Annie, Get Your Bible

“Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you… Anything you can be, I can be greater; sooner or later I’m greater than you.” So go the famous lines from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. A catchy tune, and also irrefutable proof that Annie Oakley and Frank Butler were Christians.  How do I know? Because no one can turn something miniscule and mundane into a fierce competition like Christians.

Just spend a few hours at a conference of senior pastors, youth pastors or Sunday school directors. What’s your attendance? How many programs do you have each week? Have you built a new “worship center”? How many missionaries do you support? How many satellite campuses do you have? Have you published a book? Do you have a 3D gaming system to get the kids interested? (I won’t even address the absurdity of that…imagine how many more continents would have been reached for Jesus if St. Paul had just had an Xbox and some plasma screens…we wouldn’t even have to send missionaries to Africa!)  It goes on and on.

The people asking these questions often don’t really care about the answers. They’re not hearing that you were called to a church with a weekly attendance of 60 and now it is up to 100. A 66% increase doesn’t make them bless the Lord for what He’s doing in your congregation.  All they really want to hear is that whatever you have is not as good as what they have. Sure, when they took over their church, there were 1,500 attendees, and now there are only 1,000, but it’s still much bigger than your church. And of course, we all know that God is far more active in a megachurch than in a small congregation. I grew up in a megachurch, and yes, God was indeed working there, but not because we had thousands of people. These days I go to a church that could fit 10 times over into the sanctuary at my childhood church.To put it another way, there are more people that attend the church of my youth than live in my entire town now.  And yet, God is incredibly active in my current church, not because we’re big, or because we’re small, but because He has a plan for us.  That’s how God works. Not by statistics, but by design.

But it’s not just pastors and churches that get involved in the holy war of Christian competition. As individual Christians we take the bait just as easily. Who is asked to sing for worship more often? Whose Bible study has more attendees? Who chairs more committees? Who is better friends with the pastor’s wife? Who is invited to golf with the elders more often? Who has better behaved children? Who has a Sunday school room named after them? Who went to a more remote location as a missionary? Who is suffering more for Jesus? And on and on.

We are constantly caught up in the mania of trying earn more crowns, more “Well done, good and faithful servant” accolades, store up more treasures in heaven. Because we want to be the biggest and best, even in heaven. I know it sounds a little cynical, and it seems that I am saying that all of us are only working for our own selfish gain, not for the Glory of God.I’m not.  I don’t think it’s that bad, or that cut and dried. But I do think that we have a real problem as a global church, and we need to wake up and smell the coffee.  It all boils down to some bad theology that we have let ourselves believe for more than two thousand years.

That bad theology goes like this: If God loves you, He will bless you with a big ministry, happy family, and widespread influence. If you love God, you will do your best to build a big ministry, have a happy family, and gain widespread influence. You know what HE says?  “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) And what are His commands? Love the Lord with everything you are (Matthew 22:37) and love one another (John 13:34). That’s all. Nothing about building programs, foreign travel, or plasma screens. Nothing about trying to be better than others.

Even Jesus’ closest friends struggled with this concept. Just moments after Jesus explained his coming death and resurrection to them, they got bogged down in an argument over which one of them was the best disciple. (Luke 9:46) They came to learn, however, that God’s view of success, obedience and blessing are wholly unlike ours. We want to do what others are doing, be blessed as they are being blessed. The problem with that is that God doesn’t have the same plans for us. His plan for your life is not anything close to His plan for your neighbor, your brother, your mother or your best friend.  If He had wanted everyone to be the same, He would have stopped with Adam. But no, He has formed billions of unique people in the millennia since Creation, and has designed a completely unique plan for each one of those people. (Jeremiah 29:11) Isn’t that amazing? I have a hard enough time coming up with 7 unique dinners a week; I can’t imagine making a different life plan for each of several billion individuals.

The disciples each were given a different path to follow, even though they had all received the same command to “go and make disciples.”(Matthew 28:19) Some stayed in Jerusalem, some traveled around the Roman Empire, others may have gone as far as India and China. We know that at one point (Acts 15), Paul showed up in Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, specifically Peter and James. Paul could have felt inferior because Peter had spent several years with Jesus, or because James was brother of Jesus. Peter and James could have felt inferior because Paul had started many churches, while they just had the one, or because Paul was an apostle to the wealthy Greeks and Romans, while they were shepherding the impoverished, oppressed Jews. They could have had a veritable pastoral Olympic games. But they didn’t. They combined their strengths, sought the Lord, and worked together to advance the Gospel.

