Monday, August 24, 2009

A long post...a beautiful-though hard-revelation

The past couple of days have been frustrating. I have found myself becoming very anxious and worked up about many things. In particular, I cannot seem to shake my doubts. God has created me to be a person who asks lots of questions. As such, I often work myself into a tizzy with queries, hypotheticals, and scenarios related to God and his scriptures that are very unsatisfying. Secondly, it seems I am constantly reminded of my inadequacy. I constantly compare myself to other people's spiritual life, education, and achievements. All of my comparison is exhausting, eventually leaving me feeling very down.

This morning Allison and I spent some time in the scriptures, reading a passage from the OT about Elisha and Naaman, King of Syria (2 Kings 5). Naaman had leprosy and heard of a prophet in Israel who could heal him. When Naaman goes to Elisha for healing, he does not like what Elisha tells him to do. "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean" (v.10). Naaman desires to meet the prophet and become healed on his own terms, not on God's. Nonetheless, Naaman reluctantly obeys Elisha's instructions and is mercifully healed by YHWH, the God of Israel.

After reading the story and swapping observations with Allison, I still felt very inadequate. "Man," I thought, "I wish I could see the scriptures the way Allie does." I also identified with Naaman in his frustration. I often want God on my terms, not on his (which I think is indicative of Modern man's problem). Furthermore, I was doubting the accuracy of these miraculous OT stories and couldn't concentrate on what God may have been trying to communicate. Feeling even more discouraged than before, I asked Allison if I could be alone with God for some time.

I walked out to a swing and sat down with my bible for a while. I looked around for almost 30 minutes, just taking in my surroundings and searching within myself to see what was going on. After finding nothing but more frustration I decided to read from the NT to see if Jesus could shed any light on my situation. Just to give all of you a tip for your own spiritual life: reading Jesus doesn't always produce peace in a difficult situation.

I turned to John 6 and following a quick reading of the chapter I felt as if I had been punched in the face. If you pick up Jn. 6 at v. 22, you find Jesus addressing the crowds and many of his disciples (there were more than just 12 at this point). The crowds who had just been miraculously fed by Jesus (Jn. 6:1-15) seek out Jesus once more. "Rabbi, when did you come here," they ask him in a manner that seems to imply, "We weren't through with you, why did you leave us?" Jesus then tells them that they are seeking him because they are still hungry for bread, not because they are hungry for the Son of God. Jesus then moves into a powerful--yet difficult to understand--discourse about eternal life, the bread of life, and what it means to believe in Jesus.

Jesus compares himself to the bread that Moses gave to the Israelites in the dessert when they were starving for sustenance. Jesus explains that such bread fades in the stomach, but his bread--his own body--offers eternal life. The crowd and some of the disciples are confused and frustrated. Just when you think Jesus would clear things up and aid the crowds in their understanding, he says this: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (v. 53). The response to this by many of the disciples is that "this is a hard saying; who can listen to it" (v. 60)? Only the twelve disciples stick around and Jesus continues to call out his followers by informing them that "one of [them] is a devil" (v. 70).

Now, come back to how I was feeling before I read this passage. I expected Jesus to squelch my doubts, fears, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy. Instead, I see him confusing crowds and calling out his disciples. At this point, I was incredibly aggravated because I knew that I identified more with the frustrated crowds than with the twelve disciples who stuck it out with the Messiah. The next 30 minutes I cried out to God in sheer anger, pulling on my hair while I was praying and grinding my teeth. I just couldn't figure out why I wasn't experiencing the eternal life I had just read about.

I decided to read through the passage again because something was just drawing me to do so. All of a sudden, like a giant Acme anvil hitting a cartoon character with unapologetic force, God hit me with some truth. The first time I read Jn. 6, it felt like I had been hit in the face and it hurt. This time it felt like I had been hit in the face and it quieted my soul. I realized that I identify with the crowds in Jn. 6 and Naaman in 2 Ki. 5 because that's exactly how I see my interactions with God. I want a therapeutic, consumer-friendly God who will make me feel better all of the time. No suffering or hardship for me, just give me the pill that will make it all better!

