Aug 23

Being a Single Servant, and Still Smiling

“We are praying you will get married.” I couldn’t help but inwardly chuckle at the sincere promise from my students, all married Nigerian pastors, at the end of my time teaching in their seminary. I wasn’t quite sure how that would match their second promise to pray for my return, next time to live there permanently.

Four years ago I took my first trip to teach in central Nigeria, a country where women are expected to be married by their early twenties. The first time I stepped into a classroom of graduate students who were all married men (mostly pastors), I wondered if I, as a single woman, would hold any credence. (Fortunately, my education meant a LOT there, and, along with my international experience living on four continents, made up for some forms of low status.) While I did get plenty of comments and questions about my singlehood, I was also aware this kind of a trip would’ve been a lot more complicated if I was a wife and mother. The reality is that we have a daily choice of whether to rejoice in the positive aspects of being single or to complain about what is lacking.

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One of my early classes… all married men.

While there are quite a few important singles throughout the Bible, there is significant set of single friendships that recently stood out me: Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus. The beauty of these relationships can illustrate reasons we can be grateful as singles.

1) Singles can optimize their unique personalities and gifts.

I love the contrast displayed between Mary and Martha. Both clearly loved and respected Jesus, but expressed it in different ways. Martha was organized and servant-hearted. She made sure the house was ready and the meal was served when Jesus was visiting (and got frustrated when Mary wasn’t helping enough). Mary wanted to learn from Jesus, sitting at His feet and giving full attention. Jesus accepted both expressions of love, with a little extra validation for the one who acted outside of the box and was certainly criticized by those around her.

As singles, we are free to be the people God made us to be, pursuing the gifts we have been given during the season (whether short or permanent) of greater feasibility. My house can be decorated and equipped for my own interests and ministries.  My schedule is not limited by the needs, hopes, and intentions of a husband or kids. Unfortunately, others sometimes use such logic as a reason to delegate extra tasks to singles (“Since you don’t have to take care of a family…”), making it important to set boundaries and priorities—just like Mary chose to devote time to listening to Jesus.

2) Singles can have intimate friendships.

When their brother Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha called out to Jesus. They loved Him and knew of His love for them. Jesus showed that love when weeping with them, before using the death (and resurrection) of Lazarus for the glory of God. The relationship these sisters had with Jesus wouldn’t have been possible if they were married; such direct attention toward Him would’ve been compared to their relationships with their husbands, and likely reprimanded.

While we have to be careful to be seen as “above reproach” and aware of cultural norms, as singles there is still a place to develop close relationships with those around us.  We won’t in any way be detracting from a marital relationship when sharing our hearts with others. Although such relationships require intentionality and investment, those friendships can be a rich place to exchange agape love, expressed through encouragement, comfort, and accountability, challenging one another and observing the rich growth that follows.

3) Singles can devote time and resources to loving God and others.

Jesus knew what house was available whenever He was in Bethany. Mary devoted her expensive perfume to anointing Jesus’ feet. Martha ran the house and coordinated large meals.

As singles, we generally don’t need to retreat to the bathroom to find a quiet place for prayer. It’s still very easy to get distracted by all the other tasks pending, but we can choose to set aside a specific time to be with Jesus, to pour out at His feet everything that is valuable. We can intentionally make whatever our responsibilities on the field are into ways of expressing love to others.

4) Singles can make risky decisions more simply.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus repeatedly welcomed Jesus into their home while aware of the imminent threats to kill him Him. The Pharisees were even talking about killing Lazarus for his testimony of being raised from the dead, yet they continued to offer care for Him. Would they have acted the same way if it meant putting their entire families in danger? I don’t know, but I’m guessing it would’ve taken a lot more consideration.

I have recently been thinking about the “theology of risk” that has to be considered when feeling called to serve God in potentially dangerous places. I don’t have a “right answer” on the balance between wise choices and trusting God in place of high risk. However, I do know that I would feel much more hesitant to go into a place of higher risk when responsible for the lives of my family members than when considering only my own life. This doesn’t give me liberty to act foolishly, my actions will always affect others, but it takes a significant factor out of the equation.

Big decisions should never be made without insight from others’ perspective, and singles may need to be proactive in receiving input and support from those well-experienced. Yet, coordinating rapid responses can be simpler for an individual than a family, allowing more flexibility. My trips for disaster response, flying to situations such as earthquakes and mudslides, were feasible in part because I was the only one whose schedule had to be adjusted.

Both singles and couples have value!

While there are also many reasons to rejoice in being married on the mission field, there are many reasons to appreciate being single. So for the many singles out there, take heart! God can use you in amazing ways during this season of your life (however long that might be).

For those who married, remember the value of showing love to the singles around you. They need intimate friendships, which aren’t always available from other singles, especially in some remote areas. Respect their boundaries, but also welcome them into family events. We are all part of one family!


