Friday, December 24, 2010

Felix Dies Nativitatis

You can say all kinds of annoying things about Jesus being born in the summertime, Winter Solstice being the origin of the holiday, trees and decorations starting out with paganism... it's really not a big deal.

But I am honored and thrilled to celebrate the birth of the Messiah of the world this time of year!

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'” -- Luke 2:-14

I'm going to rob the guy who wrote part of the lesson we have been doing in my church class, as well as my pastor. And by rob, I mean talk about what they did.

Anyways, it's just really crazy that shepherds of all people were the first to be informed by angels on the night of Jesus' birth. Shepherds literally lived with their sheep, spending all their time with them out in the deserts and fields, probably having no real family. They were smelly and probably socially outcast. They were never clean enough to go into the temples themselves in Israel. In sum, they were kind of bumpkin homeless people who lived with animals full-time. For the King of Kings being born, most people did not expect shepherds to be among the first to know, and first to worship him. It seems a little weird that someone else wouldn't be told before them to go and see. It really shows how Christ was not for the rich, the famous, or the powerful, or even the "normal" or the hygienic and acceptable. He is for desert herdsmen. And to them would the proclamation of his birth be delivered first.

At the same time, it's not so crazy. Shepherds' lives are devoted to the protection and care of their sheep. They guide them to food and water, and know how many there are and what they sound like and look like. They set up sorts of fences or boundaries with whatever they can find in order to hold in the sheep, and they lay down at the opening of the pen to protect them personally from harm. They are gentle, and the sheep follow their familiar and trustworthy voices -- shepherds in Israel don't need sheepdogs to chase and bite at the sheep like shepherds in other places do.

"He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." -- Isaiah 40:11

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’" -- Matthew 2:6

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. [...] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [...] I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." -- John 10:1-16

Find comfort in the sheep pen of the Lord where Christ himself enters by the gate and lies there for us, because he wills our security and lack of fear out of abundant love.

Happy Christmas to you, peace on earth, and goodwill to all!

"The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever." -- Psalm 23

Friday, December 17, 2010

Smell The Roses

It took a phone call to step back and let something that had been nagging me in the back of my mind to come forward and confront me once and for all.

I was chatting with a friend about all kinds of things, jumping all over a variety of topics, but something in particular stuck. We were talking about differences between cultures, and how straight-laced and linear the Western mind tends to be, and he complained something along these lines: "It's like we look at a bird and wonder, 'What kind is that? What's its name?' and begin to categorize everything about it, while other people in the world just look and go, 'Hey that's a bird! Cool!'"

The additional thought that provoked me occurred about a week later in conversing with my pastor, who talked about a history class he took in college that focused on the Eastern hemisphere, and was taught by a Chinese man. He mentioned how frustrating it was sometimes to listen in class, where American students are used to going from the beginning of a topic to the end, and this professor didn't really do that; rather, he might go in one direction, come back, go somewhere else, and come back again, over and over again. His mind thought more cyclically than ours tend to do. It makes note-taking in our traditional fashion a bit messy. My pastor remarked that he couldn't tell you much about the actual content of the class, but he learned a huge lesson in ways of thinking: our minds just work things out differently, not one culture's method necessarily being better than another.

Having been raised in the U.S., looking at things from a standardized test point of view, I totally see how my mind is very much the analytical Western type, taking things apart and laying them out in a logical row, going from beginning to end -- very much the scientific method as we know it. I get frustrated when I can't dissect something to the point of comprehending it, or when I can't put something into a category or box that fits what I can understand. This kind of thinking pervades just about everything, from schoolwork to relationships. I aim to "get" stuff. And when I don't "get" it, I go kind of nuts.

I am one of those people who wrecks a masterpiece symphony in my head by thinking, "Wow, this song on the radio straight up stole this chord progression." I look at a beautiful picture of a lake and think, "Where is that? What animals are in this picture?" My brain doesn't take a break. If I spend a morning sitting on my porch drinking coffee, thoughts inevitably come that scold me for being lazy and taking so long to start getting ready for school, or doing some homework or chores. This isn't a conscious thing most of the time, but simply a worldview: we are supposed to figure things out, be productive, and be efficient. If we don't, we're wasting time and potential. I'm willing to bet that a great proportion of Americans have these values pretty deeply rooted in their psyches.

