Monday, March 19, 2012

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

For Your Edification

Lately, I've been really struck by something in particular. Actually, let me back up: I've been struck with a metric butt ton of things, which is kind of overwhelming -- you get hoarse after saying "Aha!" enough times. Most of the things I'm realizing concern who I am, which is something that I always thought I was pretty in tune with. Not only am I intensely girly and in touch with my thoughts and feelings on just about everything at any given time, but I'm also a heavy thinker, and have always spend a lot of time pondering, processing, and internalizing things. I'm like a creepy computer with small hands. (Why is that relevant? First thing that popped into my head.) But lately the Lord has shown me how wrong I am about that. I do not know me, not really. It's kind of a slap in the face when I keep considering what I think I'm good at and what things I like, and living off those perceptions, when the God that designed me and has my hairs counted, and can see my heart, is there saying, "I know you! I have plans for you! They're better than yours because I know you better than anyone!"

So I've spent some time this semester playing get-to-know-you games with myself. The Holy Spirit has really dug around and unearthed things about me that I am ready to face, both gifts and flaws, to reveal me exactly as I am. It's incredible to me that from the eternal godly perspective, I am wiped clean and considered perfect because of Christ, but God loves me so much that He cares about changing me to be more like Him right now, in this temporal life on earth. I'm noticing the pet peeves I've always had and never acknowledged for what they are, so I can be ready to forgive people when they irritate me. I get to see the way my mind dwells on certain things, worrying constantly, or imagining things differently from what they are, so I can take captive of my thoughts from wandering in order to stay grounded here and appreciate what I have. I could go on forever, and this isn't really what I was going to write about, but it's just incredible to really know myself more like the Lord does. I know that this process will really be important when I have to make life decisions, so I encourage you right now to pray that God will introduce you to yourself, the real you! He will take you step by step to clean out dirty closets inside, not dumping your every failure and vice on you at once because He knows we can't handle that, and it'll all be for His glory when we can put sins and flaws behind us one by one to become stronger in Christ!

Whew. Anyways, all that leads to my new understanding of the power of human interaction. It's really incredible how much we just interact with others every day, whether by walking by them, making eye contact, talking to them (from cashiers to best friends), hugging them, laughing with them, Facebook chatting with them, emailing them... every single day. And as I imagine the scope of how much we really spend time just dealing with people, the possibilities for God's glorification are just enormous. How much of a difference can a smile make to someone who is on the edge of hell in their life? What could a kind gesture do to a stranger? How beautiful could words of hope be to someone you've known for years? It's just crazy to think about how people in our lives aren't just extras in a movie about us -- they are thinking, feeling, experiencing, and not any less than you or me. We're really all very alike.

I could talk about this too for hours and hours. In fact, this isn't even what I was going to talk about either, haha. Another context! Don't you love it?

The very specific thing that I am considering at this moment is how carefully we must tread in when we relate with people. We do it so automatically, reacting more than responding, and don't take the time to measure our words or search our hearts.

"Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts. May the LORD silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue— those who say, 'By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?'” Psalm 12:2-4

Yes, this talks about everyone, even the holiest of holy Christian people. I don't think we realize how all-encompassing deception and flattery really are, how deeply they go. Pretending to care about other people when we don't really feel like listening to them, laying on kindness in order to be liked or obtain something (yep, going out of your ordinary way for attractive guys counts!), and many other things that are second nature to us are really deception. The lie is that we profess to be different from the inside out, loving neighbors as ourselves and giving without expectation of receiving anything in return, and yet on the inside our attitude doesn't match many times. This scripture even points out that the issue is really in our hearts, that we still have deeply rooted desires to gain attention and admiration from some people and not to be bothered by people that we don't think are so important. Our level of politeness, or how genuinely engaged we are in what people are saying, often correlates more with getting something out of our interactions with people.

