Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Peace and a sword

Matthew 10:34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

When I first decided to read the Bible to try to figure out this "whole mess of religion" as I used to think of it, I started in the New Testament, with the book of Matthew because it is the beginning of the NT. Now, I went to church regularly all during my childhood, up until highschool, and I had fond memories of learning Bible stories in children's Sunday School. The Jesus I learned of as a child was a baby in manger, a good Samaritan helping a wounded man (I think I mixed that parable up a little), a man who walked on water and healed many people, who was unfairly accused and cruelly put to death.... but that turned out okay because he was such a good man that he got to come back to life.

But when I actually read the Bible myself, instead of hearing stories told by others, the Jesus I discovered in Matthew was not like anything in my childhood perceptions. I started to encounter some words of Jesus that were not gentle and kind, but were actually really scary:

Matt 3:7 "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"

Matt 5:21,22 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment...anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Matt 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Matt 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

Matt 8:22 Another of the disciples said to Him, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead."

Matt 10:34 was another difficult saying of Jesus, especially when you put it in context with the following verses:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn "a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law - a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

What had happened to the peaceful, benevolent Jesus of those Sunday School stories? I was so disturbed by the time I got to Matt 12 and heard Jesus calling more people "vipers" that I stopped reading.

I only stopped reading for a while, because when I discover an apparent contradiction it will continue to bug me until I find an explanation. Fortunately, this apparent contradiction of a Jesus born to bring peace (Luke 2:14, Eph 2:14, Romans 14:17,19) who also claims not to bring peace, but a sword, eventually led to me to saving faith in the same Jesus who loved me and gave himself up for me (Gal 2:20). (Here's a link to my full story of coming to know God if you're interested... but then if you read it you have to leave a link so I can read your story too!)

It is not possible to put your faith, the very destiny of your soul, into the hands of a man who is merely good and kind and compassionate.

Jesus was man, but also God. It IS possible to put the destiny of soul in the hands of one who has authority to judge, who can see what is evil even when it is buried inside man's heart and covered up by good works. To say the difficult, and often contradictory things Jesus said - he would either have to be completely deranged, or God. Only a God could demand seemingly impossible things of us like Matt 5:39-41: If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

As a believer in Jesus, I know that he does bring peace. Phil 4:7 "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." And he also says this about swords: Matthew 26:52 "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword."

So what is Jesus saying in Matt 10:34? Jesus does not bring peace to everyone on earth; only to believers who trust in Him. And the sword he brings is not a physical sword to cause war and death, but this one: Eph 6:17 "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." And Hebrews 4:12: "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

This Tuesday's quote was chosen by the contributers to In Other Words. This week's host site has a post about this quote and anyone wanting to participate can ponder on the quote and write about about it on their blog, then link your post to the host blog.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What I'm learning from other bloggers

I am finding so much wisdom and encouragement from a collection of blogs I have been reading lately. For a year now I have enjoyed following Beth Moore's and her daughters' blog and in the past week since the earthquake in Haiti, I have found it a great comfort to share in this online community in praying and agonizing over that situation.

From their blogsite I found a link to another blog that is written by a missionary family in Haiti, Highway to Haiti, and a very realistic discussion of the best way to provide help to Haitians right now: How you can help, which is the way that I directed my money and prayers to help.

With the earthquake happening directly on the heels of my commitment to start "living a better story", in other words, living more purposefully for others, more sacrificially even, I have been feeling primarily like a hypocrite. For us, life continues normally, while hundreds of thousands of lives have been devastated. And then there have been several days when I can't seem to break out of my selfish mode, when the last thing I want to think about is what I can be doing for others or even just for my family because all I want to do is hole up with some chocolate and good book for "escape".

And then I've also had a bit of a spiritual struggle with the whole question of why does God allow these massive natural disasters, like the tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes, not to mention man-made atrocities like genocides. From one of the bloggers that participates in the "In Other Words" quote meme I discovered a post where a pastor's wife had taken some considerable time and thought to look up Biblical answers to the questions raised by the earthquake. And the Biblical answers were hard. Very hard. Stuff to really ponder and take to prayer.

On a lighter note, I have started following some writing and publishing advice blogs, like Query Tracker (which is really nice because it summarizes what is going on hundreds of other writing/publishing blogs). Here's a great piece from that site on cutting the fat - in other words, getting down to the meat of your story, something I always struggle with - gee has anyone noticed how wordy and long my blogs are? My fiction is probably just as bad.

