Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Hard Times

"The Christian life isn't easy... In fact, things may even get harder for you."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard this in a sermon, I may be the richest music major in the world. This always bugged me a little bit, and I haven't understood it until recently. I understand that Christians preaching their faith don't want to win people over by fooling them that Jesus will take away all of their problems. And that is a great point to to make. That tactic won't ever get any real, long term results. But what I think should always be included in these statements, is that as a Christian, we are fueled and constantly refreshed by the grace, the joy, the love, and the goodness of God. In turn, this allows us to bear our burdens joyfully. 

Hard times are... hard... I don't think anyone eagerly looks forward to the hard times that will inevitably happen in our lives. But this is the truth that God has made apparent to me through my life. Our hard times are the times where we grow the most. During these seasons, we may be stripped away of everything that we may have previously relied on. During these times, we will find that the only unfailing, constant, and eternally dependable source of goodness for us to fall into is Jesus. Then we will come out of these seasons with this new wisdom, and we will be ten times stronger than we were before. 

We often times pray that God will grant us wisdom and reveal new things to us everyday. But as soon as hard times hit, we pray that God will take them away. It's like we want the end result, but we don't want to endure the trials necessary to get to that point. I went to a conference recently, and one of the pastors said something that made me smile. "You have to be careful about what you pray for, because you might just get what you ask for."

These hard times are pure opportunity that God gives us! I don't think that we should ever just cower and pray that God takes away our trials. We should be thankful that God is giving us the opportunity to grow into a wiser and stronger Christian, and take advantage of whatever the circumstances around us may offer. During these phases, we should empty our minds of all of the noise, and just listen to what God is telling us. Because I guarantee you that He is there, and He's trying real hard to get you to notice something. He speaks to us through our circumstances, and if we just keep our hearts and minds open, we will see Him. 

The thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world is Jesus. He gives us joy, which should keep us constantly fresh and renewed. This is why we can always be joyful, even in the difficult times. I believe from the outside looking in, we should confuse people a little bit. We shouldn't appear perfect or trouble free, but people should always be able to see and feel the joy and love that shines through our lives, even in the hardest of times. The moment we try to act perfect, and act like our life is all happy and 100% trouble free, that is the moment we lose our attractive qualities that draw in others. People are attracted to authenticity.

A hard question that I thought about, is how do we exemplify the life of Christ in our own everyday living? In the good times, and the not so good times? Just being a "good person" isn't what makes us Christian. Buddhists can be good people, Muslims can be good people, etc. But what noticeably sets us apart from everyone else? OUR Jesus is what makes us different from the rest of the world. How does that show in our life?

I think it's important that we accept the hard times, and be open to change and transformation. And I don't think it's always easy to change either. That can be a whole other season of difficult times. But I think that once we see the reality that God is trying to show us, we will be willing to endure with a joyful attitude. 

The Harsh Test of Reality

I had a time where God was constantly showing me and teaching me new things on a daily basis. It was so much, it was almost overwhelming trying to absorb all of it. It was easy, it was like God was just pouring a bucket of knowledge on my head, and I had no choice but to receive it. And then one day it just seemed to stop. 

This time was very difficult for me. I was confused, and I couldn't figure out why I wasn't feeling that enormous amount of growth anymore. Now that I look back on that time, I know why I went through it. In that overwhelming time of growth, God was sanctifying my life. I think for the first in my life, that was the moment I was truly ready to let God mold me. I love the word sanctify. It means to "set apart as or declare holy; consecrate." As soon as my heart was in that right place, God poured into my life. 

All of that knowledge, all of this sanctification hadn't turned into a change in my life yet. While God was pouring into my new life, my old life was still sitting dormant right behind me. Amidst all the the work God was doing in my life, I had simply forgotten about the old. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. 

We can all agree to the irresistible attraction to Jesus when He's noticeably working in our lives. During this time of huge growth, I had no interest in the sins of my old life. However, as soon as I started feeling this new season of spiritual quiet, I came to an interesting crossroad. Now that Jesus had revealed so much to me, my eyes had opened, and I knew I would never see life the same again. My whole worldview had radically changed. I felt the conviction to continue to pursue this new life with Christ. On the other hand, in the quiet season, I felt like I could almost literally look back and see my old life behind me. It was sinful, and I knew it was wrong, but to be completely honest, my old sinful life was comfortable, easy to live, and it just felt good. The instant gratification on sin is always attractive. 

