Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lie of the Week #3

Always another thing to deal with.

Lately, I've been struggling with something that's not so much a bald-faced lie about God's character, but a mystery about how God works. It's the subtle belief that God doesn't intervene in our lives. I mean, he intervenes, but he doesn't INTERVENE. That he gives us wisdom and Godly principles to live by (that's no small toolbox, of course), then sits back and expects us to work it out as best we can. That he's kind of "hands-off" in the workings of the world.

The best way I can think of to put it: It's only the rules of the world that matter, and not God's.

Obviously, there are many ideas out there about how God works. I'm not going to be the one to figure him out. (I doubt he'll ever be figured out by a human.) There are man-made philosophies that discuss whether God is active or passive in his operation, and there are Bible-based philosophies that go both ways.

It can't be denied that God allows evil and frustration to exist in the world. And I'm not neglecting my own responsibility to work hard and to live with character and to love people. God isn't about to do everything for us (he's chosen to use the church to a great extent), and we have to live with the consequences of our actions.

But at the same time, I'm aware that this truth has taken a certain twist in my mind, and it's not a twist I like. It produces anxiety and discouragement inside. Despite the truths I've listed above, the message feels like it has a certain agenda.

Get it right, because you're on your own.

I'm not the only one who's dealing with this. Several friends of mine are in the midst of a long stretch of life in which God has seemed relatively quiet. Years of prayer aren't answered (at least not with a "yes"). Many innocent mistakes have been made. Dreams, victories, and goals, even Godly ones, remain far off even for the godliest people I know. Even our service for the kingdom seems to be accomplishing little.

Not to make life all about us, but it can get disillusioning after a while. God seems silent. It starts to feel like the rules of the world are the only ones that matter.

Many people just stop believing in God. The rest of us stop believing in his active work. Unable to agree that God simply isn't there, we decide that he "just doesn't work that way", like expecting a Big Mac from Wendy's. Or maybe we're getting it wrong. Or maybe God works exclusively THROUGH the world's rules and I'm a fool for even questioning all this.

And even when good things do come, they seem to be merely the result of our own hard work. We have the responsibility to credit every good thing to God. Scripture's clear on that. But it's tough, because sometimes these things are just so darn ordinary. Folks can look at our lives and find it easy to accredit these things to human workings. Nonbelievers graduate. Nonbelievers find jobs. Nonbelievers beat diseases. Nonbelievers reach goals, survive financial crises, overcome incredible obstacles, create heartwarming "Today Show" segments, fulfill dreams all the time - and glorify hard work and determination??!?! I didn't even know those were gods.

Where's Jesus in all this? Doesn't he want to be unmistakable to all the people watching?

It's only the rules of the world that matter.

A partial truth, and yet a lie. Because I know this isn't really about God's mode of operation - it's just trying to get me worrying about whether it's all up to me. It's often said that the way to strengthen a lie is to mix a little truth in. We are responsible, at least in part, for navigating this life. But lies sneak in. The enemy loves to put his spin on things.

I loved God's response to these thoughts of mine a few weeks ago. I poured them out to him, and he brought to my mind not a specific Scripture, but a story. A character I'm very familiar with, who definitely stood in my shoes a few times. I'll tell you later this week.

In the meantime I want to encourage you. If you're feeling like you're in a long, quiet stretch of life in which it's hard to distinguish the hand of God from the grindstone of life, and if you want to see God really break out in your life for a change, you're not alone. God isn't our puppet. We can't make him do things. But we can trust in his heart for us.

I am so encouraged that God answers me when I ask him tough questions, even when mysteries remain. More and more often, I'll take that over having all the answers.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

God as Scrooge?

I'm taking an evening walk last month, trying to sort some things out in my mind, and I suddenly realize I've come to believe God is stingy.

I don't know when I started believing that. I never consciously chose to. Somehow it sneaked into my heart when I wasn't looking, like a stowaway. That's how lies operate.

Now, LIFE has certainly been stingy in several areas. My family grew up without much money. My parents did their best to budget, provided properly, came through pretty well on Christmas and birthdays, but there weren't a lot of big things besides that. I struggled making friends as a teen; I usually only had one or two at a time. I relied largely on my Air Force benefits for college, and it was just barely enough. Let's not even talk about the arena of girls.

