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!

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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!

Dead or Alive?

Welcome!

I have something important to share with you today. Just keep in mind that I said “important,” not “fun.” You’ve noticed that I’ve been digging into the New Testament book of James lately. Of all the New Testament books, it is the one I find most challenging and practical. I want you know that any time I share a challenge like what I’m about to share, it is something I am working through as well. I’m right there with you, not up on a mountaintop shouting down at you.

Think back to our last talk about James. What did he say made our religion or faith “pure and lasting”? Right,  caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Good job! If you were sitting here with me, I’d give you a big gold star 🙂 Let’s move on now, and see how James cautions us against developing a worthless, lifeless faith.

I love James because He always seems to address the very thing I need to work on. If you are familiar with James, you know that he is big on telling us how our words can affect others. If you’re not familiar with him, check out James 3. In James 1:26 he tells us that neglecting to control what we say can make our faith or religion dead and worthless.  James says that everything we say should be governed by the law of love, meaning it does no harm to anyone. That’s pretty hard, isn’t it? I know that I am becoming much more aware of the effect my words have on other. If we don’t control what we say, our faith is worthless. Trash. Burn it up, and throw it away. Put it out on the curb. That’s not the kind of religion I want. You?

Do you have a problem controlling the words that come out of your mouth? Maybe you are really good about not swearing, but do you gossip? You might not use profanities, but do you yell at your children? You may be really good at biting back snarky comments towards your coworkers, but do you constantly criticize your spouse? Governing our words by the law of love means that we control the content and the tone of what we say – to everyone. We say those things that build others up, not tear them down. Yes, you’ll have to correct your children, you’ll disagree with your spouse. It is inevitable, and it is right. But when you do, before you speak, consider how the words and tone you are choosing will affect your target.

There’s another trap waiting here. Are you, like many of us, really good at controlling what comes out of your mouth, but inside you snarl and nag and belittle? If you are, you have probably realized that you can only keep those things inside for so long. You can keep the harsh thoughts about your boss, the frustrations with your relatives, the self-condemning to yourself for a while, but eventually they are going to burst out, and not necessarily at the object of their wrath. You may find yourself yelling at your kids, when really you’re angry about the person in your office who keeps stealing the credit (and the snacks). How to change this? Two things: First, make sure you have a person or two in your life that you can share some of those real frustrations and disappointments with – before they get to the explosive stage. Second, ask God to change your heart. Ask Him to clear away the angry, critical or judgmental nature you have. This is critical, because eventually, whatever is in our hearts comes out of our mouths.

 

Oh, but you say, “I don’t want religion, I just want to have faith.” Okay, let’s look at that. Growing up in Evangelical circles, a common catchphrase was, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship [with God].” Well, sure, as a Christian, I am convinced that my belief in Jesus allows me to have a relationship with God that people in other religions do not have. But I still am pretty sure I have a religion. I have a set of beliefs in a specific deity and reality that I am devoted to, and I show my devotion through a common set of traditional actions. Sounds like religion to me.

Outside of Christianity, there are also a vast number of people, especially today, that do not want to be part of “religion”. Can’t say that I blame them all that much. Much of the really awful stuff of the past, well, forever, has been at least sponsored and condoned, if not outright instigated by those who claim to be part of “religion”. I don’t want any part of that either. But just as I don’t want to give up being a human because there are so many evil people in history, I’m not going to give up on real religion just because it has been misused in the past.

I think another reason that I like James is that he is blunt. You never have to say to yourself, I wonder what he really means? So today, James tells us that if we have faith that is not coupled with good deeds or loving actions, then our faith is dead and worthless.  Did you get that? Was he in any way vague? I didn’t think so. If you’re feeling like a little extra-credit work here, go read James 2:14-18. Wow. If you need to read it two or three more times, I can understand.

James doesn’t pull any punches. You have to have faith and good deeds, or else you don’t have either. A lot of people don’t like to go there. It’s too sticky of a question, too difficult of a balancing act between salvation by faith or by works. Well, the great news for us is that James isn’t “other people”. And he definitely “goes there”. The way he says it, he doesn’t seem to think that it is a balancing act at all. It’s like having two feet to walk. If you have a left foot, but not a right, you wouldn’t argue that you can walk just fine. You have to have faith and loving actions, or else you are going to be stumbling around.

I happen to live in a town that has a lot of New Age and Buddhist influences. Nearly every street has houses or shops with Buddhist prayer flag garlands hanging on the porch or in a window. We have more yoga classes per capita that anywhere I’ve ever lived. And yet, what many of these people have is “faith” that somehow, someday if they recite enough mantras or positive thoughts or prayers to a universal spirit, things will all work out. That can be pretty unsatisfying when life hits really hard. It’s okay when you’re stressed about work, but when your child dies, or when your husband leaves you, you need a faith, a religion, that is real and alive, not dead and worthless.

So how do we have that living, breathing, active faith? Well, let’s review. In our previous talk about James, we saw that “pure and lasting” religion means caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Today we saw that worthwhile religion means taking control of how we use our words, letting them be ruled by the law of love, which means that our words can do no harm to others. And finally, we saw that living, active faith is characterized by a life of actions that do good for others. It’s like a big circle, the ultimate recycling symbol. Loving Words -> Loving Actions -> Living Faith. And back around.

 

 

Looking for the Answer

Friend, I’m glad you’re here. What I have to share today is not necessarily easy for me. You probably wouldn’t think that it would be difficult for someone who puts their ideas out there on the web to share anything, but it can be. Here’s the deal: I love writing poetry. It has always been a way for me to think through the things that are going on in life. If – and that’s a big if – I share my poetry, it’s usually long after I’ve written it. The reason for this is that my poetry feels like a part of me, and I’m incredibly afraid to open that up to criticism. If someone thinks it’s terrible, then it’s all on me. I don’t like that possibility. But it’s a chance I’ll just have to take.

You see, this poem has been stuck in my mind and weighing on my heart for the past two months. I originally wrote it as I worked through an incredibly difficult time with some very precious people. The pain was of a magnitude that I had never experienced before. Through it all, we had prayed for God to step in and change the situation, but He didn’t. That left us asking, If He heard us, If He cared about us, and He didn’t change things the way we asked, then what was His answer? Through His mind-blowing grace, God showed us that His answer wasn’t doing exactly what we asked, but it was using the trials and pain to help us grow and to bless others. So with that in mind, I humbly submit this work to you. I had tears streaming down my face the entire time I was writing, so don’t be surprised if your eyes  well up a bit too. My hope is that it blesses and encourages you in some way.

Peace Be With You

His Answer

For ERF,  a Rose forever blooming

All your questions, lonely prayers;

Nights spent asking, “Are You there?”

In the stillness, in the dark

Hear His whisper in your heart.

And this is His answer, hope for your tomorrow,

“I have always loved you,

And I always will.”

All the waiting, all the tears,

All the heartbreak through the years.

Crying to Him, full of fear,

“Where have you gone? Can you hear?”

He may not always tell you why,

You may not understand,

But there’s no road that you can walk

Where He won’t hold your hand.

And He says,

“This is the answer to all of your questions,

Hope for a morning when all will be clear.

And I’ll hold you in my arms,

And I’ll whisper in your ear,

I have always loved you,

And I always will.”