Speech has a gigantic impact on people's lives, and we must approach it with respect. We are not masters of our tongues; they sometimes speak directly from a selfish corner of the heart without giving our spiritual self a chance to intervene and stop it. I think believers really need to step back and truly consider what is edifying, and what is not, period. What words build up others and bring glory to the Lord?

For example, I'm kind of over people who jokingly get on your case about something that isn't your fault. This has always really made me mad -- I think I just have a sensitivity to it that other people might not -- but I really can't stand it. I know that friends are kidding when they say things (oftentimes over and over again) like, "Gosh, Lara! Why did you make me come here? This is the worst thing ever!" when something goes wrong completely apart from my control. I take it personally! It's not funny at all and it gets on my nerves. I'm not a scapegoat! This is a way that other people have no idea that they are pushing me to frustration and the desire to back away from them. And that's really the thing -- we don't mean to do stuff like this, but it's because we don't often take a moment to consider if even our sense of humor is edifying. Even if a joke is slightly at someone's expense, you'd better know that person well! (Proverbs 26:18-19 is a scripture that a lot of my friends throw around about sarcasm, use it well.)

Just observations we make aloud can tear down rather than build up. A lot of people, usually clueless guys, have told me I look tired! In the early afternoon, on days where I am perfectly well-groomed and have had my coffee and am just going about my business. I get it! I have genetic circles under my eyes! Why in the world do you need to tell me that?

I don't mean to sound like a big complainer, I'm just giving personal examples of ways where I am definitely thin-skinned, which is a problem where I am quicker to accuse than forgive, but where I am not built up by people's interactions with me. Everyone has a million they could probably think of right now, both things that hurt their feelings or things that they know they do that probably bring others grief and frustration.

What's the prescription, then?

"So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. [...] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Galatians 5:16-23

Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and reveal to you ways that you must take control of your words and not let them speak on their own on your behalf. When He fills us with His presence, we have these fruits of the Spirit, all of which will aid that deep heart issue that causes the most hurt in our relationships and interactions. If there is genuine love within you, then good will pour out naturally in what you say!

In a practical sense, really take care to think before speaking, asking the Spirit to join you in your conversations and indicate to you how you can be a builder, encourager, and deliverer of good news, pointing to Christ with every sentence. Truly elevate others' desire to be listened to and cared for above your desire to zone out. Don't let the desire to impress people rule you, but the belief that the Lord sees what others don't and rejoices over you letting Him pour His love through you like a water fountain.

The Kingdom of God is nearing, and we can give little pieces of heaven to others in what we say.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Love Comes at a Cost

You know what one of the coolest things in the world is? Coming to appreciate things that are real, and are hard. Most of us tend to react with sheer anger, sorrow, and incredulity when things don't go exactly according to plan, or very smoothly, or even right in the very slightest of ways. But it comes as no surprise to us really when we look at life on a spectrum, as a whole, and realize how it is dotted with things that are not easy to face, or pleasant to undergo at all. We weren't promised perfect circumstances that would only facilitate happiness and comfort for all our days. But, oh, the character that is built under the hottest flames is of the firmest iron resolve. Seeing things that are difficult as blessings, or even just opportunities to become a better person, is a radical way to see ourselves the way God does, if we are trusting in Him: becoming more like Him with every passing day, the blessed gift of the Father who loves us. Godly character and a new heart are gifts worth enduring great tribulation for in the end.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. [...] Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him." James 1:2-4, 12

This weekend really exemplifies this in a lot of ways for me. I learned a lot about what it means to love other people in ways that I am not always accustomed to, or ways I usually run from because it's such a daunting lesson to learn. One of these ways is by spending a weekend going to and from Atlanta, Georgia, in one car with the same group of people. I'll preempt myself by saying that this weekend was GREAT! It was an incredible chance to learn more about what it would be like to go full-time with a certain international campus ministry, and just get to know other people who are considering the same thing. The five of us from USF who went together had a lot of fun (at least, I did) driving up there, joking around, getting to know each other better.

