Front-Row Seats

Hello

I’ve never seen myself as a compassionate person.  Yes, there are things I’m passionate about, and I very much feel my feelings, but for years, I’ve wanted a heart of compassion from God.  Prayed and prayed.  I thought that one day, God would miraculously open my eyes and I’d perch atop fluffy clouds to peer down benignly on His people.

That never came.

On December 31st, as I mulled over the last year, God reminded me that although His ways are not my ways, He is always working in me:

Last year, I struggled with personal unrealistic standards justified under the guise of God’s expectations.  I can only be a testimony if my life reflects the beliefs of this certain society.  As chaining as it sounds, I worried that letting go of these standards created by people would damage my usefulness to God.

But I let go.

That summer, God allowed a situation into my life — one I never considered possible because it was beyond the boundaries of my fairly creative imagination.  Yet it happened and there I was, asking God okay, but what next when someone I can’t stop loving is placing their desires above You and all else.  For months after, I battled feelings of betrayal, mistrust, confusion, and disgust.  I told God to hurry up and do something.  I tried to pretend it wasn’t there.  I cried in class.

But I let it be.

In the fall, my college life altered.  Before then, my free time was devoted to my college fellowship.  Events, proxies, meetings, outreaches – you name it, I was probably there.  I “didn’t have time” for classmates; I “didn’t have time” to talk to nonbelievers unless I was inviting them to some fellowship event.  But after the summer, all I could attend schedule-wise were the weekly gatherings.  And I felt led to walk alongside others.  I began studying with classmates, going to social events with students, and hanging out with people who thought God about as alive as Barbie.  I felt guilty sometimes – my fellowship brothers and sisters occasionally asked me why I would choose “those people” over them.  Yet I knew God wanted me to know this new group as people – real, humorous, desperate, whacky, loving people.  Sometimes I didn’t have anything to say.  Sometimes I was irritated with the things they did.  Sometimes I wished for the comfort of being constantly with believers.

But I let them in.

And looking back on 2014, I know God slipped just a little more compassion into this heart of mine.

Jesus is the greatest example of compassion.  He chose to descend to Earth and become as us.  He knew that the greatest love is not to weep and wail over newspaper tragedies displayed on a fancy screen but to understand and experience.

God gave me a chance to release my unnecessary standards and realize I’m just as stinkin’ unworthy as everyone else. He let me love those I do not want to love but cannot help but love.  And He brought me to stand on level ground among the people He has never not loved.  I am no better; we are not invincible; they are real people.  I struggled into compassion.

Instead of gifting me a poofy cloud, God handed me a front-row experience.  Instead of a miraculous transformation, God gave me a personal journey.  Instead of calling me to love from afar, God said “stand here and hold their hand”.

I still lack enough care to pray for someone every time I say I will.  I still ignore articles on racial injustice and tragedies overseas.  But I know that as I continue to ask God for His heart, He will continue to give it to me.

And for that, every year is monumental.

 

A Lesson I Haven’t Learned

I hurt my knee recently. It wasn’t serious; I just bruised it slightly playing football. However, to give it time to heal I stopped running for a few days and favored that leg until it felt fine to walk on it again.

On an unrelated note, the idea of ‘community’ has been a recent trending topic in Christian circles. I’ve certainly talked about it a lot in the past few years and have read blog posts, heard sermons, and been a part of Bible studies that have discussed what Christian community should look like.

Christian community has many different aspects including encouraging each other, providing for each other, guiding each other, warning each other and building each other up in the love of Christ, but hurting my leg got me thinking about another part of Christian community talked about in Galatians 6.

 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, ESV).

We’re told to look out for each other in difficult times. In addition to providing encouragement and spiritual companionship, the idea of community also has a very active component to it. When I hurt my knee I had to rely on my other leg more while the hurt one healed. In the same way, as members of the Body of Christ, when one of us is hurting, overwhelmed, scared or frustrated God asks the rest of us to step up. Take on some of that hardship. Help a brother out.

