Sunday

Worry not ...

Most of us are comfortable with spiritual formulas, especially those that reduce complex questions and concepts of morality, personality, and spirituality to simple black and white explanations. But for me, there are not many areas of life that are that simple, that are black and white. There are many shades of gray, and I believe God manifests himself in those uncertain areas. Nonetheless, I also believe there are certain foundations, or guidelines, which are necessary. For example:

"If you want a good litmus test of your spiritual growth, simply examine the nature and the quality of your relationship with others." M. Robert Mulholland, a New Testament scholar from Asbury Seminary, said. Mulholland wrote a book called "Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation." In this book he wrote about how essential relationships are in spiritual formation. Of course this is not a blanket statement. We cannot judge our spiritual life by whether or not everyone likes us; however, we can judge our growth by our general attitude toward everyone. Does love rule our hearts and actions? Do we honestly try to think the best about people? Are we critical? Judgmental? Do we forgive when wronged? Can we separate wrongful acts on the part of others from the person? In other words, do we take issue with the wrongful act, or with the person?

The other day, I awakened with many worries. I carried these worries until I remembered another guiding phrase from Mulholland: "Biblically, anxiety and care are symptoms of a failure of trust." I felt gently rebuked and also encouraged. As I apologized and asked the Lord to take care of my problem, I felt a sense of release and calm. I learned once again that it's much better to trust God with my worries than to carry them myself. He is a lot stronger than I.

If I am feeling anxious or worried, am I wholeheartedly trusting God? Definitely not. In Matthew 6:25-28, Jesus talks about worry, citing how the the birds of the air depend on God to feed them. "Are you not much more valuable than they?" Jesus asked in verse 26. We must be, if Jesus suffered so greatly for us.

"A good barometer of what's important to you is listed in your checkbook ledger, or your credit card statement." I picked up this phrase from a sermon on finances and added the part about the credit card. Jesus said in Matthew 6:21 that "where your treasure is there your heart will be also." Good questions to ask might be: How much am I giving to God's work? Am I at least tithing? Do I give to people in need if I have what it takes to give? Have the needs of my family been met? Do I pay my bills and/or meet my obligations before buying things for pleasure?

Remember, these statements are guidelines, not rules. By considering them from time to time, I allow the Spirit to work more closely in my life as I uncover potentially destructive behavior.

Thursday

Christians should not avoid the culture

My church was pretty conservative while I was growing up. We preached no movies, no dancing, no smoking, no drinking; the list went on and on, it seemed. I thought our church was really conservative until I attended a private school of an even more conservative denomination. At this school, students were required to sign a contract that said we would not listen to secular music, wear pants (girls), watch movies, etc. The list was longer than my own church's list.

The thinking behind all of these rules, was that Christians were supposed to be different from the people in the culture at large. We were supposed to be "in the world, but not of the world," a "peculiar people." What we ended up being, however, was isolationists. We removed ourselves from the culture (or world) and created our own subculture. Symbolically speaking, the Christian world packed up all its worldly or secular goods, and went to live on a hill called "WWJDland." In this world, we developed our own books, movies, music. There are even mints and chocolates with a Christian theme. We created our own stationery, cards, gift items, art, key chains, T-shirts, and now jeans, toys, video games and anything else you could want, including John 3:16 golfballs. It's like we've left one culture that we despised for its materialism and created our own with the materialism included.

We would not call ourselves materialistic, however. We would say that by using these things we were witnessing or edifying ourselves for God's glory.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose, but what happens when I develop a friendship with a person who does not go to church? Actually, would that happen? After all, a lot of us surround ourselves with church activities and people; we can even work at Christian ministries and become more and more isolated, if we want. I know this. I've been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, and all the while wondered why the church wasn't growing. Anyway, when we actually strike up a conversation with "outsiders", they realize our disconnect with the culture rather quickly. The typical Christian response to this is "Good, they'll ask me why I'm different and I'll talk to them about Jesus!" That falls rather flat, and while we might be doing okay with "... the far corners of the earth ..." we are not doing so well with " ... Jerusalem ..." (Acts 1:8).

Hmmm ... seems like if I don't know what's going on in my own culture, the outsider might consider me sheltered or even a prude, and could not care less about my Jesus, especially if I have a supercilious attitude. I have encountered this attitude from the body of Christ more than once.

