Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Burden for Youth

Youth groups break my heart.  It seems a bit daft, I'm sure, but every time I see a group of teenagers whose hearts are so clearly focused on God, it moves me in a way that Christ-centered adults often cannot.  For years, I couldn't quite pinpoint why I got so emotional when I saw teens give their testimony or put on dramatic productions at church, and thought (rather self-centeredly) that it was some sort of mourning for the innocent way I myself had once viewed matters of faith.

I can recall so clearly the way I and my peers had thrown ourselves so whole-heartedly into our relationship with God when we were that age, and then I saw how many of us turned our backs fully on God as young adults, and how very few of us have returned to God now, even 20 years later.  

It is rare that I think about such things though (see above re: self-centered), only really in moments like this morning at service as the teenagers of our church gathered around their new youth pastor.  Instead of feeling joy for the sweetness of their devotion to God, or a prayerful fear that they will be protected from the world as they grow up, it is a crushing sadness that gives me tunnel-vision for the thought of the ones (and there will be many) who will completely renounce their faith in the coming years.

I cannot comprehend the way youth pastors must feel every Spring as they watch their seniors graduate, and know that the kids whom they have just poured so much love and time and commitment into for the past four, five, or more years are now on their own, to make their own decisions, all of a sudden without the guidance of their parents or their youth pastors.  

They trust in God, of course.  Of course, right?  Or does it cause them so much pain they can barely make it through yet another year of ministry?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Utmost

I have been in another dead zone with my spiritual life lately, as evidenced by my conspicuous absence here.  Since my return to church seven years ago, there has been an ebb and flow in my relationship with God that is difficult to own up to sometimes, and is something that rarely seems to be discussed in the religious circles I find myself in.  To be sure, I have heard countless sermons and Bible studies and other small group discussions on how important daily quiet time is, and how necessary daily Bible reading is, but occasionally I have wondered why these teachers rarely seem to acknowledge that even in study and prayer, dead zones occur.

As it turns out of course, as I felt the distance grow between myself and God (if only in my own heart), I did indeed slow down in my pursuit of God, and finally just begin to forget to seek God on a daily basis.  Then a few days would pass, and I would barely glance at the cover of my Bible as I did nothing but walk on by.

These times rarely have anything to do with doubting God.  If anything, they tend to come when everything is going just fine.  Life just begins to creep in, Bible reading becomes less of a priority, my prayer time becomes cursory, praise and worship at church is just the time spent between arrival and the main event of the sermon.

I have not found a solution.  No pat answer as to how to miraculously feel a deep connection to spiritual matters.  No three step process to restore an intimate relationship with God.

The only thing that ever works for me, in my spiritual life as in almost every other facet of life itself, is to just keep on keeping on.  I get up on Sunday morning and go to church, whether I feel like it or not.  I ignore the pile of work on my desk and go to Wednesday night Bible study even when I have a long list of reasons why I don't have time to do so.  I pick a Beth Moore study or a John Bevere book and I force it.

The alternative, to not go to church, to allow myself to drift farther, would be unacceptable to the way my mind works.  And I know how hypocritical it sounds, nee how meaningless, to go about my religious business as if all is fine when it clearly isn't, but it isn't my faith I am faking.  It is my dedication.

No matter what, I believe in God.  I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  I desire to live a life according to God's will and purpose.  Even when I have idea what His will and purpose is, and I lack the fervor to find out.

Right now, as I stumble through a lack of inspiration in my creative endeavors and in my search to know God more, I am choosing to look to Oswald Chambers both for guidance and for accountability.  Preston has long read My Utmost for His Highest, and while it didn't appeal to me years ago when I first paged through the book, it is speaking to me now in it's sincerity and through it's calm, non-exclamatory tone.  I found it online, along with accompanying daily Bible reading, and I have parked the site right smack dab in the middle of my Google reader so that I run into it every day when I am doing my blog readings.  At a time of day when I was so recently finding it difficult to care about reading my Bible, I find it to be a welcome nudge every morning.  And in the spirit of keeping on keeping on, I read it even when it doesn't speak to me (because not every moment with God is going to involve A Miracle or An Encounter).

I read it, and I accept that God is quietly working in my life.  I read it, and I know that this dry spell will last only for a season.  I read it, and I know that I will experience other miracles and other encounters in time.  I read it, and I know that God honors my dedication, even when it is half-hearted.  I read it, and I know that no matter how unfaithful I am, God is ever-faithful.  I read it, and I know that even when I do not feel His presence, He is always there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Beautiful Center Again

My disappointment over how little I gleaned from my recent time in the book of Acts has been assuaged in the most obvious of ways:  by looking to Jesus, of course.

