Disconnected…and it Don’t Feel So Good

When it comes to prayer and faith, there is a difference between being shocked and being amazed at the blessings of God. Being shocked at God reveals our doubt. It illustrates a disconnect between our prayers and ability to believe that whatever we ask for in prayer, God will hear us. And so like the early disciples in the book of Acts who prayed for Peter’s release but were shocked when he was, we too find ourselves shocked when God provides, heals, and delivers even though time and time again he has proven that he is capable of all of these things.

Now being amazed, that’s a different thing entirely. We can and we should be amazed at how God provides and the manner in which he delivers. I have no doubt that on Mt. Moriah, Abraham knew that God would provide; he just did not know how he would and was amazed when God showed up with a ram in place of his son.

The three Hebrew boys likewise knew that God could deliver them from the fiery furnace. They even said so and put their faith on the line, saying that even if He didn’t they would still refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzer. They just didn’t know how he would deliver and so  were amazed at how God rescued them from the flames unscorched.

We serve a God whose character is consistent with His Word. His Word says that He is…

– Jehovah Jireh: The LORD who sees in advance and makes provision
– Jehovah Rophe: The LORD who heals
– Jehovah Shalom:  The LORD who is our peace
– Jehovah Nissi: The LORD our banner
– Jehovah Tsidkenu: The LORD our righteousness

We need not be surprised, or shocked, when God acts in accordance with His character – this is who He is! He never changes, and we can take that to the bank. Perhaps this knowledge can increase our faith so that instead of doubting when we pray, we can know that He will not go against His Word.

The question now is: are we ready to be amazed by God.

Reclaiming the Church

One of the most wonderful things that I learned and came to really understand while working for Bread for the World was the importance of backing my faith up with my actions. My belief and trust in Jesus should work itself out in my behavior and not just in church attendance, reading the Bible and prayer. In fact, these behaviors or spiritual disciplines should inform other actions such as giving to the poor, providing for the needy, speaking up for those who do not have a voice, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, relieving oppression and injustice, and the list (well, not really a list) goes on and on.

In our western American culture, which has been heavily influenced by an ancient Greek way of thinking, we do not always easily see the connection between these two ideas: faith and action. In fact, we often see faith as something that is sacred and should be thus honored, and action as something more secular, nice to do but not necessary for spiritual enlightenment and thus expendable.

Yet, this division of sorts is wrong and not only so, but enables us to perpetuate injustice, exploitation, and oppression as we can’t seem to figure out that what we believe and what we practice are related, and with very tragic consequences.

Tuesday morning, as most mornings, I listed to Kerri Miller’s mid-morning show on the way to work. If I’m not listening to her, I am listening to Chip Ingram’s Living on the Edge broadcast, which I find really inspiring for my Christian faith. Anywho, Kerri Miller had retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong on her show, who is the recent author of Re-claiming the Bible for a Nonreligious World.

Amazon.com describes Spong’s book as such:

A definitive voice for progressive Christianity, Spong frees readers from a literal view of the Bible. He opens the possibility that some of the characters in the New Testament are imaginary composites or even literary creations—such as Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus; Judas Iscariot; Nicodemus; the Samaritan woman by the well; and Lazarus who was raised from the dead. He presents the Bible as an ever-changing and always growing story. He demonstrates that it is possible to be both a deeply committed Christian and an informed twenty-first-century citizen.

Sound scary to you? It does to me. This sounds scary and is in fact so because it rips apart the Word of God, this holy inspired Word of God, for the purpose of making it more inclusive, more universal to a world that is rapidly changing and growing by the minute. It is not that I do not agree with Spong’s mission or aim – inclusivity and universality, it is just that I disagree with his approach as in his approach he puts the onus on the Word rather than on the church.

Allow me to explain. The Word of God is innately inclusive and universal, meaning that in it we see God consistently inviting those who are far away from him, into relationship with Him. It does not matter who they are or where they are from, He welcomes all and invites all into this relationship of salvation through His Son Jesus Christ.

The church, however, throughout its existence, has struggled to portray this same level of acceptance. Throughout church history, we have seen those who name the name of Christ, discriminate and ostracize others who are not of the same race, socio-economic background, culture, and many other things. In addition, those who claim Christ have also committed vast evils and atrocities in His name, such as slavery and genocide, which Spong references in his talk. Yet these things have little to do with the Word of God, in fact they have nothing to do with the Word, and have much more to do with the inability of those who bear the name of the Lord to reflect his character of love, kindness and compassion.

