December 30, 2009

Trials, Temptations, and Failures as Preparation

The concept of "the temptation of Christ" has been so repeated and skimmed over that it has lost much of it's potent meaning to today's average Christian. It has become some far off divine event that was just something Jesus did, like walking on water or healing sick people. It has lost its significance to many. So have the other two, but I've only got your attention for a few paragraphs.

The isolated event is simple enough. Jesus walks into the desert, does not eat for forty days, and the Devil tempts him. Satan tries to gain the upper hand through food, because Jesus has a physical body and is no doubt feeling severe hunger. Jesus's answer is scripture. Satan tries to appeal to the supernatural connection between Christ and the Father, asking Jesus to jump down from a very high place to have the angels catch him. The answer, again, is scripture. Lastly he is tempted by "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" at the cost of worshiping Satan.

I'm going to mention, but not focus on the obvious trends. Jesus, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, quoted scripture in response to temptation. If God (as Jesus) responds to temptation with scripture, how much more should we depend on it? Commitment of scripture to memory is essential and exceptionally useful.

The other obvious trend is that Jesus was tempted and resisted that we might be able to more readily identify with his humanity. He was tempted like we are, but resisted. That's where the power to resist temptation lies, with Jesus, and having your mind "set on what the Spirit desires." You've heard that before and probably inferred it from the story.

What I want to do is place this event in the timeline of Jesus's ministry; at the beginning. Before beginning his ministry he went through these temptations; they were necessary to prepare him for the Father's plans. The temptations in our life will often (if not always) take much more subtle forms than what happened here; the Devil is not likely to come up to you in bodily form and say "Worship me and you'll get all this treasure!" Instead, you will be faced with choices. When one looks at these situations through the eye of scripture and through consulting fellow believers, one option will become clearly the way that leads to God's plan for you. It will often be the more difficult one, the one where you personally give up more... usually what you hold dear (material security, pride... pride is a tricky one because you think you're right). The most difficult choice will seem to bring you more hardship, but if you move forward believing that God will work His will in your life for the best even though it really sucks, He will. Psalm 66:10-12 comes to mind here:
For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.
Find support in fellow believers. Seek a relationship with God everyday through reading the Bible, praying, and worshipping; the result of being obedient to Him in the darkest of days, in the valley of death, is abundance. It may take a while, but He will lead you there.

These kinds of trials have prepared some of the most famous people of God for their work for Him; David spent years as the runt of the litter tending the sheep, risking his life against lions and bears to protect the flock while his brothers got the best training and reputations among the people. I don't think David was completely worry-free when the wild animals came to eat his dad's sheep; I'm sure that was very much a trial where he could have ran. He stayed and fought, though, protecting the sheep of the man who did not expect him to be one of Israel's most famous kings.

Moses, from our perspective, completely blew his first opportunity to save the Israelites by killing an Egyptian and earning the scorn of the very people he wanted to help. That wasn't nearly enough to stop God from using him to be the one to lead a people out of years upon years of bondage and slavery... forty years after the fact.

Remember Joshua, who led the Israelites? He was among the Israelite spies sent into the promise land who despaired and didn't speak up against the nay-sayers, even when Caleb was faithful and spoke out against those who didn't think they could take the land. Talk about feeling ashamed for not being brave enough; God still used this guy, having learned from these experiences, to lead the people in conquest.

See a common theme here? Second Corinthians 12:9-10...
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Your mistakes can't stop God. He has personally guaranteed and shown many times that He can work with whoever you are, whatever you've done. Because you are not a loser when you humble yourself before Him; as soon as you admit your brokenness and your foolishness, He will start to grow you and mature you and prepare you for the advancing of His kingdom. Just seek Him, seek a relationship with Him; in some ways, like a human relationship. You've got to spend time with the other person (worship), talk to them (prayer), hear what they have to say to you (Bible)(those are not exclusive, i.e. you can very much talk to God in worship/hear from him in prayer). The difference is that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, beyond time, and loves you vastly more than you can imagine. Don't you want that kind of friend looking out for you? Even better, don't you want that kind of Father looking out for you? What wouldn't He do for you, his Child, to bring you to the best possible place in Him?

December 27, 2009

Sad and Angry

Those were not the feelings I expected to feel. Nostalgia was what I most expected; and I did feel nostalgic, to an extent. Awkwardness was a possibility, but was quickly ruled out when I actually got up the nerve to say hi to people. Each of the individual people were lovely, and it was nice to catch up with people I hadn't seen in a while (a long while).

The elementary school reunion at the restaurant was a lot of fun. Lots of re-meeting people. The advantage to this is that you get to act like good friends because you knew each other so long ago, but you get to toss out all the awkward things that happened because you were 12, and now your digits are flipped.

What happened later was what happens at every gathering of people who all have a mutual acquaintance, who isn't present and is weird. A few brave ones start to make jokes at this person's expense, and everyone laughs and nobody stops them. I contributed to the "nobody" who stopped them. Was it because I didn't have an immediate connection to the joke's target? I hadn't seen them in years eight years either. Was it because I hadn't seen these people in years, and didn't want to ruin my good, comfortable impression that I could tell I had from their occasional smiles? I can by no means say I'm better than anyone else who was in that room; I've hurt people before. I felt as soon as I left the after-party that I should have said something. After all, what's the worst these people could do to me? Un-friend me on Facebook? I couldn't have condemned them; that would just incite people to anger and not to thought. If I had told them gently but unflinchingly that what they were doing was destructive, I might have angered some people, but there's no doubt people would start to think. Especially the ones I could tell who were like me (to an extent) and not entirely approving (on the inside) of all the mudslinging.

If you were one of those people in the room... I'm not pointing fingers and saying that you're a terrible person through and through. I'm expecting at least a few of you will stumble across this. What I am saying is that making fun of people who aren't exactly following the norm, for whatever reason, is destructive. You have no idea what that person is really like if you're saying these things about them. If you're making fun of them, I would assume you've never been in their position.

I feel that there is a need to call this kind of thing out... of course, I'm no poster child, but I strive to be more and more bold about these things, to stop people from tearing each other down needlessly and destructively. And I would hope that anyone who knows me would feel the need to point out to me my own hypocrisy that I might improve myself.

All that to say... I was angry and sad on the drive home. More angry at the human tendency to be nasty than at that group of people in particular, though that was the event that sparked the fire in my head. I cried out to Jesus a lot on that ride home, especially during the worshipful songs that came on the speakers. I felt very broken, but very motivated. I had gone to the reunion thinking it would be a good witnessing opportunity, but it didn't really happen the way I had imagined it. It never does. On the ride home I was assured that this was definitely for a reason... there is no such thing as truly wasted time when you're a Child of God. Time can only seem wasted until your eyes are opened to purposes much bigger than you ever hoped or imagined.

November 30, 2009

This Blog? Not Mine.

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come! [...] You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on your musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.

Amos 6:1-2, 5-6.

Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."

But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?"

"I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die."

But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight."

Jonah 4:6-10
If you're reading this, you have access to the internet. Most likely, you live in America or some other highly developed country. I would venture a guess that you've never had to worry about getting your next meal, that you have a house with running water and electricity, and that you're not being politically oppressed for your religious beliefs. How much of that did you build or obtain completely from scratch? I can't even claim the fact that I'm at a good college... it was my parent's decision to move to this state, and they raised me with a very good work ethic. Sure, I do work hard, but I can't claim it 100%; I didn't farm the wheat and ground the flour, I just put the ingredients in the oven.

All this to say: what you have been given is enormous. We're comfortable, and that's a blessing. Our problem is that we have no perspective; we don't know how fortunate we are, how much other people are lacking. All that we have is "normal" to us.

I could spend the rest of this post advocating giving all you have to the poor, literally selling your unneeded "luxuries," giving the money to the Church, and taking only what you need to live off of from your paycheck. I won't go that route because I haven't gotten the chance to be able to do that myself... I still give spontaneously when I'm led, but I want to live out what I read in the Bible as a financial ideal before I really start to bug people about it.

Want I want to encourage you in today is simpler... live as a threat to Hell. Think about God-focused things: get into a worshipful mood through music everyday (seeking God's face on a daily basis), get into the Bible everyday (Jesus, God incarnate, used scripture to refute Satan), and PRAY everyday (a gift so powerful that 1 Thessalonians tells us to pray nonstop). Everything we have, we have been given. Especially us here in America, where too much food is more of a problem than too little.

