Thursday, March 29, 2012

In re Daniel

So there's this story in the Old Testament about a guy named Daniel.  He was one of the Jews who was carried off to Babylon.  Apparently they had the young captives hanging out together, getting beefed up to do whatever it is they were supposed to do, coming before the king.  And their daily regimen included a diet that was contrary to the dietary restrictions the Jews followed as part of their religion.  So Daniel stood up to the guy in charge and asked if he could eat different things - vegetables and water only.  And the guy in charge said that it would be on him if they didn't perform as well as the other captives.  So Daniel asked him to test them for 10 days, to see if his own diet would hurt him.  After the 10 days, the guy was so impressed with Daniel (and his friends), that he switched all the captives to that diet.

I've been thinking about this recently because we talked about it at my church a few weeks ago, and a lot of new things have been happening with my law job.  I've been seeing some parallels in the way that God responded to Daniel's choice to follow him and how God has responded to my decision to have a nontraditional legal career.

When I first got out of law school, I had a nice cushy state job with benefits and pension and a regular paycheck.  It was relatively prestigious, and I was doing something I enjoyed.  But back in law school, God had given me a different vision for how he wanted to use me.  So the question became, would I follow him into the great unknown, chasing after this possibility of using my legal knowledge to effect justice and impact the people around me?  Or would I stay where it was safe and predictable?

I ended up choosing to leave that job, and I've been on a journey these last five years where I haven't known what to expect.  Those first few months I was living off a credit card and not seeing how I was going to make enough to pay it off.  I was taking legal work I knew wouldn't really pay the bills (or pay anything at all), but I was doing it because I felt like it was the right thing to do--like God had called me to help these specific people.  And I remember making the choice, day after day, to believe that God would provide.  I said to God that everything was his--all my time, all my choices, everything, and I was trusting him to provide.

And he truly has.  After 4-5 months of real testing, work started coming my way.  I got a three-year contract that would pay almost all my bills.  I kept getting classes at a local law school to teach that would pay the rest of my bills.  And I got to give pretty much the rest of my time away, building relationships, serving the underprivileged with legal services, doing ministry, and writing.  God has been so faithful to provide for me.  And he continues to.  I just got another contract that by all rights I should never have gotten--it's extremely competitive and unheard of for someone so young.  I'd like to take credit for it and say it's because of my performance in law school and other things.  But I really can't.  I believe that God opened those doors so that I will be able to continue to do what he's called me to do.

I sometimes wonder whether stepping out by faith like Daniel did actually accomplishes anything.  What impact does it have on the world around me?  What impact can it have?  But I get the sense that it's to be a testimony to the people whose lives I touch about what faith looks like.  Sometimes I get to tell this story when I'm listening to others who are trying to decide whether to risk stepping out by faith to do something.  Sometimes I get to tell it to other lawyers who are trying to figure out why my life looks the way it does.  I really wanted to tell it here because I wanted to tell you--I want God to get the praise and the glory for his faithfulness.  I think it says something about who he is.  My friend always says that you can't out-give God, and I really think that's true.

Many times, walking with God is going against the flow.  Sometimes it's going against the flow of the world, and sometimes it's even going against the flow of our complacent Christianity.  But I want to encourage you to take those risks, to walk by faith, to go where God is encouraging and calling you to go.  A life of faith is like nothing else in the world.  And when you put yourself in a position where God is the only one who can come through, the only one who can answer, the only way you can make it, it's amazing what that does to your faith.  You can't be apathetic when you desperately need him.  You can't.  Even more amazing is what you will see him do through you.

What visions has God put on your heart that you are considering?  What is holding you back?  What would God need to do to make those things possible?  What would you need to do?  I hope you'll pray through these questions, and I hope that you'll decide to step out by faith like Daniel did.

Monday, March 26, 2012

what if you were to give God a year of your life...

... right where you are?

At church this week, we had an opportunity to hear from a young woman who's giving a year of her life to go overseas on a missions trip.  She was motivated to do this because, when she was struggling to find out what to do with her life after school, our pastor challenged her to give a year of her life to God.  This led to a summer missions trip last year, and now, she's heading overseas.  It was awesome and encouraging to see someone who's simply willing to walk by faith and go where God is leading her.