MY ADVICE FOR SPONG – it is not the Word of God that needs to be “re-claimed” or challenged, but the church! The Word of God is inspired, unspoiled, but it the actions of human beings, like you and me, that have tainted it! Call the church, rouse the spiritual fervency of the church so that we turn away from practices of ostracization, discrimination and hatred, and truly begin to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what we need in this 21st century world – not a watering down or stripping away of the Word. In fact, we need to ever more be challenged by the truth of the Word so that we can be the people that God calls us to be – a people full of His Spirit and a people full of His mercy and love!

Making Sense of God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense

How would your life be transformed if…
…the answers to your questions about faith, God and life no longer made sense, you discovered that happiness and success were not guaranteed, you struggled to make sense of the hurt, pain and disappointment you ever encountered?

Would you…
…give up, become apathetic, keep dancing?

As for me, I chose to keep dancing. When life did not make sense, instead of giving up I pressed on. And when the traditional answers to my questions about faith and God seemed to be trite, I sought God even more instead of forsaking him. The result? I found a renewed sense of self and purpose. And most importantly, I learned to never doubt the love of God and his desire for me.

In Dancing on Hot Coals, I share this story of my journey. It is now available on Amazon in both print and kindle formats ($12.99 and $2.99 respectively). I hope that you will not allow me to share my story with you, but that your faith will also be encouraged as a result. Be sure to get the book today!

Slowing Down

In an age where everything moves so fast, it is becoming increasingly difficult to slow down and find time to sit, reflect, and be still with God. I, myself, find the need to constantly check my email, facebook, my blog stats, and so many other online stats that even when I am in the position of prayer and study, I am thinking about all the things that I need to ‘check’ when I get done.

In his blog, Are Books a Thing of the Past? author Jim Rice echoes the words of David Ulin, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. For both Rice and Ulin, what I am struggling with is “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.” Rice confesses that this ‘buzz’ might be the spiritual problem of our age and I would have to agree. Anytime I give anything more attention, or more prominence in my life than I give to God, there is a spiritual problem.

For a long time, I have given prominent attention to television. I can spend hours and hours watching television, shows that I probably should not watch, and leave only a few minutes at the end of the day when I am nearly asleep to spend with God. This I am working on, and I have to say, I have made progress, first by cutting out some things that I should not watch that not only consumed my time but my thoughts, but also by shutting off the television at a certain hour so that I am not watching it late into the night.

But I find that when television is absent, it is easy to fill the time that I spent doing that with something else, like social media and the internet. So is this ‘buzz’ really the problem or is it, along with other things that grasps for our attention, a symptom of a much bigger problem: idolatry.

As I drive into work most mornings, I am able to listen to Chip Ingram’s radio-broadcast “Living on the Edge.” Lately he has been preaching a series on the Ten Commandments and looking at them through the perspective of boundaries. Quoting directly from Ingram “when boundaries are broken, relationships falter.” God has given us the boundary to have no other God besides him, and this just does not mean the gods of different religions or worldviews, but the gods we bow to and pay homage to everyday at the expense of our relationship with God.

I think that what we worship can change and evolve over time. As I mentioned, television has been a struggle for me, but it has not always been television. At one time, it was music, at another time it was dating, at another, money, at another material possessions, and now sometimes this social media thing, appearing to satisfy my need to be and remain connected to everyone and everything. As you can see, the problem is not any one particular thing because in and of themselves, many of these things are good. The problem is that I have looked for other things to distract me, other things to fulfill my thoughts and my time so that I do not have to be filled by God.

I have to be honest, sometimes I do not want to be filled by God. Sometimes I do not want to slow down to hear his Word, hear his voice, sit in his presence. Sometimes I am afraid of what he might say, what he might ask me to do and so like the Israelites in Exodus 20 at the reading of the Ten Commandments, I stand afar off and do not come near. And like the Israelites, I fashion an idol, something that can take the place of God that is not too threatening to my comfort, to my ideals, so that I do not have to change, so that nothing will be required of me.