If you're a Christian, I suspect you would say you love God. Do you show that with your actions? I'll balance that by saying that seeking God is not a checklist; you don't have to fill up a prayer meter to get to be a part of God's awesome plan for your life. "Seeking" God with all you are is an intent that manifests itself in action... and it's a tricky balance to keep up, but if your heart is in the right place (loving him) you'll be fine.

I want to encourage you in this; it was life changing, one year two months ago, when I pulled out of a moral nosedive and decided that I would finally live out my faith, what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. This is obscured so much for us in the U.S.; in faith-persecuting contries, it is literally a hazard to your life to profess faith in Jesus.

Start by praying.

October 30, 2009

Is Ignorance Necessary to Preserve Faith?

This is a transcript of a radio show called "Stand to Reason" by Gregory Koukl. I saw this posted by a friend elsewhere and thought that it should be shared; I haven't posted other people's work on my blog before, so that speaks to how much this article really affected me.

The body of work and title (above) are, of course, not my own at all, and can be seen in its original context here.

Materialists - people who don’t believe in God and souls and demons and angels and heaven and hell and the afterlife and all of that - believe in what you can experience with the five senses, and that is the physical realm. That’s their metaphysical view. Metaphysical views are views about what you believe is real, and a materialist believes that the only thing that is real is matter in motion. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example, hold to this view. “Materialism” is the view that, at least methodologically, drives modern science. It’s the worldview of the “new atheists” who are very aggressive arguing that religion is irrational and dangerous.

They say you can believe in God if you want, but when it comes to doing science, you cannot make reference to agency outside of the natural realm. Materialists have a tremendous amount of confidence that science will answer all of the relevant questions, because all of the relevant questions only entail things that are physical, since only physical things exist. There’s no need, in other words, for sticking God in the so-called gap.

I think that Christians are in part responsible for the confidence that materialists have that science will fill the gap because many Christians make a consistent mistake regarding the relationship of faith and reason. The error itself is evidenced in this question that I hear variations of this all the time: “If there is so much evidence for God, then what’s the point of faith?” If our evidence for Christianity is so great that it amounts to giving us knowledge of facts that we can know for sure, then it squeezes faith right out of the equation.

Notice something very important about this perspective that many Christians hold. It puts faith in opposition to knowledge. There’s an inverse relationship between the two, such that when you increase one, you decrease the other. You increase knowledge, faith decreases because you can’t have faith in what you know. Faith is what you exercise when you don’t know. This casts faith as a kind of religious wishful thinking because wishful thinking is all that’s available to you when you don’t know something.

Knowledge is what you know so faith is reserved for ignorance. This is what some people think Paul meant when he said, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” We walk by believing—faith—not by knowing—sight. And if we know, it’s no longer faith. Knowledge, in this equation, is the enemy of faith, and Christians are told to have faith.

This view is clearly false in a moment’s reflection and examination of Scripture. The opposite of knowledge is not faith, it’s ignorance. And the opposite of faith is not knowledge, it’s unbelief.

It’s also not what the Bible teaches about faith, and this is the salient point. There are many Christians who have a view of faith that is not Biblical. In fact, it is contrary to the Bible. And this view of faith that’s contrary to the Bible ends up giving aid and comfort to materialism, theism’s primary worldview rival in our time.

The Bible teaches that faith is trusting in what you know to be true because you have reason to believe it’s true. I develop this point at length in an article entitled “Faith Is Not Wishing,” so I’m not going to pursue the details here, except to give you a couple of examples.

Jesus said in Mark 2, “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins,” because He had just said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” This annoyed people. Of course, nobody could see whether the sins were actually forgiven, so He said, “In order that you may know that I have the power to forgive sins, I say to you, take up your pallet and go home.” The act of healing was something they could see to secure the reality, the knowledge, the certainty, the fact of something they couldn’t see—forgiveness of sin. And it was this that inspired their acts of trust. They had knowledge that sin could be forgiven, and this is precisely why they were able to exercise trust.

Acts 2, Pentecost Sunday. Peter gave his message about the resurrection of Christ and the visible effects of the Spirit on their lives—the manifestations of speaking in many languages and tongues of fire that the people heard and saw. Peter said, “We’re not drunk. This is the Holy Spirit.” This is a fulfillment of prophecy, another evidence. He explains the evidence of the manifestations they could see and hear, evidence of fulfilled prophecy, and Jesus risen from the dead. “This man you crucified, God raised from the dead.” That’s another proclamation of an evidence—the empty tomb, the resurrection of Christ—and this was also prophesied. David the Psalmist spoke of it—another evidence. He gives evidence, after evidence, after evidence, and then concludes, Let all the House of Israel take a big leap of faith, because you can’t know any of this. No, of course not. He says, “Let all the House of Israel know for certain that God has caused Him to be Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you’ve crucified.” There is no leap of faith. There isn’t faith based on ignorance, but rather an act of trust that is based on knowledge, and the knowledge is based on the evidence.

The atheist looks at the misconstrued equation about faith and knowledge in exactly the same way as many mistaken Christians do. There are things you can know, and therefore there’s no need for faith. Faith is what you use when you’re ignorant.

As science and other fields of knowledge have advanced, we are ignorant about fewer things. Therefore, on this errant definition of faith, the things that we can actually exercise faith in has decreased because science has explained it. So those things that we might have, in ignorance, posited God for, have now been explained by science or will soon be explained. Science has explained so many things that seemed to need God to account for them, that there is now less need for God, on this view of faith. As a result, the God hypothesis, then, has less and less explanatory power, because the mysteries are giving way to knowledge and science.

Materialists, atheists, are buoyant. They’re exuberant. And I am completely sympathetic, at least in principle, to the atheists’ point if this is the way it is with faith and knowledge. The gaps, at least in principle, will all be filled by scientific knowledge and religion will be finally seen to be wishful thinking and superstition. That’s what we’re facing on this view of knowledge and faith as polar opposites.

On the contrary, faith is not opposite or contrary to knowledge. The expansion of knowledge by science, or by any other means, is no threat to faith and Christianity. If faith involves trusting in what we know, then the more we know, the more opportunity we have to trust. Faith and knowledge are companions that help us place our trust in God.

On the Biblical understanding of knowledge and faith, as knowledge increases, the ability to trust increases—the ability to exercise Biblical faith, which is an act of trust. The more we know about the intricate design in the universe, the reality of Jesus the Nazarene, the historical fact of the resurrection, all as well-justified true beliefs, the more we can put our trust in the God who became a man in Jesus, rose from the dead to rescue us from the debilitating and ultimately deadly disease of sin.

There’s no wishful thinking here. No leap of faith. No blind faith. Just a reasonable step of trust—trusting something we have good reason to believe is true. That’s the Biblical view. And it does not aid and abet the atheist.

©1995 Gregory Koukl

October 23, 2009

Candy Love/Bullet Love

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Romans 8:20-22

The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 5:20-21

The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone."
Romans 9:30-32

Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
C.S. Lewis

Without the law, there would be no sin. Without sin, there would be no need of grace to free us from that sin. God doesn't want just to love us tenderly and mildly. He wants to show in the biggest possible way that he loves us. He wouldn't have been contented to just take care of us in a safe little valley. He created a gap between us and him that was so huge that we can't cross it alone... under our own power there's no way to conquer it, like the Jews referenced above found out. So He shows us his love by paying the price of our sin, by sacrificing his son to bridge that gap between himself and us. If that gap hadn't been there, he wouldn't have been able to reach across it to rescue us.

Which action do you think shows more love: someone letting you eat candy whenever you like, or someone taking a bullet for you? The love of the person for you in each of the situations could be equal, but the actions themselves are quite different in how much love is demonstrated.

This thought was sparked by a conversation I recently had with a friend on the topic.

September 16, 2009

Greater than the Sum of our Yesterdays

There are a lot of things that can obscure our view of who we really are in Christ. Most of the time these are subtle lies that we have been led to believe through negative experiences and the whispers of the Devil in our hearts; we often don't realize we're holding onto these limiting lies about ourselves until someone points them out to us. Then there's a wonderful moment of realization when we denounce the lie and learn to live by conquering it.

