Friday, December 30, 2011

Retracing Our Steps

Being back home this past week has been awesome.  A few days ago I met my best friend Melissa in Oxford, Ohio to visit Miami University.  I hadn't been back to my college campus in over four years so I was excited to see how much things had changed.  Melissa and I have been friends for years and we have a few things that we tend to do every time we get together for a visit.  We thought it would be appropriate to sort of retrace our steps from our college days since we planned to spend the day in Oxford and Colerain.

Miami is one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere, and even while I was a student there one had the impression that the brick buildings had been dropped into the middle of a park.  Walking around campus brought memories flooding back, and it was fun to relive those moments with Melissa.  College was by far one of the most fun times of my life!

After traipsing around Oxford for a few hours we headed out of town to Colerain for our typical day of shopping and lunch.  Melissa and I don't have to be doing anything to have fun together, and that's the best kind of friend to have!  Having Melissa in my life has been a tremendous blessing.  We share our faith in Christ and are able to encourage one another in many ways.  Friends like her are few and far between, and I'm thankful that the Lord brought us together during our college days.  I know that she's one friend that will walk with me for the rest of my life!

One thing I loved about revisiting and retracing my college steps was the opportunity to reflect on how much I have grown and changed over the past four years.  For me it's often difficult to see how God is working in my life until I look back at the past couple of years.  Then it is much more clear to see how His hand has guided my life and shaped who I am becoming.  And it always makes me wonder how I will grow and change over the next few years of my life!


Monday, December 26, 2011

Stepping Out of Eternity

A couple weeks ago Patrick and I watched a Stephen Hawking video on his ideas about how the universe formed.  He, of course, doesn't believe that God is the creator of the universe, and actually never did answer the question of where things come from in the first place, but that's another story.  What I appreciated about the video was getting a slightly better view of the enormity of our universe.  The more you zoom out from our tiny planet the more you can appreciate the creative hand of God.

What with it being Christmastime and all, I've been thinking more and more about how incredible it is that God himself chose to leave his throne in Heaven and come to Earth.  God left the glory of the world to become a helpless infant.  An infant who would one day grow up to become the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring his people back into a relationship with himself.  It's an incredible story really, and I never cease to be amazed at how much God must love us in order to go to such lengths to save us.

Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."  That kind of love is incredible and completely undeserved.  I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that God, the creator of the universe, came in the form of a man.  It's almost too much to imagine that a human body could even contain the glory of God.

I hope during this Christmas season you will take the time to contemplate God's love for you.  It truly is the greatest gift of all!   

Sunday, December 25, 2011

In the Arms of the Red Army

The Red Army during the Christmas concert
No not the Russian communists.  The Red Army was the nickname given to the choir at the church where I grew up, since they wear red robes and it's a huge choir.  When they come marching down the aisles in church it does sort of give the effect of being infiltrated by an army.

I grew up in the same church pretty much my entire life, and I can't remember a time when my mom wasn't part of the Red Army.  Some of my earliest church memories are sitting in the front two pews surrounded by choir members in their flowing red robes.  It always felt safe there.  I grew up fortunate enough to be part of the music program at church and was constantly surrounded by supportive people in the choir.  Throughout middle and high school I was ever grateful to have such an incredible group of people that were encouraging and loving.  There were many smiling faces and hugs; a wonderful environment to grow up in.

Patrick and I made it back to Louisville in time for the annual Christmas concert (always a big deal at our church.)  It is always such a worshipful experience and is a good reminder of what Christmas is all about. There are many new faces in the choir, but it's always fun to visit with friends who are still there.

Now that we're back in the States (and moving back to Louisville in six months) I'm looking forward to reconnecting with many friends from choir.  God has blessed me with some wonderful friendships, and I hope I can give back to them what they have given to me!  So to everyone who has been such an encouragement to me for so long, thank you for blessing me so abundantly!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: "Revolution in World Missions" by KP Yohannan

KP Yohannan was born in India and fell in love with Jesus at a young age and had a desire to serve the Lord as a missionary.  After spending many years on the field working in North India, he came to the US to study at seminary.  During his time in this country he founded Gospel for Asia, an organization that is committed to supporting native missionaries.

