The Gift of Wonder

This Christmas has snuck up on me. I have had a very busy fall: working more than usual, writing (and finishing!) my second novel, and taking on new leadership at church. I feel like I haven’t really had time to reflect on Christmas and the hope that the season brings.

I am currently reading a book, Touching Wonder by John Blase, that includes the story of Christ’s birth from the Message translation along with some dramatized passages written from various perspectives. It’s a short read; only 69 pages. It’s a powerful short read though. The Christmas story is truly extraordinary and sometimes we forget that.

The story that touches me most is the story of Zechariah. It tells the story of a man, diligent in his duties as a priest, that had given up the hope of ever having a son. That hope was so far gone that when Gabriel came to bring him the happy news of John’s birth Zechariah didn’t believe. His heart bad become hard after so many years of disappointment.

Unfortunately, hardness of heart is something that I understand very well. Over the years my own heart has hardened because of difficult circumstances and hopes that have yet to come to fruition. I must admit that for a time I wondered if God had any intentions of delivering on his promises at all. Hardness of heart is something that I understand well.

But once the angel’s words had come to pass, and Elizabeth’s belly began to swell, imagine the hope that must have awakened in Zechariah’s heart. Imagine how the hardness began to melt away and a sense of anticipation began to grow. It was probably all he thought about.

Zechariah’s story, a story of promises fulfilled and hope renewed, gives me great encouragement in this difficult phase of life. God does take notice. He does interrupt human history to being his promises to pass, even if he must do so by very unusual means.

It is good to remember that at Christmas, when we celebrate the great lengths God went to in saving humanity, and how he used a barren woman, a young girl, an aged priest, and an honorable man to change the world.

So as Christmas draws near, I hope that you take a moment to reflect on the wonder of the Christmas story and the God who orchestrated it. I hope that you enjoy time with family, travel, presents, and lots of great food. But I hope that you enjoy the gift of wonder most of all.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

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Greed As Idolatry

I am surprised by how much I am learning as I pursue the simple life. I’ve learned about the world and the society in which we live, but I have also learned about myself. I see how I have been conditioned to behave like everyone else.

At the moment, I am reading an article by Timothy Keller: Counterfeit Gods. He argues, based on Colossians 3:5, that greed is idolatry. Generally, when people think of idolatry we think of statues and shrines. However, according to Ezekiel 14:3, we can set up idols in our hearts.

Keller rightly states that the human heart can take good things (career success, love, family, material possessions, etc.) and make them idols in our hearts. Keller says it beautifully: “Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.”

I can see evidence of this in our world. What’s scary is that I can see evidence of this in my own life. I have been conditioned to be addicted to material possessions. Stuff.

If I saw something I liked, I had to have it. Since committing to minimalism, I have made great progress. But it’s still hard to walk by a gorgeous pair of shoes without whipping out the debit card, because in that moment, those shoes are more than footwear. They are fashion, and style, and self-confidence. They’re everything that will make my life better. They are the solution to every problem. They have become my idol.

Even if I do pass on the shoes, I think about them all night long, and try to find a way to make them mine. And all the while, I feel that this is normal. That use to be my reality. However, minimalism has taught me that this is not normal. Idolatry comes in many flavors, and extreme materialism is one of them (one that I have personal experience with). I realized that greed was an indication of a sick society and misplaced priorities, but I didn’t realize that it was idolatrous. As I read through Counterfeit Gods, I am learning that greed is more than a problem. It’s an idol.

I could tell you time after time when the thought of something new overruled good judgment. The promise of that new thing would suck me in every time. Sure, I’d be happy and giddy for a while but the newness wore off and I was back to normal. Lucky for me (retailers?) there was another big sale only a few days away. I’d have another opportunity to try to fill that internal need with more stuff. And that’s how you wind up with enough bath products to last for years.

I have been there. The need for stuff can dominate our thoughts almost to the point of obsession. The need for more can become the driving force in our lives. That is when it becomes idolatrous.

I like the solution that Paul give later in the chapter: seeking to know our Creator and become more like him. This should be the focus of our lives. It is so easy to get caught up in the new and beautiful, but if we focus on knowing and becoming more like God then greed won’t get a chance to take root.

Train your focus. Guard against greed and excess. Let your life God-driven, not greed-driven.