All too often we start to let sin define who we are. When we repeatedly fall to a sin, we start to tell ourselves that we have a problem with it because it's part of who were are... we say that the problem is inherent in our personality and is something we are given towards doing. It is true that we are stuck in the flesh and will always fight temptation... but once we admit Christ as our Savior, sin is no longer something that can control us. It has no legal claim over us. When one has not accepted Christ as one's Savior, one is under the "law." The "law" is that once we sin, we are separated from God because we have betrayed Him and now we must suffer eternal death (how much more when we do it over and over!). Once we know Christ, though, we are not operating under that system. We are under grace. Grace says that when we sin, Jesus has paid the death-price that is a result of that sin.
Romans 6:14
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

Romans 7:4
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to him who was raised form the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.
Sin is still sin. It will still happen; but it is not our master anymore. It doesn't have control over our bodies and spirits... Jesus does. As a personal example... I have always struggled with idolizing relationships, specifically a Godly-best friend-marriage type relationship. When I walk down the street and see someone attractive, I usually struggle more with thoughts like "Dang, I'd like to grow old with her." I place so much unnecessary value on the "perfect relationship," and I make it more important that God. I told myself for a long time that it was because I'm such an emotionally focused person that I have this problem; I just have a "big heart" and my idolizing was inherent in that. I was fooling myself into thinking it was my master. It's not. I realized this during a bible study on the topic of identity and I felt so relieved.

If I were reading this blog, I would have a question right now: Sure, this is all well and good, and I believe that I'm not "under the law" and a "slave to sin" anymore, but what does it actually mean for my practical everyday life? What do I do to live this out? What steps should Zach take to live free from the slavery of idolization?

That, my friends, is why we have Romans 7:14 through 8:17. I would encourage you to read the entirety of it on your own, to get the full picture. Listen to Paul's frustrations here... they are common to every human being. He then give us directions to overcome sin...
Romans 7:18-25
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do- this I keep on doing. Now if I do want I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work withing my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God- through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
I usually don't quote such large pieces of scripture, but this one is so full of good verses that I felt I couldn't leave them out. Here, especially in that very last sentence, Paul brings this concept down to Earth for us. We are free in our minds, as slaves to God's law; but our sinful nature is always a part of us. When we repeatedly fall into sin, like Paul does here, what do we do?

There are two key verses from Romans 8 that tell us:
Romans 8:1-2
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:5
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
The first one refutes a very, very common lie of the Devil that we listen to in our hearts; we submit to feelings of condemnation, feelings that points out and stimulates sin. When we wallow in self-pity and defeat because of our sin, that is what we are submitting to; but it is a lie. Don't listen to it!

The second one tells us how to combat our sin. We must set our minds on what the Spirit desires; we need to condition what we think about so that we do not dwell on sinful things. This process can involve stopping cursing, submitting sinful thoughts to God, getting rid of negative things that you surround yourself with... to name a few. Something that helps a lot with this process is finding a group of Christian friends to plug into and get involved with. If hanging out with your closest group of friends causes you to fall into sin (that happened with me), find Christian friends to hang out with and grow close to. Don't leave your "worldly" friends behind (although, depending on the situation, this could be necessary), but get a supportive group of people who endorse your choices. Alone, for too long, you'll fall. I did. I still maintain very close friendships with my non-Christian friends, but it's a little different as I don't participate in all they do.

Find someone, or a few people whom you know are solid Christians that you can trust and talk to them. God will speak wisdom through them, and guide you to live more purely for him and you'll be able to, more and more, escape from sin and embrace a really awesome and dynamic walk with your Lover, Creator, and King. Your actions don't define you. Jesus does... and trust me, he'll define you into a very powerful testimony for Him.

September 6, 2009

Beach Thoughts

Wrote this while reflecting on life, the universe, and everything today at the beach...

I've been going through Acts recently. Really good stuff. At one point, Paul could get out of prison and go free, and he's been imprisoned for more than two years- but he appeals to Caesar and that keeps him in chains (Acts 26:32). Then he gets to witness directly to Caesar Agrippa, the ruler of the Roman Empire, about Jesus Christ. Dang. Talk about being sensitive to God's will and going all the way with it. He knew he would suffer in Jerusalem (the entire church pleaded with him not to go, because they saw this too) but he didn't turn. Do we really need to have something huge happen to us (as in, Paul's dramatic conversion) to get to that level?

...actually, when we get perspective on it, with our first sin and our repeated willful separations from God we committed the worst thing possible... knowing and willful separation from our loving and powerful God. We just need to realize that fact in its truth and entirety, like Paul did on the road to Damascus. When we take the time to really find out and experience how much He loves us, then we see the vastness of our sin and the hugeness of His love that conquers and spans that gap... no matter if you stole a cookie or killed millions. Then we choose: to live like we know that, or not.

For the story of Paul (formerly Saul), check out Acts 7:54 through 8:3 and then Acts 9:1-31 and the rest of Acts.

August 17, 2009

One, Two, Three, Blessing!

The fourth of August was a Tuesday. A crazy, God-awesome Tuesday.

We were in the middle of rehearsals for the Youth Drama Camp production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which I was not a cast member but more of a freelance assistant and "morale commandant" (my credit in the program). I was in the kitchen of the church we were using, alone and waiting for some people to get to the adjacent dining room for a rehearsal. A man walked in who I didn't know, and after we greeted each other he started to look for something in the fridge. I found it for him when he mentioned he couldn't find it... after that interaction, he looked at me for a second, and then said he was getting some things from the Holy Spirit about me. I wish I could remember the following conversation a little better; I remember most of it and wrote it down later.

He asked me if I had a voice; I understood that he meant singing, and I said yes. He asked me my name, and I told him. He told me that there is Jewish blood in my background, specifically Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism at some point (note: I looked this up today. In 1497 many Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism in Portugal, and I'm a quarter Portuguese. Portugal's not a very big country, and 500 years is a long time; so I'm confident that in my Portuguese heritage there are some of these Jews). He said he saw me as a cantor; in Jewish services the cantor is a singer who leads them in worship and prayer. What the gentlemen didn't know is that I had done just that (singing on the worship team) two days ago in the Sunday service when the college group led worship, and (completely impromptu) I was the one who called the congregation to worship and blessed them when they left (the true leadership of the worship that day was done by my friend Josh). Then the man who couldn't find his food in the fridge gave me a verse from 1st John, something about trusting God... unfortunately I don't remember what verse it was.

That experience alone was mind-blowing by itself. I was at Borders later, journaling about what had happened. I was digging through 1st John trying to remember the verse the gentleman had given me, when a lady saw my Bible. Her name was Martha and she was with a friend named Linny, and both of them were believers as well. Martha showed me her right hand, which was missing the outside three fingers. She had been in an airplane crash about thirty years ago and had been badly burned in addition to losing those fingers. Jesus brought her through it, she said. He was her strength and her provider through the whole thing. She asked me where I went to school; it turns out that she, the friend she was with (named Linny) and their two husbands had been down there yesterday! She told me that her husband is a pastor of 150 other pastors out in California. Pretty awesome!

After I wrote about the ladies in my journal, I wrote this: "God's definitely working something... we'll see. If not now, then later."

As I closed my journal and started to exit Borders, I stopped by where Mrs. Martha was to say goodbye and how glad I was that God crossed our paths that day. When I did so, she got a look in her eye and told me that I should go over to Panera where her husband, Linny's husband, and a friend of theirs (all great men of God, she said) were talking and that I should ask them for their blessing. I was dumbstruck, as I lady I hardly knew had just told me to walk up to three complete strangers in the middle of a busy public place and ask them to pray for me and bless me because their wives said so. Martha kept saying "If you're bold," and "be bold!"

After getting over the initial shock (and Mrs. Martha saying she'd ask her husband later if I actually went), I decided to go. Well, at least start walking towards Panera in a trance-like state of nervousness. Excited, apprehensive nervousness.

A quote from the movie Transformers came to mind:

"Fifty years from now when you're looking back at this moment, don't you want to be able to say you got in the car?"

I entered Panera with an induced sense of tunnel vision as I immediately found three slightly older looking men on the couches matching Mrs. Martha's description of them. If anyone I knew was in there, or even Robert Duvall (he lives in our county and isn't terribly uncommon to spot) I had no idea the entire time I was in there. I walked up to them and asked them if they were Rick, Roger and Steve; they laughed and said they were and asked how I knew. If I had been nearer to my comfort zone I would have made a joke, but all I could do was shakily tell them that their wives had divulged their names and recommended that I come over and ask for their blessing. They all got big smiles on their faces and you could tell the Holy Spirit inside them was resonating with what was happening. They had me sit down on the couch and asked me what my story was.

