Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Swon" Song

Today marked the release of the debut album from "The Swon Brothers," who rose to fame after a successful run on the hit show, "The Voice." Though they were runners up on the show, they have taken that opportunity, and made something great of it.

I don't want this to be an excuse to play the "I know Colton and Zach," card, but I do want to share some of my experience around the brothers, and try to put into words the great emotion I feel having seen them make it this far.

First, let me just say to you guys, well done! You have absolutely been blessed with a great opportunity, and you are using your skills and your faith to realize God's call on your life as musicians. And, I do believe it is a calling.

I went to high school with Zach and Colton, though Zach was a year ahead and Colton a year or two behind. I won't say we hung out frequently by any means, but I do have a few fond memories of these guys, and the impact they made on all whom they came across.

Throughout high school most of our interactions were battling as bands in the talent shows. I began performing around my Sophomore year, but was certainly not at the talent level of these guys. As such, I had a sort of envy/admiration from afar.

My senior year, though, I had a chance to really sit down with Colton and get to know him a little better. It wasn't much, but we had a jazz band class together (which was more of a "jam band" class). I remember one day sitting in one of the band rooms with our acoustic guitars just strumming and hanging out. Whether or not he knows it, Colton has a way to make you feel like you are the most important person in the room without even saying a word. I can't remember what we discussed or what songs we played, but I haven't forgotten that moment when I finally got a glimpse at Colton's personality. It took away any friendly competition, and turned it into true admiration of talent.

There was one time before Colton and I sat together in Jazz band during my sophomore year that stands out to me as well. My band (if it could have been called that) had somehow booked a gig at our Spanish teacher's restaurant. It was my first real gig, and though our talent wasn't quite there, my brother, friend and I were very excited to play. I remember setting everything up and nearly being ready to play when Colton and Zach walked in with some friends.

I should clarify that this restaurant was not an easy find, it was out in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma. What they did next has always been a cherished memory as well, though at the time I doubt I realized it would be.

Despite them already knowing we weren't the most skilled guys out there, they sat and supported us through our set, applauding when applicable, and legitimately watching us. I have a video of that night, and I know we didn't sound too good. The Swon Brothers have been talented since the crib, so to us having them watch was a big deal. It meant a lot that they stuck around. I think they played gigs there sometimes as well (maybe even later that night), but what stands out is their willingness to show support to a group that was clearly not on their level.

It's that kind of caring, and respect for those around them that really shines through. I could talk all day about how great this album is, and how each song is equally uplifting and inspiring. How "This side of Heaven," brought a tear to my eye, and how "Pray for you" makes me feel a surge of happiness at the sheer honesty of it all. Or, how I can't seem to stop singing, "Later on," and how "Same Old Highway," is very relatable as I drive to and from Mexico so often in this season of my life. But, I think there is more to Colton and Zach than the musical skill. They have an uncanny ability to make everyone around them feel special and relevant. They interact with their fans, they genuinely enjoy what they do and it shows.

I really can't think of two better guys to have received this great opportunity. Since high school, I've matured spiritually and mentally, and realize now that this is definitely more than just a career for them. It is a calling. It's hard to explain what emotional response I'm experiencing listening to this album. I have immense pride for their accomplishment, and I feel uplifted each time their perfect harmonies line up at just the right moments. There is something special about their music.

Colton and Zach, I just want you to know, this isn't a unique situation I write about. There are countless people you have touched, and who probably have a thousand other stories of your generosity of spirit and kindness. It didn't occur to me completely in high school, but looking back, you two are genuinely talented, level-headed, kind people. I can see that now with the insight of a few more years under my belt.

I want to let you know I'm proud of you. Your hometown of Muskogee is proud of you. Your friends and family are proud of you. I am overjoyed at your success, and I don't know if the high school version of me would have been able to see that through all the teenage emotions. I know now you are destined for this success. You've prepared your whole lives for this moment. Don't lose sight of your roots. Don't lose sight of Christ and your faith. To those who much is given, much is required, so don't let the road or fame get to you negatively. Stay positive and keep doing what you do best, God will take care of the rest.

Remember to bring glory to God in all you do, and let your lyrics and music speak to people's hearts. I can tell you with this album they already have. May God bless you and keep you and make His face to shine up on you and your music. You are an inspiration. Today I'm going to keep listening to the album, but tonight, I'm gonna pray for you. God bless you brothers!

If you haven't already, head over to iTunes and show these guys some support by getting their album. It's a good $10 investment, and they deserve it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

God's Will: To seek or to wait?

Are we meant to seek out God's will? Or does it tend to actively find us?

These are thoughts running through my head. In many cases in my own life, it seems to be the latter. I'll be going along and then some opportunity will come along that pushes me onward in my faith journey. An example of this would be last September when Matt asked me to help kick off Amen Austin church leading worship. 

