Walk with Me

This will probably be one of my shorter posts. I have something to share, but for those who will receive it, I’ll spare the personal details and focus on the simple truth. I have often heard the testimonies of other people who speak profusely of the joy they feel in knowing that God guides their steps. God has given me joy throughout my life, but only in these recent days have I finally begun to understand this particular joy. I’ve come to recognize the difference between walking in my own will and walking in His. And this difference might seem pretty basic in a logical sense, but it’s not just about what we can perceive intellectually—it’s about what we can experience.

Regrettably, I’ve chosen to walk within my own will throughout the vast majority of the precious time I’ve been given on this earth. In consequence of that choice, I’ve experienced a lot of strife. I’ve been victimized by fear, I’ve stumbled in frustration and resentment, and I’ve grieved in terrible heartache. I’ve spent so much energy trying to break down the wrong doors and wondering why they won’t just open, when, all the while, He has been waiting for me to take His hand—wanting so much to lead me down the path He cleared for me long ago.

At a certain point, I hope we all become broken enough of our own stubbornness to finally take His hand, because when we do, we will all know what it is to experience miracles. We will see our fear give way to trust, our frustration yield to peace, and our heartache transform into the most wonderful joy—a joy born of love experienced both from and for our beautiful Creator.

We have a God who cares for us, I think, far more than we have the capacity to understand. The desire of His heart is to make us whole—to provide for us and keep us safe so that we’ll never have to know the pain of being without Him. “Look at the lilies and how they grow,” Jesus said. “They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are (Matthew 6:28-29, NLT).”

I have felt the hand of my God as He lovingly adorns me with all that I need for my warmth. In spite of every false security the world has ever seduced me with, that Hand is what I’m thankful for.

Thoughts of Heaven

I had a conversation with a friend recently that prompted me to think about heaven. It occurred to me that if I were to ask a group of people to describe heaven, each person would probably have something unique to say—something personal that might give me an idea of what matters most to him or her. It can be a mystifying thing for us to envision, and unfortunately it can sometimes be used as a means of coercion as well. We may be told that unless we follow a precise set of rules, we’ll be denied entrance into this beautiful place and forced to endure unimaginable terror. This was a part of the elementary view of heaven that I had as a child. Heaven was the place we went to if we were good in this life, and hell was the place we went to if we were bad. As a Christian, more specifically, heaven was the place we went to if we believed the testimony of the gospels, and hell was the place we went to if we didn’t.

With so many different kinds of spirituality in the world—so many ideas that promote goodness outside of Christianity—many of us feel an attraction toward ambiguity about our beliefs. We’d rather agree with any philosophy that endorses peace and kindness than stand behind the tenets of one religion that compels us to look down at other people and declare them condemned. It’s natural for us to feel this way. After all, it’s not our place to condemn anyone.

When I look back upon my life up to this point, I realize that I wasn’t completely brought up to be a Christian. My parents were never very spiritual, and they didn’t make us go to church, but they didn’t discourage it, either. They wanted us to make up our own minds, and I will always respect them for that. Nevertheless, I did eventually decide that I wanted to become a Christian, and the more I came to understand what, exactly, that meant, the more passionately I wanted it. It’s probably most common to think of Christianity as a religion, but to me, it wasn’t a religion at all. It was a relationship. And I was in love. From the moment I first came to know Jesus of Nazareth, I was so completely in love. How could I not desire a relationship with Him? Creator of my life. Lover of my life. Life itself. This is who He is. And if He is all these things, then He must be Heaven, too. That’s the truth my heart came to understand. When I think of heaven, I don’t see a kingdom with pearly gates and angels playing harps on white clouds. I see Him. I see myself wrapped up in Him forever. And when I think of hell, I don’t see a torture chamber made of fire and brimstone. I see myself parted eternally from the One I love. It breaks my heart to think of all the people who don’t understand it this way.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said a prayer for every one of us who would ever believe in Him—every one of us who would ever belong to Him. “I have given them the glory you gave me,” He said, “so that they may be one, as we are— I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one (John 17:22-23, NLT).” That’s what heaven is. Oneness. Intimacy. I knew that in the beginning of my conversion, and I know it now. I pray that I’ll know it always, no matter how the world tries to sway me. I know who He is. I know who I am. And His heaven is the only one I’ll ever want—because no other heaven will ever give me Him.

 

Letter to a Non-Believer

Oh, dearly beloved,

I don’t know where you come from or what you’ve been through, but if, in your kindness, you will permit me, I’d like to speak with you for a moment. I know that there are all kinds of reasons for a person’s unbelief, but as many as there are, I also know that there are just as many reasons for us to open our hearts.