I told them about my years of high school; there was something resembling a witness there, and sometimes fire in the heart, but not the true, deep, appreciative love I have today. I told them about the first year and a half of college, how I wandered and got to the point where I had to leave either God or the world behind... and the choice I made then. I told them about how God had been growing me in amazing
ways since then.

Roger said that since I entered into that new relationship, I had probably encountered some roadblocks. I chuckled at how spot-on he was, and told them about my family's situation.

When the first gentleman prayed for me, he held my hand and made eye contact with me through the prayer (he likes to pray for people that way; he said the Bible doesn't say we have to close our eyes during prayer). He prayed a list of encouraging things for me, including a breaking of my fear. He prayed that I would remember that God redeems even our mistakes; especially the ones we make that turn out wrong later when we get more information. I'll be on the lookout for information that will do that to me.

After the prayer, he talked to me for a while. He said that where I am right now, time-wise and place-wise, is the place where I can most effectively further the kingdom of Heaven; fifty years earlier or later would have missed the mark. It's right now that I can use my uniqueness and glorify God to the greatest extent. So why not take advantage of that! He then gave me Deuteronomy 28:1-15. It's a list of what God will bestow upon those who obey his commandments and love him... he told me to go through it and replace all the pronouns with my name. He told me that I still need to learn that I am not just a friend of God, but closer; I am a son to God, and how much closer is a son than a friend!

Then the second guy spoke to me. He gave me Jeremiah 29:11... "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'" Then he talked about Noah and Noah's family; the Bible just says that Noah was righteous, not that anyone else in his family was. Salvation was brought "through him." I should focus on worshiping Him and building my relationship with God, and being the light in that way; not taking on the responsibility for anyone. He asked me if the I was the firstborn, which I am. He chuckled and said "Ah, the wide shoulders of the firstborn." This, quite obviously, was figurative. Then he gave me a big, caring, strong hug.

What a blessing and honor that day was. The second time in my life that God has moved in threes in my life with people; the first time was when I was leaving my hometown church over winter break and three different pairs of people prayed for me (independently of one another), ending with the Pastor and a Elder who's a second father to me. A total of six, split into two's. That Tuesday's pattern was one man of God, two women of God, three men of God. Six people total. I think God wanted to make it as blatant as possible that He's the one in control of my life.

God sent me a a good closing thought through my friend Brad that night after a small group meeting. He said that it's very good to remember these things, which is in fact a command repeated over and over again through the Old Testament. He said, however, to remember that this "altar" is just that: an altar, not an object of worship. It was good to hear that from him. He also said that he believes this kind of thing will be increasing in frequency, given the progression of the times. This stood out to me because I heard another man of God, Pastor Isabel, say the same thing a few months ago. With the confirmation of two witnesses, I'm confident in that as well.

God is good- I hope that you, reader, are encouraged by God's story here. It's Him whose glory I want to always testify to with this blog. I'm honored to be able to tell these stories... and trust me, I didn't earn my partaking of them and I hope I never think I did. I've left Him behind just as much as the next one... the funny thing is that He keeps going after us each time we do. I'd be lost and far gone if he didn't.

August 6, 2009

My Sister's Words

My sister wrote this months ago, but I didn't find it until this summer. You can tell that we're related by her use of analogy to describe her Christian walk! Published with permission of the author; minor capitalization changes and editing by me.

"Alright, so as I was writing my application for WSS [White Sulfur Springs] this summer, I thought I would tweak one of the questions I answered and post it for you here it goes.

The beginning of this past year felt kind of like the Griffon Roller Coaster at Busch Gardens. As you get on, you deny that you’re actually going to go through with it, although once you are hooked in, there’s no going back. The Griffon carries its riders up 205 feet, holds them at the top of a drop, looking straight down, for the longest 3 seconds of their lives, and then hurtles them 90 degrees straight down at 70 mph. Then it goes on to do loop-de-loops, although none of them compare to the sheer fright experienced at the top of the first drop. But in my life this drop happened to be my parents separating. At that point I couldn’t understand how a Christian household could be separated and I questioned the power of God, thinking that he would’ve kept us together if he truly loved us. I turned my back on God, and went looking for love in the wrong places which led to more pain, but as always, God had a plan. He led me through the healing process, bringing me back into his ever-loving arms, and just like a roller coaster shaking the coins from your pocket, I lost belief God would make life easy for you. Instead, He taught me, as said in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” He is always with you, you just have to look. I look back on this year with a new gained respect and devotion to Christ, kind of like how you would look back at your souvenir roller coaster picture. You can see that you were in denial and scared to death, but guess what? You’re still alive and got another experience under your belt."

By Lauren "Duckie" Armstrong

Duckie- Keep on running the greatest race of all time and love Him with all of your heart... it's a witness to everyone who meets you, and especially me, who's honored that I was chosen to be your big brother and close friend when God laid out our lives. I love you!

July 22, 2009

Our Hearts Be Shattered

A few nights ago I went to a Saturday service for middle schoolers through college kids called Youth Alive. The worship there is great: people skilled in music and worshiping with it themselves. It creates such a great atmosphere for just talking to God through the songs and however else you get led to. I hadn't been in this kind of worship service since I left Williamsburg for the summer, so when I showed up at Youth Alive it was a pleasant surprise to get to worship with them in an awesome way. When the worship is done that way, God never fails to speak something to my heart- sometimes bigger or smaller things, but there's something. This time was no different... and given that it was in the middle of a very tough time for me, God decided to deal with something huge that night.

I started talking to God a few songs into the worship set. Especially after the frustrations of that day, I felt gross and disgusted with myself. I felt dysfunctional, hurt, broken, unworthy, failed... I felt like a clay pot that had been thrown to the ground, and the pieces had scattered far and wide and all that was left in the immediate area was a few incomplete shards that would never be a whole jar again. I felt beat-up and torn. There was pain from my parents and frustration with myself for wasting my summer time fooling around and messing up when I could have been pursuing God.

Something my friend Ian said the other day came to me, and God filled my heart with the thought and truth of it; Ian said he would subconsciously slip into the mindset of doing things and fighting fights under his own power, without meaning to. He said, as a piece of advice, that it is something to watch out for in my walk.

In my pain and brokenness that night, God showed me just how much I'd been trying to do on my own. I had started to attribute (without realizing it) the great season of growth and joy I'd had in the spring to things I had been doing- like daily devotions, praying often, and spending time with the people at the church I was attending. Reflecting on it, this is a habit that's been part of me for a long time. In high school I was an overachiever, "hard working" and earning good grades. Even when my relationship with God was renewed last October and it became intensely personal and wonderful, I still applied my work ethic to it: work hard and earn good spiritual grades. For the first few months, I was blinded to what I was doing because of all the spiritual blessings that were pouring out- that's when I started this blog about all the good things God had his hand in. God was just waiting until the right time to fix my mindset.

That right time was this summer of my vulnerability.

My situation brings to mind a verse in Job I read recently, 35:6-8...
"If you sin, how does that affect him [God]? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men."

One cannot earn things from God... they're given. Which is a blessing, if you think about it: sure, there are some times when we feel pious, but we're all sinful and we know it! If we earned things from God it would just make our failures more despairing, and we could never conquer sin on our own anyways, as we are sinful by nature.

So when the metaphorical storm hit at the beginning of summer, it wore down my efforts to be worthy. I was frustrated with myself for wasting time and angry at myself when I didn't get to my devotions everyday. My sights had slipped from Jesus: the Door, the Way, and the End. So when I felt very shaken and broken by the situation, God took the vulnerability created by that and the failings of my flesh to let me know that I can only survive in His strength, and to watch out for when I start to use my own. He "let me know" in the deepest sense of the words. It was such a moving experience that the lesson is stuck in my heart, and I won't forget it.

There's definitely still pain; that's normal. It doesn't go away because there's a purpose for it. God has brought a beautiful jewel of wisdom out of this time of hurt, and resting in His sovereignty instead of working under my human power brings a peace on an even deeper level than the pain. I have confidence that God is going to rebuild and fix me in His strength (in His time, too). I'm just going to let him do that by not getting in the way with things I try to do myself. I'm being healed and remade from the ground up by the perfect sculptor and master architect...

From this perspective, what a huge blessing brokenness is! What a privilege to be rebuilt by Jesus... who's passionately in love with me and knows me so well. The pain is being redeemed, and compared to the end result the price is little.

