Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the beautiful truth.

If I were to be honest with you, I would tell you that a picture does not always depict the entire story; a smile does not always indicate genuine and lasting joy. A label does not always encompass one's true identity, and personal convictions are not always so easy to stand upon.

Yes, if I were to be honest with you, I would admit to you that it is much easier to compromise, and it is harder to hold on when the storms surround you. Desires can be so crippling, and hearts do not always hold out for what is best.

It is not always easy to pray, and it is not always easy to believe in hope. Faith sometimes fades, and loneliness is too often all that remains.

If I were to be honest with you, I would admit to you that calling myself a "follower of Jesus" is perhaps the most difficult label I have ever chosen to bear. Too often the world looks at those who have faith as naive or weak, but I dare to say they are so much more. You see, Jesus asks us to die to ourselves for the sake of others; to empty ourselves of what we think we need, and what we have convinced ourselves we deserve. He does not leave us empty, no. We may experience seasons of emptiness or periods of loneliness, but He always fills us so that we can, in turn, pour out our lives to bring hope to those in our midst. What we fail to realize is that in order for Him to fill us with that which is good, and noble, and true... we must first empty ourselves of everything that is not.

Emptying ourselves hurts, because it requires genuine sacrifice. It means bringing our dreams, desires, convictions, hopes, and feelings into the light. It often times means admitting that our intentions have been wrong, or that we have not desired that which is beautiful and true. For many, it requires removing the mask we have been hiding behind in order to admit that we are standing alone and do not know which way to turn. It means stripping ourselves bare and telling someone, perhaps for the first time in our lives, that we do not have it all together.

Let's be honest, not many of us do.

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:5

Sunday, July 12, 2009

embracing desperation

About a week ago, I was "confronted" face on with the question of how a "good God" could co-exist with the concept of poverty in our world for the first time since my trip to Ecuador. A friend of mine and I were at a restaurant enjoying a late night snack when Jerry approached us. Jerry was a middle-aged man with roots in Madrid and Italy who worked at a furniture store. At this point, Jerry was already drunk and had sung countless ballads at the karaoke station. Now, approaching us, he wanted to know if he could buy us a drink.

Kindly refusing, we decided to use this as an opportunity to talk to the guy. Right off the bat, he asked us if we had been "friends forever." You know, "BFF's" from the Ya-ya sisterhood, or something. He claimed he could sense something "spiritual" between us that seemed to indicate that was so. He stared in confusion when I told him we had only known each other for a little over two months, and even more so when I explained that it was our common love for God that bonded us together. His response was the response that most people give when they hear something like that: "Oh, so you are one of those religious types?"

I personally love this question, because I love to see peoples' reactions when I tell them "no." You see, I am not religious because "religion" is a man-made thing; religion is about do's and dont's and keeping up an image. God, on the other hand, is not.

This might baffle some of you who have been led to believe that Christians put aside their "intellect" in pursuit of a desire to "become perfect and holy" and "crutch" through life. I plead with you that this is by no means the case. Some who call themselves Christians are unfortunately "religious," but they, like the rest of the world, stand on the notion that they are "doing fine" without God; that they are perfectly content and fulfilled in their luxury, materialism, personal gain, and pride. Little do they know that none of these things are any kind of solid rock to stand on. They all, at some point, crumble to the ground. I know, because I've been there.

This doesn't "click" for so many of us because we have lost any sense of what it feels like to be "desperate" or "broken." In fact, I would argue that many of us have absolutely no idea what it is like to be in genuine need. Maybe we "desperately" want a new flat screen or car, or we "desperately" want to be in a relationship with that guy or girl... but that is the extent of our knowledge of poverty and need. I am talking to myself here.

Better yet, we convince ourselves that "what goes around, comes around" and in doing so, we place all of our eggs in a basket that we "hope" will bring something good "back around" to us. Karma knows how to work itself, right? When we realize that it doesn't, we deposit one more "reason" into our bank of justifications for why God and the reality of the story of Christ simply cannot be real.

This is how Jerry felt about Jesus. He explained to me that "there was no way God would WANT us to experience poverty in our lives.'' In fact, Joel Olsteen had told him that if he followed God, he could become rich and prosperous (insert exclamation point here). Tears filled my eyes as I tried to reason with him that the poor of this world know something about genuine need that we never could. Before him and before God, I shared that I would do anything to understand what those who have experienced poverty grasp in their hearts and lives; I would do anything to know what it is like to have such a desperate need for God that my very survival depends on it. No pursuit of "get-rich-quick-in-Jesus" schemes; just a genuine need to experience and understand the love of God, and in turn, to share that love with others.

