Prepared to Give an Answer

Teaching Bible to 10 and 11 year olds is at the same time scary and amazing. It is the last full week of school, and we had pretty much reached the end of our Bible curriculum (and their attention spans), so I decided to do something a little bit different with the class.

Each week they have memory verses to learn, so on Monday I showed them this verse: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  –1 Peter 3:15

After going over the verse, I posed the question to them: “If a friend of yours asked you about God, about Jesus, how would you answer them?”

It’s a question that is worth thinking about whether you are 10 years old or 90. Have you thought about what you believe, and why? Have you thought about how to articulate your faith to another person who doesn’t, at this point, share it?

As my 5th graders tried to wrap their minds around what I was asking, all kinds of answers came to light. Some students quoted scripture; some tried to offer “proof” of God’s existence. 10 and 11 year olds raised on God’s Word can come up with some pretty amazing things to say about Him.

I challenged them to think hard about what they would say. Not everyone will be convinced with proof or scripture (in fact, my opinion is that most people won’t). What has God done in your life? I asked them. Has he answered prayers? Given comfort, friends, peace beyond understanding? I shared some examples from my life where God was made real to me.

Going through the process of thinking through your testimony is a valuable exercise. What experiences have brought you to where you are now in your faith? Who or what introduced you to Jesus and showed you how to have a relationship with Him? How is your life different now as a result?

Later this week, my students will be writing a more formal response to the questions we discussed in class that day. You, too, can write your testimony, the story of your faith, as a way to prepare yourself to give an answer if you are asked about it. Of course, you want to leave room for the Holy Spirit to guide your words in that situation, but most people will stumble over their response if they’ve never thought about it before.

I know that sharing your faith can be a scary thing for many people. Faith is intensely personal, and our society often seems to frown on talking about it, especially if we are perceived as being too pushy or strong in our opinions. At the end of the verse from 1 Peter are these words: “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Also, notice that we are told to be ready to give an answer to someone who asks us the reason for our hope. We can’t push ourselves into a situation and change someone’s heart, no matter how much we might want to do so.

I know for me, that takes off some of the pressure of speaking about my faith. I hope it does for you as well. God is the author of our faith. In our relationship with Him, I believe He will make it clear when we are to share Him with others, too.

 

 

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Thought of the Day–The People Challenge

I want to ask you a question today. Do you have people around you who encourage you, even challenge you, to think about your faith in new ways?

I think it’s very important to our relationship with God to have people around us who will 1) point us in the direction of God, and 2) challenge our faith. It would be nice to think that we could have a vibrant and growing relationship with God all on our own, but I just don’t find that to be the most beneficial way to go, even if it is possible. Somewhere in your life, at your church, in your family, even on social media, I hope you have a faithful, encouraging person who will remind you that God is at the center of our entire existence every moment, no matter what happens. And I hope you have a thoughtful, stimulating person who will shake up all your preconceived notions about your faith and make you consider every aspect of your relationship with God from a new perspective.

I have several of these people in my life, and I am grateful for each and every one of them. Thanks to one of them who raised questions about a theological issue I had long since thought was settled in my mind, I was searching scripture with urgency yesterday, studying with a fervency that I had not felt in some time and enjoying every minute of it! I uncovered some interesting information that I will share at a later date. I was challenged, and I grew in faith and understanding as a result of it.

If you can’t think of anyone in your life who fits into one of these categories, I encourage you to work on developing relationships like this. It is infinitely valuable as a person and a Christian. It may seem like most people don’t want to talk about God or about their faith, but if you look beneath the surface, you will find the ones who are searching, growing and being transformed.

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The Soul of Music

the soul of music

Music has touched the souls of its listeners for as far back as anyone has been able to determine. It is at the center of so much that is meaningful and important to our lives. We choose songs carefully for weddings and reception dances, songs that represent relationships and express our feelings about those we love. Music becomes the soundtrack of our lives. I can remember songs that played in the car on trips we took, songs I sang to my babies, and songs I danced to with my husband.

I was introduced to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) in the late 1980’s during my teenage years. My youth group leader tried to get us to listen to Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Petra instead of Michael Jackson, Van Halen and Madonna. Although I did come to like a few of the artists, like most of my generation I considered the majority of CCM music fairly lame and of lower quality than what I heard on top 40 radio.