 

 

 

Reflections from Duluth, Minnesota – The Women’s Conference

This past weekend I attended the Vineyard Women’s Conference entitled “Engaging in the Kingdom.” It was a meeting of Vineyard women from the Midwest North Region of the US. It was hosted by the Duluth Vineyard in Duluth, Minnesota.

I had been looking forward to this conference for weeks. I love the Vineyard and I always enjoy the opportunity to experience Vineyard conferences. I’ve also been looking forward to it because Duluth has been on my mind a lot. I had never been to Duluth and I was really excited about a chance to experience it.

The conference was awesome. I feel like I really gained some useful insights and I would like to share them with you:

  • One theme of the conference was that we each have a unique place in God’s narrative. I have a role to play. One of our speakers used the book of Ruth as our text. Ruth went through a difficult time. She lost her husband. She was a foreigner in Israel, yet she had a part to play in God’s narrative. Because of her choice to believe in the God of Israel she became a part of the ancestry of Jesus. (I have been wondering about my place in God’s story. An interesting thing happened. I found a book called Storyline by Donald Miller and it’s all about finding your subplot in God’s story. I’m really excited about going though this book.)
  • I became aware of the tension between what I want and what God wants. My life doesn’t look the way that I want it to but I have a feeling that it looks the way God wants it to look. I am trying to be okay with that. I’ve been angry and I’ve been fighting it but I wonder if I’ve been using that anger to shield me from the truth.
  • Perhaps the most important insight that I took from the conference is that God redeems everything. Even the bad things. Especially the bad things. Both of the speakers had experienced great hardship and trauma but God redeemed their bad experiences and created something beautiful. This really spoke to me because things are really hard right now, but going to the conference gave me hope that God will redeem all the bad things and make something beautiful for me too. This alone was worth attending the conference.

I can honestly say that the Vineyard Women’s Conference was really great for me. I feel like God gave me some insights that will prepare me for what he is doing in my life. What I heard at the conference encouraged me. It challenged me. It changed my way of thinking and that may have been exactly what God intended. There was also a lot of time for rest and reflection, which always fills me up. Now, I’m pumped.

The city of Duluth was beautiful. Aside from the snow, it was a great visit. The people were friendly. The food was great. The hills were scary sometimes but we made it. I have a feeling that this will not be my last trip to Duluth.

Have a great week!

 

2014 – The Year of Discipline

Happy New Year and welcome to 2014! I’m not one for yearly themes. I don’t do catchy slogans for each year. I don’t get caught up in making predictions about the coming year. I typically just see it as the passage of time. Another page to flip on the calendar. Nothing more.

Yet, for some reason, I feel like God is wanting me to take advantage of this season, this fresh start, to make some changes. To be perfectly honest, this is not about the calendar year, 2014. Some things, (regular exercise, cleaning up my diet, more commitment and consistency in writing) were implemented in 2013. This is more about me setting a mental milestone for the changes that God is making in my life.

Similarly, this is not about making New Year’s resolutions. Those things never work. This is about me living as God intends for me to live — in 2014 and beyond. I feel like there are some things that God wants me to work on at this time in my life.

Self Control. This is a big one. It is all-encompassing. I think that God wants me to exercise more self control. That is one fruit of the Spirit that I really need to work on. I feel that God wants me to exercise more self control in the way that I eat and take care of my body. He wants me to eat the right foods. He wants me to exercise regularly. But I also think that God wants me to be more careful about how I spend my money. I think he wants me to be more mindful of how I spend my time. I feel that God wants me to focus on what needs to be done rather than doing whatever I want to do or whatever feels good.

Spiritual Disciplines. I feel that God wants me to be more intentional about pursuing him this year. I think of the Spiritual Disciplines as sort of a spiritual workout or a way to become intentional about getting closer to God. I will be doing more writing about this in the coming year.

Study. I feel that God wants me to set aside more time for study. This generally fits with the instructions that God has given me (to study). It is time to devote myself to that. I also serve as a small group intern at my church, which means that I lead the discussions just about every week. This requires preparation on my part and more time in study will make me much more effective in preparation for discussions.

Because I sense an overall theme of discipline, I am calling 2014 The Year of Discipline.  I sense that God is taking me to a new place this year and I can’t drag my old habits along with me. I have to let go of some things and adopt some new practices. It’s time. This will be a good thing and I am excited to see all that happens in my life.

