Wednesday, May 22, 2013

To Be Understood

When we were considering our housing options for Charly’s PhD field research on Chinese Muslim minority peoples, Charly asked me what I thought about possibly living with a family in the village.

“Absolutely not,” I replied. “We’re home schooling and we need our own space.”

I’ve found that sometimes God delights in changing an “absolutely not” into a “well, maybe” and then into an “OK, I’ll give it a try...” I believe God has a sense of humor and He has specific purposes for stretching me. Out of my comfort zone. So I can grow deeper in my dependence on Him.

We don’t live with our host family all the time, as they have a permanent home in a city 2 hours away. But they come to the village somewhat regularly for Memorial Festivals and stay for a week or so, and we overlap with them then.

Overall, our host family has been very gracious and hospitable to us. We have all learned a lot together. Different cultures. Different customs. Learning to respect. Us and Them. East and West. In shared space.

Last Monday, our host family was here to oversee some repair work on the roof, and I ended up with some kind of stomach bug (or maybe it was mistakenly drinking some unboiled water). I slept on the couch most of the afternoon, and Jordan told me the next day that the wife said to her, “No wonder your Mom’s sick, all she does is sleep all day!”

Oh well. I know she didn’t mean to be lacking in compassion, she just didn’t understand me.

On Saturday, our host family had a Memorial Festival to commemorate the 3rd year death anniversary of our host’s first wife. I really wanted to be helpful in the kitchen with the massive food preparation for 100 people. But unfortunately I woke up with a bad migraine and had to stay in bed most of the day. At one point, our host came into the room where I was resting, to show the boys which prayer rugs needed to be moved, and said to me, “What’s wrong with you? How come you’re sick again?” On each of my trips to the outhouse I imagined the relatives who had come to help, watching me and thinking, “How lazy. Avoiding work. Good for nothing.” The word that God gave me to focus on instead of those condemning ones was “Immanuel.” He is with me. It’s ok if I’m not understood.

As I lay in bed, I thought about the 15 year old girl I met on Mother’s Day who opened her heart and shared with me about her Closed Doors for the future. And I thought that I live behind Closed Curtains on days like this. When I’m unproductive. Useless. Trapped by pain. So I can relate somewhat to the way she was grieving the death of her dreams. After CJ read that blog post, he said, “I don’t know that what you said to her about contentment and God’s sovereignty was wrong to say.” I responded, “I’m not sure either. Maybe what I said did encourage her. I just felt convicted that I was speaking to her as a ‘wealthy American’ with so many more opportunities and options than she has. I really don’t know what it’s like to be in her shoes.”

Because honestly that’s one of my greatest fears. When someone is hurting, to say something with good intentions that ends up causing more hurt than help. To a friend who has lost a parent, lost a child, lost a husband. Dealing with divorce, facing cancer, single parenting... I don’t know what those pains feel like because I haven’t been through them myself. I have felt my own pain, but it’s different. And I know that the well-intentioned words of others can hurt sometimes. Unintentionally. We all face different pain and we all deal with it in our own ways. Some want compassion. Some want distraction. Some want prayer. Some want practical life help. Some want medical help/advice. Some want to be left alone. Some want company.

But everyone, I believe, longs to be understood.

How comforting that Jesus knows our unique pain and grief, in a way that no one else can. He can relate to our feelings of being misunderstood because He’s felt them himself. And He can help us as we try our best to understand others. To be there for them in the way that most ministers to their heart needs.

Immanuel. God with us. Wherever we are and whatever we face. He is with us.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Us and Them

Brian McLaren’s spectrum of religious identity— the strong/hostile end valuing Truth and the kind/weak end valuing Tolerance—has helped our family grow in understanding the way people of faith are at different places on this spectrum. And we also appreciate what McLaren writes about the identity distinction between Us and Them. We know how easy it is to see Them as the enemy, as wrong, as needing to be changed/converted, and brought over to Us, the right side.

And we know first-hand how the Other can see us in exactly the same way.

We were dinner guests in an imam’s home one evening, several months after we moved to Lanzhou. And while we enjoyed the delicious food prepared for us by his wife and daughter, it was quite difficult for us to swallow the way he unabashedly tore apart both Christianity and the Bible as being corrupted and infinitely inferior to Islam and the Quran. Unless we converted to Islam, he articulated clearly, we were lost. Destined for hell. His greatest desire was to see our entire family become Muslim.

