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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Three Things I Wish I Could Tell a New Christian

This week, I have been reading No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green, which was written by his widow, Melody Green. The book covers the singer/songwriter's search for God, how he and Melody came to know Jesus (even though both of them were of Jewish heritage), and the development of his message and ministry in the Jesus Movement in California in the 70s and early 80s.  The flow and content of the book explains a lot of the reasoning behind the decisions he made, to help those readers who might be struggling with the same issues. I haven't finished reading the book, but I recommend that you check it out (and I'm not getting paid for that endorsement).

This book seems especially written for those who are contemplating becoming a Christian, new Christians, and those who know them. I found myself thinking about what basic advice I would give to these readers. I cut it down to three main pieces of advice:

God's truth will outlast and outshine any lies we encounter.--The world is filled with lots of things that pass for truth (many of them very cleverly disguised), but they turn out to be hollow when we scrutinize them closely.  Until then, those lies can fill us with doubts.  If something has come along and made you doubt God, I encourage you to seek out the answers to your questions in the Bible, and don't give up until the question is settled (Matthew 7: 7-8; Psalm 34: 8). After all, the Bible was written to make known who God is and to record what He stands for, as it says repeatedly (for example, Isaiah 46: 9-10). I know from experience that the answers are there for anyone who wants to find them.

God's righteousness is greater than any stupidity you might encounter from His followers.--One of the biggest deterrents for new Christians and those considering becoming a Christian is the stupidity, cruelty, and hypocrisy of those claiming to be Jesus' followers.  This is because (1) not everyone claiming to be a Christian really is, and (2) Even those who really are Christians can do things that are wrong from time to time.  Good news! God sent His son, Jesus, to redeem and purify messed up people. Since He condemned their sin as something so bad that it was worthy of death and then paid that penalty on the cross, nothing He has said or done can be construed as an endorsement of sin, even among His followers.  In fact, the only reason sin is tolerated at all is to allow time for a few more to find out about Him (Romans 9: 22-24). So if you see a so-called Christian behaving badly, it reflects back on their character, not on the God they claim to follow.  Don't let them discourage you from finding out what God's character is really like (Romans 5: 6-8).

God's strength is greater than the worst troubles in life.--The last big obstacle to growing (or sometimes even beginning) faith in Christ is the trouble and struggles we all face. Jesus even talked about this in His explanation of the Parable of the Sower, in which He said, "The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away," (Matthew 13: 20, 21 NIV).  The "root" here symbolizes the strength of the hearer's convictions and faith and the value they put on their relationship with Jesus Christ.  It is important to remember as a new Christian (and also important to know, as someone interested in Christianity) that this faith that we hold is in a real Savior who has redeemed His followers from death and will carry them through all the troubles of today.  There is no reason to be afraid or lose hope.  The Bible says that Christians can depend on God's supernatural strength to both help and defend them (Psalm 9: 9; Joshua 1: 9).

Parting questions: As a new Christian, curious seeker, or friend of a new Christian, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to faith? What questions do you need answered in order to have that deeper, stronger relationship with God?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

3 Spiritual Lessons My Dog Taught Me

Last Monday, I had to say goodbye to my dog and long-time companion, Romeo, an Australian Shepherd. Although I found out that he had been suffering from a type of inoperable cancer called hemangiosarcoma for a long time, it came as a sudden shock for me--he hardly even let it be known that he was ill until the last few days were upon us. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that he's gone.

Romeo was a very unusual dog.  I know a lot of people say that about their dogs, and they're probably right.  My dog was very intelligent, like his breed, and for all intents and purposes, he could talk.  He couldn't actually speak English, but he could communicate complex things like questions and opinions to me through body language. He used his special skills to teach and to train, and I believed God blessed my life through him. I think it's time to pass on a few lessons my dog taught me, direct from a Greater Master.