This is also the start of my church’s annual 30 day fast, which begins today. It’s just a time to step away from the things that occupy our time and energy (my pastor calls them the snacks of life) and focus on God. Feel free to join us. I plan to check in later and let you know how things are going.

I’m also praying that 2014 will be a great year for you. Is there anything you feel will be a major theme in the coming year or for the next season of your life? Feel free to share in the comments.

Good Does Not Mean Easy

The last two or three weeks of my life have been surreal. My mood has been really good. I feel optimistic and I am motivated. I’ve gotten to go to an amazing conference. I’ve been working at my part time job. Though things are still really rough for me right now, I actually feel good.

During this time, I feel like I am having greater insight about life in general and about my life in particular. I know what God wants me to do. I have chosen to engage God and follow his plan. As I walk out that plan, I see just how hard this path is. Because it is so hard, several times I’ve wondered if this was God’s plan at all.

I was recently thinking about my desire to pursue God’s will and the state of my life. I believe that God wants me to be more involved in my church and to make some changes in my life personally. I was praying, asking God to bless me in this endeavor. I remember saying something like: “I believe that this is your will, but if it is your will, I’d expect you to make it easier.” That’s when it hit me: I expect God’s will to be easy. More specifically, I was under the impression that the easiest path was surely the one that indicated God’s will.

But this is not biblical. Paul did not have it easy. He was beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked three times before he was killed. Jesus did not have it easy. He suffered and died. Mary did not have it easy. She found herself pregnant before her marriage, and no doubt her reputation suffered. Joseph certainly didn’t have it easy (either one!). One found himself with a pregnant fiancee, and the other did time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. But they all accomplished God’s will for their lives. I think most would agree that God orchestrated the events of their lives. Yet, they walked very difficult paths; paths that included public humiliation, imprisonment, and even death.

So I am now dealing with the fact that just because something is hard, doesn’t mean that it’s not God’s will. Sometimes God’s will is hard. I’d even suggest that most of the time, God’s will is difficult. This doesn’t bring me much comfort. It has redefined the way I think of God’s will.

However, it causes me to evaluate my options differently too. I see now that the easiest choices may not be be God’s will, and that choices cannot be ruled out simply because they are difficult.

While God’s will may not always be easy, I believe that it is always best. God brought Paul, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and countless other through. He helped them. My prayer is that God will help us to pursue his will for us, even when it’s hard.

The Pride of Possessions

You can read my first article on the Lust of the Eyes here.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”

1 John 2:15-17

It’s unfortunate, but our stuff means a lot to us. We organize it. We clean it. We care for it — sometimes more than we care for people.

Curiously, our stuff means a lot to other people, too. People are very interested in our shoes, our clothes, our gadgets. They use these things to make an assessment of us. It determines how we are perceived. For so many, we are what we accumulate.

Is this why we accumulate? Not necessarily. We accumulate things for several reasons. Some things we accumulate for ourselves, — they satisfy a need in our lives. Some things we acquire simply because we want them. Some things we accumulate for emotional reasons (fear, desire for security) And some things we accumulate for others. We buy the car, the house, the clothes not only for how they make us feel, but also for how they make others feel about us.

Everyone wants to be liked. We all want to be affirmed and admired. This becomes a problem when we use stuff to gain that affirmation.

Dave Ramsey puts it this way:

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s the pride of possessions described in 1 John 2:15-17. We take pride in what we have. While the lust of the eyes creates a desire within ourselves, the pride of possessions is an attempt to create desire in others. We want others to want what we have.

This stems from insecurity. When someone feels inadequate, they look for things to supply what they feel they are missing.

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Luke 12:15

I think that Jesus was spot on: one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. We are not defined by our stuff. We shouldn’t define ourselves by our possessions or define anyone else by theirs.

It’s really easy to get caught up in what clothes we wear, what handbags we carry, or what car we drive. It is also easy to define others by these things. We are conditioned to. But in order to simplify our lives, we have to change our thoughts about things.

Things are great when they meet a genuine need. We should definitely use what we have wisely and responsibly.

Things should not be used to achieve status – in our eyes or someone else’s. That is the pride of possessions. It is of the world, not from the Father. And it is all passing away.

The purses that I carry will eventually wear out. My car will eventually have to be replaced (a looooong time from now, I hope!). My makeup will eventually be used up. None of it lasts.

