lies about who we are and we carry around terrible and heavy baggage from the past.
  • Some giants are new and appear as we reach different passages in life like marriage, children, career, sickness and loss. They strike fear as we face our inadequacies and realize hidden dependence.

Facing big challenges is an unavoidable part of living. Children of God typically have two choices when confronted with giants – cower in fear or march headlong with that shield of faith. Where have you got your shield stored these days?

The little brother David (maybe as young as 15) said this when he marched out to face the nine-foot tall Goliath…

“You come to me carrying a sword and spear and javelin as your weapons, but I come armed with the name of the Eternal One, the Commander of heavenly armies, the True God of the armies of Israel, the One you have insulted. This very day, the Eternal One will give you into my hands.” – 1 Samuel 17:45-46 (The Voice)

In this life, there’s always going to be something in your way. It’s unrealistic to expect a life with an empty horizon. Please don’t saddle yourself with unnecessary guilt because you have to face dark monsters along your way. We all do. Just remember that when you come up against these big obstacles in your life, there’s never anything in God’s way.

David could conquer this nine-foot tall fear monger because he marched forward without looking, only believing. Go back and read his challenge again. The most important thing to remember is that the real giant that you and I face is our lack of faith. Faith is the most important building block that God uses to transform our lives.

 “You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” – Matthew 17:20

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” – Mark 5:34

In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. – Ephesians 6:16

And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. – Hebrews 11:6

So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?” – Matthew 14:29-31

When the young shepherd David was anointed King of Israel in a private family ceremony, the Prophet Samuel addressed the family’s concerns with this deep truth: “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7

God is in the business of transforming what matters eternally. He’s always at work trying to get us to believe first and see last. That nine-foot tall Goliath had the entire army of Israel trembling in fear. He looked terrifying. He went down with just a little rock from the river bed. Who would have believed it?  “For we live by believing and not by seeing.” – 2 Corinthians 5:7

The army of Israel was watching with their eyes and trembling in fear. David ran headlong into the conflict with only his belief to carry him to victory. How are you going to get past your giant? God’s not really worried about Goliath. His interest is focused on what’s happening deep inside your soul. He’s looking at your heart. Look around, there are little rocks all over the place. Pick up a few and put them in plain sight so you’ll remember how easy it is to knock down that giant. “Anything is possible if a person believes.” (Jesus, Mark 9:23)

“It is often in our weaknesses that God’s strength is most clearly perceived, and it is often in doing something the world sees as backwards that we are taking spiritual steps forward.” –Trevin Wax

Suffering and Obedience

christ_in_gethsemane

“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” – Hebrews 5:8 (NLT)

I can’t explain it.

How did Jesus, who was fully God – fully man, need to learn anything?

He had free will because he was a man.

He had to choose to suffer. He had to choose to follow the path set out from all eternity for him to follow.

If you haven’t already, you are going to suffer in this life. Sometimes, you are going to have to make some choices, the right choices. Doing what’s right can be uncomfortable, painful, lonely and even cause some suffering.

Choosing to walk in faith each day will mean some hard choices along the way. We live extraordinary lives here in the USA and typically aren’t challenged with painful or even life/death choices when it comes to practicing our faith. What puts our faith to death are all the little choices we don’t make every single day.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
― Charles Dickens,  A Christmas Carol

When suffering comes your way there are often choices along each painful step. The right choices can heal your soul in ways that will last forever. It is possible for your Heavenly Father to transform even the most terrible suffering into something miraculous. When we lay it at His feet, all of our pain, all of our worries, each terrible moment can all be redeemed somehow. Our suffering can have eternal meaning when we obey.

“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” – James 1:2-4