Photo by Creativity103

From what I can see, sharing burdens requires two things. First, it requires Christians who are willing to reach out to their fellow believers in love, compassion and often forgiveness. Now for what I haven’t learned yet. The second thing this requires is people who are willing to admit they are scared, hurt, confused, frustrated and unable. It require people to admit they need help. It requires believers to admit that they can’t handle their problems on their own.

It requires me to admit that I’m weak and incapable. I have to admit that God has put other weak and incapable people around me to help me, that I need them. It requires humility.

Are you willing to be someone’s Christian community?

Or do you need a helping hand?

Can you admit your need?

Three Christmases

This is the story of three Christmases:

Last Christmas was the most difficult Christmas I’ve ever experienced. I was a team leader in Taiwan, juggling responsibilities of team, family, and friends. My sister had recently lost her first child in a late, painful miscarriage. My family was visiting, but instead of a joyful reunion and celebration, we were all in mourning; our celebration muffled by our loss. Christmas Day was spent going numbly from one activity to the next. To sum up last Christmas in a phrase: dark sorrow.

This Christmas, I experienced the best of both worlds in Taiwan and America. I spent all the anticipation of Christmas in Taiwan with my sister and her husband, waiting for their second child Lórien to be born. I arrived in the States the day before Christmas Eve and spent Christmas day preparing and eating a joyous feast with the rest of my family. For the first time in three years, I spent Christmas in my childhood home looking out at piles of snow. This Christmas in a phrase: joyful light.

In the stillness and sorrow of last Christmas, a refrain echoed “God with us.”
In the activity and joy of this Christmas, that refrain still echoes.

By contrasting these two Christmases, I have started to see the bittersweet nature of the first Christmas, when we celebrate God coming down to be with us. At the time of Jesus’ advent, Israel was under foreign rule that had lasted for 400 years. Ancient prophecies spoke of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son whose name would be called Immanuel–”God with us”.

The joyous occasion of Jesus’ arrival was muffled like my family’s last Christmas. A jealous, insane king searched for the Baby to kill him before He even grew up and slaughtered the baby boys of Bethlehem. It is likely that the shepherds who had witnessed the glory of God shining around them and seen the Child themselves suffered the heartbreaking, dark sorrow of losing their own children.

Photo by Lars Kasper

Photo by Lars Kasper

Platitudes are unhelpful when sorrow cuts deep–but instead of offering a platitude, God offered Himself.

That’s why Jesus’ title of “God with us” is important to remember, because it was HE who came into our dark world as the light “shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out.” (John 1:5 CEV).

“…finding out the greatness…”

- 2013 -

“Lord, why am I here? You clearly opened the door for me to work at this job, but I feel like I’m dying inside! I don’t care about business; I don’t even believe in the work that I’m doing!”

A year and a half ago, my heart cried this regularly. I didn’t understand what the point was for me to be working at that company. I sought to share Christ my coworkers, but other than that? Ick. – I saw no purpose in my work.

Finally, I began to rest and trust God. I began to rejoice, even though I didn’t feel like it.

- 2014 -

Just this morning, long-anticipated plans threatened to collapse. Excitement turned to worry and frustration. Someone else’s money could be lost, myself and others would be sad and disappointed… I prayed frantically as I tried to fix things. I groaned. I wanted to cry.

Just as I began giving into my fear and sorrow, an old hymn came to mind. “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what Thou art. I am finding out the greatness of Thy loving heart.” I knew the words were not true of me, but they needed to be! Because God’s faithfulness was already true of Him. I began to sing.
- – -

Fast forwarding to my current self… >>>>

Now, I see so much more clearly! To my surprise, the skills that I use every day at my current job [which I love] are the very same ones that I learned at the job I felt unfulfilled by. – - – God knew the future. He knew my need. He knew what purpose He wanted to fit me for, and provided me with free (in fact, paid!) training for the work He was leading me to. – “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in [my] eyes.”