*This post was originally written in 2014, and may or may not reflect my current relational status. 🙂

Dec 11

Why Christians Shouldn’t Be the Refugees

I recently returned from visiting multiple countries in the Middle East, where I heard stories from individuals, visited refugee/IDP camps, and met with leaders of various ministries, NGOs, and camps in Northern Iraq. Churches and organizations in Lebanon and Jordan also find themselves overwhelmed with the needs of refugees from Syria and Iraq, but have embraced an incredible opportunity to minister in practical and spiritual ways to those who have experienced severe trauma and deep grief. My perception and perspective to the Middle East has been transformed, especially my limited awareness of believers in that context.

Many Christians in Iraq Aren’t Trying to Leave

During the first days in Northern Iraq, I witnessed a group of Kurds going through advanced training for a trauma healing program, reporting what they had tried to implement and expressing the desire for more insight into addressing painful issues like rape. The acknowledgement of the need for trauma response was never related to finding ways to get out of the country; it was about finding healing there.

A week later we were ready to check out of a hotel in another city, but while standing in the lobby a number of people were arriving for a meeting of Christian leaders. The diversity of apparel spoke volumes of the variety of orthodox and evangelical denominations; the representatives from international organizations were also easy to identify. This serendipitous encounter allowed us to observe leaders of churches that have in the past been at odds, seeking to create a safe community for Christian families (currently planning a pilot project). We heard the needs, the vision, the steps being taken at this very time.

Three days later we visited a tent-village, home to Christians who had been forced out of their homes or left running away from the violence. We met in a larger community tent with a group of families and heard their stories and frustrations. There were practical needs, physical problems, an abundance of uncertainty about what lay ahead. Many had lost loved ones, or weren’t sure if they were even alive. As we prayed together, tears of grief were shed. For many, their faith was key in holding them together. I didn’t hear a desire to leave the country, but the question remained of how they could rebuild their lives or go back to their own towns.

I was not surprised to hear that 90% of Christians have already left Iraq. What I was completely unaware of was the active steps Christian leaders are now taking to create alternatives for the remaining 10%. Although a large portion of the country is still very unsafe, many of those in the north want to rebuild, not further uproot. The hope for finding restoration, for staying closer to family, and for maintaining their community is understandable!

From a spiritual/missional perspective, retaining the 10% is critical! If the remaining Christians left the country, who would be there to share the hope of the gospel to many whose hearts are more open than ever before? There is an abundance of Muslims and Yezidis searching for truth and healing! Now is the time and place for the testimony of Christ’s love and salvation!

 

Praying with a family in Iraq

Praying with families in Iraq

Struggles in Syria

Like in Iraq, many Christians have already left Syria. Conversation with a woman currently living there allowed me to better understand the conflict from an in internal perspective. She told us about two sisters who lived on a mountain near a village in Syria. When it was attacked they were forced to flee and left wearing pajamas and taking no possessions. One already had problems with her leg, and lack of care caused it to worsen; now she is reliant on a walker. After six months many villagers returned to their homes, but found them damaged and plundered. The UN and other organizations have provided some practical help, but no one was there to offer comfort.

When a few women and a pastor courageously visited the town over a year later, these women and others had not received any psychological care. It was their first chance to tell their story, to receive care and prayer, and to start build relationships with those offering help. It is these Christians who have a new ministry of reaching out to those who have gone through incredible loss and trauma, partly because it is very difficult for outside NGOs to get into the country. The church is in a strategic, yet tragic, position. The women who told us of her visits to the towns emphasized the need for prayer, noting that it was only through the strength given by God that she could continue her ministry to the persecuted church. She didn’t ask for a way out; she asked for our prayers.

Next Door Neighbors: Reaching the Refugees

Some of the care for those who have fled from their homes is being provided by ministries across the borders in Lebanon and Jordan. Linguistic and cultural similarities help cross barriers, but it is the unconditional love offered, both to Christians and Muslims, that gradually reduces mistrust. “Heart for Lebanon” works to both help refugees in need of food and to encourage ways to regain autonomy, purchasing local food to help the economy and employing refugees.

A church in Jordan has welcomed many who are broken spiritually and emotionally, having experienced a variety of trauma. They also have offered education for children whose lives are being rebuilt and created jobs for refugees previously lacking income. One man had undergone severe torture from ISIS and was suffering severe PTSD, to the point of psychosis, when alone in an apartment after fleeing Syria. When encountering love from believers in Jordan his life was transformed, and he is now working in the Jordanian church, unable to stop sharing his story and God’s love.

The contrast between being in Syria during ISIS attacks, and now living in Jordan.

The contrast between being in Syria during ISIS attacks, and now living in Jordan.

These are just two examples of universal efforts being made to live out the command to love your neighbor[ing countries]. These Christians are the ones whose testimony will shout powerfully to all in the Middle East, both Christians and Muslims. Removing them to a more “safe” Western country may be kind in some ways, particularly in good intentions, but they are ones who need help where they live.

Throughout the region of ongoing conflict and current refugees, there is a constant need for our prayers. So many are deeply wounded—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For them to be equipped to reach out to others, they need to find healing in their own lives.

