Thursday, 12 November 2015

Convicted or Condemned? Take a Look at Your Leaders.

I have not always attended church.  I did not always know God the way I know Him today, and for this new-found relationship I am eternally thankful.

What if I told you that God is the perfect leader?  You may (as I did) question this because of things you've heard or misconceptions you have.  If you get to know him and study him though, you will realize the only misconception is in the judgement and assessment of his character.  This is a debate for another day though.

Let us move forward with the understanding that God is, by definition, good and loving.

In fact if we study his character we will find him not only good and loving, but supportive, comforting, healing, wise and ... convicting.

Those things all sound amazing.  Except the last one.  It sounds kind of icky.

Here's a secret I've learned though.   We only shudder at the thought of conviction when we get it confused with condemnation.  A lot of people get these two concepts confused. Especially those who are leaders.  A lot of churches do too.

So what is the difference and does it really matter?

I have come to believe it matters unbelievably much, because the effects of each are the polar opposite.

Conviction rouses something deep in your soul.  It speaks to the spirit part of you ... confirming something that (most times) seems right and aligned with the better life that we are all seeking. When you experience "conviction", the one administering it seems righteous and caring.  They seem invested, like a team-mate cheering you on (often because they have been there themselves).  An issue is brought forth (either by your subconscious, something you've read, or another person) and you realize you need to set your sails for different shores.  Maybe its a small change, maybe its life-altering.  Either way, even if you aren't able to immediately admit or recognize it, something in you resonates that this is for your greater good.

When someone you look to for guidance is trying to convict you, but instead condemns you (or they just outright condemn you, but usually this person would not be someone we would label as a leader ... more an enemy), we feel crushed.  Condemnation isn't inspiring.  It isn't motivating to make change.

It's paralyzing.

It squashes and deflates any sense of hope or empowerment.  It is isolating and judgmental.  It might call itself loving but it feels cold and heartless.  It is passive-aggressiveness trying to disguise itself as a leader.

I believe condemnation comes from a selfish need to be right, or maintain power or position.  It is like a dominant and aggressive bully, flexing its muscles at the first signs of liberation or independence.

Conviction comes as a sincere gesture or plea to grab the rope, and pull one's self out of the pit (or let yourself be pulled out by someone stronger and wiser than you).  It is collaborative, empathetic and fearless.  When you are convicted of something, a small (or sometimes very large) spark ignites in your heart and soul.  It may be painful, ugly, and even unsolicited, but conviction always comes with love.  It always comes from some sense of camaraderie. I have been where you are, and I want to sit with you a moment and share my story.  I want to help.  It may take tough love, but we'll do this together. 

It's interesting because it was church that got me thinking about the difference between conviction and condemnation.  Why is it that some churches (and ministers, priests or pastors) are so inspirational, while some are so pious, disparaging, and depressing? I believe it lies in the differences above.  Its all in their attitude.

But its not just people in ministry.

It's coaches, bosses, parents, teachers and leaders in general.  The great ones don't avoid delivering lessons and corrections.  They don't passively sit by and watch us spiral into our own pit of despair and bad choices.

They convict.

They take our hands, free of judgement, blame or criticism and they shine a light on our shortcomings and failures.  They look lovingly into our eyes and tell us we are destined for so much more, but not on the path we are on.  They are somehow able to convey their message of the desperate need for change without crushing our spirits or breaking us completely.

But it must all be preceded by love. An intent to convict must ALWAYS be accompanied by a deep and unconditional love for that person, their humanity and their right to choose their own journey.

And this love can only be given if it is received.

So be patient when you meet someone who tries to lead you by condemnation. Understand that this is likely how they were raised and guided.

Be understanding, but don't allow yourself to be bullied for too long.  You may need to venture out and find new leaders, new guides, new wisdom.

Life and transformation isn't always fun and its definitely not pain-free, but a great leader will inspire you to endure the transition anyways.

With much, much love.

Monday, 31 August 2015

A Monkey and a Coconut and Why I Don't Deserve Everything I Want.

There's a story out there that says all you need to catch a monkey is a coconut and a handful of peanuts.  As the tale goes, you hollow out the end of that coconut (just big enough for the monkey to squish his little hand through) then pour in the peanuts. Then you attach a rope through the cocount, hide and wait.  That silly monkey will stick his hand in, grab the peanuts and hold on tight.  So tight in fact that he won't let go ... but his fist won't fit out with all those peanuts. So, you reel him in, peanuts and all.  Monkey capture successful.

I bet that monkey felt like he really deserved those peanuts.

Here's my confession:  I'm that monkey.

When I get an idea of something I want, or something I think I deserve, I get committed.  I work hard, I throw myself into it full force and when I do get it ... I HANG ON.

Even when it's dragging me toward certain disaster.  But it was mine. I deserve it.

I deserve that vacation, that car, that home, that farm, that job, that horse, that fancy __(insert anything here that my heart may have desired)____.  It doesn't matter what it is, or what it will cost me,  if I feel I'm entitled to it, I want it. Now. No matter what that means long term.

Dave Ramsey (financial guru and author of The Total Money Makeover) told a story about deserving things that I want to share.  (Which I'm quoting from memory).

There was a single mom, desperately trying to get out of debt and doing well. One day she had a terrible day. Flat tire, late for daycare, late for work, boss was grumpy, late after work... you know the feeling.  The kids were so hungry and she was so tired that when they begged her to get McDonalds on the way home she relented, went to the ATM, got $20 and picked up happy meals. After all, she deserved the break.  But, because she was on a zero-balance budget every dollar had already been assigned and she bounced 3 checks (which came along with a couple hundred bucks of penalties and fees).  Here's what Dave had to say to her:

"Next time you need to just get prepared to be strong. You tell peanut butter breath in the back seat to "Shut Up! 'Cause Momma's taking you home to eat."  

Honey, you don't deserve that kind of break."

I don't know why but this really made me think. Did she deserve a break from cooking? Maybe. Did she deserve for life to let up on her a little and make things a little more convenient? Possibly.  Was she entitled to all of of this along with a huge bill, feeling of failure and a big inconvenience?  Not so cut and dried on this one.  And how do we judge what an individual "deserves" anyways?

Being in a culture of instant gratification I think it is extremely easy get an over-inflated sense of what we deserve.   I know we did. We tried to to start our young, married life out where we left off with our parents.  Nice home,  nice vehicles, nice toys and trips.  But our parents didn't start that way.  They worked long and hard to get to that point.  We just had a lot of debt.  We financed our way into a life that we really didn't deserve ... then we got the "bill" and asked what we did to deserve it. And it cost us a lot more than money.

About a year ago we committed to a big overhaul.  Now that we've made some huge life changes (selling the farm we couldn't afford in the first place, cutting up ALL our credit cards, cutting our lifestyle way back, paying down debt, saving for the future and living within our means), when we do get something, it feels like ours and it feels like we indeed deserve it. 

Let me tell you though it has been a hard learning curve and a lot of dying to my flesh as Christians would say.  There are so many times I feel like I need something so bad, but I just want it, and I don't have the money so I don't get it.  I used to make excuses for why I wanted it or deserved it (as though they somehow justified spending other people's money to get it), especially if it was something horse related and I could write it off as a necessary business purchase.  Usually it was just something frivolous or prideful. That doesn't fly any more either.

So now,  I run my business as frugally as I can, putting effort into what I can use my time and skills for the most, rather than my money. I do the same with our home and the kids.

We are not perfect yet, and I still catch myself every once in while with my hand stuck in a coconut but by the grace of God I'm getting better. I'll let most of those peanuts go eventually.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

