Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11

I don't think I can let this day go by without saying something. I don't have any real deep revelation or anything, just reflections...

That day seven years ago is seared into my memory, down to what I was wearing - a white cotton polo shirt and my favorite overalls, the ones held together by safety pins. I remember getting in my car to head out to the other side of campus for my intro to tech class. I remember hearing something on the radio, but not really understanding what it was. Then I walked into the tech center where there were televisions mounted on the walls - all tuned into various news outlets, broadcasting the news of the terrorist attacks on our country. I stood there, numb, watching as the first tower fell. That is the only time in my life I have ever heard a reporter stutter and be completely without words to say. I remember going to my classes - which for some ridiculous reason weren't canceled - and thinking "the world is coming to an end, and I am sitting in Intro to Technology. What's wrong with this picture?"

I remember the next day or so. I remember poor Peter Jennings going 48 hours straight on nothing but coffee and andrenaline - by the end of Wednesday night, the man was almost incoherant. But he kept us all updated. I remember surfing the cable in my dorm room to see how stations were handling it - each one of them was either broadcasting a news outlet or had posted a message telling viewers to go watch one. I remember the dire warnings about gas, but I didn't bother going to fill up - I figured, what's the point? So I'll just be out next week instead of the week after. Why fight the crowds? I remember the special church service Wednesday night. I remember my roommate, Kim, and I finally getting tired of news coverage and putting on "The Blues Brothers" because we needed to laugh.

I remember the numbness. You would think I would have rabid emotions going through me, but honestly, it was such an incredible event that for a long time, I was simply numb. Every time they showed footage of the planes hitting the towers, it was as if my mind shut down. My brain could not physically process such a sight. It had no frame of reference. In the midst of the numbness, there was fear. No one knew what would happen next. I remember the relief as the day wore on and nothing else happened...and yet, something had changed. We were no longer bystanders in the Middle Eastern conflict. It suddenly went beyond oil. Now we had skin in the game. A group of people tried to kill as many of us as they could - not as a result of a declared war, not in response to a particular event, but just because we are who we are. The world shrank that day, and Americans' lost the bubble that we were immune to the world's troubles.

Sure, we had experienced things like Columbine and the Oklahoma City bombing. Those are the major news tragedies I remember from my childhood. But those were isolated events, horrible nightmares that were carried out by one or two crazy people. You felt like those could be prevented through working with kids to make sure they didn't grow up to be Timothy McVeigh. This was different. This was a particular group of people whose one objective was to kill as many Americans as possible, and they didn't care if they died in the process. It was different from the Cold War of my parents' era. Then, at least, we were "fighting" a power that had somewhat of the same value of life that we did. Russia did not want to bomb us any more than we wanted to bomb them. But the Islamic fundamentalists are different. They don't care if what they do brings about the end of the world - in fact, they consider it an honor to bring as much destruction to themselves and others as possible. They see their cause as just and righteous. And that day, seven years ago, we became embroiled into the World's Oldest Living Family Argument. And it changed the world around us forever.

As I looked at my children today, I realized they will never live in a world where there wasn't a 9/11. They will grow up learning words like "terrorist," and not just in context of another country like I did. This is their norm. This is their world. Life will forever carry the shadow of the smoldering rubble of the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania. They will always know the name Osama Bin Laden, even if we do manage to find him. These are the normal things of their world.

So - where do we go from here? I guess the question, as I look back on all these reflections, is the one I am learning to come back to - "What is that to me, Lord?" What do we do from here? First and foremost, we pray. We pray for our country. We pray for Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel. We pray for Islam to be exposed for what it is. We pray for the turning of hearts of the fundamentalists. We pray for our government and our armed forces, who are confronting this battle every day. In addition, we must not forget. Americans have notoriously short memories. We must remember what happened on our soil. Never forget the brave sacrifice of so many.

We must also come to the realization that the world has such great evil in it. Joel Rosenberg, an author I greatly admire, says this in several of his books: "To misunderstand the nature of evil is to be blindsided by it." Americans don't like to think of evil. We like to think there is just good - maybe different shades of good, but all good nonetheless. And that kind of thinking leads to destruction, because there are absolute forces of evil out there that seek to steal, kill, and destroy us. We have to face that and be ready. Be ready in our homes, be ready in our hearts. Be ready with the Lord. He, the Ultimate Good, is the only thing that stands between us and those forces of evil. Things are only going to get worse from here - but the Lord wins it all in the end. So, get ready. Don't forget what happened this day. Teach your children. And remember that the Lord utters His voice before His army.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Year of Living Biblically - What is that to me, Lord?

One of the things my church teaches is to take issues or ideas or events back to the Lord and ask this question - "What is that to me, Lord?" Ever since I read The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, I have been asking this question. Tonight, He answered, and His answer humbled me.