Or do we seek out God's will as in the case of Juliet? We made a plan (with prayer) and determined we would downsize our life style enough for her to pursue God's plan for her working in Mexico.

In the case of both, we were actively growing in our faith walk and/or helping others. Juliet is really just getting things kicked off down there even 3 months later, but she finally enjoys something that she is doing.

In my own case, I grew more from September-April leading worship at a church than I could've anticipated. In another example of God's will finding me, I was thrust into position of "leader" for the mission trip to Acuña, MX back in March.

So, you might say we both found God's will, or let's say "direction" in different ways, and at different times.

But, my question now becomes, how do I remain in God's will once it appears that I am in it? An odd sounding question for sure, but my question nonetheless.

See, as we began planning to follow God's call to downsize so Juliet could answer the call in Mexico, I was thrust into circumstances at work beyond my control which made it not possible to attend church at all, let alone lead worship. So, as we began the search for God's will in Juliet's life, he seems to have sidelined me to cheer her on in my own walk.

And, though I like thinking of it like that (her cheerleader as it were), it's hard not to wonder why God could not also still be using me in the same capacity as before.

Are there seasons of doing God's will , and seasons of cheering for others? Or did the lack of church and regular worship put me in a distracted funk where I dedicate more focus to TV and video games than my previous theological pursuits?

I tend to thrive on church. And while these days that is somewhat taboo even among Christians (who worship Jesus, not the institution), I think their is validity in a personal relationship with Christ, which also retains an element of the community of believers that is His church. 

One thing I miss most about the past year is fellowship with other believers. It's not that I can't pick up my Bible or pray alone, but I learned this past year that the support of others doing the same thing with you can be quite uplifting.

I think that while I tend to be a loner in terms of socializing, the one area where that is not the case is within the body of believers. I seem to thrive on mutual support and encouragement. Does that mean I'm still insecure in my faith? Maybe a little.

I have yet to understand what it is to live fully for God. I have moments, even months sometimes where that is my primary focus. Other months, however I seem to be in good shape if I just manage my daily Bible reading (and I'm a month behind on that now). I know Christians still have day jobs. But could the pull to daily be focused on kingdom building be God pushing me to some kind of ministry? That's my only guess. Because as fulfilling as working a decent day job can be, I feel like is rather be working directly for God, building and preaching His kingdom.

But, I am a lowly sinner. How can one be called to something when as soon as the winds of change blow, they get sidetracked and unfocused? What is the purpose in my work schedule changing in such a way that for at least 3 months I've been without corporate worship? 

Back to the first question, Are we meant to seek out God's will? Or does it tend to actively find us? Could it be that because in all my past experiences God has dropped things in my lap, that when he lets me loose on my own to seek Him, I am unable? Does a child who has everything provided for then grow up knowing instinctively how to fend for himself, or is there a seeking element there? A learning process. Is it possible that while God loves to get the ball rolling (so to speak) with opportunity, we are meant to continually seek the growth and maintenance of said opportunity? Instead of sitting around waiting for God to throw the next bone, are we (in prayer) supposed to step out and seek His will as well? It would certainly be in keeping with His character. Growth through change (and sometimes trial) will teach us to stand firm with God when the winds of change, distraction or sin blow out way.

So, then, if the answer to the question appears to be a little of both, does it shift one way or another more in us individually? Am I given opportunity so that God can teach me that it is there and that I should seek His will daily whether or not he sets it out for me? And for someone like Juliet (hypothetically) is she already such a good seeker of God's will that the possibility for random blessing and opportunity is not needed? Or could it be that being a seeker and doer of God's will, she could always use a good dose of reliance and trust on Him as well. A reminder that while it is wise to seek God's will, we do nothing without trust in Him. Oddly, the seeker may be seeking the very thing that for the receiver God would simply place there to get the ball rolling.

So, for example, if God drops an opportunity to serve leading worship, or even missions, and I take it, and cherish the idea of it, but tend to be blown about by winds of change and distraction, God must place me in new situations where I need to be more active than passive. Does this mean that this past year I was being passive in the roles in whih I was placed?

Honestly, looking back, it is possible. It seemed to be God's will and became comfortable in it. But, could I have put more effort into the music? Could I have engaged more people to sign up for mission trips? Did my naturally tendency for procrastination simply manifest itself in God activities instead of Chris activities? Perhaps, though I confess I did put time and effort into both, maybe I did not put enough in to show I was a ready and willing servant. 

Now, laying here about to go to work tomorrow at a good job, but not a God job, I have to wonder of my current season is a product of my own doing? Like the benched player who did not put in enough effort to get on the field, I'm happy for the other players (Juliet) and support the "team" wholeheartedly in a victory, but being on the bench by one's own doing can sometimes still be painful. 

