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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gideon's Bible Battle

There was an article on the website for Fox News recently by Todd Starnes in the opinion section that I found particularly amusing. The article was titled simply, "Bibles removed from University of Wisconsin lodge." Starnes did a better job conveying the absurdity of the situation than what I will likely do here, but it did bring up some interesting thoughts of my own which I will venture to share.

The article regarded the Freedom from Religion Foundation's discovering of Gideon's Bibles in their hotel room. I'm having trouble keeping a straight face even as I write this because of the absurdity of the lengths to which this group will go for publicity and to fight against religion.

My (fictional) impression of the phone call to the front desk is something like this:

Front Desk: Front desk, may I help you?


Front Desk: Sir, are you saying there is an issue with a Bible in your hotel room?

FFRF: YES! I paid good money to sleep in this room and I don't need to be bombarded with religion while doing so!

Front Desk: Well, sir, I do understand, but those Bibles are a free donation from the Gideon Foundation, and we do place them in drawers so as not to be a bother to guests who do not wish to read them.

FFRF: DON'T YOU SEE?!?! I don't care if it's in a drawer! Why is religious propaganda in my room?

Front Desk (probably chuckling to self): Ok sir, I'll have someone remove the offending item immediately.

FFRF: You better! This country was founded on freedom from religion, and I'll be darned if I'm going to be exposed to this...this....agh just get someone up here NOW!

A quote from the article posted probably sums it up best, and definitely made me laugh out loud:

"It's quite astonishing that a group of educated individuals are so frightened by the Good Book. There's really nothing to be afraid of. There have been no confirmed reports of conversion through osmosis. It's not like the atheists and agnostics are going to spontaneously combust upon reading the Gospel of John."

This battle from groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union remind me often of two children on a playground, throwing tantrums because they cannot have their way, or because another student is being treated better than them.

I think this ongoing debate between Atheist Free thinkers and Christians is a serious issue, but in the context of these petty games of removing every reference to God or religion in any and all locations frequented by themselves, I feel they reach a new level of absurdity.

This can't be too far off...

A quote within the article by an FFRF Co-President Dan Barker said,

"We atheists and agnostics do not appreciate paying high prices for lodging, only to find Gideon Bibles in our hotel rooms, sometimes prominently displayed, knowing they contain instructions, for instance, to kill 'infidels' and blasphemers,' among other primitive and dangerous teachings."

This brings back the age-old non-Christian argument that the Bible is full of human rights violations sanctioned by God. And, while it is true by the standards of our current government and society, that some of God's commands seemed harsh at times, a diligent reading of the Bible in context will tell us the reasoning behind these things. We cannot always justify every portion in the context of our own culture, but God doesn't ask us to do so. We are to read it within the context of the culture for whom it was originally intended first. In the case of most of these objections, it involves Israel during the period following exile out of Egypt, and there were very good reasons for whatever God sanctioned for them. If the FFRF are that prone to killing infidels after browsing through a Bible, there are probably more problems within the group membership that need to be addressed.

The FFRF claims that non-Christian guests are alienated by the presence of religious items in these locations. Though, I'm sure none have ever refused hospital service during an illness simply because a crucifix is prominent in many hospital rooms.

And, by the logic of how these groups go about complaining about their rights, we could go on all day about the idea of "tolerance" except when it involves some Christian beliefs. If there is any group whose rights are violated, it is Bible-believing Christians. It may often be subtle, but the fact that I can't post certain views or ideas which I may hold without danger of public ridicule seems somewhat limiting in a society that promotes tolerance and good times for all.

So, to those in the atheist/agnostic/humanist/free-thinking camp I would just say that there are probably way better things to be worried about than a Gideon's Bible in a hotel room.

A murderous, revenge seeking raccoon seems to get along just fine with Gideon's Bible in his room...

I do have to say the idea of conversion through osmosis, as mentioned in the quote above, would make evangelizing easier, and does seem appealing in a silly way. Of course then we would need signs indicating that coming within 10 feet of a Bible may cause spontaneous conversion to Christ. Lord knows how the FFRF and others would handle that type of "rights violation."