Because of that experience, we know how very uncomfortable it can be to be on the receiving end of such aggressive evangelism. The kind that doesn’t respect the Other or want to understand the Other, but only has eyes to see the wrong and unacceptable. To believe that the only answer is for Them to be converted to Us.

And because of that experience, we also know how natural it is to get angry when someone attacks the core of what you believe. There’s a strong desire to defend those beliefs and to want to attack back. Isn’t that what’s at the heart of much of the religious conflict in the world?

Charly has continued a good friendship with this imam, and they recently talked about that night in his home when he tried to convert us. Charly told the imam that Zhen Zhu (True God) had been teaching him how we can choose not make assumptions or judgments about each Other. We can choose to speak well of each Other. We can choose to seek true understanding and to walk in righteousness on the Straight Path, in our common desire to please Him in all that we think and do and say. The imam graciously received Charly’s challenge and said he also wanted to grow in being able to respect each Other and to see the value in helping each Other in our search for the Truth.

McLaren writes in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?” about how our sense of identity can be strongly shaped by understanding who We are in relation to a common enemy. And how harmful the resulting hostility can be.

He says: “When we increasingly understand who we are in relation to an enemy—whether that enemy is legitimate, innocent, or imaginary—we develop an increasingly hostile identity. Such an identity teaches us to see sameness as safety and otherness as danger. It is characterized by duality: us and them, right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness. It promotes a mentality of us versus them, us apart from them, us instead of them, us oppressed by them, or us occupying them, but never us for them or us with them.

It teaches us to see the long-term existence and well-being of them or the other as unacceptable, perhaps as an offense or threat to us and our religion, and perhaps even as an offense to God. It requires us to believe that the world would be a better place without them in it as them, and it only allows us to accept the other by converting them to be part of us, so they are no longer other. Ultimately, a hostile or oppositional identity values us as inherently more human, more holy, more acceptable, more pure, or more worthy than them. After all, if they were good, they would ask to be admitted under our sacred canopy and they would join us in circling around our sacred center.”

Could we instead believe that both we and they can choose to remain in our different identities? Them and Us. Does the answer have to be getting rid of Them, or Them becoming Us? Ultimately, we can choose how we see and treat the Other. We can choose not to be enemies, but friends. Who think the best of and want the best for each Other.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Monday, May 20, 2013

In His Steps

Joshua gave me permission to share his personal application from one of the books he read recently.
The intriguing question raised by Charles Sheldon in his book, In His Steps, challenges each of his readers to consider what Jesus would do if he was in their shoes. While we often quote the phrase ‘What would Jesus do?’ seldom do we ever seriously consider modeling our lives after this powerful question or do we realize how drastically our lives would change if we did.

One practical example of how I believe I could apply this question to my life is to take to heart Jesus’ command to his disciples after having washed their feet, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”(John 13: 13-15)

This charge by Jesus to his disciples to be servants to all, stooping even so low as to wash peoples’ feet, resonates with me as a way to be a blessing to others. In the village, I have been provided with ample opportunity to put this into practice, as the culture here assigns the task of serving to the family’s youngest son. By being able to bless others through such acts as serving at village festivals and pouring tea for guests at our home, I believe I am beginning to slowly incorporate the important question discussed earlier into my daily life as I strive to follow His example!

 (Pictures of Joshua serving at our host family’s Memorial Festival, commemorating 3 years since the death of our host’s first wife, for about 100 people on Saturday)

Friday, May 17, 2013

What Kind of Christian Identity?

One of Charly’s Christmas presents was the kindle version of “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?” by Brian McLaren. An interesting title for a very intriguing book! The subtitle, Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World, captures a key aspect of Charly’s PhD research. We’ve both read it twice and our family has discussed parts of the book together—finding some ideas that we wholeheartedly agree with and others that we don’t. One section of the book that we all especially like is McLaren’s presentation of the differences in a strong/hostile Christian identity and a kind/weak one, along with his suggestion of a third type of Christian identity that is needed in our world today.