I am so glad that even when I am like this, God still draws near to me. I am so glad that he does not wait for me to pursue him and get my act together, but passionately comes after me and compels me to sit with him. And when I do, its never scary, its never frightening, its never what I have built our meeting up to be. God just wants me, and he wants me to be still in him, to throw of the pretense, to get rid of the charades and rest. What was I so afraid of?

Why I Am Thankful

On April 5, only two weeks ago, I started working for a really cool nonprofit in the Twin Cities. And I thank God because two weeks prior to this I was laid off from my job of two years. Its funny, ironic even, how the Lord decides to work in our lives sometimes. I really believe that he delights in showing us that ram in the bush at what seems like the last possible minute. Not only does it build our trust and confidence in him, but it also helps us to realize that his provision in our lives has nothing to do with us and everything to do with him.

Anyone who knows me knows that I had been looking for employment for a really long time. Full time employment that is, because I already had a job but it was only part time. Part time was great when I was in seminary (grad school). Between studying, reading and writing papers, I did not have time for anything else. But since I graduated last spring, I needed something else if for no other reason than to repay all of those college loans that I took out over the years. So I started looking. And looking. And looking. Several of months, resumes and interviews later, I had absolutely no leads.

But I still had my part time job. At least that was something. Even though I wanted to do more, I mean I was not that fulfilled as an Administrative Assistant, I was just thankful that I was employed in this turbulent economy. So I was going to give up the search, at least for a little while, and focus on the finer things in life like chasing around an active 9 month year old and writing this blog.

I remember the day that I was going to give up so clearly. Probably because the very next day, my supervisor told me that because of budget constraints in the organization that I would be losing my job in six weeks. So I was back on the trail, but I had absolutely no idea where I was going to look since I had been turned down by nearly every organization in the Twin Cities Metro Area for one reason or another, including some prominent organizations on the East Coast.

The next week, an organization that I sent a cold cover letter and resume to contacted me to let me know they had a job opening. I was especially appreciative that they had since many do not follow up as they say that they will. After sending in my resume, I came in for an interview. Although I felt really positive about the experience, I did not hear anything from them in weeks. And as my time with my other job drew to a close, I got a little worried.

Yet I held this image in my mind, this idea, that God would intervene someway somehow. Judging from God’s track record in my life in the past and his faithfulness, I knew that he would come through. This is what I kept telling myself, even though I knew people who were laid off for years and even though I knew that I faced certain systemic inequalities which I will not take the time to get into now.

March 18th, my last day at my place of employment arrived. By this time, I interviewed with a few more organizations and even had some interviews in the coming weeks but I still didn’t have any solid leads. So I walked out not knowing where I was going to go the next moment.

The next week, the organization who sent me the job posting contacted me and interviewed me initially, asked me to come in for a second interview. I just knew in my heart that something would come of it. I thought that I would hear from them right away, pretty much that day as to what their decision was but I didn’t and waited all weekend to hear the results. Then the call that I had been waiting for, for months really, came. I was extended an opportunity to work as a full-time employee in an organization that is passionate about social, economical and racial justice. I accepted.

Its been two weeks since I started working here and I am just so thankful. I thankful to God for providing the opportunity for me to employed with an employer that stands up for many of the things that I believe in. I am thankful that God really does hear the cry of those who are his, who cry out to him day and night, for intervention, for salvation. And I am thankful that God has provided me an opportunity to share with others all that he has done in my life, once again, so that as a result of what he has done, I can give all glory, honor, and power to him.

So. What are you thankful for?

Reclaiming Very Goodness

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good and God separated that light from darkness…and there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so….and there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so…and God saw that it was good. The God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their own kind with seed in them”; and it was so…and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day. (Genesis 1.1-13)

For three more days, this pattern of God creating out of nothingness continues. He creates lights, seasons, days and years. He creates waters full of living creatures, and birds to fly in the air. And he creates cattle, and creatures of every kind, and he called each and every one of these things good. Yet, on the sixth day, the day that God creates human beings the pattern slightly changes. For starters, he gives humanity a distinction that he has not given to anything else – very goodness. Unlike everything else that God created, humanity is not only good but very good. Secondly, after creating humanity, God rests from this work meaning that he was done, and that all that was to be created has been, and is perfect and is good.