These patterns haven't really changed in my adult life. I've often lived paycheck to paycheck, breaking that cycle only in the last two years. I'm still single. I've made many friends, but it's taken a long time, and it seems that no sooner do I make one then he gets hitched and/or moves away. I work at a job that severely minimizes the time I get with my spiritual family. And I've become notorious for car troubles.

This is not whining. God has given me a degree, a job, basic needs, and a great church family. I'm in the 1%. It could be much worse.

But the disappointments are still there, still registering somewhere in my heart. Life has been hard in the relational areas. And I know God is in control of that life. What does one make of this?

That one evening, it seemed to come together to this: "God, it feels like I've had to scratch and claw and beg for every blessing you've ever given me."

I stopped walking.

Whoa. NOT a good thing to believe. Portraying God as miserly and reluctant?

It may be the message life sends sometimes, sure. But it doesn't fly. There are many possible explanations in the Bible for our troubles; it's not as simple as A leads to B leads to C. We can't decode the heart of God by examining how life has treated us. That will rarely line up with the Bible's authoritative teaching.

So I choose the truth. Out loud. Again.
"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace, that he lavished on us." Ephesians 1:7-8a
"You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance." Psalm 65:9-12
"“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" Matthew 7:9-11
"They all ate and were satisfied." Matthew 14:20a, 15:37a
Riches. Lavished. Greatly. Full. Abundantly. Softening. Bounty. Overflow. Gifts. Satisfied. There's not in a word in there that paints God as a scrooge. And honestly, if all God had given us was salvation through Jesus, that alone would be far more generosity than we could ever repay.

I admit life is hard. There are theological questions everywhere about why some people's legitimate needs and heart's desires aren't met. I won't be the one to answer those questions. And I'm not using this to make a claim on what God will give me in this life. That's his alone to decide.

I simply know that there's no wiggle room in my heart for what I believe about God. Either he's fully generous as portrayed by the Bible, or he isn't. The amount of peace and power in my life will be decided by whether I stand on the truth. It's like a spiritual law. I no longer want the life of internal unrest and frustration.

Somehow, someway, despite life's frustrations, God is generous.

Just another Lie of the Week that needs annihilation.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Sometimes we need a break, and to rest in God's beauty.

I have thoughts for Wednesday, but today I want to offer a glimpse into why I love the Pacific Northwest and wish I could live here all my life.

Just imagine God creating this world for his own glory, and then hoping that we...we!...enjoy it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Roadside Assistance

Tooling along on a forest highway in the middle of nowhere a few weeks ago, headed to a job interview, my breath catches a little. My eyes have just spotted the engine temperature gauge, pointing in a very unpleasant direction. I pull over and open the hood. The engine is hissing, the coolant reservoir bubbling and trembling like a Yellowstone geyser.

Perfect. Interview aborted. Hope I can limp the 50 miles back to my mechanic. (Welcome to Montana.)

I get back in and start waiting for the engine to cool down, double blinkers engaged. After three minutes listening to their foreboding clicking ("uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh"), the sweltering heat coaxes me out of the car and into the shade of a nearby tree.

Standing there, one thought inexorably seeps in: my bank account isn't going to be better off after this.

And another thought, a response to the first, follows on its heels. Harder to put words to, because it's one of those deep-soul thoughts, a response to my constant car troubles.

This is pitiful.

It's a very male reaction to a bank account that doesn't look much different (though I'm not in debt) than when I was in college. Many women don't have quite this reaction. Frustration, sure. But men's sense of esteem tends to be tied to our work and accomplishments, of which bank accounts can be a reflection. To a guy, a smaller balance feels more like judgment. Like I'm not doing good enough, don't have what it takes.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for this balance, of which car troubles are the foremost. But feelings insist. Quit making excuses, shmuck. Get it together. And lie. Nobody else seems to have these problems. And compare. Your friends are out buying houses and taking vacations in Hawaii.

Frustration growing, I do again what I've been trying to do all year. Turn my eyes back to Jesus.
"The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." - 1 Samuel 16:7 NIV
"Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them." - James 1:9 NLT
Okay. Scripture's in the mix now. The roadside wait has become one of those moments where feelings and truth collide in a head-on brawl, battling for my allegiance. Life is pretty much a string of these moments. What am I going to choose? Because it IS a choice.

Am I going to take the word of God seriously or not?

I choose, out loud on the roadside, to accept God's standards for me, not my own or anyone else's. Relief and peace follow during my return journey - a little slowly, but they do follow.

I'm telling you, confessing the truth out loud has an effect on the inner life. It's tough at first, takes some time, feels weird because that semi driver might see me talking to air. My experience: the stronger this habit gets, the easier peace follows. Remaining in Jesus (John 15:4) includes believing what's true, because he is the Truth.

Pretty grateful today that God measures a man by what's in his heart, not his bank account.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mountain Dew in Vysoke Myto

"YES!" I hollered to the ceiling, grabbing the bottle off the shelf of the Vysoke Myto convenience store. Unlike the bottles I'd seen in the U.S., this one was colored yellow, almost seeming to glow. I hadn't expected to find it here; I was under the impression that it had been banned in Europe because of some ingredient they didn't like. Probably for good reason.

But there was no mistaking the label. It was Mountain Dew. In the Czech Republic.

Or at least it looked like it. Some things have a habit of tasting different over there. Would this be familiar? Would I be ambushed by something awful-tasting, like Diet Mountain Dew? Would it be watered-down like their Fanta?

After returning with exultation to my host family's house, I gave thanks and broke the seal. It was delicious. Barely distinguishable from what I knew back home. Good times.

God is like this as well.

We're back from our mission to the Czech Republic, and we can't regard it as anything but a resounding success. Our team was strong and cohesive, our Czech friends and hosts were as gracious and loving as ever, and most importantly, God was himself. The same as he is in America - unchanging, attentive, encouraging, and powerful.

I'm grateful enough to everyone who supported us financially and through prayer, that I could give them a body slam. But some of you wouldn't like that. So, this post.

I wish I could tell you everything. I'm a detail guy. It's so frustrating for me when people ask me, "So how was the Czech?" because I hate to reduce it all to a 60-second sound bite. So I mumble a non-satisfiying "It was good" and inside I'm like AAAARRGGHHH because I'd need at least an hour to give you a picture that does it justice.

We went to a family camp, taught English to Czech friends both new and old, had a lot of fun. A lady came to know Jesus Christ as her savior. In the atheist Czech Republic, one person is a revival. You'll have to shed your traditional American picture of revivals in order to appreciate this, involving converts in the dozens or hundreds. That's not how it works there. It's a materialistic country that just doesn't believe in what it can't touch. Yet this woman was clearly navigated to the camp, and to God, by God.

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day." John 6:44

That was the best part, but it wasn't the only rumblings we saw. More and more spiritual progress is becoming evident over there. We met more believers from communities in other cities that we hadn't known existed. More and more good people to share Christ with their peers. Folks we've prayed for for years are more and more interested, open, thoughtful. The Czechs are taking over more and more of the ministry for themselves, increasing the trickle to a thin flow.

More and more. This is our God. Every one of us was encouraged and relieved. A Czech ministry friend described it as a season of "pure joy".

God isn't any different when he works in the Czech Republic. We don't have to worry about any weird shifts, any filters or sudden silences from him. He shows up, and he's the same person we know in America. Full of infinite goodness.

Except for being bad for the teeth. That's a quality of Mountain Dew that I could live without, honestly.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cobwebs in the Czech Republic

My pastor friend Zdenek has just finished loading our team's luggage into the church along with me (a relief after three days of travel). It's Saturday afternoon, so there's nobody else around his small, square, gray church - a humble appearance totally unlike what you see from Christian churches in America, or even ancient cathedrals right down the road from here in Vysoke Myto, Czech Republic.

In the quiet heat of the afternoon, Zdenek locks up the church, then pauses and reaches out with his foot to brush away cobwebs from the corners of the front steps.

It's a profound gesture for me, all too indicative of what this country has become spiritually.