Nov 10

Reactions to Trump’s Victory: Learning from African Elections

In 2013, I was living in Kenya while their presidential elections were looming. Everyone was remembering the previous election in 2007, when violence erupted and over 1000 people died in the aftermath, as tribal differences were triggered. As expats, we had our contingency plans set up, but were mostly expecting to hunker down inside our compounds until it was deemed safe to emerge. I had my imperishable foods, water, and batteries stashed; the radio was ready. The general mindset was, “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” What stood out to me in the weeks preceding the election was the common prayer across all tribes and political parties: a prayer for peace. When elections took place, that prayer was answered. Although minor riots broke out across the city during the tense days between voting and the declaration of the winner, the violence was not repeated. I believe it was the unified prayer across denominations and tribes that was a key component to maintaining peace.

African students in chapel

In 2015, I was teaching in Nigeria as presidential elections were scheduled and postponed before finally taking place. Again, the tension was palpable in a country split by tribes and religious differences (Muslims and Christians). The “lesser of two evils” choice was between a “Christian” president (known for his rampant corruption and failure to respond promptly to situations like the kidnapping of the Chibok girls) and a Muslim leader (remembered for the stability provided when Head of State—eliminating corruption, and overhauling economic systems—despite his repressive leadership style). My students left the seminary to vote in their hometowns, leaving a quiet campus on election day. Outbreaks of violence were again feared, including attacks in the north by the Boko Haram. But the same theme of peace for the nation dominated the prayers prior to the election. The same prevention of inter-faith/inter-tribal violence resulted (except for an attack from the Boko Haram—a common enemy to both parties).

It is 2016, the US presidential elections have just taken place. I was not afraid of physical danger, but I was still worried about the results. Up to this point, I’ve watched the church split as they pray for opposite results instead of praying for peace. Abhorrence of the candidates’ lifestyle and values, condemnation of the candidates’ policies and views, and fear of the outcome have seeped into our perception of our fellow believers. I must be the first to confess my struggle to refrain from expressing negative adjectives toward opposing voters (at least towards their words and actions); I confess my fear of the consequences on national and international levels; I confess my lack of grace in my attitude and thought patterns. My focus has not been praying for peace.

Now the elections are over. We have cast our votes, but we still have decisions to make: how to pray, how to react, how to communicate with those who did not share our position. We can attack the biggest differences between sides or look for common ground. We can hold on to anger toward our “opponents,” or remember that few people agree with (or condemn) ALL the stances of either side. None of the Christians I know voted for Trump as proponents of his lifestyle. None of the Christians I know voted for Clinton to support an increase in abortion rates (nor is that her goal).

Mt. Rushmore presidents

I’m not asking that everyone in the church come to unanimous agreements on all policies. There will be ongoing differences in opinion that will test our ability communicate with each other in a loving way.

But I am challenging us (myself included) to maintain Jesus’ fundamental commands: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. We are called to be humble; we are called to be peacemakers; we are called to seek unity; we are called to build each other up, not tear each other down.

Will you join me in seeking God’s peace for this nation?

Jun 15

Orlando: A Time for Love or Hate?

After Sunday’s tragedy of the shooting in Orlando (and the one that almost occurred in California) I’ve watched a wide range of reactions unfold.

Of course those directly affected showed their overwhelming grief.

Many showed sympathy and empathy through memorials, act of kindness, promises of prayer, donation of blood.

Others expressed anger at multiple parties.

Some used the event as a way to blast others: Muslims, leaders, lawmakers, presidential candidates, guns supporters/opponents, you name it.

And many whose belief systems conflicted with those of the people killed in a gay bar stayed quiet.

Internally, I found myself with mixed feelings about each of these groups. I am deeply saddened by the loss, the hatred, the grief. I am encouraged by those who chose to do everything possible to show love, especially in a practical manner. I am angered by the way some warped the tragedy to fit their agendas.

As a Christian, I believe we as the Body of Christ have a very clear command to follow in this and all painful circumstances: LOVE.

Too cliché? Perhaps. But the challenging part is not showing selective love where it feels best.A memorial grows in Atlanta Monday, June 13, 2016 for the victims of a nightclub shooting that left at least 50 dead in Orlando, Florida.

Loving the LGBT Community

Many of my friends have made beautiful comments on Facebook, reaching out to those in grief and condemning the horrific act done. Christian businesses such as Chick-fil-A went out of their way to give practical help. Christian leaders and writers issue the call to pray, grieve, and show love.

But to some in the LGBT community, the response doesn’t seem to be in line with negative, often hateful, messages they have been receiving repeatedly from the church. It would be easy to question to authenticity of kind words from the same mouths carrying disdain.

Did something change overnight? Is the expression of kindness out of a sense of obligation (nobody wants to look cold hearted), or is this opening eyes to see deep wounds in real people?

I don’t expect people to change their opinions on issues like gay marriage. But the display of love should never be isolated to a horrific event. These real, hurting people have already struggling with the same issues everyone else is, often compounded by feelings of rejection and belittling. Judging others is not our calling. Loving is… not just after a shooting.

