Monday, December 5, 2011

What will you do this Christmas?

So, last week as I was home for Thanksgiving with my family, I attended Sunday services at my home church. It was so lovely to see all those familiar faces again! I enjoyed catching up with everyone and receiving so many hugs.

The most memorable thing though, wasn't the warm welcome, but rather a challenge presented by their missions team. Our church has participated in the Advent Conspiracy for several years now, but the video played during worship really put Christmas consumerism in a new light. Here's the link if you're interested: adventconspiracy.org; click on the [AC] Promo Video link to watch.

A few of my friends had never heard of Advent Conspiracy before, so if you too are new to the idea here's a basic overview: The people behind AC want to bring Christians back to the original focus of Christmas, and for more than just the Christmas Eve services. We're celebrating Jesus' birth, but in a way to antithetical to his mission here on earth. Jesus came to serve, to worship, and to love. How do we celebrate? By spending lots of money! Each year, AC focuses on one major need of those living in poverty; this year, they're advocating clean water for everyone. Through their website, you can contribute funds toward building clean wells in third world countries where many people do not have access to clean drinking water. My church has chosen to participate in a different charitable drive this year: funding Plumpy Nut, an enriched food source (kindda like peanut butter with lots of added nutrients) for starving children in third world countries. Both are great opportunities to love and serve as Jesus served.

My point in all this is not to make anyone feel guilty (Lord knows I was a greedy kid when it came to Christmas!), but to make you stop and think: What am I doing this Christmas? Why? Do my actions really represent what I'm trying to celebrate? And like the promo video says, I'm not against presents, I just want to go about them in a different way with a different mindset this year. So now I ask you, What will you do this Christmas?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Not Guilty!

This week, a situation arose which left me feeling very guilty about some careless and thoughtless remarks I made; remarks that hurt the feelings of someone I care about. I was later able to apologize to that person and receive their forgiveness, but on the inside, my thoughts kept agonizing over the mistake. How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking? (I wasn't, that much was clear.) My thoughts mulled over what a truly selfish and terrible person I was, even though I had apologized and things were fine between us now.


As women, I feel like we harbor a lot of guilt inside. Think about it: if someone is short with you, or in someway not acting in their usual manner, what's your first response? Mine is always to ask myself: What did I do? Are they mad at me? In other words: what am I guilty of? In speaking with several of my close friends, I find that this is a common response among us women. We tend to assume that the fault lies with us, even if it turns out that our boyfriend was just tired, or our roommate received some bad news she wasn't ready to talk about yet. But we don't have to feel this way. We don't have to be plagued by feelings of guilt.

Once, when I was really struggling with some overwhelming feelings of guilt, my pastor gave me some deep words of wisdom that really helped me. There are two feelings that often come after we do something wrong (or perceive that we have done something wrong): conviction and condemnation.

Conviction comes from the Lord. The Spirit comes to us when we've sinned and convicts us that what we've done is wrong, and we must ask forgiveness, and try to right the wrong. That's the feeling you get when you know you need to apologize, or go tell the truth, or whatever the situation might be. The Spirit gently guides us in order to bring us back to the right path. (I'm sorry, this all sounds a bit cheesy, but the gist of it all is this: conviction = good! Without it, we'd never return to repair relationships that we damaged.)

Condemnation, on the other hand, comes from the Evil One. He wants to paralyze us with guilt, crowd out the voice of God, and leave us to drown in a sea of helplessness. You see, if he constantly reminds us of what terrible sinners we've been in the past, we can't fully embrace or enjoy our lives as forgiven saints. I'm less likely to listen to the Spirit when it whispers bold action in my ear if my heart is weighed down by the notion that I can't do anything good. This probably sounds a little melodramatic, and perhaps my wording is, but think about it. When you feel guilty, when your thoughts repeatedly return to all the little mistakes you've made: the misjudgements, the thoughtless words, the lies that slipped out to cover your mistakes... When you're heavy with guilt, how do you act? Like someone whose been saved, who's loved by the Creator, who will have life ever-lasting? Or do you act like you're guilty and don't really have a right to join in the celebration?