Is that what is going on? I'm not too sure. In September, one year after having the great opportunities to grow and lead, I sit at a crossroads. What if my distraction and laziness puts me back on the bench for another 6 months? I certainly haven't proved I can run with the ball being on the bench since April. Or, will God perhaps grant me, in His mercy, the chance to try again? To really, fully come into His ministry. Am I called to do so? Or am I meant to at least have days free to worship and commune with other believers while holding a regular day job?

I'm sure I could be fine either way. And if any of the events since April which caused me to not be able to go to church whatsoever were my own doing then I am sorry. If, however, they were a time to learn even the small kernel of truth this writing has brought to my mind- that we must actively seek God in every opportunity in which we find ourselves-, or to bring me back to remembrance of just how much I need God and fellowship with Him, then it will have been time well spent. 

But, please God let me get back in the "game" eventually. I'm thankful for Juliet and her chance to serve you, and I do not want my own ambitions for your will to take away from her ministry, but I too am ready to serve again. Where will you lead me? Am I to wait on you in trust, or would you have me seek out your will around me? Will it be a mix of both? Whatever the way, Your will be done! Amen

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Start of a New Chapter

Well it's been awhile since I've had anything to write. Honestly the past few months have been a blur of planning and the fruition of those plans.

Back in April (as I think I posted on a previous post) Juliet and I decided to buy an RV, downsize our lifestyle, and give her a chance to work for her dad in Mexico helping with Manos Juntas and the mission teams.

Up until June when we left the apartment, it was weird knowing that we had gone through with the RV purchase and had it stored and waiting. Throughout mid-May to this point things have been happening quite rapidly.

On an extremely positive note, Juliet's parents both got tourist visas and can now visit the states when they want. They came up for a visit the week we were moving out of the apartment to help out, and to see Austin for the first time. It had been I think 20 + years since her dad had been in the states, and close to the same for her mom. The fun of getting to take them on a "tour" of sorts like I had done 7 years ago with Juliet was a great experience all over again. We ate at a few select restaurants and saw some sights.

From the time Juliet went to Mexico to start helping out around May 16th, I had really only visited her twice prior to their June 9th visit. It had already become a situation where she really was in Mexico more than here. This was the plan so I had (and have) no issue with this. It's weird to sit back and remember though realizing she was gone a couple weeks when we hadn't been really apart since prior to being married in 2007. Most of our time has been spent together.

When they left after the June visit, my dad (in a pleasant turn of events) made a visit to see me (and her parents before they left), and also help some with the RV move. Though we spent most of the time moving the furniture to storage and installing a new fridge on the RV, the time felt very special to me. It has been awhile since just my dad and I have done any activity together the two of us. It was strenuous work, but I knew by time he was offering to patch up a part of the roof as well that he enjoyed the time as well, despite the hard work.

We managed to catch the last few innings of a baseball game to unwind, and I spent the night at his hotel room for one last glimpse of civilization before the final commitment of the RV living. By this time it was livable and ready to go.

Once he left, I had a normal 4 day work week in which I initially as dreading being alone again. One solid week of close family had warmed me back to the idea of the togetherness, and being on my own again seemed unappealing. My mom and Joe ended up moving back to Oklahoma that week; however, and in a nice surprise she stayed at the RV with me a couple nights while their RV was transported.

This represented really the last remnant of family nearby for what I knew would be a week or so at a time. It was a change that we had chosen, but that seemed all the more real the first night that I slept in the RV bed alone as Juliet lay in Mexico surround by her family. My family and come for a final visit in a way before heading back to Oklahoma.

That week went by well enough, and during this whole period of Juliet being gone, I had made a few trips to Mexico to visit and see her. There were probably only two full weeks that I've been totally by myself here.

This past week, Juliet and I just got back from our 10 day anniversary vacation, and again the time spent immersed in family only made the upcoming days afterwards alone feel that much more quiet. I actually like being alone, and I typically can get a lot more done in terms of "Chris projects," that I always seem to have in endless supply. But, there are moments when I still miss company.

What occurs to me in the midst of all of this is that though our plan is playing out exactly as expected, when I think of what's on the horizon, for the first time in awhile I'm clueless. I have been working on Sundays since May and haven't been to church since Easter, which bums me out after having been active leading worship in one church on Saturdays and enjoying being in the congregation at our home church on Sundays. I was immersed in church life and now that I don't have it. I do miss it.

I'm praying my 4x10 shift which is great for visiting Mexico will somehow move to a Sun-Tues off schedule instead of its current Mon-Wed off.