Can this be a wake-up call? Are we willing to reach out, to build bridges and relationships, hoping that members of the LGBT community are gracious enough to give us a chance?

If you know of anyone who is grieving now, think about helpful ways to show comfort.

Australians Hold Candlelit Vigils For Victims Of Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Loving the Muslim Community

Recently I was with two Muslims as they broke the daily Ramadan fast. We shared food and conversation about God, fate, and suffering. We wrestled with how unfair life can be, yet the amazing ways God can bring us out of challenging times, whether war in the Middle East, ongoing health problems, or unexpected disasters. Their words were far closer to the truth of Scripture than they were to the violence of ISIS.

They are not the only kind-hearted, hospitable Muslims in the US. They represent the vast majority. So when I hear blanket statements made about Muslims because of the actions of one American man who aligned himself with whatever hateful radical Islamist group he could, I am grieved. Blocking refugees fleeing from war-torn countries because of their faith will not stop the actions of an abusive, aggressive US citizen, even if that man calls himself Muslim.

[Meanwhile in California, the police stopped a man headed toward a gay pride event with assault rifles and explosive chemicals. Anyone notice that no statements were made about whatever faith or ethnic community this man represented? All I know is that he looks white and is from Indiana.]

A man holds up a sign saying Arab Muslims condemn the attack as he takes part in a candlelight memorial service after a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 13, 2016.

Muslims across the country have condemned the atrocity that occurred. Many reached out in practical ways, donating blood despite the daytime fast of food and water.  Others gathered to pray for the victims and their families. They respond to the incredible pain and loss being experienced in Orland and across the nation.

Yet, how often do we do that for them? Many of those who have escaped war-torn countries still have family members and friends left behind. They hear of their entire villages being destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of their countrymen have been killed. Millions of fellow Muslims have been displaced, many dying in their attempts to seek refuge. Has your church or community ever have a vigil for them?

This month, during the observance of Ramadan, many Muslims are actively seeking God, seeking truth. Now is the time to reach out to them, pray for them, talk to them, ask to hear their stories, tell yours, build friendships.

Loving Politicians (on all sides)???

Okay, I have to admit this might be the hardest one for me right now. I find myself constantly frustrated with the leading candidates of both parties. Fundamental rights of life and liberty seem to be threatened in different ways by either side, whether the unborn child or the fleeing refugee. I’m saddened by the constant patterns of attack and hate, the use of fear, the warped truth. I don’t like the way “allegiances” to parties or leaders are leading to more conflict and harsh words within the church. So how do I show love?

There may be space for “speaking the truth in love” for some issues that I see as critical. I strongly disagree with some of the statements and actions I see, and won’t accept or ignore them. But I am making an effort to not get sucked into chain of attacks, and would challenge others to do the same. We can still love those in another party; we can still have discussions without belittling each other. We can still pray for our present and future leaders, especially when addressing significant issues like crime, gay rights, immigration, refugees, guns, mental health, domestic violence, and the list goes on and on.

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This is the time to step up to the plate and show love to everyone, regardless of differences in background or beliefs. Jesus told His disciples that they would be recognized by their love. Is that how we are recognized today? 

Jun 13

Would God Tempt Us? (The Perfect Prayer, Part 4)

When offering the prototypical prayer that represented our relationship with God, Jesus included an interesting clause:

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13a).

Temptation is what draws people toward sin, toward selfishness. So why would the Lord’s prayer link the Father with temptation? We need to first think about the original motivation to come to God, which in some ways can be selfish.

Why Join a Religion?Buddhism Religion

Many religions find followers through the powerful combination of appeal and fear: an escape from whatever punishment our sin deserves and a source of reward for pleasing a powerful deity or earning karma.

These are effective forms of extrinsic motivation and, unfortunately, are quite visible in the Christian church. On one end, there are “fire and brimstone” preachers who scare people into the church without an accurate presentation of grace. On the other end, we see impressive crowds gathering to listen to the “prosperity gospel,” promising rewards for pleasing God (because “God will bless you with a new car when you contribute to this ministry”). The second one effectively thrives on earthly desires, and uses temptation to attract people.

The Gospel Is Not about Rewards

Jesus’ teaching holds a stark contrast to either of these extremes, which were also evident in His time in the teachings of the Pharisees.

When I read these words, it struck me as a strange thing for Jesus to ask God, who certainly doesn’t seem to endorse any sin. Would God really think to taunt us with temptations that could lead us to our downfall?

Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is expressing. Saying these words is a way for us to put aside our tendency to try to get what we selfishly want out of God. What would happen if God answered all our self-centered prayers, the prayers offered only for own benefits? The new car shows up; the generous raise comes in; the opportunity to become famous miraculously arrives. Our “faith” becomes superficial, our sense of entitlement inflates, and our overall selfishness in reinforced.

Jesus kindly unpacks that line later in the chapter:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (vs. 19-21).

Wordly Fortune

It seems temptation is based on our own desires for pleasure or success—our earthly treasures. Many people ask for success or prosperity as an earthly reward for their actions or proof of God’s love. But fulfilling those requests would indeed be temptation for more. From the Pharisees to today’s “prosperity gospel” preachers, the earthly desires are what leads them astray.