The hotel has removed the Bibles from the room, but is simply keeping them behind the front desk now for guests who request them.

This "religious propaganda war" being pushed by these groups seems like a waste of time. They aren't planning to convert to Christ, and the Christians they harass aren't looking to drop God in favor of no God.

The attorney for FFRF writes,

"As you may know, the mission of the Gideons is to 'win the lost for Christ.' The Gideon's [sic] efforts to proselytize have frequently brought about conflict with non-religious persons and persons from minority faiths."

Another comment by Starnes responds to this well enough:

"I checked Google, and to the best of their search engine [sic], there have been no religious wars fought in the name of Gideons International. 

Looks like Gideons International isn't looking to fight a Holy War over their desire to convert the lost, and the FFRF should realize that passively being in the same room as a Bible is not going to cause them to melt like the wicked witch of the west. Though if that were the case, I suppose we could save internet space having to discuss these ridiculous situations, of which I'm sure we haven't heard the last.

The original article can be found here:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

You Can Go Your Own Way: But Please Don't!

Life is full of choices. From the moment we wake up in the morning, until our last thought before passing into sleep, we are constantly making choices.

As I continue my reading of the fictional "Left Behind" series, I can't help but think about the Book of Revelation, and one choice in particular found within its pages. There are many views and interpretations of the book, and of end time prophesy in general. I adhere to one specifically. For the sake of this post; though, I mention this only to get to my primary point, and to have something from which to pull various examples.

There is one choice we can make in our lives that has the most significant of implications. We can dance around it all day, make excuses, or even outright ignore it, but at some point, we have to decide whether we are for Christ, or against Him.

Our world today likes to offer us a variety of choices in everything. And, in many cases, there is really no wrong choice. I could choose pizza one night, and have a hamburger the next night without the first night crying foul for choosing pizza over burgers. It works that way with entertainment too.

We deal with so many subjective truths on a daily basis in the small things, that it seems no great feat to apply it to our faith, or lack thereof, as well. But Christ makes it plain and simple that His choice is the right choice. The ample evidence presenting this case is laid out before mankind. We can try to explain it away, but in the 2000 years since Christ lived, died and lived again, man's pride still cannot seem to be rid of Him. There is a reason for that.

Perhaps no other state of mind is as dangerous as that of pride. Pride can justify us in everything we do, whether good, or bad. We can look to the person on our left or right, and pride allows us to believe we are somehow better than them. Or, that we couldn't possibly be as wicked as them. It is the great leveler of persons, but it is a false balance.

Pride is what causes some to choose life without God. Pride is what causes some of those who know God, to let themselves get in the way of God, effectively negating any actual belief in God. And, perhaps the irony of it is that we can choose pride. We may be prone to, or drawn to prideful thinking, but it is still a choice whether or not we act upon it.

Good Choice and Bad choice
Before I come around full circle here regarding the ultimate choice we all face, let's break it down once more. Pride can cause us to disregard our sinfulness. It was pride that resulted in Satan's fall from grace, and pride in which he captured mankind at the fall. Sin entered the world because we thought we could determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. And yet, the very concepts are so far above us, that no one could have really ever chosen correctly.

God's word brings about this point a number of times-in various contexts-emphasizing our folly in thinking we have it all figured out without God.

"For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks (non-Jews), are under sin, as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." Romans 3:10-12

This verse alone could be used to make the case that given our own volition, we would choose sin over God 100% of the time. It is only by the movement of God's Holy Spirit in our lives to begin with, that any would make the choice to turn to God. To a degree, God does sovereignly know who ultimately belongs to Him, but because of sin's hold, and God's allowing of free will to man, we can still choose rejection of God, over faith in Christ.

Something I have thought about often is the fact that those who have knowledge of God, will have less excuse, and more to answer for someday. Those who were within the church, or had faith, and fell away, are in worse shape, than those who have never heard God's truth. This could be especially true for someone who pretends to have faith for some reason, only to later deny or fall away from it.

