The Unexpected

I have become a fan of the reality show Big Brother over the past few years. Not really sure how I began watching it. I may have decided to watch it when my youngest son started and would talk about it. This show is one that most people either love or hate. This is also one of a limited number of reality television shows that I ever care to watch. I share this information because the motto on Big Brother is, “expect the unexpected.” A variety of twists and turns take place throughout the show and little changes to the rules as the show progresses seem to happen each season.

The motto from Big Brother seems to be very appropriate to me when I think about the Lord. Over the years, I have come to realize that God operates more often in the realm of the unexpected than in the predictable. Pleasant surprises are frequent in the life the Lord creates. Occasionally I am alert enough to fully experience these unexpected blessings as they happen. As a rule, I become aware of them only when I look back upon my life.

My life has been filled with God’s unexpected blessings. Sometimes these blessings are brought when a new person enters my life. At times these blessings occur when I choose to get out of my comfort zone. Still, other times they arrive through reading another person’s writing, or hearing a new song, or watching a movie. As unexpected as the Lord can be, the mode in which God gives blessings can vary in multiple degrees.

I like that God chooses to do the unexpected. This has taken me places in life that I would not have ventured on my own. Moving at the end of last year was one of those exact situations. After living most of my life in the same geographical area, I really never thought I would live anywhere else. However, my husband received an exciting job offer to start a brand-new program at a university, and so we were off on a brand-new adventure. Since moving, I have had one unexpected surprise after another. My life has been filled with new experiences. I discovered a love for writing which I had never explored. Some amazing people have entered into my life. A whole new perspective has unfolded before me.

Let me issue a warning to all of you. When you think you have the Lord figured out and you are sure you know what blessings the Lord has planned for you… expect the unexpected.

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.

The Christian and the Atheist

I have a good friend who identifies as an atheist. He was raised in a Christian church and went through all the rites associated with the Christian belief in God. It was not until he was older and witnessed his father die a horrific death caused by cancer that he decided that there is no God of any kind.

Atheism is defined as the absence of belief in any deities.

By this definition, my friend is an atheist. His reasoning is that if a god did exist, especially the Christian understanding of God, then his father would never have died in the manner in which he did. My friend would not be the first to make such a claim. Not everyone who states this thought begins to identify as an atheist however.

As a Christian leader, how can I be friends with an atheist?

My answer to that question is pretty simple…because I believe in Jesus Christ. My understanding of what my Lord taught is that all people are children of God, even those who do not acknowledge God. If this is true then I am already in relationship with my friend because he is my brother in God.

Another important lesson which I have picked up from reading Scripture is that I am not empowered to choose who receives God’s mercy and love. The choice of who receives and who does not belongs solely to God. We see this in the story of Nineveh and Jonah. We see this in the story of the woman charged with adultery and Jesus. God retains the power of who God gives mercy and love. With me not having to make that decision and my belief that God has chosen to give ALL people mercy and love, then I am free to love even those who identify as atheist.

My understanding of my commitment as a Christian is that it is not my responsibility to save anyone. I am not even sure what someone would need saved from other than maybe themselves. Once again, the saving has fallen into the realm of God. What I am called to do as a Christian is to do my best every day to demonstrate the love and mercy of God to others as I have received it. The reason that I strive to do this is not because it impacts my receiving of love and mercy but in response to having received that love and mercy.

I have heard some people state that there is no way they could ever be friends with an atheist. Why they feel that way is only known to them. However, I can speculate that for some it is out of fear. The individual may be afraid that if they befriended an atheist, that friendship might weaken or damage their faith. If that is the case, then I think they need to examine their understanding of faith and work toward a healthy faith.

Others may argue that being friends with an atheist would shed a negative light on them when viewed by their Christian friends. This argument has problems abounding. First, you would need to question what type of Christian friends you are associating with if they do not view extending love and mercy to others is in opposition to Christ’s teachings. Second, using the example of Jesus, a follower should never allow the viewpoints of others to limit reaching out in relationship towards others, especially those termed undesirable.

A Christian and an Atheist

I am a Christian. I am a leader in the Christian church. My good friend is an atheist. We have a wonderful relationship in which we can share ideas (even opposing ones), laughter, jokes, and some coffee. I no longer get to see my atheist friend anymore since we live in different states now but I think of him often. I look forward to being able to see him again soon.

Understanding Prayer

Prayer is one of the most common aspects of any faith system. Every faith tradition which acknowledges a belief in a higher power has some form of prayer as one of its spiritual practices. Some systems have regimented prayer structures. Others are relaxed and dependent more upon the individual than upon a structure. No matter how a particular faith practices prayer, the understanding is that prayer is a conversation between a person or group of people and the higher power which is at the center of the beliefs.

A challenge which prayer presents is that there are such a variety of forms and so many ideas about prayer that we often stumble over ourselves attempting to engage in prayer. As a Christian, I have often heard people say they cannot pray. Whenever I hear that, I am saddened because often this type of thought is the result of someone telling them that they do not pray correctly. At these times I explain to the person that a “right way” to pray does not exist. Sure there are formulas that some individuals use but a specific pattern or specific words are not at all necessary. Usually structured or patterned prayers are intended to introduce the concept of prayer to a person but are not mandatory in any way.

Prayer is a conversation, a conversation which should include a sharing of thoughts and feelings like any other conversation you have in life. A unique aspect about this conversation though is the reality that there is no audible response from the other one in the conversation. I am not saying there does not exist a response, just not one to which we are accustomed. A person needs to be open to experiencing the response in a much different way. Yet what remains is the understanding that prayer is a conversation and does not need to be difficult.