In this new found place, I feel less of a need for everything else that's not God- I don't need other people, but I'm fairly certain God will continue to use my brothers and sisters in Christ to love on me (have I mentioned that I have some of the best friends ever? I'm so blessed that God has brought them into my life). The point is that I don't feed off of their attention or love at all, but what God provides through them. Don't get me wrong, I love my friends and love to hang out with them and talk with them... but when I start relying on them as people, instead of God's love in them, I get led astray and I am not focused solely on God. I don't need to look elsewhere for love and strength as God's providing everything I need. I've got my priorities more straightened out now; not to say I'm doing growing, though. I can't even say I'm done growing in the area I just learned a huge lesson in... there's always room for growth and improvement. That's the point!

July 16, 2009

A Purpose for the Pain

I heard a great quote on a radio broadcast. The man talking was a former professional football player who has very bad cancer. He said that every time he's in pain, every time he has to pull over to the side of the road to puke, that pain makes him just a little bit more like Jesus. Ideally, that's what Christians want to accomplish, isn't it? The sad part is how little most Christians and non-Christians know about Jesus's actual character and attitude towards people. But I digress, and now I will write a note to myself to blog about that later.

As soon as I heard that guy saying that he sees his pain as a blessing to make him more like Jesus, my first thought was "What about emotional pain, when life is just tough?" The answer is that emotional pain builds us towards Jesus's likeness just as much- he suffered in all those ways, after all. The most obvious is the extreme physical suffering he went through before and during the crucifixion. As emotions go, he cried over the death of a close friend (Lazarus), and was so emotionally overwhelmed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he was sad "to the point of death." Also, since there's no mention of Joseph being around during Jesus's ministry (while his mother is around), it seems that something happened to him sometime before Jesus began preaching. That's definitely grounds for emotional suffering right there.

When I thought about this and went back to the verses where all these painful situations are found, it really gave me a whole new way to think about what I'm going through (more on that later). Each blow to a breaking heart creates an even bigger place for God's love to fill in, increases our ability to empathize with others and makes us more like our Savior. Each and every kind of pain has at least that as its purpose; and God uses those things for his plan in ways we might never know about until we get out of here.

Recently, I also got to see a clip of a bedridden man talking. He has been completely immobilized and dependent on other people since birth, and when the video was recorded he was 47 years old. He talked about his personal journey after he met Christ, how he came to terms with God being all-powerful while not healing him of his very serious disease. With complete sincerity and a warm honesty he said that he was honored to be chosen to serve God in the area of suffering: he gets to minister to so many people because of his situation and is gets to glorify God through his pain.

When you put it in that perspective... it's really powerful stuff. We're all uniquely called by God to serve in different places and in different ways, and each and every one of our experiences (positive and negative) shape us to better serve Him. Every tragedy and every blessing is used by Him for His plan; we can't change it, no matter how much we screw up or fall. He'll use everything. This doesn't mean we should turn apathetic and just sit back and go our own way, of course... but it lets us know that when things do go wrong, when they fall apart, whether it's our fault or our parent's or a disease's or a drunk driver's, God will redeem it all and use it for good. Even the most painful, evil things that seem to only destroy.

I don't say these things without meaning them... I'm living out this side of life to an extent. A slower, more painful season in life. Not physical pain, but emotional pain coming from the tearing of relationships of others... sadly, it is an issue which a lot of people have to deal with nowadays. If this situation which is upon my family now, though, would have interrupted God's plan, if it had been something which didn't have the potential to glorify God in awesome and huge ways, He wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Even if I don't see the fulfillment of that in my lifetime, I've got faith God's going to use it for the best. That doesn't make it any easier, of course; things have been tough for me (I cried while watching Minority Report... and in retrospect, I laugh at how silly that sounds). God's been providing in huge ways, though. I connected with my sister and talked to her about God, something I hadn't done before; that was a huge blessing. My church family here at home is amazing; if I'm with them, I AM home... as in, the place I am the most comfortable and safe.

One of the biggest lessons I've learned in the past two months is that when "God is my strength when I am weak," I am still going to feel weak. God doesn't just take away the pain and weakness because we ask Him to... there's a purpose for that pain. And that's the thought that keeps me going.

May 21, 2009

Worship: Sweet, Sweet Perspective

The subject of worshiping God is one I've been thinking and learning about a lot; worship in the broad sense, not just singing in church. To me, worship means a state of acknowledging God's love and power by stepping into some perspective. God is love, redeems us, has a perfect plan for us, has heaven waiting for us, and with that perspective life seems a bit more bearable. Theoretically, if you focused only on that all the time you would be worshipful and happy all the time. Note the word "theoretically."

Granted, it's impossible to maintain a perfect state of bliss all day no matter what (honestly, that's pretty impractical) while ideally we will have God's love as a reference point for every situation. If someone called me to tell me my brother just died, I would cry, not sit there without dropping my smile because it's merely another part of Earthly life I don't have to worry about. Far from it. About living this worshipful way, Paul says in Romans 12: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Taking your life and injecting God into it is a form of worship, indeed one very central to a Christian walk: spending time with Him, serving the Church and all that good stuff. I love the qualifying phrase "in view of God's mercy." That's the perspective thing, right there: recognizing how great God's mercy is and acting accordingly.

In the form of being hyper-aware of God's love, I find worship in a couple places. Sometimes when I'm alone, wherever, my mind goes to that place. A lot of the time it's triggered by something, usually nature being beautiful. I definitely believe slowing down to admire nature's beauty is a form of worship. The really awesome instances are when it's triggered by another person; sometimes just thinking about how close they are with God or how I see Him moving in their life will do it. My favorite one is when I see someone's face that has that "worshiping-God-completely-soaked-in-His-love" smile; it's an amazing thing to see, and it gets me every time. I don't see it very often, as I'm not usually looking around during worship at church. Whenever I do get to see that face, though, it's like a beam of love shoots straight from their heart to mine and I turn a very conspicuous shade of happy.

In worship at a church service, you'll often see just a few people raise their hands. I hardly ever did all through middle and high school, and the few times I tried it I just barely got them even with my stomach. The big thing I've learned about worship (I'm sure other people learn other things... this is what my experience was, which I feel can be useful to a lot of Christians today who feel at least partially 'lukewarm') is that you have to make a sacrifice out of your 'dignity,' or perhaps better put 'social awareness,' eliminating all the others around you from your immediate thoughts and turn it into a "just you and God" occasion. Practical things that can take you there are all the little actions that are sung about so often: raising your hands, singing a meaningful phrase over and over to yourself, going to your knees, or even whatever degree of dancing you feel led to. I sway and bop back and forth on my feet a lot. In services where it's practiced, I go down where there's room to do so and dance back and forth (feet achieving lift-off) for the more upbeat songs. I raise my hands a lot; they go up and down and to my heart as I feel like moving them.

My pastor in Williamsburg talks about raising one's hands as a form of surrender to God, which I really like. He referenced the Old West where, to surrender, you would raise your hands away from your guns on your hips. In front of God when you raise your hands you're saying "Alright God, I trust you. You've got control of this situation and I'm making you the priority." The priority is no longer "not looking silly" (which is usually subconscious) or "getting through this singing thing." The priority is praising God for his awesome, awesome mercy. When we take those little steps towards Paul's notion of a new way of living-making our "bodies as living sacrifices," not conforming to the "pattern of this world," things that last longer than just a worship service-we really start to step into that worshipful, "on fire" life that glows from the heart, outward with purpose and love. The kind of stuff people start to notice, because whether they know it or not, what they're searching for is God.

A quick note: This is my third "topical" entry, the other two being the first two of the blog. The others are based off of experiences I've had, although most go into some kind of topical discussion; just as the topical posts will reference experiences. I've labeled each post according to the content and whether it is a topical entry or an experience-based entry, and put up a handy list of all these on the right side of the blog. That way people can jump to content that's more relevant to them... brilliant!

May 3, 2009

A Couple Steps on the Journey

In the past few weeks, I have seen God actively fulfilling two really big things in my heart that have been taught/placed there recently. Namely, the sudden and complete removing of my fear of witnessing at the church retreat and my giving up of romantic desires to Him.

The removing of my fear of witnessing, my fear of alienation from my friends, was definitely some kind of psychological miracle. Normally to conquer a fear you need to have a journey of experiences and lessons to conquer it... I would have had to spend time to disassociate "talking about God to my friends" with "rejection". In worship on that Saturday, though, God just took the fear out of me, as simple as that.

