Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peace That Passes Understanding

As I mentioned in Tales from the Tummy, my secular career has been in shambles for the past few years. I've had several jobs that did not end the way that I had envisioned. While I would not lie and say that my performances at these positions were perfect, in each case, the companies and departments were in better shape when I walked out the door than when I walked in the door. But in each case, I found myself without employment.

I'm not sure that any woman reading this can fully understand, but those of the male persuasion derive a significant portion of our self-confidence/worth/image/respect/are you getting the point/esteem from our jobs and careers. Add to that the pressure and responsibility of providing for a wife and children, and you can easily see how important a man's job is to him. In my opinion, there are very few things more humiliating to a man than having to inform his family that he has lost his job.

However, at each time that I've been let go, I've been able to respond with a quiet acceptance. No begging or pleading, no crying or hysterics, and without any anger or malice towards the person firing me. I've simply packed up my belongings, said my goodbyes, and left.

And that is where I currently find myself yet again. "Under" employed, working as a temp laborer at a local manufacturing plant, being paid approximately 1/3 of my typical pay. This job was offered to me soon enough after becoming unemployed that I have not filed for unemployment benefits this time. I probably make about the same, but I'd rather work than just sponge off of the system. During a similar time two years ago, I worked for a friend from church who is a builder and hay farmer. Picking up bricks on house sites one day, running a bobcat and delivering hay bales the next day. But it was work, and let me at least keep food on the table.

However, I would be lying if I didn't admit that there are times where I just want to scream. From an intelligence standpoint, there are only a handful of jobs on the planet that I'm not capable of performing. From a dedication standpoint, I've worked ten to twelve hour days as my norm, and have pulled numerous shifts of 18+ hours when some type of emergency happened at the plant. Every time I've left a plant, a majority of my mechanics have told me "when you get to your new job, CALL me, I want to come work for you again". When I walk into any plant, I immediately start spotting the flaws, noticing the safety hazards, and overall seeing all of the ways that I could make improvements. But here I am cleaning up construction sites and performing manual labor. Juggling bills like crazy, trying to keep the lights and water and phone working.

During the Psalm 119 study, one of the questions was to define the word "peace". I spent a lot of time pondering that question and here is the definition that the Holy Spirit gave to me: Fully accepting every aspect of where God has you, while resting in the knowledge that if you trust in Him, and abide in His Word, He will comfort you as He uses you to accomplish His will and bring glory to His name. Note that peace is more about God than it is about you. During the Genesis study, we spent a lot of time studying the life of Joseph. Of all the characters in the Bible, Joseph and Job have to be the ones who demonstrated the most peace in their attitudes and responses to life's difficulties.

No matter how wronged that I feel by being fired, at least I haven't been sold into slavery like Joseph. No matter how bad I feel that I cannot give my children everything that they want, at least I haven't had my children killed like Job. I have yet to find a situation in which I cannot find someone else who has gone through more than I have. And when I read God's Word, I see how He carried them through the tough times of their lives. I've seen Him move in my life, and seen Him carry me through the toughest times of my life. If He's done it before more times than I can count, why would I be so forgetful as to not trust that He'd do it again?

Phillipians 4:4-9 speaks directly to this: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."

Note that it verse 7 it's "the peace of God", and in verse 9 He's called "the God of peace". True peace can only come from resting in Him, and only He can give peace, since He is THE God of peace.

Fully accepting every aspect of where God has you, while resting in the knowledge that if you trust in Him, and abide in His Word, He will comfort you as He uses you to accomplish His will and bring glory to His name. Definitely tougher to do than it sounds. When I can't sleep because I'm worrying about the bills. When I get frustrated at work because my pride is acting up. When I get depressed because I open the pantry and feel like Old Mother Hubbard. But He always hears me when I call to Him, and He always comforts me when I rest in Him. I have yet to find a mountain too high or an ocean too great for God to deal with for me. He's my God, and give me peace. How do you get through your days? When the storms come, He's the only One who can say "peace, be still" to the waves and wind.

Ezra 7:10
Prepare, Study, Practice, Teach

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tales from the Tummy

 As I mentioned in "Why I Call Myself ModernEzra", I've been wrestling with a call to vocational ministry for almost a decade. And a wrestling match it has been. I might as well have changed my name to Israel. But I have one prelude: If during the course of reading this post, you find yourself getting angry or offended at myself or any other entity mentioned, you're MISSING the POINT. Let it go and keep on reading, please.

The first person to ever suggest that I would be in the ministry was my maternal grandmother. I lived with my grandparents during college, and we were talking in the kitchen one night. I had just decided to give up pharmacy as a major, and told her that I didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life. She almost immediately replied, "I know what you're supposed to do, you're going to be a preacher." At that point in my life, I had hair 6" past my shoulders, spent most of my time either playing or listening to rock & heavy metal. In my mind, she might as well have suggested that I was going to be elected president.

