“Settle”

I have a new puppy. His name is Gizmo. He’s the most adorable little creature on planet Earth.

No really…just look.

FullSizeRenderIf you’ve ever had a puppy you know the process of training it to behave. Puppies love to chew on everything! They can be hyper and rambunctious, and love to play. To get them to behave properly, you have to teach them to obey and listen to your voice. This process takes a while.

One day recently, Gizmo was going nuts in the house. He was running all around, nipping at everyone’s feet. When I would pick him up, he would do his patented lick my face-then wiggle away immediately combo move. He was rolling all over the floor and occasionally barking. After trying to take him outside a couple of times to see if he needed to go to the bathroom and then playing with him and his toys, I decided to try something different.

I picked Gizmo up off the floor and placed him on his back on my lap. Then, as I put one hand on his stomach and chest while my other held his head gently but firmly, I said, “Settle.” At first, he squirmed under my hold, but I didn’t let go. I whispered in his ear, “Shhhh, settle.” This went on for a few moments, “It’s ok buddy, settle.”

…”Settle.”

Finally, Gizmo looked at me and relaxed. He just sat there for a moment in my hands, resting peacefully, understanding he wasn’t in danger. I could feel his heart rapidly beating through his chest. I smiled and said, “Good boy Gizmo. Settle.” Then I put him down on the floor and he went back to playing, but this time he was calm.

I think we can all learn something from this experience. In a way, I believe this is how God sometimes interacts with us. So often, I feel like my life is crazy and out of control. I run around with my attention split in so many different directions and wear myself out. When situations get me riled up, I inadvertently “nip” at other people in frustration and “chew” on things I shouldn’t. Can you identify with this feeling?

I believe it’s in those moments that God picks us up and holds us in his hands, desiring to calm us down and teach us to “settle.” But what happens when we feel his hands resting on us in the middle of our crazy-eyed fury? We usually wiggle and squirm under the weight of what feels like pressure and loss of control. “Get off of me! I’ve got this,” is how I usually feel. But what’s really happening is that God is trying to get our attention and to listen to the whisper in our ear that he loves us and is trying to calm us down.

“Shhhh, settle,” he says to us. “Settle. It’s ok. I’ve got you. Listen to me. I know a better way. Settle. Rest in me.”

At first, while I was holding Gizmo he thought I was being mean and keeping him from fun, but he soon learned that I had his best in mind. I think it’s the same thing that God is trying tell us when he says in Psalm 46:10,

“Be still, and know that I am God.”

He is trying to get our attention and invites us to listen to his voice; to see there is a better way. We can still live life and enjoy ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be filled with frantic stress and frustration. Let’s practice listening to the whisper of our Creator and…

Settle.

How have you experienced God trying to get you to settle down? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments below.

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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?

Expectations

ExpectationsExpectations.

They can really screw with your head. Seriously.

Expectations are what we hope for, but hasn’t happened yet. And that’s the problem. Most of us go through life with reasonable expectations about what we think will happen in the future, but every once in a while (or maybe more often if you’re like me) a situation comes along where we lose perspective and become a slave to unmet or unrealistic expectations.

Have you ever been there? Excited and hopeful for the future, waiting with gleeful anticipation for the result of your fantastical desire. It could be anything: a new business, a finished art piece, a new blog post (ahem), waiting to hear back after a job interview, an exciting announcement; anything you’ve put your heart and soul into. In the beginning, it’s just a glimmer of hope and cautious optimism. You think you’re onto something strong and have good reason to believe it’s going to be a success. But over time, as you discuss the possibilities with family and friends, emotion begins to add fuel and something begins to happen: the shape of the thing you are hoping for grows into a much larger untamed beast. An unruly monster of unrealistic expectation that can end up shipwrecking your reaction when it arrives, resulting in frustration and potentially derailing your purpose moving forward. We’ll call this monster Unmet Expectations.

Having expectation is normal. If you take action, you can expect a result. The expectation itself isn’t the problem; it’s the unrealistic or unmet version of itself that is. Hoping for something is great, and having faith in the result is wonderful, but it becomes dangerous when the thing you hope for is based on emotion instead of reality. What I mean is, there is a fine line between being driven by passion and being hijacked by emotion. The former keeps you on level ground so you can continue running forward toward your goal, but the latter can send you into a free-fall of frustration and confusion when things don’t work out to the degree you expected. Passion drives you in the face of setbacks, whereas emotion requires damage control before you can move on.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last seven months since launching a new church (Encounter Church), it’s that having proper expectations is critical. So much hard work, energy, and resources went into getting it off the ground that by the time we launched publicly, I expected the masses to flood through the front doors in record numbers (may be an exaggeration, but you get the point). I had worked through every aspect of our approach, thought through our vision, and got our teams ready to go. At our grand opening service, we had 225 people join us and it was exciting! A success by all measures. The following week, we had a third of that number, and in my mind I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. For the next few weeks it was the same, and I wondered if something was missing. I mean, I thought we had the best thing around! Who wouldn’t want to be here to experience this?! I even began to think that maybe I was the problem. Maybe I had missed something, or maybe even that I just wasn’t a good enough leader to reach the goal that I had in my mind.