This quiet season of my life came directly after the season of sanctification. This was the time when my faith was tested in reality. This was the time where I had to choose how I was going to live my life. And there was no room for gray. God opened my eyes and showed me what it would be like living completely for Him, and I loved that. But in my heart I knew what I had to give up to live the true Christian life. And I had to make a decision between this new life with Christ, or my old sinful life.  

A good biblical example of this is the story of Peter. During his time with Jesus, he told him "... I will lay down my life for you." (John 13:37). His love for Jesus was very real, and I believe that he was very genuine with this statement. In the garden, he even tried defending Jesus and knifed the high priest's servant and cut off his ear. But after Jesus' crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus three times. During his time with Jesus, Peter felt that irresistible attraction. But after his death, Peter experienced the harsh test of reality. But in John 21:15-19, Jesus forgives Peter and "reinstates" him. And the Bible indicates that Peter was a faithful man to the end, and ultimately died for Christ. 

This season of quiet was a priceless experience for me. If God had continued to pour out all of His blessings on me, I don't think my faith would have ever been real. Now I absolutely know that I am following God's will. There are definitely times where I struggle, and times where my old life attacks me, but Jesus is my source of energy and renewal, and He helps me through those trials. The hard times are what makes us who we are. Now I can look back and truly appreciate what He has done for me. 

The Current State of Things

So I'm currently a student at Central Washington University, studying music education. I had some interesting thoughts today I wanted to write down.

I was walking back to the dorms from the dining hall. A lot of times, I'll take a detour through the music building since I live right across the street. I love to walk past the classrooms and hear all the performance groups play. I especially love walking past the jazz room because there's always cool music going on in there. It's really a unique experience. Where and when in life will I ever find a place like this? A building built for me to learn and play music all day long (that may be a little too literal some days), surrounded by other people who want to do the same thing?

This got me thinking about how my mind has been working lately, and what I truly want out of life right now. To some students, life after college is terrifying. School is their safe zone, and they honestly just don't know what they're going to do or how they're going to survive in the 'real world'. I always disliked that term- the 'real world'. I really don't think it's as bad as all my high school teachers made it sound. I'm pretty sure it was just a mildly effective scare tactic.

But I'm excited to get out of school. I'm excited to marry the woman of my dreams and make babies (excuse my manly terminology) and buy a beautiful house with a beautiful front lawn that will hold all of my pugs and parrots and whatever pets I pretend like I'm going to own. I'm excited to work everyday to support my family. Not just a job, but a career involving something I love to do, and meet people and have countless experiences along the way. That stage of life sounds really awesome to me, ya know?

Now school, on the other hand... Something I've never been too fond of. In my mind, I almost view it as a game. To win the piece of paper that opens up all of the job opportunities, you have have to pay a lot of money to take a lot of classes you may not even remember in a few years. But you have to play the game in order to get to where you want to be. Now don't get me wrong, I am very thankful that I get to go to school, and I think that education is invaluable. This is the mindset that I can fall in a little too easily sometimes.

So naturally, I want to win this game as quickly as I can. I want to get out of school as fast as I can so I can get to where I want to be quicker. But as I was walking through the music building today, I was thinking that that may not be the best way to be looking at things.

God doesn't just plop you down in the middle of somewhere that's completely irrelevant to the rest of your life. Every minute of everyday, you are fulfilling His perfect plan. That's not something you can escape, no matter how hard you try. And if you do try, you might get eaten by a whale.  I read about Jonah and I know how far God is willing to go... :)

But you are always right where you are for a reason. Down the road, I think things tend to become clearer. But God may never reveal to you why you went through a situation. We just have to be at peace with the fact that we did good in following the direction God pointed us in. And I believe that God is ALWAYS teaching us something. I think everyday, there are new lessons to learn. The important thing is to listen. If we fill our lives up with this spiritual noise, we can let a lot of opportunities pass us by.

For me, this vision I have of my future tends to get in the way of the present. I'm so set on the end goal and just getting past this present stage, I let so many opportunities pass me by. And the funny thing is, is that this "end goal" is really not the end in any way. I know that I will get to that point of my life, and realize that there is still so much to look forward to.