The second person to mention it hardly knew me. During the time that my bride and I were separated, I lived with my mother and step-father for a few months. Mom was talking to her best friend on the phone about the situation and they prayed before ending the call. Mom's friend prayed, and before saying "amen", she basically said "and Lord, if you call Mike into the ministry..." After finishing the prayer, she told Mom that she had no idea where that thought came from, or why she said it. Again, God was not even on my radar at that time. She might as well have prayed "and Lord, if you make Mike the president of Guatemala..."

After going through the twenty-two week study of Psalm 119 with my pastor and two friends, the men of my church went through a twenty-eight week study of the book of Genesis. As I spent day after day and week after week studying the Bible, I fell in love with God's Word. Then as we began our men's ministry and had our first prayer breakfast, I stood still while the other men in my study group took a silent step backwards! And since I was in charge, I was told that I had to speak too. God put a message on my heart, and I stumbled through my first sermon. If studying as a student was great, studying to teach a class was phenomenal. And if studying to teach was phenomenal, then studying to preach was extacy.

During this time, I was spending time on a fairly frequent basis with our associate pastor. While I do not recall either of us specifically referring to our time as mentoring, I've always viewed it through that lens. His standard question to me was "What is God doing in your life?" He pushed me, encouraged me, explained background and cross-references in Scripture and basically just loved on me. As far as I remember, he was the first person with whom I ever shared the possibility of a call. He asked his question, and I replied "I think He might be calling me into the ministry", and inquired what would be required for me to enroll at the seminary in the area. His response was not said in anything other than compassion, but he told me that they would not even accept my invitation. You see, my bride had been previously married and divorced before we met. And this seminary takes the strictest interpretation of the qualifications for being a pastor. Which means that they do not accept students if either husband or wife have a divorce in their past, regardless of circumstances. (This is the first possible time to remember the prelude.)

He immediately told me that while THAT seminary wouldn't accept my application, there were at least four other good conservative seminaries that accepted students with divorce in their background on a case by case basis. This is when the wrestling began. Why would God call me to do something that I couldn't do right where I was at the moment? Why did it matter that I'd married a woman that was divorced? Why this? Why that? I'm not much of a traveler, so the idea of moving to another city didn't set well. I couldn't imagine living in any of the four cities, but one in particular was out of the question. It's a city known for being corrupt in a state known for being corrupt. It's a city where voodoo is openly practiced and celebrated. It's a city where they have a massive party every year, at which women are encouraged to expose themselves in return for cheap plastic beads. It's a city known for sin and decadence. You know the city that I'm talking about. (If you like this city, this might be the second possible time to remember the prelude.)

As days and weeks went by, I got to the point where I told God "No. I'm not answering this call if I can't do it here, and especially not if I have to go to a city of sinners and reprobates." And so the matter was closed, or so I thought. Of course, my relationship with God and love for His Word diminished.

During the past two years, I've had two spiritual experiences that brought revival into my heart. The first was a weekend spent at an event called a Discipleship Walk. It's three days of being exposed to and/or reminded of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. A year later, our church hosted a Life Action Summit, a two week focus on personal revival. Both cracked and breached the walls that I'd carefully built to silence the full voice of the call that God had placed on my heart. Finally, a few months after the Summit, I made a public profession of a call to vocational ministry.

My secular career has been a fiasco for many years. Every time I got a job that seemed to be one that would last, it would blow up or fall apart within a year. While I'm a capable engineer and manager, I keep having "bad luck". Almost like my plans for worldly success were being thwarted.

So now I was back to looking at where to pursue my seminary education. Of course, online schools are much more common than a decade ago, but actual classroom education is still viewed as preferable to online degrees. But of course, that seminary in that city was my absolute last choice.

All that to backstop what happened to me this morning. We held our monthly men's breakfast, and instead of me preaching, our new education minister shared the message that God had placed on his heart. He spoke from Acts 9, where God called Ananias to go to see Saul after he met Jesus on the Damascus road. About how Ananias was obedient to go where his LORD told him to go. Great message. Passionate preaching.

Before I took prayer requests, I reminded the men to pray for our nation and our leaders. I voiced my position that I don't ask God to replace our current president, but I do ask Him to CHANGE our current president. About how that individual is no less deserving of salvation and repentance than I am. We shared other requests, prayed and went our separate ways.

As I went through the next few hours, the Holy Spirit kept bringing the sermon back to my mind. That and my comment about how this individual wasn't less deserving of salvation. Oh yeah, me and my big mouth. Then I started remembering a story from the Bible about another guy that told God "no".... Even tried to go in the opposite direction from the reprobates and sinners that HE was supposed to go preach to. THAT didn't work out so well for him, now did it?

Am I positive that I've been "in the belly" for the past few years? Not enough to stake my life on it, but there's a definite fishy smell in the air. I have one verse from the book of Jonah memorized, verse 2:8, which says "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." My pride is an idol. My sense of entitlement is an idol. So if God tells me to go to "Nineveh" when I start seminary, load up the camels. I'm taking the land route, I think I've spent enough time on and under the water!

