Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dead branches

   I have to begin this week’s blog by sharing a personal story. Some of you know my story, some of you don’t. For the sake of keeping this from becoming a novel, (Which I’m always capable of doing) I will only say that for the vast majority of my childhood, I always felt completely abandoned by both of my parents. I don’t say this to whine or complain or to make anyone feel sorry for me. I say this because it’s true, and looking back throughout my life, I can clearly see how God has used that abandonment  to shape me into a man who can, and is, being used by Him.

   As a child, I learned that being alone was not always a bad thing. It allowed me to focus all of my attention on things I truly enjoyed. Writing and playing music were two things that always lifted me and inspired me. I wouldn’t learn until much later in life that these were the areas where God had gifted me from birth. I can’t remember the first time I picked up an instrument, or sat with a pad of paper to express my thoughts and emotions. I just know that I was always able to do both very easily. They just came naturally to me. In fact, I remember being shocked when I first learned that not everyone could do this.

   As I grew older, the pain I felt from feeling alone and abandoned led me to pursue things that ended up being incredibly self-destructive. I turned to drugs, alcohol, relationships, possessions, and countless other pursuits in an attempt to fill the void left within me. None of them worked. In fact, all of them led to heartbreaking consequences.  Every time I felt some sense of fulfillment from these things, they were seemingly removed from my life, leaving an even greater hole within.

   I remember sitting back a number of years ago, thinking that I must be cursed somehow. You see, it was never a lack of effort on my part that led to my many heartbreaks. I know without a doubt that I worked harder at these things than most people I knew.  All the while, I watched as those around me who seemingly worked far less had far more success in their lives. It was as though God was angry at me, refusing to give me the peace, love and security that others seemed to be enjoying.

   This week, Bob spoke on John 15. The key verses that struck me were John 15:1-4:

  “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes so that it will bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

   What struck me through Bob’s message today was this: I was created by God, gifted in areas that He designed to do His work. If I attempted to use those gifts to do my  work, to build myself up, to give myself worth or value, He would frustrate my efforts, stopping me dead in my tracks. These are, and always have been, His gifts, given to me for His glory, not my own.

   Just as Jesus spoke of being the vine, and the Father being the vinedresser, and just as the vinedresser prunes the vine to make the areas where fruit is produced more productive, God has been there throughout my life, cutting away the areas of my life that weren’t productive in bearing His fruit.

   The evidence of this can be found in where I find myself at this point in my life. Once again, I am alone. But what is the most important asset for anyone who wants to write or play an instrument?............ Time spent alone to focus and concentrate on the work they need to accomplish. And what has been the result of this? For the first time in my life, I see God working through me in ways I never thought possible before now. Why is that? Why now? What’s so different? You see, for the first time in my life, I’m not looking to fill that void with anything except  focusing  upon God and His word, spending time in prayer and study, asking Him for guidance on a daily basis, and then asking Him to show me where I might best use my gifts to bear His fruit. In other words,  “Abiding in Him.”

  God didn’t make me feel abandoned as a child because He was angry with me. He wasn’t being cruel. He wasn't punishing me. He wasn’t being indifferent to my pain. He simply knew that it would drive me to seek Him, and to pour myself into the areas where He had already gifted me.

    Look back upon your own life. Where are you gifted? Where are you being asked to bear fruit? What’s holding you back, and where can you see God’s hand “pruning” you so that you will be more productive in that. Don’t fight that process. While it may be painful, the rewards are eternal  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

True Thankfulness

  A young boy wakes up on Christmas morning, so excited he can hardly contain himself. Within a second of his eyes opening up, he jumps out of bed and runs to the living room where a bounty of gifts awaits him under the tree. He scans the enormous pile of gifts, looking for the one package that might be the gift he'd been hoping for all year.
  "Maybe it's in here!" he thinks to himself as he picks up one of the packages and shakes it. "No, that's too light. It can't be this one." He picks up another and gives it a shake. No, it couldn't be that one either.
   He runs to his parent's bedroom and jumps on the bed. "Mom!! Dad!!! Can I open my presents now??!?" he shouts.
   His parents, tired as they are, are happy to see his excitement. They were excited too. They climb out of bed and follow him into the living room, smiling widely. They had put a lot of thought into every gift they purchased, each one being absolutely perfect for a boy his age. They were certain that he would be thrilled with everything.
   As the boy tore through the pile of gifts, his face drew more and more downcast. He didn't see the one gift he had wanted more than anything, and with every gift he opened, the odds were more and more against him that it was there. He opened the last gift, hardly even paying attention to what it was. He got up slowly and began to walk away from the pile of presents.
   "Wait a minute!!" he thought. "I'll bet Dad hid it in the garage to trick me!!" Excitement filled his face as he ran to the garage and looked inside. Nothing there but the family car. "Wait!! The closets!! I'll check the closets!!" he thought. He ran back inside and rushed to every closet, throwing the doors open hoping to see it there. After searching everywhere, it was clear to him that he hadn't received the one gift he had dreamed of. He walked back to the living room, picked up his presents, and brought them to his room. Over the course of the next month, he never played with any of them, completely discouraged that he didn't get what he really wanted. What he didn't know was that his parents had considered buying him the gift, but they knew deep down inside that he simply wasn't ready for it. Had they given it to him now, it would've been misused and not appreciated for it's fully intended purpose.
   You might read this and think "What a spoiled little dweeb." But how often do we do the same thing to God?
   If any of us look around us, we will find countless things to be thankful for. Gifts from God in every area of our lives, given to us because they are perfect for us right here and right now. But how often do we look at the one thing we don't have and allow the lack of it to blind us to all that we already have? How many gifts do we have that sit in the bedroom closets of our minds, completely unused and unappreciated? How often do we instead search endlessly for the gifts we haven't been given, looking in closets, in the garage, under the bed, assuming that there must be some kind of mistake?
   Just like the boy in this story, what if we were to sit with our Father and allow Him to show us not only the beauty of each gift, but also how we could use it to the best of our ability? How would that change our lives? How would that change our perspective?
   As Nate taught this week, Jesus said:

"If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." - John 15:7

  Does this mean that we'll get whatever we want, whenever we want it? No. The key to this verse is the very beginning. "If you remain in me, and my words remain in you......"
  If that's where we are, then our hearts and minds will be in harmony with God's, leaving us to ask what we truly believe is His will. If we ask for what we know is within God's will for our lives, then anything we ask for will already be ours. Not only that, but He waill also show us the beauty of what we already have, and how best to use those gifts.
   Knowing that we are living out God's will in our lives will give us the truest sense of peace, joy, and comfort that we could ever possibly experience, no matter what our circumstances may be. That is something to be truly thankful for not only this Thanksgiving, but for every day of our lives.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From the ashes.....

   In the heart of the city, a homeless man sits on the sidewalk, his back leaning against a cold brick wall. Everything he owns rests beside him in a plastic bag, the contents of which would be useless to any of us, but to him it means everything.
   He watches silently as the important people of the world, the movers and the shakers, the business men in their fine suits, hurry about. The talk into their cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings.
   With dirty, weatherbeaten hands, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a stale crust of bread he had saved for this moment. People who have never experienced the depths of sadness or hoplessness this man has seen look upon him with pity or disgust as he brings the bread to his mouth and savors each bite.
   They don't know his story. They don't know how he ended up here. Most of them don't even care. They just go about their business, trying not to get too close. Trying not to make eye contact in fear that he may ask them for something like a small amount of pocket change they could easily spare, but don't want to be bothered to stop for just a second to reach into their pockets and hand it to him.
   The reasons they feel this way are fairly common. Maybe they think he's here due to his own bad choices. Maybe they think he'll just spend it on drugs or alcohol, so they're doing him a favor by not giving him anything. It is from this perspective that they can easily justify their refusal to help.
   Although they'd never admit to such, maybe they view him as being somehow less than human, unworthy of even the slightest bit of common courtesy...............But they don't know his story.
   When speaking of mental illness among the homeless, a very good friend of mine once said to me "Maybe they are crazy........but just because they're crazy doesn't mean they deserve to live like this."

   This Sunday, we heard Katie Hansen share her story about being addicted to drugs, homeless, and forced into prostitution due to her drug addiction. If we didn't know her, how many of us would've walked right past her during those days, viewing her as less than human, refusing to help, and feeling very justified in doing so?
   Much of what Katie said on Sunday rang in my ears. You see, just like Katie, I have been addicted to drugs. I have been homeless and penniless. It was a very long time ago, but I remember how that felt as if it were yesterday. I know others who have been in similar situations, all of whom are now people I am proud to call my friends. People I love and respect very deeply.
   Are we more valuable now then we were at our lowest point? Not at all. When we were at our worst, God still loved us just as much as He does now.
   In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus said:
   "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
    The next time you see a man or a woman who is homeless, or hungry, or in need, please remember Katie's story. You know her, love her and respect her now because you don't look at her that way anymore. But the next person you see in that situation could be the next Katie - and could possibly be one kind act away from having their entire life changed for good, and in return they may eventually go back to the streets to help many others.  