The crux of the book is that native missionaries are the most effective when it comes to evangelizing other nations.  Yohannan presents a solid argument including the fact that native missionaries are already familiar with the culture and understand how the gospel can be presented in culturally sensitive ways.  They do not require language training and are already accepted by their peers in their own country.  Western missionaries often face greater challenges because of the necessary training, language acquisition, and facing racial or ethnic barriers.

Yohannan writes about the new chapter in missions history and how there is truly a revolution happening as more and more native missionaries take up the call of Christ.  He encourages westerners to support missions overseas through prayer and financial giving.

While I absolutely agree with what Yohannan says in his book, there were many things that made me cringe.  He basically says that western missionaries are completely ineffective in foreign mission fields.  Supposedly he has seen many missionaries from America or Europe who live in mansions with servants, fancy cars, and imported foods.  He tells stories of these types of missionaries who have been serving in foreign fields for years on end and have made no converts to christianity.  This is a completely unbalanced view.  I know many missionaries in foreign areas who are making vast inroads with the gospel message and are seeing many lives transformed as people accept the salvation of Christ.  These missionaries aren't living in walled mansions but live lifestyles similar to that of the people whom they serve.

There is still a need for western missionaries overseas, and I'm thankful that so many Americans are answering God's call to take the message of the gospel to the farthest corners of the earth.  That being said, I do think that native missionaries have many advantages over westerners.  Our goal in missions isn't to import an American brand of christianity and expect foreign nationals to adopt it without question.  Our goal should be to bring the gospel to unreached areas, making disciples who will then continue on the work.

Even though in his book Yohannan said a few things that rubbed me the wrong way, overall I think his message is one that the American church needs to hear.  We need to focus fewer resources on building expensive church buildings and creating frivolous programs, and concentrate more funds toward missions.  Too small a percentage of church budgets are going toward the sharing of the gospel in unreached areas.  We are called to be good stewards of the resources God has given us, and I think we will all be held accountable to God for how we used what he has blessed us with.

For more information on Gospel for Asia check out their website here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Preparing the Way

During the advent season we hear the phrase "prepare the way of the Lord" quite a bit.  But I started to wonder, what exactly does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?  How is this manifested in our lives?

I began with John the Baptist, though you could go back even farther to Isaiah or any Old Testament prophet.  At the time of Christ's birth Israel was a nation in waiting.  They awaited the coming of the Messiah who would bring salvation and freedom to God's people.  John the Baptist came on the scene proclaiming the words found in Isaiah 40:3-5, "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all mankind will see God's salvation."  John is not preaching about physical or geographical features.  Preparation for the Lord is a heart issue.  

In order to receive the salvation of God our hearts must be ready.  I think this begins when we come to terms with the depth of our depravity.  "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:20-21)  Even just seeing God's fingerprints in his creation point to his glory.  And when we come face to face with the Living God, we also come face to face with our sinfulness.  Only when we understand our need for mercy will we accept it.  Then our hearts are ready for a savior.

John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  His listeners understood their sinful nature and their need for Christ.  In this way John prepared the hearts of many people to accept Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God.  

So what does this look like today?  How can we prepare our hearts for the Lord?  For nonbelievers, the way of the Lord is prepared by having a repentant heart and a realization of their need for a savior.  For believers, we are still preparing the way for the Lord as we await his second coming.  We wait with a sense of joyful expectation that "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)

This Christmas season my prayer for you is that you would wait expectantly for the Lord, and experience anew the glory of God and the incredible love he has shown us in sending Jesus to be the savior of the world. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Book Review: Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne

I'd had a few friends recommend this book and a few who cautioned that some of what Shane Claiborne has to say is not always biblical.  And I'll admit, I was a little nervous when I saw the book had been endorsed by Rob Bell.  So, I read this book with a somewhat critical eye.  (Really, shouldn't we read everything a bit critically?)  I enjoyed the relaxed writing style Claiborne uses, and throughout the book felt like he's a pretty relatable guy.  Someone you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with and not feel awkward.  He had a lot of good things to say in his book as well, things I think a lot of Christians need to hear.

The purpose of writing is to be a wake up call for the church to get back to a Biblical kind of christianity.  He calls for a revolution of love in which we truly do love our neighbors as ourselves, and live with a servant's heart among the poor.  The way this plays out in his own life is to live communally in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia.  The community that they have established is one that is welcoming and loving to all people, be they business men, drug addicts, or prostitutes.  That's a pretty powerful witness when you think about it.  After all, Jesus spent most of his time hanging around the kind of people we would deem "unlovable."  These are the people he came to save.

Claiborne is an activist for many social issues and has had his fair share of involvement in protests and the like.  He's been arrested more times than he can count, but he's been a part of some pretty inspiring stories of social change.  While I might not agree with all of his methods, I do agree that as christians we are called to take up the case for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  This is something he does a good job of.  

One critique I have of his ideas is I think he gets too caught up in dealing with the issues themselves and sharing the actual gospel gets pushed to the side.  Claiborne is a big fan of Francis of Assisi who said, "Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words."  The issue I have with that is the gospel is news to be preached not just acted out.  You can shelter a homeless man or give food to the hungry, but if you don't fill their soul with the gospel of Jesus Christ, you aren't doing them any good in light of eternity.  We cannot forsake the telling of the gospel as we confront social issues.

Claiborne will convict you to get out there in the trenches with the downcast and destitute, all to make known the glory of God and the Good News of Christ.  Christians shouldn't live insulated lives, never crossing paths with the poor.  Jesus calls us to love the poor because in so doing we love Christ all the more.  Let us not forget Matthew 25 where Jesus separates the sheep and the goats.  To the righteous he says they fed him, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, and clothed him.  When asked about this he says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."  

A few quotes from the book:

"Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death."  

"Today the church is tempted by the spectacular, to do big, miraculous things so people might believe, but Jesus has called us to littleness and compares our revolution to the little mustard seed, to yeast making its way through dough, slowly infecting this dark world with love."

"We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved."

"While the ghettos may have their share of violence and crime, the suburbs are the home of the more subtle demonic forces --numbness, complacency, comfort -- and it is these that can eat away at our souls."

"True generosity is measured not by how much we give away, but by how much we have left, especially when we look at the needs of our neighbors."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God's Reluctant Servant

Reading God's Word is like looking at a mirror into our hearts.  I tend to recognize in myself more of some characters than others.  This week I'm relating well to Jonah.  This book is only four chapters long, but it is a beautiful picture of God's love for the nations and his desire that they turn to him.

Jonah was a prophet in Israel when God called him to preach to Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria.  It's hard for us to understand what a difficult request this was until we understand that Assyria was Israel's greatest national enemy at the time.  The Assyrians had sinned against God and flaunted it.  They sacrificed to and worshipped false idols and in general wanted nothing to do with the Hebrew God.  Jonah knew it, and he didn't think they deserved God's grace.  When I take an honest look at myself I find that sometimes I think the same thing about people today.  Do bad people really deserve God's grace?  Are they worthy to hear the message of the gospel?  The answer quite frankly is no.  But neither do I!  None of us deserve the love and mercy that God bestows upon us; it is a gift.  Jesus didn't come to earth to save angels, he came to save the sinners.  If we were all perfect and righteousness we would have no need for a savior.

Jonah did not have a heart for the nation of Assyria so he tried to run away from God.  It's laughable to think that we could ever hide from the Living God.  Psalm 139:7-8 says, "Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there."  God is always with us and bids us come ever closer to Him.  God knew Jonah would run from him, but the Lord pursued him even to the depths of the sea.

The amazing thing about this story is that as soon as Jonah began preaching in Nineveh against the sins of the people, they repented!  Though their sins were great, they recognized that they needed God's saving hand.  Rather than rejoice at this, Jonah despaired.  In chapter 4 he prays, "O, Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."  What a sad commentary on Jonah's outlook.  Jonah missed out on understanding the grandeur of God's plan for the nations.  He forgot that Israel was God's chosen people through whom the savior of the world would come.  The good news of salvation isn't for us to keep closed up in our hearts.  It is to be shared with the world, whether we think the world is worthy or not!

Jonah was about the most unwilling servant God could have chosen, yet he chose Jonah anyway for this rescue mission.  I'm thankful that God uses people like Jonah to make known his glory, because it means that God can use me too!  My prayer is that I would always have a heart for the lost people of this world, and be willing to go wherever God calls me to bring his good news!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Greatest Love Story

I finished my reading through Isaiah this week, and it was quite a ride.  This book has always been somewhat intimidating to me since it is so long and often has difficult to understand prophecies.  However, reading straight through with the help of a Warren Wiersbe's commentary, I have a newfound appreciation for what Isaiah has to say to us today.

The overall story of Isaiah is really the story of God's love for his people even though they turned their backs on him.  It is about God rescuing his children even in the midst of their sin.  Though Isaiah prophesied about the destruction of Judah and the Babylonian captivity, within these pages we have a beautiful picture of the Messiah.  Even among the shame and ruin that sin brings to our lives, God is still with us.  He still wants to redeem us from our current state of rebellion and make us right with him again.  Isaiah 1:18 says, "'Come now, let us reason together,' says the Lord.  'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.'"  

Isaiah prophesied during a turbulent time in Israel's history.  The nation was vulnerable and sought refuge from surrounding countries.  God had warned the people to trust in him alone and that destruction would follow if they were to look to other nations for their strength rather than the Lord.  God's punishment of Judah was a way of bringing them back into obedience to Him.  God often allows us to suffer consequences of our own sin as a means of bringing us back to Him and showing us his great love for us. Hebrews 12:6 reminds us, "The Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."  Just as a parent who loves his child disciplines them, so too does God discipline his children whom he loves.

As I read through this book I realized yet again that God is truly in control over everything that happens.  There are no accidents; everything is orchestrated according to God's plan.  God reminds us that he alone brings salvation and hope.  "'You are my witnesses' declares the Lord, 'and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.  Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.  I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.  I have revealed and saved and proclaimed- I, and not some foreign god among you.  You are my witnesses,' declares the Lord, 'that I am God.  Yes, and from ancient days I am he.  No one can deliver out of my hand.  When I act, who can reverse it?'" (Isaiah 43:10-13).

My favorite portions of Isaiah were the prophecies about Christ.  It was with great hope and anticipation that the nation of Israel looked forward to the birth of their savior.  The words of Isaiah give a wonderful picture of the peace of Christ.  Isaiah 53:4-6 tells us, "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted,  but he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Some days it may seem like God is far away, but remember that He is always near.  He might be calling you to obedience through discipline, but he does so because he loves you.  You are part of God's love story, and he will pursue you to the ends of the earth for you to know it. "Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I." (58:9)

There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

"Come, all you who are thirsty; come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without costs.  Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live."  (Isaiah 55:1-3).

What sweet words these are from the Lord's mouth!  In this passage God speaks of things that will sustain us, not material provisions, but God's love and pardon for our sins, and His love does not cost us a thing.  We cannot earn or buy his love in any way.  No amount of good deeds or hours spent at church could earn us a place with Him in eternity.  What strikes me about this passage is that while our righteousness before God doesn't cost us anything, it cost God everything.  He was willing to sacrifice his only Son Jesus Christ on a cross so we could attain salvation.  Apart from Christ we are utterly lost in this world.  We have no claim to righteousness without his saving grace.

God calls us to "come buy wine and milk without money and without costs."  Though it may be free for us, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.  Someone somewhere must pay the price.  On a much higher level, the same is true for salvation.  We deserve eternal punishment since it is against a holy, infinite God that we sin.  Since God is a God of justice, before we can stand before him in right relationship, our sin must be atoned for.  Rather than making us take the punishment, Christ bore the sins of the world when he died on the cross.  With his death our sins were put to death as well, but with his resurrection, we too were raised to new life!

I doubt I will ever fully understand how God can love us so much as to come to earth to die for us, but I will be eternally grateful for this gift.  He truly is the delight of my soul!