This is the problem with unmet expectations. More so, it’s a problem with unrealistic expectations. You see, it’s one thing to expect 225 at a grand opening, but it’s unrealistic to expect the same the following week. Why? Because statistics show that typically a new church can expect approximately 40-50% of the people to return in week 2. What was my problem? Even though I knew the statistic, I allowed emotion to hijack my expectations which resulted in me comparing myself and our new church to everyone else around me. I missed the point. My unrealistic expectation clouded my ability to focus on why we started the church in the first place: to bring the hope of Jesus Christ to those who are far from God.

I spent the next few months wrestling with my emotions and frustration, and by the grace of God finally came to the realization of what was happening to me. I wanted so badly to do something great for God that I couldn’t see what I had right in front of me. A church full of people hungry for hope and the true life that God offers them. I could have saved myself all the extra pressure on my shoulders if I had seen with proper expectations.

Do you ever feel this way? Does this resonate with you at all?

I learned the hard way, and am grateful that I can see clearly now. Because honestly, while these past seven months have been wonderful and full of fulfillment, I spent so much time looking for what I didn’t have that I missed some great opportunities for celebration.

Here are a few quick things I have learned about setting realistic expectations that may be helpful to you if you find yourself dealing with unrealistic or unmet expectations:

  1. Discover/rediscover your reason – Always remember why you are doing what you are doing. Focusing on the reason cuts through emotion and clears up the fog of unrealistic expectation. Knowing your purpose will keep you centered and on task.
  2. Research the typical – Find out what a normal result is for whatever you’re working on. Don’t just guess. Ask around. Check statistics. Learn your demographic. Some things have different results in different places. Having a hopeful, yet realistic target will keep you grounded.
  3. Don’t compare yourself – You are you, not anyone else. Don’t compare yourself to someone else’s success or results. This will rob you of the joy of what you have accomplished.
  4. Keep going – Whatever you do, don’t stop. Keep moving forward. Remember #1 and keep going because the reason you started in the first place was you believed in what you were doing. Don’t give up.

How have you struggled with expectations in your life? How have you kept yourself grounded? Let me know in the comments below.

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?

El-Olam: The Vanishing Point

Ancient Hebrew is a very colorful and expressive language. A single word can represent a concept, a thought, or an idea that would take us paragraphs to express in English. That’s the case as we come to God’s next name, El-olam.

Let’s take some time to unpack this word olam. It comes from another word that literally means “to be hidden” and speaks of something that cannot be seen or perceived. The idea is that there comes a point in this world where our senses reach their absolute limit, like when we look at the horizon ahead of us and can’t see any further.

20120803-080235.jpg

Consequently, some scholars have defined olam as “the vanishing point.” That’s the idea communicated when it comes to the divine name El-olam. It specifically focuses on the concept of God transcending what we can see and measure with our finite senses. It draws attention to the fact that He is infinite, eternal, and everlasting.

In the grand scheme of things, we’re trapped in a tiny sliver of time. We can only see so far into the past, and we certainly can’t see into the future. We’re locked into the now. We’re limited…but God isn’t. He’s El-olam.

Here’s the practical significance of God being El-olam. Much of our worry and anxiety is based on unknown, uncontrollable things that lie beyond the vanishing point in life. We instinctively fear what we can’t see. But El-olam can see everything. And what’s more, He has all power and authority over absolutely everything that exists out there, even beyond the vanishing point.

The divine name El-olam specifically focuses on the concept of God transcending what we can see and measure with our finite senses. It draws attention to the fact that He is infinite, eternal, and everlasting.

-Taken from Active Word Daily Devotional, YouVersion

‘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.

Closer

I was listening to the radio the other day and came across the song, Closer by Shawn McDonald. Not only did the music catch me, but the lyrics really hit my heart. I thought I would share this in hopes that it has the same effect on others. I’ve put a poll at the end of this post. Please check it out. I would love to hear what you think!

Closer by Shawn McDonald

Looking for a color in a shade of gray
Looking for love in a drop of rain
Trying to find change in the old mundane
Everything I do just feels the same
Spending my life out in the desert
Been gone so long feels like forever

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything, everything
I just want to be even closer

A day without you is a thousand years
A day without you is a million tears
Tell me why do I run when I am in fear
Why do I run when you are so near
Spending my life out in the weather
Been gone so long and I need some shelter

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything, everything
I just want to be even closer

Where ever you go
Where ever you are
I just want be there with you

I just want to be even closer to you
I just want to be even closer
I am yours
You can have all of me anything everything
I just want to be even closer

Looking for a color in a shade of gray
Looking for love in a drop of rain