McLaren’s book has helped us to see that Christians who come across as hostile to other religions aren’t trying to be hostile, they’re holding strongly to Truth. And Christians who seem to be watering down their faith in order to affirm others’ religions aren’t trying to be lukewarm, they’re committed to Tolerance and living in peace. Understanding these important values on both ends of the spectrum can help us not to be quick to judge or criticize Christians on either end. And our family has been challenged by McLaren’s third option: to live out a Christian faith that is both strong and benevolent.

He writes, “Simply put, we Christians already know how to do two things very well. First, some of us know how to have a strong Christian identity that responds negatively toward other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or opposition to other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the more we emphasize our differences with other faiths and the more we frame those differences in terms of good/evil, right/wrong, and better/worse. We may be friendly to individuals of other religions, but our friendship always has a pretext: we want them to switch sides and be won over to our better way. We love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity, hoping they will see the light and abandon who they have been to find shelter under the tent of who we are.

Alternatively, others of us know how to have a more positive, accepting response to other religions. We never proselytize. We always show respect for other religions and their adherents. We always minimize differences and maximize commonalities. But we typically achieve coexistence by weakening our Christian identity. We make it matter less that they are Muslim or Hindu by making it matter less that we are Christian. We might even say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity.

For reasons that will become clear in the pages ahead, I’m convinced that neither of these responses is good enough for today’s world. So I will explore the possibility of a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive, and defining—an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view.

My pursuit, not just in this book but in my life, is a Christian identity that moves me toward people of other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of my own Christian identity, but because of my identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus.”

McLaren poses some thought-provoking questions: “How do we disassociate from the hostility without abandoning the identity? How do we remain loyal to what is good and real in our faith without giving tacit support to what is wrong and dangerous? How do we, as Christians, faithfully affirm the uniqueness and universality of Christ without turning that belief into an insult or weapon?”

Lord, I pray that you would work in our hearts and break down the walls of fear, pride, prejudice, anger, bitterness, and misunderstandings toward those of other religious backgrounds and help us to love others as Jesus did: seeing beyond religious differences—to the heart. May we reach out to people, seek to understand people, and love people the way You do.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Closed Doors

On Sunday, I found myself squatting around the same bucket as a 15 year old girl, refilling bowls of noodle soup together, during the Memorial Festival in honor of her great grandmother. We started talking about school and her hopes for the future, continuing our conversation at her relative’s house where we joined some others for lunch, and then she suggested that we go for a walk around the village.

I felt so privileged to hear this girl’s heart. It gave me a better understanding, in much the same way that my class at the mosque a few months ago helped me to view faith through the eyes of a devout Chinese Muslim woman. This was life through the eyes of a very mature village girl who is feeling the tension between having longings and dreams and realizing that certain doors are closed to her.

She is working hard in school to please her parents, and to maybe get into college (if she can score high enough on the college entrance exam). The other option would be to get married (as some of her friends already have) to someone of the same Sufi order, through an arranged marriage. But if it was up to her, she would choose a third option and go out on her own to find a job. Because she really wants to get some life experience outside of her province and to see more of the world. She doesn’t want to be tied down. Trapped. Behind closed doors.

Three years ago she was able to go to Beijing for the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, as a representative of the Bonan ethnic minority people. She loved the experience, but it also caused her to realize how little her people know of life beyond their province. Many of them don’t travel or have access to the internet. She used the word that so many Chinese use when talking about this area 落后 luo hou meaning backward, behind the times.

At the same time, she can understand the benefits of having a simple life. And I affirmed what she was saying by telling her that people can have a lot of things and not be content. They can easily think they need a bigger house, nicer car, more order to be happy. Looking out over the beautiful landscape I said, “Here you have such natural beauty and it’s free.” 

 I said that it can be easy to look at other people’s lives and think that they have it better. To wish my life was like theirs. But the truth is that Zhen Zhu (True God) has given each of us the life that is perfect for us. The difficult things we each experience can help to develop our character and help us to grow closer to Him. And He can use them to give us a contented heart that isn’t dependent on our outside circumstances.

I was encouraged by our time together: both from what I had learned from her and what I had been able to share. Until I got home and read the following sections in a Brian McLaren book. Which made me question whether it would have been better for me to keep my mouth shut (like I felt two years ago with my friend whose young son had died and I tried my best to bring some comfort to her grief).