My God Affair

So obviously by now, unless this is the first encounter you have ever had with my writing and my life, you know I am a Christian. 
You probably know a few more things as well.  I have a big family.  My faith is important.  I go to church. I am occasionally long-winded.
I like to share, so naturally you may be surprised to find out that I in fact, harbour some secrets.
When I first became a Christian, Brendan and I were attending the denominational church he grew up in.  We had an amazing community and I went through all of the appropriate "stages" that were expected in order to become a member of the church (I wasn't baptized and didn't attend church growing up so I had no previous "affiliation").  Our church family was awesome and supportive and I was often surprised (having grown up fairly anti-organized religion) at how normal, and fantastic, they all were.
I did everything properly.  I learned the prayers.  I learned the doctrine (well as much as was practically possible in a short time).  I'm typically a keener so I studied a lot.  We attended mass regularly and we were very diligent in our "religiosity".  Yes that is a word.
I had a few experiences with God early on while I was teaching in the school (an Alpha course we attended, some youth conferences and concerts) that I would now say were spirit filled, and although I loved them, this was not the norm for our faith.  We (as a couple) developed a very normal, predictable, and reasonable Christian routine.  It was good.  But it wasn't amazing.
Don't get me wrong, God was working some amazing things in our life but there wasn't a fiery passion deep in my soul every day.  I was still struggling so much with so many aspects of my life.  I wasn't taking any risks with my faith.  I certainly wasn't open to a whole lot of God's "supernatural" blessings in my life. This faith atmosphere made up most of the first 8 years of our marriage.
Then about a year ago something changed. 
I met God in a new way. 
Our life has been SO busy the last few years (check out the last few posts for details!). So, I started listening to podcasts and audiobooks, anything I could get to download on my phone.  I started learning about God in a new way. I came to discover that God is actually ridiculously amazing.  From the scientific support for a creator (Smart Men and God) to God's desire to be in my marriage, my parenting, and my business, I learned all sorts of amazing things about His character.  I had become a Christian but I had never really committed my life to Christ. 
Slowly though, things began to change.  Instead of learning about God (a topic which I have studied in detail), I began to meet God Himself. I began to have a relationship with God that was close and intimate and passionate and tangible.  Well, at least a kind of relationship.  In fact, when I look at where I am at now, I sometimes feel like its more of an affair.
I've been having an affair with God.
Here's the thing.  I am CRAZY about Him.  I am excited to spend time with Him.  I want to know His plans for me, and I want to follow His will to the letter. Doesn't that sound exciting.  It is. So why have I kept this such a secret? Why don't I talk about His amazing influence in my life?  Why do I avoid the topic with people I love and care about? Why have I treated my relationship with God like some scandalous secret?
In the new year, we actually made the decision to start attending a new church.  We really didn't tell anyone.  Its a non-denominational church and it is totally incredible.  I understand and appreciate the tradition and the ritual and sacramental faith we have experienced up to now.  This is something that will always be rooted deep in my heart.  This church is different though and I have found something here SO fulfilling and deepening.

We worship, we study scripture, we raise our hands in glorious praise to a God who is wholly good and merciful.  Our kids attend a Sunday school where they learn about service and God's love.  They have a strong and active men's group that meets to go clay pigeon shooting, eat steak, and then sit down and talk about the issues men face in today's world, forming bonds of friendship, mentorship and accountability.  They have women's retreats where we share and are nourished with encouragement, love and support in our roles as wives, mothers and business women.  It is everything we have been looking for in a church and worship community.  And we haven't told anyone.
At least I certainly don't talk about it.  Not with family or friends anyways.  We sneak off Sunday morning and then refer to "church" in general terms.  I don't mention the changes that have happened in the last year.  I don't boast of the miracles and love of God I witness.  I don't mention that every decision I make is run past Him and that everything I do, I try to discern what His will is for me.  I don't tell people that I think about Him and talk to Him all the time. By my estimation, it sounds like an affair to me.
If God is so important to me, then why don't I share? This "concealment" of my Christianity isn't new.  All the way along I've been selective about who I will get "spiritual" with.  Well, I think I'm starting to figure it out.
Surrender.  Sacrifice.  Fear.  Fear of judgement.  Fear of ridicule.  Misplaced motives.
I think these things all sum up why I keep my faith on the down low.  I don't want my faith journey to look "different".  What if they confront me about it?  What if they don't understand? It really comes down to one thing.

I might be uncomfortable.  People might certainly judge me.  I want all of the benefits of living in God's kingdom but I don't really want to indicate that I am a "kingdom" person. 

This is a problem though.  You see, God tells us to "Seek FIRST the kingdom of God, then all things (i.e. benefits of the kingdom) will be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).   We don't get the benefits without living the kingdom life.  All the time.  Everywhere. Publicly.

In fact, I've come to believe that the ONLY thing in this life that matters or is worth pursuing has to start with seeking God.

In the same way that "earthly" affairs are wrought with deceit and delusion, so are "Godly" affairs.  I want all of the blessing of a relationship with God while my conduct reeks of fear of commitment and half-hearted devotion.

The truth of the matter is I am obsessed.  I think of nothing more frequently than I do of God, my relationship with Him and His thoughts and plans for me.  

From my experience, when someone is in a real, functional and long-lasting relationship, they speak incredibly freely of the other person.  A relationship is based on trust, admiration, respect, and "relations".  It is publicly known that we are "Brendan and Jacquie". In fact, even if you didn't know my husband, if I spoke of "Brendan" you would quickly discern his role in my life. Everyone who knows me knows my connection to him and has a pretty good idea of the nature of our relationship. 

Alternately, an affair is secretive, covert and often consumed in dishonesty. An affair can never reach the same level of comfort, love and developmental depth because so much energy is spent just keeping it under wraps. 

So it is with God.

If I never have the courage to publicly seek God's kingdom,  our relationship will stay superficial.  I will never be able to show my true love and devotion to seeking God's plan, and therefore will spiritually stagnate.

There will be sacrifice, I have no doubt.  Remember, I used to judge those who needed God.

When you start a new relationship, not everyone wants to hear endlessly about your "amazing" new boyfriend.  Not everyone wants to hear endlessly about God's unbelievable love either.

I don't care anymore. 

God is so amazing and my life has become SO MUCH BETTER since I have begun this journey that I am willing to risk whatever it takes to show the world that this is no shallow affair.

I have to be willing to take it public.  To raise my arms in worship.  To let God's holy name roll off my lips just as easily as would the names of my family and friends. 

I have to stop seeking all the benefits of the relationship and just seek Him.  I need to acknowledge His presence, role and relationship in my life in EVERYTHING I think and do. It may take a long time.  It may take my whole life.  But I have to keep on seeking Him. In private. In public. In everything I do.

Sure this might not sound as sexy and scandalous as the affair did, but I'm pretty sure what lies ahead will blow everything else out of the water. 

Isn't that right Lord?


Monday, 1 June 2015

Surrendering, Part 2: Please Place Dreams on the Altar. Results Not Guaranteed.

Two and a half years ago I heard a speaker at a conference say, "Whenever you have a dream, especially if it's a big dream, you will be asked to lay it on the altar, give it back to God, and potentially give it all up.  If God hasn't asked you to put your dreams on the altar, either they're not big enough, or you're not listening."

Abraham was asked by God to put his son Isaac on the altar ... His son, who embodied all that Abraham and Sarah had dreamed of.  Everything that they felt God had put on their hearts.  How on earth would their promise be fulfilled (of descendants multiplying more than the stars in the sky) if their only offspring together was to be sacrificed?  Therein lies the rub though.  It seems that God frequently asks us to give up the very thing He promised us. Crazy right?

When I was 8 years old I started riding horses.  My entire life growing up involved horses.  I can remember spending almost my whole grade 10 social studies class drafting blueprints for the layout of the horse barn I would have when I grew up. 

After college, and even as a busy mom and teacher I was easily swept back into the horse world.  I started up a riding and training business on the side of my teaching and "mom" stuff.  In 2011, I decided that with our growing family I would go full time into it.  I could make my own hours and it would work for our family. It was then that I felt this dream of our own "place" start stirring inside of me. I started talking with family and friends about how it would work for us to acquire said "place". 

I would like to be very honest (people don't like to talk numbers). I am sharing details with you because I want everyone who reads this to fully understand where we were at. We weren't different or unique.  In fact I think many people will relate.

At the time when we started looking around at farms we figured it was going to be a 5-10 year plan. That was not pessimistic, just realistic. We knew we had a LOT of debt (student debt, consumer debt, mortgage debts both on our home and a rental house).  We would have to save a down payment.  Probably a large down payment, since any property worth considering was between $350,000 and $800,000 and we figured we'd only net about $35,000 from selling our current home. Here's the thing though.  Knowing how impulsive and passionate I am, I should have started getting these things taken care of BEFORE I started looking.

Once I started looking, putting on the brakes became impossible for me.  It was pretty much "normal operations" at the time for my impulsivity and drive (often otherwise known as passion) to overcome my planning and better judgement.

We fell in love.  Over and over and over, we fell in love with every place we looked at.  If you've ever shopped for a wedding dress, many folks will tell you not to try on a wedding dress you can't afford.  I bought my dress for $400 off a clearance rack.  Apparently I didn't realize that for a horse girl this phrase is more applicable to farm shopping.  Don't try on a farm and imagine walking down the barn aisle with it unless you can afford it.

Unfortunately we were going to have our hearts broken over and over as well.  Anyone who's read my other blogs have heard all about our purchasing struggles.  The bank kept shutting us down for so many wacky and unexpected reasons.  We kept feeling God slam the door in our face and we didn't know why.  We had made this perfect plan.  We had cosigners.  We had down payment money (well, our family and rrsps had down payment money, which on paper seemed like enough for the bank). We had it all worked out.

Yup, we.  Me. And Brendan (well sort of ... I was like a crazed horse dragging him along on this adventure).  We didn't pause very long to really discern God's will.  At the end of the day we thought it was good enough that we had unbridled passion for the cause.  We were willing to do anything to make this work. Willing to go to any lengths.  Willing to in actual fact, beg, borrow and steal to make this plan (that we had convinced ourselves had to be God's will) play out.

Here's a word to the wise.  God rarely endorses begging, borrowing or stealing in the execution of His will.  If you find yourself in this position, proceed with caution.

