Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Love" ... What does it really mean?

Two weeks in West Africa. Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Matthew 25:31-46. "How He Loves" by David Crowder.

To say the items listed above have changed my life this year would be a huge understatement. Recently, I've tried to make sense of the word "love." I tried to explain this to my sister last night, but words failed me - as they typically do - and I was unable to express the millions of thoughts racing through my mind. So, I'm going to attempt this through writing and pray that the words do not fail me in this format.

How did two weeks in West Africa help me understand love? In January of this year, I was given the opportunity to travel to Niger, West Africa. I had no idea what to expect as I was packing my clothes and the food I would eat while I was there. I also had no idea how that trip would forever change my life. God knew. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I entered into a world I always knew existed but the smells, the noise, the disease, and the smiles on the kids' faces made it real for the first time. What does love look like in West Africa? The Womble family. Brad, Sally and their kids giving up their comfortable lives in America to travel to this place that lacked comfort, convenience, and all of the luxuries we take for granted. Why? Love.

Changing gears...

How did reading, and rereading, the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan help me understand love? This book helped me realize that I don't get the love about which he speaks because my view of love is so skewed by the world's definition. Our definition does not even come close to the "God is love" meaning written in 1 John 4:8. Francis Chan writes, "He [God] cannot be contained in this world, explained by our vocabulary, or grasped by our understanding." About love he writes, "This is the God we serve, the God who knew us before He made us. The God who promises to remain with us and rescue us. The God who LOVES us and longs for us to LOVE Him back." What? The God who created the universe longs for us to love Him? Why? Chan says, "Jesus doesn't have to love us. His being is utterly complete and perfect, apart from humanity. He doesn't need me or you. Yet He wants us, chooses us, even considers us His inheritance. (Ephesians 1:18). The greatest knowledge we can even have is knowing God treasures us." This next part made me stop reading and really think about my relationship with this God that I follow: "The irony is that while God doesn't need us but still wants us, we desperately need God, but don't really want Him most of the time." Yikes, right?! Keep reading. "He treasures (there's that word again that I just can't seem to wrap my mind around) us and anticipates our departure from this earth to be with Him - and we wonder, indifferently, how much we have to do for Him to get by." Ouch! "Are we in love with God or just his stuff?" How would you answer that question?

I'll get back to that...

How does Matthew 25:31-46 help me understand love?

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.'

Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because - I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'

Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?' He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'

Then those 'goats' will be herded to their eternal doom, but the 'sheep' to their eternal reward.

This passage takes me to 1 John 4:7, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God."

The homeless man on the corner holding a cardboard sign. The woman selling her body on the streets and in the alleyways for food and clothing. The children entering a homeless shelter in need of a piece of bread and warm blanket. Sheep or goat? You decide. We show tangible love for God in how we care for the poor and those who are suffering. He expects us to treat the poor and the desperate as if they were Christ Himself.

I'll admit, this one is the hardest for me because in most cases it's me risking my comfort, my money, but ultimately my own life in order to help someone else. Is my life more important or more valuable than theirs? The Lord is really working on me in this area... Wherever He leads I'll go, right? I want so badly to be able to say "yes" in every instance I'm prompted to move, to go, to stand in the gap, to love.

How does "How He Loves" by David Crowder help me understand love? "He is jealous for me,..." Stop. It took me a while to get past the first phrase in this song. He, God, is jealous for me? ME? Doesn't He know me? Doesn't He know how selfish and undeserving I am? Yet, He is jealous for me. Blows my mind! Let's keep going...

Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so,
Oh how He loves us,
How He loves us all

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way…

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves.

While the version most of us know is DCB's, the song was originally written by John Mark McMillan. I just recently discovered the story behind the song and feel it is fitting with my message here...

He [John Mark] had a youth minister he was close to and he’d been praying and praying for there to be a movement among the youth that he was leading. One morning, when they were meeting to pray he said, “I’d give my life for this if that’s what it takes to see a movement among these youth. Do whatever you need to do God.” That evening John Mark’s friend, Steven the youth pastor, died in a car wreck, and John Mark wrote the song in memory of his friend.

How does one look at such tragedy, where most people would claim that God must not love, and create a powerful song such as this? Our sole purpose on this earth is to bring glory to Him. The very breath we breathe is for Him. Again from Francis Chan, "But He [God] has overcome the world. So take heart, keep on, fight the good fight, pray continuously, and do not grow weary. There is NOTHING better than giving up EVERYTHING (even our very lives) and stepping into a passionate love relationship with God, the God of the universe, who made galaxies, leaves, laughter, and me and you." He is jealous for me...and true loves requires sacrifice.

Two weeks in West Africa. Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Matthew 25:31-46. "How He Loves" by David Crowder.

