Fear and loathing…

fear-eyesI can’t count how many times I’ve been afraid in my life. It seems like being born a pessimist, it comes up much more often than I’d like. Fear is no fun.

It’s not that I’m a worrier, or that I’m afraid of small things. It’s more that in the back of my mind, I always fear something bad is going to come along and ruin the good thing I have going. Like the other shoe is going to drop at any time. Do you know this feeling?

I don’t have any reason to believe that anything is going to happen, but there it is; creeping its way into my thoughts. I was just talking about this today with a mentor of mine. We were discussing how good things are going in my life and with our newly launched church (Encounter Church), and I said, “All this talking about how great things are going is causing something inside of me to want to stop talking about it.” He asked why, and I told him because somewhere deep inside I felt like sharing the good things is almost inviting something bad to happen. Where does that come from? Why would I think that way?

eeyore-cloudcare-bears-grumpy-bearIt can’t just be my personality. Yes, when I was a child my parents bought me a Grumpy Care-Bear because it reflected my personality. Yes, as I grew up, everyone jokingly called me Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh) because I generally had a negative take on life situations. But this idea that celebrating goodness will somehow invite crisis into my life is deeper. It’s rooted in fear. It’s borderline superstition, and it isn’t right.

You know what else it does? It controls you. Fear takes your happy circumstances and ruins your ability to enjoy them. This happens because you’re always looking for something wrong and can’t focus on the good things in your life. If it happens enough, you can begin to loathe your existence. Stick with me here. Have you ever uttered the words, “Why does this always happen to me?” or “I should have known that the extra money I made would need to go to a car repair?” Speaking like that is a symptom of a greater problem; the disease of fear taking root in your life. Fear that when good things happen, inevitably something will come along to ruin it, or at least diminish it.

I don’t believe that God wants us to live in fear, or even to pass over it like it’s normal. I don’t believe that we are meant to be shackled by the shadow of a thing that may be to come, but more likely will not. I have had to learn that fear does not come from my Creator and that it is not part of His plan for my life. I have discovered that when I look past fear and live in trust that I feel peace and security. Yes, difficulties come, but they also go. After I told my mentor about my fear, he asked me to look back over my life and examine whether what I was asserting was true. Did bad things happen every time something good did? When I thought about it, I actually couldn’t think of a specific situation when a negative scenario took place immediately following a positive one. In fact, there definitely wasn’t any correlation between them in any circumstance I could think of. So, what I was thinking and feeling actually wasn’t true at all. What was happening was life.

Life is a series of experiences that we walk through. Some of them we ride upward with positive emotion, and others feel like a downward tilt of uncertainty and frustration.stock-market-graph But just like the stock market graphs we see, up and down is part of reality. It’s not superstition or bad luck. We live in a world where good things happen and so do the bad. That is part of the curse we all live under because of sin. However, that does not mean we have to be controlled by it, even when difficult situations do come along.

I take my cue here from Scripture, and in 2 Timothy 1:7 it says,

“For God did not give us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self discipline.”

So if I know that fear does not come from God, and that His way is filled with power (the ability to overcome situations), shouldn’t that change the way I perceive my life? Fear will always be present because the ones who bring it are trying to destroy us. I believe that God wants good things for us. Jesus said in John 10:10 that He came to bring life to the fullest. That doesn’t sound like a God who wants us constantly worrying that things will turn ugly as soon as I let up and enjoy myself. In reality, it’s our choice how we respond to fear. When it comes, we can either allow it to control us and ruin our present circumstances or we can stand on the truth of Scripture that says:

“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6)

Knowing that God is with us does not mean that difficult situations will not come. It simply means that whatever does come should not cause us fear because with God being for us, “who can stand against us?” (Romans 8:31)

I encourage you, just as I encourage myself, to enjoy the life that God has given you. If you find yourself in pleasant circumstances, enjoy them. Be thankful for what is happening and the good things that God has brought you. Do not be afraid of what might be to come one day. God is with you, and if we stand on His word, He promises to bring us through stronger. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, know that the truth is still truth. God is with you. He is working on your behalf to bring you through. A new season is on the way.