 Though all mankind is held accountable for sin, and all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, there are degrees of accountability. I think about this because many people I know have taken this path, and it makes it that much more crucial that they make the right choice in the end. A particularly humbling verse in Hebrews relates to this:

"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt." Hebrews 6:4-6

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But, they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." 1 John 2:3-6

This verse, in some ways, actually makes me hope that those I thought were among the faithful believers, had actually not yet made that choice, because at least then there is still hope of a future acceptance of Christ. It implies that the individual must not have ever had a true faith in Christ, and fell away due to a lack of actual conversion. This could have been for many reasons I'm sure. One particular reason that comes up quite often is a frustration with the state of the church, or "religion" as the scoffers like to refer to it. This is understandable to a degree because our churches are in such disarray these days, unable to agree on the Word, and blatantly proclaiming Gospels different than that of Christ's.

The other negative church trend is simply a lack of growth, probably causing those who fall away to have done so simply because Christ was not in that church, and it became more of a Sunday habit, than a belief in God. Without calling them out negatively, I do think that the group I have heard of this from the most in my daily life is former Catholics. Something about the hierarchal structure, and formality of it all, has caused many to fall away. I have also known some Christ-following, Bible believing Catholics, so I do not want to loop them all under one roof. But, denominations in particular lately have seen a lack of growth. Perhaps, it is due to a focus less on Christ, and more on tradition in some cases. It becomes about the religion instead of the relationship. Christianity is relationship-based, not a religion in the sense of other world faiths. This was my experience with the Methodist church. The statement of faith on the United Methodist website is Biblical and accurate, but I don't recall hearing many sermons on real conversion and salvation in Christ during my time there. If it was mentioned, it was buried under a number of easier ways to say it so they wouldn't sound like those "crazier" denominations. It wasn't until my first visit to a non-denominational church in college that I really heard a sermon on salvation, and the implications of the choice to truly accept or reject Christ.

Though the verse in Hebrews has many controversial implications, I see it to mean that if one somehow was able to fake conversion, then a falling away would make it impossible to return. But, if one actually had Christ, then a falling away would not be possible, as Christ says:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." John 10:27-29

Manifestation of Real Conversion

So, how do we actually know then that we have chosen Christ? How do we know we are heading in the right direction? There seem to be a number of verses that speak to this, but one in particular seems pertinent based on our previous discussion of letting our pride deceive us into thinking we are somehow "good" of our own accord.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He (Christ) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us." 1 John 1:8-10

"We know that we have come to know him if we keep His commands. Whoever says, 'I know Him,' but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys His word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in Him: whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did." 1 John 2:3-6

Here are two clear examples of what it means to live in Christ. We must still obey God and His commands. Our Christian culture these days is divided. On one end, we have Christians willing to set aside God's commands for the sake of pleasing the world, and not seeming "intolerant" or "exclusivist." On the other end, we have Christians willing to take a stand for God's word, knowing that it is only when we lay aside our Pride in thinking we are "good" apart from Christ, that we can truly live as Christ calls us to live.

We are not to be overly dogmatic of course, and our love should still how for those outside of Christ, but we cannot continue to compromise on God's clear commands for us, for that would make us liars. In the midst of the two ends of the spectrum, we have those torn between wanting to please God, and wanting to please man. If I'm honest, there is probably at least one area in every Christian's life which still falls within the middle of the spectrum. There is that one thing we can't seem to will ourselves to sway over to God's side. That transition from middle ground to God's ground, does take movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and this means we must be actively seeking to do as God would command. We must be Christians of true conversion, not simply those of the casual, lukewarm nature.

"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked." Revelation 3:15-17.

It is hard to miss Christ's words here, writing to the church in Laodicea. And it is easy to see how many of our churches today have become exactly like this church. There is no room for riding the fence, Christ calls us to make our choice.

The Call to a Choice

And so, we come full circle to what I realized on my reading of "Left Behind" and the Book of Revelation recently.

In Revelation, there is talk of a mark, given by the beast, which represents a final choice of rejection of God. Depending on one's interpretation of Revelation, this could take many forms, but for the sake of this, I want to simply look at the concept here.