As a pastor's kid and a missionary kid, and then an adult missionary, I had a lot of people look at me over the years and say things like, "I could never do that."  Whether it was the thought of picking up and moving overseas or living in the most dangerous part of the city, people looked at it and had the impression that it takes something special to go there and to do that.  And I bet a lot of people at my church were thinking the same thing about this girl this weekend.

I don't know where we got the idea that pastors and missionaries were special, elevated, something more than a normal, everyday follower of Christ.  Because I can tell you from the other side that we're not.  We're just regular people who have encountered Christ and have surrendered our lives to him.  We get up in the morning, most days, and we ask God to speak into what we're doing, who we're talking to, and where we're going in the future.  We make the choice, day by day to trust him, just like Abraham, Noah, or any of those other champions of faith.  We are absolutely ordinary, but we've offered up our five loaves and our two fish to the One who can create something from nothing.  We are just as selfish, just as broken, just as uncertain as everyone else.  But we are trusting the One who can transform our hearts to work through even that brokenness.

So what's holding you back?  What's holding you back from giving a year of your life to God, right where you are?  What's stopping you from getting up in the morning and asking God to give you his vision for the people around you, from asking him to show you where he's working so that you can join him there, from making the choice to love and pursue those who don't know Christ who are living and working beside you?  What's preventing you from making his mission and his kingdom your priority this year?

What do you think God could do with a year of your life, where your only priority was to hear his voice and do what he asks you to, right where you are?  How do you think your world might change as you walk with Jesus and learn to be Jesus to those around you?

So that's my challenge to you for this week.  Even if you're not ready to hop on the next plane to travel around the world to share the message of Christ with the unreached there, I challenge you to give this year to God--right here, right now.  One day at a time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

dreaming big

In my world, there's a lot of pressure to dream a certain dream.  In law school, we're supposed to dream about getting into a "silk stocking" law firm, where a first-year associate can expect to make six figures and a partner makes millions.  We're supposed to dream about a beautiful car and a great house and the prestige of being a leader in the community.

The broader culture seems to give us a script as well--we're all pursuing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right?  And for most of us, that means a house in a safe neighborhood, maybe with a white picket fence.  We dream of 2.5 children and retirement that's only a few years away, when we'll really get to do what we want to.  So we buy into this dream, and we work away the best years of our lives waiting for those dreams to materialize and our lives to be perfect.

And we especially dream of living without pain or tragedy.  We hope never to face hardship.  Instead, we try to use money and comfort to insulate ourselves from the realities that our less fortunate neighbors find themselves in.

But what if it is possible to dream bigger than all of these things?  What if the best things in life were actually spiritual things.  What if our dreams consisted of seeing the name of Christ preached to all the nations, of the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord?  What if our dreams were to simply wake up every day and present ourselves to God as living sacrifices, ready to go out into the world and love God and love other people into the kingdom?

The Apostle Paul put it this way: "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything lost compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him--not having the righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing with him in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain the resurrection of the dead."  Philippians 3:7-14.

And what is the power of his resurrection but the power to change lives--the power to move someone into abundant life and relationship with the Eternal One now.

Every December I go away to a quiet place and think and pray through the coming year.  I ask God to give me his dreams for my future, and then I pray for those things throughout the year.  This year I really had the sense that one of those dreams was to be a part the conversation about helping the coming generations to know the power of the resurrection.  And I have seen God opening some amazing doors.  This summer I'm heading to Madison, Wisconsin for a conversation with 119 other young leaders in the nation who are doing amazing things for world evangelism.  I've seen other barriers coming down and other doors opening.  I've just been in awe of how God moves when we make his kingdom and his Name the priority in our lives.

So what dream does God have for your life?  How can you dream bigger about being involved with God's desire to see all people come to know him?  How can your Christian community pray for you and support you in working toward that dream?

Monday, March 12, 2012

are we the moral police?

So what happens when you're hanging out with a friend or an acquaintance that you've been praying for, and the person brings up his plan to move in with his girlfriend?  Or maybe it's his substance abuse over the weekend?  What do you do?  Do you confront it, following the philosophy that you confront the sin but love the sinner?  Do you ignore it because you're not ready to have the conversation?  Do you start to avoid the person because you're not sure what to do?