After staring at the Bible for a day or so after completing a study of Acts, and feeling more than a little ignorant, I found The Beautiful Center again, and tip-toed back a few books to start back at the beginning of The Gospels.  Honestly, since I am pretty sure I failed to, you know, pray about what I should study next, I might have let discouragement win out again were it not for the children's Bible study that I do every morning with my 6-year-old.  He and I have spent the past 10 months reading from a children's Bible storybook every morning (ahem, most mornings) at breakfast, and we just recently began the New Testament.  It was there, while eating cereal with my children, and glancing over to the side of the page where there was an illustration of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus that I again felt that glorious calm.

And so it was that I had another forehead-slapping moment.  I had been reading Acts, after all, which begins at the end of Jesus' earthly ministry.  If it is Jesus whose feet I want to sit at, then Matthew might be a better place for me to be at this moment.

It is working, as I should know to expect, and I am slowly reading Matthew for the umpteenth time, but truly studying it for the very first time.  It is there that I find Jesus right now, and it is there that I feel a closeness to God, as I draw nearer to Him, and he draws nearer to me.

Maybe someday I will learn to adjust the focus on my own, but until then I will be content with knowing that a children's Bible has the power to turn my heart.  And I pray that it has that same affect on my children as we take baby steps together.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not with a Bang...

I finished studying the book of Acts recently, but realized that with all the fanfare with which I had begun this re-read, the whole project ended with a whimper.  From me.  I expected to really Get It this time, you know?  I felt certain I would gain an understanding of the Holy Spirit, an appreciation for the book as a whole, maybe some scripture memorization, or at least a wee bit of newly acquired and applicable knowledge.

For the most part, I got nothing.

Life interceded, as it it wont to do, and Preston and I found our marriage under attack, as Satan himself is wont to do.

Want to test your own faith, your spouse's faith, and the strength of your relationship?  Embark together on a journey in which you pray together daily and faithfully study the Bible during your individual quiet times.  Then wait patiently.

We even sort of saw it coming, and neither of us were that surprised that there were visible snags, but it was disgusting nonetheless.  Some of it was relatively comical, and some was heartbreaking.  We continued to pray together, but I lost sight of the goal more than once (more than I care to admit, actually).

Then I began my morning study of Acts one day last week, and realized with surprise, and no small amount of dismay at how little I had really learned, that I was finishing the last chapter.

And there, almost at the very end of that final chapter were these words, "...'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.'  For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.  Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them." - Acts 28:26-27 (NIV).

How something can be so humbling, so full of hope, and yet so tragic is almost more than I can bear, because I have let this world affect my heart, and it will take a bigger commitment to faith than I yet have if I am ever to arrive at the place where that verse would lead me.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Fickle Sort

It seems to me that there are those who find themselves happily following God when times are easy, giving glory and praise for the good fortune; and then there are others who lean most on God when things are rough, fasting and praying and depending on God for sustenance and support.

For the most part, I go through cyclical and unpredictable phases, sometimes remembering to hold fast to God in both days of ease and moments of pain, and occasionally doing the exact opposite in similar circumstances.  Truly, I think my faithfulness to my own faith is most dependable when the middle ground is holding steady.

What appalls me is that I am so fickle in my devotion to the God of my life.

I am ashamed to pick up my Bible and expect understanding to come when I have been so neglectful in my reading for days on end.  I find it hard to pray after going a week without even thinking about talking to God, and I feel like a terrible fraud when my eyes well with tears during praise & worship at church on Sunday when I have just spent the previous day complaining bitterly to myself about every minute detail that sprang to mind.

How can I expect this relationship to thrive when the work is all done by God?  When I am unfaithful?  When I have acted petulant and have been nothing more than a cranky nag?

A human relationship would never even materialize, much less last, under these circumstances.  Rather than being grateful for God's fidelity though, I find Him even more difficult to relate to, knowing that I am so undeserving of His love.

As always, I think I may have gone one step forward recently, only to have taken another three steps back.  Then again, Square One is the place I am most comfortable with, so I will begin again with God, begging for forgiveness that I know will be granted, and asking for help that I am certain will be given.

After all, God does not suffer from human shortcomings.  He will never be fickle.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Beautiful Center

Everything keeps coming back to Jesus.

No matter how I approach thinking about faith and religion, or the way in which I try to come at writing about God or reading about God or talking about God, the only time I end up with any clarity on the matter is when I just brush away most of the intellectual and emotional chatter and focus solely upon Jesus.