I have been practicing my faith for a large number of years. I have been trained as a leader in my faith. Over all those years and through all my training and service, I have prayed in different settings both aloud and silently. I have led prayer and I have been led in prayer. All types of prayers have been a part of my experience. I continue to learn of other ways people pray. Through all this, I have come to the point where praying is no longer confined to a specific time or location but seems to have become woven into my everyday life. I had heard of continuous prayer but had no perception what that might mean. Instead, continuous prayer in my life has just happened. I feel constantly engaged in conversation with my God. Different experiences, different settings, and different forms of expression make up continuous prayer for me.

Let me confess, I am not sure that the title I have given this blog post is fair or accurate. I say this because I do not believe that prayer can truly be understood. Prayer contains so many elements and expressions that it cannot be neatly tied up with a definition or a specific formula. Prayer instead is an experience, an experience that is unique to every person, every faith, and every culture. Accepting this reality is what I think has opened the door to continuous prayer for me.

Since prayer is such a large topic, I want you to view this as an introduction into my thoughts on this topic. I can promise more blog posts concerning prayer as time moves along. I would also love to hear of your experiences of prayer.

Personal Value

We live in a time when the value of a human life is often considered very low. Most individuals have been reduced to statistics, stereotypes, and unproven opinions. In fact, often the individual is overlooked and seen only with labels. Often there is little effort made to even get to know a person. All this combines to make an individual feel as if he/she has little or no value.

However, this assuredly is not the opinion of the Creator. Actually, the opposite would be true. We learn the view of the Creator from passages found in Scripture. Here are two such passages:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them?[a]

You have made them a little lower than the angels[c]

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

    you put everything under their feet

Psalm 8:4-6 (NIV)

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ

Romans 8:14-17a (NIV)

It is clear that God, who created us and sustains us, values us highly. Being a child of God gives each person value beyond comparison. Jesus tells parables which show us how God views us as important and thinks highly of us.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:4-7 (NIV)

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

Luke 15:11-27 (NIV)

The truth is this…no matter what the world says about us, we are children of God. As children of God, we have been searched for while we wandered on our own. We have been crowned with the glory of God and placed as stewards of all God’s creation. We have been made heirs in the Kingdom of God.

A person’s value is not found in her or his successes. A person’s value is not found in having the “right” labels or doing the “right” things. The value of each and every person is found in the reality that he or she is a child of God. Nothing nor no one can ever diminish or take that value away.

I Need It

Two highly misunderstood words in the English language are… need and want. Many individuals tend to treat them as if they are synonyms, which they are not. They may be closely related, but they represent different ideas.

need – a requirement, necessary duty, or obligation (dictionary.com)

want – something desired, demanded (dictionary.com)

This difference may appear subtle at first but is an important difference when we are considering promises which have been made.

When looking at life, a need is something which is required for a person to support a healthy life. Items which should be considered needs are healthy food, safe water, adequate shelter, clothing which protects from weather conditions, and access to life-sustaining health care. Each of these are required for a person to live life.

A want is something which enhances a person’s life. Wants are very personal in nature. Included in the list might be a specific type of car, electronic equipment, enhanced communication devices, memberships to venues, tickets to sporting events, elaborate food choices, high fashioned clothing, and multi-roomed dwellings. This list could go on endlessly based on the desires of a person.

Jesus tells us that the Father knows what we need and will provide for those needs.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-35, NIV

Jesus also told us to ask for whatever we need.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:7-11, NIV

Here is the reason that it is so vital for us to differentiate between wants and needs. People are prone to interpret these passages in a way which gives them an understanding that God is like Santa Clause. All we have to do is give God our list and God will provide everything which is on the list. When this does not happen, then they cry foul. They doubt God, they doubt Jesus’ words, and they doubt the promises they have been told.

The true issue is wants versus needs. Jesus meant for us to understand that God will provide for our needs. Items found in the list above. Sometimes God chooses other humans to deliver those needs to us. The promise has never been that God will provide all of our wants. One reason God chooses not to provide all our wants is because some of those can be harmful to ourselves and/or others.

God clearly knows the difference between wants and needs. We need to take some time learning the difference ourselves. When we do, it will clear up a lot of confusion and frustration on our part.

Don’t Worry

In the late 1980s, Bobby McFerrin released a song entitled, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Here are the opening stanzas of that song:

Here’s a little song I wrote

You might want to sing it note for note

Don’t worry, be happy

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy now

Bobby McFerrin

McFerrin reminds us that when we worry, our troubles double. Easier said than done, right?

This concept of being worry free is not a new one. Jesus introduced this same thought as we find recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. (See Matthew 6:25-34) Jesus points out here that worrying cannot add a single hour to our lives. In fact, scientists tell us that excessive worrying has a very negative impact upon us physically. (See this article from WebMD) So what do we do about our worrying?

I think that we worry when we do not feel we are in control of a situation. We cannot decide the outcome. In these moments, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Since it appears that control is not in our hands, we do the only thing which seems within our control—we worry.

Once again, the words of Jesus found in Matthew can be helpful. Jesus tells us to seek out the Father in such times. He says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) Something in our control is presented to us here. We can seek God, an action within our control. We are not helpless. God gives us a promise that if we seek God, all which we NEED will be given to us.

Bobby McFerrin had it right — Don’t worry, be happy. Instead of worrying, we can be happy in the knowledge that the Father knows what we need and will supply those needs for us.