When opportunities to talk about God appear, I still have to make a choice: to talk about Him or not to talk about Him; that won't change. What has changed is my response to that choice. There has been this new courage inside of me that drives me to always talk about Him. God and His Love come up in conversation a lot now because He pervades my whole life. I have been having pretty regular talks with some people about God now, people I would have been too nervous to witness to earlier; mainly people close to me. I've been opening many new doors in conversation with people and have had some pretty meaningful talks; I haven't led anyone all the way to Christ yet (in person) but many "seeds" have been planted. Those closest to me were the ones I feared the most, because they could do the most damage. Now I want to spread the love of God to them more than I want to stay curled in a safe inactive little ball.

The "giving up of romantic desire" has been realized now as "falling in love with God." I didn't stop wanting and desiring romance, but I redirected it at God. There was a Friday night when I was in my prayer spot that I frequent. I was in prayer, praising God, lifting up people, when I realized that I wanted to be in love with God. I wanted to focus my romantic desires on Him. It's a different dynamic, of course, as God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and has the natures of both genders, but I have fallen in love with Him nonetheless. I had loved him with all the other levels of love and that night I reached a new level: the slow dancing, my-heart-is-yours, candlelit dinner level.

I'll admit it seems kind of strange to talk about loving God like that, and it does if you thought that romantic love could only ever be focused on another human being. I'm not saying that I'll never fall in love with a woman now; in fact, I've taken a big step closer to being ready to do so. I'm in romantic love with someone who will never let me down. There will be tough times, and times I will feel lonely, but I know that He is always there and guiding me through obstacles that I can learn from.

But the proof is in the pudding. The Saturday night following that Friday, I attended a formal dance with some friends. I didn't have a date, but it didn't bother me (even before Friday night's beautiful moment). At the dance I was ridiculously happy and having a great time, and I realized why. I had no envy for the other couples. I was one-hundred-percent happy, satisfied, and fulfilled to be there without a date. I didn't want to be in love with anyone there, it didn't bother me at all that I was not having a romantic evening with a human being. All the couples and beautiful women around me just made me more aware of how deeply in love with God I was. I had a constant feeling of deep joy and happiness just flowed out of me. When I'm in that good of a mood, I dance like crazy... there were many eyewitnesses to my ridiculous dancing antics. Dancing to the music turned into a form of worship because I was so happy and so filled with the Spirit. I love dancing. People saw that Spirit-filled-love dance, but I don't think many of them traced the source of my awesome joy and sweet moves.

But I am far from the end of the road (and what a wonderful road it is!). There are always new lessons to be learned, more progress to be made, and God doesn't waste time. Some times we learn by waiting, and sometimes God throws us into the next lesson before we have time to think. Either way, it's wonderful and I love it.

I hope one of three things will happen to you after reading this: If you think I'm crazy and have an overactive imagination coupled with a unstable mind (it's either that or I'm right), you might dismiss me as such so you don't have to think about it. Or you will let the question dwell with you as you ask questions about the implications of a relationship with a God who is Love, who wants to love you and forgive you. If you are a Christian, or have even briefly considered the possibility, I hope you will be encouraged by in God's work in me. If you dedicate time to Him (spending time in the Word and in prayer, optimally every day) and focus on building a relationship with Him, He will do things in your life and in your heart you never dreamed possible. Fulfillment, purpose, passion, joy... God has put these things in me. I'm not perfect, I'm messing up, I'm learning, and I have no doubt that there Christians reading this who have more knowledge than I do. Whoever you are, I pray you'll listen to what God wants to say to you.

April 19, 2009

Even More Free

I had been planning for several months now to go to Russia in the fall for a semester at the Moscow Art Theater. It's a very famous and prestigious theater, the school associated with it is top-notch, and the program isn't widely applied for (approximately 40 students for 30 spots). The program is taught in English, so you don't need to know Russian... but it helps. It focuses on ensemble work, there is a lot of homework, and you get to go see tons of Russian performance art: opera, dance, theater. It's a unique and very educational theater experience.

Theater experiences are valuable to me: it's what I love to do, it's how I channel my love for life and human interaction in the academic realm. Add this to the fact that everyone has told me I should go abroad because it's an invaluable experience, and presto! My plans are in motion. There are obstacles, though, like money, credits transferring, and being away from William and Mary for a semester. If going to Russia is the right thing, though, God will open all the doors and give me a peace about my decision. Doors that need to be opened: money. God provides, so I'm not worried. Even if I have to take out student loans, and pay them back like a normal person, I'll live. So that's sealed. Another door: getting into the program. I've got a strong theatrical resumé, and my interview went well. Whether or not I get in could be a sign; I don't find out for a few weeks though, and I would still have the option of not going if I got accepted. So that, at the moment, is a non-issue.

The last door: a peace about going on the trip. I will pray about it a lot, taking it to God during worship, and think about it logistics-wise too. If it's the right thing to do, I'll get a peace about it.

That peaceful feeling should be here any time now. Just wait for it.

"Hey God? Me again. I'm still feeling restless about going. Waiting for that peace about the whole situation. I still feel this nagging desire to stay in Williamsburg... it must just be me being uncomfortable with change again. I never liked moving. Let me know!"

During this time I was reading Anne Lamott's book Traveling Mercies. I came to this passage about making big decisions:

"Many years ago, I was walking beside the salt marsh with a minister I had met recently. I was two months pregnant and had scheduled an abortion because I was alone and so broke. But I was having second thoughts. I decided to let the minister in on this, and after listening quietly, he said he thought I should have the abortion; he pointed out that there was no safety net underneath me at the time- no family money, no expected windfall- that there was nothing between me and the streets or welfare.

But what about God? I asked. What about faith?

Well, yes, the priest conceded, there's that. "But I'd like you to try something," he said. "Get quiet for a moment, and then think about having the abortion: if you feel a deep and secret sense of relief, pay attention to that. But if you feel deeply grieved at the thought of it, listen to that."I did what he said, thought about the abortion, which theoretically and politically I support. But I was stabbed with grief, and the grief did not pass, and I canceled the abortion."

I applied this to my confusion about whether to go to Russia or not. I looked inside myself. There was a want to go to Russia, to learn about theater, to have that unique abroad experience. But then I found a want even deeper than that, the true source of my desire to stay in Williamsburg. I wanted to stay in Williamsburg to keep growing with the community of believers I had found a few months ago at my new church, the Christian Life Center. There I had found lots of very real, loving, dedicated Christians. The deepest desire of my heart was to continue to grow with them, not to go to Russia.

Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't be separated from God in Russia. I would be able to find time with Him every day. I would learn things. But I wouldn't have a community of support there. I have been growing spiritually so much recently, and I very much believe that it's God's will (and mine) that I continue to do so here in Williamsburg, among that community, in the fall. There is a time for change, for new places and new things, and I have been there many times before. After lots and lots of prayerful consideration I have decided that now is not one of those times. On the day I made this decision final, the chorus of Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home," which includes said title phrase, was stuck in my head. While contemplating whether to go to Russia or not by staring intently into my mirror, the words changed and came out of my mouth: Who says you can't stay home? Thank you, God, for speaking through Bon Jovi.

The more I talk to people about this the more certain I am it is the right thing to do... there is a peace inside me that increases with each retelling, the kind of fulfilling peace that only comes from God. I don't feel restricted by this decision at all; in fact, I feel even more free.

April 4, 2009

Letting Her Go

Monday afternoon I ran into my friend Michelle at lunch. She was on the church retreat mentioned in my last post, and she wanted to hear about my experiences that weekend. Conversation eventually veered to the topic of relationships; both of us had learned lessons in the past from wandering from God's will in that area, and now she is in a relationship with my friend Sam. Both of them are serious Jesus Freaks with huge hearts for God. She began to talk about how God is using their relationship in awesome ways, moving through it in the Spirit, affirming them and growing them.

I, being a very emotionally-based person, have always been in love with the idea of being in love. A few months ago I saw how I let that control me in some ways. While wanting to be in love with an awesome Godly woman is not a bad thing, it can distract from God's plan if I keep focusing on it. I even had a running "short list" of girls I knew who were serious about their faith and whom I connected with personality-wise. Basically, I was trying to do God's planning for Him.

As I heard my friend Michelle talk about how great God was being in her and Sam's relationship and how they were glorifying Him in it, God spoke to my heart. He said, "See, Zach, when you let me take over this part of your life I can do some awesome things. Give this up to me, Zach... let your will and heart conform to mine." As I heard the testimony of my two friends' relationship, God laid a peace upon my heart. I started to give those wants up to Him.