Sometimes I think we get the message at our churches that our job is to be the moral police of the world.  Sometimes the Christian culture encourages to do just this - to make sure that, as much as possible, we keep the community and the culture on the straight and narrow.  But I'm sure it's not news to you that this is one of the biggest complaints that people who aren't followers of Jesus have against the church.  It's actually also one of the reasons that our young people are leaving the church in droves.

I can't tell you how often I've been in this situation, where my friends are about to embark on some course of action that I don't think is God's ideal for us.  And as I've wrestled with these questions and tried to figure out how to respond, I've searched the Scripture to see what guidance is there.  And I have to be honest, I don't think that there's support for me to condemn those around me, whatever they may be doing.

When I look at the way Jesus dealt with people, I note that it is the religious people he condemned.  He confronted and challenged the people who claimed they were walking with God and he asked them to look at their hearts and get their attitudes right with God rather than walking in their self-sufficient righteousness.  But for those who were not, he had a different approach. 

Yes, he invited them to walk away from their sin and follow him.  But it seems to me that it was so much more about what he was inviting people to than what he was inviting them to leave behind.  For the woman at the well, for example, he painted a picture of abundant and verdant life with God. 

And as I've watched a number of friends move from hostility or apathy toward God to what has become a relationship of surrender and commitment toward him, I've noticed some things.  It seems like the only thing that really makes a person change on the inside is a desire to know and follow Jesus.  What I mean is, the process of conversion or sanctification starts in the heart--it doesn't start with external changes.  It starts when someone meets and is captivated by Jesus.  And as they learn who he is, learn to trust him, and begin to offer more and more of themselves to him, he is the one who calls them to walk away from their sin and follow him.  He is the one who captivates them and challenges them and invites them to follow. 

So I've begun to see my job as a kind of storyteller.  I'm here to tell God's story and the stories I have of how he's impacted my life.  Not so that people can be challenged to change their behavior, but so that people can meet Jesus.  That's it.  I am called to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and spirit, to love my neighbor and even my enemy, and to tell the stories of God.

Have you ever been in a situation where you weren't sure whether to communicate disagreement with someone's decisions?  What did you do?  What happened within your relationship after that?  What story might you have told instead that might have been appropriate and would have served as an invitation to deeper relationship--both with you and with Jesus?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

for such a time as this

My first week in law school, I noticed that this other student seemed pretty down.  It wasn't long before I had the sense that I should send him a card or something--just to tell him that was praying for him and hoping that everything was going to turn out ok.

But  as soon as I thought about it, I wondered if people here even send each other cards--that would be a weird way to start law school, right?  I don't even like greeting cards.... And what if he didn't believe in prayer?  What if he felt like I was butting into his business?  What if, what if, what if?  I just wasn't sure I wanted to have that kind of reputation so early in my school career.  So I didn't do anything.

A year or so later, we became good friends, and I learned that those first few months of law school were some of the most difficult of his life.  Immediately, I knew that God had been leading me to reach out to him that first week in law school, and that I had missed an opportunity.  I'd missed an opportunity to reflect God's love in his life.  I'd missed an opportunity to be a part of what God was doing in his heart.  And if I was the only Christian in his life at the time, maybe he went without the ministry of the Spirit through God's people because I was afraid of what he (and all my other classmates) would think of me.  I had been placed there for such a time as that, but I was too afraid to follow through.

That realization was kind of a turning point for me.  I decided that day that I would never again look back and wish that I had responded to the Spirit's prompting.  Going forward, I was going to do what God led me to do, even when it was hard or seemed risky or stretched my own image of myself.  Because I would rather be wrong once in a while, look foolish, or pursue someone too much than to miss the opportunity to participate with God's work in the world around me.

On our own, both lack of action or too much action can be damaging.  If we're not listening to and watching for what God is doing around us, we can jet in and bring "truth" and confrontation where they are not yet appropriate.  At the same time, unless we're paying attention, we can fail to act so that something that God is longing to do in the heart of another does not ever get done, or at least is put off until someone else comes along. 

In general, we already know the direction God is always leading us--to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But as for how, well, Galatians 5 talks about the importance of walking in step with the Spirit, and Jesus described this process as abiding in him as he talked to the disciples in John 15.  One day at a time, we need to be looking to the Spirit to lead and guide us in how we're to be loving God and loving others.  And when we sense he's leading, we have to follow.

Have you ever sensed God leading you to do something you didn't want to do?  What did you do?  How is God leading you to be a part of his mission to the world today?  What will you do this time?