This lack of fellowship which I had become so accustomed to only weighs on me in the quiet hours. I stay fairly occupied usually with TV and video games and the day-to-day of work. It's weird that when I am in town on one of my 3 days weekends if I really think about it, I don't think I speak more than two or three words out loud the whole time. Even running errands I rarely have to speak. I get to work on Thursday having been mostly alone with my thoughts for 3 days, and the first "Thank you for calling," is always raspy and new..as if I had gone without speaking for much longer than 3 days. I joke about that actually because it is weird to me, but in a way, something different about which to think.
Going forward, Juliet and her dad will begin speaking to churches in the states to help the ministry in Mexico, and this means they will be up here more often than at present time. I've left the puppies with her in Mexico the last couple of weeks because we found out crossing them at the border is easier than expected, and I felt like she would like their company. Turns out I miss them more than I thought I would too. But when they're here, the extra work of walking them seems frustrating.

The point of this post, other than playing a bit of catch up with those who may still read it, is to simply state that I feel again somewhat stuck and unsure of what is next, but ultimately positive.

Juliet is confident God has plans in store for us, but I want to know that our RV plan was exactly where we needed things to go. People keep complimenting me on the "sacrifice" I am making to let Juliet fulfill her dream of working with the mission teams, but in reality, I don't feel like it's a sacrifice. I've been trying to find a way for her to do that again since the day we got married. She knows it's her calling, and the fact we can finally allow her to do that is a blessing to me, no matter how much we miss each other. Actually the absence makes our time together that much more special now. It's like dating again in a way because each moment together is more precious, as the time apart brings the longing that comes from early love. We were probably getting complacent in the relationship to a degree anyway, and this has added a renewed energy and spark.

I still don't know why I was given the opportunity to lead worship and pursue theological matters so fully, only to have the proverbial rug pulled from me when the work schedule changed on me, but I suppose the time will come to figure that out. Perhaps, as I had wanted for so long, this is Juliet's time to fulfill her calling. I have had so many opportunities to do so up to this point, it's time to let her have some time as well.

Honestly, at work I am performing better than ever being back on days and a consistent schedule, so I suppose in that respect things are going well.

And, we both love the RV. Well, I love it and Juliet said she likes it and is comfortable in it too. It's maximum usage of space without excess. It's comfortable living without waste, and that aspect of it is appealing. It feels like a preparation of sorts for future circumstances that might require being out of comfort zones. Maybe mission work, who knows?

In any case, that is the "news" and probably why I hadn't taken the time to post much lately. My theological interest in terms of study and growth may have waned a bit due to the lack of being around church as much, which always boosted my interest. God knows when the time will come to renew my energies on that front. For now, as before, I pray His will be done in both our lives as we begin this new, unfamiliar, but ultimately promising chapter of our marriage. And perhaps it's no coincidence that in the 7th year the major changes have come. The number "7" has played a big role since being married on 7/7/07. It's a year of change and growth, and I think we'll come out on the other side better for it.

Pray for us both as we seek God's will in all of this, and pray for our finances as we transition into a period of downsizing both on bills, but also on income. We are truly living within our means, and I would love the opportunity for the part of the plan to start setting money aside to come to fruition, but this transitional period is showing us that sometimes "just enough," is enough. A good lesson, and one I think we are happy to embrace at present time.

I will try to post more often as in previous months as I am led. Hopefully this keeps my main readers satisfied for present time.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

There's No Place like Mom's

My mom and I have shared special memories for the extent of my life, but I find the more I reflect, some of the best ones have come from the past 10 years or so.

Back in 2003-2004, my Junior/Senior years of high school we began a tradition of sitting each night and watching a few episodes of "Frasier." It was a great time to laugh together and was something we looked forward to. When we finally made it through the whole series (and this was buy the DVDs as they came, pre-Netflix days) I think we both felt like we were losing something. 

When I went to college, the visits back home were comfortable, and I could kick back and relax, knowing that just being there was a joy for both of us. With the implementation a few years before of my patented "spontaneous hugs," we could supplement the unspoken feelings from time to time with a good random hug.

My mom is also primarily reponsible for the fact that I can go home tonight and be with my wife here in the States.

She was the first to say go for it when I to her I wanted to marry Juliet, and she began filling out the Fiancé visa application and info with me as soon as I told her Juliet was the one.

I was in college with limited funds and she funded the application fees and costs to ultimately get Juliet here from Mexico. I owe so much to her for that.

When Juliet arrived my mom and her clicked instantly, like sisters, and we spent many of the weekends during our first years of marriage visiting with her as she endeavored to expose Juliet to as many of the fun things as possible. And it cost her to constantly treat the unemployed college kid and his wife to meals and entertainment, but she was so generous about it, and I'm sure got as much joy from those times as we did.

When Juliet and I moved to Austin she took us on one big trip to Colorado that is still one of my best memories. She is someone with whom 12 hour car rides are still fun, and the getting there is as good as the destination.

We spent our first years in Austin driving to Oklahoma for family visits as much as possible, and she was always ready with some fun agenda or plan to make the most of our time there.

Then, in March of last year, she moved to Austin. Now, usually once a week or two we cook out or go walking. Juliet and her have such a good dynamic that often I just sit back and observe the interaction. It's not that I don't have things to say, but I get great satisfaction from seeing them talking and joking with each other. 