I mentioned in my previous blog, "The Mark of the Believer," that the idea of a physical mark, signifying our final choice for God or against God, would be a helpful thing in this world of compromise and mixed belief. This post is somewhat of a continuation of that, in that I want us to be very clear about which two options we have.

Whatever the mark of the beast may take the form of at some future date, the concept of it is simply that, there will be a time, in every person's life, in which they will have to decide to accept, or reject Christ. Those who still ride the fence should not take this choice lightly. I don't really care how "preachy," or "intolerant" this next part may get labeled, because there is enough evidence to back up my thinking out there.

You are either a believer in Christ, or you are lost. And whether you believe in a real life after death, or real consequences for actions, you will come face-to-face with this choice at some juncture in life.

For the fictional characters in the Left Behind books, the time of history in which they found themselves lent itself much more to realizing the severity of this choice, whether for or against. The mark of the beast guaranteed ability to buy, sell and trade, but required worship of the god of this world, Satan. Accepting Christ and his mark meant almost certain martyrdom, and lack of resources for those who did survive.

We may not have reached this point yet in our world, but the stakes are still as high in the long run. We do not know when God may call for our lives, and it is truly too late after death. It doesn't matter that we see ourself as better than the criminal on the news, or even our annoying coworkers. How we see ourselves is only important, if we see ourselves as God sees us: separated.

Christ made it abundantly clear that He is, "the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him." That verse speaks it clearest to me, but there are hundreds of other examples suggesting the same thing. There is no mountaintop of God in which all paths eventually get to Him. Would we really want that anyway? If all roads led to God, and all were automatically saved, it would be just as bad as if God had created us all with no free will--robots for his pleasure.

Without choice, there can be no love or lack of love for God. God loves us, even in our sin, but calls us out of that sin, and into life more abundant in Him. The terms and conditions are laid out, and if we can lay our pride aside long enough to think it through, the fact that God has conditions at all is very fair and just. Often we cry "unfair," "not inclusive enough!" at God's terms for salvation, all the while forgetting that the mere fact there is an option at all is because of God's grace and love for us.

We screwed up. All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. But, because God so loved us, he came down from Heaven's throne, humbled Himself as a sinless and perfect man, lived a perfect life, and died the only death that could ever fully bridge the gap back between God and man after the fall. His resurrection and ascension confirm His divine nature, and relational status with God the Father. We do not enter into this lightly.  Make no mistake, Christianity is not the easy path.

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Matthew 7:13-14

Many people forget that in the famous (even in secular culture) "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus utters some things which leave no room to guess as to where He expects us to take our stand. Most people get hung up on the "judge not" part of this chapter, and fail to see not only the context of that command, but also the entire rest of the chapter. It should be clear that belief in Christ is the only true option, and that it is not "judgmental" to say so.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (see also 1 John 2:3-6 above- emphasis mine). On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you works of lawlessness.'" Matthew 7:21-23

"Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist-denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also." 1 John 2:22-23

We may not currently have a choice in front of us that offers a literal mark to identify our stance, but the choice for or against Christ is still being made daily. While my focus here has been simply laying out the two truthful possibilities for us all, I should not forget to mention that the whole point of calling us to accept Christ is a desire for fellowship with us. God offered Christ to become propitiation for our sins, so that we might regain eternal fellowship. It's hard to grasp in a world so steeped in individualism and survival of the fittest, but we were created by God for good works and for fellowship with Him. God meets us where we are. From the darkest alley, to the front church pews, God can find us in our unbelief and transform us. Are we willing to allow this? That's the choice.

God may be working on your heart today. If you feel conviction, or even anger at some of the things mentioned here, it is the work of God's spirit, trying to show the truth. In many ways, the truth hurts. It goes against the grain of society, and makes us spiritual outcasts. There is no possibility of one-world-faith in God's playbook. It is abundantly clear.

I am able to vouch for the fact that we are constantly growing in our faith. Paul tells us that he would like to feed us meat, but for some must still resort to milk. The maturing in our faith is all part of the growth process, but we cannot begin to grow in Christ, until He begins His work in us.