Do you trust in science and think it foolish to believe in the existence of a higher power? I can understand why. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the supernatural, and the power of suggestion can be quite strong. None of us want to be fooled into believing a lie, and we certainly don’t want our lives to be led by one. Yet, throughout the course of our history, men of science have proven to be among the most spiritual people who have ever lived. They have come to understand that science and spirituality never have to stand opposed to each other, but are rather undeniably linked. It’s easy for most of us to take for granted the intricacy of our world and the careful precision with which everything had to come together in order to make life possible for us. But for those who devote their lives to studying it, there is often no room to doubt that there had to be a creator—that this couldn’t have just happened. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the supernatural, but what if life itself is the supernatural? What if science is just God’s way of letting us in on His secrets? It seems to be a misconception among Christians that true faith must be blind faith. God doesn’t like us to test Him at our leisure, but Jesus performed miracles so that people would know who He was. He deemed it necessary to prove Himself so that they would believe. And even non-believers have attested to His existence—that He lived and died, and that His body mysteriously vanished in the way the Bible claims.

Have you suffered much? I feel compassion for you because I’m frightened to suffer. It’s probably the thing I’m most afraid of in this world, and for those who have endured it most, I have an overwhelming sense of respect, awe, and love. Please, know that, and also know that God has suffered with you. I know that words such as those can seem empty and even evoke anger within your heart. In your pain, you see this image of an all-powerful being who could help you if he wanted to, but, for whatever reason, chooses to do nothing. It’s better for you to believe that God doesn’t exist at all than to believe that He is so indifferent. Part of what makes Christianity so special is the idea that God willed Himself to become human. Omnipresent, all-powerful, and everlasting as He was, He bound Himself in our mortality so that He could be close to us—so that He could understand us in a way that would fortify our bond with Him. For thirty-three years, our Creator lived as a human being. He knew what it felt like to be hungry and cold and tired and heartbroken and scared, and everything else we feel. He allowed Himself to be born into one of the harshest environments that anyone could’ve been born into—and as a peasant who was certainly much more impoverished than I have ever been. Then, he ultimately allowed Himself to be tortured. Made fun of. Spat upon. Beaten. Practically torn apart to within an inch of His life. Forced to carry the instrument of His own execution, to find relief only in reaching the place where he would die. Finally, after being subjected to this, He allowed His executioners—whom He, Himself, had created—to brutally drive nails the size of railroad spikes through His wrists and feet to hold Him fast to a wooden crossbeam. Afterwards, the vertical beam that supported it was hoisted up to stand erect in the ground, making it so that those nails were the only things supporting His weight. Slowly suffocating, then, He remained for hours, having to use the nails to push Himself up each time He needed to breathe. It was only a matter of time before He would find Himself too exhausted to go on. Then, He, God—the Creator of light and life—submitted to a dark and human death. I don’t give detail to these things in order to trivialize your own suffering. I’m just saying that the idea that God is distant and indifferent to your suffering couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s lived through it. He’s died through it. And he’s done so because He loves you. He’s done so because it is never His will for you to suffer. You have suffered because our world is fallen. Our hearts are fallen, and though it grieves Him, He does not want to control any of us against our will. He allows evil because it’s what we choose, but He counts your tears, and He promises that someday He will make all things new. He loves you, and He will not allow you to suffer anything beyond that which He, Himself has suffered. He loves you, and whatever you suffer, you may rest assured in knowing that He is there—holding you.

Have you sinned? So have we all. Ever since Eden, sin has been in us. From the moment of our conception, it spirals itself into the very fabric of who we are, and there is nothing we can do about it. One of the other great misconceptions of Christianity is that we have to follow God’s rules in order to be allowed into heaven. Yes, God has rules. And yes, He wants us to follow them. But he knows that we can’t—not really. When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God for the first time, it put a chasm between God and humanity, rendering us all imperfect, fallen, and broken creatures who can never be worthy of heaven. That’s why God came to us. In spite of the damage we’d done and the hurt we’d caused Him, He wanted to be with us. He wanted to make His home with us and to bring us home to Him. Heaven is a gift we do not deserve, no matter how upstanding our lives are, and we can’t earn it. We can only receive it. All He truly asks in return is love. He wants us to love Him more than anything else. He wants us to love Him with the same unbridled passion with which He has always loved us. And in loving Him this way, submitting to His desires can become second-nature to us. Our love for Him will make us want to sacrifice our selfishness, not because we’re afraid of what he’ll do if we sin against Him, but because we love Him so much that we’re willing to do anything to make Him happy. That’s really all it is. That’s all He wants. He loves you with all His heart, and He wants you to accept His love. He wants you to accept His sacrifice on your behalf, and He wants you to love Him in return. Don’t treat Him as though He’s just some annoying voice in your head making you feel guilty about something you shouldn’t be doing. Treat Him as though He’s your greatest Lover, who deserves nothing less than your undying fidelity and devotion—because that’s exactly what He is. And when we deny Him, all we’re really doing is denying ourselves of the most profound and unfathomable love we’ll ever know.