So that is what humanity represents. Perfection. Completion. Very goodness. And in that state we enjoyed a perfect relationship with God. We talked with him freely, uninhabited and unashamed because there was not anything that suggested that we should ever hide ourselves from him. But we also enjoyed a fulfilling relationship with one another. We were not afraid of someone else inadequacies, shortcomings, background, gender, or ethnicity because we were first and foremost complete in God. We were able to be our real, authentic selves with one another, to the point that Adam and Eve were able to be naked with one another and feel absolutely no shame.

Yet something happened that smeared our perfection, that corrupted our goodness. We fell out of relationship with God. We believed a lie, that we could some how achieve God-ness if we were to do the very thing that God instructed us not to do. In Genesis 2, God clearly tells Adam that he is not to eat from the tree of forbidden fruit or he would die. But Adam and Eve not only eat the fruit, but they believe that in doing so that they will attain this wisdom that they had not previously known. And although they attain it, it is not what they have in mind. Now, as a result of the fruit, they know what it is to live and be in sin. They know what it is to be far away from God, to the point that they hid themselves from him because they knew that he would be disappointed. And they know what it is like to be far from one another, and to be ashamed of one another as well as themselves. What else could make a husband and wife feel the need to cover and veil the most intimate part of who they were?

Not only did Adam and Eve cover their body parts, they also covered their hearts. They knew that there was something wrong but for them, the best way to address it was by blaming the other. First, Adam blamed Eve for making him eat the fruit, and subsequently, Eve blamed the serpent who deceived her. Neither one took responsibility for their own actions, for their own shortcomings, yet both of them, and all of humanity with them has now lost out on what it means to be good, what it means to be complete.

Immediately after this episode, we come upon Genesis 4, where we witness the first murder. Cain, feeling inadequate and ashamed out of his own failure to identify his sin and fix it, lashes out at Abel who had nothing to do with Cain’s shame or inability to measure up. Abel, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was a clear representation of all that Cain was not. This did not happen between two people who were from two different mothers, or even two different nationalities. In fact, they were brothers.

In Genesis 9, we encounter Noah. Noah was a righteous man who God spared along with his family from the flood. Yet after the flood, Noah gets himself drunk and naked, and his son Ham uncovers this. Rather than admitting his failure for getting himself in this predicament in the first place, Noah takes his frustration out on Ham, his own son, and Canaan, his grandson, saying that their family would be in perpetual servitude.

Then we come upon Genesis 16. Sarai and Hagar. This is some deep stuff. Abram (later Abraham) and Sarai (later Sarah) have been trying to get pregnant for years even though God has promised them a son. After seeing no sign of a son, and only old age, Sarai suggests that Abram sleep with her handmaid to perhaps bear a son through her, which in and of itself is a horrible thing. Yet, when it works, Sarai takes it out on Hagar. She starts to blame Hagar for her troubles, forgetting all the while that Hagar has nothing to do with her barrenness and inability to conceive a child. But she is an easy target, and so the blame, the hatred, and the oppression continue until one day, God removes both Hagar and her son Ishmael from the oppressive environment.

And we have only covered the first 16 chapters of the biblical text. Yet if we continue, we will find that this pattern of hatred, oppression, exploitation, murder, blame and shame also continues down through the text. What we will often find is that this pattern is not always wrapped up in ethnocentrism, racism, or sexism. Sometimes it is just wrapped up in the fact that wherever two people exist, at least one of them will find a way to divide and conquer the other one simply because they are unfulfilled and unsatisfied with their own selves.

But we must remember that we did not start this way. We started off being very good. We started off being complete and perfect and whole in God. How do we get back there? Not only for the sake of those that we slight in one way or another, but also for our own sakes. We cannot continue going around pitting ourselves against others because of our own deep seeded insecurities. We cannot keep blaming the Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, women, men, Muslims, homosexuals, Christians, Jews, rich, poor, or anybody else for the way that we feel about ourselves. It is time that we claim the responsibility that Adam and Eve pushed off on themselves and own up to our deep rooted issues.

I would suggest that this work starts at the Cross of Christ. I am not trying to be overly simplistic, I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where it has to start. If the root of our problem has to do with us not being in proper relationship with God, then that is where we have to start to do work in order to reclaim our very goodness. You see, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a way was made for us to enter back into creation with God. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 calls this creation a new creation in that all of the mess, shame, and sin that we were accustomed to has passed away and we have become completely new.