Jesus came and died for us. He gave his life so you could live free. Ever read Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities? or that Keanu Reeves movie The Day The Earth Stood Still? or even the Will Smith movie Independence Day? They all have someone who sacrifices their life so that others may live free from whatever threatens them. Jesus did the same thing, only he didn't save us from slavery to alien races, or keep us for dying on a guillotine; he saved us from an eternity separated from God. Far worse, if you ask me, than aliens. So why live burdened by the mistakes you've made? The verdict over your fate has already been given: Not Guilty! Respond to the conviction the Spirit places in your heart, then let it go. It's not easy; I often forget. But life is so much better when you accept the gift of Grace.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Today's weather has been simply amazing! One of best Labor Days I can remember in a long time, at least as far as the weather goes. And yet, I've been lucky. Down here in Austin, we're in the middle of a severe drought, and we've reached an inevitable point: wildfires. The last time I checked, more than 25,000 acres of land has burned, over 400 houses destroyed, and several lives lost. My friends, their families, and everyone I know has so far survived unhurt. But 70,000 people have been evacuated and are still not allowed to return to their homes this evening.

We know God can place flames around a bush and not burn it, or lead people by a pillar of fire, or even, in Elijah's case, burn a wet offering. Clearly, God has power over fire. And yet, fire still ravages our land and our homes. Why??

I used to take a rather Deist approach to these type of questions. The Deists were nominal Christians who believed that God created the world and set things in motion, then stopped interfering. In line with these theories, I figured God didn't care to stop our little crises here and there. He rather wanted us to take action to prevent things (sensing a bit of that legalistic, action-based Grace? you'd be correct!). But how do we take actions against natural disasters like hurricanes and fires? How do I stop things I don't even know are coming? Bad things happen in this world, and it can often feel like God does nothing to stop them and therefore doesn't care about us.

Well, here's a little theory I've worked out. I cannot take sole credit for it; it's a mish-mash of an analogy from Nicki Gumble's Alpha course and a passage from William Young's The Shack. I begin with Nicki's analogy: think of the world as a child's soccer game. Without rules or referees, the game becomes crazy! Kids are getting hurt because no one's calling fouls, there's no way to tell one team from the other, and no way to keep score. But, if we choose to follow the rules (i.e. God's will in our lives), the game becomes relatively simple and all goes well. However, in real life, not everyone follows the rules (i.e. God's will). So while some of us are trying to play the game and do things correctly, others are just running around lost, confused, and sometimes even being mean or malicious. So, bad things happen because we live in a fallen world where not everyone, or everything, works according to the way God plans.

Now, why doesn't God get involved? Why doesn't he interfere to make things work the way he planned? Here, I jump to my passage from The Shack. In the beginning, God gave mankind free will, along with a cushy place to live and walk with Him as the crown of His creation. But mankind chose to try and go it alone. We opted to try to live life on our own terms, and in doing so, brought down the rest of creation with us. Now, God in all His glory, has every right and ability and power to interfere in every situation in our world and force things to go His way. But, as The Shack so eloquently points out, if God took away one man's free will, where does the interference stop? He'd have to stop everyone who ever wanted to hurt anyone from hurting anyone else-- from murder to theft to screaming at your parents. No one would have free will, all the way back to the time of Adam. (I strongly suggest you read The Shack if you haven't, especially if my summary doesn't convince you!)

In short, bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. These are the consequences (note: not punishment, but rather the effects) of a world that chose to live by different rules than the ones its creator laid out for it. God is here, He is present and active in our lives. But He chooses to let us see for ourselves the mess we have and will continue to make of things, so that we can realize our desperate need for Him. Plus, He's got a plan and one day all things will be made new, so have hope.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Legalism


So, this whole time, I’ve been working on moving away from a legalistic attitude about spiritual things. And yet, a friend pointed out to me that my format in the blog so far was somewhat legalistic. I laid out a path to follow and didn’t deviate from the plan, even when I felt frustrated by the limitations. To be fair, there is something to be said for following through even when you don’t feel like it. I mean, what kind of flake would I be if I didn’t come to an arranged lunch date just because I didn’t feel like it? But, at the same time, following “rules” is one of the fastest ways to kill spiritual joy I’ve experienced. 