Have you been taught to serve another god? I know that there are many theological constructs to explore in this world, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of them, but if this is where you are, then let me ask rather than telling: Does he love you? Has he died for you so that you can have life, or does he ask you die and end life for him? Are you allowed to experience intimacy with him, so much that your body is the temple where he dwells, or does he keep you at a distance? Does he want any kind of relationship with you at all, or do you exist merely to do his bidding while he sits in judgment in some far away place? Does the thought of him make you feel anything? Is he a living, breathing person just as you are, or is he more of a fairytale being whom you only call upon when you need a wish to be granted? Is your worship of him motivated by love, or is it only fear? Another misconception I hear a lot is that all religions are essentially the same. And on the surface, that may, at first, appear to be true. Many of the guidelines and proverbs for how to live a good life might, essentially, be the same, but the underlying motivation for doing so is often very different from spirituality to spirituality. In my heart of hearts, I know that there is nothing like Christianity. There is no story more touching—no idea more hauntingly beautiful—than that which is presented to us in regard to Jesus of Nazareth. If you open yourself to it, it can capture your heart, and your life will never be the same. The central point that you should know is that my God loves you passionately.

 

 

Speak In Me

I often wonder these days, in the midst of my conversations with other people, if I’ve ever truly allowed God to speak through me. There are moments when an opportunity will present itself—a precious opportunity where I can actually be the vessel through which God reaches out to someone else whom He loves. Sometimes, I only recognize these opportunities after they’ve passed. At other times, I’m completely aware of them as they’re put in front of me, but my fear will cause me to shrink from them. And then, there are those times when I find myself emboldened enough to say His name. I’ll reference His words and try with all my might to influence someone for the better. But even in those times, I’ll be unsure. Was it really Him speaking, or was I merely attempting to speak for Him? If it really was Him, then why did I have to try so hard? Why didn’t the words just come?

When God first appeared to Moses, He asked him to go and speak to the Egyptian king. Moses was terrified, and the Bible says that he pleaded with God. “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.” But in response to this, God said, “Who makes mouths? …Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say (Exodus 4:10-12, NLT).” The Bible is full of events and assurances such as this one. In the book of Acts, Luke records that the Holy Spirit rendered believers capable of speaking in foreign languages. “And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. Godly Jews from many nations were living in Jerusalem at that time. When they heard this sound, they came running to see what it was all about, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were beside themselves with wonder. ‘How can this be?’ they exclaimed. These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking the languages of the lands where we were born! (Acts 2:4-8, NLT).”

I studied Spanish for a total of four years, and I can promise you that I am nowhere near fluent. In fact, it’s been so long since I last opened those textbooks that what elementary knowledge I gained is, by now, locked away in such an obscure part of my memory that it would be quite challenging to recall it. Learning a foreign language is hard work—but the  people Luke mentions in Acts spoke many languages all at once, and seemingly without effort. They were able to do this because it wasn’t really them speaking at all. It was the Spirit of God speaking through them. I’ve heard other stories like this. Though they aren’t recorded in Scripture, they are just as real, and they make me ache to experience them myself. Someone told me recently that when he was in college, he heard God asking him to go into the gym, where he would find someone alone on the basketball court. When he saw this person, he was supposed to talk to him about Jesus. Anxious though he was, he went into the gym, found the person he was looking for (they had never met), and told him what he’d heard God say. Then, he watched as this other person began to stare at him, with eyes and mouth wide open, before finally saying that he’d prayed the night before for someone to come and talk to him about Jesus. An experience like that can leave no doubt of when we are being led by God. But what about the others? What about those more obvious moments when a conversation seems to leave an opening for God to enter in?

When I recognize those openings and make the choice to say His name, I wish I could know what’s happening within the people I’m speaking to. Can they hear Him, or can they hear only me? Is my voice overshadowing His because I’m choosing to speak on my own, or has He reached them in spite of me? I don’t ask this because I want some feeling of success for myself. I ask this because I want Him with me. Whenever I speak, I want Him to be the one to guide my tongue, because I know that wherever He is, I’m safe. And if I know He speaks through me, then I know He’s where I always need Him to be—inside of me wherever I go.

