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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Communication, Part 1: Talking

In my persistent pursuit of perfect irony, I have a lot to say about how much we talk vs how much we listen.  It is a topic (listening, speaking, words, actions) that is covered at great lengths in the Bible, which should tell us how important it is.  I have split everything I have into a series of three posts: Talking, Listening to God, and Listening to Each Other.

My niece, Audrey, is five.  You can tell that her parents spent countless hours with her regarding manners because she is one of the most courteous five-year-olds you will ever meet.  If I am having a conversation with someone and Audrey wants my attention, she will politely say, “Excuse me, Uncle Josh?”  Adorable.  Sort of.  See…if I don’t stop my conversation immediately and attend to whatever Audrey needs, she will continue saying, “Excuse me, Uncle Josh?” until I turn my focus on her.  In Audrey’s mind, she has been respectful by saying, “excuse me,” now the polite thing for me to do is listen to her.  She has something to say and it’s more important than whatever conversation I am currently having.

Again…she’s five.  What five-year-old do you know that interrupts with an, “excuse me?”

We aren’t five, yet we continuously talk over each other.  No “excuse me” needed.  May the loudest voice win.

Mark Driscoll writes, “It is said that the average woman speaks around 5,000 words per day whereas the average man speaks around 2,000.  For men who work full time outside of the home, the number increases to as many as 3,000 words a day, and 10,000 to 20,000 words a day for the average woman working full time outside of her home.  Furthermore, we send innumerable emails in addition to spending countless hours on the telephone.  In short, we communicate a lot, in both spoken and printed words.”

Words are important.  On average, men speak around 2,000 – 3,000 words per day while women speak 5,000 – 20,000 words per day.  Are we choosing these words wisely?  When we speak, are we selecting our words with a specific purpose or merely spouting them every which way?  Furthermore, while we speak 2,000 – 20,000 words per day, how many words are we listening to?

Driscoll again, “The Bible is filled with examples of condemnable speech, including cursing God, blasphemy, making false accusations, perversity, rashness, harshness, wickedness, boasting, lying, flattering, bitterness, nitpicking, adulterous flirtation, busy-bodying, gossip, nagging, whining, complaining, needless quarreling, and plain old foolish stupidity in its innumerable forms.”

If we think about it, where did man’s original sin originate?  From the mouth.  Satan spoke to Eve and through his words, convinced her to sin.  Eve then spoke to Adam and through her words, convinced him to sin.  Speaking without thinking led to acting without thinking, which led to sin and death.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.  There’s a reason children say that…because adults know better.  Sticks and stones may break your bones, but those bones will eventually heal.  Words cut like a knife (to use another common phrase), and knife wounds scar.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption – Ephesians 4:29-30

Catch that?  When we use our words in a negative way towards others, we cause grief to the spirit of God.  Our words can cause pain to God.  Want more?

Proverbs 11:9.  Words can be used as a weapon or a tool, hurting relationships or building them up.
Proverbs 15:28.  Righteous people weigh their words.  Wicked people don’t because they care little about the effects of their words.
James 3:1-12.  James compares the damage the tongue can do to a raging fire.  A few words spoken in anger can destroy a relationship that took years to build.

Our words carry immense power, and it’s time we took that more seriously than we do.  A future series of posts that I am working on revolves around the idea that non-Christians have grown weary of Christians.  That it’s almost become taboo to even admit that you’re a Christian for fear of retribution, and to be honest—we’ve done it to ourselves.

By now, even non-sports fans know the whole Peyton Manning saga.  Earlier this month, that story finally came to an end when Manning signed with the Denver Broncos.  To make room for Manning, the Broncos traded their starting quarterback (and devout Christian) Tim Tebow.  Due to this action, televangelist Pat Robertson said on “The 700 Club” that if Manning got hurt this year, it would “serve him and the Broncos right.”

Is this opinion shared by the majority of the Christian world?  Of course not.  However, since Robertson said this, all I have read or heard is how, “This is the problem with Christians today.”  One man with a microphone opens his mouth, says something stupid, and all Christians are painted in a poor light.  The problem is that we have a lot of Christians with a lot of microphones saying a lot of stupid things.  They believe that just because they have a mic, they have to say something, and that babbling brook has turned off a lot of people.

Dan Kimball, in his book They Like Jesus But Not The Church, wrote: “Maybe we in the church have been doing so much talking that we haven’t really listened (to the non-Christians).  Shouldn’t we hear their thoughts, hear their hearts?  Shouldn’t we listen to why they believe what they believe, instead of jumping in to try to make them believe what we believe?”

If we’re doing all the talking and refusing to listen to them, then what Kimball also says makes sense: “I pleaded with (a group of pastors) to awaken to the fact that most people in our emerging culture are not listening to us anymore.”  Why should they listen to us if we don’t reciprocate the action?

I was listening to an old Francis Chan sermon a couple weeks ago, and as always, he made a powerful statement in the simplest of sentences: “I think the world is tired of us talking.”