And as for Today? 3.5 hours after it began, the crisis was over. The problem was solved. I’m still feeling an adrenaline rush from the “excitement”, but more than that, I’m so grateful to God for working it all out AND for teaching me again that rejoicing is always appropriate. That His name is worthy to be praised with or without the sun shining; with or without a silver lining.
- – -

These two circumstances remind of a lesson I learned 4 years ago… in the middle of yet another trial,

IMG_6547

“I will be praising God in a week or a year’s time for what is happening now, so why should I wait to praise and thank Him for His loving-kindness? He is ALWAYS good!”

Growing Pains

2104459_orig

I recently started a new job as a teacher at a developmental center for children and their parents. After two years of teaching in Taiwan, I figured this job would be pretty easy. But after just two weeks of enduring some pretty rigorous training, I’ve been having second thoughts. Every day, I have to surrender my old ways of teaching in order to adopt all new methods and lesson plans. My trainers give me loads of grace as I’m figuring it all out, but at the same time, they’re seriously invested in seeing me change into the teacher that they want me to be. Turns out that this process feels anything but “normal”! It actually feels really uncomfortable at times. But, they keep telling me it will get better, because soon enough I won’t even think about the involved lesson plans once all these things grow into me as a teacher. Apparently, all the things that I’m rigorously learning will simply become a part of who I am.

Well, I’m not there yet, but slowly, day after day, mistake after mistake, I’m learning what it means to change. I’m becoming a different kind of teacher, and growth – as uncomfortable and hard as it is at times – is the vehicle that’s getting me there.

As I was sitting in trainng the other day, it hit me that growing into a new position isn’t just for new jobs. The Bible tells us that the gospel is the good news that Jesus’ death on the cross secures for us a new position. We, who once were enemies of God, have now been called daughters and sons and co-heirs with Christ. Redeemed, restored, and forgiven are  all a part of our new identity. As we come to more fully understand who we now are, there should be a very real change that is working it’s way out in our lives. Will that growth always feel comfortable? Probably not. Will it happen overnight? I wish! The older I get, the more I see just how sinful and far away from God my heart truly is. But God’s not giving up, and the redemptive work that He’s begun, He will complete…no matter how hard the process may be.

What’s God using to grow you today? Does it feel uncomfortable and hard? Let the growing pains remind you that God is at work at your life, because He loves you too much to simply leave you where you are.

To the Max

keep-calm-and-live-life-to-the-max-smallI was talking recently with a father of nine. His youngest are now about junior high age. He had an interesting perspective on the difficulty level of raising different amounts of children. “When you have your first kid, it’s all you can handle. You’re maxed out,” he said. “Then when you have your second kid, you’re maxed out. When you have your third kid, you’re maxed out. It’s all you can do just to keep up. With four kids, you’re maxed out. With five, you’re maxed out. It’s all you can handle.” And so on. Actually he might have only gone up to four and then said, “That’s how it just keeps on going.”

What’s going on with that? Clearly there’s more going on in this guy’s life with nine kids than there was with one. Clearly there’s more going on with two kids than with one. Did his capacities just keep on increasing? Did his need for sleep keep on decreasing? I doubt it. Probably there were some changes in his personal priorities, some willingness to pursue his own interests less, so that he could spend more time and energy on the kids. But surely that cannot account for all of the “more going on” that happened as his family’s size increased. It seems like there must have just been a lot going on that he wasn’t even aware of, and that group of “things going on that he wasn’t aware of” increased as more kids came along. Nevertheless, he remained engaged in as much as he possibly could all along the way: he was “maxed out.” (It would be interesting to find out whether his wife would describe it the same way he did, but if she would, I bet this analysis would apply to her as well.)

I think it makes sense that there is a certain amount of stuff that I can be engaged in at any point in my life…and that God would put the situations into my life at each point that would “max out” my engagement capacity.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men (Col. 3:23).