 

Fisher of Men

Have you ever considered the obstacles that Peter must’ve faced in fulfilling Jesus’ desire to make him a “fisher of men?” I don’t know nearly enough about 1st Century culture to be able to comment on the specific challenges of doing so. I don’t know very much about fishing, either, but I do know that catching a fish seems to require some kind of bait. The fish has to be presented with something to which it is attracted in order to ultimately become ensnared. Having been an expert fisherman prior to knowing Jesus, maybe Peter drew upon this knowledge in his attempt to become the fisherman he was truly meant to be—but how can we apply it today?

Obviously, it takes something a little different than a worm on a hook to capture a man—especially in the way that Jesus has in mind. Far more than just a physical capture, Jesus aims for a spiritual capture—a capture of the heart and mind that transcends the physical world in its entirety. Such a capture often requires the presentation not of a physical thing, but rather the presentation of an idea to which someone may be attracted. The cultural acceptance of an idea has a tendency to be very fleeting. An idea that was widely accepted two-thousand years ago—or even less than a hundred years ago—might be considered today to be old-fashioned, backwards, or offensive. So, the obstacles to capturing someone’s heart are constantly changing. Thankfully, though, Jesus Himself, remains as He’s always been.

The sad fact is that there are all kinds of fishermen out there, competing with God for our hearts. Some even claim to be in league with God, although the messages they propagate stand in complete opposition to what Jesus taught. They tell us what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear—granting us the “freedom” to live on our terms rather than presenting the true life our Creator longs to give us. We live in a culture today where self-love appears to be more highly esteemed than sacrificial love. We’re told that we have the right to be happy, even if we have to hurt someone else in the process of becoming so. And in the bounds of our fallen nature, this is a very liberating idea—far more attractive to us than Jesus’ assertion that one must lay down his life in order to express love in its highest form.

I don’t know about you, but this assertion on Jesus’ part has always put me to shame. It has put me to shame, in part, because I know it’s true, and also because I know that apart from intense intimacy with God, I will never be capable of such love. So, how is a “fisher of men” supposed to lure people to God with such a bitter bait, especially in a culture with so many competing fishermen who are presenting a bait much easier for us to swallow? It might be very challenging to convince someone that denying himself would prove more gratifying than indulging himself, but it might not be so difficult to convince him of the satisfaction that comes from intense intimacy with his Creator. Maybe that’s the key.

We all try so hard to fill this mysterious void in our lives. We think that if we had more money, or nicer things, or more attractive physical features, or more value in the eyes of other people that this void would finally be filled, and the competing fishermen in this world will reinforce such erroneous ideas when the truth is that God is the only Person with the power to fill this void—because He made us with the need to be one with Him. When we finally understand the extent of His power over us in conjunction with the depth of His love for us, we will ultimately come to understand not only that we have no rights outside of His will, but that we never want to do anything displeasing to Him ever again—because we love Him, too. In loving Him, we will want to submit to His commands, even when it’s hard. We will want to surrender our lives to His purpose no matter how far away from Him the tide of public opinion will seek to carry us. We will know that our union with Him is the only thing that matters, because He—the God of love and Love itself—has captured us.

 

Come to Me

Earlier this week, I had a moment where I found myself really needing to draw close to God. I logged into WordPress intending to read some of the things that other people had been posting. I wanted to be inspired. But as I was waiting for the page to load, I suddenly had this thought come into my mind. Why do you search for Me only in others? Why can’t you ever just come to Me? Why do you treat Me as though I am merely some distant presence to be talked about instead of a person you can talk directly to? You need Me, and I’m right here. So, come to Me. Talk to Me. Please.

It completely stopped me in my tracks. Immediately, I shut my computer down and walked upstairs to my bedroom. I keep a journal there. It was a Christmas present from a friend of mine, and it has a verse from Philippians on the cover. I use it to write to God. Sometimes, letters. Sometimes, poetry. But always expressions of intimacy that are meant only for Him. So, that afternoon, rather than reading about Him, I wrote to Him, instead. I told Him how much I wanted Him to be with me—that I never wanted to be without Him.