So what about us? What do we do with all of this? Well, we need to do a few different things. First, we need to realize that God has a unique plan for us, and then thank Him for it. When we wish we were someone else, or that we had someone else’s life, we are basically thumbing our nose at God and telling Him that He made a mistake when He created us. When you were born, your parents didn’t have any choice over what you would be like. They couldn’t choose your gender, haircolor, athletic ability, personality or musical talent. They might try to push you in a direction that is different from your natural interests or desires because of their own hopes for you. But God is not like that. He was able to pick every single one of your characteristics, and He put you together just the way He wants you.

Second, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. That is true across the board, more specifically, we need to stop comparing the work that God has given us with the work that He has given someone else. Your work may be caring for AIDS orphans in Africa, or it might be raising your own children in Austin. Neither one is a lesser calling. Both are about bringing children up to know and love the Lord. Your work might be to develop microfinance opportunities for women in India, or it might be to approve loans in Indiana. Either way, you are helping people improve their lives and you have the opportunity to show compassion, integrity and kindness. Your work might be teaching English in China, or you might be teaching English in Chicago. Wherever you are, you are filling minds and inspiring students, and you have the opportunity to obey God by loving them. God is not so narrowly confined that He is only served when we are working in a full-time, official ministry capacity. He is served whenever we love those around us and give Glory to Him.We must stop seeing ourselves as greater or lesser than others.

Finally, we need to seek His will for our lives. That could be a whole post (or a whole book) on its own. The short version is that we need to use our individual gifts, talents and interests to obey His command to love others. If you can’t stand children, you probably aren’t called to start an orphanage in Thailand, no matter how great the need seems. If you can’t carry a tune, God’s plan probably doesn’t involve you leading the choir. But He may be calling you to plan and host a fundraiser for that orphanage, or He may be asking you to be a part of the greeting team, because those are where your skills and interests lie. God made you as you are for His purpose and His plan. Don’t become arrogant by trying to follow your own plan, as if you know better than God. Humbly approach Him and ask Him to show you what it is that He sees as special about you, what it is that He put in you specifically so that you could serve Him. Because you are infinitely special to Him. He has never, not even once, compared you with another, and He has no intention of starting. Be free in that knowledge, free to be and do what He designed and created you for.

And in everything, have a Glad Heart!

Advertisements

MASH

Hello friends! I’d like you to go down memory lane with me a bit. Come with me back to the days of middle school and high school. Depending on your age, it may be a longer trip, so if you’re over 30, I’ll give you a head start. 10, 9, 8…okay, here we all are. If you are of the feminine persuasion, as I am, you’ll probably remember a game called MASH. For all you guys out there who didn’t know girls existed when you were 15, and if you did, you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when they were together, you’re just going to have to follow along.

If you didn’t play MASH as a teenage girl, I’ll clue you in. No, it is not a game about army hospitals during the Korean war. That wouldn’t be very fun. MASH is an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. Basically, the game was like a huge fortune teller that would predict who you were going to marry, where you would live, how many children you would have, etc. Sometimes the MASH gods were smiling, and you would get paired with your (for that week) crush, and you would live in a mansion with your 3 adorable children. Other times you would know that the MASH gods were angry and needing some small sacrifice because you would be paired with the most odious male in your acquaintance, and you would be doomed to live in a shack with him and your 47 children.  No one ever took it seriously, but it was a great way to pass some idle time on a bus or at a sleep-over.

Well, today as I was sorting through some mementos of my high school days (read: throwing out junk that mattered a lot 10 years ago, but now I have no idea why I kept it), I found a paper napkin covered in my best friend’s handwriting. Turned out that it was a game of MASH. I suppose the only reason I had stuffed it in my box of mementos back then was because it paired me with the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, talented, romantic guy in the world (read: the guy I had a crush on because he wasn’t already taken by one of my friends) That had to be it, since the rest of the game prophesied that I would be an auto mechanic on welfare with 13 children. I had a good laugh reminiscing about the crazy high school days, and then I wadded it up to throw out like the rest of the trash.