The parable of the talents also seems to say that God has given us the right amount of business to keep us busy doing His business.

What does this mean? Well, if it’s true that God has put just the right amount of stuff in my life to max out my engagement capacity, then if I’m over my capacity, there must be something I’m engaged in that isn’t for me right now. Conversely, if I don’t feel maxed out, there must be something in my life that I need to be dealing with, I need to be engaged in, that I’m not. Think about it. Are you overworked or underworked? Are you over-engaged or under-engaged?

created for eternity

This weekend the kids and I fly out for my grandmother’s memorial service. She lived to be 91, faithful to Jesus and loving her family to the very end. Last year, we thought we might lose her, but God gave us one more year, so I was able to take Isaac to visit her earlier this month—unknowingly for the last time.

Last visit with 奶奶

Last visit with 奶奶

This time, I’m taking Arianna too. That means figuring out how to explain death, eternity, and heaven to her very young three year-old mind.

For example, after I received the news of Grandmother’s death, Arianna cupped my tear-streaked face in her little hands and said, “It’s ok, Mama. Maybe you can go to Heaven to see her!” I tried to smile and replied, “Yes, because I know Jesus, I will see her in Heaven someday. Do you know Him?” She smiled and answered, “Yes.”

Later that evening, I told Luke about our conversation, and he asked her, “Arianna, do you know Jesus?” She nodded. “Do you know where He is?” She grinned shyly and answered, “In my body.” “Oh really, how did He get there?” “Through my back!”

So maybe her theology is a bit off, but it’s a lot for her little mind to comprehend! And in reality, there’s a lot about God and the Gospel that we can’t fully wrap our adult minds around either. I remember in high school hearing about how beautiful and wonderful Heaven is, but deep inside, I hoped Jesus wouldn’t come back just yet. I still wanted to do things—like win the volleyball tournament, graduate from high school, date, get married… There was so much more to life that I wanted to experience before I went to sit on a cloud above streets of gold and sing hymns while playing a harp.

If there’s anything I don’t want Arianna to believe, it’s that picture of Heaven. Yet even now, after I’ve tasted some of the pain and sorrow in this life, I can’t quite grasp how Heaven holds everything that my soul longs for—and more. I can’t fathom an eternity without tears (or anger and frustration for that matter). I can’t imagine how petty and outdated the iPhone 6 will seem when we’re in the presence of the Word Himself.

This year at VOICE, we studied the Ten Commandments. The tenth commandment warned us not to covet the things on earth—why? Because there is absolutely nothing in this world that can satisfy the longings of our heart. It’s a reminder that we weren’t created for this life only—we were created for eternity.

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3 ESV)

Look at me!

Boy riding a hippo “Look at me! Look at me! Uncle, look!” My nephew latches onto my finger, and tugs at me to join him. I can’t help but set aside whatever I’m doing to appreciate his newest discovery: a paper kite, a new acrobatic move, his little sister’s amusing antics, a laundry hamper transformed into a fort, a new monster formed out of Mr. Potato head parts…  even the most commonplace things are magical. Being only three years old, everything is new and exciting to my nephew. However, my nephew can’t completely enjoy his discoveries unless he shares it with a friend or family member. And if you are the one he is sharing with, you can’t help but be charmed by his sense of joy and wonder. Though it’s true his obsession with sharing everything with everyone seems a little extreme, at the same time, I realized that all humans, to some degree, are like my nephew. God created humans in his image, and God is a relational God. He has a relationship with Himself within the Trinity, and with us as His children. We are the same way, and an important part of enjoyment and pleasure is being able to share something that you enjoy with someone that you love, and the one you love in turn gets to experience something with you. So that means, if we truly love God, then when something brings us joy and delight, we should naturally also want to share it with God. When you are entertained by a movie, you should tell God about, and see how he feels about it. “Hey God, wasn’t that movie really cool? The script was written so well!” When you complete a difficult task, you can show it off to God. “Hey God, look at this musical that I finished!” One of the most special times that I had with God this past year was during a typhoon in the spring. I love running in the rain, and the sheets of rain crashing from the sky were both wild and refreshing. As I splashed through inch deep puddles around the track, I basked in the power of the storm, and in the presence of the Lord. The coolest thing about it? I think God enjoyed that time, too. Today, why don’t you pick something that you love, and take the time to enjoy it with God together? “Hey, God, look at me! God, look!”