The Bible is clear that there will be a time, perhaps long in the future, perhaps sooner, that God's long-suffering will eventually reach a climax, and the option of faith in Christ will become impossible for those who rejected too long. Just like pharaoh hardened his own heart multiple times, God will eventually give us what we want if our rebellion is that important to us. Pride makes it hard to lay aside self, and so we must come to God in humility. We must confess with our mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and accept His sacrifice- the only thing- that can cover our sin. We can do good works until the cows come home, and be no closer to God than the criminal on television with whom we so like to compare ourselves.

Christ died with two men on either side of Him, both criminals and sinners. One realized his need for salvation from his life of sin, and Christ credited his faith as righteousness telling him that on that very day he would meet him in Paradise. The other died in rebellion, mocking and rejecting God until his final breath. Which criminal next to Jesus do we want to be? We are all criminals, but God so loved us, that he sent His son, that whoever would believe in Him could have eternal life.

The choice (to a certain degree) is ours. I pray the Holy spirit would convict and lead all my brothers and sisters, friends and relatives, strangers and people across the world to an understanding of our need for a savior, and to the truth that our Savior has come. Do we accept Him, or reject Him? There are no other choices.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Mark of the Believer

I am nearly finished with my re-reading/listening of the "Left Behind series," and I had almost forgotten just how action-packed and exciting they were. I want to focus here briefly on one simple concept from the book series (and I believe the Bible as well) that I find particularly intriguing as a Christian.

Many of us culturally have been trained in one way or another to shy away from the number 666. The Bible, in so many words, says this is the "mark of the beast," a symbol of Antichrist, and notable for the inability for someone to change their mind once accepting this mark. 

In context of one of a number of interpretations of Revelation, there is also an idea of sealing Christian believers to spare them the judgments of God.

Now, Left Behind does take a pre-tribulational rapture-pre-millenial viewpoint of Revelation. For the sake of not confusing everyone, this is typically considered the view held by most Evangelical Christians, and indicates a rapture of Christ's church into Heaven, followed by a seven year period of Tribulation on Earth for those who were not believers at the time of the Rapture of Christ's church. During this time, there are ample opportunities to come to belief, but those becoming believers in Christ at this point are doing so in the most tumultuous time of Earth's history, so martyrdom and persecution are the expectations.

With that quick background in mind, a concept that the Left Behind author's elaborated on a bit, but which I find particularly intriguing, is the idea that true believers are sealed by God visibly. In our own time, we have no visible mark after coming to Christ.

In the books, this seal takes the form of a cross on the forehead that can only be seen by another believer in Christ. People do not see their own marks, but fellow believers can see each other's. In the context of the books, this helps believers work together to survive during the Tribulation period.

A different mark, the Mark of the Beast, as interpreted by this particular viewpoint, is a mark taken by those who wish to buy and sell during the time period. It is a choice to show allegiance to the ruler of this world and Satan, instead of Christ. Revelation 13:16 mentions more about this; as well as Revelation 14:9.

"The second beast (False Prophet) was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast (Antichrist), so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast, for it is the number of man. That number is 666." Revelation 13:16-18

"A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: 'If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they too, will drink the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of His wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.' This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God, who keep His commands and remain faithful to Jesus." Revelation 14:9-12

The intriguing thing to me, is that Revelation also mentions the mark of believers who are sealed by God. In context of Revelation it does likely refer to a remnant of Jewish believers who come to Christ and evangelize for Him during this time period, but for the books, the authors allowed any believer in Christ to have this mark visible to other believers.

The verse mentioning this seal in Revelation is in chapter 7, and says:

"Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 'Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.'" Revelation 7:3

So, my thought is that it would be so great if Christians now could see immediately who fellow believers were by a mark of some sort. These days with the culture wars taking over the church, it is often difficult to discern who is a true believer in Christ. Within the church, many are deceiving with false doctrines, and teachings against Christ. Compromise is the flavor of the day, as Christians begin to develop a more "buffet" attitude of faith to appease a world who finds the exclusivism of Christianity to be intolerant. 

If we had a means of not only knowing ourselves that we were fully assured believers, but also who among us was sealed with us, I think it could provide a power of evangelism not yet realized since the days of the first disciples. Think to the Day of Pentecost and the 3000 who believed after hearing Peter's sermon. 