The past few years our relationship has evolved to a very understanding level in which words are not always required to know how we feel. 

But, on this Mother's Day, I thought it a great time to reminisce on what a great mother God has given me. I can never repay her generosity, and I will never get tired of having her nearby. She is of the utmost importance to me, and I pray God blessed her abundantly on this day, and every day thereafter.

For my money, there's just no other place like mom's, and a visit there is always a great experience.

Happy Mother's Day, mom. I love you more than one blog can truly express, but it's a start!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Great Downsizing

Juliet and I have been doing about the same thing in terms of living since we got married. We have been in apartments-some small, some big-always nicer than what we probably "need."

We did have one experience renting a house for a year, which in terms of the house and renters was just fine, but in terms of what we actually "needed," it was well beyond what we should have worked with at that point.

Each time we step towards something larger, or with more amenities, we plan the next time to cut back and downsize. So far, other than the drop from the 3 bedroom house to the 1 bedroom apartment, we haven't done it much. Even then, the apartment was amenity-rich enough that the actual savings between the two was minimal. 

Where I work, I do what essentially amounts to "needs-based" sales. I find out what the customer wants, I assess what they technically need, and I recommend based on that. Sometimes it's for more, sometimes for less, and often they still go for what they originally intended. But, I make it a point to always point out that "technically" they could get by with less (if that is truly the case...sometimes it isn't).

So, in thinking through our patterns of housing, I realize we have been shelling tons of money each month into rent. I know it's something that can't really be avoided, and Austin is growing so prices just keep going up each year. 

Juliet approached me on a recent mini trip to Oklahoma about maybe making a bigger downsizing than what we had done previously. 

My mom and stepdad have been living comfortably in a Fifth Wheel RV now for the better part of 2 years, and each time we visit, we notice how functionally everything still works the same. They cook, they clean, they shower, they sleep; everything is essentially what we "need" in a place to live-just smaller. 

After researching a bit into it, we decided that purchasing our own used RV, would provide us with the downsizing that we seek, and give us something of value to sell after a couple years, should we decide to upgrade, or save enough for a house. Because it would be used, it would likely not depreciate while in our possession, and so at the end of a year or so, we could sell it for about what we pay, and use that as a down payment towards a newer used one (if we like the lifestyle), or have some considerable savings (ideally). 

The game plan, as we are praying for it to unfold, is that we will finish out our lease in the current apartment complex (which we have enjoyed the most out of all our other locations), and move into the RV and RV park to begin our "downsizing." 

With RV park rent (which his way lower than apartment) and a minor payment on the RV (depending on what we buy), we'd still be cutting back considerably, and be able to start saving a bit better.

As part of this possibility, Juliet would finally be able to do what she was wanted to do since I first met her in Mexico--work for her dad in Mexico. 

She spent her high school years and later (until I brought her here with me) translating and helping with missions teams coming down through Manos Juntas Mexico. They primarily conducted the Methodist churches who want to build houses or help on medical teams, and that is how I met her originally (through the church in which I was raised). 

The downsizing plan allows the financial flexibility for her to test out/pursue her dream of working in missions, and learning the ropes from her father, who currently is one of the main coordinators for the ministry. She would make a small salary and tips from teams, which would amount to essentially what she gets paid now. She may also have opportunity to teach English to kids while there for payment.

The idea behind it all is that she feels she is being called to pursue this, and that some ministry opportunity lies behind it that we currently can't see completely. By taking a bit of a faith jump, and living more within means (or less than our means to a degree), we hope to move forward in a position spiritually and financially that if we needed to respond to a call, we'd be ready. 

The RV in and of itself would make mission work much easier if we moved from place to place, as we could simply pack up and tow it to a new location. 

Most of this is still tentative, though I've told her that doing the Mexico work is worth pursuing. And, we are in the process of buying the RV pretty soon. I guess it's tentative/happening all at once. It's a bit overwhelming, and there are lots of things to coordinate, but so far, everything has fallen into place pretty well. We are trusting God to provide what we need, and feel that downsizing in general is a wise-decision. Living better within our means, and saving some money for future needs.

All in all I'm excited, a bit nervous, and excited again. The RV part alone would be a good idea in terms of finances, and living in one for a year or two would not be too bad (or doesn't seem like it would be). We would be paying more for a studio apartment, and not have resale value, so in terms of furthest we can downsize, this seems to be the spot. 

One snag we hit was the forced changing of my current work schedule, and the possibility of not having Sundays off for the foreseeable months. As it is today, there was an opening on one of the Sunday off teams, and I put in for it in anticipation that God will put me there if that's where He wants me. If not, I will have 4 days @ 10 hours each, with a Monday, Tues, Wednesday off each week. The benefit of that schedule would be time to go visit Juliet during her stay in Mexico with more ease. 