Finally, we had more or less given up. I heard that phrase again in my head saying, "Put it on the altar".  I think I knew deep down we should slow down and take a step back.  But I'd be damned if I was going to give up that easily.  At this point my sister and her husband had (of course relatively easily) acquired their beautiful dream farm.  I wanted mine.  And I wanted God to make it happen. Yesterday.   After all, He promised.  (*Please note: Within this promise was never indicated a timeline. Apparently God doesn't generally provide a best-before date on dreams.)

At this point we happened to reunite with some colleagues I knew in the industry.  They owned a huge boarding stable we'd been at in the past.  They had another, smaller place for sale.  Good location, nice house, pretty yard, outdoor arena and barn, fenced.  They were hoping to sell it but would be willing to rent it to us as well if the financing didn't pan out.  When we talked to them about our financing woes they sympathized telling us everyone was having bank issues with farm purchases.  Of course everyone was eager to help and at one point we were referred to "this guy" who could make it happen.  For a cost of course. 

I never really shared this overtly with anyone else at the time but I remember thinking somewhere deep in the back of my mind,"See, there.  It will work out either way.  If we cant buy it through our bank, we can go to the wizard and get it financed.  And if that doesn't work, we can rent it.  Either way, we, err, God, will make this happen." I was, to coin a phrase, hell bent on making it happen.

Another word to the wise... Never be hell bent on having it your own way.  You'll get what you wish for (and nothing more).  That is a promise.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, God was in this, I know He was (and praise Him for that or we'd be far worse off than we already were!).  We were able to get a conventional mortgage (with cosigners, but at least it was through our bank and no back room deal was needed).  We borrowed a TON of money from family to make it happen, but at least our home we were currently lived in sold quick and for a great price (far better than the realtor expected).  We truly thought if we could make the numbers all work out, it must be God's will.  After all, He'd shut the door so many times before He would do it again, right?  Well, I wasn't going to have that ... it was figured out.  We listed our house for sale, moved to the farm, started working our tails off and the rest, as they say, was history.

I sometimes think people consider us as somehow different than them. We must have money, we must be wealthy.  Well at least we have more than they do.  I know this because I used to look at people in our position in exactly that way. Somehow, because you've got this big business, a nice farm and you've figured out how to manipulate the system to get it, you are no longer like them. Somehow its easy for us and we don't struggle with the same everyday problems like paying the bills, affording repairs or budgeting for regular and unexpected expenses.  Like somehow we don't have those conversations about what we can afford or can't afford.  It all just magically works out because we are "in business".

That's totally bogus.  We don't have more money.  That's the lie that the bank tells you.  Just remember, if you owe money for it, it's not an asset.  We didn't have more money.  We had more debt.

When we entered this adventure we thought nothing of our debt.  We didn't feel overly worried about the amount of financing we had going into the transaction either (credit cards, student debt, another mortgage on our rental home).  We didn't blink an eye at borrowing money from anyone who'd lend it (especially our parents) in order to make it happen. We defined being able to "afford" something as being able to make the monthly payments. We thought it was God blessing us through our lenders.

We were wrong. 

And it took a "Dave Ramsey" face-slap experience (as I like to call it) for us to learn that. (*If you aren't familiar with Dave Ramsey and his get-out-of-debt strategy, you should be ... He's changed our lives.  Future finance blogs to come!).

About 8 months after we moved in (maybe even earlier if we were honest) we knew we were facing what felt like supernatural struggle.  We didn't know how much and for how long but we knew things were tighter than our original budget projections predicted. Its not that we weren't making as much money as we'd hoped.  Its just that we weren't able to get ahead, or out of the hole.  At all.  We were dealing with some upgrades, fixes and general maintenance that we hadn't predicted exactly (and we never knew the frequency or when many of these things were going to crop up).  It wasn't even just the money.  I felt like I would have endless amounts of energy and ambition.  My passion would be enough to get us through.  This was false thinking.

I cried.  A lot. It became almost uncontrollable.

I uprooted my family, had a new baby, was sick all the time, worked myself into sheer exhaustion and we were fast going broke.  All because I had to have my dream.  All because I rushed forward to make it all happen.  Passion can be a great motivator.  It can also be blinding and dangerous.  Sometimes the good Lord will "give us over" to these passions.  We have free will. He will gently guide us, but when we're hell bent He will sometimes step aside and let that determination unfold as our free will would prescribe.

Ravi Zacharias said it like this:

"If you are determined in going in a certain direction, if you are bent upon silencing the voice of God in your life, you know what God will do? He’ll step aside and second your motion. If that’s what you really want. Because He cannot violate your Will and still call you free… If I am a free being, He cannot overrule my freedom in the most ultimate sense, and still call me free. He can lure, He can rule, He can plead, He can beg, He can even put the pressure on, but He cannot violate your will and still call you free."

God "gave me over" to my dreams.  The reality is I was going to drag us forward into it whether He was on board or not.  That was ignorant.  That was a mistake.  And despite the fact that we could potentially, somehow make it all work if we were willing to continue on the current path, that "mistake" sat in the pit of my stomach like a bowling ball.  And God went silent.

Now that all said, God is pretty amazing.  He promises us He'll give us beauty for ashes.  He promises us that everything will work out for the good of those who love Him.  He promises to go before us and prepare a way. It just might not be our way.

So, we made another decision.  I have a feeling that we will look back on this time and recall it as the "great surrender".  The time when everything changed.  The decision that we made to really and truly let God's will be done in our lives. 

We decided to sell the farm. 

It's sad, but actually it's not really.  I've finally gotten to the point where I think I understand the beauty of the altar.  The incredible saving power of the cross.  The ultimate contrast.

You only gain through sacrifice.

And it's only sacrifice if it's something you think you can't live without. There is no dream so fragile, so important, so worth clinging on to that we should be willing to withhold it from Christ's altar.  This is what they mean when they say "Lay it at His feet".

Let it go.  Give it up.  Shake it off. Be willing to risk losing everything.  Be willing to actually lose everything.  Lay down your nets and follow Him ...

These things have a whole new meaning to me now.  For some it's a place, for some a job, for some it's a relationship, for some it's a loved one or a child.  No matter what it is that you are placing all your earthly stock and hopes in, be sure of one thing:

The tighter you hold on, the more God is going to call you to let it go. 

This, my friends is the meaning of "surrender".  It sounds like a beautiful and noble thing but I've come to learn it is crazy and scary and embarrassing and often times unbearable. When you decide to surrender you will be called to lay everything down, especially the things you least want to give up.  God does not guarantee that what He gives back to you will be what you left on that altar.  He does promise though that what he gives us will be good.  In fact it will be abundantly more than we can ask or imagine. 

Galatians 6:9 says, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

Doing good sometimes means doing things differently. 

I have no idea what will become of my dreams and my ambitions now that we have made the decision to put our life on the altar.  It will definitely be different.  I love my business and my clients and we will certainly (from a business aspect) be able to regroup and pick up somewhere else.  But I am, for the first time in my life, not going to get "my way".  In fact, if the last 2 years is a testimony to getting my own way I eagerly await what lies ahead, as scary and out of control as I feel. I will stop my panicked planning and allow God's plan to unfold before me.  Not until I see that His is the path in front of my feet will I take those first steps.

I know that there will be many stories about why we're leaving.  To some it will be the money.  To some it will look like a lack of ambition or talent. To some we will appear to just not have "cut it".  Some will understand.  Many will no doubt judge.  People will talk and for the first time in my life none of that matters.

I will place my dream on the altar, and if need be I will watch it burn to ashes in front of me and everyone around me.  Then I will lift my head, hold my family tight and smile up to God, knowing that in return the beauty He will give for those ashes will far outweigh anything that I could have come up with on my own.

And that is a promise.


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Surrendering, Part 1: A Homecoming of Sorts

So what do you do when you've decided that God exists, that He most likely has some purpose for your life, that you want to try and best fulfill this purpose, and then this very same God tells you to do something nuts?

Crazy, irresponsible, irrational, reckless, unsafe.  These are all words that the world will use to describe what God has asked you to do. 

How do you even know that this is God's best plan for you?

Well, for one you've prayed.  A lot. You've sought some wise, faithful counsel.  You've ensured it aligns with scripture.  You've researched. And of course, you've listened to the still small voice inside you (sometimes referred to as your "conscience" or "gut").  You are fairly certain that this absurd idea is from God.  Sometimes you know it's from God just for that very reason... its far too crazy to have come up with yourself!!

So, you've put all your hope and trust in Him, and He turns around and presents you with a road map that is taking you straight through the center of crazy town.  And then there's always the question... what happens if you say no?

Well, on this topic I can certainly speak from my own experience.  It seems that when I initially decided to put my trust in God (and subsequently any time I have had a major struggle, and then recommit my faith and my willingness to follow God's plan) I find myself headed somewhere completely unexpected. And usually terrifying.

I am living this reality out right now. 

Let me give you a bit of a back story, as this story is the result of 3 major crossroads and decisions in my life, that began about 3 years ago.