Friday, November 11, 2011

A dog's life

    Imagine, if you will, that your neighbor disappears without any notice. Being concerned, you enter his home to look around. Once inside, you find his dog cowering under the dining room table. This doesn't surpirse you, because you've seen how your neighbor has treated his dog over the past several years. There was no real love for the animal as far as you could see. Maybe he threw it a bone every now and then just to keep it loyal. Maybe he'd take it to the vet if it was very ill, but you never noticed what you would describe as genuine care, love, concern and affection. There may have even been times when you saw this, but had a gut feeling that it was all for show.
   Over the years, you had a feeling that he had abused his dog. Maybe you were certain of it. Maybe you thought about calling someone to report this abuse, but you didn't want to get involved. After all, you kinda got along with your neighbor, and you weren't really sure how bad things were for the dog. Besides, you didn't really want to cause problems for him.
   As you gather inside the home with other neighbors, the stories begin to come out about just how bad the abuse was. You hear about how the dog was forced to stay under the table at all times. If it came out, it would be beaten. You hear that the only food the dog ate was the scraps that fell from the table. If the dog ever attempted to get to where the real food was, it would again be beaten. This had apparently gone on for many years.
   As you hear these things, you look over at this poor animal. It refuses to come out from under the table. It's eyes are downcast. It's shaking. It's ears are hanging low, and it's tail is between it's legs. It's terrified.
   You walk over to it and take a knee beside it, trying to coax it out from under the table. But it refuses to come out. It instead backs into a corner. What would you feel in your heart as you witnessed this? What would you do? Would you reach under the table, grab it by it's neck, and drag it out? Would you scream at it in frustration? Would you wonder what the dog had done to deserve this kind of treatment? Would you write the dog off, thinking to yourself that it brought this treatment upon itself for not running away when it had the chance?
   I think it's safe to say that none of us would do any of that. I think we'd feel sincere compassion for it. I think most of us would probably sit a safe distance from the table, maybe with a few treats in our hand, and gently coax it out from under the table. If it did come out, we would probably begin to pet it, letting it know that it's safe and loved. But we would wait until the dog was ready to come out. Am I right?
   If this is true, then I need to ask all of you a question. Why is it that we would treat a dog better than we would treat a woman who has spent years in an abusive relationship?
   You see, much like this poor dog, a woman who has spent many years being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused is kept within that relationship for one reason alone.......... Fear...........And as I've said before, the type of abuse means nothing. Abuse is abuse, and the psychological effects on the abused are the same, no matter the type of abuse involved.
   "Oh, wait a minute" you might say. "You're comparing apples to oranges here. A woman can think things through. She can see that there are other options. She can go for help." That's very true. But being able to think things through and consider other options can also lead to even more fear. A dog can know it doesn't like being abused, and run for safety without having to consider where it will live, how it will feed itself, what will happen to it's children, it's family, it's reputation, etc..
   When you hear of a woman who's being abused in any of these ways, don't allow the first question to be "Why does she stay?" or "Why did she even get into that relationship?" Make your first question "Why do men abuse the women who love them, and how can we put an end to it." Then come alongside her, love her, comfort her, be patient with her, and make sure that she knows that she is exceptionally valuable, and did nothing to deserve to be treated this way.
   Abusive relationships rarely begin that way. If they did, there would be far less abusive relationships. They usually begin with a man doting over his woman, taking care of her in every way, making her feel like the center of his universe. Saying that it's her own fault for staying in that relationship once it gradually becomes more and more abusive only solidifies what her abuser has been telling her for years.............that she deserves the abuse.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Through the Out Door

  A few years ago, I was sitting home watching "America's Dumbest Criminals." I guess that I was bored and I wanted to feel better about myself and the various decisions I've made, so it made perfect sense to watch live videos of people who get caught doing really dumb things.
   In this episode, they played a security camera video of a bank robber somewhere out west. He did everything right at first. He disguised his face, walked up to the teller, demanded cash, grabbed the money, and headed out of the bank lobby into a glass vestibule leading to the outside world. The police hadn't yet arrived, and he was on his way to freedom. For all intents and purposes, he had pulled off the perfect crime and was about to get away with it.
   Then it happened. He pushed on the glass door leading outside, and it wouldn't open. He pushed harder. He kicked it. He lowered his shoulder into it. Still nothng. In his frustration, he began to slam his body against the door, assuming that the bank employees had locked him in the vestibule. Having no luck, he went to the door leading back into the bank lobby and began pushing on that door. It wouldn't open either. For the next few minutes, he became like a crazy person, beating on the glass with his fists, then running a few steps and launching his body into the glass, trying to break out of the trap he now found himself in. He eventually just gave up, accepting the fact that he had been outsmarted by the tellers who had apparently locked him inside of this glass cage with no way to escape. He walked to a corner, sat down, and waited for the police to arrive, knowing that he had no other choice.
   When the police arrived, the first officer on the scene drew his weapon. Then, to everyone's amazement, he simply pushed the door open from the outside. As it turned out, the doors were never locked. The bank robber had simply failed to notice the sign by the handle that said "Pull."
   Laugh if you will, but how many times do we all do the very same things in our lives? We find ourselves in situations where we feel trapped. We see circumstances that we want changed. Although we are powerless to change them. For days, weeks, months, and even years, we throw our bodies against those circumstances that have become doors and walls placed in our way. Just as the robber did, we look out through the glass and see what it is that we want, or where we want to be. Our vision becomes locked upon what we see instead of what we're being shown. Sometimes the answer is to just look at the signs that have been placed in front of us to guide us. A simple "push" or "pull"  sign that, while it looks very simple from the outside, does us no good if we refuse to see it.
   Sometimes all it takes is to calm down, take a deep breath, and look around for these signs. Other times, we have no choice but to sit back, rest, and wait for God to step up and open the doors for us.
   While we all become impatient at times, having faith that God knows what He's doing and that He is the only one who has the power to open those doors is the difference between feeling trapped and feeling free. Between feeling frustrated and exhausted, or feeling a sense of confidence that we are where we are for a reason.