The Bible agrees:
Proverbs 10:19; 13:3; 17:27-28
Ecclesiastes 6:11; 10:12-14

Chan continued: “That doesn’t mean you stop sharing the gospel, because many people will still listen.  It just means that there are some people in the world of whom you will not get their attention by your words.  Until they see true religion coming from the church…not just talk.”

It’s time for another cliché: Actions speak louder than words.  In many ways, it’s time for us as Christian to stop talking and start doing.  People don’t want to hear what we have to say anymore, and I don’t blame them because a lot of stuff coming out of our mouths is garbage.  We can talk about the life of Jesus all we want, but until we start living that life, the rest of the world is going to assume we are speaking lies.

Again, the Bible agrees:
James 1:26-27
Matthew 3:8 (The notes in my Bible for this verse provide the following insight: “This verse means that God looks beyond our words and religious activities to see if our conduct backs up what we say, and he judges our words by the actions that accompany them.”)

Why is all of this so important?  Because your words show the world your true heart.

Jesus:
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?  For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.  But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:34-37

Chan:
“It’s not just the words that come out of your mouth, it’s that the words that come out of your mouth reflect the state of your heart.”
“When you say evil things, it’s because you have evil in your heart.”

Driscoll:
“The disciple of Jesus learns to speak under the discipline of the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit enables Christians to speak truthfully in love – not too much or too little – in a manner that is appropriate for both the hearer and Jesus, who is listening in on our words.  Sometimes, the key is to get our time to listen silently to God through His Word so that when we do speak, we echo Jesus.”

A lot of people use this tactic to try to avoid sin: They imagine that Jesus is in the room with them.  Watching.  (Which He is.)  In their mind, it’s harder to succumb to temptation with the idea that Jesus is right next to them.  But did you catch what Driscoll just said?  “…Jesus, who is listening in on our words.”  Maybe next time, before you open your mouth to speak, ask yourself if you would be saying the same thing if Jesus was in the room.  (Which He is).

Would you say the same thing if you were speaking to Him?

So is the message here a simple one?  Just shut up!!  Not exactly.  I have a devotional calendar next to my bed, and last night’s said this: “You may, by virtue of your words or ways, change a person’s life forever.”

Go back and read most of the Bible passages provided earlier.  Within the context of what I was saying, it appears that each passage warns of the danger of words.  However, most of them are split: Half of the passage warns of the danger of words, while the rest speak to the positive side.  The righteous man chooses his words carefully…The man with good in his heart says and does good…Words can build relationships.

When Driscoll gave examples of condemnable speech, I cut him off.  He went on to say, “On the other hand, the Bible also describes speech as an opportunity for worship, prayer, grace, teaching, counsel, preaching, kindness, truth, comfort, love, healing, sweetness, encouragement, mercy, hope, gentleness, conviction, and faith.  As Proverbs 18:21 says, ‘The tongue has the power of life and death.’” (I added the bold print.)

So much good can come from the things we say.  The problem is that we believe everything we have to say is good.  It’s not, and we need to stop with that arrogance (yes, I need to take something from this post as well).  Think of it like this: The more you listen, the less you talk.  Then, when you do speak, your words will carry even more weight.  When words have that amount of power behind them, people listen.  When people listen, there is an immeasurable amount of good you can do…so long as your heart is good.

Chan took the following acronym from someone else, but he couldn’t remember whose it was—so the best I can do is cite Chan: THINK.  Before you say anything, THINK about what you’re about to say.
T = True.  Is what I’m about to say the truth?
H = Helpful.  Is what I’m about to say helpful?
I = Inspirational.  Is what I’m about to say going to inspire and bring others closer to God?
N = Necessary.  Is what I’m about to say necessary?
K = Kind.  Is what I’m about to say kind?

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. – Colossians 4:6
An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. – Proverbs 12:25

Next week: Part 2, Listening to God.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Finding a Church That Feeds You

This is not a post about whether or not you have to go to church.  There’s plenty to say on that issue, but I’ll save it for another day.  I’m writing about making sure that you are at the right church, and when you have found that church, the common phrase used is that you are being “fed.”  Just like we need to eat food in order to survive, we also have a spiritual hunger that must be sustained.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” – John 6:35

Why That Hunger Must Be Fed
When we are hungry, we will eat.  The hungrier we are, the less it matters what we eat.  We’ll load up on junk food if it’s there…and let’s be honest…it’s always there.  Healthier food is more expensive, it takes more time to prepare, and it doesn’t taste as good.  Junk food is cheap, easy, and delicious.  It works the same in our faith.  If our church isn’t feeding us enough, we’ll find that nourishment elsewhere…and let’s be honest…it’s always there.

In the form of sin.

If you are attending the “wrong” church, then you are lacking spiritual nourishment.  You aren’t learning about Jesus.  You aren’t learning about the Bible.  You aren’t learning.  You aren’t growing.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good – 1 Peter 2:2-3

To quote the notes in my Bible, “When we are born again, we become spiritual newborn babies.  If we are healthy, we will yearn to grow.  The need for milk is a natural instinct for a baby, and it signals the desire for nourishment that will lead to growth.  Once we see our need for God’s Word and begin to find nourishment in Christ, our spiritual appetite will increase, and we will start to mature.”