The best interpretation of the verse I mentioned should be "in the world, but not completely sold on the world system." The difference in interpretation means that I will work on my attitude instead of concentrating on rules. It means that instead of avoiding the culture, I'll check out popular movies and music, to perhaps find talking points and even carry on a conversation that might lead to more than a superficial relationship. I may not embrace the central themes of a movie, but through this approach I'll be able to explain why without sounding self-righteous. This interpretation will cause me to regard church as a place to refuel rather than hide. I'll still have Christian friends, but I'll also be able to introduce those friends to my non-believing friends. The difference will be that Christ's spirit will be in the center of my being where ever I am and people will know that I am a Christian by the love I have in my heart for others, rather than a Pharisaic infatuation with rules.

Does this ring true with anyone? Or, are we comfortable living by the rules? It's a lot easier, but in the gospels, we find that Jesus would not have favored the "rules" approach at all. He was involved with people, whether they believed in him or not.

Why do people suffer?

The recent remarks made by Pat Robertson of the 700 Club about the Haitian earthquake that has taken over 100,000 lives so far, caused me to consider once again why people suffer.

Robertson said on his famous television show, that the country of Haiti was once under the "heel of the French" and made a pact with the devil to get out from under French rule. Since that time, Robertson said, the country has been "cursed by one thing after another." They live in poverty, while people in the Dominican Republic, a nearby island, live in comfort because of their wealth.

People in Haiti "need a great turning to God," Robertson said, apparently oblivious to the fact that 80% of Haitians are Catholic and 16% Protestant. He then tagged on that he was hoping that something good would come out of this tragedy.

As a journalist and a lover of history, I would like to know where Robertson got his information. He quoted no sources for this "fact" he presented, he just said it on a show broadcast internationally. Way to go, Robertson. Kick the Haitians while they're down. Whether the "story" is true or not, now is not the time to say things like this, especially on television or in print.

Can you tell that I'm a little miffed over the whole thing? When I saw one of the comments on YouTube that said, "See how they are?" "They," meaning Christians. I just hurt all over.

So why do people suffer? I've thought a lot about this, especially since my first husband, a God-fearing and compassionate pastor, died of cancer. If anyone did not deserve to suffer it was him, but he did, terribly. Why didn't God spare him? Why didn't God spare Haiti, a country that hadn't had an earthquake in 200 years?

The truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that God is not the one who causes suffering. Because of sin, which was initiated by our human ancestors in the garden, our human existence and the very earth itself suffers because we are under a curse. We don't have to make a pact with the devil; bad stuff is going to happen. Besides, in any depiction of making deals with the devil, the contractee always enjoys great material wealth and secular power and influence ... until the time comes to pay up with the soul in the hereafter. So Robertson makes no sense at all. In Ecclesiastes it says that the "rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous." Proverbs says that "a righteous man falls seven times and seven times he gets back up." In these two sentences, scripture assumes that bad things will happen.

I cannot believe that a good God would cause such devastation. What I do believe, however, is that God is there to help people through this awful time. By studying Genesis, we find that God did not intend the world to be this way.

Anyway, there are 115,000 Nazarenes down in Haiti who are in my prayers. All of the people are in my prayers. May God's help, deliverance and blessing be upon the Haitian people and everyone else who is suffering from that quake.

For another perspective on this, please see:

Pat Robertson blames Haiti quake on 'pact with the devil'

Friday

Talk to God in the busyness of life

This week has been incredibly busy with work and family obligations. So much has been planned for this week that I feel like there has not been much time to breathe.

When life gets busy, I do strange things. I drift. I lose focus. I stare at the wall. Afterward, when everything is finally accomplished despite my drifting, I end up feeling mad at myself because I did not plan my time well and because I neglected other important obligations in my life while I strove to get other things done.

Such is life. All of us are busy. More often than not we flood our lives with so much to do that we become overwhelmed. If you look at my desk this week, you’ll see that I am hardly qualified to tell you how to manage your time or to simplify your life. So consider Brother Lawrence, a lay brother who lived during the 1600s and loved to talk to God while he went about his everyday tasks in a monastery kitchen.

Here are his words:

“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

Brother Lawrence became so adept at this discipline that his story “The Practice of the Presence of God,” said that “he was more united to God in his outward employments than when he left them for devotion and retirement.”

Isn’t this how life should be? Shouldn’t we concentrate on learning to talk to God and commune with him in the midst of our circumstances?

Setting aside time for rest and concentrated prayer is certainly essential. Jesus shows us this by example in the gospels and if doing this was essential for the Son of God to accomplish his task, then it is important for us as well. However, the example of Brother Lawrence shows us that during the busyness of life we can live confidently, knowing that God hears us everyday. All we need to do is talk to him.