We apply this linear and restless way of thinking in our spiritual lives, too. It's easier to follow rules than participate in a relationship. It's easier to make a list of good works to do than to rest in grace and joy. It's easier to judge than it is to forgive or talk things through. It's easier to avoid messing up than it is to wholeheartedly pursue good instead. We try to box God into what our little human brains can comprehend, assuming that what He is or what He can do is in accordance with the standards we arbitrarily put on Him by our own understanding. We worry about upsetting Him, which either leads to outright rebellion in ways that we know aren't right or by perishing with despair that we are disappointments who can't do anything right. We busy ourselves with tasks and chores for Him, or to please whomever we choose, rather than bask in truth and let that free us from worry.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” -- Matthew 11:28-30

The point wasn't to burden us with rules or chores. The point wasn't to wear us out. The point wasn't to enslave us to the task of grasping God fully, completely, and perfectly. The point wasn't to fall beneath heavy weights of guilt, shame, and fear.

The point was to give us rest.

"Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise." -- James 5:13

These aren't hard instructions on how to live. They just require us to be still from our busy lives, which we tend to bring on ourselves a great deal of the time as middle class Americans. (If you're not one of these, then you are free from the generalizing part but should still think about it!)

If I'm happy in the morning drinking coffee on my porch, praise God for coffee, for my porch, for the fragrant morning air, and for the time to spend enjoying it!

It is a practice for me now simply to sit and enjoy something. It's not really easy, as I have been well-trained in busying myself with things to do so that I don't look lazy, and not necessarily because I really have the desire or need to. If I am exhausted and lay down, I try to stop punishing myself for wanting a nap by thinking endlessly and trying to imagine all the things I should be doing instead. If I am listening to a piece of music, I want to let the melodies soak into me and enjoy their beauty rather than think too hard about what makes them so lovely. And I might not ever understand God in His entirety -- in fact, I know I won't, because that is impossible for the human mind -- but I can certainly absorb what I know about Him from the inspired words that others who saw Him fulfill promises have written, and I can enjoy who He is, which is a list of words that is infinite and goes beyond what humans can utter.

So, I recommend taking a break from the daily routine. School is (hopefully) not the be-all end-all. Work (hopefully) won't be the treasure you take with you out of your life. Reputation (hopefully) will take a backseat in how you live your life. Rather, I say savor the taste of your favorite fruit, marveling at its natural beauty and sweetness. Get swept away by a song or piece that really captivates your spirit. Allow yourself to get lost in the feeling of a cool autumn wind or a warm, heavy spring breeze. Even stop and admire the thing you like best about yourself, be it your crazy big eyes (yep, that's me!) or your ability to put down exactly what you're feeling on a piece of paper with a paintbrush (unfortunately, not me at all, haha). Yes, all these things were wonderfully made, yourself included, and when we're happy, we are to give praise for these things!

This more holistic way of looking at our lives is hard to adopt, but sure makes it easier to experience the light burden that Christ lays on us when we follow Him, instead of choking under the ones we put on ourselves. Things don't have to be packaged in a way that make them more understandable, effective, useful, portable, or form-fitting to our "McDonald's" culture that tells us to keep going fast, keep mass-producing for cheap, and take out what isn't absolutely necessary to churn out more and more so that we can avoid stopping. In fact, if you are in Christ, you aren't really supposed to care a lot about what seems appropriate to the people in your society (Romans 12:2).

Organizing, dissecting, grasping, explaining, and streamlining our lives to be most efficient and nonstop are not necessary.

Simply pray, and give praise.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

We've No Less Days

My, oh my, I haven't written here in quite a while. I never felt like I had anything especially poignant or important to say really -- this semester has kept me quite on my toes. Oftentimes last year, when I really kept writing here, I was just having strings and series of light bulbs going off! It was really a dynamic time at the beginning of 2010; something new would just click for the first time, as if I had been trying to jam a puzzle piece into its place over and over until the Lord gently turned it the right way and it all made sense.