The Czech Republic is what the United States will become in a few decades on its present course - a spiritual zombie. It looks animated; towering cathedrals stand everywhere in evidence of its rich Christian history. Like America, the heritage is unmistakeable. But it doesn't matter anymore. It's dead. Don't let appearances fool you. Atheism, materialism, and empty reason have taken over. And peaceful prosperity. 

There might be no country in Europe where God - at least on the surface - feels less urgent or more irrelevant to the people. To them, it's like believing in a fairy tale. Something akin to "I've given my heart to Santa Claus, and you should too."

This small but vibrant Baptist church, one of the few remaining, runs English camps. They bring in Americans to teach the locals English while building relationships with them in order to display the love of God. Progress is slow. Only a relative handful of new brothers and sisters have been rescued in twenty years of ministry since the Soviet Union fell.

The spiritual soil here is hard and unyielding, but the Czech Christians are undaunted. The camp's theme this year, in fact, is farming and agriculture - sowing and reaping. They refuse to believe the ground is irrecoverably dead, even though crops usually take a while to appear.

I want to agree with them.

Seventeen of us from Montana and Virginia are here for a week teaching English in the mornings, while Czech believers present spiritual messages in the evening. In between, our job is simply to get to know people. Show that being with Christians is the same as being with God: amazing. Something that just can't be matched.

Please pray for us. And I mean, really pray. I have Czech friends I've prayed for daily for months to be delivered from hell's grasp into God's love. The Czech believers, for their part, need endless encouragement and strengthening as they do God's work of reanimating a corpse, restoring color and freshness to a faith covered with cobwebs.

We are doing well. Pray that spiritual warfare will be resisted. That the Holy Spirit will turn us into the best possible friends and allies. That God will do things that would have been unattainable years ago.

Na shledanou.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Psalm 103

Just a quick post today...please pray for our mission team as we head to the Czech Republic!

One awesome Scripture passage for finding "God as he really is" is Psalm 103. In fact, I considered "Psalm103Blog" as a name for this blog, among many, many other options. (Eventually I did what I do at restaurants, got sick of deciding and just picked something simple.)

The first eight verses especially give some very simple, straight-up declarative statements about God. It's handy for those mornings when you're stumbling around without coffee and need some grounding (pun!), or might not have the needed hour to delve into an in-depth Bible story and find God there. Or maybe when pain or grief are setting in, dulling your mind, and you just need something simple to hold onto.

Psalm 103 offers nice, refreshing adjectives about God. They're great for that "repeating out loud" habit.

Just to expand on Tuesday's post, in case it wasn't clear: the idea behind speaking Scripture aloud is not a formula to manipulate God. It's not to get something we want for ourselves. It's not to influence the world around us. Those are pagan ideas.

We speak Scripture aloud to change our own hearts first and foremost, to align our beliefs with what is true. We do it to know God. You'll be glad when that happens.

I doubt you'll have trouble finding something in Psalm 103:1-8 that encourages you where you are.

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

6 The Lord works righteousness
    and justice for all the oppressed.

7 He made known his ways to Moses,
    his deeds to the people of Israel:
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Out Loud

My dad once told me how he regretted joking about his wife to other people. Not only was it disrespectful, but he ran into something he wasn't expecting: he started believing his jokes. Early on, he was actually pretty happy in his marriage. But after he started jokingly referring to her as "the old ball and chain", as some young men do for laughs, his daily attitude started shifting toward resentment of her.

"Your words don't just leave your mouth and enter other people's ears," he explained to me. "They go into your ears as well. They enter your brain." His advice: watch what you say, because your spoken words can change your mind too.

Maybe that's why I've discovered such an impact on my own heart when I speak God's word aloud.

We all talk to ourselves. Saying aloud, "He didn't mean it that way" or "There's nothing to be scared of" or "Remember to feed the cat". Forcing your brain to hold onto a fact it really needs. It works for me, like it's snapping me out of my own head and grounding me in reality.

When I decided this year to switch gears in my inner life back towards God, I started doing something I hadn't done before: speaking God's word out loud, a lot.

I started with one simple phrase: "God is good." In any moment of fear, doubt, disappointment, or confusion, I'd do my best to jump back to that concept. Sample variations: "God, I believe you're good"; "God, your word says that you're good". Sometimes, I had to make my mouth form and emit the words. They were usually the opposite of whatever I was feeling at the time. But that's why I was doing it, so I stuck with it.