But whoever does the will of God abides forever. That’s a whole different perspective. If I could focus on the things that really last, it would change my life. Let’s face it: Jesus is not going to ask me about which purses I carried. At the end of my life, it will not matter what gadgets I had, what shoes I wore, or what car I drove. All that will matter is whether I did the will of God. That’s the status I want, and it can’t be bought.

Life Renovations

I posted earlier that I am doing a 21-day fast with my church. People redecorate their homes and resurface roads, so why not spruce up our lives?

As I embarked on this fast, I had a game plan of sorts. I wanted to really step up my prayer and listening for God’s voice.

As the fast progressed, I feel like God spoke to me. So on the last day of the fast, I have decided to share some of my  insights here on Minimalist Believer.

  • Seek first the Kingdom. My life is in dire need of change. I need God to do so many things. I need a complete overhaul. But as I talked to him about it, I was reminded of Matthew 6:33 which instructs us to “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (NLT). I am worried about so many things and I put my energy into so many things. It seems that in all of my worrying and all of my strivings I have neglected the Kingdom, and I’ve been wondering why my life is in disarray.
  • Put God first. I know this sounds like the first point, but in my life it means something entirely different. In the book of Haggai, God delivers  a hard message to Judah. At the time God’s Temple was in ruins. The people of Judah didn’t restore it because they were caught up in beautifying their own houses. They were too busy doing their own thing. Because they neglected to rebuild the Temple, God was against them. They worked hard but had little to show for it (Hag 1:5-6). God declared a drought and destroyed their crops (Hag 1:9-1; Hag 2:17). When the people set out to building the Temple, God promised to bless them.(Hag 2:19). I saw myself in this passage. There are some things that God has instructed me to do. Have I done them? No, because I’ve been too busy doing my own thing. I’ve been fearful. I’ve been procrastinating. It’s very likely that this is the reason that my life is not flourishing.
  • Keep Praying. In 2 Chronicles 7, God’s people find themselves in trouble. God had shut up the heavens and sent locusts to devour their crops. However, if the people would humble themselves, pray, turn from wickedness, and seek God’s face, God promised that he would heal their land and be attentive to their pleas.

To be honest, I went into this fast questioning whether or not anything would happen. I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety and cynicism. But surprisingly, I had some insights that I believe will help me moving forward. I hope that they help you, too.

Extreme Makeover – LIFE Edition

I loved Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Even when I should have been studying, I would sit riveted as Ty Pennington and company destroyed a family’s dwelling place and then worked together to design and create a new one that was better for them and their way of life. The show made me cry more times than I’d like to admit.

Maybe there’s just something in my heart that loves the idea of something new. I love the idea of blessing a family in need. I love the idea of giving someone a fresh start.

Having a new home built to suit was an amazing opportunity for the families, but it was not without sacrifice. While they didn’t have to pay for the home, they did have to give up something. First, they had to give up what they already had. Their old home may have been too small, unsafe, or in disrepair, but it was theirs. They had memories there. They had their stuff there. In order to have the Extreme Makeover, they had to give up what they had — their home and everything that went along with it: furnishings, appliances, and memories. That was the only way to qualify for the makeover.

Second, the lucky family had to give up control. They had to leave the design and construction up to Ty and his team of experts. They couldn’t choose the layout, furniture, or the paint colors. These were decisions that Ty’s team made. Sure, they did their best to create something that would meet the family’s needs and suit their tastes. However, there was no guarantee. The family had to live with whatever Ty’s team had decided. That is both scary and exciting at the same time.

Right now, I find myself in need of a makeover. While my housing situation is stable, my life is not. There are some things that need to be remodeled and revamped. There are some things that need to be demolished completely, and others that need to be built from the ground up. My life needs an Extreme Makeover.

This may be my lucky day. Yesterday my pastor announced a church-wide fast for the next 21 days, starting Sept 10. It is a time to push back from something (food, TV, social media, sweets) and press into God and hear what he has to to say. It is a time to seek God for direction, change, or just a closer relationship. In all respects, I am a prime candidate for an Extreme Makeover.

Like the families on the show, there is a cost for me. I have to give up something. I might have to abandon my way of thinking. I might have to give up some habits. I will have to change what I consume and how I spend my time.

Similarly, I will have to give up control. I don’t know ahead of time what the result of the fast will be. I’m not sure what changes God will make in my life. This is a time when I let go, step back, and let God remodel my life as he sees fit. I don’t get to make the decisions. This is his show.