But then it got me to thinking. I can still clearly remember my 17-year-old self thinking that I couldn’t possibly be happy in life if I didn’t end up with that guy. I hoped and prayed that somehow God would work it out so that my whole like could revolve around the process of winning his heart. I knew that one day he would wake up, so to speak, and realize that I was a beautiful, alluring, talented, extremely desirable girl, rather than the awkward, overly loud, intimidating, somewhat bearable she-beast that he had heretofore seen me as. (Note: Me at 17 was a lot more like description 2 than I would like to admit). I’ll let you skip to the end of the book here: we didn’t end up together. He ended up with a string of several girls that were the complete opposite of me, even on my best day. I ended up with a man who saw me as beautiful, alluring, talented and desirable without having a revelation from on high. I am incredibly happy, and do not regret that my “dreams” didn’t come true.

I would imagine that we can each think of at least one situation from our past where we desperately wanted things to go one way, but in the end they went in a totally different direction. And for most of us, we don’t even need to think back to high school. It might be something from last year, last month, or last week. We often don’t have the final say in the situations of our life. And all too often, we accuse God of making the wrong decisions for us. He really shouldn’t have let our husband get laid off, or our wife get cancer, or our car get totaled, or our child get accepted into a college 2,000 miles away. Those things weren’t in the plan that we so carefully drew up for God. Apparently He wasn’t paying close enough attention when we told Him how our life was supposed to go.

Silly little human. 

Would you let your son play in the street just because he said that’s what he wanted? Would you let your daughter eat only jelly beans for a month because she just doesn’t like carrots? No, you know what is best for your child, and you will make that best happen, whether your child would like you to or not. So often we forget that God is our Father in every sense, not just in some master-overlord-originator way. He loves us in a way we can’t understand. He is constantly nurturing and protecting us, even when we don’t notice it.  He knows what is best for us, and sometimes, just like the three-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t subsist on jelly beans, we don’t understand why we can’t have it our way. God does not work for Burger King. He doesn’t take orders. Yes, He absolutely hears our prayers, our requests. He knows our desires. And what’s more, He wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. In fact, He knows what we really want, going far beyond what we say we want. He understood that my desire as a teenage girl was to be loved completely, far more than my desire was for the attention of a certain boy. And He was faithful to fulfill the real desire of my heart. He did it in His way, in His timing, and for His purpose for me.

You may be looking at something in your life right now that is not at all the way you planned or expected. You may be praying for God to change your circumstance, to make it all better, as it were. There is nothing wrong with that. Tell Him you’re hurting. Tell Him you didn’t see this coming, and that you don’t know what to do next. Ask Him to help you find your feet again. Admit that you need His help. I can guarantee that He is not sitting on His throne in Heaven whipping the rugs out from under people just for the fun of seeing them scramble. Remember that we only see the immediate effects of the changes in our life; we cannot see where the changes will lead in a year, ten years, or a hundred years. God’s plan for you is good. His plan is for you to know Him intimately, to trust Him deeply, and to enjoy Him fully. To achieve that plan, there may be bumps (or even mountain ranges) along the way. The path may diverge greatly from the plan you mapped out for yourself. Sometimes you may be completely bewildered and feel lost. Take heart, dear friends, for just as your own children do not always see how closely you watch over them, you may not feel that the Father is protecting you or guiding you, but you can be certain, without a doubt, that He is indeed watching you, ready to pick you up if you stumble, to soothe and heal when you are hurt. He has never abandoned you, even in your darkest moments, and He never will.

May He make your heart glad!

Spring is a Cruel Mistress

I’ve always liked Spring. My birthday is in Spring, Easter is in Spring, there are flowers and baby animals that come out in Spring. Spring is charming, beautiful, smells of clean breezes and flowers, and is warm and delightful. Spring is also fickle, teasing, volatile and unpredictable. Basically, Spring is the woman that every mother warns her son about. Spring is the cruelest mistress of all.