Another good one is the Blood Red Pencil - I love that name! and their subtitle: "Kill your darlings" which is about as concise and true of a statement about fiction writing as you can possibily get. About 75% of writing advice on this blog is review for me, which is good - means I have a good grasp of the do's and don'ts - but it is so helpful anyway because I constantly need to be reminded of the do's and don'ts! Here's some great advice on from an editor on most common mistakes.

While blogs like these are very practical, it's the Christian writing sites that are the most encouraging. I just joined Christianwriters.com which has has a writer's workshop with critiquing. There is the Inkwell, a group blog of members of the Colorado chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writer's association. One of my favorites places lately to visit has been a Christian Romance Writer's Journey - I could really learn from this lady. Her blogs are not long and wordy, but straight to the point, personal and transparent, informative, and almost pulsing with her great love for Christ. I read one this morning Writing inspires prayer that echoed my own struggles with writing. A short excerpt:

...now that I have so very little time to devote to writing, I find myself running from it when I should be embracing those precious moments available for it. Why am I running? I want to be a blessing to others. If my writing is solely for my personal gain, if it will never be published for even one other to gain wisdom from, then what an absolute waste those brain-draining hours of editing and revising are, not to mention how emotionally difficult they are on me. Ahhh, but if it's God desire that I continue on, so be it. Amen.

When you are tempted to give up for various reasons, she writes that you need to pray to know whether it's God's desire for you to focus on other things for a while, or if it's just your weakness calling you over to the dark side to give up.

Not that I am struggling with the temptation to give up - I just struggle with the discipline of it. All these blogs that I read, when I should be writing! (Or paying more attention to my family). I guess I'm just the sort that needs this daily encouragement and advice to keep myself motivated. The biggest motivation though comes from prayer. I am keeping up really close to my weekly goal (1000 words) so far this year... and praying almost daily about my other goals, too, though I need to
pray more about the Jesus and Others goals, as usual I am too focused on the "You" goals for myself ("Joy = Jesus, Others, You" order of priorities).

One last thing I've learned. At another writer's blog I read, the Quiet Quill, the writer almost always starts her blog with a verse, and relates her subject material to that verse in someway. What a great way to structure your blogs to give glory to God. I will try to do that in the future.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

what I want to give God this year

A friend of mine told me about how they have a tradition called "What does Jesus want for Christmas?" that they do with their kids before Christmas, and while I didn't get the complete details of the whole thing, the last thing the children do is open a gift which is a mirror. Because what Jesus wants for Christmas is us. He wants us to give him more of ourselves, our time, our heart, our focus. (In case you were wondering about this image, this blog will relate to Donald Miller's new book. Just bear with me).

Shortly after that, while scanning some blogs I follow, I came across an alternative way to look at New Year's Resolutions: not what we plan to do or achieve for ourselves in the upcoming year, but what we want to give God. A much better focus, I think. And if it's a better focus, there's a better chance it will be achieved. For instance, I set myself three resolutions last year: 1) a Bible read-through, 2) a 22 verse scripture memory challenge, and 3) weight loss. Of the three, guess which two I managed to achieve? Yup, the ones focused on God. I finished the Bible read-through a few days into the New Year, and I memorized over 30 verses (keeping them memorized will be another matter). But the 7 pounds that I lost last spring, I gained right back, then lost again in the fall, and regained again over Christmas (argggh!!!)

Even though I failed with the weight-loss (though I haven't given up - still going to Weight Weighters meetings), I am excited about my success in the other two areas so I really do believe that whether you call them New Year's resolutions, or goal-setting, or participating in some sort of challenge, it IS worthwhile. Even if you only partially succeed. Even if you fail. This is one lession I learned from Donald Miller's new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Heather lent it to me over Christmas). I will probably be making several posts on this book, because there were a lot neat things in it (and a few problems with it, too - no book is flawless. Except the Bible).

Okay, so before I get to what I want to give God this year, and before I get to the part about how you suceed even if you fail, I have to give a little more background about the book. I already shared one quote from it in previous post. Here's the quote that starts off the book:
If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.
But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.