Either way, I've committed to God's will in it, and I'm just awaiting what He has in store now. I would love to continue having Sundays off as we are very active in our church now. I'm sure if I am temporarily misplaced from that (through nothing in my control) that God will use me in some way. Or perhaps, the random opening on the Sunday off team is the answer to my prayers? I trust God either way.

As we proceed with our plans, we are trying to be open and flexible and just lay them out generally. If we get too detailed, we would seek reliance on ourselves (or be tempted to do so) and I think it would be wiser to let God guide this move. 

Prayers during this time are greatly appreciated, and I will put a minor list here of specifics. In everything we give thanks that God has consistently provided for us over the past few years, and we know whatever happens, He is in control.

In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to express our heart's desires, and to pray for fulfillment of this. We just ask God's will be done either way.

So please pray for us in terms of:
-Having days off with my job that allow Sunday worship and activities
-Juliet's transition to working in Mexico, and the financial implications (however minor)
-To find a great RV deal, something within our price range (this may have already happened)
-For the time we will have apart as Juliet pursues her calling in Mexico, while I continue working here
-For God to use her time in Mexico and those ministries to open doors for further opportunities for both of us to fulfill our purpose
-For peace and comfort during what may be initially stressful times

Thanks in advance, and thanks be to God, who is always providing, and in whose will we put our trust, looking forward to the good things prepared for us from the foundation of the world.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Lord Willing

I've heard many people use the phrase "Lord Willing" in my life, but had never really thought about the implication of this type of attitude until recently.

Recently, on our church mission trip to Acuña, Mexico, we discussed this type of mindset. It was tied in with the book of James, and a discussion on plans and planning. How much should we as Christians plan for the future, and how much should we leave in God's hands? That was the gist of the conversation.

That conversation brought to my mind the phrase, "Lord Willing." Really, this type of attitude is a healthy one for the Christian to adopt. Rather than always focusing on our own plans and ambitions, we could insert the caveat "Lord Willing" to acknowledge that despite what we may plan or decide to do, it will be only if God wills it.

For my part, while not outright using that phrasing, I have begun to insert a request for God's will to be done with my prayers. It is really kind of a difficult thing to get used to, but ultimately the most spiritually beneficial way to go through our days.

The mission trip presented me with my first opportunity to lead a group of diverse people into a foreign country to build houses. While my responsibility was shared with a few others, I was technically the "trip leader."

It was a role I had accepted reluctantly (whether I said it or not) and which I felt under qualified  for from the get go. Before the trip I had a chance to speak about my previous mission experiences, and honestly felt under qualified in that regard too.

You see, Juliet is really the "missionary" of the family. Her whole adult life was mission work through the organization Manos Juntas. In fact, I met her on a trip to Mexico through this organization as she was the translator for our group that week.

For this reason, when the guy who usually heads up theses trips asked me to lead, I nearly told him he needed to defer to her.

Still, I think there was a plan in all of this, and God wanted to stretch me a bit in terms mod reliance on Him.

Much of the planning was still coordinated between the two of us. He had the experience of this particular style of trip through our church, and was a great resource for helping with the logistics of the trip. He was even planning on attending and co-leading with me originally.

But, as God likes to do, He threw me a curve ball and a day or two before the trip, my co-leading buddy had to back out for family reasons, and I ended up not being able to lean on him for help. I readied myself to coordinate a group of 36 people from 3 different churches with ages ranging from 11 to 75. Some had done more of these trips than me. Many were older than me. Some were probably better qualified, but God allowed me to be stretched and to be exposed to this type of leadership to which I'm not too accustomed.

Now, the Lord Willing type of attitude was something that became a reality very quickly because of this.

Truth be told, I over planned the trip and nearly drove myself crazy trying to adjust times and schedules for activities beyond the building of the houses that I wanted us to accomplish. But, each time I would get a plan set in stone, it would suddenly fall apart. Initially, instead of taking the hint and just letting God control it, I would begin reformulating the next plan to replace the one that failed.

It was actually 3 days into the trip before I finally realized I wasn't going to be in control of the group in terms of these plans. I prayed that God would allow time for the activities we wanted to do, and that we would still finish the houses on time, and sat back ready and willing.

And, true to form, God let the timing of our final two days in Mexico work in a way that included everything we wanted to do, and got the houses done on time. And that is with one house having many challenges to the build.

So, though I never questioned that God was leading the trip, and that I was simply an instrument He was using, I learned that the "Lord willing" attitude really is the best way. When I let go of my desires and plans, and simply trusted God to provide for the group, everything fell in place perfectly. The stress dissolved, and the blessings began flowing.