But it wasn't like we didn't probably get a little on the edge from time to time. Everyone gets hungry. Everyone gets tired. Everyone at some point has to go to the bathroom (the worst of the three so far!). Everyone misinterprets a joke, or something said by someone else. Everyone has certain pet peeves that other people could never anticipate having to take care to avoid. Oh, life! That's just how it works! But it is so cool to me to see these sort of "social experiments" play out for the good of God; yes, just smashing up a bunch of people to be stuck together for three straight days more or less is a recipe for seemingly imminent disaster.

Yet, it wasn't like that at all. I know for me, in moments where I was so exhausted, ready to break away for a minute, and become even a little tempted to snap because of my discomfort, I could almost literally hear a voice in my head going, this is why you need God. I am such a frail human being. I can be the most gracious and loving person on earth on my own until you take away my dinner, my quiet, my comfortable seat, my jacket when the air is blasting cold, and other things that are not in and of themselves very great or formidable at all. Those tiny things make me so unloving and ungracious very quickly, unless I am abiding in God's love, where the Holy Spirit prompts me in moments where it's tempting to go crazy at everyone to continue to demonstrate love the way He does. (1 Corinthians 13 -- read that thing now, even if you have it memorized.) It is Jesus that changes my heart not to serve my selfish will anymore, whether that will be to get my frustration taken out on someone else or walk around their feelings just so they won't hurt me. My will is to please the Savior, mirroring His character, and not compromising that perfect beauty of the Spirit with my awful quickness to self-pity and self-focus.

The world may not see this, perhaps because they don't know true Christians or perhaps because they ignore the ones they do know, but believers in Jesus have such incredible community played out over and over for them to see. If five of us have Christ in common as Lord and Savior, things that could even be huge frustrations are dwindled to nothing, forgiven, and forgotten. We can still be friends even when someone messes up (oftentimes me, unfortunately) -- and not just friends, but good friends, ones that won't remember in a week that anything bad happened at all. We can meet each other and within a couple of days be deep and dear friends. This blew the minds of my Bosnian friends. They did not understand how Americans who knew each other for a week could be so close, caring deeply for one another to shoulder each other's burdens and struggles, as well as rejoice and laugh without reservation.

Brothers and sisters in Christ also come together in remarkable ways they were never directly taught to do, for the benefit of those who are in need. Today was the funeral and burial of one of the younger brother of a beautiful sister in Christ I've known for a couple of years. I've not been to a funeral since I was four, and I barely knew what happened even then. I wouldn't know what to expect or do in and of myself. When we arrived there, several other friends had driven from Tampa to Orlando just for this hour-long service. Both people who were incredibly close to her and people who were more or less acquaintances had tears in their eyes for her loss, feeling the pain as if it were theirs to feel, maybe never even having set eyes on her brother for themselves. She had a circle of people who loved her pray for her heart earnestly, with great compassion and desperation for supernatural healing. Men were not above weeping for her and beside her. I'd say hundreds of believers have prayed for her and her family since the tragedy last week, and continue to do so, and the results are palpable.

I never thought I'd see the sister of a man who passed too young laugh with her friends at his burial, after the tears, remembering the good times she had with him and what a light he was to the world. (Watch this video.) But we were able to spend time with her enjoying life, celebrating who he was and the footprints he's left in the hearts of people who knew him. What a blessing to see even one smile at this time, let alone many! Such a tragic accident has the potential to ruin the life of a loved one left behind, reducing them to endless depression, forcing them to wonder if life's worth living in such a miserable place as this. How great the hope is that there's a God who heads a family as the loving Father, adopting many sons and daughters, who with infinite love in their hearts come to one another's aid, praying urgently and extending a hand to squeeze in the hard moments.

This is real.

The church is not a building; it's not some made-up group of people that has been lost over time. It's here today. There are people so in love with Jesus that they will willingly lay down their lives, needs, and desires for the sake of others. I count myself too blessed to know even a taste of what this means.