It was around the time that we got pregnant with our third baby that I started considering that God might be pressing us to make some big changes.  I was teaching in the traditional classroom at the time, but I knew putting three kids into childcare to go back to work would be completely unfeasible.  I had always been involved with horses, teaching lessons and training a bit (usually during my "spare" time and mainly through maternity leaves).  We started wondering if maybe God was pushing me to pursue this in a more committed fashion, and ultimately get our own facility where I could work from home and be a mom and raise our kids all at the same time. 

So over time we started looking. Just casually at first. And we found some amazing places.  This was a pipe dream if there ever were one, but it seemed right.

We knew if there were any chance of it happening we'd be borrowing A LOT of money, and so we'd need something at a reasonable price.  We looked at many places.  We put offers in.  We had family helping us out.  We were educated about mortgages, lending, and regulations. I had a 50 page business plan with budgets, projections, market research and strategies.  But nothing seemed to work out.  Offers fell through for ridiculous reasons. Things just seemed to be working against us. And along the way I changed.

Instead of this being an exciting new adventure and waiting patiently to see what God had in store, it became a huge stressor and I became anxious.  In the midst of everything, my sister and her husband acquired a big, beautiful farm.  The location was too far from the city for us as I could never maintain the necessary client base out there, but nonetheless it was a bitter pill to swallow.  It seemed like everything was working out for everyone else but our dreams were dwindling.  I was determined that it would work out for us.

After over a year of disappointments and set backs, I had this feeling in my soul that maybe we should just wait (or more accurately to my feeling at the time ... give up).  We could save up some more money, maybe make it a little more feasible.  We would have time to get better prepared.

But I was, well, indignant  ... God was, after all the one who gave us this dream. My expectations, pride and personal desires were strong and I was determined to bring this plan of God's to pass in the way I was sure He intended it. 

When we had all but given up, I came across a place for sale, owned by some folks we had known for a few years, and I figured there had to be a "cosmic" reason and it must be worth a try. They were willing to rent it if the sale didn't work out, and basically I told myself (and if I'm being honest, told God), "There, see, we can have this place no matter what".  Either way, even if the purchase option flopped we could rent it for a while. 

With that we hung the For Sale sign on our home and went to work.  I was no longer in that place where I was peacefully waiting on and trusting God.  It was happening either way.  And, God gave me over to my desires.

I sometimes think that the nature of free will is such that God cannot really stop us when we are determined enough, and at some point or in some way, He lets us have our way. 

Now I do have to say that I know without a doubt God was in this.  His hand was all over it.  Our house sold for more than expected, and extremely quickly.  The deal on the new place went unexpectedly smoothly.  But all the way along I have known in my heart that we could have waited.  I just didn't want to.  I've heard time and time again that God works in His own ways, on His own schedule.  It just felt far too slow for me (and recent events had made me envious and bitter and I wanted my "victory" as well). 

We have owned our place for over a year now and there are many amazing things about it.  We are in a perfect location.  It is a beautiful property, and the value will no doubt continue to increase.  God has truly blessed us.  But it has been hard.

Life since we got here has been harder than I ever imagined.  It has been exhausting (emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially). If I were to document all of the things that have gone wrong or been "against"  us, you'd never believe it (from horses dying to trucks being stolen and every crazy bit in between).  I cry out to God almost every day, wondering how this could have been His plan for us. 

Then a while back, I had a bit of an epiphany. 

I'm not sure that it was His plan.  Well, maybe not His original plan.  In fact, when I look back, I think it may have been my plan from the get go. 

I mean, not the whole concept, but certainly the hasty way in which we undertook this place.  I was so scared that if this didn't work out, we'd miss our chance.  I felt like everyone else was getting what God had promised us and so we should have ours too.  I was heartbroken and it left me feeling impatient and impulsive.  I was acting in what I thought was complete faith (and in all honesty, it felt very genuine at the time) but looking back I was really just scared and acting on that fear.  God told me to wait.  That still, small voice told me to pause and be still, but I (plain and simple) just didn't want to.

So what now?  If God really felt that this plan would harm us or be completely unsalvageable I truly believe we prayed enough that he would have shut this door too.  He must have had some plan of how He would use our lives being here. The question was, would we listen? 

That brings us to the second major challenge.  The arena.  We basically have a full service facility here, minus an indoor or covered arena to ride in.  So, we are completely at the mercy of the weather and the footing which, in Alberta, is not very kind.  I realized very quickly that this would be a hindrance to the stability of my business (or at least in the way I thought it would materialize). About a month after getting our horses here and starting things up (or attempting to as weather permitted) I was feeling frustrated.  One day as I mulled it over it was like I was reminded that impulsivity had gotten us here and it likely wouldn't help to continue that way. Kind of a gentle reminder of "watch what you wish for".

But life would be so much easier if we only had an arena. 

As I continued to pray and consider everything, I got the strongest feeling of God (and this doesn't happen very often to me!) saying, "Be patient with the arena.  You can go ahead and make it happen and you will get yourself into more stress and debt and wonder even further how this could be the plan.  Or, you can wait for my timing, and I will figure it all out.  Your choice."  I knew in my heart it wouldn't be fun to wait.  It wouldn't be popular (as this affects a lot more people than just me).  But I also knew, in the depth of my soul, that God made me a promise that day.  Not for anything specific, but just that if I waited, He would sort it out.

Do you want to know something funny? I am still trying to make it happen.  I'm still planning and figuring and declaring, "Maybe this is God working it out".  All I wanted was for God to speak to me and tell me His plan for me.  Then He did.  But it wasn't what I wanted Him to say.  I wanted him to say I could have an arena ... like, yesterday.

What happens when we don't like His answer?  What happens if we don't want to wait?  What happens when we don't get our way, and instead have to 'suffer' in obedience to God?

Well, I'll tell you what happens. 

We grow.  We grow up.  We mature.  We develop patience and character.  We develop trust and fortitude.  We develop a testimony to God's faithfulness and goodness. And none of those things happen when everything is peachy and happens the way we planned it all out to happen.  All of those things happen in the fires of affliction... when we feel impatient, stressed, distraught and hopeless.

But it isn't for the faint of heart.  This Christian thing, I am discovering, isn't for wussies.  I guess the crucifixion should have driven that home for me but somehow it took my own suffering to really make that obvious.

And that brings us to today. 

A couple of months ago, God set something on my heart that was above and beyond insane. Its something I've actually talked about for a long time.  Early in our marriage I'd expressed my intrigue and interest, but as life changed, so did my ideals. Nonetheless, God was preparing me years ago for this challenge.

Our oldest son is in grade one.  He is a boy.  He is ALL boy.  He's smart and keen, but he's also super active and not at all built for 6 hours in a desk. He used to love school but recently began to dread it.  He's been frustrated and feeling like a failure.

As a teacher myself, I had many ideas of things that would work to help him but the fast paced setting of the classroom, along with the general busyness and meeting of curricular objectives just weren't conducive to his success. 

Then, over the period of about a week, I had three different people suggest it to me.  Three fairly unexpected sources all suggested it (dun, dun, dun .... )


Yes, I know.  I had the same thoughts you are having right now, and they went as follows ...

"This is crazy.  This is SO crazy.  Only crazy people homeschool. What if our kids turn out maladjusted?  What if they don't know how to socialize?  How on earth would we ever find the time in our already hectic schedule? I mean, yes, I am a teacher and I'm at home already so it would kind of make sense, but it seems so NUTS!!"

Just as I had with the arena (like I said, this doesn't happen very often to me), I clearly heard God speak to my heart.  "Bring him home, and I promise you, I will work all the rest out for the good of you and your family."

Everything about it seemed insane.  Foreign.  Reckless.  Terrifying.

It also seemed right though.  And as I prayed and researched and talked with people who knew more about this than I did, it seemed even more like this might be the path we were to walk. 

The combination of the peace and excitement I felt over schooling our babes at home was amazing.  We discerned a great deal more before, at the beginning of March, we pulled our Grady out of his traditional school and into our "homeschool".  And I am so thankful we did.   After just a month we've noticed some huge changes.  He's way less anxious, and far more back to his fun-loving self.  I finally feel that I've done something in line with God's will, and its as though I can now hear Him again, after what felt like 2 years of silence.  We finally made a step to get in line with His will, instead of twisting it to seem like what we wanted was His will.

Although Grady's homecoming seems simple, for me it was so much deeper than that.  It was for me a huge (and unique) step of trust and surrender.  It was living recklessly for God's will and without concern for judgement or opinions of others ... only trusting what the Lord has set on my heart.

I heard a quote on the radio the other day (kind of a modern version of Paul's lament in Romans 7:15) that spoke directly to me:

"Just because you know God's way doesn't mean you do God's will."

I have always known that my passion and drive were great qualities that would get me far in life.  But they are also the characteristics that lead me to act stubbornly, attempting to take care of everything myself, and never leaving any wiggle room for God's plan. After all, I know better. God is too good though to let me go this on my own though, and maybe letting me "have my way" was his way of showing me that I actually don't know everything.  I can't see the big picture and I need His grace to help me muck about (literally some days) in everything I have before me. 