The rest of it all just falls away, and there is only peace left.  Quiet and rest.  Unambiguity.

It goes against everything we believe in as a self-absorbed civilization to set aside our own desires and questions and pursuits, but it is only in doing so that Jesus remains as the sole element left to fill the void, and the purity and simplicity of Jesus, and what he did for us, become so much more distinct.

There is much baggage and uneasiness that comes with bringing up Religion with a capital 'R' with those who are opposed to the entire concept of belief in that which cannot be proven, but the idea of Jesus seems to be universally accepted as the embodiment of love and peace and charity.  Referring to myself as an 'evangelical' can be a hackle-raiser, and there is so much politic wrapped up in the term that I almost feel its initial, more precise, definition has been lost amidst the misinformation.

I think I'll stick with 'follower of Jesus' as my creed.  There is an innocence there, a cleaving to faith in God rather than faith in ritual and religion, that better expresses why my heart is wrapping itself so tightly around this confidence.

After all, everything keeps coming back to Jesus.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Adventures in Fasting

Until recently, fasting never struck me as a serious discipline in the pursuit of God.  Sure, I know Jesus did it, but really, a 40-day fast seems a bit unobtainable for us mortals, doesn't it?  

But I have watched others as they have embarked upon fasts, some of a very short duration, some that were so loose in what was being given up that they resembled Lent more than an actual fast, and others that blew my mind in the devotion obviously at play.  A few years ago, Preston fasted for a number of days, and I felt enormously relieved that I was nursing a baby at the time and was therefore ineligible to join the madness.

Then we participated in a Sunday School group that was reading The Quest: A Ten-Week Journey Into Radical Discipleship, by Chuck Quinley.  Chapter Five, to my great dismay, was on fasting.  Fasting in secret, no less.  For 24 hours.

I blithely said, "No problem."  The previous chapters had affected me in a powerful way as I struggled and then chose to obey each directive.  This would be tough, I knew.  Though Preston and I would be fasting, I would still have to feed the children, and would be at their whim through the duration, thus limiting any distracting activities I could dream up.  We picked a day when I would be able to stay home, and not be driving young children around while delirious, and vowed to do it together.  No sweat.  All a part of getting to know God better.  Totally worth it.

Then I saw that caffeine was verboten during this fast, and I started thinking evil thoughts.  No coffee?  This was gonna suck.

And it DID suck.  I rarely made it into a fully prone position all that day, and drank something like 24 cups of decaf herbal tea (the one allowance given by the book, other than water).  Preston called mid-morning to see how I was doing, and I vented a long list of grievances, beginning with, "All these kids do is eat," and ending with, "This isn't getting me closer to God AT ALL."

I tried to pray throughout the day (half-heartedly), but each prayer kind of fizzled out a sentence in as I struggled to concentrate.  I thought about focusing on a particular need to pray for, but got too grumped to do anything about it.

The only thing I learned was that coffee is a necessary part of my relationship with God.  Inspiring, huh?

Many months later though, I had an entirely different experience.  During an extended time of great upheaval and difficulty for a loved one, I began to finally learn how to pray for others, (fairly) consistently and with (newly discovered, and very limited) compassion.  This was a big step for me - focusing on a long-term basis on others' needs rather than my own, and my understanding of God began to clarify through this (new to me) desire to intercede for another.  Then, early one morning in which I knew a pivotal event would be occurring for these loved ones, I decided I would try to pray often and much during the following five or so hours as I awaited word on the outcome.  As I prayed my initial prayer, which sounded a little like, "Um, God, please make this happen for [them]...," I felt the need to fast.

It was jarring.  And besides, I was already drinking my second cup of coffee.  How could I possibly fast?  But then it occurred to me that fasting can take many forms, and when I brought it up to Preston, that I was planning to fast all morning from food, but would drink coffee, he said he thought God would probably nudge me and let me know if He disapproved of the drinking-black-coffee-while-fasting thing.

A whole new world opened up that day.  The caffeine made me human, but the hunger from lack of food gave me a sort of an edge as the morning wore on, reminding me with every hunger pang that I was to be praying (rather than getting caught up in my routine of busyness and forgetting all about the plan to pray - as so often happens for me).

I learned two things during this fast: that hunger brings the time of prayer into a sharp focus (along with a reminder to rely on God to meet our daily needs), and that praying for others, for God's will to be done in their lives, is far more edifying and productive than just praying for my own needs to be met.

I also learned that I have a long, terrifying road ahead of me if I am ever to truly conquer this self-absorption issue.  One morning of fasting for another does not a saint make.