I'm honored to be a tiny organ in this functioning body, and having the chance to be refined in my ability to love others no matter what is precious. Whether it's learning to love someone when you're not comfortable or necessarily happy, or learning to love someone who has suffered more than you can know, I hope to seize these God-given moments to be taught and corrected into a clearer image of Christ when they arrive. You can never know when your ability to love will be put to the test.

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." John 15:13

Whether that is literally laying our lives down, or laying down our "lives" as we live them day-to-day according to our needs and purposes, it's of immense importance to love others to the point that we spare nothing to see them closer to knowing and loving God.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Would Die For You

I'm going to go dangerously close to being hip, emergent, or something weird, at least in my opinion. I am going to back everything I think about with scripture. Don't encourage anyone to make a bible study out of this guy's body of work.

Okay, it's not that big of a deal, but I'm just saying I had a kind of weird realization earlier.

The Lord has often spoken to me through song lyrics on the radio. Maybe not directly like, "Hey! Lara! I put this on Wild 94.1, which you OBVIOUSLY shouldn't be listening to anyways, just so you would learn something right now! Enjoy." Probably, it's more like, things happen to be playing, and something inside me will take truth out of it. Because most musicians describe very spiritual, intimate, human things that are meant to be fulfilled by and defined by God, but just missing the crucial factor that brings all their hopes and dreams to life.

The reason this stuck out to me in particular was that it was on two times in a row, on two stations. I didn't just want to listen to it again, but I infinitely prefer this song to that annoying Rihanna and Drake one ("Just my type" and "na na na na" do not rhyme!) and to even three seconds of Mike Posner (Did it occur to you that she just might really be cooler than you!?).

Stinkin' Bruno Mars' "Grenade" was on repeat in Tampa tonight.

I hate how catchy he is. His songs are so over the top dramatic that I kind of get annoyed, but they will hook themselves into my brain for the rest of the day. Either way, I was really thinking hard about his lyrics:

Gave you all I had and you tossed it in the trash
You tossed it in the trash, you did
To give me all your love is all I ever asked
'Cause what you don't understand is

I'd catch a grenade for ya
Throw my hand on a blade for ya
I'd jump in front of a train for ya
You know I'd do anything for ya

I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain
Yes, I would die for you, baby
But you won't do the same

My first question was, why do you love someone so much who doesn't reciprocate? Bruno Mars is all in when it comes to girls. But at first, I was kind of wryly thinking how no one really feels that way, do they? Who in the world would catch a grenade for someone who doesn't really love them back?

"And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" Philippians 2:8

"Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.' [...] The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, 'He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.'" Luke 23:34-35

Taking a moment to consider the gravity Paul holds in the verse from Philippians is important to me now. He doesn't just say that Jesus was obedient to death. He adds an emphasis: death on a cross. Jesus was flogged, stabbed, forced to carry a heavy wooden cross, and was nailed to it, with a thorn of crowns on his head. With every breath, the nails tore harder on his bleeding hands and feet, the only things holding his weak body up. No one would give him water to drink. This form of death was pure torture, and took so long. I've never seen the movie The Passion of the Christ, but I want to; it's sometimes easy to make light of, or simply forget, how Jesus did suffer, and he suffered more than we can imagine. The sin of the world was on him that day, put to death with him in great agony.

And he turned the other cheek.

He forgave those who beat him, hung him on the cross, mocked him, and made the decision to put him there. He knew it was the plan, and willingly did his Father's will in order to make reconciliation for us possible through his blood.

And blood it was; this isn't too symbolic. He literally poured out blood, the life force within him that carried everything through his body every miraculous minute, just like us.

He knew what they were doing, but they did not. They had no idea that they were killing a beautiful Savior King, one who would return in wrath for those who did not put their faith in his power and follow him, loving others more than themselves and spreading good news of peace and hope.