Despite my own selfishness and desire for some form of recognition or the comforts so often taken for granted, I do want my ultimate “investment” to be eternally minded. Praying this prayer renounces such desires, instead asking for protection from Satan’s lies.

Turning from Temptation

It’s still okay to present our needs to God in faith (“Give us this day our daily bread”). But this sentence is the place to take it a step further, to reject our selfish desires, whether a wish for wealth, or wanting better appearance, popularity, accomplishments, or relief through unhealthy habits (food, alcohol, overwork, etc.).

Look at how you invest time and resources. That can often give insight into our priorities. Where is your heart? Are your actions investing in eternal rewards? Jesus gave us pretty clear guidelines of how to focus our mindset and actions: Love God and love others.

Showing love

It’s not easy to break long-term habits or lifestyles alone! Fortunately, we don’t have to depend only on our own strength to resist temptations. We have the help of God’s grace and strength—that’s what delivering us from evil.

 

What temptation do you want to replace with eternal investment today? How can you show love to God and others?

 

May 31

Why, God? Two Answers to the Question of Suffering

The question of “Why does God allow suffering?” has been present throughout history. This is an issue I’ve faced multiple times, and I’m guessing you have too!

war-952967_1280Have you reached a conclusion? For those who have yet to wrestle with this issue, it could be a stumbling block in their journey of faith, a reason to question the very nature and existence of God. Addressing the question doesn’t mean we need to understand or explain the suffering we see around us, only that we can reconcile the presence of a loving God in a painful world.

A Piece of My Story

Growing up on the mission field included a lot of joy and pain. It was great to see God work in incredible ways, but I also experienced losses and loneliness in the midst of transitions. During my family’s second term in Central Asia, I was the only teenager on the team (and likely the only American teen in the entire western half of the country), with my older sisters remaining in the US. About five months in, a series of investigations began, despite the overall positive relationship with authorities in the past, as we ran an educational center that was helpful to the community. Soon the government was (illegally) demanding files from the NGO and showing up at the local church for a lock-down followed by interrogations. 

Months later a team member was informed that the investigation report recommended prosecution against us. Soon we were discussing potential ways to sneak out of the country with “clean” passports and my father was staying out of the home to avoid court summons. It all seemed surreal, like living out a novel. The local ferry was not yet running that year and there was not enough room for the whole team to fit on the weekly international flight. The first group got out by air, but a week later the rest of us were stopped at airport security, and after hours in a cold cement room (as they attempted to obtain highly official signatures at 2am), we were sent home.

The trial of the men on the team was scheduled for the Monday of Holy Week, then postponed a couple times before taking place the day after Easter. Somehow, thinking about being on trial made Good Friday feel different that year. law-1063249_1280The verdict was assumed before the trial began; they were judged guilty of “distributing religious materials” (from the coloring books in the Christmas shoeboxes), “assisting religious groups” (when mentoring new believers), and “illegally participating in religious rites” (because one of the guys played guitar at a church service). Ugly stamps soon decorated the men’s passports and we had ten days to leave the country. Family birthday celebrations were eclipsed by scrambling to pack bags and say goodbyes. Then the news cameras saw us off at the airport, the security officials unpacked our bags (including birthday presents), and a numbness slowly descended to replace the ongoing adrenaline.

When we arrived in the US, our team members, the people whose friendships had become deeply forged through the struggles, were dispersed to their sending churches and families. We were welcomed “home” by well-intentioned people, who obliviously poured salt on an open wound when commenting how glad we must be to be home, to be “out of there.” We were just kicked out of our home and separated from our family.

“Why did You let this happen??”

Countless times those words ran through my mind. In the midst of loneliness and grief, I struggled to make sense of it.

If we were answering God’s calling, why did He allow that whole investigation to happen?

If God was all powerful, why did He let them win?

If we had many people praying for us, not to mention our own pleas, why weren’t those prayers answered?

If our work was to spread the gospel, why did God allow it to be stopped?

It seemed like defeat on all sides, a very painful defeat. And no one around us seemed to have an explanation.

That’s exactly what we humans want: explanations, resolutions to overcome the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability we feel when things don’t make sense.

The root of the “why” question is our own desire healing in the mind, through rational explanation, and healing in the heart, through finding comfort to replace painful emotions.

The Reasons Why

Sometimes we hear the encouraging stories about how God turned something ugly around to make it beautiful. We see the ways God worked powerfully in Biblical stories: Joseph went from being sold as a slave to leading a nation. Stories continue all the way to recent history, such as the death of Jim Elliot and his friends leading to the salvation of many in the tribe that killed them.

But getting kicked out of the country wasn’t really one of those stories (for the most part).  I never heard of a revival happening in that city because of our expulsion. I honestly have no idea what the repercussions in the city were. Does that mean it wasn’t “worth it”?

 

Here are two ways I believe God answers the “why” question.