At first, the effect was hard to spot. I'd say what I knew was true, out loud, and it would stabilize me - eventually. But it was hard to distinguish from the natural settling-down of my emotions. There were fewer evening funks, though.

After a few weeks, I noticed the words were easier to say in difficult moments, the peace quicker to arrive. I was getting used to it, used to the sequence of challenge, speaking, calm. It's like mastering a complex physical movement; there's a moment when your brain finally "gets it", understands how to synchronize the different motions of that snowboard turn or karate kick without thinking step-by-step.

My confidence in "God is good" kept growing from there. Eventually, I was seeing hints of goodness everywhere, in things that had looked neutral to me before. Pleasant days, small conveniences, colleagues and students. Things carried a new interpretation.

This is the ONE major difference between my old thought life and my new one this year.

I encourage you to try it. Pick a short, simple Biblical truth, maybe something that answers a lie or crisis you're facing. Just repeat it to yourself, out loud, frequently, for a few days. See what happens.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Starting Out

These last six months have been the best of my life. Hands down.

Nope, there’s been no happy event or change of circumstance. That’s the first thing you probably thought. I might have too. We associate well-being with contentment; good things first, then well-being.

Actually, things are the same as they were six months ago. Not that my life is horrible or anything. But we all have uncertainties, the things we wish would change.

And BECAUSE I’ve found something amidst all that, it feels much weightier, more legitimate. It’d feel cheaper if it happened because of a good season. That’s too easy. When it happens outside of one – that’s a big deal, because what if it’s repeatable?

I was raised a Christian (don't tune out at this point - just stick with me for a second), but until this year, if I’m honest, my faith has often struggled to be more than just information. True information, awesome information – Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for me – but even the best facts are prone to dryness. Like learning the internal dynamics of the sun but never going outside to feel the sunshine.

I’d often hear Christian musicians like David Crowder or Chris Tomlin speaking much more deeply of God. They’d belt out lyrics like “His love is deeper than the sea” or “My heart turns violently inside of my chest” – not doctrine, but echoes of the emotional truths of the Psalms. And a small, guilty part of my mind would go, “What are they talking about?” I was grateful for Jesus, never doubted my faith for a moment, had quick bursts of emotion now and then. But this? This was passion, sustained fascination. Mere information never inspires that. Even though I’m a worship leader myself and am exposed to such lyrics all the time, I often felt a low-level anxiety: “What are they experiencing that I’m not?”

It’s not like the information wasn’t important. It’s about how we live in response to it. And my long-running habit of focusing on my own life and struggles – the seemingly up-front and tangible stuff – was making God feel distant. Irrelevant. I didn’t understand the disconnect then, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t a good place to be.

Last January, I switched focus. (It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution – wouldn’t have lasted if it were). I started meditating on the character of God. It was the only way I knew how to “fix my eyes on him”, as the Scripture goes. I knew something had to change.

The craziest stuff started happening. I started hearing him speak - words, phrases, truths that I knew couldn’t have come from me, revealed internally on a much greater scale than before. Small moments, gifts and favor, that has been escaping my notice. The Bible gained more vividness, more real-time relevance. I felt a growing steadiness and calm about things, started learning how to pray my way back into it. I started feeling watched over, valued, taught, even pursued.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

One of Christianity’s richest treasures is the inner peace and fortitude triggered when one starts understanding God as he really is. I had no hope of starting that perfecting process as long as my focus remained elsewhere.

I’ve started a blog to try and unpack all this for you (and to keep it real for myself). I can’t explain a process in one sitting. There were many components to this shift, tons of little turns, and it's nowhere near being over. I'm a long ways from being any kind of expert.

Some believers never experience this with God at all; their faith remains just facts. If you’re not a believer, this stuff might sound hokey and conveniently experiential. I challenge you to simply follow along without pressure, merely an open mind.

Because something about this is very real. It's not just vague serenity - it's real-time, conscious, decoupled from circumstances. Believing in Jesus was never intended to be just a collection of facts. It's a relationship he wants. Words, moments, experiences. Learning all that the sunshine actually does.

This could get good.