Admitting that I have made a mistake (without becoming a total martyr and beating myself up with guilt) is one of my biggest challenges.  Here's the thing though, we are SO short sighted. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we have no idea of the bigger picture.  Its sometimes even hard to tell what is a mistake and what is just an obstacle on the way to some grand finale.

To illustrate, here is one of my favorite analogies of God (which I've heard retold in many versions)...

We are but little children plinking and plonking away on the piano keys making a clatter of incoherent noise of our lives.  The noise is entertaining to our ears for a while, but the novelty wears thin quickly. Then, just as we are about to get up and abandon this nonsensical production, our loving Father sits down and places his hands over ours and begins to bridge the notes together and fill in the silences until all that is heard is a beautiful melody, perfectly orchestrated, and sounding nothing like the mere clanging of keys that we were able to make with our little hands. 

It takes patience though, and trust.  A trust that means letting go of ALL of the ideas we had for the outcome.  For we cannot know, in our limited capacities, what that final song will be, and how God will use what we gave Him to make something grand and unimaginable.

I can only hope that one day when I look back I see that I gave God enough to work with, and sat and played long enough to hear the final composition. 

I have no doubt that the symphony at that homecoming will be grand indeed ....


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Investing ... and Why Religion Is Unpopular.

Throughout most of my adult life I have spent a great deal of time pondering why it isn't easier.  You know, life.  Why does it have to be so darn hard?  We hear it all the time ... good people suffer, nothing comes for free, everyone has a cross to bear.

If God really exists and if He truly wants everyone to live a life by His design, then why isn't it easier. If this God is suggesting that He wants all of humanity to lay their life before Him and surrender everything for a life of faith and service to Christ, then why on earth isn't the road to his altar more appealing?  I know that before I was a Christian I definitely didn't have any use for all of the rules, rituals, boundaries and limitations that Christianity offered.  Life was hard enough without now subjecting myself to this narrow-minded, limited and restrictive obligation.  My time was spread thin enough amongst my other obligations and my life had enough obstacles without all of the potential complications that religion might add. 

It seemed that God's marketing plan had gone seriously amiss if His goal was to draw people to this life of faith by making Christianity seem like an easy and seductive option, given what else is out there to win over our time and attention.

Well you want to know a secret?

I don't think it's meant to be easy.  And I don't think we're meant to be happy. And I don't think it matters one lick whether you are Christian or not.  There seems to me to be only one way to best navigate the rough waters that are this human life on earth, one attitude that will get us through everything that life has to serve up ...

Life is an investment... so GROW UP and start living purposefully.

Now I should tell you that I am not by nature cynical or crass.  I don't like to tell people how it is, and I struggle actually to even be honest with people because I am so concerned with their opinion of me that I wouldn't want to offend them.  I believe that overall people are good, even if misguided.

That said, I am a whiner.  I genuinely feel, more often than I'd like to admit, that I am quite hard done by.  I feel like I give A LOT to others, which they are quite happy to take.  I work very hard at everything I do, and expect the same from those around me, realistic or not. I have high expectations of my life and when my expectations aren't met, I am generally disappointed and crabby about it.  I am willing to work myself to exhaustion if I have a goal or an expectation of a result, which puts much pressure on that certain result materializing.  If it doesn't, I'm filled with anger and resent at all my input and effort.  When I feel that I somehow deserved more I feel ungrateful and indignant about the whole affair. It simply reaffirms this underlying thought that life is just hard and unfair.  This is so extreme in me that even the simplest change in plans can leave me unsettled (ask my poor husband what happens when he suggests something I might be excited about (like say, stopping for a Tim's coffee) then later retracting, suggesting we just go home and make coffee ... my disappointment and reaction to such a scenario seems embarrassing even to me as I write this!)

I want things the way I want them.  I work very hard to establish in my life the things I hope and plan for, the things I think I deserve.  I don't want someone or something coming in and putting up barriers to my passion, independence and hard work.

Sounds alright I guess.  Except life isn't fair. No one can guarantee that just because you worked your butt off, you won't still get axed at the next round of layoffs.  No one can guarantee that just because you were active, ate healthy and watched your carbs that you'll live a long life, or avoid disease.  Not one person on this earth can assure you of any outcome in any scenario at any time.  There are just no hard and fast promises regarding the results of the things we face in this life. 

I think it is this fact that led me to put such importance of "taking care of business" and ensuring (to the absolute best of my ability) that I (and I alone) try to work things out for the outcome I desire.  I don't want to be interrupted, detoured or challenged in the things that I am working for and the things that I think will make me happy.   Because that is the goal, right?  Happiness.

Enter religion. 

Chock-full of rules, boundaries and commandments.  "The wise shall do this ...", "Only fools do that ...", "Honor your mother and father (regardless of how dishonorable they may be)", "Don't cheat", "Don't lie", "Don't fornicate".  Where is the happiness in this stodgy and outdated establishment?

As I saw it, I was facing this life that is already challenging, unpredictable, disappointing and often harsh.  Now they suggest I add a whole bunch of boundaries, rules, judgements and stigmas?  

Here is what I now see as the most challenging part of sharing my faith.  Faith in Christ, and a life in God, is not actually about religion, but RELATIONSHIP. We struggle with the "idea" of religion for intellectual and philosophical ("head") reasons, but at the end of the day I truly believe that the final decision all rests in meeting the person of God and trusting Him (in your "heart"), not necessarily the religion.

This is precisely why God doesn't really care about advertising a "struggle free" life, or an easy path.  In fact, if life in this world were easy why would we need God? Faith and relationship with God would be redundant if it was only for the superficial purpose of providing some good to a person in an already simple and painless existence. 

This is not reality though.  Life is hard.  We all struggle. Christian religion isn't suggesting that we should have faith in God to prevent a life of hardship. Christian religion offers faith in God precisely because we live lives that are hard. In fact, it is these very hardships that in turn develop in us the character to become people of strength, depth and virtue.  And why on earth should I care about acquiring such traits?

Because I believe that the person I become in my time spent on this earth, is the person with whom I shall be forced to exist into the depths of eternity.

Not only will my personality, character and traits be coming with me in life beyond this human experience, but the relationship I have with God while I'm here will certainly have some integral role to play in how I exist when my life on earth is over (if you're still uncertain about the whole existence of God and life everlasting, you could revisit my blog on 'smart people and belief in God').  The long and the short of it is we have to believe that we are making choices now for the sole purpose of investing in our long term future fate. 

I think the whole reason why we resent the fact that life is challenging and unfair can be tied into our general disdain for investing and our aversion to delaying pleasure.  We live (and I am referring specifically to the developed world here in North America) in a "fast-paced, get it before you can blink, don't want to wait 5 seconds longer than I have to, fast food, fast cars, climb the corporate ladder and make it big before you're 30, instant results" kind of world.  We have things available to us at our fingertips at the click of a button.  Transportation is fast and we are able to access information and items we desire at unprecedented speeds.  We don't like to wait.  Ten years ago I might have added here some anecdotal story about parking lots, supermarket lines, or car repair tantrums, but I don't think that is even necessary anymore.  We wear our impatience on our sleeves, shamelessly. Someone can shout at a store clerk or over the phone at a utility provider for being less prompt than they were expecting and no one bats an eye. In fact, the bystanders may even encourage the heckler, showing support and sympathy for their impatience.

We often feel "suffering" because we have some expectation that life should be another, easier way.  We feel that we have somehow been "shorted" the struggle and pain-free life we deserve.  We want it now, and we deserve to have it now.  After all, we're good people, we work hard, and it should be ours to take. 

This is why the statistics for retirement savings in North America are staggeringly low.  Scary in fact.  We teach our students and our children how to make money, only to bombard them with marketing that says, "Spend, spend, spend, and if you don't have it you can borrow it".  The store magazine racks are wrought with quick weight loss solutions, get rich quick schemes, and beautiful vacation destinations that you can fly to immediately (for only a small fortune. Financing available).  You have to dig down deep to find the articles about working hard, saving for your future, sacrificing and struggling now so that later you might benefit. 

The number one reason I feel sorry for myself or feel that life is somehow unjustly hard is because hard work usually doesn't feel good unless there are immediate benefits.  Saving money doesn't pay off until long after you've made the effort that earned those dollars.  Slaving away at work, raising kids, eating healthy and becoming a better person do not provide immediate pleasure.  In fact, most of these things are painful.  So why do we ever choose to do them?  Because the payoffs of doing them far outweigh the damage that is done by leaving them neglected.

This is exactly what faith is all about.  Consider Christ your soul's investment advisor.  You will never hear a self-made millionaire tell you they were able to achieve that status through self-gratification, boundless living, or taking the easy road.  No, they sacrificed, gave themselves limitations, and monitored constantly where they were on the road to their goals (for a great insight into the surprising reality of America's millionaire lifestyle, check out the book "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas J. Stanley).  The successful marathon runner didn't get to the finish line by affording himself expensive vacations, overeating and skipping that workout because she "didn't feel like it".  The parents didn't raise strong, well-mannered, well-spoken children by simply saying, "we'll just let them do what feels right in the moment". 