Our week involved many delays, building issues and other challenges, but God was with our group the whole time. We took 36 people and built two homes for families in need of them. We managed to have 36 people share a living space for 4 days with no conflicts arising. And, I suppose even as I type this and say that "We managed," I really mean "God managed." God managed our group, and simply let me call them to action when needed. I was a minor instrument used for a greater purpose.

And, in the midst of trying to learn how to confidently lead a group of people, God totally took over, and made it unnecessary to stress out and worry over the "How" of it. Instead, a spirit of cooperation fell upon the group, and the leadership aspect fell into place by God's grace and provision.

One other bonus is that after heading up this trip, I can't wait for the next one. Though, I started out thinking Juliet was the real missionary, God showed me that a calling to the mission field would not be out of the question at some point in my walk. I've got about 10 things I want to be called to do, and so far God has allowed me a portion of time for each. Where I will end up ultimately to be used, I don't know. But, I can say that "Lord Willing," I'll be ready and able when my calling comes.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The "R" Word

I've written before on various religions in relation to Christianity (primarily here), but I want to focus today within the context of Christianity.

When I speak of the "R" word, I am referring actually to two separate words. The view one holds of these two words has the potential to dramatically effect their personal walk with Christ.

Admittedly, this will be another post focused towards my Christian (and even religiously Christian) brethren. Though, I'm sure those outside of the faith can get some insight as well. I want to discuss the current trend of using the world "religion"  when speaking of someone adhering to the Christian faith. It occurs often in our daily conversations, and in truth, is not technically incorrect. But, I think the way we view this word, "Religion" has the potential to influence the way we share our faith, and also the way in which we are perceived by those outside the faith.

A quote that I still like, though may have become somewhat cliche as of late, goes something like:

"Religion is man seeking God, Christianity is God seeking man." -Unknown

Whenever I have a conversation with an unbelieving person, or even sometimes with the more liberal of my Christian brothers and sisters, I find the term "religion" tossed around a lot. I am not sure if it stems from a discomfort with the relational aspect of faith in Christ, or if it is is simply something picked up from the way our current culture tends to refer to Christianity, but either way, it is misleading.

Christianity has always been about the relationship. It is man's relationship to his Creator. It is the falling away of that relationship because of sin. And, it is the great love story of God (Creator) bringing man back unto fellowship by virtue of a perfect sacrifice (Christ) meant to bridge the gap created by man's sinful fall from grace.

Our relationship with Christ is the bridge that unites us back in fellowship with God. Without this bridge, we remain lost. Enter Religion.

There are likely thousands of various religions, and sects within those of which I could speak. We know the major ones, and in the past Christianity has been looped in with the big groups. We mention Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity more often than most, but there exist an abundance of others.

The three major mono-Theisitc (worship one god) religions are Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Each of these believes in one god. This is where the similarities begin to spread.

Likely due to the influence of the Catholic church in early church history, Christianity began to gradually be associated more with traditions and practices, than with the original relationship with Christ on which it was founded by His disciples. As man sought new ways of interacting with God, even still through Christ, new traditions formed, and much like Judaism pre-Christ, man-made practices began to take the place of the Gospel itself.

For example, during a particularly dark period in Christian history, the Catholic church and the Papacy began selling indulgences. These were basically like purchased 'Get out of Hell Free" cards, that would forgive the buyer of sin, and guarantee Heavenly status.

Obviously, it is not in any man's power (yes even the Pope) to grant forgiveness, as forgiveness is only by and through Christ. Still, practices likes these began to turn the relationship with Christ which formed Christianity, into a religion of man with Christ as its worship center. A small difference to be sure, but a significant one when we see some of the implications of this. Catholicism also has a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with Mary and frequently elevates her to a level of equality with Christ, which is not Biblical. Someone once told me this was because people find it less difficult to pray to a motherly figure, as a Fatherly figure sometimes seems more condemning. I can see where they have a point, and that would explain why many people elevate Mary to status with God. It prevents the conviction of sin that we are under with God, and lets us as humans feel more in control. It is, however, not Biblical thinking.

In addition, if Christianity stands as just another religion, the exclusivity of Christ gets called into question. While many people (Christians included) would like the exclusivity to be questioned these days, it is certainly not the intention of the Gospel for there to be a means outside of Christ by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12). Therefore, turning Christianity into a "religion" like those other world  religions, loops it in with false gospels and misinformation regarding salvation and the problem of sin.

Without trying to pick on them too much, the reason I use Catholics in the previous example is because they are most often the Christians that I hear referring to the faith as a religion. It makes sense as we can note many "religious" aspects of the Catholic worship experience. For many who claim Catholicism it is less about Christ and more about the obligatory mass attendance once in awhile. This leads to another problem.

If Christianity was simply about butts in the church seats each Sunday, it would have died out long ago. It is an active faith, and its adherents, at their best, should be actively sharing that faith and seeking ways to spread the message of hope, love and salvation to a world that is lost in sin. Simply mentioning sin; however, becomes a stumbling block for the more "religious" Christians. Like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus time, some Christians are so locked into tradition that they fail to see Christ right in front of them.