In the mid 1990s, CCM music made a huge leap forward in quality and variety. DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys and Jars of Clay were a few of the groups that bounded onto the scene with music that sounded every bit as good as top 40 (at least in my opinion). Jars of Clay even had a huge top 40 hit (remember “Flood”?). I got my husband to go to Creation Festival  (www.creationfest.com) with me and we discovered dozens of new bands over the next several years.

We have been listening to CCM music for almost 20 years now. There are bands in almost every sub-genre of music, from punk to rap and everything in between, who are on a mission to honor and glorify God through their music. This music uplifts the soul rather than contaminating it, as some artists outside the CCM genre can do.

The praise music I listen is a powerful force in pushing me closer to God on a daily basis. It keeps my mind and heart focused on the things of God all throughout the day. Many of the songs are based on scripture, so it is a way of learning God’s Word, too.

It doesn’t take much some days for me to start worrying about something or feeling down about something that happened or that I saw on the news. Rather than getting stuck in this pattern of negativity, I can choose to listen to music that shows me how great my God is or reminds me about what is important in life and Who is in control.

Below are some of my current favorite CCM artists, with links to their web sites. Youtube.com and Godtube.com are two other web sites where you can access videos to this music. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments section below.

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You Don’t Have to Survive

Today I’m facing down a freight train in the form of my second part time job, which takes place seven times each year after high school kids take the SATs. For the last 10 years or so, I have been a holistic scorer for the essay portion of the exam. The essay portion is being phased out in 2016, from what I hear, so I will eventually be out of a job, which is okay with me. It’s a good job, don’t get me wrong; it’s just not writing.

But anyway, each scoring rotation I spend anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day holistically scoring for about 12 days in a row (I did start taking Sundays off last year). In a schedule like mine, this makes a serious dent. Pretty much every waking moment that isn’t teaching, driving kids around, feeding the family, or sleeping is spent on this job for almost 2 weeks. During these days, I pare down to just the essentials of what needs to get done. Between teaching, writing and scoring, it can often be a 10 or 12 hour work day, which doesn’t include driving the kids from place to place and generally making sure their needs are still met.

Just knowing it’s coming up to the start of “scoring,” as I call it, is enough to elevate my stress level. On the day before it starts (which is today), I usually have a long to-do list of things I hope to get done, since I know I won’t have time to accomplish anything extra during those 12 days.

I was thinking of this situation today and remembered something my husband came home saying after a men’s conference he attended some years ago. “You don’t have to survive,” he told me.

At first, the statement didn’t make any sense. What do you mean, I don’t have to survive? I thought to myself. Of course I have to survive. After all, what was the alternative? Not surviving? Not really an option.

But as he talked about it more, I realized that the speaker he was quoting was not suggesting we all give up and literally not survive. His statement referred to the way that we often go into survival mode when our stress levels rise. There are whole categories of things I don’t even think about when I’m in this middle of this scoring job, simply because I know I won’t have time to work on them while so many extra hours are being spent working.

The problem with survival mode, though, is that we sometimes shut out important things. When I am in survival mode, I don’t spend much time cooking, cleaning, or spending quality time with my family. I don’t read books, other than a few minutes at bedtime on the rare nights I’m not too tired. No date nights with my hubby. No vacations. Sometimes I don’t even style my hair or put on makeup if I think it’s going to take too long (I have long hair and can get away with just combing it most days).

The other thing I tend to skimp on when I am in survival mode is my “God time.” Although it isn’t an intentional thing, I tend to narrow my focus so much when I am just surviving that God gets squeezed right out of my view. Although I always know God is with me, I tend to be trying so hard to make sure I survive that I forget to include Him in the whole equation.

When we approach the busy or stressful times in our lives by shutting out God, we deny ourselves His help and comfort. God acts in our lives if we ask Him to do so. When we realize that we don’t have to survive, we can focus not just on what needs to be done this day or this moment, but also on our goals and the ways we want to move forward in life. God is a big part of this, if we ask Him to be.

While I am never going to gain an extra 4 to 8 hours in my schedule, I can approach the stressful times in my life by embracing God rather than shutting Him out as if He was a distraction. As fast-paced as our world is today, we could easily walk around in focused on “just surviving” most or all of the time. Walking with God during these times will allow us not to lose sight of what He wants for our lives.

 

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Meet Me Halfway, God

Did you ever ask someone to meet you halfway on something? I’m big on compromise. I won’t compromise my beliefs, but when I’m having a dispute with someone, I always try to look for a middle ground, a way both sides can get what they want, or at least some of what they want.