So, what is legalism? For me, legalism meant feeling obligated to perform certain duties within my church group, even though they didn’t bring me spiritual enlightenment, growth, or joy. I didn’t feel called to take up the burden’s I’d picked up (cleaning up after certain events and organizing worship, among other things), but I picked up those jobs anyways, and wore myself out. Worship became a chore for me because I was constantly worried about the details (did we have enough food for dinner? Were there enough volunteers to clean up? etc.). I was frustrated with and tired of doing taking care of it all. I was tired of working so hard for God, but getting nothing in return. 

Despite all my efforts, I didn’t feel any closer to God, I didn’t feel anymore love, or have any greater direction for my life. And I was tired. So sick and tired of working for God. After talking to my leaders in my church group, I realized that I had imposed a lot of the burdens upon myself. Why? Because despite my theoretical knowledge of Grace, I had yet to fully experience it. I didn’t believe that I deserved Grace. So I tried to earn it, to make myself worthy of that incredible gift. Legalism was a safe escape for me. It felt comfortable to have rules to surround myself with—they were familiar. We have rules in every other aspect of our lives, why not in our spirituality?? It gave me something “stable” to stand on when I couldn’t explain or rationalize something as honestly crazy as grace. 

Grace is fundamentally irrational to me. I can’t explain it. Jesus loved us as a creation, as well as me as an individual, so much that he decided to repair the breech in man’s relationship with God—a breech we caused in the first place! And then, to top it off, the cost of repairing our messed-up relationship was His LIFE! He voluntarily came to earth to die to save a bunch of screw-ups like me. I can’t even fathom a love that big. We compare it to the love a parent has for a child, or a lover for his/her beloved, but I don’t think any human emotion can ever compare with how ginormous His love for us must be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Scripture

So, Scripture is an interesting topic for me. Here's the basics: the Bible, is the word of God, given to man so that we might understand who He is, how He loves us. The message contained within those pages is amazing and mind-boggling to me. But, the actual stories, the words on the page aren't really personal to me. I have friends who love meditating on certain passages and replacing all the "you's" with their name, so they feel that God is speaking directly to them through that Scripture. Other friends draw inspiration and guidance from the words of Jesus. If you've never tried reading scripture as a way to draw closer to God, or communicate with Him, I encourage you to try it. Ask your friends or mentors for recommendations on good passages to start with and go from there. Try reading every day, even a guided reading plan! Some of those are really great ways to learn about God's character and love for us.

For me, scripture is one of the clearest symptoms of my spiritual numbness. I think because I heard so many Bible stories from a young age, and I never really understood why they were significant to me, the stories seem irrelevant to me. Add to that a college degree in English (i.e. analyzing texts) and a strong historical understanding of the time, it's hard for me to see the text as God-written, or God-inspired. I don't in any way mean to criticize my church families or leaders. It's just the way my mind works. Hearing it so many times, I grew immune to it. It's kind of like a kid who eats way too much cake. After a while, it doesn't taste sweet anymore. So, I'm slowly trying to re-learn how to approach scripture in a way that works for me, because I believe that scripture is a critical part of our relationship with God, and I want to know what He has to say to me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Discipleship

Before I start, I have to apologize for the delay between posts. My intention was to post at least every other week, but SO much has happened since the beginning of July: minor surgery, starting a new job, and moving into a new place! Needless to say, my world's been a little hectic and my schedule turned up-side down. From now on, please look for new posts on Mondays, hopefully every week to every other week.

Discipleship
I had never heard of this concept prior to college, and it took me a while to understand why it's so important. In my experience, discipleship is kindda like having a mentor and a small, close group of supporters in your spiritual walk. At first, I didn't really think a group like this was necessary to spirituality. My relationship with God is between me and Him, right? So why should I need someone else telling me what to do? Or pointing out my failures? Or dismissing me and my questions? Since I hadn't previously experienced a lot of direct spiritual support, I was doubtful. During my first year of college, I joined a Bible study for Freshmen Girls, and, quite simply, it was fantastic! I loved hanging out with those girls, and our leaders were so sweet and kind, yet they challenged us-- made us questions and really look deeper into what it meant to be a Christian woman. 