Miller challenges us to live a better story. Good stories have characters that take great risks, or face great conflict. The main character faces conflict and for a while you're not sure if he's going to overcome it. And the very best stories have sacrifice in them. Isn't that the main draw of the Lord of the Rings? That Frodo (and so many others) were willing to give up so much, to go so far, to save Middle Earth from the dreadful power of the ring? Casablanca: Rick gives up Ilsa because he knows she is needed for a better cause. It's a Wonderful Life: George keeps giving up his dreams of traveling the world to help those around him. He actually gets to see how, if he hadn't made those sacrifices, it would have negatively affected the lives of many people.
Both Heather and I agree, the chapter in A Million Miles that really hit home is the one called "How Jason Saved His Family." This is where Miller relates how he was talking one day with his friend Jason, and Jason was concerned about his teenage daughter, how she was in a relationship with a guy that was... well, just using her, and she was get mixed up with a lot of bad things as a result. Miller, who is exploring this whole "living life as a story" idea, said she hadn't chosen a good story to be part of.
The night after we talked, Jason couldn't sleep. He thought about the story his daughter was living and the role she was playing inside that story. He realized he hadn't provided a better role for his daughter. He hadn't mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only being used. In the absence of a family story, she'd chosen a story in which there was risk and adventrue, rebellion and independence. "She's not a bad girl," my friend said. "She was just choosing the best story available to her."
I pictured his daughter flipping through the channels of life, as it were, stopping on a story that seemed most compelling at the moment, a story that offered her something, anything, because people can't live without a story, without a role to play.
Jason decided to stop yelling at his daughter and instead created a better story to invite her into. He remembered that story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. "I started researching some stuff on the internet and I came across an organization that builds orphanages around the world, and that sounded to me like a pretty good ambition, something maybe my family could try to do together. It sounded like a good story. So I called this organization and it takes about 25,000 dollars to build one of the orphanages. We don't have that kind of money.... But I knew if we were geting to tell a good story, it would have to involve risk. At first my daughter wasn't happy. She knew this would mean she'd have to give up her allowance and who knows what else... but a few days later she started talking about how she could post pictures of the kids on her web site and maybe people could help.
Not long after that she broke up with her boyfriend... no girl who playes the role of hero dates a guy who uses her."

So what I want to give God this year: a better story for myself and my family. As we were driving back from our Christmas in South Dakota, I read the chapter "How Jason Saved his Family" to B., and he agreed with it completely. Several times last year he mentioned wanting to do something like fostering kids or trying to reach troubled kids by working with them to train horses (like Monty Roberts), and I remember stiffening at that thought and thinking "oh no, I can't take on anything like that. I'm overwhelmed already with the kids we already have." But after reading this book, I realize how involving our whole family in a story like that, putting an effort into something other than a nice house and nice cars and soccer games and cool family vacations... that is truly living life. We both agreed we needed to pray about it, to keep our eyes open for opportunities.
A good story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it - I want to live a better story. But am I willing to take the risk, give up the comforts, to go for it?

No. Realistically, I am a selfish person who loves her comforts and enjoys her "space" and needs lots of quiet time - lots of it. I would rather write a blog about this stuff than actually go out and do it. Until I'm forcefully put into a position to make choices and take steps, there is nothing noble and self-sacrificing about me.

But, I do have a great ally. A promise: "I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13) and who created me "to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph. 2:10)

Miller writes: "I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, and whispering a better story into our consciousness."

Last May, I had a similar revelation at Beth Moore's conference and the preconference. God was telling me two things 1) He wants more of me, and 2) He wants me to share more Him with others. I think this is a reminder. He's also teaching me that it's going to require some sacrifice, but it will be worth it. Because living a meaningful life is worth it in a way that you just can't quantify. You just have to keep reminding yourself that nobody wants to read a story about a guy who finally gets his Volvo.

Okay God, where to begin? Jason (from the chapter "How Jason Saved his Family") did some research on the internet which led him to orphanages, and he felt burdened about helping to build an orphanage in Mexico.

Since Christmas, when I read Miller's book, I've been praying about where God would have me start. Ideas are starting to trickle in. I remembered the missionary family who stayed with us back in November for 5 days, and shared their ministry in Nicaragua with our church. There is a great scarcity of Biblical materials down there for people to read, for teaching and preaching, and James is involved with discipling and training native men to be pastors. I can start by talking my kids about the work he and his family are doing down there, and reading missionary updates and prayer requests to my kids, praying more, and supporting more. I am also going to look into sponsoring a child through Compassion International (Beth Moore's family all sponsor children and one of the Moore daughters went to India this past year to meet her sponsored child and her family.) Me and my little women can write letters to our sponsored child. B. and I also talked once about the Big Brother/Big Sister program, and I am also intrigued by the Mentoring Project that Donald Miller started and talks about in his book - some ideas to keep praying about and researching.

There are more aspects to this "living a better story" from the book that I want to blog about (e.g. "Memorable scenes") but I will save those for another time. Plenty enough to work on right now. Keeping the label "goals of a follower" to track how I progress with this year's - I mean life's - goals.