Lesson1: Knock Until You Get an Answer

A few incidents stand out in my memory. Some were "all dog," but quite a few were something more than that.  For instance, when he was a new pup, everyone in the house would go outside at the same time to play with him, and frequently, all but one of us would go back inside, absentmindedly locking the door behind us. That last person would have to circle the house, knocking on windows until he or she had drawn enough attention to get the door opened. Romeo would follow that person, observing the whole scene closely. Then, one day, we heard a pounding at a back window, looked around the room, and realized that we were all inside!  We rushed to the window to investigate, and there stood Romeo. He had one front paw on the brick windowsill, and he was batting the window with the other one. When he saw that we had all gathered, he tipped his head way back in a "come on out" gesture, and hopped down. We never taught him to do that, but for the rest of his life, when he needed us for something and we weren't outside, this was how he would let us know.

This was a good reminder for me of Jesus' words, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened," (Matthew 7: 7-8 NIV).  I pray that, just like Romeo, you have a good enough relationship with your Master that you know that all you have to do is knock if you've got a question or a need, whether you're hungry or thirsty, or something alarming is going on in your life, or you're just feeling lonely.  I also hope that you won't give up easily (Romeo didn't), or think that just because it's 3 a.m. He won't show up (Romeo didn't believe that, either).  The fact is, God cares much more than people ever could, and He wants more than just "ownership" of us--He wants a relationship with us.  He wants more than our obedience; He wants our love.

Lesson 2: Repent Quickly

 I recall going out one morning to feed Romeo and finding him at the door with fresh blood smeared all over his snout. Romeo was in an exceptionally gleeful mood, and he kept bounding toward me and walking a few paces away, which was his signal to follow him. I did, with fear and trembling about what I was about to see, but when I got around the corner of the house, fear turned to shock and anger. He was coming back to me with a big, goofy grin on his face, dragging along a large section of metal rain guttering that had been installed just the night before.  He had pulled it off the side of the house during the night and had cut his mouth on it!  I was speechless, but the expression on my face must have told him everything he needed to know. I remember the grin melting off of his face, and he dropped the guttering and ran away from me--the only time he ever did, because I never hit him--and he followed me quietly, at a safe distance, as I picked up the guttering and took it to the garage. On the way, I remember looking at him over my shoulder and shouting, "I can't believe you did this!" It was the last time I ever shouted at my dog, too, because from that day on I remembered the look of pure, limpid-eyed shame on his face as he crept closer and licked my free hand. Who could stay angry after an apology like that?

I believe that animals are sinless creatures, and that they don't really know the difference between right and wrong. However, I feel Romeo modeled the kind of repentance that God wants from people.  Romeo didn't know that he was doing something wrong, so he didn't try to hide from me like Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden.  Similarly in contrast with humans, when he found out that I was displeased, he took full credit for his actions, stopped them immediately, and asked for my forgiveness and renewed friendship. If only humans could learn to do the same! God is quick to forgive those who repent, and it is written, "a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise," (Psalm 51: 17 NIV). I might add, God requires us to treat our fellow man with the same anxiousness to forgive (Mark 11: 25).

Lesson 3: Don't Let Pain Take Away Your Joy

I have heard of seizure dogs, or dogs that signaled to their masters that a heart attack or earthquake was coming.  As far as I know, Romeo lacked those abilities, but we jokingly referred to him as the "bruise sniffing dog."  If anyone got injured, he knew about it.  He could locate bruises and lick them through layers of blue jeans, t-shirt, or socks, even if they were several days old and happened when he wasn't around. One time, I fell and twisted my ankle badly while playing with him. He acted deeply concerned, ran to my side, and lay down next to me for a few minutes.  When the pain had started to subside, he jumped up and started energetically licking my face and swatting at me with his paws until I jumped to my feet. As soon as I was standing, he was ready to play some more.

The message was clear enough--life is too short and too wonderful to sit around moping for too long.  Romeo was a joyful dog who rarely let anything get him down, even cancer.  He welcomed sunshine, rain, and snow with equal enthusiasm, and so should we.  Every day was created by God to be celebrated with Him (Psalm 96: 10-13).  Pain comes and goes, but we should live our lives with the joy of the Lord, that is, a joy which is deeper than just happiness, filling even our grief with hope. 