McLaren highlights a verse that he discovered in the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Mrs. Cecil Alexander, which is not included in most modern hymnbooks:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

He says, “As I pondered this verse, I couldn’t help recalling various stops in my travels over recent years. I’ve been inside the castles and mansions of some of the world’s rich and powerful—eaten gourmet meals, enjoyed scintillating conversation, slept in the finest beds, and even relieved myself in bathrooms of shocking opulence. And I have walked among the poor outside the gates of the rich...visiting in homes smaller than bathrooms, walking in the fecal mud of crowded refugee camps and squalid squatter villages, sleeping in dingy slums and grim occupied territories where oppression is the norm and police are just another threat. Having been both inside the castles and outside the gates, if I were asked to sing this verse in church some Sunday, I can only say that I would choke. I would walk out. I don’t know if I could ever return to a church where this verse was sung.

Imagine the effects of singing such a verse on the rich—the gratification, the peace, the joy, the sense of divine entitlement. And imagine the effects on the poor—the humiliation, the fury, the outrage, or the resignation.”

Later in his book, McLaren writes about overhearing a conversation between a Kenyan and an American about the recent intertribal violence in Kenya. “The American asked, ‘Which tribe are you from?’ The man hesitated a moment and replied, ‘I could answer your question because I am not ashamed of my tribe. It is part of who I am, and I know who I am. But at the risk of sounding rude, I would rather not answer, and let me explain why. In reality, in every country, there are only two tribes; the haves and the have-nots. It is enough to say that I am from the haves, and I want to use the advantages that have come to me by accident of birth on behalf of the have-nots, whatever their tribe. So although I am from one tribe, I exist to serve people of all tribes.’”

These words stabbed my heart. I thought about how I, as a definite “have,” had just told a struggling “have-not” to accept the life God had given her as His perfect plan for her. Earlier in the conversation I had tried to empathetically communicate how hard it must be for her to have these dreams and to try to figure out what to do with the longings of her heart, in light of the realities of life. But how could I even begin to understand her situation? Me, a “wealthy American” with a privileged life, whose children had so many more opportunities and possibilities for the future than she had. We, who were not facing the closed doors that felt unfair to her.

 How did my meant-to-be-encouraging words sound in her ears?

While I agree with Paul’s statement about God’s sovereignty in the lives of people, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live.” (Acts 17:26)

I am also deeply convicted by the words of the Kenyan who had no sense of “divine entitlement,” but was so humble that he referred to his advantages as coming to him by “accident of birth.” I, too, want to use the advantages I have as one of the fortunate “haves” to serve the “have-nots” and the “people of all tribes.”

Lord, help me know how to serve. How to encourage. How to give. What to give. What to say. What not to say. Help me to know what the real needs are. Spoken and unspoken. And what you want me to do about them. Help me to grow in humility. Generosity. Sensitivity. Understanding. Compassion. Creativity. May You be honored through my words and actions. And through the way You might choose to use me and Your people around the world to open some of the closed doors in the lives of the have-nots all around us. May You make a difference in the hurting world through Your submitted servants. Who want to see Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

My Mom, My Hero

In light of Mother’s Day, I want to honor my Mom because I think she’s the greatest. And she is one of my lifelong heroes.

From the very beginning of my life, my Mom has been high capacity. I did not learn How to Be a Lazy Mom from her :) From my perspective, she was a Mom who could do it all! She and my Dad were both full-time graduate students in West Virginia when I was born. When I was 7 months old, they adopted my brother Monty who was 5 months old. And when we were 16 and 18 months old, our sister Windy was born. I am amazed when I think of all the balls my Mom was able to juggle during that very full season of life.

When the three of us were 6 and 7, my parents adopted my brother Paul from Brazil (who is 1 month older than Windy). We were living in Arkansas at that time and my Mom's job was working with mentally and physically challenged children and adults.

When the four of us were 9 and 10, our family moved to NC, and my Mom started working as a resource room teacher in an elementary school, helping kids with learning disabilities. She continued in that role for 30 years, in two more states, until she retired 3 years ago. I can not imagine a better job fit for my Mom than Special Education. She always believed in her students, who faced many challenges in their lives, and she helped them to believe in themselves. She was hugely supportive, patient and encouraging as she helped them with their math, reading and writing skills and as she taught them strategies to overcome their unique learning struggles. I know that she made a tremendous difference in all of her students’ lives.