Look at Jn. 6 again. Jesus calls out the crowds because they simply want more bread to fill their stomachs. Jesus is trying to show them that he is the Son of God-the revealed Messiah-and all they are concerned about is another meal. When Jesus explains to them about eternal life through himself, the bread of life, they quickly say, "give us this bread always" (v. 34). They aren't even concerned with what Jesus is saying about himself or the fact that God is in the midst of them; they just want the benefits of eternal life. No wonder Jesus comes down so hard on them. The language of eating Jesus' flesh and blood refers to the sacrifice one faces when following Jesus and the hunger one must have to pursue Jesus. The crowds wanted neither, they just wanted full stomachs. In other words, they wanted the end without the means to get there. It is also no wonder that they say, "this is a hard saying." The people up to this point have had it easy with how Jesus has provided for them and shared great love. When sacrifice enters the picture, however, hard sayings are just too much. This, my patient readers, is me.

I am an American who consumes. I consume to fill my stomach. I sometimes forget to chew because I just want to become full. I am a product of my American environment. Just listen to what most commercials about food will tell you (especially fast food). "No other product will fill you up like ours!" In fact, the other day I heard a Domino's pizza ad. that told me I could order 3lbs. of food to eat in one sitting. All of this to say, I am a consumer of goods to the point of excess. The reason I have been so frustrated with Jesus lately is because he does not allow me to simply consume him for the feeling of being full. Jesus does not want you or me to simply eat of his bread to become full, instead he desires we eat of his bread because it is from him.

From my reading of Jn. 6, all Jesus wants from his followers is devotion to him--the incarnate God of Israel. Such devotion requires sacrifice. For so long I have associated Jesus with good, fuzzy feelings and comfort. I have food on my table and so I thank God, but do I even care about God? Is God a Father or a vending machine (see Derek Webb's "The Spirit v. the kick drum")? When doubts plague me and I become frustrated, I just lash out and expect to have the faith of the disciples. What I often fail to realize is that the disciples struggled and suffered to become who they were in the end. Ultimately, I realized that Jesus wants me to want him and not just his benefits.

Is the pursuit of Jesus and the sacrifice that comes with it (taking on the cross that tore his flesh and spilled his blood) worth it? The answer to this question comes from the mouth of Peter at the end of Jn. 6. After the crowds and some of the disciples leave Jesus, he turns to the twelve and asks if they are going to follow the dissenters? Peter answers, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (v. 68). Walking and abiding with Jesus will eventually lead all of us to a point where we ask if it is worth the cost? At such a point, we must turn again to Jesus himself and observe God in the flesh. Yes, it is experiencing doubt, frustration, anxiety, fear, and even death to follow Jesus because he has the words of eternal life. He is the great "I am" and is constantly saving us from being comfortable creatures who would sell our souls for a meal. He moves us beyond the faint desires of our flesh and into true life, eternal life (or "the life of the ages"). I am reminded of the Robbie Seay song, "Rescued Ones," where he sings, "Oh our mouths are full, but our souls are starved for you!"

Jesus is worth following because of Jesus himself and no other reason at all. The love, hope, joy, suffering, hard sayings, and discomforts that come with Jesus give us true life. In summary, I am trying to follow Jesus anew, as a follower of him and not just his benefits.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I'm losing faith in coincidence

Allie and I have been preparing to go overseas for the next two years. Part of our preparation has included packing up all of our belongings, moving stuff into storage, and deciding what we will keep and what we can sell.

This morning we had a garage sale and it was better than we could have hoped for. We earned almost $90 for stuff we had little or no regard for. We did, however, have two couches that we didn't know what to do with. Eventually I looked up and jokingly said, "Father God, would you please find someone who can take these couches." We didn't want to haul them off and we both knew they could find a good home. I figured, "God answers his children's prayers, even if they are silly, so why not?"

As the garage sale was winding down, Allie and I decided to throw some signs up that read, "Free Couches." We were tired of waiting and quickly lost interest in trying to earn a profit off of the old couches. It wasn't long after the signs went up that we had a visitor.

I walked outside to meet the person looking at our couches. "Hi, are you interested in the couches," I asked the woman dressed in a business suit. "Oh yes, my husband and I could use them for our home," she answered and then followed by asking, "why are you giving them away?" I told her that Allie and I were going overseas to tell people about Jesus and the woman's face lit up. "I'm a born-again Christian too!" She went on to tell me that she is originally from Kenya and that she helps with a church down the road. After we talked for a while and shared some much-needed air conditioning, our Kenyan sister said that she and her husband had been praying for couches! "We just moved here and we don't have much at all." Allie and I were delighted to help her and were moved by God's provision for both of his children.