I still think it is one of the saddest books I have ever read. This man spent hours and hours of his life studying the Scriptures - days and weeks and months on end. Yet he never let it change his heart. He may feel like he's a "good man," maybe even a "better man" for having taken on this challenge - but he never let the truth of the Word of God change his life. In short, he read the law, but never saw the relationship.

Here's what God showed me: yes, that is sad for him. But I do this as well. I read the Word of God and try to do what it says - but on my own. I leave Him out of it. And good grief - I should know better! Lately I have felt myself get frustrated in some of the ministries I am involved in - namely, being the head of the missions team of my church. We have a consistent flow of requests for assistance come in, and each request has its own issues - no transportation, no phone to call them back on, lack of cooperation on their part, etc. Lately, without realizing it, I have stopped seeing the people and have just seen the names on a page. "Oh, look, it's so-and-so. Probably won't see them at their appointment again." I have forgotten a key part of this ministry - that God loves these people fiercly, and He expects me (with apologies to William P. Young) to see them and He sees them - with His love. When I don't, I'm no better off than Jacobs, just doing what it says in the words without living out the heart behind them.

This affects all areas of life - family, ministry, time with God, even our physical bodies. I have been more fatigued lately - because I have been trying to "do the thing" on my own strength. I've been trying to get by instead of living life to the fullest as Christ intended when He came here and shed His blood for me. I've been living by the words and doing the motions - but I have "forgotten my first love."

So, there's my confession, and I am grateful I have a God that leads me to repentance before I wander too far off the path! As I shake my head in sadness for Mr. Jacobs, I must also look inwardly and see where in my own life I have just walked the words and not let them penetrate my heart.

So, now, the question for you is - what is this to you? Where have you just "done the thing" without having the heart behind it? Where have you tried to do it on your own, leaving relationship behind?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Year of Living Biblically

I am still messing with fonts and layout on this thing, so bear with me...

I recently finished a book called The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. (And by recently, I mean about an hour ago.) It was written by a guy who decided to try and spend one year of his life living the Bible as literally as he possibly could. And here's the kicker: he's not really of a particular religion. He is Jewish "in the sense that the Olive Garden is an Italian restuarant, which is to say, not that much." As for his beliefs, he is a self-admitted agnostic. His struggles with belief are apparent throughout the book. He decided to spend the first nine months following the Old Testament rules and then the last fourth of the year following the New Testment.

At times the book is hilarious - like when his wife gets tired of the "you can't sit on the same seat as a woman who has had her period for 7 days rule" and sits on every chair/couch in the house. At times it was moving - like the experience he had dancing with the Hasidic men for a Simchas Torah. And sometimes it was a little disturbing, like when he bought and had a chicken sacrificed in a ritual called kaparot. It was also frustrating - he is so close-minded to some things, like even the possibility that creationism could have some truth to it. He is very honest about the fact that he just can't get his mind to go there.

Overall, though, I found the book sad. That would probably surprise the author, a humorist who obviously got a lot of meaning out of his year-long journey. But I thought it was tremendously sad. This is a man who spent hours and hours every day for over a year (including prep time) pouring over Scriptures, seeking spiritual advice, using every Bible commentary and aid on the market - and he didn't get it. He never got it. He never let it in. He never let the truth of the Scriptures penetrate his heart. He talks about passages he really like, passages he really admired - but in the end, he didn't get it. All he saw were words. None of them penetrated his heart.

He came close a couple of times, and as I was reading it, in my mind I was cheering him on, because I knew God was drawing him in - but he walked away. He admits that he is a control freak and that religion means giving up some of that control on your life. And he's just not willing to part with it. All that study, all that time devoted to following the rules of a God that, in the end, he's still not sure exists.

I wish I could sit down with him. I wish I could open the Scriptures to him and say, "Look, look deeper. It's not about the rules. It's about the relationship." It is such an example to me of what happens when we dig into God's word without the Holy Spirit guiding us. He never let the Holy Spirit in to show him what this was all about - that the Bible is God's story of trying to get our attention, to proving to us that we can't do it on our own, that we need His redemption if we are to have any hope.

It's also an example of how this culture, with all it's Bible aids and Christian bookstores galore, still doesn't get it. Commentaries and study guides won't get you there. We have more Biblical study equipment available to us than anywhere in the world - and yet, sometimes I think we have the deadest limb of the Church in the Body of Christ. In other parts of the world, they don't have all that stuff. All they have is Jesus, and He, as it turns out, is all they need. So maybe we need to pay some attention to that.