As stupid as "Grenade" seemed to me at first, it's very true that Jesus Christ loves us, despite what terrible lovers we are in return. We cheat on him with other gods, with ourselves, turning inward to become our own deities to serve and love. We ignore him, and don't spend time with him. We are ashamed to talk about him. We come to him just when we need help or have been forsaken by our usual ways of dealing with things, when we've been betrayed by lesser gods.

But he didn't just take a bullet to the brain to die for us -- he went a painful way, one that horrified people of the time to endure, one that made Paul exclaim that he was obedient to not just death, but death on a cross! No, Jesus loves us even more than we dare to imagine.

Would we do the same? Likely not. But Jesus asks our lives of us, not that we go and kill ourselves, but that we die to our own desires, for those only lead to destruction. We will never be satisfied with anything, and will die in excess or in prison to addictions and lies. But when we carry our crosses to the hill and put ourselves there as we are, sinful and selfish, we are resurrected with him in glory! We are new creations, with new hearts, and all our old ways have been killed and redeemed for good.

And that, my friends, is how a noob pop star can teach you the gospel. But, I reiterate, I am not planning on squeezing God messages out of radio hits for a living -- sketchy territory, mostly because I'd look like such a wannabe, haha. (And I don't know that there's hope for Lil' Wayne yet, except maybe the part about open bibles in that "What Is Love?" remake.) I just wanted to share how something I was pretty cynical about became something I can appreciate in a different way.

Maybe sometime I'll dive into "Just the Way You Are" if we really want to go nuts about my boy Bruno, but that's a story for a less sleepy and more optimistic Lara. :)

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Not often does a bible verse ring so eerily, exactly appropriate for a specific moment in my life as right now.

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep." Romans 12:15

I'm sorry for how apathetic or even slightly spiteful my heart has been toward those I know who are recently engaged. You have every reason to be thrilled and overjoyed, and I will rejoice with you.

And, my dear friend, I'm so sorry for what has happened to you today. My heart is sunken and my stomach feels heavy inside of me. I can't even begin to imagine the horrible pain of losing a little brother, and I will not pretend to understand or say that I know the best way to just feel better. I love you, and I'm praying for you so hard right now. I will weep with you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dig Deeper

How often do we see lemons and nasty fruit in our lives and keep trying to pluck them all and throw them away when they will just keep growing back? All of our behaviors, addictions, reactions, thought processes, and the like grow from somewhere much deeper.

"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." Proverbs 4:23

Roots and vines grow out of this heart, and the crappy things growing that we see, recognize as bad, and attack are only going to keep returning until we hack away at the vines, roots, ultimately until we reach the heart. But we can't change the place where the water flows, the seeds will be planted, and grow from. We don't have that power, or the will to do so, for that matter, even if the capability was in our grasp.

"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 36:26

I see it in myself. I will dabble in what seem to be all kinds and types of things that I either know are bad or detrimental, or just can't seem to help but do, and then step back and wonder how I could have so many problems. I watch myself run around to different false idols, false hopes, false promises and giving up when each one doesn't deliver fast. But in my maturing in Christ, He has revealed to me how many of them are related. I deal with the same lie that has taken root inside of me by doing different things at different times, either throughout my ordinary week or through whole seasons of my life.

Look at the things that disappoint you, that you know won't satisfy, that are destroying you slowly. Don't some of them really manifest the same thing? My pride compels me to do several crappy things, by comparing myself or judging others or talking too much, but they all stem from the same lie: I'm more valuable than others.

This is something the Lord is breaking me over today. He's showing me just how deeply my sin, my troubles go within me, but how much hope there is even for the darkest and most terrible things about who I am. In Christ, before His eyes, I am nothing but a pure, clear well of water, with vines full of good, healthy things. And He is working on me to look more like that in the eyes of people, too.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sea Change

A lot of people have a hard time believing me when I tell them that I was really not that great of a person back in high school and before. I mean, if they are measuring me against someone like Lindsay Lohan or the cast of Jersey Shore for crazy unruliness, or a serial killer for my moral compass, then perhaps, relatively speaking, this would be accurate. I didn't really get into very much trouble and made good grades, so it's not like I wasn't good in a very standout way.