The next year, we split up into two smaller groups and continued to dig into our spiritual lives, but we continued under the name of a discipleship group. Essentially, we met once a week to discuss scripture, talk about our spiritual lives and just love on each other. It might sound like a typical Bible study, but it went so much deeper than that. We pushed and challenged each other to really open up, to talk about the deepest, darkest secrets hidden away in our hearts. We found that some girls felt that they weren't worthy of God's love, so they worked really hard to earn it, others realized that they felt distant from God because they were too prideful to admit that they really and truly needed  His help. Because we were so open with each other, we were really able to support one another through some really difficult stuff. Last summer when I reached the end of my rope with trying to follow all the rules and obligations I mistakenly felt were necessary to be a Christian, my group supported me and allowed me to step back from the responsibilities of the group, without letting me slip through the cracks in their busy schedules and completely fall off the spiritual path. 

I really encourage you, if you're trying to find out if there's more to spirituality, or just want to really know God, find someone to disciple you. Yes, just like Jesus had his followers, his disciples, find someone who you trust in spiritual matters. It could be a friend, a youth pastor, or a leader in your community. If you're not connected to a spiritual community, ask around--ask me!-- and I'll be someone can recommend a church with some strong leaders. You need someone who is a little further along in their spiritual path, simply because if you ask someone who's at the same place you are, neither one of you can lead the way for the other. Find someone you're comfortable asking hard questions, and who is willing to give you an honest answer. You need someone who will call you out when some of your actions don't line up with the way of Christ, but will also show you the way back. 

Discipleship can be an amazing tool for growing in your understanding of Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, as well as your relationship with Him. In fact, a lot (if not most) of what I will share of my journey comes straight from my AMAZING discipleship group and dedicated leaders-- they've made a huge impact on my life, and I'm excited to share it all with you.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prayer

I grew up experiencing prayer in a few different situations: before meals, before bed, and at church. I was taught that prayer was how we communicated with God, and so when we prayed, we simply asked God for whatever we needed, told Him how we felt, and asked Him to watch over those who were sick. It was all a very simplistic view, and as a child, I probably would not and could not have understood much more.

At my college ministry, however, prayer was treated as a very real and very tangible thing. As a community we would pray over someone and lay hands on them. If I ever went and discussed anything with my pastor, he would end the meeting with prayer. All our leadership meetings began and ended with prayer. We had entire worship services dedicated to prayer! It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, but I instantly enjoyed it.

However, I still struggled with prayer on my own. I kept a prayer journal at the suggestion of one of my small group leaders, but I had trouble hearing God speak in return. I would spend lots of time listening for God's word for me, but I never know if what I hear is simply my own thoughts or God speaking to me. In my discipleship group, we discussed prayer at length one night and I expressed my concerns.

My leader encouraged me to test what I heard. If God is speaking, then the message will align with scripture (in other words, it can be actual scripture passages, or it can simply mean that the message in no way contradicts the character of God as shown in scripture.) Another way to test the message is to share it with other people you trust in spiritual matters and ask them to pray about it. Do they feel confirmation with your message? If not, you might need to continue to pray about the message or disregard it altogether.

Now, what exactly is this message? Well, I've come to understand that God communicates differently with differently people. For me, He mostly speaks in thoughts. He gives me ideas, like the one for this blog, or he strongly encourages me to do something-- sometimes to the point where it's impossible to resist! Once when I was younger, I was on a camping trip with my family, and we were finishing lunch and a group of uniformed soldiers sat down at the picnic table next to us. Something inside of me told me to go speak to the soldiers and tell them thanks for their sacrifices. I can be shy sometimes, and since my family was leaving, I just shrugged off the feeling and tried to ignore it. No good. The feeling became so intense and strong that I had to fight off tears! So, I ran back to the soldiers, said "Thanks-so-much-for-serving-I-appreciate-your-sacrifice" very quickly and ran back to my parents.

For others though, God speaks in pictures. One friend keeps a sketch pad by her bed to record any pictures or visions she has from God. Another finds inspiration from scripture, another through music. I believe God has wired you with a special way of communicating with Him, and if you have patience (something that was really hard for me!) He'll break through whatever distractions are going on in your life to speak directly to your heart.

If you're looking for new ways to pray or experience God, there's a couple suggestions I'd like to make. First, find a good quiet spot to pray. I've found that I enjoy being outside, but high up on a balcony so I'm "invisible" to the rest of the world. Find something that works for you-- a quiet room, a special chair, beautiful music, or an easel. Try different things until you find one that really works for you. Second, don't think that your prayers have to look like anything specific. Sure, it's great to be thankful and ask forgiveness, but listening is also key. A friend once told me "Just go BE with God." I think of that often when I'm praying and I feel like I've run out of things to say. I try to relax and just enjoy His presence. God just wants to spend time with you!