I am learning that principle like never before. When we lived on the East coast, Spring came around each March and wreaked her havoc until mid-May. She blossomed and bellowed in cycles, brought sunshine and rain alternately and generally made lives glorious and miserable as she saw fit. We’ve all met that woman, right? Now that we are in the West, I’ve discovered that Spring, Western-style, has adapted to fit her environment. Just as everything out here is a little more wild, a little rougher around the edges, so is cruel Lady Spring.
I usually enjoy Winter. I like pulling out my sweaters, drinking hot chocolate, waiting for Santa (or my husband, whichever brings more goodies), baking cookies and playing in the snow. But as any of you from high latitudes or high elevations will doubtless agree, there comes a day, about mid-way through February, when Winter suddenly gets old. You can’t bear to look at another pot of soup, you scream, “Whyyyyyyyy?!?!?” when there is snow in the forecast, and you get excited if the mercury rises above 40. Other than wanting to ski once or twice more this season, I am so over winter. So over it, in fact, that I would even stoop to breaking up on Facebook just so I don’t have to actually see Winter again.
 
You see, I’ve got my eye on this pretty young thing called Spring. I think the attraction is mutual. She’s been quite a flirt lately. The temperatures have been in the 50’s and 60’s since Sunday, I’ve been riding my bike each day (without donning my ski gear!), there are birds singing as the sun rises, and little buds are adorning each tree. The only problem is, she’s playing hard to get like a champion. Just today, the skies clouded over, and the weather stations predicted a combination of snow and rain. There will be another cold snap, I’ll have to put the bike away for several days, the flowers will take for—ev—er to bloom, and Winter will stick around like an ex who just doesn’t get the message. But Spring has caught my fancy, and now I’m hooked. People keep warning me not to get to excited, that Spring is just going to break my heart. I know she’s no good, but I keep hoping that she’ll change for me, that it will be different this time. Those people can be disparaging all they want, but I know Spring is going to come around and settle down. And when she does, I’ll be here.
As I thought about my new obsession with the arrival of Spring, I realized that it is such a metaphor for the way most of us view life. We are continually in a cycle of longing for something, receiving it, and then becoming bored with it. Speaking from a female perspective here, we break our life up into milestones that we think will make life complete when we reach them. We tell ourselves, “I’ll be really happy and content when…” When I get a boyfriend…When I graduate…When I get another degree…When I get a husband…When I get a house of my own…When I have a baby…When the kids go to school…When the kids all get married…When we get to retire…When we finally have grandkids…the list keeps going, until your at the end of your life. Perhaps it is okay at the last to say to yourself, “I will finally be truly happy and content when I reach Heaven,” for that is the only one of these “When I…” statements that is true. I’ve made it through about half the list, and indeed, each milestone has brought joy, but I am still not completely content. I still wish for the next thing in the list. I’ve been convicted though, that I need to stop putting so much emphasis on next. 

To be sure, the movement of life is exciting and rewarding. The possibilities that lie before us are part of what keeps us going when the here and now is discouraging. However, when we put the greater balance of our mental and spiritual energies into focusing on that which has not yet come, we harm ourselves in a variety of ways.
  1. We harm ourselves by diverting our attention from those things in our current life which do bring joy and blessing. It is as if we are being given birthday presents, and we only care about the one we will open last. How foolish! We need to be focused on being grateful for the gifts and gladness that we have been given in the present (insert your pun or cliche of choice here).
  2. We harm ourselves by trying to escape from the refining and perfecting effects of our present troubles. James 1:2-4 tells us that we should count or consider our troubles as joy because of the strength and endurance they can produce in us if we allow God to use them in our lives. Just as a marathoner has to run miles 1-25 to get to mile 26, we have to experience all the parts of life to experience any of them.
  3. We harm ourselves when our attention is distracted from the present because we are likely to miss opportunities for joy. We sometimes are unaware of a chance to take advantage of our current circumstances in a way that will bless either ourselves or others because we are only thinking about the future.
  4. We harm ourselves by setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched.” When we spend our mental energies dreaming and planning for the future, we run the risk of creating a fantasy for ourselves that can overtake our reality. When, as is often the case, real life does not live up to our fantasy world, we find ourselves depressed, discouraged and in despair. This is not to say we should have no hopes for the future. But we must be careful to avoid letting our hopes become driving, consuming fantasies.
The future is a wonderful thing, full of hope, and possibilities, and potential. We should all look forward to the future with joy and anticipation. Let us not be caught in the trap of living only for the future, though. We have been given the incredible gift of time, in that we can hold on to parts of the past through memories, we can enjoy the present moment, and we can hope for the future. Keep in mind that the only one of those times that we can actually live in is the present, and as such, it should be our main focus. Enjoy the present, for it is indeed a gift.