It wasn't an instant inner transformation, like at the retreat; I'm taking steps towards giving it completely up in my heart, that I might want God's plan over my plan. Sure, God's plan may include a woman, but I'm going to want it because it's God's plan, in His timing. Not my timing. That way I will be perfectly content in God's plan even when there is no woman present. I started off by reporting the "aching-romance" thoughts to my internal thought police: they were to be captured on sight and tossed out (a metaphor for taking thoughts captive for God). Wednesday, I gave it up to God again in the mid-week worship service on campus. My good friend Lucas prayed over me as I gave it up again, really affirming and encouraging me.

April 3, 2009

Not Just Full... Overflowing

I spent last weekend at a wonderful retreat facility near the Eastern Shore of Virginia called Camp Piankatank. It was the weekend of the College and Young Professionals Retreat for my church... what it adds up to is me letting go of school and obligations for a full 48 hours, spending lots of quality time with people I love, and spending some quality time with God. The term "quality time," however, is a grossly inadequate descriptor of what my time with God ended up being like this past weekend. "Liberating," "freeing," or "life-altering" would be a bit better... so let's try that sentence again:

What it adds up to is God reaching into my heart, removing the brakes and supergluing the gas pedal to the floor.

Let me take you through the weekend and all that happened to me there... I hope that God uses these awesome experiences to encourage you, edify you, and speak to you.

As I started to worship at the Friday night service, I felt a block between me and God; there was something keeping me from really getting to His presence. At this point in my spiritual life, I know that when I feel that block there is something to be learned in the breaking of it... now I just needed to listen for how to break it. I was standing in the middle of the seating area, worshiping there. There was space down in the front between the chairs and the worship team for people to go down and praise with some more room. God said in my heart, "Zach, I want you to go down and worship in the front." My natural response was "But people will think I've got a 'holier than thou' attitude, that I'm showing off, trying to be seen, and they'll judge me!" God: "Which are you going to make more important? Me, or people's imaginary opinions of you?" I had a choice. It's not that there was anything inherently better in worshiping in the front; it's just that I had to do that to let go of my worries about what people would think of me (which, on me especially, can be fairly binding). And what do you know, as soon as I made my way up to the front and began worshiping there, it was like two big double doors in my heart just swung open and God just poured Himself into me.

The Saturday afternoon sessions were wonderful for learning things and growing in knowledge about God; about sacrifice, being a Son, believing in promises, et cetera. I'm sure I'll use some of that teaching in future bloggage. But onto the big events on Saturday night.

Saturday night, worship started. I find that most of the big things God will do in you will happen during worship... that's another long post entirely. As I was worshiping I felt this really heavy, burdening awareness of my fear of witnessing. The possibility of rejection, especially around the theatre crowd, would keep me back. It was like a big dark cloud covering me... I was still worshiping in God's presence, but I felt so heavy. During the worship, all of a sudden, God moved powerfully in my heart and and said "You are not scared anymore!" I was shocked for a minute, and wasn't quite sure if that had just really happen. "Wait, God, don't I have to conquer this step by step, getting a bunch of little victories until I reach the goal?" "No! I'm breaking your fear out of you right now, all at once. It's completely gone. You are not scared anymore!" I knew it was true; I had felt the huge dark cloud completely disappear from my heart. I celebrated for several minutes with God, smiling vividly and crying happy tears.

Just that one event would have been enough to make my weekend completely worth it. Just that one experience would have sent me soaring... but there was so much more to come. A few minutes after he broke the fear out of my heart, God said to me: "Zach, that was the last big earthly bond that was keeping you from running to me as fast as you can. That was your last big crutch. There will always be struggles, choices, and lessons, but you have lost all of your large inhibitions now! You will be running to me so much faster! You will be in my Spirit even more actively than before!" This was the most encouraging thing that's ever been said to me... it figures that it would come from God. I was ready to explode with joy and love at that point.

In the minutes before this, Pastor Mike Giroux (who was the speaker for the weekend) had been prophesying over some people. While the whole topic of prophecy is for another post, I will quickly explain that the prophets described in the New Testament went around edifying and encouraging people and revealing things to them that God wants them to know, like paths for the future, spiritual gifts, and big changes of heart, all through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Ever since I had first been exposed to this at my church (a few months ago) and witnessed that it is a very legitimate thing in God, I had always thought it would be wonderful to be prophesied over.

Back to Saturday night... Pastor Mike had been prophesying over some people that he had planned to speak over, and then he moved about the crowd, prophesying over whomever the Spirit led him to. As I was standing there and got the huge word of encouragement from God, I started to think to God, "You know, God, I don't need to be prophecied over. You've already given me so much tonight! You broke my fear, and then vastly encouraged me! I don't even want to be prophecied over, I've been filled up so much. I guess you'll wait, and have someone prophesy over me sometime down the road... won't that be a great time!" Within ten seconds of that thought passing from my mind to God, I felt two hands on me, one on my shoulder and one over my heart. I opened my eyes to see who it was: it was Pastor Mike... and he began to prophesy over my life. I was amazed at God right then, and haven't really ceased to be. As soon as I gave it completely up to Him, He gave it right back, and more powerfully than I could have imagined. Here is what Pastor Mike's word about me:

"God is driving a pillar down your spine, into your spirit, He is making you strong and steadfast... you will be a corrector and a purifier... I see you succeeding in business for God, and you will be able to withstand enormous pressures, and you will keep a great joy and peace through all of it, and that will be a huge witness to other people."

As soon as God was finished blessing me through Pastor Mike, God said: "Zach, did I say that I'm just going to fill your cup up until it is full, and then stop? NO! I said I'm going to fill it to overflowing, and that's exactly what I'm doing for you tonight!" I felt such a huge rush of praise then, and very much felt like I was overflowing a lot; God had done so much for me! That led me to my fourth and final big God-event that night... I entered the highest level of worship that I've ever been in. This was characterized by not being able to do anything but dance for God, in his presence, praising him; I didn't feel like I was doing it right if my feet were still. I had to move, because God is so great! The wonderful thing is that now that God has taken me to that place, I move into it every time I worship. Not every song moves me specifically to dancing; maybe kneeling, lots of hand raising; but the intensity of God's presence is there like never before.

I have seen so many of these things fulfilled and walked out already. Within hours of coming back from the retreat, I was already witnessing about God bravely in places I previously would have run away from. Concerning the word about business, I don't feel called to change my major or anything; but in his way and his timing God will involve me in business to accomplish His purposes. I'm in a constant state of worship, where I am constantly receiving joy and love like a waterfall from this open door in heaven. There are definitely still big and little choices to make between the world and God, struggles to give some things up to him, and practices in patience with some people and situations, and I will never be perfect; but I can continue to worship God and let him shine through me, now more uninhibited than ever before. My cup is overflowing and spilling onto all those around me... it's the most amazing way to live that I have yet found.

March 21, 2009

The Train Man

If I hadn't gotten on that specific train car at the beginning of Spring Break, then the Train Lady wouldn't have asked if she could have my C.S. Lewis book and I would have read that instead. I wouldn't have gone to my favorite used books store, B.J.'s Used Books, and sought out some spiritually-minded books; two of which ended up being Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies and John Eldredge's Wild at Heart. I ended up reading Wild at Heart because I had never read it in its entirety before and it's very well reputed. And it's about dudes. I'm a dude, so it works out.

So I read the book, thinking about cool God things and cool Man of God things. Thinking about adventures, bravery, fights, pursuing an awesome and beautiful woman, among other things. I though about and meditated on all the lessons, but it was during the train ride back that God spoke directly from the page to me, through my mind and into my heart and soul. It was a story about the author's friend Aaron, who was listening for God one day in solitude and heard him say:

"True masculinity is spiritual. True spirituality is good.
You are a man, you are a man, you are a man."

BAM! The Holy Spirit collided with my heart big time with that one. I had "known" this, sure, but had never actually truly lived it. Even earlier this semester I was still working out to "stay fit," while underneath it all I knew it was because I hadn't completely conquered my old insecurity about being scrawny. I was still trying to obtain whatever level of buffness that would make me completely comfortable with my body, win me the glances of pretty girls and the approval of sporty guys. I finally realized that it was pointless to do so. I am a man because of my spirituality; nothing worldly can qualify me. Sitting there in that seat, I was overcome with that vast joy that comes when the Spirit is working inside you. My eyes were a bit foggy and I was smiling goofily... I was thankful that the girl next to me in the train was asleep, or she would have been weirded out, I'm sure. Who would have thought that the train rides to and from Spring Break would be so packed with God being awesome?