Failure to Love

Anita, Tina, and Loren Paulsson at Rainbow Falls.

I sat on the floor crying.

Earlier that day we met my parents and sister and boarded The Lady of the Lake for the four-and-a-half hour cruise up Lake Chelan to the Stehekin, Wash.

It was a beautiful day. And I thought briefly about the opportunity this was to spend time with family.

Then I got all wrapped up in photographing the lake and the mountains.

We had an hour and a half in Stehekin before heading down lake again, and I determined to get a picture of Rainbow Falls. My wife, Tina, persuaded me to stay at the foot of the falls where Mom and Dad were headed. But not to be entirely thwarted, I climbed down to make a picture of the stream.

It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that I realized I’d lost my wedding ring.

Then just before parting ways at the home pier, we had a fellow passenger take our family picture using my phone.

Mom wanted a picture on her camera too. But somehow I ignored her.

As we headed home, it hit me. I remembered the last time we took that cruise, 27ish years ago, with extended family, and grandpa and grandma who are no longer with us. I might have other opportunities to love my wife, my parents, my sister, but the opportunities of that day were gone.

Sitting on the floor at home, I felt helpless to fix it. My efforts in the present or what I planned to do in the future could not recover what was lost that day.

For a Christian, called specifically in the Bible to love God and love others, these missed opportunities are not unfortunate misses along the road to a nice life but failures of my heart to take shape. I wanted to punish myself and hide like Adam and Eve did, even from God.

But this is also when the promise of “beauty for ashes” means the most. This is when God comes and finds us. This is when the sin-destroying love and mercy of God in Christ yanks us from the shadows and exposes the sinfulness even of our efforts to improve. And when all else is burned away, the promises of God remain.

Bigger is better?

“I want to be extraordinary!”Pile of Pancakes

“I’m going to do BIG things for God.”

How many of us can relate to those two statements? Even if you have never uttered those phrases, would you agree that the thought of it at least has entered your mind? Full disclosure: that mindset has been a part of my DNA for years now, and I am just now beginning to realize and admit it. It’s amazing how almost every person is determined to make a powerful impression on society or within their sphere of influence – and that’s not a bad thing! Nevertheless, what I’ve been wrestling with is how much that passion to be relevant has dictated my decisions and even affected the way that I view other people.

In the book, Go Small, Craig Gross points out that so many of us want to be revolutionaries and change the world; however, we’re so consumed with our desire to do big things that we often overlook the ordinary, bland things, and really miss the raw opportunities that are right in front of our face. If you look at Jesus’ life, He consistently flowed with the seemingly ordinary events of life – and oftentimes that’s where He would do His greatest works.

The challenge with this approach is that often I don’t get noticed when I’m doing the “small things.” I want to be involved in something that’s going to look good on my Facebook post; something that will win hundreds of people to Christ; something that will get me noticed by the masses. But it’s because of that mindset that I don’t notice, or have time for, the child playing around my house; the dirty dishes that are piling up in the sink; the friend at church that just needs someone to listen to them.

How about you? Can you be motivated to blossom right where God has planted you? Not worrying about if you get noticed or not? Live your life to the fullest in the same way Jesus did, in that He “made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” God isn’t focused on counting how many Facebook likes you get or worried about how slowly your small group is growing. Start noticing the “small things” that are sitting directly in front of you and stay faithful to that – you may be amazed at the ways God shows up and the contentment that follows!