But they never knew my heart! I held onto offenses committed against me forever, even though I might have said all was forgiven. I used my words to cut people to pieces, oftentimes directly to their face but mostly behind their back. To me, slander was a form of (very poor) comedy or my crooked sense of justice, not cruelty in the most basic sense. I judged people, snubbed people, mocked people, and also relied far too greatly on people. I clung to their impressions of me if they mattered to me in the slightest, often not because I thought they were right or that they knew me well, but because I wanted to be what they wanted me to be. I signed a contract with the world that I would serve its purposes in how I conducted myself in both thought and deed, and even if this wasn't the most flagrant evil in the world, it was evil enough to contribute to the huge problem in America that no one can ignore.

From birth, I would have told you I was a Christian if you asked. I believed in the person of Jesus according to what the bible said, in regard to his sonship to God and coming to earth to save us. I went to church and youth group functions out of my own motivation; no one even made me go. In the eyes of most people, this constitutes what Christians are and what they do: they identify themselves as such and go to church to fulfill their duties.

There was a crucial component missing in my life until I was eighteen, though. I did not have any intention of changing from my own selfish ways. While I avoided the most "major" of sins (which, for whatever reason, tend to be murder, smoking, and drinking according to Christians) throughout teenagerhood, I never devoted thought to how damaging gossip, judgment, bitterness, and other issues were. I was a hypocrite! People outside the church all over this country complain most that Christians are fake, saying one thing and doing another, that that was most certainly me! I had no desire to stand apart from what most people do, probably because I was thirsty for most people's approval. I probably would have agreed I needed divine forgiveness but probably would not have thought of more than a tiny fraction of the reasons why I needed it.

But if there is one thing in this world that does what it says, the words of scripture acted as a sword to pierce my soul and expose it for what it was. I am reminded of a verse that so many people take misguided comfort in when it has the potential to be dangerous:

"[...] The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7

If anyone is at all discontent with the length of his nose or the shape of his body, then he might read this and be joyful that if all else fails, God sees through such a terrible imperfection to see his heart. Yet I am convinced that even if one were a Quasimodo in appearance, the heart within would be infinitely more dark, twisted, self-centered, and wrong than even the outer self. I find it far scarier that the Lord, in his omniscience, sees every horrible thing buried inside of me. It'd be far easier to please him if all he cared about was that I put on a dab of makeup instead.

I never dared to consider my wickedness until I was an adult, when his word revealed to me the depth of this wrong. But, despite the immense brokenness that ensued, there came a great hope, the very fundamental truth of the gospel itself!

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:9

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8

"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 36:26

Is this why hundreds of people pack into a building singing praise to someone unseen every Sunday all around the world? Yes!

And can I affirm that this is true in my own life? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, by the grace of God, yes.

I am not the same person. I am far from perfect in what I think and do today, but I assure you that I have seen and experienced this change in ways that I couldn't have made myself do. It's very hard to force yourself to want to stop being so unkind, thoughtless, and selfish. If I could name specific things, I'd take a while to come to the end of the list of ways my heart is changed, and would probably come off as pretty self-righteous.

But I will say this: I literally cringed at the thought of going abroad to be a "missionary" before I really encountered Christ. Telling other people about him seemed really stupid, and just did not fit into my idea of something I would find important or enjoyable. And here I stand today, having done such a thing for half my summer in 2010, and hoping to return one day. There are passions stirred within me that were dormant and dead before.

Countless books on the existence of God and the truth of Christ exist, and none can scientifically or philosophically conclude anything. But if any proof really exist in the world, I'm willing to share the testimony of who I am today. I am no longer the same.