1) For His glory

God using suffering for His glory might seem to contradict the example I just gave, where I haven’t seen any positive results. But God can and does use our painful experiences as a testimony, even though we often don’t see an inspiring story on this side of heaven. The reality is that we have an extremely limited perspective when constrained by time and space. What stories we read in the Bible are much more understandable now, after seeing long term repercussions, than at the time hardships were being endured. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years; the majority who escaped from Egypt died without seeing the outcome of God’s victory in the Promised Land! We see it now as part of the big picture, but often see very little of how our own struggles fit into the big picture.

Fortunately, God does know the final outcome, and has provided us with promises to hold on to and examples from the past. He has and will glorify Himself through history. We can’t see it all in the present, so we are challenged to hold on to hope through faith. That is the second place where His name is glorified: when our own response to suffering is governed by faith instead of self-pity. That doesn’t mean that we keep a smile plastered on our face in the midst of grief; it means we draw near to God and let Him share in our sorrow and healing.

That brings us to the second reason for suffering:

2) For our transformation and sanctification

A couple months after getting back to the US our team gathered for a retreat, and during that time I was impacted by the passage in II Corinthians 1:3-7:image

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.  But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort” (NASB).

Already I had felt God directing me toward a career in mental health care, and I realized that the experience gave me a whole different perspective, insight that doesn’t come in any textbook. I had to wrestle with this question of suffering early on, to come to terms with God’s sovereignty even when we can’t understand it, and to better be prepared to comfort others. And in that context I experienced God’s comfort in a way that doesn’t come in “easy” times.

Just as gold is refined in the fire, when we go through difficult times God can use those experiences to shape us, to reveal weaknesses, places of pride and brokenness, and areas of sin, not to bring shame but to bring cleansing and healing. It is in those times when we cannot sit in comfortable apathy; we are pushed to embrace or reject God. The outcome partly depends on us. God does not force us to believe, but freely offers His love, reminding us the He too experienced suffering (far greater than ours), and is by our side, not observing from a distance. 

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The reality of God’s love is what brings the two answers together. He loves humanity enough to work all the pain caused by sin into part of the beautiful tapestry that tells the story of redemption, paying the price with His own death and bringing victory through His own resurrection. He loves each individual enough to walk beside us in the darkest hour of pain and weakness, and offers His comfort and strength. All He asks is that we put our trust in Him and hold on to His promises, especially when we don’t understand the circumstances.

Instead of a reason to question God’s love, suffering becomes an opportunity to witness, experience, and trust in God’s love.

 

What about you? Have your experiences of suffering shaped your perspective?

May 20

When Forgiveness Isn’t Fair (The Perfect Prayer: Part 3)

[After a long hiatus due to significant life events, we are finally back to unpacking the beautiful example of prayer given by Jesus. Thanks for your patience!]

 

Forgiveness is a topic that can strike a raw nerve in many hearts. Several years ago I co-authored a chapter in a book on dealing with sexual abuse. Our chapter was about forgiveness, and we wrestled with the practicality and theology of asking someone to forgive after being deeply wounded on physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual levels. It may seem even more unreasonable when the perpetrator had never repented or asked for forgiveness.

At other times the need for forgiveness is much more subtle and easier to ignore. Little things annoy us and we hold on to them. Sharp words dig deep, yet get brushed off or buried. Does forgiveness matter there?

Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus followed His prayer of faith for God’s provision with a confession, a request for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12):

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Two verses later (Matthew 6: 14-15), Jesus further unpacks the importance of forgiveness with words that may sound harsh:

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Is Jesus adding an ultimatum to the “gift” of forgiveness? It seems discussing forgiveness should be a place for healing, rather than condemnation. How does that fit with the picture of unconditional, Fatherly love?

The Arsenal of Unforgiveness

In reality, the lack of forgiveness on our part means harboring bitterness, which is both sin and bondage. Ever had an argument where you used past mistakes against someone? (Or had them used against you?)Couple Fighting

“You never clean up!”

“That’s what you said last time!”

“You always pretend to be sorry!”

“Don’t think I’ll forget how much you hurt me!”

 

Purposefully withholding forgiveness of a debt or wrongdoing, suggests harboring what can be used as arsenal against someone by adding shame and guilt from previous mistakes. Imagine if God used our past wrongs against us, reminding us of the last time we repented for angry words, jealousy, degrading thoughts, or any plethora of selfish actions that we commit! What shame would follow!

“But God say’s He’ll hold it against us!”

We might ask, if God withholds forgiveness from me until I am broken and repentant, why should I forgive the person who hurt me before he/she asks for forgiveness?

Obviously, the fact that God is holy and we are not puts us in a very different position. But I think what is most important piece here is the reason why God seems to withhold forgiveness. The statement is not a threat as much as it is a promise. God wants to forgive us, but we can only receive that forgiveness when they are softened and repentant.

As long we hold on to the wrongs of another as arsenal, so we can return injury for injury, we are in the sin of bitterness, not repentance. It is God’s desire to bring healing, fullness, and forgiveness into every part of our lives, but He does not force it to be accepted.