He said God "would never do that me," which I don't blame him for saying. This is what so many believe. We have somewhere along the way learned to pity those in poverty, all the while forgetting that God in all His greatness and love takes a particular liking towards the "least of these." Many of the people who sought out Jesus in the gospel stories were people in extremely desperate circumstances. Many of them had nothing. Their pursuit of Jesus was beautiful because it sprung from something within that was calling out that they really needed what He had to offer. As The Message explains in Matthew 5:3, they were people who were "at the end of [their] rope" and realized that with "less" of them, there could be "more of God and His rule." Less of us, and more of God. How simple, yet perplexingly beautiful.

Perhaps that is what is missing in our understanding of what differs a "religious person" from a genuine follower of Jesus. Religious people play a role, put a smile on their faces, and walk out of church feeling as if God was "proud" of them that they managed to get out of bed AND take notes during the sermon. Genuine followers of Jesus know they have no reason to brag; they know they cannot be perfect, nor do they strive to be. They weep before God on their knees and literally beg Him to show the world what it means to find joy and fulfillment in Him. They weep on their knees for you and for me, because they are a broken people who are moved by the difficulties in their own lives and in the lives of others. Genuine followers of Jesus move all across the world for the sake of others; they voluntarily take up residence in some of the most hostile places for the sake of love. Some die for this love, but regardless they hold onto the truth that it was worth the fight. They hold out their hands to those who reject them, yet they press on because they know God has done the very same for them. Genuine followers of Jesus are humble, they are persisent, and you all know that they simply will not leave you alone. They really do love people. Most importantly, genuine followers of Jesus are desperate and they know it. In fact, they embrace their desperation with joy and gladness.

God is not just a tee-shirt that we wear, or someone we call out to when someone is in the hospital and we think creating "Praying for _____" facebook groups are what is going to make the situation better. God isn't proud of us for attending church or wearing cross necklaces around our necks. Nor does He listen when we only cry out to Him when we "need something," as if we were children writing a letter to Santa at Christmas time. He just isn't.

What He wants is for us to be desperate for Him and to truly need Him. We cannot truly experience God until we realize this truth: WE NEED GOD, not just when we are in trouble, but every single day. Why? Because this world is all too complicated for us. Even our best efforts fail us. We cannot be "good" as much as we try. Our love is pretty selfish without knowing how God intended love and relationships to function. We would hold a whole lot of grudges without learning from God the beauty and freedom that forgiveness brings into our lives.

If we do find ourselves so blessed to be in a state of spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical poverty... I pray we are reminded of the poor, who have a great treasure that so many of us lack in our lives. They know what it is like to need, and when they find the very One who can meet their needs, they are desperate beyond reason. They give up everything, the little they have, to know God's story and His plan for their lives. Why? Because they have nothing else. End of story.

Some pity the poor, but I admire their desperation and can only pray that God would bring me to such a humble and broken place in my own heart and life.

In Him,

Friday, July 3, 2009

if tomorrow never comes...

Have you ever had one of those days that you look back upon and just know it was wasted? I began reflecting upon this idea as I was standing in the kitchen late this afternoon, watching as the sharp bright rays of sunshine were quickly replaced with dark clouds and pellets of rain that fell from the sky. It had been such a beautiful day, one I had been planning to take advantage of for weeks now. I had unexpectedly been given the day off from work, and as I watched any opportunity of being kissed by the sun be briskly snatched from my very hands, my stomach turned. It was too late; I had wasted the very day that had been given to me.

Ok, confession. I took a two hour nap today, when I could have gone to the beach or taken advantage of the spa and pool in our very own backyard. For one who says she is tired of having 'cabin fever,' I cannot fathom why I did not step outside once today. I worked on homework, all the while convincing myself that I "had" to get it done today, or else. I avoided making phone calls I knew I needed to make. I watched TV. I drank endless cups of coffee and about six twenty-four ounce bottles of water. I played around with templates for my blog. I made Ramen Noodles, something I am not very proud of.

And as I am typing these very words, there is a sunset outside of my window that is turning everything in our culdesac a precious shade of bubble-gum pink, mixed with a gorgeous hue of purple and orange. I am missing it.

You see, if I were to die tomorrow, I simply cannot stand knowing that I could look back upon today with regret that I did nothing with my time that had even the sheerest hint of significance or value. That is why my stomach is turning and the tears are swelling up in my eyes, for if tomorrow never comes, there remains a laundry list of things I would be disappointed that I never did. There would be phone calls I should have made, and people that need to hear from my heart that they have meant the world to me. There would be conversations I needed to have with Jesus about the way I have been living, and about the people in my life who are hurting or have not experienced the love of God. There would be places I wish I had gone, and people I wish I had taken a few more minutes to listen to. Yes, that is why the tears are streaming down my face. I have wasted this very day, and as far as I know, my very opportunity to fulfill those deep yearnings and desires of this heart God has given me.