When I’m thinking about faith and about how God works, however, I don’t think He’s much of a compromiser. When it comes to His will, another phrase I remember from years ago seems to apply. It’s His way or the highway. But what is His way?

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” –Luke 15:20b

 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” –Romans 5:8

Thankfully, for us, God doesn’t meet us halfway. I’ve asked Him to do so more than once, and what I have found is that God’s way is to meet me more than halfway. The verse above from Luke comes from the parable of the prodigal son. Even though the son wasted his entire inheritance (kind of like humanity ruined God’s perfect creation with sin), the father (who represents God) runs to meet him and accept him back into the family. When the son asks to be an employee in the father’s house to escape his poverty, the father fully restores his position as son instead. This is what Christ did for all humanity in sacrificing himself on the cross even in the middle of all humanity’s sin. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that God meets me more than halfway in light of these Biblical examples, but it still surprises me and brings me to my knees in praise time after time.

Last week, I recommitted to writing as call from God after going through a period of “I can’t”s and excuses. From the very first time I prayed for the strength and perserverence to continue on this writing journey, God has been opening doors and clearing the path ahead of me. First, my husband helped remove my self-imposed roadblocks through a pointed, but necessary conversation. Next,  I have found several encouraging and helpful groups online and an accountability partner that I’m very excited about. These relationships and this sense of community have been missing in my writing life. I have always been fiercely independent, but what I once thought was a strength has begun to hinder me at times. I’m learning to reach out to others for help when I come to an impasse, rather than pulling back and feeling defeated.

I hope these examples of how God has met me more than halfway will encourage you in your own relationship with Him. Please share in the comments how God has met you more than halfway. You don’t have to register or be a subscriber to comment; I have set the comments to be open to anyone (although it may take me a little bit of time to moderate the comment so that it is viewable by everyone). Of course, if you want to subscribe, I welcome that, too!

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Some New Things

I’m considering how to offer more through this blog. More content. More value.  I’m going to start offering a brief “Deep Thought of the Day” on some of the days I don’t write a full post. I also want to offer links to other blogs and sites that I think my readers might enjoy. On Easter Monday, Jon Acuff posted this gem, so that will be my first link.

http://stuffchristianslike.net/2014/04/23/42780/

It’s called “The Comma of Grace.” Acuff can be deep and funny at the same time. That takes way more talent than I’ve got. I wouldn’t blame you at all if you decided to unfollow my blog so you could follow his. I probably would, if I wasn’t writing this one.

Any blog post that starts out telling the story of how he gets into a fight at an Easter egg hunt has got to be worth reading, so have fun!

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The Struggle

If you are a regular reader of this blog (all 3 of you!) or live in my house or know me through Facebook, I’m sure you’re aware that I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. When looking at the big picture, struggle is not a bad thing. Struggle has brought me closer to God many times. I know there are lessons I could not have learned without having to struggle through hard times and hard things. I would love to be able to embrace the struggle and throw myself into the demanding challenge of it all.

In the moment though, struggle is painful. It is difficult by definition. It is overwhelming. It seems insurmountable. When I’m struggling, I often get quiet and brood. I engage in emotional eating to try to make myself feel better (I keep forgetting it doesn’t work). I consider giving up at least once a day. I make plans and then abandon them, convinced that nothing I try will work. I distract myself with easy things that make me feel like I’ve at least accomplished something.

I almost had myself convinced several times that it was okay to put writing on the back burner because my family needed me. God wouldn’t call me to be a writer and expect me to neglect my family, would he? Surely when my son calls me from high school and wants me to pick him up, even though he could take the bus, I must put his needs (well, desires) above that calling. And there seems to be somebody wanting, or thinking they are needing, something just about every single day, so where does that leave writing?

I felt badly that I couldn’t be efficient and organized enough to come home to a clean house, which would make me feel comfortable taking time to write. There was clutter everywhere. Shouldn’t I clean it up before I took time for writing? I reasoned that taking care of my family should come first. If writing didn’t fit, so be it.

I was almost convinced until my husband broke through my silence and got me to share what was going on. It was late that night, so I will forgive his uncharacteristic bluntness. He listened to me complain for a while, then said what he thought. I was making excuses because I was finding the writing hard. I needed to be faithful to what God had called me to do. The family didn’t need me as much as I thought, at least for those few hours of the day that I had committed to spend on writing. What could he do to help? he asked. What a guy, right?