About 6 years ago, my Mom was invited by a friend of ours to give an all-day training seminar on Learning Disabilities for teachers and parents at a private school in Beijing. I was so proud of her and the way God used her expertise to meet a very real need, as she brought insight and teaching methods into an area that is not well developed in China’s education system. As an observer that day, I could tell that her training session was a significant breakthrough for many who came; as they learned how to better understand and how to help their struggling students reach success in school and in life.

As I’ve watched my Mom over the years give her life to others, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how to love unconditionally, without expecting anything back. My Mom has done an incredible job of giving herself away: in school, at home, in the neighborhood, at church, and among her friends and extended family. We have all been blessed beyond measure by my Mom’s self-giving love, as she seeks to live the way Jesus did. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) is a verse that my Mom embodies every day through her loving servant hood, as she strives to be a blessing to all those God puts into her life.

Whether it’s baking cookies for her and my Dad to give to all the neighbors in their new neighborhood as a way of introducing themselves. Or serving as CJ’s personal secretary with all of his college application materials that needed to be sent to a state-side address. Going all over town to find special craft materials for Jordan and sending them to her. Cheering Joshua on when he broke his first board in Tae Kwon Do. Putting a box of Girl Scout shortbread cookies in a care package for us because she knows they’re my favorite. Fixing Charly’s favorite meal when we are there for a visit. Or serving in the soup kitchen and getting to know the homeless there.


Another valuable lesson I’ve learned from my Mom is the importance of a having a sense of humor. At all times. And especially in the midst of stressful situations. We have had many funny moments; some highlights have been on my Mom and Dad’s trips to China to visit us.
 It’s funny to sing karaoke with my Mom at the top of the TV Tower in Tianjin. We must have been singing “Country Roads” because it was one of our family favorites growing up and it’s a good English karaoke choice in China.

 It’s funny to ride bikes with my Mom for her very first time on the busy streets of Tianjin, where traffic laws are just not the same as in America. I can still hear her screaming when we biked through an especially crazy intersection and she thought a bus was getting too close. And how we laughed about it afterward.

It’s funny to be on an over packed bus with my Mom on our way from one train station to another in Beijing with a crazy bus driver who took the turns so sharply that it was impossible for us to keep our balance. And my Mom ended up in someone’s lap, at the same time that we noticed the English song playing over the speakers was “We Will Rock You.”

It’s funny to be on a masses-of-people-filling-the aisle-because-there’s-no-place-to-sit train with my Mom in the dripping heat of summer. When there was no air conditioning and all the windows are down and the overhead fans were doing the best they could. When someone yelled, “Fire!” and we stood up along with all the other-people-fortunate-to-have-seats and wondered with them what could be done. When all the people in the aisle moved aside to make room for the capable train attendant who meandered along with a simple rag in his hand and unscrewed the overhead fan that had caught on fire. And the problem was solved. Just like that. And my Mom and I were so tickled we could not stop laughing.
I most admire my Mom for how courageously she faced her diagnosis of a brain tumor five years ago. She had complete peace and trust in God as she went into surgery, and was truly thankful that out of all the possible complications, she only lost hearing in her right ear after the delicate removal of her acoustic neuroma. On the day of surgery, she was more concerned that my Dad, aunt, uncle, sister and I would get bored in the waiting room than she was worried about herself. So she prepared goodie bags with special snacks, reading material and games for each of us to help the time go by faster.

She had difficult hurdles to overcome post-surgery and she was physically the weakest I’ve ever seen her. But she was motivated to work hard on physical therapy because the neurotic patient she shared a room with the first night imagined that my Mom was smoking and kept yelling, “Put out that cigarette!” It wasn’t easy, but my Mom was eventually able to laugh about that annoying roommate and how much better she would be able to rest if she could get back home to her own bed. Where my Dad took very good care of her. And so many of their friends brought meals that their freezer was stuffed to overflowing.

In these recent years I have seen my Mom aging gracefully. She doesn’t look any older, and her spirit is still young as she plays with her grandkids, grandniece and grandnephew (it is a definite challenge for any of them to beat her in ping pong!) But inwardly I can tell that she is continuing to grow in deep maturity, in wisdom and in surrendering her life to the Lord. That’s the way I want to be. That’s why my Mom is my hero. I’m so thankful that God has given me such an incredible Mom. I want to be like her when I grow up.