Asking for forgiveness requires confessing sin, including hate and bitterness. God does not expect anyone to never fall into sin again, including the sin of “unforgiveness,” but wants to give freedom—more each time the burden is surrendered to Him. For us to receive that freedom, we must relinquish the condemnation we hold onto for use against the one who hurt us.

What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

Some people say “Forgiven and forget,” but that is really not what forgiveness is about. There is more than one form of forgiveness. Steve Tracy identified three:

  • Judicial:  Here the forgiveness is given by a judge, which could be crimes in the legal system, or ultimately the Judge of all people, all sins.
  • Relational: This is reconciliation, requiring both parties to participate, including repentance from the wrong-doer and restoration of the relationship.
  • Psychological: This forgiveness takes place inside the mind and heart of the one who was hurt. It is not a simple statement, but a process of healing. 

Those abused or deeply wounded may have layers of hurt and unforgiveness in need of healing. Even those who have made the decision to forgive may find emotional reactions of anger, fear, even disgust emerge at times. These should not be a place for guilt, but a chance to give the hurt back to God again. It is a place for that same prayer, asking for forgiveness and declaring the freedom found in forgiving others.

imageWhile you do so, remember Christ on the cross, in the midst of His pain, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then picture yourself nailing your own sins, your own anger and bitterness, and your own pain to the cross.

There we can find freedom from our own sins and healing from the sins of others.

 

How about your? Have you found forgiveness or lack thereof affecting your life? Feel free to share comments below!

Aug 07

Trusting God’s Supply (The Perfect Prayer: Part 2)

Jesus started His “sample” prayer with centering on God, both in His holiness and His grace to accept us as children. He then shifts to the practical, where we often find at the forefront of our thoughts.

The God of Provisionhttps://i0.wp.com/everystockphoto.s3.amazonaws.com/pain_baguette_bread_240513_l.jpg?resize=208%2C166

Jesus continued (Matthew 6:11):

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

In many ways these words are more a statement of faith than a request. By saying “daily bread,” there already exists the expectation that our basic needs will consistently be met. Later in the chapter Jesus elaborates (Matthew 6:25-26):

“For this reason [you cannot serve God and wealth]. I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?”

This promise that God is trustworthy is also an exhortation to trust. In that simple sentence of prayer we can state our dependence on God and our belief that He is faithful at all times. It is not a lengthy description of needs in an attitude of uncertainty about God’s ability to “handle” all our problems.

Why Do We Worry So Much?

We find it very easy to focus on might lacking or what could go wrong, rather than focusing on what God has given us and how He can use us. We seem to forget His Sovereignty: if He can manage the birds and the rest of creation, He certainly can provide for our needs! The problem is often found in the reasons we worry.

Worry about the Unnecessary:

Sometimes the problem is our skewed perception of “need.” If our goals are based on success and comfort (the need to get a promotion, the need for recognition, the need to have a nicer car, the need for all the amenities the vast majority of the world population would consider a privilege), than having all our requests granted might work against the most important parts of life: loving God and loving our neighbors. As Jesus said, we can’t serve both God and “money” (or other forms of selfishness) at the same time.

https://i0.wp.com/images.freeimages.com/images/previews/4bb/i-m-not-sure-1438977.jpg?resize=161%2C162Worry Based on Our Own Faults:

Often our concerns come from self-doubt, all the “what-ifs.” What if I don’t get the job? What if I make a mistake? What if nobody likes me? What if I’m not good enough? Sometimes we picture all the things that could go wrong, before there exists a problem. These thought patterns clearly reveal the underlying focus and dependence on ourselves, rather than seeking intimacy with and dependence on God. 

Worry about the Unknown:

We also have a tendency to like feeling we have some control over our lives or circumstances. When facing changes, whether viewed as positive or negative changes, we lose some of the security found in the familiar.  The reality if there are always going things outside of our control and the only perfect “constant” we have is the Sovereign, Faithful, Loving God who is in control. He is the best place to find security, not only on earth, but for eternity!

Growing in Trust

I know I often fall into the patterns of worrying, especially without a steady income or permanent residence. But God has shown me so many times that He is in control! Would you be willing to join me in seeking to depend more on Him and focus less on ourselves?

Hear Jesus say to you today:

You are my child and I will always care for you. I am Sovereign. My plan is bigger and better than anything you could ever plan! Already I have opened doors that were not within your expectations, even though some were hard to recognize as positive. I love you and am always faithful. Keep trusting me for what lies ahead.

A Final Reminder

If you are ever worried about where tomorrows bread will come from, look at a US penny (or any other US currency). There is your reminder: In God We Trust

Jul 23

Love Your Neighbor (don’t assume he’s an enemy)

The day I arrived in the city two bombs went off, one by a restaurant and the other by a mosque; over 40 people were killed. It did nothing to deter the training of “frontline workers” whose ministry was in thick of persecution and unrest; in fact, it was barely mentioned. Instead, we spent the week drawing near to Jesus, discovering His love, His comfort in the midst of pain, His truth in the midst of fear.

imageAs hearts began to open, there were times when emotions ran high. How do you love your Muslim neighbor (who was your friend as a child) when feeling fear and mistrust from watching havoc being done by other Muslims? One man brought this struggle to Jesus, and emerged ready to not only answer a friend’s phone call, but planning to reach out (though not foolishly) to other Muslims. His thoughts about death were replaced with trust in God’s plan for his life.