I always have to laugh when I hear of successful business people, or individuals who are fit and committed to a healthy lifestyle, reject religion or Christianity due to its restrictive or limiting nature.  These are people who's success was made possible SOLELY through the application of and adherence to boundaries, and the delaying of pleasure or gratification in exchange for hard work and perseverance.

Our life is defined by the boundaries we live within.  Our character is developed when we are challenged with situations where the outcome isn't guaranteed. 

And this is exactly why I finally changed my mind about religion.  When I decided to follow Christ, to make a relationship with God a priority and to make my faith the number one priority in my life, I was making an investment.  In fact, it is the only investment I ever make where the result is guaranteed ... not here, not now, but eternally.  Earthly things will come and go.  I will no doubt face many more challenges before my days here are through. But every single obstacle I face and every time I choose to delay my own satisfaction to invest in future growth or development, I allow myself to develop more of this eternal character. 

In the same way that I resist saving money because spending it now feels so good, and in the same way that I choose that donut over the greens because in that moment my craving gets the better of me, I short change myself and my future when I decide to live my own way now, shirking boundaries and responsibilities for the apparent freedom and "enjoyment" of life lived my own way.  This attitude is immature, irresponsible and short-sighted.  But it's popular.  And somehow when something becomes culturally popular people think that it becomes right.

So we see popular culture with it's claim to independence, self-righteous goal fulfillment, and entitled living winning out over the less popular "religious" life of service, humility and obedience.

I have lived both ways.  Later in life, when I am watching my own children raise their children, I'm sure I will have only distant memories of what life without God was like.  Which is why I think this topic is so important for me to reflect on now, only just 10 years a Christian (and in reality only very recently actually surrendering more fully to my faith and abandoning my own will).  I lived long enough "doing my own thing" to say with confidence that it never brought me true joy.  I was constantly longing for something to make me happy.  Constantly whining about how life had done me wrong.  Constantly searching for something (or someone) to "fill the void".  I can spout about the "liberation" of religion-free life all I want but the reality is, I am a wreck on my own. 

Maybe you're different.  Maybe you have it all together.  Maybe you can truly find joy and happiness on your own and God is simply a redundancy or crutch that you don't need.  If so, I would challenge you to reflect on Rick Warren's definition of joy:

"Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation."

If someone could guarantee you that everything is in control, orchestrated for the good of your life and that the fate of all that you hold dear is sealed in love and eternity, would that change your life?  If not, then I guess that atheism is probably a reasonable choice for you. 

But, if there is anything in that definition of joy that is alluring or assuring, please reconsider where you've invested your life. If there is even a fibre of your being that desires this kind of peace (even if it seems like unrealistic or "pie in the sky" thinking) then you and I are in the same boat. 

Investing is hard.  It takes sacrifice.  But let me tell you that investing in your faith is much like investing in the financial world.  Compound interest is like a magical thing, and the little bit you sacrifice to put in can end up being a rather nice pot of cash when the sacrifice is long gone and forgotten. Religion may seem full of rules and restrictions but these are just the boundaries of the "spiritual" market, the rules of investing so-to-speak.  And you can learn to operate within them with joy and excitement when you see that little amount you put in start to be transformed and increased into something much larger than you could have saved or stockpiled on your own.  

In my experience, when we are living in an immature and superficial way, dedicated to short term gain and avoiding suffering and sacrifice, we tend to find ourselves struggling and the "reserves" seem to dwindle.  When we view struggle and sacrifice as an offense or an undeserved punishment, we find ourselves bitter and unhappy.  Instead we need to heed James (1:2-5) and "consider it pure joy ... whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything".

God isn't offering us a get-to-heaven-quick scheme, or 10-days-to-save-your-soul kind of deal.  This is a long term investment.  That can sound foreign and scary to those of us who are illiterate in the long-term-gain department.  I didn't want (and didn't feel like I needed) religion and all of its entrapments.  I just needed life to get easier and then I would be fine. 

Unfortunately this attitude was silly and childish, and all together unrealistic.  Life is what it is.  It is hard, amazing, challenging, traumatizing, exhausting and beautiful.  We cannot avoid challenges.  But, what we can do is invest in someone who's in the business of handing out grace to get through those challenges.  Someone who has been there, someone who invested the life of His one and only Son to allow our fate to be secured so we could truly live and thrive in peace in our lives here on earth, knowing that there is an eternity beyond this.

Life in a religious context may seem unpopular.  It might seem like a weird or counter-cultural investment, but the payoffs have already been, at least for me, immeasurable.  I tried it on my own and the result always seemed to be uncertainty, frustration, and exhaustion.  I never seemed satisfied or settled.  God offers us an unbeatable return-on-investment... Live a life in relationship with Him and in return you will find peace, true joy, solace in any suffering and all of this into eternity. 

All this in a pretty low-risk investment. 

I think I can buy that. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Smart People Don't Believe in Invisible Men

Invisible guy in the sky.  Invisible sky fairy.  Big daddy in the clouds. These are all slang or mocking conceptions that people have created in response to the God that Christians believe in.  People, they say, who believe in such a God must be deluded, dimwitted, deranged, or even clinically insane.  In fact if you want to see how far the ridicule extends just Google "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster".  Being a "Pastafarian" is portrayed as just as legitimate as being a Christian.  The (facetious) message is more or less that it is ridiculous for intelligent, well-educated people to believe in invisible guys hanging out in the clouds.
And I agree with them on that point.
For a very long time I felt that it was just far too irrational to believe in some supernatural being sitting in his big chair in the clouds looking down on us like ants in a cage.  I could maybe fathom a "universal energy" or something that was somehow behind the inner workings of life and the cosmos but not this "god" fellow that church folk bought into. After a while I started to equate God with this "energy" and was more open to the idea of His being real and present but I was still a giant leap from believing in the Bible and the monotheistic ("single, all powerful") Christian God.  It just didn't seem relevant. 

In fact, even when I became a Christian in 2004, my conviction and belief in God developed mostly due to being part of a wonderful community of people who seemed more or less normal and helped each other out along their journey.  I loved the "family" feeling and the potential deeper connection to life that my "belief" in God provided but I was still plagued with many of the same questions and struggles I had before I became a Christian.  I would still (on many days) question whether I had put all my stock in some fairy tale, and often doubted whether this whole thing was really just a huge scam (as I would hear atheistic colleagues, friends and family claim).  The analytical, reasonable, scientific and logical side of my brain cried out with questions and challenges to the emotional side of my brain. People would ask me questions like, "How can you really know that God exists?" or "Really what does it matter?" and sometimes I would want to just throw my hands up, walk over to their side and join them.  I didn't have these answers.  And probably the saddest part is I didn't know there were answers.  Nobody talked about them.  It was all about "just knowing" and believing God existed.  Reading God's Word (in the Bible) and going to church were apparently all the incentive one should need.  And I certainly didn't feel like I had to be out spreading this Word.  I knew, more or less, what I believed and that was enough, right?

Well, it wasn't enough... I knew this somewhere deep down and I felt guilty for feeling that it wasn't enough. 

Until I heard about the field of "Christian Apologetics".

It was Ravi Zacharias who said “What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind.”

Imagine my shock when I discovered that there was a whole discipline and loads of scholars (yes, well-researched, well-respected Masters and Doctorate students, professors and entire departments of Post-Secondary institutions) devoted to cutting edge research on the History, Philosophy and in-depth study of God's existence within the scope of the Christian religion. 

There were reasons. 

Reasons backed by science (to a level that was WAY beyond my scope of scientific understanding) to show that God is the best explanation for the existence and many of the fundamental properties that we see in our world (and greater universe) today.  Good reasons for believing in God.  Reasons that I could buy into and share with confidence.

In response to 1 Peter 3:15 (that we are all called to give a defense of the hope we have in our heart) I found loads of arguments for the existence of God, and NONE of them were from the bible. No cyclical arguments that say we should believe in God because that is what it says in His Word. Yes, the Bible can be examined as a historical text (and most historians and new testament scholars agree that it is a very (if not one of the most from that era) reliable text) but that only provides evidence for the historicity of Christ's life, death and resurrection (which is a completely separate argument from the existence of a Creator).

I must pause though and give a disclaimer.  I am by no means an expert here.  I have been so blessed in my exposure to the intellectual field of apologetics but I personally have only touched on the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Thus, I will refer you over and over again to many sources who are much wiser and more educated than I am.  Nonetheless, if you're struggling with the idea of God's reasonable existence like I was, I think you'll find this very brief look at some of the research both interesting and digestible. Hopefully it will spark in you a need for further investigation.