I started to think about how often I’ve replaced Him with other things—other people, even—bearing a likeness to Him. It’s not that I don’t find value in studying the things that have been inspired by God, or in my relationships with other Christians. These things are important, and I think God wants us to have them. But I also think that sometimes, if we’re not careful, we run the risk of making them our idols. In the bounds of this world where the spiritual is often veiled behind the physical, we forget that God is a person. He’s not just an idea, or a subject to be studied, but we treat Him that way because He’s not physical to us in the same way we’re physical to each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself drawn to someone—incredibly drawn to someone—who reminds me of God, only to realize later that it was God, Himself, to whom I should’ve been drawn. God, Himself, to whom I should’ve run! And each time it happens, the realization is always so incredibly painful because I know that I could’ve avoided it.

Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves of how real God actually is. But if we can commit to treating Him as such, I know that eventually we’ll come to a place where we won’t have to remind ourselves at all. We’ll have relationships with Him that are as real and tangible as any human relationship is—and so much better.

The Suffering Servant

My husband and I attend a large congregation that is quite active in community outreach. They facilitate a certain program every year in which the objective is to get 900 participants involved in various community service projects throughout the county for 90 minutes each. So, a few weeks ago, we were sitting in church and listening to an announcement about the vast array of service projects we had to choose from, when one in particular caught my eye. An out-of-state farmer had generously offered up some of his produce to be given to our local food bank, and we were supposed to go and harvest it. I’ve had very minimal exposure to projects of this nature, and my natural inclination has always been to shy away from things I’m not experienced at, for fear of getting in the way. For some reason, though, it sounded like fun, so we signed up for last Saturday morning from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

As it is August, temperatures have been pretty high lately, so when I received the email advising us to wear long pants, long sleeves, boots, hats, and gloves, I was a little worried. I have a condition that prevents me from perspiring in heat as well as the average person can, so my body will kind of trap the heat—forcing my skin to turn a vibrant shade of lobster-red. Sort of funny, in a way, but I’ve always had to take extra precautions against hyperthermia. But as much as I considered how miserable it would be to wear warm clothes in the sweltering heat while picking corn for an hour and a half, I was also kind of grateful for the challenge. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I can’t stand challenge. I am perfectly content to admit that I would much rather have a stress-free life than a stress-filled life—and that I don’t feel much of a need these days to prove myself to other people. Still, I felt grateful.

By the time we’d arrived on Saturday morning, the temperature was already pushing 90 degrees. After leading us in a brief prayer, our group leader released us into the field—clad in our wintery apparel. It began easily enough. I felt energized, and it really didn’t require too much strength to pull the corn from its stalk. The hardest part for me was bending the stalks backward after I’d finished. I also had a little bit of trouble discerning the good ears/husks from the ones that should be left alone, so I kept asking my husband to judge for me when I couldn’t figure it out. He was nice about it for the most part, but eventually, he started getting irritable (he’s sensitive to heat, too!). It didn’t take long before I noticed that I was running out of breath. My steps were becoming more weighted down, and it was difficult to move. I put my hand on my chest, and my heart was just pounding. My body seemed to be begging me to stop and take a break, but all the while, there was this strange struggle happening in my mind. There was a part of me that wanted to acquiesce to my body’s signals—but then, there was this other part of me. It was telling me to feel the discomfort. Feel it, but keep going anyway. Feel it, and learn to perceive it as good. Feel it, and think of Me. Because if you can’t learn to endure in something so small, how will you ever endure in a circumstance that is truly harsh? How will you ever be one with Me?

The thought encouraged me onward for a little while longer. I came to a wall of thorns that separated me from the rest of the stalks, and I was so frustrated with the whiny pangs of my body compared to the resolute desire taking hold of my mind that I started pushing right into them. Every time I felt one of them prick my skin, I just pushed harder, trying to make it through to the other side. I didn’t even bother trying to avoid them. I didn’t want to avoid them.

About forty minutes in, we finally stopped to get some water before going back for a second time. I’m sure my voice must’ve sounded incredibly lethargic and annoying as I kept pestering my husband, asking about the quality of the produce I was gathering. I’m sure I snapped unbecomingly at him a time or two in response to his friendly reminders that I needed to keep bending the stalks backward when I was finished with them, and before we knew it, it was time to go home. I was, indeed, quite happy to find myself back in the air-conditioned car as I immediately started removing my layers. But I was also disappointed in knowing that I could’ve stayed longer—that I could’ve pushed myself further if I hadn’t given in so much to my longing for comfort.

Hopefully, there will be other opportunities. Hopefully, I’ll recognize them, and hopefully, I’ll take them—because although I’ve had ease and comfort lavished upon me throughout most of my life, what I really want most is to emulate my Suffering Servant. I want to be willing to suffer, if only to be like Him. Maybe I can even learn to find comfort in pain—knowing that pain is sometimes an expression of love. I hope He’ll show me how.