So, I realized this while walking through the music building. For now, the future isn't the right thing to focus on. God has put me in the middle of Ellensburg, and even though it's in the middle of nowhere, there is a lifetime of work to do here. So why am I wasting time daydreaming about the future that will inevitably come? I'm gonna seize the opportunities God has presented me with and make the best of the circumstances God has blessed me with. And the best part is, is that I won't be the only one benefiting from this realization. I pray that as Christians, we can all be a blessing to everyone we come in contact with everyday.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Influence or Influenced?

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - His good, pleasing, and perfect will." -Romans 12:2.

God calls us not to conform to the standards of this world, but to live by the example Jesus set for us. We are to always lead holy lives. "Holiness" is one of those Christian words you hear over and over, and I've realized that people don't often teach what it actually means in ways that are easy to understand. I got to a point in my spiritual walk where I had to start questioning the beliefs I've taken for granted my whole life, and during this time, I had to redefine everything. 

Within the realm of Christianity, I see a set certain range of characteristics:

1. On one end of the scale, we have the group of Christians that try to set themselves apart for God by completely isolating themselves from the world and from anything and everything that can do them harm. 

The good thing about this attitude is that you're constantly in good Christian fellowship.

The problem with this is that by separating ourselves from the world to that degree, we can no longer relate to the people of the world. We turn ourselves into "bubble Christians," obsessed with achieving only the end goal of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and not concerning ourselves with the relationships that are needed to make this change in people. You can't make a change in someone's life if they can't relate to you. You create relationships when people can relate to you. We just live in our own religious bubble, and thats how non-Christians see it. God wants us to live an attractive life that catches others attention. He gave us this world to enjoy. We shouldn't be so careful that we close off all pleasures. Think about it, Jesus Christ himself began to manifest His glory and power for the first time at a party. We all go to parties to have fun. So it looks like that Jesus went to this wedding to have a good time. And He turned water into wine, which means that everyone probably had a better time after that ;) And if anyone should have had a sense of urgency, it would have been Jesus.

2. On the other end of the scale, we have the group of Christians that actively immerse themselves in the world, and try to reach as many unbelievers as quickly as possible. 

The good thing about this is that you can reach a large number of people that need Jesus, and since you are familiar with the world, you can relate to them well. 

The problem with this is that we can lose ourselves in the temptations of the world. Over-immersion can lead to very negative results. You always run the risk of turning into the people you hangout with. And without consistent, edifying Christian fellowship, this will be a very real danger. You can turn into the very people you are trying to be a light for.  

And I've found through personal experiences, trying to save someone and prevent suffering in their lives can turn into a big obstruction between you and God. We oftentimes isolate one person in our lives, and make it a priority to influence them and hopefully change them. And it can sometimes turn into an obsession where we try to do everything within our power to change them. But this may not be God's plan. We have to accept the fact that God may only use us to sow the seed, and be at peace with the fact that we may not ever see that person grow in Christ. And we need to learn how to discern when it is time to let go of that relationship, and let God work inside of that person through other means. God speaks to us through our circumstances, and when we feel the pressure of those circumstances, that's when we have to ask for God's will. We have to rejoice in the fact that God is in control, and whether it's through us or some other means, He will always continue to work in those relationships that matter most to us. 

So now we know both ends of the spiritual spectrum. We have to figure out where we need to be on that scale. To do this, we need to redefine "holiness." I believe that we are to be holy as it was expressed in the life of Jesus Christ. He was perfectly set apart for God from birth to death. Yet we always read about how he was always hanging out with the lowest people of society. He ate dinner with tax collectors, he healed lepers, he talked and ministered to prostitutes, to adulterers, to murderers, etc... The healthy didn't need to be healed, and He made this a point during His lifetime. But during all of this, he was always surrounded by His Christian brothers, and never stopped spreading the gospel. 

We are to strive to live like Jesus. He set the example for us to follow. The easy part is understanding this, the hard part is living it. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

By the Grace of God, I Am What I Am.

A fact of life is that we will always be reminded of our faults and downfalls. We will always be reminded of our sins and the wrongs we've committed. The enemy uses this to get us down. The enemy tells us that we are unforgivable, that we are unworthy of God's love, and that we've already dug ourselves too deep into a hole, and it's too late and too impossibly difficult to get out and back on our feet.