We could know who was truly a believer in Christ, and who was undecided, or even pretending, and adjust our witness accordingly.

As I mentioned before, this verse is likely referring in the immediate context to the 144,000 sealed Jewish evangelists, but the elaboration by the authors to allow it to include all believers was a concept I found enjoyable. 

Perhaps part of it is that I have always seemed to struggle with assurance, and if my fellow believers could identify a mark on my forehead confirming my trust in Christ, it would give me that much more comfort. Then again, trusting on Christ's sacrifice, and having faith is a big part of it, and I'm guessing the need for this physical "seal" is simply due to the period of time during which it may occur. 

For now, Christians are not persecuted to the extent that such a mark would be wholly necessary. But, if we are to trust God's promises, there will come a time in the future, when God's patience will begin to wear, and a period of history will occur in which God uses judgments as a final effort to reach those whom He loves. While it may seem harsh, we must remember just how much information is available now for making a decision to follow Christ. Even now there is not much excuse, other than living on a secluded island perhaps.

Especially in America, there is no real excuse for not believing except rebellion or pride in ourselves. The truth is in the Word, and the Word is readily available around the world. I pray God would use us even now, visibly sealed or not, to let our witness reach to the ends of the Earth: so that all may know that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Unexpected Influence

Recently, upon discovering that I could have a library card as an adult, I began checking out audio books for download to my iPhone. There is a set of books, of which many have differing opinions, that still hold a special place for me in my life and in my faith. So, naturally, the first book I "borrowed" from the digital library was part of that series.

When I'm giving my testimony of what brought me fully into belief in Christ (not just the church attendance of my youth), I can't discuss it without a nod to the "Left Behind" book series. Even as I type that I realize many opinions (or judgments) are forming in my readers' minds regarding this. I should probably clarify, that young adult fiction is a category I've always enjoyed more than others. The fantasy element of much of this genre is appealing.

But, with the "Left Behind" series (which I will henceforth stop putting in quotation marks to save time), became more than just a fiction series to me. It was primarily their presentation of the Chrisitan faith in the midst of persecution that emotionally moved me to dig deeper into the faith  which until that point I had simply professed as a church-goer, and not much more. Important to note here probably that simply attending church on Sundays does not make someone a Christan-contrary to popular belief. So, while helpful, it wasn't the end all be all, and it was the Left Behind series that helped spark my interest in studying the Bible more. This study, though years in the making, has formed my foundation of my faith as it stands today.

Seriously, by "Soul Harvest," and "Apollyon" it gets hard to put down

To start at the beginning, I should re-visit a small portion of my childhood church activity. Being raised in the Methodist church, as a kid, I passed my time during sermons in one of two ways. One was playing tic-tac-toe with Gary Godman, and the other was reading the Book of Revelation. I can't really peg down exactly what drew me to that book at an early age, but it always had special appeal to me. Thankfully, even for a little kid, there is a special blessing promised to the readers of this book, so it wasn't the worst way I could have spent my time during sermons.

People will naturally assume that it's all the imagery of the book that drew my childhood imagination, and to be sure that was part of it. Also was my obsessive need for structure, and the fact that structurally it's fairly organized in its sequences of events (at least in the sense that much of it happens in sevens). Still, as a kid reading it, I really didn't grasp the whole concept. It wasn't until I read the Left Behind books that I began seeing it in a slightly more theological way.

Now, without calling them out too much, Methodist are not notorious for discussing/ preaching on this particular book of the Bible. My guess is they are afraid of stepping on people's toes (this may not just be a Methodist thing), or just confusing them. I believe there are times in which that risk is a necessary one, but I suppose I can't fault them too much as they are certainly not the only denomination to avoid it like the plague.

So, ironically perhaps, it was popular fiction that drew me into a deeper desire to study the Book of Revelation. From Revelation, I worked backwards to the Gospels. And, finally, for about the 50th time in college, I asked Christ into my life and understood what it meant. Perhaps 200 times later, I am currently  much more solidified in my faith and trust that I am actually in Christ. That topic is for another blog though.