Some of these arguments get VERY technical (we're talking quantum physics here!) so I would like to introduce you to the ideas that I found compelling and accessible (to the level that I understand them).  There are many experts and arguments that I will skip but I'd simply like to walk you through the ideas that I found the most exciting and convincing, and encourage you to do your own further studying!

I am (in a very unscholarly, plagiaristic fashion) going to give you for the most part general references here.  These are the select folks whose works I have encountered and want to give them appropriate credit.  That said, this is a blog, and not a post-grad paper so I don't feel the need to credit every idea to its exact source location.  I will give you general ideas and their authors and leave it up to you to hunt down any further specifics you might be longing for!

I would like to start by clarifying that there are a couple of different overall arguments and it is imperative to keep them separate.  First, there is the argument that there is a Creator.  In other words, the universe, the world, and all that we live here with were created by some transcendental being (or "of relating to a spiritual or non-physical realm").  Secondly (and strongly related to the first) there is the argument that this is ONE creator (i.e. a monotheism, versus a polytheism with many gods).  Lastly, (and a separate argument all together) is that this Creator is the God of the Christian faith (and defense of this point rests on the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Christ).  It is important to keep these points (and the arguments for their truth) somewhat separate. 

So, if God exists, prove it right?

Well, although we may not be able to prove that God exists there are some fascinating and compelling facts about the basic fundamentals of our world for which the best explanation appears to be the existence of a Creator. 

Before we begin I also implore you to remember that we must consider ALL of these arguments together and not just one argument as sufficient.

In a similar scenario, the brilliant and authentic Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias always says that in order for a worldview, or religion, to be coherent (i.e. make sense and be fully consistent), it must sufficiently address and answer the four major questions of life.  These questions surround the understanding of origin, meaning, morality and destiny.   In fact it is interesting to really reflect on various worldviews, because to be coherent (logical and consistent) they must have an explanation or coverage sufficient to address answers to all four of these questions. It is when a worldview is examined as a whole that its validity can be obtained and not just by examining one evidence or argument.  Many believe that Christianity's coverage is the most comprehensive in this respect (I will discuss this in a future post).

So for now, just to get the ball rolling in your further quest into this idea of a "reasonable and rational" belief in God, here are some arguments.  I am a sceptic by nature so I am assuming you are all sceptics as well and I am thus having a hard time making this succinct as I imagine with every sentence a rebuttal that might be launched.  Please know I provide this information as an "abstract" or a small taste of what's out there.  PLEASE, if you are doubtful or skeptical of what you see here (but possibly a little intrigued as well, as I was!) continue to pursue answers for as long and as far as it takes you to find them!

First, I must reference William Lane Craig.  There are many other scholars and intellects who have studied this but I am primarily familiar with his work.  Much of what you'll read below you'll find on his website "Reasonable Faith". 

Also much of my understanding of the Moral Argument comes from RZIM, or Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

The Universe Began to Exist, and Therefore Has a Creator

This argument has been popularized as of late by William Lane Craig and is fairly easy to summarize.  It goes as follows:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Generally speaking, those opposed to the idea of a Creator (and many scientists in general) have been working hard on premise #2, trying to determine if there is any way around the well-supported Big Bang Theory for the beginning of the Universe.  I will not go into the great debate here, as there is a HUGE amount of work out there that can be read or viewed on it (and things get complicated quickly with scientific jargon and defeater defeaters and such). Nonetheless it raised an interesting topic for me to ponder.  If the universe did begin, and before the universe there was nothing (and nothing as in no-thing, or an absence of anything, but not nothing which is its own something ... see how quickly this gets confusing!!) ... anyways, where did the universe come from???
(The following is directly quoted from Craig's article:
In 2003, the mathematician Arvind Borde, and physicists Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin were able to prove that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past, but must have a past spacetime boundary (i.e., a beginning). What makes their proof so powerful is that it holds so long as time and causality hold, regardless of the physical description of the very early universe. Because we don’t yet have a quantum theory of gravity, we can’t yet provide a physical description of the first split-second of the universe; but the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is independent of one’s theory of gravitation. For instance, their theorem implies that the quantum vacuum state which may have characterized the early universe cannot have existed eternally into the past, but must itself have had a beginning. Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so-called ‘multiverse’, composed of many universes, their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have had a beginning.
There are also folks (such as Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss) who attempt to undermine the first premise, but I have a very hard time with this one (and Craig has much to say on this as well) as I just cannot buy that things can pop into being from non-being without some creator or creative force.  If the universe is not eternal in the past, then there must be an explanation for its coming into being.  The real question I face is if this explanation isn't God and things can just come into being from nothing (with no causal explanation) then why don't we see things just popping into being all over the place?  I urge you to do your own research here, but I certainly found the existence of a Creator to be quite plausible in light of this argument.

The Fine Tuning of the Universe for Advanced Life 

To understand what is meant by the "fine tuning" of the universe, imagine a huge panel full of controls and dials.  Each one of these controls a property of nature in the universe.  In order to allow for advanced life (such as we observe now on the earth), each of these controls must be tuned to an extremely fine degree of specificity, within a very narrow range.  Since these "dials" (or often called "constants") are ALL properly tuned to the appropriate degree or level, we are able to have the stability of the atoms and molecules, the rates and sizes of nuclear reactions and nuclear and gravitational forces, the energy (from stars) and heavy atoms, and the chemistry of DNA and all of the observable elements (just to name a few!) that are required for life. 

Recent scientific discoveries have shown that these constraints must be fine tuned to such a narrow degree in order to allow or produce life that the probability of them all aligning is EXTREMELY low.

Of course, we observe life, and thus the alignment and fine-tuning of all of these properties, which begs the question... how did they get this way?

This is where theologians suggest that God's creative power is sufficient to answer this question. 

In fact, the only other current theory tabled to address the fine tuning of the universe is the idea of a multiverse as propagated by Physicist Victor Sengar.  Multiverse theory proposes the existence of infinite parallel universes wherein one (i.e. the one we currently observe) is expected to be habitable by intelligent life.  This theory is still in speculative form (limited by current String Theory) and is fraught with holes and issues (William Lane Craig addresses this very well, so check out his work!).

Certainly the existence of a Creator (or Designer) of the universe provides a plausible explanation of the Fine Tuning. 

Moral Laws Require a "Moral Law Giver"

Here is where, for me, the idea of arguing for God's existence really struck a chord.  Where my head and my heart met and found deep resonance .
At the heart of it, everyone must ask themselves:
Is there a moral standard, or code to which we seem to be universally aware (regardless of our choice to follow it or not) that is not subject to arbitrary change or revision?
The question is, aside from all other laws, customs, cultures, traditions, personalities, choices and lifestyles, do good and bad exist? Is there a moral law that transcends humanity?
If so, there must be a moral law giver.  There must exist a Creator of this moral law.  Someone who defines the law in their very existence.
On atheism, life is over (fully and completely) when we die, and since there is nothing that transcends humanity, there cannot exist this "greater" moral code.  Everything that we do or are inclined to believe is rooted in our development, environment and survival.  Something that is called "good" could be something that enhanced or furthered the proliferation and thriving of a species.  This belief is fraught with problems though.  Take the example (albeit a dramatic one, but effective for reflection on the topic) of rape.  On atheism, if it could be proven that rape would help in the survival or optimal development of that species, it should be considered "good". 
In this naturalistic worldview there is no objective basis for morality.
I have yet to come across an argument that could convince me that there aren't objectively good and bad things.  Yes, there are grey areas but there are some things that are so universally accepted as good and bad that it is hard to argue that they could be arbitrary.  As an animal lover and a parent, when I see abhorrent things being done to animals and children, I feel, in the pit of my gut, that justice must be served.  This is because someone, or something, has been wronged.  Someone has done wrong. If these standards of right and wrong were human-devised they would fluctuate as much as anything man-made across the world and across the centuries.  They haven't. Sure you find people who are anomalies, mentally unstable, or arguing fiercely for atheism and willing to shirk moral standards as non-objective, but on the whole, there are many universals.
Now, one of the most important things I've come to understand regarding this argument is that you don't have to believe that God exists in order to be subject to His moral law.  He just has to exist. So the atheist that tries to argue that there are things that are objectively good and bad may very well be arguing themselves as subjects of this moral law, even as non-believers.  If the law exists, there must be some transcendent force or being that applied the law.  And here we have yet another argument for God.
There are many other "ideas" and arguments out there, some of which are related to the above arguments (i.e. other design arguments often referred to as Intelligent Design or the Teleological argument) or others including the Ontological argument and general cosmological arguments based on the universes existence but these are far more abstract than I wish to delve into here (see William Lane Craig's article
Everything I have shared here is just a tiny glimpse into the converging worlds of religion, philosophy, science and specifically physics. There are many, exceptionally well-spoken and educated scholars, philosophers and scientists who believe and argue for the existence of a Creator, God.
For me, this realization was extremely liberating.  It meant I didn't have to completely abandon my educated, analytical side to consider my faith.  I didn't have to adopt a completely emotional and irrational persona in order to consider prayer, religion or God. 
I can be a smart person, who believes in God.  Like many others who have gone before me and are going now ... finding a faith that is reasonable and well-thought. 
I have to say something now that many non-believers won't like.  I didn't like it.  If I'm honest I still don't.  That doesn't mean its not true though.
I will quote Ravi Zacharias on this as I think he says it beautifully:
“A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.”
I didn't like God because God came with rules.  God came with restrictions.  God came with convictions on my heart regarding how I live and who I'm living for.
I was smart enough to know that I knew best.  And I didn't want to be told otherwise. 
Unfortunately this kind of "power" comes with great responsibilities and great insecurities.  Without transcendent boundaries and guidelines by which to lead my life, I was unwittingly lost. I was becoming more and more defensive and cynical and paranoid every day.  Since I threw up my arms and decided to give it over to one who knew more than me (even though I often still have a hard time swallowing that one!) I have found more peace.  Genuine peace. And love.
And truly isn't that what we all want?  Peace and love.  In our lives, in our decisions, in our families, in our world? 
And although I fully understand that as long as humans exist there will be those who argue against God's existence I find deep solace and empowerment in knowing that I can find and deliver strong, educated, and scholarly arguments for our Creator.  It isn't just emotional.  Its not just for the weak or the less fortunate. 
I can be smart and believe in God.  In my mind, that's just awesome. 
Even more awesome than an invisible sky guy.
But I guess you can decide that for yourself.