I hadn’t thought I was making excuses. I know I wasn’t doing it consciously. But on some level of which I probably wasn’t fully aware, he was probably right. In my mind, every obstacle had become huge. I couldn’t make the smallest decision. I was paralyzed, and needed a way out. At the very least, I was caving in to the difficulties. I was giving up too quickly. God wanted me to follow Him, but He never said it was going to be easy. I needed to continue to struggle.

My husband wasn’t taking no for an answer. He made it clear that he would be doing some things around the house to prevent me from using that as an excuse not to write. I appreciated his help, and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone, which has been another difficult thing about writing recently. I decided to seek out some sort of writer’s group, even if it was on Facebook. Community seems to be much more important than I had first thought it would be, for writing.

So what does all of this have to do with getting closer to God? Well, we all have struggles in our faith. Satan would like nothing better than for us to give up, to stop struggling. Let’s not give him the satisfaction. Whatever you are struggling with, keep up the fight. Do whatever it takes. Ask God for His help.

” He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  –Philippians 1:6

 

 

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Jesus Had Highs and Lows, Too

Sometimes the highs and lows of our lives, including our spiritual lives, can be discouraging.

Some days I go to worship, and God’s presence just surrounds me. I’m so overcome, I can barely stop myself from kneeling face down in the sanctuary. Maybe I shouldn’t stop myself, even if I would be the only one and people would probably wonder what’s wrong with me. I’m still conflicted over that. God speaks to me a lot when I am worshiping in church. Maybe that’s the only time He knows He has my attention. It’s painful to admit it, but some weeks, that is probably true. I looked at the date of my last post to this blog. 27 days ago. Ouch. Where have I been?

Tell me I’m not the only one who leaves worship ecstatic, and by the time I get home, I’m yelling at my kids or arguing with my husband. I can’t be the only one. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but by the time I’ve driven my son to youth group, picked up some groceries and a newspaper, gone back home, caught up on housework and laundry, figured out dinner if my husband hasn’t already, fed everyone, worked on lesson plans for the upcoming week, picked up aforementioned son, put my daughter to bed, and cleaned up the kitchen, I’m not exactly brimming with the sense of God’s presence anymore. Actually, I’m lucky if I remember anything about church that morning, including how it felt.

And that’s just a normal Sunday. Sometimes the lows are even lower. I encounter someone with a critical spirit and become their next target. I work hard on something and no one notices. I lose something important. I fail to keep my writing time commitment. A family member or friend fails to be supportive, or hurts my feelings, or becomes unwell. Although I turn to God for help and strength in these times, they are definitely low times, and they don’t feel very good when I’m going through them.

It occurred to me after observing Palm Sunday yesterday at church that Jesus really knows what highs and lows feel like. One day He’s being celebrated like a king, and a few days later, He is betrayed by one of His dearest friends. One day He is healing people, and the next He in compelled to drive cheaters and hypocrites out of His Father’s house. One moment He is celebrating Passover with men who are like family to Him, and the next, he is arrested and deserted by every last one of them.

It reminds me of these verses:

“Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

As far as I’m concerned, it comforts me to know that Jesus understands. He experienced the emotions, the disappointments, the elation and the heartache that I experience. He understands our reality, because He lived a completely human existence, even as he was also completely divine. I don’t know if I would be able to draw close to Him in the same way if I didn’t know He understood.

I pray that the days leading up to Easter would be days of not only holy remembrance of what Jesus did for us on the cross, but also days of drawing close to Him in anticipation of celebrating the joy of His resurrection. God bless you!

 

 

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In the Weeds

When my son was small, I worked part time as a waitress. I had a teaching degree at the time, but I didn’t want to work full time, and the family needed some extra income to make ends meet. It was a great job and taught me about the value of hard work, as well as helped me develop some level of “people skills,” something that as an idea person and an introvert I seriously lacked.

When things were really busy, we said we were “snowed” or “in the weeds.” That meant we were so far behind or lost that we were losing hope of catching up again, especially without someone else’s help. I haven’t been a waitress for 10 years now, but I still have dreams from time to time about being a waitress and being “in the weeds,” even though I never really got as far behind as I do in the dreams now. It’s a terrible feeling, that you are lost and may never be able to sort it all out and catch up. I feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and helpless.