How does fear control you? How have you overcome it in your life?

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The Vine

The Vine

I was sitting in a hotel room a few weeks back with a choice to be made. I had a three hour break between the sessions of the pastor’s conference I was attending and had to decide what to do with the free time I was given. With my Dad taking a nap on the bed next to mine, I could either watch TV, play on my phone, take a nap myself, or I could take some time to do the thing that I actually came to the conference for: spend some dedicated time alone and in quiet with God.

You see, for quite a while I’d felt a longing or desire to get away for a bit and refresh. To separate myself from the busy-ness of my day to day life and focus for a while on the most important thing: the source of all life; God. Have you ever felt this desire or need? Not that your daily life is bad, but just the hunger to step away and get fresh clarity? This is what I was searching for when I went away to the conference a few weeks ago. What I found during that break in my hotel room that day has changed the way I live my life since.

As I was laying there, I decided to pull out my Bible and read…something…anything. I didn’t have a plan specifically. I started flipping through chapters and thought maybe I would land on a passage that would speak to me (I don’t generally recommend this method). When, predictably, I didn’t come upon anything specifically revelatory to my current situation I decided to stop and quiet myself from the inside. I connected with God in a moment of prayer and asked Him to speak to me; to take me the place I longed for; the place of quiet refreshing that would cut through the loud noise and pressure of my busy life. And then it happened.

Suddenly, as if appearing from out of the darkness of my quieted mind, an image of a tree with branches and twigs appeared, and the words “the vine” rang in my ears. I was intrigued. I wracked my brain for what it could mean, and then I remembered that Jesus talked about “the vine” and branches in the Bible in John 15. I opened my eyes, and flipped through the pages until I came to John chapter 15. I began to read the passage there and God spoke to me in a fresh and challenging way; the way that felt like He was speaking directly to me in that moment.

This is what the passage says:

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful… …Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… …This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Now, I don’t know much about gardening or horticulture, but I do know that if you cut off a branch from a tree, or even snap a twig from a branch, that those pieces will not last long. They will wither away and eventually die. As I was reading the passage, I felt like God was calling me to something I’d heard a thousand times, but that sunk deep into my heart for the first time.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit…”

I realized that I spend so much of my time trying to be productive in everything that I do that I forget where the source of my life truly comes from. I can be incredibly efficient in my schedule and daily processes and still not be as productive as I could be if I tapped into the true life that is found in the quiet places of relationship with Jesus.

Here’s what I mean. There is something powerful about taking time away from “doing” things and spending it in “being” with God. Not trying to figure out what to do next, or how to do things better, but listening and worshipping, and resting in Him. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing…,” but what He was also saying is that when you’re connected to Him the time that you spend away will be well worth it! In fact, His words were, “If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” So the principle at work here is that taking time to stay connected to God actually refreshes and empowers me for the rest of my day. This not only brings a fresh perspective for what I face each day, but also brings with it a supernatural effectiveness or “oomph” in my tasks that can only come from God. We gain clarity, not because we heard a specific answer to prayer, but because the fog has been cleared away and time with Jesus fine-tunes our soul and spirit.  I’m not saying that we become Superman. Only that God redeems the time we sacrifice to spend with Him by giving us favor, wisdom, and direction that results in better outcomes. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said that we would “bear much fruit.”

I felt in that moment that God was speaking to my heart and telling me that everything I want in life is found in deeper relationship with Him. All fulfillment and meaning, purpose and value, belonging, direction and success; it’s all found in the Vine. Jesus is the source of it all. The perspective of it all will be shaped through that relationship and ultimate fulfillment is found there. I felt that God was inviting me into an experiment of greater time with Him on a regular basis.

So for the past few weeks, I have intentionally began my days with an hour of time apart with Jesus. Typically, I read through Scripture, medicate on it and pray, then sometimes I reflect in my journal or read a chapter from a book on growing in my faith. There isn’t a rush to it or even a purpose other than to “remain in the vine.” What I have found is that out of these times, I have been given ideas or promptings to questions I’ve been pondering elsewhere and that things seem to be clicking better in my family and work life. I am refreshed more today than I was even at the conference because I have been tapping into the source of life that never dries up.