I can still see the faces of the kids I met along the Mehanna Road in West Africa. My heart hurts for them. In a very real way, I love them. Crazy Love has rocked my world in more ways than I can count simply because I do not love the way Christ has called me to love. Matthew 25:31-46 painfully reminds me that I very badly want to be a sheep but far too often, I am nothing but a goat. "How He Loves" tells me that there is a God, He is jealous for me, and His love is so big and powerful that it resembles a hurricane. Our goal as people who follow Christ should be no less than becoming people who are madly in love with God. That is my goal. I've also learned that I need God to help me love God...and love others.

"Jesus, I need to give myself up. I am not strong enough to love You and walk with You on my own. I can't do it and I need You. I need You deeply and desperately. I believe You are worth it, that You are better than anything else I could have in this life or the next. I want You. And when I don't, I want to want You. Be all in me. Take all of me. Have Your way with me. Amen."
-Francis Chan, Crazy Love

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11, 2001

How many of you woke up this morning to minute-by-minute accounts of what happened 8 years ago today? I located an NBC channel that was airing the news as it happened, and it brought me back to where I was that morning. I wasn't too far from where I'm sitting right now typing this post, so maybe that's why today, more than any other anniversary, it feels like it just happened yesterday.

I remember getting up and beginning to get ready for my 9:00am Old Testament class with Dr. Bob Utley in the bottom floor of the building where I am at this moment. I was in my room when one of my roommates began to exclaim that planes had flown into the World Trade Centers in New York. Our initial reaction was that it couldn't be real, but as silence fell in our apartment we all realized that this was actually happening. The smoke, the faces, the descriptions, the bodies flying out of the side of the buildings... it became very real. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I should go to class, stay in my apartment, everything seemed to stop in that moment. I remember making the decision to go to class, OT with Dr. Bob was my favorite, and the feeling as I walked across campus being incredibly eerie and strange. I arrived and only about 1/3 of my class showed up that morning. Dr. Bob came in, moved to the front of the room, admitted that even he did not want to be in class that day, we prayed together for the men and women in those buildings and for the families and friends affected by this act of terrorism, and then he released us. I never complained about getting out of class early, but on that day I can remember that we all just wanted to be together. I think we realized that the shock and confusion of the situation required that we stand beside one another in support and love. I didn't want to go back to my apartment, but I did. I was glued to the TV for the remainder of the day. I can recall a special chapel service and the chapel being opened for students, faculty, and staff to come together and pray. Our chapel was packed that day like I'd never seen before. The sense of pride for Americans, the urgency to locate friends and family to tell them how much you love them, churches packed to capacity because people had no idea what to do or where to turn, the fear of the unknown, and the question heard around the world, "Where is God in all of this?"

One of my favorite books is Finding God in the Evening News by Jody Dean. In his book, he writes the following:

One eyewitness account tells of two people above the fire who kissed, embraced, held hands, and met death together.

Some might suggest that these people were dead already - lost in a hopeless situation. But even when things are hopeless, most of us tend to fight with hammer and tongs. Most of us scratch and claw for the last shred of life available to us in every way we possibly can. Self-preservation is maybe our most powerful instinct. Self-absorption is perhaps our most powerful temptation. Surrendering self is not normal. But most of us have never been trapped above a fire in a burning skyscraper. I've talked with people who've survived similar hopeless situations, from plane crashes to war to tornadoes. They all tell me the same thing. There is no other moment in which one is more consumed with self, and no time when thinking of others is more necessary. Few people actually do that, even under far less stressful circumstances. Few hold hands. I cannot even conceive what must have gone through the hearts and minds of those who were trapped. But God knows.

And He was there on 9/11.

It's perfectly reasonable to be in a situation of terror, panic, and hopelessness, and think only of oneself. It's something else entirely to have the presence of mind to think of others. Actually, I think it has less to do with presence of mind than with the presence of God.

The old saying is that no one deserves to die alone. Many of us wish our family members to be with us at the end, and we are gratified when we hear of the dying who passed away softly with their loved ones at their side. Perhaps death itself is not as frightening as is the idea of facing it alone. Any of us who have ever sat with a friend or a loved one in his or her final hours knows how appreciated just being there can be. It is not a pleasant experience, but we are there alongside in order to help in whatever way we can. We offer comfort. Indeed, many times in the Gospel of John, the Greek word parakletos is used to describe the Holy Spirit. The word is from the verb parakaleo, which means to exhort, to encourage - and most of all, to comfort. The only other place parakletos is used in the entire New Testament is in 1 John 2:1, where it is used to describe Christ himself. Exhortation, encouragement, and the decision to offer comfort in the face of pain are conscious, loving choices. They are God's deliberate attempt to be with us. Above the fires on 9/11/01, people made conscious, loving decisions not to let others suffer or meet death alone.

"If you will take my hand, we will go together."