As I prepare to embark on this 21 day journey, I am really committing myself to seeking God. I will do all the things I know to do: spend time reading, spend time praying, and serve at church. I will also take some time to just slow down and listen for God’s voice.

During this time, please pray for me. Please pray that God would speak to me. Pray that my life will be transformed. Pray that might I emerge a different person. Pray that this will be new beginning for me.  And pray that I will know God better in the process.

I am looking forward to emerging from this fast with a totally remodeled life.  And if all goes well, I’ll be brought to tears by the wonderful result.

 

A Fresh Perspective on Stuff

My thought for the day is courtesy of my pastor. He talked a lot about stewardship, and I will be writing more about this later. In the meantime, though, I’ll share my thoughts for today.

In a recent sermon, my pastor said something that really struck me: everything we have is God’s. Everything we have is given to us to steward, not for ourselves. This impacts me in three ways:

  • It makes no sense to constantly accumulate more stuff for myself. What I think I own, is his.
  • I have to think more carefully about money (that’s his, too). Would God really want me to buy those five bottles of shower gel, especially when I have three at home already?
  • When I see everything as belonging to God, it is much harder to be stingy. God would want me to share what I have. So I need to keep this in mind, and be generous with what I have. God would let my cousin eat the ice cream. God would let my relatives use my favorite soap. He would let my friends take all my blue pens. He would have me hold on to things very lightly.

Minimalism is about breaking my attachment to things, and pursuing the things in life that really matter. This fresh perspective on stuff should really help me on this journey.

Leaps of Faith

I am at a point in life where I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know which end is up. I don’t know whether things are getting better or getting worse. I have more questions than answers. My life is in freefall. You can read more about that here.

A few years back, I took a leap of faith. My leap took me from medical school to seminary. I left a defined career trajectory for the great unknown. I took the leap trusting that the answers would come. I stepped off the cliff believing that as I took the first step, the next would appear. I felt a sense of joy and exhilaration as I took this adventurous leap.

Fast forward four years. I still have no answers. No next step(s). No nothing. My joy and exhilaration have deteriorated into terror and despair. I’m in freefall, and I am anticipating a crash landing.

At this point, I am unemployed, with no real job prospects. My home is for sale, and has had only three showings since March. This is certainly not what I was expecting.

More than once, I have wished that I never took the leap. I wished that I had never left med school. I wished that I had done something (anything!) else. I wished that I had kept me feet on solid ground.

But it’s too late. I jumped, and I have no idea where I will land, or what will be bruised, broken, or dislocated when I do.

I know that it all comes down to this one question: do I trust God to catch me? The simple answer is NO. I am falling to far, too fast, to be capable of trust.

My pastor at church is doing a series on Authentic Faith. This Sunday, he talked about Abraham, and the great faith of Abraham. We looked in particular at Genesis 22, where the Lord instructs Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, to the mountaintop and sacrifice him. Abraham packs up, travels three days to get to the mountain, and prepares to sacrifice his son. At the last second, the Lord tells him not to harm Isaac. Abraham had passed the test; he really did fear God after all. It turns out, there was a ram in the bushes. Abraham sacrificed that instead.

What a nice story. But I’m not Abraham. Abraham had seen God deliver (Isaac was a miracle baby — the son of promise!). Abraham had a story behind him. My situation is very different. God has yet to deliver on anything he’s said. God can’t expect Abraham-level faith from me… at least he shouldn’t.

I don’t have Abraham’s faith, or anything close to it. What I do have is a lot of anxiety… and the tiniest shred of hope: hope that I did the right thing. Hope that things will work out. Hope that my moment of bravery won’t prove itself to be a moment of insanity. Hope that what was in my heart when I took the leap will actually come to fruition.

I had such high hopes when I took that leap. I was trusting God, and following after his will. I was acting on what I knew to do. I was being obedient. It was going to be an adventure of faith — the amazing unfolding of God’s plan. It was going to be wonderful. Things look very different now that I’m in the air.

I see now that leaps of faith are not to be feared. It’s the landing that presents the problem. Regardless of how I feel about it, I am in freefall. It really is best to avoid evaluating things while in freefall. It’s hard to think clearly when the ground is rushing up at you. Fear and anxiety drown out the voice of reason, and your one persistent thought is I’m gonna die! Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. It all depends on how I land… wherever that is.