The thing is, is that God made you exactly the way He intended to. He didn't mess up, He made you into the exact person He thought you should be. He made you 100% unique in every way, there is no one in the UNIVERSE that is like you.

You see, it's easy to tell yourself what you're not going to do in the future, but it can oftentimes be much more difficult to forgive yourself for what you've already done in the past. The enemy knows this, and uses this against us. But here's a little Christian secret... God doesn't look at our past! The ethic of the Christian faith is love, repentance, and forgiveness. When we ask for God's forgiveness, he gives us His gift of salvation. This means that he only looks at our present and our future. From this moment on, you can be absolutely pure in God's eyes! Cool, huh? :)

And if that's not enough, God won't let your past just sit there forgotten... Our past is what shapes the person we are today! He will use it for His glory! All the things of our past, no matter how shameful or awful, can be used to further God's kingdom. As a Christian, our past is one of our most powerful assets.

"For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am..." 1 Corinthians 15:9-10

Paul wrote this in his letter to Corinth. This quick chunk of scripture was about how he was "abnormally born." He had once brutally persecuted Christians. He was even present when Stephen was martyred, giving his approval of the stoning (Acts 7:54-60). God changed Paul, loved him and forgave Him. And Paul went on to do great influential things in the name of Jesus Christ.

Paul has been an enormous source of inspiration for me in my spiritual walk. And he was a human being, just like you and I. God can take anyone and use them to spread the Gospel. Once we truly feel God's forgiveness and we can forgive ourselves, our true potential can be unleashed! Those skeletons in our closets aren't doing anyone any good. They're dragging us down, and they're stories that could be used to influence and change others if they were put out in the open. Once we verbally share our sins with another trusted human, and we pray for our forgiveness, those sins become our testimony. And once we are forgiven and get our sins out in the open, the enemy can no longer use those sins against us. We can use it against the enemy!

For me personally, I had sins that I never wanted to share with anyone. I had no desire to ever let them leave my head. But over the years, they started to drag me down and constantly ate away at my conscience. As soon as I verbally shared my burden and prayed for forgiveness, I felt so free. Now I earnestly hope and pray that people ask me about my struggles so I can share my testimony.

Since then my spiritual growth has grown like I would have never imagined. I have been able to experience God's grace and His power in whole new ways. I pray that all my brothers and sisters are able to continue growing in these ways. I pray that we never feel like we have arrived, and that we are always hungry for more, and falling more and more in love with Jesus.

One of my best friends told me, "Imagine how different our world would be if we [Christians] all knew what we were really capable of."

Skeletons In the Closet

When you're in Christ-
1. Your "I try" turns into "I trust."
2. Your performance doesn't change your position in Christ.
3. Your history does NOT disqualify your destiny.

These 3 points were the main outline for a sermon that changed my life. This was the beginning of the end of my own self-sufficiency. We all have a past. We have all sinned and done things we've wished we could take back. We all have a history, and that's true for every human being on this earth.

Oftentimes, when we commit a sin that we feel ashamed of, we naturally want to bottle it up. Our human nature wants to hide it away so no one can ever find it. The problem is that now,  the sin is inside of you and it won't go away. And you will protect that secret at all costs. We naturally want to depend only on ourselves to take care of this problem we've created. Our human nature tells us that the less people that know about this secret, the better. Doing this will never allow that wound to heal. It will take control of your thoughts, your emotions, and your whole life.

The key to healing is confession. Confessing your sins gives you release. It can release you from shame, from the grip the sin has on you, and can allow you to start along the path of recovery that was previously hidden.

In my personal life, verbally repenting of a sin to another trusted person in my life has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Now, there is light in my life where there once was darkness. I have no secrets left from the people I love, and that is such a liberating feeling. Liberate- To set someone free from a situation, especially imprisonment or slavery, in which their liberty is severely restricted. What a perfect word...

When you truly repent and get these sins out in the open, the enemy can no longer hold these transgressions against you. My dad told me something that will always stick with me. "The ethic of the Christian faith is love, repentance, and forgiveness." God loves us so much, He will never hold His forgiveness from us. And once you seek forgiveness, he will guide you along the path of recovery, where he will take away the shame, and take away the burden that this sin has created. Someone very special to me told me a quote that has always stuck with me. "God loves you right where you are, but He loves you too much to leave you there." Our history does not define our destiny. Our oneness with Jesus Christ starts now!