The journey of learning and growing that I've had so far since returning from Sarajevo, living at home the rest of the summer, going back to Tampa for school, and living yet another eighth of my college career (WHAT?!) to its conclusion, has been a trip of a very different nature. I've sat down to rack my brain about what has happened over the past week, over and over again, unable to pick out exactly what is going on. No one day really stands out. Crazy things have happened for sure -- as a college student, you can't avoid it -- but I couldn't pinpoint things that really stood out, or made the week memorable on their own.

This sounds pretty depressing, really. It's like the semester flew by and I saw it go from my desk, or bed, or table at the Marshall Center. It has disappeared so quickly but crawled at the same time. There were plenty of times where I stopped and asked myself, what am I doing? Where am I going? What's the point?

I sit in this desk twice a week by the same people.
I lounge around this chair in the MC at this time almost every day.
I come home and make dinner in this kitchen just about every night.
I procrastinate on the same little reports, labs, papers, and they never seem to let up or change.

Why, then, do I finally feel the propensity to write anything again? What stands out to me all of a sudden?

These past few months have been an enormous arc of a revelation for me, and it is unlike anything I have experienced in my life.

I stand here looking back over the routine, the same heartbreaks that arise from time to time that have appeared my whole life, the ways I am different and the ways I am the same, and I understand the very tip of the iceberg that is what life is really like.

When I really started following Christ, of course I imagined that He would magically make life easier. I envisioned that His help for me was not to empower me in a way I could never do myself to face obstacles in the world, but rather to remove these obstacles completely from my path so I could skip along through fields of flowers without a care in the world. I completely neglected the tales of Christian martyrs throughout history, or people I know who endure such hardship despite their faith, and naively anticipated that He would never let things disappoint or frustrate me by giving me the perfect life where I would want for nothing.

Yet, as anyone with half a brain can attest, this has not been played out. I have hit some of my lowest points after I began to walk with God. Things still go wrong, or don't turn out as I had hoped. People still hurt me. I still screw things up for myself, can't control my tongue, forget things that were important, think before I act, and just plain be mean and selfish. God hasn't taken away struggles, trials, or temptations for me to act in a way that does not honor Him at all.

In my bitterness over how life is not automatically easier just because I have a relationship with God, I found myself thinking about the future. This way that life keeps turning out differently from what we expect or want, it's not going to change. Any plans I've made for myself are really up in the air; I do not have the personal power to control everything. Dreams are likely going to be crushed sometimes. Tragedy is going to strike. There will be beautiful moments, but there will be sad, difficult ones, too. It's something we know but are consistently surprised by for some reason.

It must be because I forget the nature of the world we live in. It is not complete, and it is not right. Things are broken all around us. We as people were never meant to feel alone and unloved, or without a purpose. We were never meant to be afraid of strangers, or even worse, family or friends. We were never meant to starve, thirst, shiver in the cold. We were never meant to be enslaved, manipulated, used, abused. We were never meant to feel guilty or ashamed, whether because of our own doing or because of something out of our hands. We were never meant to inflict suffering on others in favor of our wants and desires. We were never meant to suffer at the hands of someone else's selfishness, either. It all feels wrong because it is wrong.

"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven." -- Matthew 6:9-10

"He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” -- Luke 4:16-21

The Lord will have His will done on earth as it is in heaven, which is the definition of perfection. It is God's abiding place. We have no hope of entering it in our imperfection without transcendental help from God Himself. And how is He accomplishing it? Christ came to give us this hope to know perfection, and abide with the one God of all dimensions, universes, and creation, where no sadness, sorrow, or pain can exist. He is pure magnificence, glory, and majesty. He is light. The good news is that He offers us the only way to experience this, through knowing Him.