I'm still pondering all that God has to show me from this man's sad, sad journey into nothingness. But in the meantime, A.J. Jacobs just made my prayer list. He thinks he spent a year trying to find God - I think God spent a year trying to call him. And I'll pray that in the end, God wins.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Happiness and Joy

I recently gave the message at our church on the difference between Happiness and Joy. Although the finished talk was a bit longer and fuller than what is below, this is where that journey started. I am going to post it as it is, and then later I may add some things, such as the revelations from Ecclesiates and from the "if only" post from Anyway, here it is:

Happiness and Joy

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were counseling a young woman who was making some poor life decisions. She admitted that what she was doing was wrong, she acknowledged that God didn’t like the decisions she was making, but she wasn’t willing to make the changes she needed to make. After going around and around with her, she finally blurted out the crux of her argument to stay where she was in life: “But everyone has the right to be happy!”

In a flash, I had one of those “lightening bolt” moments where God opens just the tiniest corner of His revelation to you and it about knocks you off your feet. The instant she said that, the Lord spoke directly to my heart and said, “That is not true. That is a lie.”

Whoa! Whoa! What? We don’t have the right to be happy? God doesn’t want us to be happy? What kind of a theology is that? How can that be God? Doesn’t the Bible say He wants us to have the desires of our heart? Doesn’t it say, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live”? (Eccl 3:12) How can I say that we don’t have the right to be happy?

Let’s for a moment examine this rights business. We are very concerned with our rights as Americans – the right to free speech, the right to assemble, the right to practice our religion, the right to walk down the street in orange plaid pants and a tie-dye purple t-shirt, whatever. We believe we have the right to a great many things. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with these rights, people should have the freedom to do and say what they like, that’s what this free will business is all about. But the focus on our rights becomes, for us, a self-focus, to the point where all we see is our selfish gain.

The truth is, the Bible tells us in Romans exactly what we have a right to: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) Death is our right. That’s really what we deserve. It’s the right we have accepted when we sin – the right to choose death over life.

Does that mean God doesn’t want us to be happy? Not necessarily. The truth is, He is not as concerned with our happiness as He is with our joy. He wants us to be joyful. He wants is to live lives of joy and let that joy be our strength. Happiness is secondary to joy in God’s economy.

So what is the difference between happiness and joy? Happiness is an emotion. It’s fleeting. It comes and goes and it is dependent on our circumstances. It’s a reaction to what’s going on. We have a culture that is obsessed with happiness. Look at the theme of most movies and TV shows – the idea of having the right to do what makes us happy pervades almost everything we see. Rose slept with Jack on the Titanic because it made her happy. The characters on Friends jumped in and out of relationships looking for happiness. The pursuit of happiness runs our entertainment industry, and this has a tremendous impact on our lives. Recently, the state of California made it legal for gay couples to obtain marriage status, and hundreds of couples flooded in to get marriage licenses. They are doing what makes them happy. But they are not doing what makes them joyful.

Joy is a choice. It is our inherent right – when we accept Christ. When we turn our lives over to Him and accept His gift of life over death, we have the right to plug into the joy of the Lord – and true joy, like true love, only comes from Him. We can choose to be joyful no matter what the circumstances, because joy is a state of existence, not an emotion. It is an active choice.

There are biblical examples of these differences. In Jonah 4, we see Jonah setting himself down to watch what he thinks will be the destruction of Ninevah, a city he hates. A tree grows over him, and verse 12 tells us that the little tree made him happy. However, when the tree was taken away, he became so angry that he wanted to die. His happiness was based on circumstances, and he was not choosing the joy of the Lord as his strength.
In contrast is the story of Paul and Silas in Acts 16. Here, these two warriors for God are beaten within and inch of their lives and then thrown into prison. Such circumstances do not make one happy. No one says “Yay! I get to be beaten up and thrown into prison today!” However, we are told in verse 25 that they raised their voices in praise to God. They had the joy of the Lord as their strength; they were choosing to live in a state of existence with joy despite their circumstances. As such, they were joyful, and this joy ran deeper and lasted longer than what Jonah was experiencing centuries before.

So what’s the deal – God doesn’t want us to be happy? Ah, here’s the rub: He wants us to be joyful first, and let the happiness worry about itself. Because, you see, when we choose to live in the joy of the Lord, His happiness becomes our happiness. The things that make Him happy start to make us happy. Giving starts to make us happy. Spending time with family makes us happy. Spending time in worship makes us happy. What’s more, the things of this world that bring happiness without joy cease to give us the happiness that comes with the joy of the Lord. Sin, although it feels good, is not as appealing. The things that bombard us on a daily basis that we are told will make us complete no longer hold power over us. The word says He wants to give us the desires of our heart, but we must not forget the first part of that verse: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” When we line our hearts up with Him, our hearts beat as one, and our desires start to become the same. At that point, happiness gets in its proper place behind joy, and our lives have a much deeper, more complete meaning.

So the challenge to us is this: which will we choose? Will we choose happiness over joy? Or will we accept our right to be joyful, paid for on the cross, and let the happiness take care of itself? Because the truth is, no, we don’t have the right to be happy. But as redeemed people of God, we have inherited the right to be joyful – and that will result in and eternity of happiness beyond the reaches of our imagination.