I encourage and invite you to read John 15, and to ask God to speak to you in a fresh and revealing way like He did for me. It could be the thing that you’ve been searching for.

What could “remaining in the vine” look like for you? What are some creative ways you’ve found effective to building deeper roots in relationship with God?

Osama is dead: How should we feel?

Osame Bin LadenWe have seen this face many times over the past nine and a half years. It has haunted us and reminded us of the terrible events that took place on September 11, 2001. Yesterday, the news that Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Special Forces operation brought to close a difficult and frustrating chapter in American history. Since last night, social media networks have lit up with buzz and excitement from all around the world in celebration of the death of Osama bin Laden. The news has been showing constant images of crowds cheering all over the United States with people singing songs and enjoying the newly minted world without Public Enemy # 1. I have found myself wondering how to feel.

On one hand, I am thrilled at the news. My heart wants to celebrate! On the other, as a follower of Christ I feel compelled to check myself. How should I respond? How should I feel? Is it ok for me to celebrate the death of someone? What if that person is an enemy of the state? What if that person was the murderer of thousands? Is there a point where it is alright, as a Christian, to be happy that someone is dead? I believe the  Bible sheds light on this subject.

There are two main passages that I think help to illuminate this subject. Proverbs 24:17-20 says:

“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them. Do not fret because of evildoers. Do not envy the wicked; for the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out.”

Matthew 5:43-48 reads:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Both of these passages seem to suggest that we should not celebrate in the death of Osama bin Laden. In fact, the first passage appears to outright command against it! Can this be right? Are we to be denied the feeling of satisfaction that a terrible bringer of death has been removed from our world? I think the answer is actually, no. Now, I’m not contradicting scripture here. I completely believe in the truth of the Bible. I am simply saying that I think there is more to these passages than we may think.

As I thought more and more about how I should feel about the news, I could not reconcile the very real emotions I was feeling. How could a God that stands for justice be upset with my celebrating the death of a mass-murderer? I believe the answer lies in my motivations. Don’t they always?

You see, as a follower of Christ, I am compelled to love my enemies and to pray for them. No matter how terrible they may be. Jesus died on the cross for even the most wretched individuals. My heart longs for every human being on this planet to come to God; to know Him; to be forgiven. Osama bin Laden is no exception. So how do I reconcile this feeling of wanting to celebrate and still remain faithful to my beliefs? By celebrating in the justice of the event, and what is means to our nation and the people who have dealth with the pain from September 11th. I can celebrate that justice has been done in our world and still remain faithful to the Bible’s commands. I am not celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, but instead celebrating that the man who wreaked havoc on our world for the last 20 years has been brought to justice for his crimes. Simultaneously, my heart can still be saddened by the fact that his soul is lost forever, and that he will never again have the chance to be reconciled to God.

God is a God of justice. There are plenty of stories in the Bible that show God cares about the wrongdoings of our world and that he judges the individuals, cities, or even nations for their actions and hearts. 2 Thesslonians 1:6 highlights this point:

“God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you.”

By celebrating that justice has been done through this event, I am aligning with God’s perspective of judgement befalling those who do wrong, whether in this world or the next. I am not speculating whether God caused this event to take place or not. What I am saying is that, from what I know of God’s laws and his characteristics, the demise of Osama bin Laden is absolutely justice having been served. And that by affirming this justice, we can rightly celebrate with the rest of the world!

‘Of Gods and Men’ weaves spiritual tale

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11098/1137760-120.stm

Movie review
Friday, April 08, 2011
By Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
From left, Lambert Wilson as Christian and Jean-Marie Frin as Paul in “Of Gods and Men.”

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully

as when they do it for religious conviction.”

— Pascal

The eight monks at the Cistercian monastery live in — if not the Garden — at least a little Oasis of Eden.