So, let me know if any of these ideas work for you. And tell me, what have you experienced in the past? What do you want to try? If you're struggling, let me know and we can discuss what's going on. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I'd love to work it out with you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Misunderstanding

I grew up going to church. Every Sunday, Mom woke me and my brother up, got us all dressed up in our "church clothes," and took us to Sunday School and the 11am worship service. As I got older, I became involved in youth choir, youth bells, and adult bells. I started teaching the Pre-K Sunday School class in high school, and spent every summer going to choir camp, mission trips, choir trip, and VBS. I did everything!

And yet, something was still missing. And I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. I'm a good person!  I thought, I do well in school, I respect my parents, I make good decisions. Why is that not enough? I had come to believe that faith in God meant doing good works and being a good person. So, when doing one good thing didn't help me feel any closer to Him, I did more, volunteered more, helped out more. Surely that would bring me some sort of enlightening experience with this omnipresent being who was somehow involved in my creation.

But how would I know if I was experiencing God? Was I supposed to listen for a response to my questions? Would it be an actual voice, or some miraculous sign like the stories talked about in my Christian magazines? What if God came to me in some sort of burning bush, like Moses? (I wasn't sure how I'd handle that sort of experience...)

I wanted more from God, but nothing I did brought about anything like I expected; and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Eventually, in the middle of high school, I gave up on faith-- to an extent. I still did all my activities, followed the morals I'd been taught, and attended church weekly. I simply decided that whatever "more" I was searching for didn't exist. Church and faith were essentially the same: do good, behave well, love people, go to heaven.

If you've ever had similar thoughts, let me be blunt: that is NOT all there is to God. He's so much bigger than doing good deeds. He wants you to know Him. He wants to have a relationship with you. And, even though it might not seem like it, He's been actively seeking you out, searching for you, since the day you were born.

In the next few blog posts, I'm going to go over a couple of ways that I learned to open my heart up to listen and search for the Lord; namely prayer, Scripture reading, and discipleship. For now, I'd love to hear your stories. What have you experienced from Church? Have you ever gotten tired of the whole faith thing? Does my story spark any questions? Let me know!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Welcome to Ezer!

The word ezer is a Hebrew word from Genesis 2:18: The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  Ezer kenegdo doesn't have a direct translation from Hebrew to English, but is often translated as helper, companion, or helpmeet. But, as Stasi Eldredge points out in her book Captivating, the adjective ezer is used only a few other places in the Bible, and it's only used to describe God himself when he comes to rescue someone. How awesome is that?! We are a lifesaver! We aren't subservient or second class; we are sustainers!

The goal of this blog is to help, encourage, enlighten, and grow young women searching for answers to spiritual questions. If you've ever felt like there had to be something more to your faith than a handful of Bible stories learned at Vacation Bible School, or if you've never felt satisfied by the answers offered to your spiritual questions, or perhaps you're not spiritual and are just curious about what I'm talking about--- then this is the place for you. I welcome anyone and everyone, though, as a woman, I will probably focus more on issues that affect women.

Growing up in the church, I had a wonderful, loving, and supportive church community. And yet, I never learned anything more than the stories, the surface lessons. When I asked questions, I often got evasive answers, or frustrated responses--sometimes the other kids in my group would tease me for asking so many questions. Eventually, I gave up on spirituality. I concluded there wasn't anything in the Christian faith beyond the moral lessons and doing good works. And then, in college, God showed me so many amazing things. He completely destroyed all the preconceived ideas I had about what it meant to have faith in Him, and how to actually have a REAL relationship with Christ. I'm not by an means perfect or mature in my faith, but now that I know there's so much more out there, I can't wait to open the eyes of those like me; those young women who, for whatever reason, have grown numb to God or just never had the chance to know Him.

To begin with, I would love if you guys would do two big things for me: first, spread the word! Post my blog on your Facebook pages, tell your friends about it, and even twitter about me! Second, tell me what questions you have. With what issues about the church, your faith, God, the Bible, do you struggle? What do you not understand? I would love to hear any and all of them! You can leave a post here, or email me anytime. Your contributions are definitely appreciated!