The participants returned to their regions, excited about being better prepared to address trauma and to be more focused on Jesus. I returned to the US.

Last week, the tragedy of a shooter killing five people at a Marine base occurred. The man’s parents were grieved and renounced their son’s deeds, while also noting that he had been struggling with depression. But emphasis was placed on his religion, Islam, and appeared to add fuel to the fire for anyone opposing Muslims.

What struck me most was the reaction of Christians, particularly leaders such as Franklin Graham and his call to prevent Muslims from coming into the country because each “has the potential to be radicalized.” The generalizations made to cover 23% of the world’s population are astounding, particularly in a country where many Muslims come to escape the devastation done by extremists in their own land.

Where is Christ’s Love?

According to Jesus, the greatest command is to love God, and the second greatest is to love your neighbor. I see that happening as the men and women facing real threats of death voluntarily go back to the thick of it, relying on God’s strength not their own.

I don’t see that when Western Christians (though certainly not all—I don’t want to generalize!) instill fear where it is unfounded, reject those seeking asylum, and ostracize those most in need of love. The best way to prevent people from being “radicalized” is to reach out, show love, and build relationships.

As believers, we are commissioned to spread God’s message of hope to all nations. It is difficult to get into some closed, predominantly Muslim countries. Having representatives of those nations come to us, where we are free to share imageour faith, is in reality an incredible opportunity! These could be the men and women who experience transformation in Christ and take His love back to their families and communities, despite the likelihood of persecution.

So my challenge for you today is to be an “anti-terrorist” by seeking out your Muslim neighbor and showing Christ’s love. Your fears will likely be debunked as you encounter the culturally-based values of hospitality and kindness!

May 22

The Perfect Prayer (Part 1)

There are a wide range of prayerful traditions, and a great deal of value in everything including liturgy, psalms, intercession, and so much more. Having seen God at work in many difference prayerful contexts, I find it hard to say the there is a “best” way to pray.

Yet Jesus’ disciples asked how to pray, and He did in fact give an example. Obviously this is not the only prayer we are to use, as we should also follow His example of having an active prayer life, and interactive communication with God. But I do see a wealth of significance in His prayer “prototype.”

Starting at the Threshold of Eternity

Jesus began (Matthew 6:9):

“Our Father who is in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.”

To say “Our Father,” not only shows Jesus’ perception of a direct relationship with His Father (which was revolutionary at the time!), it welcomes us into that relationship, inviting us, the adopted children, to use the very same relational title.

In the very same sentence, Jesus honors God’s name as being holy. It is almost a juxtaposition: the pure and sinless God connecting as a Father to us, the tainted and sinful. Despite the reality that He is in the perfection of heaven, He is willing to embrace us as a loving father even before we are sanctified.

Indeed, the sacrifice of Jesus has thrown the gates of heaven wide open, and He invites us to join Him on the threshold of eternity. We gain a new perspective: seeing both the promise of God’s love and the pain of the sinful earth.https://i0.wp.com/www.stockvault.net/data/2009/07/14/109478/small.jpg?resize=283%2C210

When turning to Him we can see more of His glory; when distracted by earthly  desires we lose focus, and more easily slip into sin. But He is always calling us back to His Presence, back to His love.

Starting our prayer time with acknowledgment of both His holiness and His role as a Father can put us in the right mindset of both awe and appreciation.

Participating in the Kingdom

Jesus continues (vs. 10):

“Your Kingdom come,

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.”

This is already a second reference to heaven in a short prayer. Despite having not seen heaven, we do know it is a God-centered place. He reigns supremely and loves supremely. His glory consumes all. To think of that from earth, while facing a constant barrage of distractions, can be hard to imagine.

Yet each of us can invite His love and His will to rule our lives, as He invites us into His glorious presence. Both as individuals and as a church Body, followers of Jesus should be living a God-centered life, yet we easily slip back into our self-centered patterns, looking for our wills to be done.

How often do we center our lives on God, making Him our highest priority and keeping Him at the forefront of our thoughts?

I know I habitually fail to do that, distracted by my “to-do” lists and lacking in discipline.

God promises that when we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. That is how His kingdom comes to earth. We need to remember that His kingdom here includes us, and He can use us to accomplish His Sovereign, perfect will. Participating in His purposes bring us joy and peace. As we continue to learn how to trust His plan, we can also expectantly look forward to watching His kingdom unfold around us daily.

Regardless of the style or content of our prayers, Jesus’ example illustrates how we must begin by being centered on God and putting His will above our own.

 

What does your prayer life look life? How do times of focusing on Jesus differ from focusing on our own needs and wants?

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