I have always had the dream of being the hero that saves people from danger. I pictured myself being in the right place at the right time in a disaster and being awesome and manly and risking my life for people, and then that really pretty girl coming up to me afterward... you get the picture. When God spoke into my heart about my spirituality being my source of manliness, he directed my mind to how I pray for people now. Ever since I read in the end of the book of Colossians about the guy whom "wrestles in prayer for you," I've really gotten into praying "violently." Not physically thrashing about or anything, but really connecting with God and just letting loose for those I'm praying for; praying actively and from the heart. God brought it to my mind that when I pray actively, "violently," I'm doing major harm to the Devil and his cronies that are going after those I'm praying for. There are lots of demons limping back to Hell after a painful encounter with my weapons of prayer, blessed by the Father.

The reality and presence of the spiritual realm is something else John Eldredge talked about, and is something I believe is real; and the Prince of Darkness who I'm fighting won't forget the damage I do. On this past Tuesday evening, I was nearing the end of my devotions in the Bible and was going to move on to praying soon. But then my phone rang; it was the stage manager for the show I'm in, asking if I was on my way to rehearsal. The schedule I had read said I didn't have rehearsal for another two hours. It turns out there was an updated schedule in my email that I hadn't seen; there was someone who definitely didn't want me getting to my prayers that night, someone who didn't want their work rudely interrupted. So I came back after rehearsal and prayed for three more people than I usually do. You punch me hard, I'll punch you harder.

My last spiritual manliness experience this week happened on Monday morning. I had read in Wild at Heart about giving up the thing we would be the most scared to lose, whatever that is. It varies from person to person, obviously; when I read that, I wondered exactly what mine was. God showed me the next morning. I received this email from the director of the show I'm in, concerning the fact that I was planning on missing a weekend of rehearsal for a church retreat:

"...This creates great difficulties for our rehearsal schedule, particularly for scheduled run of the second half of the show for designers... is it possible for you to miss this or reschedule it? We have only 96 rehearsal hours for this show that has at least 140 minutes of playing time so we are way under the hour per minute that one should have..." et cetera.

I freaked out a little on the inside. I wanted to go on the church retreat, and knew in my heart that's where God wanted me to be, too. I have always been the reliable, on-time, off-book, trustworthy guy in my theater career, and my director made it clear how important it was that I be there. I really didn't want to miss a disappointing number of rehearsal hours and let down the rest of the cast, particularly this professor I admire. I knew in my heart that God wanted me at the retreat that weekend... but my professor any my academic instincts wanted me at rehearsal.

So I began to look for a legitimate reason that necessitated I go on the retreat, like the cost of about $100 being non-refundable. If it was non-refundable, than I could just tell that to my director and I'd be in the clear! As I wrote an email to the guy who answer my question about the refundability, I kept having to rephrase it, and I realized why: any way I said it, it sounded like I was using the money as a crutch, a substitute reason to miss rehearsal; I was avoiding the responsibility in saying that I wanted to go because it was important to me. I took a deep breath and decided to throw that crutch away, and present my argument for going as it should be: it is important to me, I've had this planned for two months. Being afraid of the repercussions of missing rehearsal I tried to push it off on money. But I couldn't hide behind excuses made of jello (which I'm pretty sure don't stop bullets, and they look silly to boot). Writing an email has never taken so much gut before. God's favor was there are there weren't any repercussions for missing those rehearsals; it seemed more like my director didn't even mind after it was decided, perhaps because I had stood my ground. Standing my ground involves lots of leaning on God; I don't have any backbone without him behind me. I don't have any fears with him behind me, either.

March 12, 2009

The Train Lady

This is the first time this kind of thing has happened to me... it's another sign of how God has been moving in awesome ways over the past six months of my life.

I boarded the train in the Williamsburg depot to head back to my hometown for Spring Break. As I think about it even now, I could have easily boarded another car without a second thought; a car that did not have on it the lady with message for me. But God made sure I got onto the right car.

I took my luggage to the front of the train, as I needed a place to store my guitar and bag for the ride. Sticking out of my jacket pocket was a copy of C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves, just enough so that the title at the top of the cover could be read. I was planning on reading it on the trip to Fredericksburg. As I turned to set down my guitar, my overly-large backpack was in someone's face. She kindly said "excuse me" and I finally got myself turned around after setting down the guitar to apoligize with "Sorry, I'm a bit wide today." I gave a small, slightly embaressed sorry-my-backpack-was-in-your-face smile to the middle-aged woman. Then she took the conversation in a whole new direction.

"I've always wanted to read that book," she said, indicating The Four Loves in my pocket. "Oh, this one?" I said, taking it out. I could smell the start of a good conversation. Then she asked me, "Can I have it?"

I have, for a long time, wondered what it would be like for a stranger to ask me for something, out of the blue and for free. I wanted to be able to give it freely, without holding back, just blessing the person. And then, I got that chance.

I was elated as I realized a daydream of mine was being fulfilled. A grin stretched itself across my face as I said "Sure! Here you go" and handed it too her. "Thanks, honey. You never know who you're giving something to," was her reply... as if that didn't give me enough to think about, she asked me "Do you play guitar?" She had seen me carry it up. I replied, "Yeah," not knowing what she was going to tell me next. "I wanna encourage you to keep doin' your work in the Lord. And write that song." As soon as she said it, God made it clear in my heart: I knew exactly what song she was talking about. Angel or just a lady who has a great connection with God, she encouraged me in so many ways with our 30-second conversation.

Giving that book away was a great experience. When my best friend Andrew and I got back to our seats on the train, he looked at me slightly bewildered and said "She took your book!" I said "No, she asked for it and I gave it to her." It was liberating and fulfilling to have that opportunity. And the fact that God put on my heart a very specific song; it was one that I had been getting lines for in my head, one every few days; they would just pop into my head and I would rush over to my laptop to write it down. Very much a Godsong, one he's crafting specifically in my heart. It also encouraged me to practice guitar on a more regular basis... I have had a conviction to focus on praise/worship/God-themed songs in my playing instead of just casual, for-fun contemporary songs, and God really sealed that in my heart on the train that day.

There was a high density of God being really awesome in the couple of days before I got on the train... God brought healing to a situation with a friend, and in such way that very obviously glorified HIM as the mover; I thank him for that one a lot. Right after that I got a word of encouragement from a friend at a church I used to go to, who's been growing in his own walk with God. A wonderful set of three really encouraging happenings.

It seems God is beginning to favor working in threes in my life... at the end of winter break, at my last Sunday at my home church (which is the safest, most comfortable place in the world to me) three different pairs of people prayed for me- completely independent of one another. The first two groups asked if it was my last Sunday before I left, and then offered to pray for me. I was saying goodbye to the third pair, unexpectedly started to break down (in a good way... coming to terms with some things God had opened my eyes to and leaving a safe haven) and then they lifted me up. He's been making it really obvious that he's got my back. It's a great feeling.

The first verse to my Godsong, as yet without a title:

I'm holding back this avalanche with frostbitten hands
And I'm testing my courage just to see where it stands
You say that my time has come and I let go
And I ride the river born of the snow

February 27, 2009

The Reason for Our Blindness

While singing during worship at church several Sundays ago, my voice cracked. I chuckled to myself and thought, "Well, my voice definitely isn't perfect, but it's the voice you gave me God, so I'm happy with it." I have had some slight insecurities about my singing voice, not having as much training as those I sometimes find myself singing with. Right after I thought that to God, He said right back: "Zach, your voice is perfect for my purposes. If you were any worse or better at singing, if your voice was any prettier or harsher, it wouldn't be optimal for my plan for you. The voice and skill I have given you is perfect for my perfect for my purposes; worldly perfection is arbitrary. You needn't be insecure."

I feel like anyone can take home this point... that whatever your weaknesses, disabilities or personal tragedy, you don't have to be insecure because it was designed that way for a specific purpose: to glorify God. Your flaws and difficulties are there so God can use you- either to heal/dissipate them, to grow you to strength in them, to get you certain opportunities, or so you can grow towards Him. Whatever the purpose, it isn't pointless. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't try your hardest... it's not an excuse to hold back all that you can be.

Here's the first few verses of one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, John 9:

"As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.""

The man is then healed by Jesus, and goes onto to witness before the Pharisees about what had happened.

I think it's an awesomely beautiful thing, to take anything in your life and know that "this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in YOUR life."