I sat down to write today and realized that I feel the same way about my writing right now. I routinely feel lost, unsure of what to do next, and like there’s little hope of finding my way. And for me, writing is closely tied to my spiritual frame of mind. This blog and my book manuscript (which is so close to publication, yet seems very far away) both came out of my times alone with God, my study, my reflection. It is God who I have sensed has pushed me for years to put time and effort into writing. When I feel lost in my writing, I usually feel a little (or a lot) lost in my relationship with God, too.

When I’m in the weeds spiritually, I often flounder around for a while, trying to find my way to a more comfortable place. I’ve become convinced that God gives us some of these lost times to help us grow beyond them, and that we likely wouldn’t grow as much without them. Another part of me, however, senses that God is close, ever ready to show me the way out of the weeds. All I really need to do is remember to call on Him for help. Sometimes that is very hard to realize, in the weeds. I feel alone, and it is easy to panic when I can’t see the next step to take.

Yet even at my most lost, I can sense God’s love and His presence. Feeling lost is an uncomfortable feeling, but how much more difficult would it be without a shred of the relationship between God and me that sustains and energizes my life? There is a peace that passes understanding which comes from knowing God, even when the going gets tough and we feel the weeds pressing around us. It is a great comfort to know that whatever we face, God is in it with us. He will beat back the weeds with us if we ask Him to get involved.

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Can We Avoid God?

Currently, I am participating in Jon Acuff’s 30 Days of Hustle campaign. I can’t even give you a link because he posts on his blog giving people 48 hours to sign on to the “adventure” and then deletes the post. The campaign is entirely through email and Facebook, and only for those who signed up during that 48 hour window. Check his blog, acuff.me around the end of the month to get in on it if you are interested.

The idea of 30 Days of Hustle is to work toward a single goal or dream. It could be a goal for that month, such as his January goal of losing 5 pounds, or a larger goal, such as publishing a book. I’m going to be very transparent here and admit that my hustle is not going very well. For January, I decided to try to learn WordPress so that I could transfer my blog over to self-hosted WordPress. I got a book for Christmas. I joined an extremely helpful Facebook group hosted by web designer Revka Stearns. I had to mention her name because she just goes out of her way on a daily basis to help people who post their difficulties with making WordPress web sites. However, about the only thing I had accomplished by the end of the month was getting a web host. By the end of February, I had transferred the blog and started posting again as well as set up the most basic of web pages under my name for my author site. I still know only enough about using WordPress to limp along at a very basic level.

So what does this have to do with avoiding God? Good question. Every day, I have mentally committed the hours of 1 to 3 pm to working on my writing. I did this in response to just about the strongest pressure from God that I have ever had about anything in my life. It took years for Him to get me to the point where I would commit those hours to my writing–in essence, to Him. To His will for my life as I can best understand it.

More often than not, recently, I have not actually spent those hours on activities related to my writing. My intentions are good. I come home from teaching, eat lunch, and sit down to the computer. That’s where it starts to go wrong. I begin to think of the things that are urgently awaiting my attention: a bill that needs to be paid today, a mess that sits waiting to be tidied, or an errand I need to run. Soon it becomes difficult to concentrate on the writing tasks (and there are many) at hand.

Many days, I give up and revert to my to-do list. The tyranny of the urgent wins the day. Other days, I just sit there paralyzed by indecision over the next step in the process. Do I work on my author web site? Post on the blog? Ready my manuscript for uploading on Kindle and other e-reader sites? I am soon mired in the quicksand of my own thoughts.

Soon I realize that my writing time has passed, and I have accomplished nothing. I have avoided this God-ordained task for another day. Sometimes I am bothered. Other times I am greatly relieved.  And each day that passes by, I feel that distance between God and myself growing, bit by bit. It’s my own fault. Whether I mean to do it or it just “happens,” I am avoiding God by avoiding His will for me.

I know that God still loves me even in this failure. That’s not the point. I know I really can’t avoid Him. But I can avoid allowing Him to penetrate my soul. I can avoid doing His work in this life. I can avoid growing in ways that will help me know him more deeply.

I don’t know the answer to this problem; how to overcome my paralyzed indecision or ignore my shouting to-do list. Fixing my eyes on Him, I will sit down again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. Even if nothing else happens, I will gain much when I don’t avoid His quiet insistence. And I guess that’s what matters.

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