This hope, however, is in something that is not so readily known in our lives on earth. We can taste the eternal glory and wonder of God, and this is His desire for us, but as long as we are alive in this world, darkness will always be in conflict with the light. This place is not perfect, and therefore perfection must wait for the next. Thus, truly, life is a task of endurance. We can be happy often times to be sure, and without God, for that matter. But happiness fades, and ultimately, not every desire of ours will be satisfied on this side of heaven.

What a bittersweet reality to bite into. And that is where I am right now. When I was continually screaming at God, asking why, why, why did He let things be like this, I was forgetting that He alone completes us -- but even that will not happen right now. We are becoming more complete, and there will be a time when we can stand before Him and He will wipe every tear away before eternal rejoicing.

But this life is not yet that time. We will face pain until that day. We will be rejected and rebuffed, see our loved ones pass away, witness horrors on TV or with our very eyes, read old journal entries and cry at our past hopes that have yet to be met. There are many seasons in life, but they all will leave us panting and thirsty for perfect hope and joy without the slightest twinge of sadness or regret in our eyes.

Yet, what a hope lies there in the end. The God we have read about, prayed to, and had the infinitely tiniest glimpses of will bring us to Him forever, in the closest intimacy one can imagine. The God who guided us through the trials and tribulations, showing us the way to face them without giving in to the despairing ways of the world, encouraging us through His saints all along the way, will be fully revealed to His children. Whether or not everything that happened on earth makes sense to us or not, it won't even matter, because we will never have to fear or worry again. It will have all dissolved in the absolute radiance of His glory.

If there is even a chance that this is the truth, then I am sold. I'll throw my life away on just "following rules" by what other people see of me. Whether or not I'm really missing anything by obeying the Lord and not following my selfish desires for instant gratification and nullification of pain, it will be more than worth it in the end.

It is for me and for all believers, then, to wait patiently for that complete satisfaction, no matter how we think God is failing us in this life. He cares for us and is near to us in our heartaches, but ultimately is working out His plan in our lives in ways that we could never understand in the thicket of the storm, while He abides above the clouds. Despite the ways that I have struggled to see Him move in my life these past few months, I now already have the blessing of seeing how He has been there in my disappointment. The gift we have on earth through the Lord's glad provision is not the destruction of whatever threatens our joy, but drinking from the true wellspring of joy to taste what is yet to be ours.

I don't know what life holds for me. I struggle wondering if twenty years from now, I will be unmarried, childless, somehow far from my friends and family, wondering what I did or how awful I was to be so lonely and unloved. Even if this were my fate, and it were even true that everyone in the world did not love me and left me to myself, it would not contradict the truth that God loves me and will change all of that one day. I would do best to tarry forth through suffering with my eyes set on the only hope that there is: Jesus Christ. Because... I cannot do justice to the joy that will be. The blink of an eye that a lifetime is on earth is so incomparable to eternity that the moment I can bow before my Father and sing to Him forever, even the worst injustice and agony that could befall me in life would be forgotten.

No crushed dream of mine would amount to the fulfillment of the best dream, which I will no longer see only asleep, but as my every moment forever and ever.

I realize this all sounds like my family died in a fire or something. In comparison with billions of people in this world, I have so much to be thankful for -- and I am. But, no matter who you are, life will be disappointing unless anchored in Christ, and even then its complete abundance awaits us until we leave the cesspool that is our sinful world. Praise the Lord that he does not grade our pain on a curve, but is near to us in our sorrow no matter its origin. I know better than I have before how vital it is to know God and cling to Him no matter what, to know and become the fragrance of life in a dying world in order to breathe it for eternity. I can't stress that enough. He is the only hope. No matter where I'm living, I am living in the arms of God.

If you are wondering why, calling out to God, or simply sitting in apathy, consider His urging to know Him. There is no other joy for us. I cannot believe I have the privilege of resting in assurance that God will finish me and deliver me to the promised land, and in the midst of anything, that hope will be my bread, water, shield, and resting place.

I want to leave you with Psalm 34, because it truly brings me to my knees in worship:

"I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the LORD, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from telling lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
and his ears are attentive to their cry;
but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
to blot out their name from the earth.

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The righteous person may have many troubles,
but the LORD delivers him from them all;
he protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
The LORD will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned."