An Upside-Down Affair

I was going over some news articles I had saved today, cleaning out my desk, and found three articles each with a similar theme.

In the first, the author, Reinaldo Gadea Perez commented that Venezuela is seeing its highest murder rates in history and he attributed it largely to their “culture of impunity” in part created by a president who “justified stealing to feed starving children” and who let “murderers and corrupt cronies walk free” creating a culture where people are proud to have gotten away with their crime. “Our ‘culture of impunity’ is also creating killers… There is no hope for a future for Venezuela unless we ‘destroy this culture of impunity’ and start imposing consequences for breaking the law.”[1]

The second was about how India did away with major bank notes, taking them out of circulation. At first, the rationale was purported to be an attempt to “force the wealthy Indians who were hoarding their money to put it in the bank and pay taxes on it.” Later the Prime Minister changed his story and said it was “to move India toward a cashless society.” No matter what the objective, however, the perhaps unforeseen effects have been most harshly felt by the poor who rely on cash and have no bank account.[2]

The third article addresses the internet. “The irony is that the internet was supposed to democratize information, enabling ‘curious citizens’ to become better informed about complex issues… Instead, it’s made it possible for people to hide out in ‘closed information loops.’ The internet’s lack of a filter has made all beliefs appear equally valid, since you can always find online ‘evidence’ and opinion to back up even the most nonsensical notions, with no agreed-upon authority to differentiate fact from fiction. We truly have entered ‘a post-truth era.’”[3]

I think what fascinates me is how each of these decisions, almost certainly made for good reasons, had unforeseen and negative consequences. Good intentions, unfortunately, do not necessarily translate into good decisions. I even think about some of the recent articles I’ve seen about people who, with hearts to help Houston, are sending all manner of problems their way in the name of donations. Workers are having to spend their much-needed time and energy sorting through mounds of donated items that are, for now, useless and/or frivolous so that, rather than helping, such donation become a hindrance. In other words, they hurt more than they help.

I have a book on my shelf called When Helping Hurts. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s the general idea that sometimes what we do to help …doesn’t. Either it doesn’t help or it creates another, unforeseen problem. Sometimes a decision to fix a problem is a little bit like a time-traveler messing with the space-time continuum…you may help one area but you change everything, and that always has consequences and effects…and not all of them positive.

It all can begin to feel rather futile and maddening when you look at it that way, but here’s the good news, GOD can see the future. He sees all the consequences of our actions. AND, He can work all things for good. So, prayer and obedience to His Holy Spirit is critical, first off. We need his direction.   Only He can see the dominoes our actions will set into motion. Second off, when things are set into motion and we suddenly discover that our helping may have hurt in some area or another, we can rest knowing God can work good out of all things, even the negative consequences of our actions. Thirdly, because of that, we can also trust that, just as things that seem good can have bad side effects, conversely, things that seem bad may actually have some good side-effects. Just think how Jesus’ death provided for our salvation, or how persecution of Christians after Jesus died actually served to spread the Gospel of Christ. The Kingdom is an upside-down affair in which the last are first, the first are last and bad things can be used for good.

[1]Perez, R. G. (January 2017). We Kill Because We Can. The Week, 15.

[2] Roy, A. (January 2017). Cash-free Society Hurts the Poor. The Week, 15.

[3] Misinformation: Why facts are now irrelevant. (January 13, 2017). The Week, 17.

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Great Article! Editing your Story with God

Don’t miss this article on Graham Cooke’s website about editing your story with God.  Here is an excerpt, but really, read the whole article!  The author asks some fantastic questions relating to the value of the editing process.

A good editor understands the heart of their author.

They have the beautiful ability to take what you’ve created and make it shine—but rarely by adding to it. Their gift is usually to delete what you’ve thought was so necessary or upgrade the language. And in doing so, the message gains greater clarity.

I can’t always say that I’ve enjoyed that part of the process, but over time, I’ve come to recognize its value—and to realize how much it mirrors God’s ways with us…

…What if the upgrade to our story with God is not about needing more, but allowing an editing process to occur?…

Read the article here:  http://brilliantperspectives.com/editing-story-god/

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Gage’s Surprise

I had gifts set aside for every day they were here. My niece and nephew had come to visit me in Colorado and I’d accumulated a small hoard of gifts, some specifically designed to enable them to enjoy the day’s activity, some more for the purpose of long-term enjoyment, some simply because they would delight in them, and, frankly, many were because, let’s face it, I’m cheap and found a good deal.

Well, my darling 5-year old nephew has very specific ideas in mind when you say there’s a “surprise.” My niece, his younger sister, is quite happy to receive anything you want to give her with joy and rapture. My nephew, however, knows exactly what he loves and wants and is easily disappointed when your surprise and what he has envisioned do not match up.

In fact, he famously threatened grandpa once about a surprise. The story goes, grandpa usually gives Gage a “transformer knife” (aka a Swiss-army-type knife) for a surprise. Gage loves anything that “transforms.” (For all you concerned citizens out there wondering why grandpa is giving knives to a boy before he’s even 5, know that he does, at least, dull the blades first. Beyond that, what can I say? It’s a red-neck country kind of thing.) So, when grandpa told Gage he had a surprise for him after he’d fallen off a horse, Gage of course assumed it was another transformer knife. It wasn’t.

We have a tradition at grandpa’s ranch whenever anyone falls off a horse or meets with some sort of injury/accident. We present them with a specific t-shirt to commemorate the event—a t-shirt that says, “The Circle T Ranch: Where People Get Back to Nature, and Nature Gets Back at Them.” To say that Gage was disappointed when Grandpa presented him with his well-earned t-shirt is an understatement. He was disappointed, betrayed, furious, confused, hurt… all of it. To be fair, he couldn’t read, so he didn’t quite see why a t-shirt should be anything special enough to be called a surprise. He had plenty of t-shirts at home. In his mind, T-shirts aren’t a surprise, they’re a basic fact of life.

Later that day, they had a ceremony of sorts with some of the guests who were at the ranch that day and handed out a few of those Circle T Ranch t-shirts to some of the guests, laughing about their mishaps, and celebrating their willingness to get back on and try again, whether it was a horse or jet ski or what-have-you. Gage saw that, and warmed a little towards the t-shirt, beginning to see that maybe there was more to it than he’d realized, but still, it wasn’t a transformer knife and therefore not worthy of being called a surprise.

Later that weekend, Grandpa found another reason to give him a “surprise,” and this time, having learned his lesson, made sure it was a knife.   He didn’t want his grandson feeling cheated from the t-shirt, after all. So, when he told Gage he had “another surprise” for him, Gage, who was maybe 4 at the time, immediately says back, “Well, I tell you one thing grandpa, it better not be another t-shirt or I’m never coming back out to the ranch again!” Fortunately, it was a knife and Gage didn’t have to boycott grandpa’s ranch for the rest of his life! To this day, grandpa finds it hilariously unbelievable that his grandson “threatened” him.

So, I know this about my nephew. I know that he has high hopes and clear expectations for any surprises that come his way, and I was giving him surprises, daily… so it was to be expected that I might disappoint him at some point or another. The first day I gave him a net and a bucket, not the coolest surprise, except that it was to go catch crawdad’s in the stream…and he LOVED that. He loved the crème filled Twizzlers for our road trip. He really loved the child’s sized baseball glove I found at a garage sale. He did NOT love the books.

Admittedly, I found a bunch of used kids’ books at a garage sale and bought them because they were available, and cheap. I didn’t buy them thinking they would be Gage’s ideal surprise. However, I knew that they wouldn’t be bringing books with them on their trip to CO and I know how much they like books at bedtime. I thought it would be awesome if we had some books for grandma to read to them at night. But Gage was horribly disappointed—at least, until his sister sat down to read her books with grandma…then he decided we should read his, too. He may not have been immediately thrilled with it, but in the long-term, I know he’ll get much joy from those books, more joy than he will get with the candy which he was quite content with in the moment.

Now, before we all go to pointing fingers and think what a spoiled boy he is that he’s disappointed at a surprise, when many kids never get a book in their life or any special surprise at all, let’s give him a little grace. First off, Gage has very clear ideas about what he likes and wants and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I dare say that quality will turn out to be a very special gift to him later in life. Like most of our personality traits, however, it surely has a positive and a negative to it. Secondly, I love his transparency. His reactions are honest and true. They may not always be “right” in our eyes, but they aren’t false. In a world of people who have learned to pretend the right response even when it’s a lie they are portraying, I particularly value that his response is never dishonest to how he feels.

Thirdly, I would like to point out how much his response to his surprises is very like our response to God’s gifts and surprises to us.

How many people do you know who have threatened God with, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, if that’s the kind of ‘good God’ you are, then forget it!” Or, “If those are the ‘gifts’ you give your people, then you can keep them, and I’m done with you and your Kingdom.” “If you don’t answer this prayer and heal this person, then I’m never talking to you again!” I know lots of people who have rejected God because they were furious at something He gave them.[1]

Not all of us threaten God or quit Him, but how many times have we been disappointed at something in life? That’s not the same, you say, but isn’t it? Does anything come to me that does not first pass through the hand of God? How many of us are disappointed with our bodies or our health in some way or other? How many of us are disappointed with our families, marriages, living situation, jobs, etc.? Or, how many of us have prayed for something, and been disappointed with the answer, or apparent lack thereof? We had these great expectations for life and for God’s gifts to us, and it’s just not what we expected, it’s so much less.

In America, our typical response to this is to “fix” it. If you don’t like your job, get a better one. That’s not all bad. Sometimes you should. Other times, however, you can’t do a thing to “fix” it anyway. You have to go through it. In either case, first of all, it’s OK to be honest. It’s OK to tell the Lord that this isn’t what you were expecting. He knows anyway and He can take your honesty. And after that honesty, it is good to ask the Lord what He has planned. Why this gift, Lord? What are you trying to give me in this situation?

Gage wanted to change that t-shirt in for a knife, but the gift in the t-shirt wasn’t so much the shirt itself, but the badge of honor that came with it. The books weren’t the real gift, the real gift in those books was precious time with grandma, hearing her voice, cuddling on the couch…memories. Another candy wouldn’t have given him those memories.

I once heard Graham Cooke talking about this idea. He said that we are sometimes wanting to receive one gift, but God is giving us something else. We are sick and we want healing, we want to take authority over our sickness through prayer and be well. That’s not a bad thing to want, but what if God is giving us a gift of patience in our sickness, not of authority? Every time we demand authority we are going against the gift He’s giving us. We’re refusing His gift and asking for another one, which is counter-productive on so many levels. It would be better if we could ask God what gift He is trying to give us in that situation and work to receive it. Then we can look for all the opportunities to receive His patience as we are sick, and, when we have received that gift, we are ready to receive the next one, which may or may not be the healing we were hoping for.

In either case, what it does is teach us to trust that God is a good gift giver. It teaches us to trust His love for us and His kindness as well as His sovereign will. He has a better plan for our lives than we do.   It’s hard to set aside our disappointment when life doesn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. All the more so in America where we have such high expectations for happiness in all things. It’s OK to feel disappointed, but what do we do with it? That’s the bigger issue. We can threaten God and quit Him when it seems He has failed us. OR, we can humbly come to Him and confess our disappointment and ask Him, “I had this in mind, but obviously, you had something different. Can you show me what it is so that I can get on board with what it is you are doing, with what you’re giving me? And can you help me to have a grateful, trusting heart for all the gifts that You give?”

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Gage, clearly enjoying book time with grandma after all!

[1] Please note, I’m not saying God causes evil, but that in all things that God allows to come to us, He has hidden a gift. He can work ALL things to good.

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God is such a GUY!

I have spent much of my life on the day or so before Christmas doing Dad’s wrapping. I don’t know if he shops at the last minute, or just realizes that things aren’t yet wrapped at the last minute, but in either case, I’ve come to expect the last minute, “Hey Stacey, I need you to wrap this for me.” Why? Because, generally speaking, guys can’t wrap.

That’s how I know God’s a guy. He’s SUCH a guy. Because, oh my goodness, have you noticed how He wraps things?

I love opening my mom’s presents. I love just looking at mom’s presents. They are works of art. No matter what’s inside, they are beautiful on the outside. Beautiful, high quality sparkling paper with exquisite ribbons tied in bows to make a florist jealous. It’s extravagant and beautiful just to see the piles of packages under the tree, most of which are adorned with extra gifts on top. The wrapping feels as much a gift as the actual gift inside.

That’s when mom wraps. When any of the men in our house wrap, however, it’s a different story. There is no gift in the wrapping. The gift is the gift. And you have to look past the wrapping, to be willing to see what’s inside. You have to open it despite how it’s packaged, trusting something good is inside.

Now, I’ll tell you, my Dad’s wrapping may not be great, but his gifts are. As much as I love my mom’s beautiful wrapping, I equally don’t care at all about my Dad’s. Who cares how it’s wrapped? I know there’s something wonderful inside. The packaging is inconsequential.

Well, I do believe God is an artist and has wrapped some things on this earth with beautiful care. He did, after all, wrap His promise to Noah with a rainbow. That’s hard to beat.   He wraps each day with a sunrise and a sunset. So, I’m not totally ragging on God and His wrapping skills, BUT… For the most part, God wraps most stuff like a guy…terribly.

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Take geodes, for example—those horrible little rocky things that are ugly on the outside. There’s nothing of note about them. Nothing to draw you to them. And when you hear there’s something inside, you risk scratching your knuckles raw on them trying to get them open. They’re hard and rough and ugly, but they contain a beautiful treasure—one that you only get if you’re willing to look past the wrapping. The Bible says there’s nothing about Jesus’ appearance that would draw you to Him. He wasn’t the “gift” anyone was expecting in the Savior. He didn’t come to reign, but to die. That’s a really unattractive package when you are hoping for a political coup. Butterflies come from caterpillars. We learn patience through suffering. We learn strength through struggle. We learn trust through times of uncertainty. We learn that He is healer through sickness, Provider through need. We learn that He is with us when we are alone. Do I need to go on?

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Most of God’s best gifts come in the worst packaging. Packages we don’t want to open. Packages that are hard and rough and ugly on the outside, and painful to open. But, if we are willing to look past the packaging, if we are willing to trust that anything that comes through His hands to us, anything He permits into our lives, is a geode of sorts, a beautiful gift wrapped by a guy—a God guy who loves us—if we are willing to treasure those gifts and take the time to open them, we will find a treasure inside. Every. Time.

I don’t know why God so often hides his best gifts in the worst packaging, knowing He could hide them in things like sunsets and rainbows. I suspect, however, that it has something to do with wanting to develop in us a sense of love and trust. For my Dad, bad packaging is a matter of ineptitude (sorry, Dad!) and value—he doesn’t value the wrapping, only what’s inside. For the Lord, that “bad packaging” is just like my mom’s beautiful packaging…it’s part of the gift itself. He is not inept nor does he consider the packaging inconsequential. Everything has meaning. Make no mistake, the packaging, even the really bad, ugly packaging, is tailor made for us. It, too, is a gift. To teach us to seek Him. To teach us His heart. To help us look beyond the things of this world and to see the next.

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There’s No Generosity in Equality

Have you ever been around someone who was all fired up about “equality”? It sounds so good, right? Wanting everyone to be equal. Wanting to lift up those less fortunate. And in that sense it is good. But have you ever noticed how those same people are also often the least generous? They get very precise in measuring out equality. It becomes isolating. Here, let me pay for that becomes, you get yours, and I’ll get minethat way it’ll be equal. That way I know you won’t take advantage of me or take more than your fair share.   If I pick up the bill this time, you might not do it next time. It might not be fair. I might just experience a loss, and a loss isn’t really “equal”.

Equality sounds like a good generous thing, but it really fights against generosity. God never said anything about things being equal or fair.   He could have evenly distributed money and resources and talent, but He didn’t. In fact, He very clearly blessed one nation so that they could pass on his blessings to others. He didn’t tell them to worry about equality, but to focus on being a blessing to others. He used this method instead of an equal distribution to challenge us. Those with have to learn to be generous. Those without have to learn to be patient and trusting. Both have to learn to be humble. If everything was equal it might be easier, but we wouldn’t be as stretched to grow and become more like Christ.

At its heart, equality is a poverty mentality. It’s concern that there won’t be enough, so you have to hold on to your fair share. It may start with a concern for those who have less, but it often leads to a concern that no one has more. The Kingdom mentality is that God can always supply more, so it’s OK if I give it all away. There are so many examples of this in the Bible, but let’s keep it simple and short and just look at Jesus. Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[1]

Jesus didn’t concern himself with equality, but with obedience and service. He was generous. He gave His life. And this is the pattern He tells us to walk in. That passage starts with a challenge to us: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”[2] The Christ Jesus who didn’t strive for equality but instead served.

Equality isn’t always bad. It’s not always selfish. It’s just that Jesus calls us to a higher, better way than equality. That’s minimal stuff. He calls us beyond fighting for equality to a place where we live in generosity. Where we humble ourselves before our fellow man and seek not only that they are on a level with us, but that we seek to lift them up above us as we serve them. Jesus didn’t tell everyone to wash their own feet and be clean. Instead, He took on the servant’s role to wash their feet Himself, personally. This is love.

Think about the best marriages you know. A marriage may survive with two equal partners divvying up roles and responsibilities and finances in fairness, but they usually fall into patterns of frustration and bitterness when something appears to be uneven to one or the other. Someone in such a case is bound to be frustrated when they feel they are giving more than the other. This is why the best marriages aren’t ones that focus on equality and fairness. They are the marriages between two servants, both seeking to put the other before his or her self, seeking to out-give and out-serve the other. In those marriages, you find a beautiful sense of equality, but more than that, you see love and joy and tenderness. You see well-nurtured souls.

When Satan can’t tempt us to be bad, he entices us with what seems like a good cause, and frankly, that is often the more dangerous route. We get caught up fighting for a cause that sounds really good and important and noble, and certainly, it’s better than many… but then we are focused on the fact we’re doing good without realizing that the good we are doing is in the way of God’s higher call to greatness and true Christ-likeness. Fighting for equality rather than learning to be a servant, learning to be generous…that’s just one example. Can’t you see, though, just how far it’s fallen short in the political realm? As we’ve fought for equality of race and sex and so forth, while some improvement has been made, we have also become bitter and frustrated as a whole. Things may be more equal, but we are not more grateful or humble or kind or generous. Instead, we are walking around with our fists clutched, crying foul, determined to hold on to what is mine and ours lest someone take it from us. Because no matter how much progress we may take towards change in literal, quantifiable equality, the language we use isn’t bringing us closer towards change in our hearts, towards the change Jesus asks of us, the change that makes us givers, servants and lovers of our fellow man. We are fighting for the wrong things, not because they are bad, but because they are less.

Therefore, let us, as Christ did, put aside our grasping for equality and instead take the form of servants, even to the point of death. Which is okay, because we are promised that if we try to save our life, we’ll lose it, but if we will do as Christ did and lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom, we will find it.[3] Giving and serving, those are just ways of giving our lives…and ultimately, ways of finding our lives.

 

 

[1] Philippians 2:6-11

[2] Philippians 2:3-6

[3] Matthew 16:25

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Back to School Benediction

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As you go to school, I pray that this becomes a lifelong love for you, the love of learning.  And that as you learn, you wouldn’t just love learning for the sake of knowledge, or even for the beautiful responsibility of honoring the brain and the talents you’ve been given, but that you would see beyond all of that.  You see, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), which means that everything you learn about is God’s.  When you study in school, whether you realize it or not, you are learning about God, too.  You are learning about His character and His nature and creativity and sense of order, etc.  So I pray you grow to love learning not only because learning is fun and good, but also for the sake of what all that you learn can tell you about God if only you let it, if only you have the eyes to see the God who created all there is to learn. 

 

As you go to school, I pray that you will not only learn and love knowledge, but that you would also grow to learn about and love your fellow man, too.  School will force you into close, daily proximity with people you would not likely meet nor have anything in common with otherwise, and you will have the joy of seeing them not only through your own eyes, but through the eyes of others.  You may not have a natural affinity for the person sitting next to you, in fact, you might only be able to see the irritating things in them.  But, you may find, as I have so often, that someone else who sees something beautiful in them can awaken your own eyes to what they see.  In this way, your classmates will become your teachers, and you theirs.  Just as you may teach each other where to find the good and the beautiful in one another, you may also teach other where to find annoyance and even hate, so I caution you.  First off, guard carefully your mind and your ears, choosing to see, hear, admit only the good about another.  And secondly, I urge you to be aware of your power of influence and use it well.  If you will choose to speak only what is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” about your classmates, you will be a superhero among them, spreading love and helping them to see those things in themselves and in each other as well. 

 

And finally, as you go to school, I urge you to consider that what you learn there will affect you the rest of your life.  I’m not talking about academics here.  I have heard many people say, through the years, why do I need to know chemistry, or algebra, or, fill-in-the-blank-subject, when I get out of school?  What good will this do me in life?  Well, frankly, they are often right.  Yes, God has surprised me and I actually did need to know chemistry after I got out (so I learned it, again, because I’d forgotten it all), and math, and all sorts of subjects and facts I didn’t think I’d ever use again—so you never really know.  But that’s not the point.  It doesn’t matter, really, if you ever really use that subject again in your life because you WILL use what you learn in that class, especially in the classes you least enjoy and least see the point of. 

 

You are learning critical life lessons that will serve you well in that class you don’t like and from that teacher you don’t like.  In fact, they will probably be your best teachers.  You are learning how to do what is distasteful to you—your life will be filled with those moments, changing diapers, doing laundry, going to work (because you’ll likely have to work a job you don’t love at some point), and so forth.   You are learning how to submit to authority, even when you don’t see the point of their request.  This will serve you well, especially when it comes to submitting to God, because neither He nor His requests will always make sense to you either.  You are learning discipline, putting aside things you’d rather be doing to do what you ought to be doing.  You are learning to prioritize and decide what is most important to you because life will be filled with times when you have to sacrifice one thing for another because you simply can’t do it all.  So when the school play and a big test are both demanding your attention and you have to choose which is most important, that’s a life-skill.  So is learning how to clean up the mess and recover from those sticky decisions.  Even good ones often require some cleaning up afterwards.  You are learning that hard work pays off, except for when it doesn’t—and sometimes it doesn’t.  That’s OK, because even more importantly, you’re learning that it’s far better to know you did your best and be able to look yourself in the mirror with a clean conscience than it is to “succeed”.  Because grades, like most outward status of success, don’t tell the whole story. 

 

Along those lines, I hope you learn to value learning itself more than grades.  If you love learning, the grades will (most likely) take care of themselves—but remember, they are there to motivate you to learn; they aren’t the point, learning is.  If, however, you only focus on making good grades, then you may have those without having learned a thing.  This is the academic version of what Jesus was saying when he said to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be added unto you.”  When you seek the right things first, the rest follows.  This is one of the most beautiful lessons you can learn in life.  The world tries to motivate us with the “rest” in so many ways.  We need to learn to see the root pursuit that is worthy of our time and attention.  When we seek that one thing, everything else falls into place. 

 

There are so many things school will teach you that have nothing to do with the academics you will study, good things for your life.  But if you learn that last one, if you can learn to seek God first, even while you’re “stressed out” in school… you won’t be stressed out because you’ll have learned to trust Him.   You will find that God truly can add the “rest” unto you.  You will have the peace, joy, love, patience, etc. that are the fruit of His Spirit.  You will be well-prepared for the rest of your life, no matter what your GPA.  When school becomes a trial to you, as it surely will from time to time, let me remind you of what James writes, “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trails of any kind because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And endurance must finish its work so that you may become mature and complete, not lacking in anything.”    I know we tend to think that school is about academics, but it’s so much more.  School is a tool that will, if you let it, produce endurance in you and develop you into a mature and complete person, which is far better than a simply smart one.

 

 

 

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Giving Jars

I just read about this great illustration Corrie ten Boom used to teach “how God would repay the generous.”

She stood in front of the class of young missionaries-in-training and placed two bottles before them, each filled with sand. One had a narrow mouth and the other had a wide mouth. She picked up and poured from the wide-mouthed jar. The sand quickly poured out onto the table, leaving the jar empty. The then started pouring sand from the narrow-mouthed bottle. The sand trickled out, taking a long time to empty.

“You see students,” she said, waiting for the thin line of sand, “this bottle is like some Christians. They give to God, but not so quickly and freely. But look what happens.” She finished and began to reverse the process, pouring sand back into each bottle. The wide-mouthed jar was quickly filled, spilling excess over the top. However, it took her a long time to painstakingly refill the narrow-mouthed jar with sand. It had given slowly and now it received just as slowly.

Which bottle are you like?

Cunningham, L. (1991). Daring to Live on the Edge: The Adventure of Faith and Finances. Seattle: YWAM. (p. 81)

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Movie Discussion

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Valerian is an action movie, a love story, a political commentary, a creative, science-fiction wonder… It’s a lot of things, and it’s a lot of fun with some good messages underneath it all.

  1. The action movie / political statement:
    Laureline and Valerian discover a few survivors of a race that was nearly wiped off the planet. When a war between two other races broke out near their planet, a leader decided that his people were worth protecting no matter who was killed in the process, even if it meant wiping out a planet and all its inhabitants. To cover their decisions, they erased any trace of information about the race. It was as if they had never existed. But they had. And a few survived. As they pointed out, “We are survivors, but we are also witnesses.” Therefore, they were liabilities and those responsible for their annihilation were trying to wipe out the last traces of their existence.

    Laureline and Valerian run into some conflict over what to do about this. He’s a soldier and he follows orders. She’s more bound by her internal compass of right and wrong than by politics and orders. She wants to do right by these people and not only rescue them, but also return some of their artifacts—artifacts her government wanted to keep as they were quite valuable. Both of them have a high moral compass and want to do the right thing, but how they decide what is right varies. He’s bound his honor to follow orders to his superiors; she’s bound to the people.

    It’s an illustration of what Jesus went through in his dealings with the Pharisees. He followed what was right according to God, not necessarily according to law. He followed the heart of the law, while they were caught up by the letter of it. He healed people on the Sabbath because it was right for those suffering, even though the religious were horrified that he should not strictly observe the day of rest. Jesus teaches us to obey the laws of the land, but He also cautions that the laws of the land are subject to the laws of God, who is a God of love. We are to honor authority always, and obey authority until such obedience comes into conflict God’s laws. In which case, obeying God trumps all. As Laureline points out, Love is “more powerful than anything else. It’s bigger than laws.”

  2. The love story:
    Laureline is a really strong, positive character in this movie. Not only do we see her leading the moral compass politically, she also leads it relationally. Valerian wants to marry her. Clearly they have a connection, but, while she follows her heart in regards to right and wrong with obeying her orders, when it comes to romance she’s surprisingly logical. She doesn’t just follow her emotions—in a great way. She clearly communicates with him what she wants. She doesn’t play games. She explains why she won’t marry him. He has a “playlist” of the women he’s been with in the past. She wants “a man who will erase his playlist for me.” She values herself enough to not be one of the list of girls in his life. She won’t settle for less than being the only. She also doesn’t kid herself that she’ll be different for him. She challenges him on this. “Why do you lose interest as soon as you have a girl?” She doesn’t want that to be her story—that he loses interest in her the moment she’s his.

    This may sound harsh, but while she’s extremely honest, she’s not unkind and she doesn’t shame. She doesn’t get angry, doesn’t retaliate or distance herself from him. They stay partners. She supports him, and even loves him well as a friend. She is everything a woman should be, and maintains her emotional boundaries while doing so. This is important, because it allows him to grow and mature. Had she just melted at his proposal, had she thought that that meant he’d be different with her, he wouldn’t have had to grow up in the ways he needed to to enter into marriage. If she’d shamed him, he’d never have found the courage to grow into the man he needed to become. She was the right kind of challenge and inspiration. And anyone who has ever loved someone who isn’t “ready” yet, and therefore walked away knows just how hard this is. It’s hard to respect yourself that much and wait. It’s hard to have faith it will be worth saying no. It’s hard not to get angry when the person you love is failing you, to wait on them to grow up in areas. It’s all very hard.

    She’s willing to say no, willing to wait, and then, perhaps equally difficult, she’s willing to say yes. When she sees that he has grown, sees that he’s willing not only to “die for [her],” but also to “trust [her],” when she sees that he’s becoming humble and vulnerable, when she sees that he’s not only trying to impress her but also learning to yield to her…then she knows he is growing and becoming the kind of man she could marry. Then she gladly changes her mind and says yes. I love her for this! In so many respects she is a woman of dignity and strength and grace. She’s vulnerable, but not needy. Strong, but not calloused or harsh. Tender but not weak. Willing to follow the rules, but free thinking. Willing to break the rules without being rebellious. She sees the diamond in the rough, but is willing to wait for him to become the diamond, knowing that just because he has potential is no guarantee he’ll change. And yet, it’s her very resistance that provides the pressure and incentive he needs to become.

I’ve written about two very difficult topics in the movie, but really, it’s all about Laureline. The movie may be named “Valerian”, but she’s very much the center of the movie. She’s the reason he becomes great. She’s the reason the people are saved. It’s her great heart and her strong sense of worth that drive the story. And yet, that’s also part of what you have to love about her, she doesn’t mind if Valerian gets the press. She’s so confident in her worth she doesn’t have to assert it or have others validate it. She doesn’t need to have top billing; she happily lets him. It reminds me of that line in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, where the mother says that, “A man may be the head, but a woman is the neck that turns the head.” (Not a direct quote, but close.)

A wife of noble character who can find?     
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her     
and lacks nothing of value. 1
She brings him good, not harm
,
all the days of her life….
She considers a field and buys it;     
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;     
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, …
20 She opens her arms to the poor     
and extends her hands to the needy….
She is clothed with strength and dignity;     
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,     
and faithful instruction is on her tongue. – From Psalm 31

Questions for Discussion:

  • How did Laureline follow in Jesus’ footsteps in her dealings with the people who had been wronged?
  • What makes Laureline admirable?
  • Why did Laureline turn down Valerian’s proposal? Why did she later accept? What changed?
  • How did Laureline’s actions impact Valerian’s growth to maturity?
  • How is Laureline like the ideal woman in Proverbs 31?
  • Have you ever cared for someone that wasn’t “ready” yet? What did you do?
  • Do you feel you have enough worth as a person to say no when love is offered to you (if it’s not right)?

 

 

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Dunkirk – Movie Discussion

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Dunkirk is one of those movies which, if I was to comment on all of the rich spiritual parallels I saw, I could write a small novel. It’s tempting, but I’ll spare you. I’ll get you started with a few thoughts and leave you to draw more parallels of your own.

Regarding the 400,00 soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, the movie starts with these words: “Trapped at Dunkirk. They await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” It was awful to watch—they were just fish in a barrel. The men were taking fire from land, air and sea. They were completely exposed. Vulnerable. And for the few who found what seemed like shelter, it was no better—they were simply trapped and unable to escape when attack came. Men who were “rescued” by naval ship were trapped when it sunk. Men on the beach were open targets. There was no refuge, no escape, no hiding… And every hope they had seemed to fail them.

I was losing it from the first words of the movie: “They were hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” I had just heard from a friend who was in a similar situation, metaphorically at least. Mentally, emotionally, financially spiritually… he’d been under enemy fire in every area of his life. He felt trapped and lost. He didn’t know where to go, who to turn to. He’s spent his life trying all the rescues the world has to offer: women, substances, work, family, good works, religion, you name it. Everything the world says would save him, would take him to a place of safety and love, to the home he’s really longing for… every one of those “rescues” had sunk. And like the young soldier in the movie, he’d jumped off a sinking ship, swam to shore, found a safe place to hide, been attacked, escaped again, and so on. Now he’s out of options and desperate, depressed and emotionally shell-shocked.

Our world is FULL of people who are stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk, taking enemy fire, desperate for rescue. The enemy comes to “steal, kill and destroy”[1] and he’s doing his best to come at us from every angle so that there is no escape, or at least, so that we believe there is no escape. And judging by my friend, he’s done a pretty good job convincing most people that there is no hope, no miracle, no rescue.

There was a rescue for them, but it came from an unexpected source: civilians. Men from England who had yachts, fishing vessels, boats of any sort, took the day’s journey to Dunkirk and risked their lives to rescue as many soldiers as they could put on their boats. One man, Mr. Dawson, picked up a lone soldier in the water on the way. The soldier was shocked to discover they weren’t going to England but to Dunkirk first. “I’m not going back. If we go there, we’ll die.” He knew. He’d been there. But, Mr. Dawson was no fool. He was not naïve about the risks. He also wasn’t calculating the risks, but the need. (I literally just wrote this article about how God doesn’t call us to safety, but to obedience. Mr. Dawson and Dunkirk give such a beautiful picture/example of this truth.) He and his young son (and countless others) didn’t go to their aid because it was safe, they went because they were needed.

The young soldier questioned what good this old man with a yacht could do against such a powerful military enemy. I love Mr. Dawson’s wisdom and resolve.

Shell-shocked soldier: You’re an old man!
Mr. Dawson: Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children into it?
Shell-shocked soldier: You belong at home!
Mr. Dawson: If we don’t help, there won’t be any home. …There’s no hiding from this, son.
Shell-shocked soldier: You don’t even have guns!
Mr. Dawson: Did you have a gun? … Did it help you against the U-boats or the torpedoes or…?

The obvious answer was yes, he had a gun, and no, it didn’t help. We are so tempted to put our confidence in men, in might, in weapons, in knowledge and strategy. Those things have their place, but the Bible says that God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.[2] It also says, “’Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.”[3] If you look through the Bible, God has some crazy battle strategies, like walking around a wall for days. Like going in with only 300 men to fight 300,000. God’s ways are not our ways[4].

In Dunkirk, He used civilians and pleasure yachts to rescue nearly 400,000 men from certain death. In the spiritual realm, He used the death of His son, Jesus to rescue the world, all who would believe, from certain death. And He uses Christians, those of us who follow Jesus, to bring that rescue to those who are still trapped. We are those little civilian boats, and we are supposed to set sail, risk dangerous seas, enemy fire, long voyages, and even shell-shocked soldiers who aren’t in their right minds, to bring as many as we can back to safety, to a place of home…to the truth of Jesus.

The tag-line of the movie says, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” This is the thing—spiritually, we can’t get “home” without help. Our sin has us trapped. Jesus had to come rescue us. Home had to come for us. And now that He has made a way, He’s sending us to bring home to the world, because they can’t get their on their own. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one gets “home”, to the Father, without Him[5].

I am reading the book Loveable, by Kelly Flanagan and I came across this quote yesterday: “The people we belong to are filled with grace and spill it wherever they go. And one place they’ve committed to go is toward us. Even when it means driving into the storm to get us.”[6] He might have said into the battle. It’s true. Those civilians went into the battle because those boys were their boys. Their people. Their sons. Their soldiers. When your people are in danger, you go into the danger to rescue them. That’s what love does.

At Dunkirk, however, it wasn’t just English men, but French men, too, on that beach. And they were all rescued. The English didn’t only rescue the English people, but everyone on that beach—because they saw their fellow man as their brother, as their own.  When we realize that our people aren’t just the ones in church next to us, but they’re the ones who are still on the beach, taking enemy fire, lost, scared, alone, desperate for help… When we realize that our fellow man is our people, we start caring that all of them get to safety. We start to care about God’s plan that every nation, every tongue, every tribe comes to know who He is. And then we go into the battle, into the jungle, into the inner city, into the jails, and the homeless shelters and suburbia… We start to go wherever there are people and we pray for them and we tell them about Jesus.

It’s risky. We may get hurt or even killed in the process. But men are desperate and dying all around us. Who are we to save our own lives when thousands are dying all around us? And here’s the thing, at the end of the day, we may be risking our lives for an evacuation and that may seem a small win when there’s a battle to be won. It may even feel like retreating or failure.

There was an old man greeting the boys as they came off the ship, telling them “Well done, lads. Well done.” A rescued soldier replied, “[But] all we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” the old man replied. He understood. A rescue is a victory in itself, even when it’s simply a retreat from the enemy fire. As the newspaper said, “Wars are not won by evacuations, but there is a victory inside this evacuation which should be noted.”

In regards to the Battle of Dunkirk’s importance, Christopher Nolan stated: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.” [7]

The same is true in the spiritual. Let us not be discouraged when our work to rescue souls seems to us nothing more than a temporary reprieve. Sometimes that’s a victory in itself. Sometimes we are called to simply rescue someone from their immediate circumstances so that the hope of more permanent victory can sink into their souls. Sometimes it is that present relief which allows them to gather strength to fight the enemy again from a better position, from one in which they might win. Sometimes we fight off the immediate danger of starvation so that someone might hear later of the love of Jesus. But the truth is, in that first rescue that we dared, they also heard of the love of Jesus, the love which compelled us to go into the bloody battle toward them in their time of need.

Oh that our eyes might be opened to the desperate hopelessness of our fellow man in his need. And that the love of Christ might so compel us to risk all for his rescue. That is what Jesus did, and if we say we follow Him, how can we do any less?

Questions for Discussion:

  • What types of things do we look to for salvation?
  • Why do you think civilians were willing to go to Dunkirk? Would you have done the same?
  • Who do you know that is in a metaphorical Dunkirk, feeling trapped and desperate and taking enemy fire?
  • What have you risked to help rescue your fellow man?   What can you do?

For a list of quotes from Dunkirk, click here.

[1] John 10:10

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:27

[3] Zechariah 4:6

[4] Isaiah 55

[5] John 14:6

[6] Flanagan, K. (2017). Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[7] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5013056/trivia?item=tr3308878

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Despicable Me 3 – Movie Discussion

 

 

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Rather than discuss the whole movie, I want to focus on a particular scene this time.

Sweet little Agnes, the youngest of Gru’s girls, loves unicorns. And she wants to see a real one. A man tells her that in the woods nearby “a maiden may find one if she is pure in heart.” With this beautiful, simple, child-like faith, Agnes sets out into the woods to find her unicorn, because, “The man said a maiden might find one if she’s pure in heart, and I’m pure in heart!” She trusts the man. She believes in unicorns. And she knows herself to be pure of heart. No self-doubt. No bitterness of disappointed dreams and past experience. Just a pure heart full of faith.

You kind of have to wonder at this point what’s going to happen. Her siblings are trying to prepare her for reality. I mean, everyone knows there are no unicorns, not even in Agnes’s animated world full of minions. There are no unicorns, but how are the writers going to handle this? I mean, surely they aren’t going to just crush Agnes’ faith and hope, right?! We would all feel cheated if they did. They can’t deliver some unicorn just because she wants it to be so—that seems like false promises. Yes, sometimes God works miracles, but other times it feels less like a miracle and more like a cheesy plot manipulation—because we all realize just wanting something doesn’t make it so. And yet, we want her beautiful, child-like faith honored in some way by the writers. We don’t want to see her crushed, because somehow that would be crushing something in us, too. That small spark of childlike faith in us that still hopes somehow Agnes can get her unicorn.

Their solution was pretty brilliant, actually. They managed to satisfy both her faith and our thirst for honesty.

“Gru! I found a unicorn! My life is complete!!!!” Agnes came home with the “unicorn” she’d found in the woods. A cute little white goat that only had one horn. She fully knew that her prayers had been answered and she’d gotten her very own unicorn to love. It may not have technically been a unicorn, but it was an answer to her faith and her prayers. It was white. It did have one horn. It was something to love that was uniquely hers. Agnes had her unicorn.

Gru however, typical of us adults, so steeped in reality we can’t see the magical in the mundane, corrected her. “Honey, that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s a goat with one horn. Sometimes life is like that—you’re hoping for a unicorn and you get a goat instead.” Nothing daunted, Agnes joyfully and contentedly replies, “But he’s the cutest goat in the world!”

Oh to have a heart like Agnes! When our prayers are answered, we can be like Agnes or we can be like Gru. We can see how God HAS answered our prayers, or we can see how He HASN’T. Agnes saw how He had. She saw that God had given her heart’s desire. Gru saw that God hadn’t technically answered her prayers with a uni-corn. He saw disappointment; she saw delight. He saw the mundane and ordinary; she saw the miraculous. It may not have been a unicorn, but is it any less miraculous that a one-horned, pure-white goat bounded out of the forest towards her at the precise moment that she set out to meet one?! She expected to be loved. She expected an answer to her prayers. She expected her pure heart to be honored. He just knew she’d be disappointed…as would he.

When she saw her goat, even after she found out it wasn’t a unicorn, she didn’t see disappointment. She saw the cutest goat in the world, and that was plenty good enough for her—because Agnes truly was pure in heart.

 

Matthew 5:8 ESV Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

Psalm 24:4-5 ESV He who has clean hands and a pure heart,… He will receive blessing from the Lord     and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

Titus 1:15 ESV To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.

Questions for Discussion:

  • When a one-horned goat comes in answer to your prayers for a unicorn- what do you see? A unicorn or a goat? An answer to prayer or disappointment? Why?
  • How hard is it for you to believe that God loves you? To believe that He can / will answer your prayers?
  • What is the “unicorn” you are praying for, hoping for?

 

 

unicorn

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