‘Of Gods and Men’

4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Lambert Wilson, Jean-Marie Frin, Michael Lonsdale.
  • Rating: PG-13 for subtitles and one violent scene.

They and “Of Gods and Men,” Xavier Beauvois’ wrenchingly beautiful film about them, are situated in an isolated mountain village in North Africa, where their community coexists quietly, contemplatively and peacefully with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Cistercians follow the seventh-century monastic order of St. Benedict and never proselytize or otherwise disturb the people among whom they live.

On the contrary, they serve them whenever and however they can. Old Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), for example, is a doctor, who treats the many villagers who come to him for help every day. Best evidence of harmony comes in a long, slow pan of faces at a Muslim prayer service: It ends on the face of Brother Luc — respectfully attending and listening to the imam’s prayers, along with the villagers.

But the tranquil rhythms of monastic life there — praying, farming, beekeeping — are seriously shaken when a crew of Croatian workers outside the village is massacred by al-Qaida-like Islamic radicals. They have issued an ultimatum ordering all foreigners to leave the country — including the monks.

Mr. Beauvois’ film is based on a shockingly true story: the 1996 kidnapping and disappearance of seven French Cistercian-Trappist monks in Tibkirine, Algeria. In that real event, and in this fictionalized rendering, the monks decline military protection and refuse to leave.

But there’s rare dissension in the monastic ranks about the security threat and decision to stay — the most painful decision they’ve ever had to make. Caught between the terrorists and the army, they must walk an increasingly dangerous tightrope between the two sets of men, and another fine line between God and themselves. To leave would be to surrender and walk away from their literal and figurative “mission” — not to mention their deep ties and love of the villagers.

Most agonizing, however, is the challenge to personal faith and commitment to the monks’ most basic Christian beliefs. How can you have an unseemly fear of death if you believe in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” and in Luke 17: “He who tries to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.”

In most films, music “accompanies” words and “scores” (as in underscores) the dialogue. In this one, it largely replaces dialogue. The monastery is, after all, a world of silence. The Psalms (literally, “songs”) are universally considered the most lyrically exquisite part of the Bible. Stripped of instruments, “naked” chant lets you tune in and gradually realize you don’t know these texts as well as you think you did. If you, like the monks, let yourself do it, you’ll be as transformed as they are by the strange tonality and the message that elevates and unites them. Singing is an integral part of their lives and the film; the Liturgy of the Hours happens seven times a day and is essential to their union and communion as a spiritual force. This semi-Gregorian chant, with its strangely modern, subtly dissonant melodic and harmonic variations, becomes the lingua franca of their debate and dialectic.

The film’s magnificent, excruciating, transcendent Last Supper scene employs the famous “Lac de Cygnes” (how’s your French?) score, and is perhaps the most powerful use of secular music for character and narrative purposes I’ve ever seen in a film.

If ever you (and I) regretted not taking that upper-level French course, it’ll be here. The subtitles are excellent, but English-speaking audiences are disadvantaged for relying on them. But it’s not a crippling disadvantage, thanks to the superb acting. Lambert Wilson as Brother Christian, the abbot, is a deeply loving, protective shepherd to his flock. And “Thou shalt not steal” applies unless thou art Michael Lonsdale, in which case you have special dispensation to steal all scenes in which you appear. For that matter, all the monks are riveting, each face and personality uniquely empathetic in response to the crisis.

This slow, contemplative tragedy — a best foreign film Oscar nominee — will powerfully affect Christians & non-Christians alike, but especially Catholics. (It could and should be screened at parochial schools, relevant and terribly timely as it is to the slaughter of UN workers in Afghanistan last week.) FYI, its sole scene of bloody violence occurs toward the beginning and does not involve the monks.

But it is emotionally rough. Of the Big Three — faith, hope and love — faith is the tricky one that can get so easily twisted from a virtue into a vice. What’s the real difference between radical Islam and Quran-burning Christians in the inflammatory ability of both to incite madness? Bible and Quran thumpers-and-burners are all alike. But there’s not one political or politicizing word in “Gods and Men.” The monks — and the movie — are about spirituality, not religion.