Again, if you're offended, you missed it. If you're convicted, then the Holy Spirit did it, not me. If nothing else, I hope that you make sure to not imitate my disobedience.

Ezra 7:10
Prepare, Study, Practice, Teach

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why I call myself "ModernEzra"

I was raised in an active Christian family. I accepted Jesus at the age of 7 as my Savior. My parents divorced soon after and I was intermittently attending for the next few years. Around eleven, church became an active part of my life again. As I entered the youth department of my church, I was first pushed to embrace the concept of being a disciple of Jesus. During my teen years, I grew in my knowledge about Christ and of the Bible.

However, most of the impact of those years was in my head, and not in my heart. Like many, I fell away from my commitment to Jesus during my college years. When my bride and I got married, I knew that my family needed to be in church, so we began attending again. But still, what was in my head never truly conquered my heart.

After about 7 years, our marriage was in shambles. We got to the point that we were separated, had divorce attorney's, and were steeling ourselves for life apart. But God had other plans. Our youngest was born during this time, and it was her that God used to reconcile our marriage. We almost lost her at six weeks old. Her medical emergencies all seemed to happen at the times when we could have parted. But we kept being thrown together in waiting rooms and kept falling into each other's arms to get through.

During this time, my bride had thrown herself completely at the foot of the cross. It seemed that she had her nose in the Word or had her knees bent every time I saw her. She had a peace that I didn't.

Frustrated that nothing seemed to be satisfying me, I turned back to church. I called a friend from our Sunday School class that had been inviting me to a evening Bible study and inquired if they were still meeting. He told me that they were not, but a new group was in the works. He asked me if I could meet in the mornings, and told me that another friend, the class teacher, was going to be in the group as well. The study was going to be in Psalm 119, and would last 22 weeks. I had no idea how you could study ANY book of the Bible for 22 weeks, much less a Psalm! But I knew the other men to be Godly men that were happy in their lives and marriages, so I was willing to give it a try.

The first day that we met, I walked into the church offices at the appropriate time to find my two friends...and the pastor. I certainly didn't dislike him, but for a moment I felt like I'd been tricked...and almost walked back out. But I overcame that urge and remained. Each week, we took a stanza of 8 verses and tore it apart. The writer of the study ran us through every book of the Bible as we studied that Psalm. As the weeks went on, I found myself with at least 3 different translations spread out as I picked through the verses and the questions. And before long, I was completely and totally in love with God's Word. My bride got me a parallel Bible to help me study easier. I discovered Strong's Concordance, Bible software, and many other aids to my study. Instead of being a drudgery, I became impassioned to study the Word and found that it was indeed "quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." A flame was lit in my spirit as the Holy Spirit began remaking me into the image of Jesus. I began focusing on MY failures instead of my bride's. I began trying to love her, instead of responding only as I saw her moving towards me. Our marriage began to be happy as we sought to honor God together for the first time.

The pastor wanted us to grow the impact that the four of us had experienced, so we called the men of the church together and my friends and I shared our testimonies of small group study of the Bible. At the end of our sharing, we gave the opportunity for the men to join us in our next study, the book of Genesis. We had 55 men sign up to meet at various times throughout the week. And even though I felt myself completely inadequate, I found myself teaching a class. During the 28 weeks of the study, the men in my group lamented that most of the other men in the church were inactive. There was an active women's ministry, but absolutely nothing for the men. They wanted to begin a men's ministry, and I wound up as the leader of our little foray.

During this time, I was trying to memorize Scripture like never before. I read the Bible front to back and wrote down the verses that spoke to me. I kept hearing men talk about their "life verse": the verse that the Holy Spirit gave to them as the definition of their life, the passion of their calling, or the hope of the Gospel. I was reading through Ezra and when I got to the tenth verse of the seventh chapter, I KNEW that I had found MY life verse. Ezra 7:10 reads "For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments." I realized that Ezra did four things: he prepared, he studied, he practiced, and THEN he taught. That's the Biblical basis for discipleship.

As God continued to work in my life, I gained a burning passion to reach the other men in our church, our neighborhood and our town with the Gospel of Jesus. To get them past the Milquetoast conceptions of Jesus as a pansy. To get them to see that He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. King Arthur, Robin Hood,  George Washington, Paul Revere, and every other hero of the world all balled up into One. And that's what Ezra did as Nehemiah restored Jerusalem.

So I became passionate about discipleship. Not Biblical knowledge, not knowledge ABOUT God, but imitating Jesus in every aspect of our lives as men: prophets, priests and kings of our families. I believe that my spiritual gifts are prophecy and teaching. So as a modern day Ezra, I try to proclaim the Truth as a prophet, and to teach men to accurately imitate Jesus.

Ezra 7:10
Prepare, Study, Practice, Teach