There are a few reasons that I can pin down as to why I enjoyed the Left Behind series so much. More than any other book series which I have read, it is the series that I could not put down. I remember one mission trip in particular where I breezed through about 5 of those books on the drive alone.

1. Theology and Immediacy

Despite being fiction, it presents some important Theological points in an easy to understand manner.

Because much of the backdrop of the series takes place in the worst period of time in human history, the understood need of the Gospel is much more emphasized. When the world is at war, and persecution is rampant, characters are much more inclined to the message of hope. In reality, this has proven true in the past as well. Much of the early church growth came in the face of heavy persecution.

In addition, because the books take place in a period of time which represents the final chance for people to accept Christ, there is an immediate need to spread the Gospel. Too often in our day there is no noticeable immediate need and we get lazy about least in America.

The characters in the book are living on borrowed time, and understand that there is a very real possibility that giving their lives to Christ, may actually mean dying for Christ. This willingness to believe, in spite of the danger of that belief, is another trait within the books which inspired me.

2. Faith in the Face of Persecution
We face few trials in modern American Christianity. At worst, I waste the time I could be sleeping before work needlessly debating another Christians on some theological point. Or, we find news media portraying Christianity in a negative light.  But, within the context of these books, persecution, even for those in America, is a real possibility.

When the characters in the book convert to Christ, they truly are taking up their crosses and laying their lives on the line. This aspect of Christianity is technically a part of the faith in our day as well, but again, less noticeable as we are living in a fairly prosperous country at a prosperous time.

My Testimony
I've always struggled (at least until very recently) with assurance of my salvation in Christ. I'm not sure exactly why that is, but it has always been an issue. When I read the Left Behind books; however, I saw Christian characters who did not doubt. Their assurance, and the picture of that presented, was helpful in addressing my own lack of assurance. Their focus and determination for the Gospel was inspiring to me as a young Christian. These "Tribulation Saints" were a model example of Christianity. And so, as mentioned before, part of the reason my faith in Christ increased, is because of this book series.

Critical Reception
Of course, many people within the faith community critically panned the books for various reasons. It never really bothered me, though it did always elicit strange looks when I told people how inspirational the series was to me.

At the end of the day, I think a big part of the problem was that people stopped reading after the first three books. In reality, the first three were mostly setup and character development, and most of the action and Biblical events didn't occur until later in the series.

In addition, the series' presentation of Heaven, while speculational, was a very hopeful view, that was not scripturally inaccurate (though scriptural accuracy on the nature of Heaven is admittedly limited).

The moment that the main character sees Christ returning in glory, and hears Christ speak to his heart, like the character in the book, brought me to tears. The overwhelming love of our savior, presented in a simple way, still effectively broke me down to the point that it was the first time I actually prayed for Christ to come to my heart. I wanted what these Christian characters had. Fiction or not, their relationship with Christ was admirable because they had come through so much to that point. There was trial and suffering and it forced growth within them and their faith to the point of overwhelming joy when Christ finally returned in the series.

The two final books in the series, "Glorious Appearing" and "Kingdom Come" may have been mainly speculative, but they were no less moving to me. And, for a generation of Christians that often forgets that our hope is in a future life beyond this earth, it presented the reality of it in a way that really spoke to me.

I don't have much purpose or call to action for this blog. I've just been enjoying my audio books of my favorite series. If anyone got stuck on the first few books and gave up, try starting fresh and pushing forward to the middle of the series and beyond. My guess is if you approach it from the perspectives that I've brought up above, it might hold a new level of appeal. They are easy reads (which is why some people ignored them) but I find that helpful. I don't get bogged down in intricate, confusing writing, but can focus on the directness of it. I have no problem with surface level books, but I do think it continues to mature as the series progresses. This happens with many book series. The first few books are the set up and growth period, and then they take off and become great.

The public libraries have these books in paperback or on audio (which is particularly compelling way to experience this series) so go pick one or two out and give it a shot. They may not move you so much that you go from unbeliever to believer, but they can certainly strengthen our theology regarding suffering and persecution for people of faith. And, in that sense, it's a book series we all could use at one time or another.

Be blessed friends.