Maybe these exact words were never spoke. But they were lived. We don't know all their names; still, let us all think of those floors as filled with hand-holders. I believe they were.

From the time we are born, there are people who have held our hands. Parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, wives, husbands, and many others say to us, "You are not alone. If you will take my hand, we will go together." Over all, there is Jesus Christ - the ultimate hand-holder. A man of incredibly humble beginnings who lived faithfully. Just like us, he knew love, and joy, and sorrow, and anguish, and rejection, and betrayal, and loneliness. But when others turn away in fear, Jesus says, "I am here. I am with you. Take my hand, and we will go together."

Someone held our hand. Someone holds it now. Whose hand will we hold?

I've been there a thousand times
I've felt the rain like a thousand knives
And it hurts
I know it hurts
I've been there like a fighter plane
Tryin' fly my way through a hurricane
And it's hard
I know it's hard

Don't be afraid
You'll make it through
Just call out to me and I'll come running to you

Hold on, hold on
When the current pulls you under
And your heart beats like thunder
Just give me your hand
And hold on, hold on
Until the storm is over
And I'll be fighting for you
Just give me your hand and
Hold on

I'll give you hope, I'll give you faith
And if it's dark, I'll light the way
For you, for you
By your side, until the end
Until you're standing tall again
I'm here, I'll always be here
And if the tide, sweeps you out to sea
When your strength is gone, and it's hard to believe

Hold on, hold on
When the current pulls you under
And your heart beats like thunder
Just give me your hand
And hold on, hold on
Until the storm is over
And I'll be fighting for you
Just give me your hand
And hold on

-- 33Miles

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Most of the time I have all these thoughts bouncin' around in my head... but with a brush in my hand, the world just gets kinda quiet." The Notebook

What is your release? To where do you run when the pressures of this world are just too much to handle? Do you write? Do you paint? Do you meditate on a quote or verse? Do you cry out to God for help and understanding? What is your method?

Too many times in my life, I've found myself trying to explain my thoughts to someone else. Have you ever done that? Do you find yourself frustrated when the person listening can't quite understand? When they aren't able to grasp the urgency, passion, or true meaning behind your words? My release is through writing. I believe that if I ever learned how to play my beautiful guitar I purchased with last year's IRS refund check then I would be inclined to write music. That is a dream of mine, but for now blogging will have to suffice.

Right now I am resisting the urge to post song lyrics, as I typically allow them to speak for me. You see, I love music and always have it playing behind me in my office. (Right now I'm listening to Selah's newest album, You Deliver Me). The title song of the album is my favorite... okay, I'm going to post a portion of it.

When there's a distance between what I am and who I want to be
You deliver me
When I feel like I can't go on
You deliver me
When the road is winding and way too long
You deliver me
You deliver me

This is a song that I feel like I could have written... if I knew how to play my guitar. Not because I think I'm as skilled and capable as the writer of this song, but because the message is one to which I can relate, especially the lines I posted above. Have you ever experienced the feeling of being delivered?

I thank God each day, or at least I try, that He's not finished with me yet. The person I am today is not the person I was 5 years ago and certainly not the same as 10 years ago starting my freshman year in college. Praise the Lord for that! I don't even recognize that person anymore, and yet I know that in 10 more years, when I look back to today, there is a good chance the same will be true. However, I know that in looking back at the past 10 years : graduating from high school, starting college, graduating from college, moving away from East Texas, starting my first real job, and returning to East Texas again - God has taken me through some wonderful times that I pray I never forget, and He has lead me through some extremely difficult times that I sometimes wish could be erased from my memory with one of those flashy sticks used on Men in Black. Why do those thoughts remain? Maybe so I can learn from my mistakes. Perhaps so I can very specifically recall instances when I felt God pick me up and carry me. I think it's because He knows I won't truly appreciate the blessings and rewards following the trials if those memories are erased. You see, I know that God knows me FAR better than I know myself. He knows that the times when I've felt true deliverance will get me through the tough times ahead. I know that in the hard times, He will always pick me up and carry me through. How do I continue to trust? Because of the fall-on-my-face experiences that He has brought me through.

What I love most is the hope that I have as a born-again child of the living God. Lamentations 3:22-27 says,

God's loyal love couldn't have run out,
His merciful love couldn't have dried up.
They're created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I'm sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He's all I've got left.

God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits,
to the woman who diligently seeks.
It's a good thing to quietly hope,
quietly hope for help from God.
It's a good thing when you're young
to stick it out through the hard times.

His mercies are made new every morning. Nothing that happens to us today or tomorrow is a surprise to an omniscient God. He knows the beginning, He knows the end, and He knows each step of the journey in between. Living for Christ is a process; it's a life of unfailing love and surpassing peace.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29:11-13

Think about this...

"When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don't throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer." Corrie Ten Boom

In light of what I've written, what does that quote say to you?