If there is anything that has been embedded into my life from my experience in Ecuador, it is this very truth: we are never promised tomorrow. To be honest, I am not quite sure why we always live believing that tomorrow is something that inevitably will come for us, as if we deserve it or are entitled to it. For most, tomorrow does come... but for a select few, the very concept becomes merely something that consumed their yesterday; a brief wind of hope, that although was supposed to spur them on into the future, became the very thing that robbed them of finding value and meaning in their lives, or even worse, their opportunity to bring value and meaning into the lives of others.

As I did this afternoon, so many of us live our lives believing that with "today" comes no sense of urgency or beauty; we have convinced ourselves that it is simply a stepping stone that will lead us into the days that come. Perhaps we are holding out for a dream that our heart has hoped for since forever, it seems. Perhaps there is a phone number next to a name on our "to-do" list that we are waiting to "get around to." Maybe there is someone we need to tell we are sorry, or a grudge that we need to let go of in our heart. Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that we will "get right with God" when we are older, or when it is time to settle down; surely He won't mind that we "enjoyed" a few years without Him. As long as we "eventually" come, it's okay... right?.

But what if tomorrow never comes? Will you, as I did today, wish that you had spent "today" a little differently than you did?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

just 'Latinos?'

I recently read a journal article* by Ph.D. and educator Margaret Curwen concerning the rise of Latino students in U.S. classrooms and how teachers can single-handedly make a difference in ensuring their academic and personal success. While she offered many practical suggestions that aided in classroom management and curriculum choices, each suggestion was rooted in a solution that I believe can and should affect each and every one of us as U.S. citizens. Her solution in a nut-shell was this (paraphrased by me): We as a nation should be less quick to judge Latinos and should intentionally learn how to accept them as a unique culture that is comprised of endless individual, multi-faceted, and nethertheless interesting sub-cultures. Adapting such a mindset, Curwen argues, has the potential to transform not only Latino students’ success in the classroom, but also our world as we know it.

Why this issue has “struck” such a chord in my heart, I do not know. All I can say is that I wholeheartedly believe that we as a nation have failed our world by rejecting and judging those in our midst who are different than we are. In our minds, we have formulated a stereotypical mold of Latin culture through which we have learned to place each and every Latino that crosses our path. As Curwen emphasizes, we are quick to label all Latinos living in the United States as “illegal immigrants” or “migrant workers,” all the while ignoring the fact that in 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that as much as sixty-percent of the forty-seven million Latinos living in the United States are in fact considered native-born. The Bureau also depicted that the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. holding “professional jobs” precisely mirrored the percentage of Latinos in the typical “service” job that we generally view them in. It does not faze us to assume that all Latinos in our midst are “Mexicans,” when in reality there are hundreds of Central American, South American, and European countries represented within the Latino culture as a whole. This concept is one that I saw very clearly during my four-month stay in Ecuador this past December of 2008. When asked what the “typical” Ecuadorian was like, I struggled to portray an image that embodied the diversity and beauty that existed throughout Ecuador’s many different sub-cultures and people groups. For example, farmers make their living in the mountains, while businessmen roam the capital of Guayaquil in search of success. Indigenous women wear hand-woven, bright colored skirts and wrap their hair in long belt-like sashes; women in the capital city dress as if they have just stepped out of a Miami fashion magazine. Spanish is the majority language in Ecuador, however many diverse dialects exist inside its borders. Each person I encountered had a story of his or her own; each inspired me in a way no one else I encountered before had. For me to label every Ecuadorian as if he or she fit some type of mold would have single-handedly robbed each individual sub-culture of the beauty and the influence that it brings to the country of Ecuador as a whole.

What is my point? The Latino culture cannot break the mold and rise above the statistics that label them “at-risk” and “out of place” without our help. I firmly believe that if someone communicates to a person long enough that he is undesirable, unwanted, or not worthy of success, it will eventually become a part of him and he will have no choice but to model his life after what the world tells him he is. Have we forgotten that he is a child of the living God and has been created for a distinct purpose, just as we have? Instead of scurrying to protect a United States “culture” that I cannot say I believe even exists, let us focus our efforts on cultivating open and nurturing hearts towards a people group that will inevitably rise to a projected 102 million people and will encompass nearly ¼ of those residing within our borders by the year 2050. We must learn to love them. May this be a challenge to you and to me to not settle for simply viewing all Latinos as “the same.” May our eyes be opened to the unique, multi-faceted, and beautiful diversity that exists within their culture, and more so as each day passes, in ours as well.

*If you are interested in reading Margaret Curwen's article in full, it can be accessed from the following reference: Curwen, M. (2009, June). Visiting Room 501. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(10), 756-761. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.