(For those looking for more, here are some sources that got me started:)
-William Lane Craig and his Reasonable Faith Ministry
-Greg Koukl, Alan Shlemon and Brett Kunkle of Stand to Reason
-Lee Strobel and all of his amazing books, many of which are written like fiction stories which make them fun to read!  (i.e. Case for a Creator, Case for Faith, Case for Christ, Case for Grace, God's Outrageous Claims, etc)
-Ravi Zacharias and RZIM ministries


Monday, 2 March 2015

But I deserve to be happy ...

So I have a confession to make.  I think its funny because before I was a Christian when I heard the word "confession" it always made me think of creepy old churches and low-voiced priests veiled behind lattice and darkness, accepting offerings of truth and assigning penance.

Nonetheless, I sit in my front room near a big bright window and buzzing computer screen disclosing my deepest secrets (well, maybe not all of them, but certainly I have some things that could be helpful to expose).

When I came to faith and belief in God, I was so relieved because I was experiencing such joy and happiness. Finally, I had found something to fill the void that I felt inside.  I had been struggling, sad and lacking direction in my life.  I was so relieved to find God and know that moving forward I could smile, laugh and enjoy life so much more.  I was on cloud nine. 

We (Brendan and I) were part of a growing and vibrant church community.  We were studying our faith and I was in school taking Christian courses, working part time in a Catholic school, and planning a wedding.  Life was amazing and I was so happy.  That lasted for a little while.

We spent the first couple years of our marriage continuing to be active in our faith community.  We helped run the Alpha program, I volunteered with RCIA (a program designed for the education and formation of those thinking of becoming Roman Catholic as adults), and I continued to be involved in a Christian school setting. Life wasn't perfect but things were pretty good for us.

We made the decision to travel to South Korea to teach English (with one of Brendan's older sisters and one of his younger brothers). Upon arriving (literally the day we flew there), we discovered we were pregnant.  As it turned out, God knew that if we found out before we left we would've ditched the contract and never gone.  That would've been a terrible mistake. 

We stayed for several months and then decided to come back to get set up, have the baby at home and start this new chapter in our life. 

Now a couple of years into our marriage, pregnant and having no home, no jobs and really no idea of what we were doing, we managed to maintain a strong faith that God would provide for us.  I certainly believed that we deserved a joyful and abundant life and that God would set that out before us.  We would pray and believe for things to work out so easily.  And they did. For a while.

As life played out though, things got harder.  With every baby, job change, new house, new care provider, no matter how hard we prayed, we just kept hitting all these obstacles.  At first my fervent and upbeat attitude was maintainable.  We were faithful in our prayers, our church attendance and our belief that God was working everything out for the good. But after a while, nothing seemed good.  In fact, everything seemed hard.  And when I speak about this in the past tense, do not be fooled.  We have not yet seen the end of these challenges.  I have had days in this last year where I wonder where the heck God is and how he could have allowed me to end up in such an awful, exhausting, unfulfilling and miserable spot.  All I have ever wanted was to be the best I could be.  To follow God's will and do what I was supposed to do.  Is that too much to ask for someone who is trying to live out their Christian faith the best they can ... that God would just work all of this out?  Don't I deserve to be happy?

Well the conclusion I've come to is simple but its a hard one to swallow.  The answer is no.

I think the biggest part of the problem here is the message that our culture sends is completely in opposition to this.  Just watch any commercial or read any magazine and you'll see countless ads telling you why you deserve that vacation, that new truck, that better dishwasher, home or even body. After all, you've worked hard, you're a good person.  You deserve to be happy.

But here's the catch.  God never told us we'd be happy. 

There are dozens of promises that God makes to His people in the Bible.  He gives us assurance that He will keep every one of these promises.  And make no mistake ... some of them are outrageous!

He promises that His grace is sufficient and that He will provide all of our needs. 
He has promises us victory over death and eternal life.
He has promises us that He will work out all things for good for those who love Him. 

Never though, does God ever promise we'll be happy. 

Why on this green earth then would I ever choose to be a disciple of a God who cannot even compete with the local travel agency when it comes to making me happy?  Certainly they promise happiness (at least for the 2 week duration of your stay or your money back). 

Well, I'd say it has to do with a further examination of the purpose of this thing we call life.

And upon this further examination I have come to believe that the expectation that life deliver happiness is a human-created culture which is not universal.

Certainly this was not the case when Jesus told the disciples that they had to give up everything they had (jobs, money, things, friends and even families) to follow him.  If he was concerned with making the disciples happy he would've said, "Stay here, live in big, cushy houses and preach only to people who agree with everything you say.  You will not be judged, persecuted or challenged and I will provide you with all of the money and material goods you need to be happy." 

No, Jesus did not say anything like that.  Because Jesus was not concerned with making the disciples happy.  He was concerned with making the disciples, well, disciples.

He was concerned with developing their faith, their character and their witness and testimony.  He was concerned with taking their focus off of material things and finding true joy and peace in the real promises that God has to offer.  The ones that matter. The ones that last. 

Do you ever notice how quickly something that should make us happy can lose its allure, annoy us, or even make us mad?  If you've never experience this, just get married.  (Wow, that sounded so cynical ... but its true!).  A marriage is a union within which both people can grow, develop and raise up the next generation in a safe, loving and character-forming environment.  But marriage (like Christian faith) was never designed to make us happy.  Don't get me wrong, I have experienced much happiness.  But I've also experienced truck loads of the opposite. 

God never promised that this would be easy.  He never promised that it would be safe.  He never assured us that walking in His grace would be smooth and simple. 

He did promise us peace though.  And joy. And eternal life.  And all of those things are so much deeper and richer than mere happiness.  They are signs of having and fulfilling your life's purpose, as challenging as that may be.  God doesn't owe me any happiness.  But He has promised that He will compensate me for any trouble I face in walking His path.  It just might not be with a new car or a 5-star vacation.   It might be with a depth of character that is irreplaceable and necessary to bring me to a new level of joy or peace.  Or it might be with something years from now that I am not even aware of now.  Either way, God will ensure His followers are saved.  Maybe just not how we expect, or in a way we think we deserve. 

I think that once again CS Lewis has such amazing wisdom on this topic ...

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  

Since I found my faith (and even more so the deeper my conviction to God has become) I have been challenged.  I have been attacked, persecuted and faced challenges that I didn't know I'd make it through (and some that I am still in the midst of).  We have had struggles in our marriage, finances, in raising our kids and just deep within ourselves that have threatened to break us apart at the seams. 

But we cling, desperately at times, to the promises of God.  I know that at the end of the day the fulfillment of material and earthly things and experiences will wear thin.  I've been there. I've prayed for something (or someone, or some opportunity) SO HARD because I thought it would make all the difference.  It always disappoints.  But God never does. 

One of my favorite bits of dialogue in the Narnia Chronicles is between Susan and Mr. Beaver, in reference to Aslan, the Lion and it goes as follows:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion."
 "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

God isn't safe.  Sometimes God is the farthest thing from safe.  Just ask those who are persecuted or killed for their faith.  Just ask Christ as he hung on the cross.

I choose to follow God because I believe He exists and I believe that His promises are true.  His grace will be sufficient for me to face anything I need face.  And the promise of my secured eternity and the eternity of those I love is one I do not take lightly. 

So, knowing full well that I will probably have to forego some of the "things" that I really want, and I will be denied many of the things that society will tell me I cannot live without, I will continue towards a deeper and more rich understanding of my faith and God's plan for me. 

I will trade in safety and happiness for goodness and true joy. 

In the end, I may not get what I "deserve" but I am pretty certain that what I do get, will be so much more.