There is a danger of apathy, amongst other things, that can come from treating Christianity as just another religion. By doing so, one also misses the entire point- a relationship with Christ. It is not by accident that the Bible calls the church the "bride of Christ." It is meant as imagery to display the importance of the church to Christ. A church that is not actively seeking that closeness with its bridegroom, Christ, is like a bride simply telling people she is engaged, but never seeking to spend anytime with her betrothed. The groom becomes an afterthought. I notice that the most apathetic Christians are the ones most likely associated with a denomination or sect which focuses more on traditions and statements of faith, than actual relationships with Christ. Where is the hunger for His word? Where is the submission to His will? It often seems absent.

So in the great comparison of religion versus relationship, we should be approaching Christianity as a relationship. It's no secret many have fallen away from Christianity when it becomes too "religious" for them. Often these fallouts then become the very people calling it a religion. And, in their case it would be understandable. If a church becomes more about religion then genuine seekers may be put off and see Christianity as a whole in religious terms instead of relational terms.

This was the experience I had growing up in a mainline denominational church. I knew I needed to attend on Sundays. I knew what songs we would sing and what creeds we would recite. I knew that someone would dryly read from God's word-often calling to mind Ben Stein from "Ferris Bueller's Day off." There was no passion for the Word of God, it was recitation. Repeat after me was more important than learning meaning behind what we were repeating.

Now, I don't think it was totally the fault of the denomination, as I have since learned of other churches within this denomination that have a much more passionate worship experience. And, once a year at church camp, when the district came together, some of that passion would sneak into the camp worship. It was a taste of what Christianity could be, but once that week ended, it was back to the dry worship experience.

In youth group we occasionally reached these peaks of passion during devotional songs. Between those moments, and church camp, I began to feel inside a drawing towards a more active knowledge of my faith in which I had been raised. Had anyone asked me if I was a Christian growing up I would have said, " yes," but if they asked if I knew what that meant, I would have been clueless.

I don't want to blame the structure of denominationalism in America, but it's not surprising to me that so many are falling away from these traditions in favor of a non-denominational, Bible/Jesus-based worship experience.

I discovered this type of worship first on Tuesday nights in college during "Overflow." This was a once a week service of just songs, and the movement of the Spirit in that place was quite noticeable. It was something I hadn't felt during my regular Sunday services growing up. It was something I had glimpsed occasionally at camp, but never fully in a weekly capacity. From there, I began attending the non-denominational church that my friends were going to, and heard my first sermon on what it actually means to be a Christian. I learned more on salvation, sin and God's grace in one sermon than I had learned in 10+ years of my home church.

I can't say I was a strict adherent to my newly discovered faith in my college days, but the seed was planted, and it continues to grow even now within.

My point is simply that if being raised in the church was the only requirement to be called a Christian, I would have been considered one without a doubt. But, looking back, I was not really following Christ in those days. I know some do follow Christ in that church to this day, but I know others have fallen into simply attending out of a sort of misplaced religious duty. This "duty" is what I'd like to avoid by the clarification present in this post.

We cannot believe that by calling ourselves Methodist, Catholic or Baptist, that we automatically have a relationship with Jesus. It simply isn't true. It takes a submission of self to God's will, an acceptance of Christ's sacrifice for our sins, and an attitude of repentance. Simply going to church once in awhile, sitting through a service, and then actively forgetting Christ throughout the week is not Christianity. It is a form of false religion, and it is so close to the real thing, that it is often one of the saddest spots in which someone can be. The truth is practically bashing them in the face, and yet it continues to be ignored.

I'm not trying to say that by calling oneself "Methodist" or "Baptist" or "Catholic" that we are not Christians. There are Methodists, Baptists and Catholics aplenty that are true followers of Christ. I've seen it first hand, even in the Catholic church, which until college I thought worshipped Mary more than Jesus.  That's a blog for another day, but I do understand now there are saved Christians within all denominations.

So, the heart of my post here is, "do we really know Jesus?" Have we confused religion for relationship? Are we attending church out of obligation instead of opportunity for fellowship with our Savior? A butt in the seat does not a Christian make.

Let's reassess our standing with Christ. Let's call ourselves Christians because we trusted Christ for our salvation, not because we are a Sunday regular. Church attendance is important for fellowship and growth, but knowing Christ is relational first. Whenever and wherever we find ourselves, we can make that jump into relationship with our Savior. We can step out of religion, and into a relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ.

*For more on the differences between the Catholic tradition and Protestant views, this great tract was recently passed along to me, and sums things up quite well. I would definitely encourage my Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ to read it, as it can help call back from the danger of falling into tradition over true faith in Christ.
Roman Catholic and Protestantism Gospel Tract