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.