It is out of this renewed relationship with God that we are able to begin to deal with our inadequacies and become who we were always meant to be. It does not happen over night, but as we consciously and consistently meditate on the Word of God, we begin to change. We begin to feel so complete, so full in Christ that there is no longer any need to dump all over someone else. We begin to become whole and functioning human beings that we no longer feel the need to divide, conquer and oppress someone else just because they threaten who we are. In fact, we are no longer threatened.

I am a huge social justice advocate and enthusiast. I believe that there are systems in our world, such as racism, classim, and sexism, that keep people in power in power and that also only reinforce the stereotypes of the poor colored masses so that they stay out of power. But for me, this is not the issue. Yes they are things that need to be addressed so that systems and situations will change, but it only gets at a part of the problem. The problem is a human problem, a worldwide problem, centering around who we are as individuals. It is only until we are willing to do work around that, and reclaim the goodness that we lost, that the work around social justice even has a chance.

Finding Faith

When I read the Bible, I am often struck by the miracles that people performed. Seas are parted, food drops from heaven, the moon stands still, water is turned to wine, the hungry are provided for, the sick are healed, demons are cast out, and the dead are raised-these are a few examples among many. When I think about the people that God used to perform these miracles like Moses, Joshua, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus (hello!) and so many more, I think that they had to be really awesome in order to get the impossible to happen. They must have had to been connected to God, I mean really connected. They probably prayed and fasted all day long, and probably lived practically sinless lives.

There is no doubt that prayer and fasting had something to do with it. However, I believe that faith plays a great role too! Not faith in faith, but faith in God, his promises and his Word. Faith in his ability to do exactly what he said and more.

When God told Moses to move forward even though the Red Sea was in front of them, Moses did not stop to pray. He trusted God and moved forward and lead the people of Israel over onto dry ground.

When Joshua led the people of Israel around the wall of Jericho, he took God at his Word even though his actions seemed foolish to most. Seven times they walked around the city wall, just as the Lord instructed them, and it was on the seventh time that the walls fell just as God said that it would.

When Peter and John healed the man who was not able to walk, they too trusted in the ability and promises of God and proclaimed the man’s healing.

The same can be said of people like Abraham, Esther, Samuel, David, Ruth, Jeremiah, Elisha, Hezekiah, and others. They are examples of people who trusted God to do big things in their life. They were not perfect and they made mistakes. But they all believed God and for that, they were rewarded.

After casting a demon out of a man in Matthew 17, Jesus told his disciples that all that they needed was faith, mustard seed size faith. Their inability to cast this demon out, then, was in direct relation to their lack of faith. But a mustard seed really is not very large, in fact it is one of the smallest seeds that there is. To me that means that there was not even a hint of faith present in the disciples and it causes me to think that the same might be true of us.

Our problem with faith, I believe, is two fold. For starters, I believe that we depend on Jesus to do things that he in fact has given us power to do. He said in Luke 20 that he has given us power over snakes, scorpions, and every power of the enemy. He also said in Matthew 17 that he has given us the ability to speak to mountains and command them to move from here to there. Though we know this, what we do is pray and ask God if he will do it. We pray and ask God to fix our churches, governments, finances and so much more, but we forget that we have the ability to change situations with one word from our mouths. We have the ability to speak life into things that are dead. We have the ability to move things, shake things and break things, but we don’t. We don’t move, we don’t act, and we stay stuck in inertia. Then we have the audacity to ask God to do the things that we can very well do as a result of the tools that he has given us.

On the other hand, our lack of faith can also be attributed to our failure to truly believe God. When we pray, we don’t expect God to come through. We really do not anticipate things to change, nor do we expect God to answer us. We pray to say that we have done it, but there is no sense of urgency or enthusiasm. I can just picture the disciples praying this half-hearted, lukewarm prayer. They did not believe that the man that they were praying for could be set free, yet they were somehow surprised that Jesus was able to deliver him.

Because of the littleness of your faith
(Matthew 17.20, NASB). We don’t need very much to move the heart of God and change the situations that we encounter on a day to day basis. I believe that one of the surest ways to build our capacity here is through an abiding relationship with God. It is in that relationship, that we will begin to trust him more, and from trust, have faith. As we trust him, we will take him at his Word and believe his promises, which in turn will produce a bigger faith, which will enable us to pray and move the mountains in our lives. But it must start with the relationship with God, otherwise our faith will be shallow and have no roots.