I have a few other goals this year too. I have structured my goals after the "JOY = Jesus, Others, You" order of priorities. First priority is relationship with my Lord and Savior. I want to have more "7 Days" which are based on Psalm 119:167 "Seven times a day I will praise you for your righteous ways. Great peace have they that love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble." Goal: pause for a moment to praise God seven times a day. Also, I'm setting myself another Bible study challenge - not a read-through this year, but instead an in-depth study of one Gospel (Matthew), one Epistle (Colossians), one Psalm (undecided) and one chapter of Proverbs (undecided). Also setting myself another Scripture memory challenge (hopefully Beth Moore will do her 22 verse challenge again... but if not I still plan to work on memorizing one new verse every two weeks and keep last year's verses memorized.

For the "Others" part of JOY, it's praying more with my family (both with B. and the girls), and seeing where God leads me with living a better story.

For the "You" part of JOY, still going to work on losing weight, getting more active and healthy because I know a person can accomplish a lot more if she's not preoccupied with stuffing her face and then lolling about afterwards in shame and guilt and indigestion. And it will mean having more energy and "get up and go" spirit. Also, I am challenging myself to write 1000 words a week to finish my current novel and start the research for my new idea so I can start writing it in November for NaNoWriMo.

Writing progess for the first two weeks of 2010: 1322 words. Already a little behind. But hopefully now that I've confessed all these resolutions on my blog, Lord willing, it'll keep me motivated to keep trying.
In the end, all that matters is - God be glorified.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

live by feelings, or by faith

How we respond to difficulties will determine whether we are a winner or
a whiner. One of Satan’s first temptations when our life appears to be on
hold, like Joseph, is to tempt us to live by feelings instead of faith.
~ Michael Youssef

It's not just when your life is on hold, it's also when your life is in conflict. Satan uses both circumstances to tempt you with feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, frustration, anger and other awful feelings.

Feelings that make us want to whine.

On hold: You want change and it isn't happening.

In conflict: Something changes that you don't want, or is in direct opposition to your desires, needs, or interests.

Joesph's situation kind of fits both cases. He was sold into slavery, and later sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit (conflict). He was in prison for at least two years, forgotten by someone who had promised to help him (on hold). Through all of Joseph's trials it says many times that "the Lord was with him" and "Joseph found grace in His sight" but it is interesting that the Bible makes no mention of how Joseph FELT until he faced what might have been the biggest trial, encountering his brothers again. At this point in his life, he is on top of the world, overseer of all of Egypt. When his brothers who had sold him into slavery suddenly show up on his doorstep, Genesis 42 shows that Joseph did not at first receive his brothers kindly, but roughly. It also says several times that Joseph wept. He was probably struggling with conflicting feelings: overjoyed to see familiar faces again, but also tempted to take revenge on them for what they did to him over 20 years ago.

Joesph was 39 when his brothers came to Egypt. Being 39 myself (and exactly in one month I'll turn 40, so I am a bit sensitive about age at the moment), I have to admit it's good to know I'm not the only one still struggling with my feelings, at this age.

The culmination of Joseph's story is here:
Genesis 50:15-20

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" So they sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father." When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said. But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

A classic example of how God works "all things for good of that love Him, that are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). God intended it for good...

So, I just mentioned the famous verse, Romans 8:28. Less well-known is the verse that follows it: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."

What does it mean to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus? This is surely related to the previous verse, where God works all things for our good. He orchestrates difficulties in our lives, allowing conflict or making us wait, for our good, to conform us the likeness of His Son.

I just finished reading Donald Miller's latest book, A Million Miles in Thousand Years. Details of how this book unsettled me (and inspired me) will be forthcoming in another blog soon, but for now I have to end with another quote. This book talks a lot about how we love stories, and what makes a great story.

Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller... If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.... In nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He's a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn't change, the story hasn't happened yet.
We love to go the movies and watch ordinary people become heros by facing conflict and overcoming it, and in the process learning, changing. Yet we whine when we have to face conflict in our own lives. We let our feelings take over: fear, anger, etc. Faith is where we trust that God is working all of these difficulties for our good, to transform us, make us more Christ-like. We trust God that we'll be able to look back on our own story someday, and cry with joy to see the culmination of it all.

The quote by Michael Youssef was chosen by the contributers to "In Other Words". Each Friday a new quote is shared on http://writingcanvas.wordpress.com/, along with the host site for the week. Anyone wanting to participate can ponder on the quote and write about about it on their blog, then link your post to the host blog.