Saturday, May 4, 2013

From the View of Eternity

During our Chinese New Year vacation this year I read Come Rest With Me: Experiencing Intimacy with Jesus Through God’s Rest by Bryan R. Coupland. As I’ve been thinking about Christian martyrs who stayed strong in their faith even unto death, I decided to look back over Coupland's book quotes that spoke most deeply to my heart. My favorite part of the book was his interview question and answer section with the wives of the three NTM missionaries (Dave Mankins, Rick Tenenoff, and Mark Rich) who were kidnapped by guerillas in Panama in 1993. Painfully, closure did not come to their families until enough conclusive evidence confirmed that the men were no longer alive and memorial services were held in 2001. Coupland asked the wives how they experienced God’s rest during that horrific time.

Nancy Mankins said, “I clearly remember the first few days after Dave, Rick, and Mark were kidnapped, when the thought kept ringing in my ears, ‘From the view of eternity, this is going to be all right.’ That thought brought spiritual rest to my heart. I knew that God had a plan and that He was in control, so I felt peace in my heart that even though I could not understand, I didn’t have to. Unfortunately, without realizing it, I had put a time frame on God’s plan. Even though I initially felt peace that from an eternal perspective, whatever God chose would be all right, I didn’t realize that His plan would include waiting without knowing for an indefinite period of time. I thought that Dave, Rick, and Mark would be released with in a month of so, like other New Tribes missionaries had been. Or even in the worst-case scenario, we would learn that they had been taken home to be with God. But I had not considered the months, much less the years, of not knowing whether they were alive and suffering or in heaven.

My world came tumbling down and I began to lose it spiritually speaking. I was afraid and angry. I was afraid that God was not hearing our prayers and I was angry at God because He could do something and was choosing not to. Once I realized and admitted to myself that I was angry with God, I was able to deal with it by reading the Bible and choosing to believe the passages that tell me that God loves me. He is compassionate; He is able; and He does hear my prayers. The kidnappers took away my husband and my ministry but they could not take away my ability to choose joy as I walked through this trial. I had to daily, sometimes hourly, choose to focus on God. I had to choose to read God’s Word and believe that God’s Word is true. I had to choose to pray and choose God’s will over my own. Often at night, I would find that my hands were clenched into fists and I would have to literally pry them open as I prayed for the ability to relinquish my husband again to God and His will.”

Tania (Rich) Julian said, “To me, it didn’t feel, at the time, like spiritual rest. It felt more like a battle and God was giving me strength to stand firm and be a good soldier on the actual night of the kidnapping. The choice to believe that God is who He says He is, and not choose to base my joy and peace on the feelings I was experiencing, was what it boiled down to for me. It is hard to relinquish what I feel is only fair and right for me to experience in my life. I didn’t feel like I was asking for too much and yet I was stubbornly demanding that my life turn around and start going the way I wanted it to go. It was only when I gave up completely my hopes and dreams for my life and my future that I would sense God’s peace and love and joy flowing freely again.

It is hard to explain but it wasn’t giving up in a defeated sort of way—it was in a sweet way saying to God, ‘I trust You more than I trust what feels good to me right now and I sincerely believe that You have good planned for me through this situation.’ It was not a ceasing to care or disengagement—it was a deep sense of giving up what felt vital to my well-being, in order to take hold of something bigger, deeper, and better than what I thought I wanted...

There were periods of time when I couldn’t seem to understand anything that I read in the Bible—it felt cold and unintelligible. I learned to be okay with those times and keep reading—to ask God to help me to be able to understand again and He always did. The Bible is not some magic potion that you read and then your circumstances are gong to seem okay all of a sudden. It is full of stories of God and His strength and wisdom and power. I read it and was encouraged; I read it and was confused; I read it and got frustrated; but in the end, reading the Bible caused me to ask God for help in understanding and applying what I had read.”

Coupland emphasized the difference in “what we are responsible to do—choose to exercise trust in the person of God Himself and His Word—and what God is responsible to do; provide us with His divine rest.”

He says, “Notice the same principle in Hebrews chapter 11. In verse 34, we read of faithful brethren who ‘escaped the edge of the sword.’ Several verses later, we read of other faithful brethren who ‘were put to death with the sword.’ What made the difference? The sovereign will of God did!