As we made arrangements to get the couches to our new friend's house, I couldn't help but wonder, "Is this coincidence or is God really working to provide for us?" It seems like the entire situation is pretty incredible. Allie and I were a few minutes away from hauling the couches off to the dump and all of a sudden this Kenyan sister in Christ shows up, telling us that she has been praying for couches. I could chalk up this experience to coincidence but it happens to us ALL THE TIME! At this point in my life it takes waaaay more faith to always believe in coincidence, rather than a God who provides for those he loves. It's not that coincidence cannot exist, it's just that God has revealed himself over and over again as one who interrupts daily life with grace, provision, and love.

I hope you can believe in a big God who answers seemingly insignificant prayers. Amen.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Birthday Post

Birthdays are great for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I will most likely overdose on sugar and butter this evening while celebrating with my family. Secondly, I will have people post on my facebook wall that I haven't heard from in forever. I love hearing from friends, both old and new. And of course, people will give me gifts. As much as I try not to be consumed by clothes, books, and shiny things (see previous posting), I still enjoy receiving gifts. Call me human.

On the other hand, birthdays are also great for perspective. I woke up this morning to find an email informing me that a longtime friend of the family has pancreatic cancer. This friend of my Dad's has a wonderful family and much to live for. On a day when I am celebrating the joys of life, I am at once confounded by my own. Why am I not the one with cancer? I know that my life has not been entirely easygoing, but why am I healthy and so many others are hurting? The "why's" and "what if's" are endless.

However, if I were to obsess over these thoughts then I would miss my own life and give death the spotlight. Today I have the opportunity to see good friends, break bread with family, and breath again. Furthermore, I am more alive now than I ever have been because I know my God and he knows me. Even though the heartache, darkness, and injustices of the world are more apparent to me now then ever before, God's redemption of all this is all-the-more real. Four or five years ago I would not be able to tell you that God is bigger than our unbelief or that he has never seen a righteous man go hungry (Prov. 10:3). I would not have been able to tell you that God breathes life into broken relationships and protects the marriage of his children. Even two years ago I would not have been able to tell you that I was perfectly loved by a real, living God who is constantly irrupting into our world. There is so much I have learned from being in pain and I can tell you that it does not have to end there.

I'm not sure what else to say because that about sums it up. I hope all of you give meaning to your days and learn to trust in the God who does not let death have the final word.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Grumpy dispatches from a domesticated American

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed and awfully grumpy today. Allison and I moved to Dallas recently, waiting for our overseas training to begin in September. My anxiety has little to do with raising funds for our trip, making a big move to DFW, or even leaving behind my friends and family for at least 3 months. Now that I am out of my normal element--my hometown of Houston--I am seeing things much differently. I am becoming more aware of my surroundings and the many influences on my behavior. I have come to conclude that I am thoroughly domesticated.

While we have been in Dallas, Allie and I have been watching a lot more TV. I say "a lot" because even one hour of TV today is way more than we are use to. Nevertheless, the more TV we watch the more advertisements we see. Whereas I studied commercial marketing ad nauseam (pun intended) and am use to my grandfather muting commercials, Allie's family tries to enjoy them. In many ways commercials are as much a part of the TV experience as the featured show itself.

Maybe its because I am in a different social setting or because I am not use to watching so much TV, but I have noticed one strong theme in TV ads: Buy this and you will be happy! Everything from car commercials to ads about Trident gum to bargain deals at Kohls promise to make us shinier, happier people (see REM). This narrative is repeated over and over again and we have all bought into it.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once delivered 19 theses at an Emergent Conversation conference in 2004. His first thesis was that "Everyone lives by a script." His fourth thesis statement summarizes one through three and goes as follows: That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

It's not as if I have been blind to this sweeping script. I do think, however, I am just now realizing its effects on me. Here I am, grumpy and frustrated about the consumerism that so plagues me and my countrymen and the only thing I can think about is going to Barnes and Noble. Why? Because I am upset and I would feel better if I could buy a new book, something glossy and new for my bookshelf. Something that people could look at when they enter my home and think, "Wow, he must read a lot" or "what a lovely collection of books." This, my friends, is simply idolatry via consumeristic ideology. I can manipulate the system of consumerism to get people to worship me and then I will be satisfied. Consumerism=therapy.

I don't have much else to add because I am still working through this garbage. But let me at least thank God for the Holy Spirit because I would lose my mind without some sort of guidance in all of this. I pray that you are also discerning your surroundings and looking beyond that which controls and enslaves. May we worship the one, true God and leave our idols behind.