Our hope and joy is founded on our knowledge that one day, all the hurt and brokenness and ugliness of this world will be taken away when Jesus comes back to renew it and heal those who know Him.  I don't know if Romeo will be there, but I do know his lessons will be. God is taking care of me. Romeo was another symbol of God's goodness. I know that it's going to be alright.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Getting Down to Business: Start with Prayer

I bought a "Word of the Day" calendar for the second year in a row, and I'm using it to learn more of the sort of "back story" of the English language. The word for this past weekend was "business."  According to the calendar, it happens to come from the word "busyness," and it implies a sense of  frenzy or anxiety about whatever you might call your "business."

I finished reading this little entry and looked over at my (very long) to-do list, and wondered why business had come to be so closely connected with anxiety and haste. I'm not against working, but I do think that sometimes we take our "business" to the extreme.  Medical research is constantly announcing the health cost of too much or prolonged stress, and there are other costs, too, when our anxiety boils over into our marriages and relationships. In the end, anxiety can become one of the biggest obstacles we encounter as we strive to "get business done."

Anxiety doesn't always have to go hand in hand with "business." The Bible advises us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God," (Philippians 4:6 NIV).  Note that it says "in every situation" we should be praying rather than getting anxious. That means that if someone is slow to get back to us and we're on a deadline, we should stop and pray, instead of hammering our fingernails against the desk as our blood pressure climbs. If spilled coffee in the break room makes us feel stressed out, we should stop and pray before breaking out the paper towels. If rude drivers on the commute make us feel like shouting, we should turn the radio down and pray for part of the drive.

I don't mean that we should recite some sort of self-soothing mantra to calm ourselves down. There is a better way to pray!  If we look back at that verse in Philippians that I quoted earlier, it says that we should pray "with thanksgiving," and that we should "present [our] requests to God."  These prayers are conversations or special requests asked in faith, not just words recited to an unfeeling universe.  They are our needs presented to a real, living God who we have come to know and who assured us He is listening.  Because we know we have been heard, and because we know that He is there, and that He does take action, we can be thankful and comforted.

Next time, when "business" is making us anxious, we should take a moment, however brief, and pray in faith, knowing that we have been heard and that God is going to answer--sometimes by changing the situation, and sometimes by helping us to overcome it.  That even goes for those who have never prayed before.  Go ahead and try it!
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. 1 John 5: 14, 15 NIV
My church has called for a week of prayer, and you're invited to join in.  When you are praying for your own needs, please remember to also pray for missionaries and church leaders, friends and families, students and teachers, lawmakers and governments around the world, and any other needs you feel moved to mention.  This might be a good way to establish the habit of intercessory prayer in the new year.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Goodbye, 2012, Hello, 2013!

I've spent the last week gathering my thoughts about the past year, and trying to make plans for 2013.  My thoughts lead me back to a prayer service I attended at the last changing of the year, where the pastor preached about his belief that 2012 would be a year of overcoming fear by the blood of Christ and in His strength. He reminded us all that the Bible tells us "do not fear" at least once for every day of the year, and that many of those times, God follows that command with a reminder that He is there for those who call on Him.

Well, I can now say, looking back, that those words on fear stuck with me through the year, and prompted me to get out of my comfort zone many times. In many ways, 2012 was a ground-breaking year for me. You didn't always hear about what I was going through on this blog, because frequently I was dealing with very personal decisions concerning my career and relationships. Sometimes they completely absorbed my attention to the point that I couldn't find other words to share here on the blog, and I had to just take a break and spend that time in prayer and reflection.

Looking forward across the unbroken snow that is 2013, I feel it's going to be a good year. I can't say what will come, but I know God will be with me, and "he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus," (Philippians 1: 6 NIV, personalization mine). The new year is going to be a time of completion, of finishing projects I've begun, of following through and turning plans into action, particularly the plans God has for my life.  Believe me, I have a lot of things to get done this year.

Despite all of those plans, I still want to keep up the dream of this blog. I'd love to see it expanding, and I'd like to hear what God has put on my readers' hearts these days.  I'd love to hear your comments, suggested topics for discussion, prayer requests, and more. I'd like to get to know you. I'd even be open to guest blogs from time to time, so please, by all means, drop me a line.

In the meantime, God bless!

Question: What does the new year mean to you?