What is the lesson, then from these three young men of faith in Daniel chapter 3? It’s that God is able to deliver me out of the worst of circumstances. But if He doesn’t choose to, I can, as His child, rest in His Father-love, knowing what I do about Him, both from Scripture and from what He has personally taught my heart. Will I choose to be content with His choices?”

No matter how bad our circumstances are, the truth is that we can choose to be content with God’s choices for us. He can give us eyes of faith and a heart of trust, so that we can say along with Nancy Mankins, “From the view of eternity, this is going to be all right.” And along with Tania (Rich) Julian, “I trust You more than I trust what feels good to me right now and I sincerely believe that You have good planned for me through this situation.”

God is good. All the time.
Let us “rest in shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Even Unto Death

We have been reading about Christian martyrs in our study of church history this week. It has been inspiring. And sobering. And challenging to ask, Am I willing to die for what I believe? Would I have responded so courageously if I had been in their place?

I would hope to stand strong as the martyrs did. Even unto death. But would I? Just how strong is my faith?

St. Augustine said, “Martyrs are holy men of God who fought or stood for truth, even unto death, so that the Word of God may be known and falsehood and fictions be overcome. Such a sacrifice is offered to God alone, thus the martyr is received in heavenly honor. This means that God has rewarded the faith of the martyr with so much grace that death, which seems to be the enemy of life, becomes in reality an ally that helps man enter into life.”

Instead of trying to compare the strength of my faith with the unshakeable faith of the martyrs, I think the better question is, “How strong is my God?” Because ultimately He is the One who supplies the faith. When it is needed.

The Book of Psalms is full of heart-wrenching cries to God. Sometimes the psalmist was seeking Him with a heart full of faith. And sometimes pleading for mercy while clinging to only a thin thread of faith. O God. My refuge. Fortress. Deliverer. Strong tower. Strength and shield. Be what I need right now.

Psalm 3 is the desperate cry of David’s heart as he fled from his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15):

O Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise against me!
Many are saying of me,
God will not deliver him.

But you are a shield around me, O Lord;
You bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
To the Lord I cry aloud,
And he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear the tens of thousands
drawn up against me on every side.

Arise, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
Break the teeth of the wicked.

From the Lord comes deliverance,
May your blessing be on your people.
(Psalm 3)

Years later, while in Babylonian captivity, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had no doubt in God’s ability to save them. And, with confidence like that of their forefather David, they refused to let go of their faith in God, even if He chose not to save them. They stood boldly before King Nebuchadnezzar, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

Our faith is bolstered when we read how God rescued Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, just as He answered David’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies. And we praise God for how He brought victory and protection in countless other miraculous ways to His people throughout history. We can read about many Old Testament heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer to soak in the stories that speak of rescue and victory. I like happy endings. Yet what about those heroes who didn’t see God come through for them in this lifetime?

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what was promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:35-40)

They are considered heroes because they were overcomers in the face of great difficulty and they peacefully surrendered to God’s mysterious sovereignty: They could say, along with Habakkuk, Even though nothing is happening the way I wished it would “yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as sure-footed as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.” (Habakkuk 3:19)

Safely over the mountains. Even if the path to get there is marked with persecution and pain.
We will reach God’s finish line for us—our heavenly home where we will be with God. For eternity. And all wrongs will be made right.

I love John’s vision of the great multitude in white robes in the book of Revelation.

Then one of the elders asked me, “These men in white robes—who are they and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:9-17)

Our heroes in the faith are those who overcame “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shirk from death.” (Rev. 12:11)

The Apostle Paul was a man familiar with persecution, who did not shirk from death, and his letters are full of exhortations for fellow believers to stay strong in their faith. In the midst of great trials and tribulations. By focusing on the unseen and the eternal.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body...Therefore we do no lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4: 7-11, 16-18)

God is weaving, through preserved life and allowed death, His Perfect Plan. In ways that we can’t see now and may not understand at all until we see Him face to face. God has numbered all of our days. But we don’t know how many we have or what kind of death we will face. Let us live all the days He gives us in joyful surrender to Him. With His peace. In His strength. Not in fear of what might happen.

Jesus told his followers to expect hardship and persecution. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) No matter what happens, our lives are in His hands. And there is no safer place to be.

Let us trust that God will give us the faith we need to remain strong in Him. Even unto death.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength. He will bring me safely over the mountains.


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