I’m going to make a bold statement here, one that some will probably disagree with and highly criticize: You would be better off staying at home than attending a church that isn’t feeding you.

Allow me to explain:  I am a middle school teacher.  Every year, I see one or two kids who are clearly finished with school.  They have zero desire to be in class.  Since it is against the law for them to drop out, there they sit every day.  You know the kind I’m referring to—you might even be one of the students to which I am referring.  For the sake of an example, I’ll call this student “Johnny.”

Since he has no desire to be in class, Johnny bothers everyone around him.  For the last couple of years, I have paid attention to the consequence of that last sentence.  When Johnny is in a class, the average grade of the entire class drops.  Follow that?  Solid students become decent students, decent students become struggling students, and struggling students become failing students when they share a room with Johnny.  His mere presence affects them all.

Negatively.

If you are “Johnny” at church, there’s a problem.  It’s one thing for you not to be fed, but now you are affecting the nourishment of others, and God has little patience for that.

When Steph and I visit her parents, we often go to their church.  Their church believes in speaking in tongues—a practice I did not grow up around and am therefore uncomfortable with.  Instead of letting my own issues go when I initially witnessed it, I became more and more vocal about it.  I began noticing that the same person spoke in tongues every time we went.  I noticed that she did it at the same point in the service every time.  I became skeptical, and made a “game” out of it.  Like a movie director yelling “Action,” when we reached that point in the service, I would say, “Aaaaannnndddd…Go!” and point to the woman.  Immediately, she would begin speaking in tongues.  Steph laughed.  Her family laughed.  Oh, what fun we were having!

Here’s the problem—I was mocking a practice they believed in.  I was mocking their service.  Their church.  My mocking took away from their time with God.  Plus, there were obviously other people sitting around us who no doubt heard me every time I did that.  I was robbing them of proper nourishment as well.

What if the person sitting in front of us was at church for the first time?  What if they were moved by the woman speaking in tongues, but my joke ruined that moment for them?  What if that caused them to be skeptical as well?  What if that skepticism kept them from attending church ever again?  What if that ultimately leads them to never knowing Jesus and winding up in Hell?

I would be partially to blame for that.

I was Johnny.  I wasn’t being fed at church; consequently, I became a distraction to others.  If I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (which is another topic for another time), the least I could have done was stay home.

For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.  When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. – 1 Corinthians 8:10-13

Bible’s notes: “Christian freedom does not mean that anything goes.  Christian freedom is inseparably tied to Christian responsibility.  New believers are often very sensitive to what is right or wrong, what they should or shouldn’t do.  Some actions may be perfectly all right for us to do, but may harm a Christian brother or sister who is still young in the faith and learning what the Christian life is all about.  We must be careful not to, by our example, cause these younger Christians to sin.”

If you are attending the “right” church, then you are receiving proper nourishment.  Christians who are being well-fed talk about this great peace and love that fills them when they’re at church.  If they’re attending the right church, that feeling extends beyond those walls.

How Do We Know If We’re Not Being Fed Properly?
Why do people believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?  Because your body and mind are trying to wake up, and the nutrients and calories from a good breakfast will help them do that.  Yes, calories are good.  Calories = energy.  You want energy for your day?  A decent breakfast is way more important than coffee.  Plus, breakfast kick-starts your metabolism.  Numerous studies have shown that people who eat a good breakfast have a higher metabolism rate and therefore (on average) weigh less than the people who skip breakfast.  Why?  These studies found that people who typically eat breakfast eat healthier during the day.  In short—they snack less.

My science teachers would be so proud.

Church is your breakfast for the week.  Pay attention to that.  When I say that you need a church that feeds you, I am NOT saying that it should be your only meal.  There’s still praying, reading your Bible, sharing the gospel, and fellowship with other Christians to name a few.  Can you get all of that at church?  Yes, but it shouldn’t stop there.

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” – Matthew 4:4
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” – John 4:34 (Bible notes: “The ‘food’ about which Jesus was speaking was his spiritual nourishment.  It includes more than Bible study, prayer, and attending church.  Spiritual nourishment also comes from doing God’s will and helping to bring his work of salvation to completion.  We are nourished not only by what we take in, but also by what we give out for God.”)

I do believe, however, that the church is your most important meal of the week, because it kick-starts your spiritual metabolism.  If you aren’t being fed properly at church, you are more likely to “snack” during the week.  You are less likely to eat the other proper meals (praying, reading the Bible, etc).  If you are fired up to go to your church every week, it becomes easier to stay healthy the rest of the week.

So how do you know if you are malnourished?
-         If praying and/or reading the Bible begins to feel like a chore rather than something you’re excited about.
-         If you find excuses not to go to church.
-         If you start questioning basic Christian moral standards (“It’s okay if I sleep with my girlfriend if I really, really love her, right?”)
-         If nearly every sermon bores you.
-         If you find that you are angry more often.  The hungrier you are, the more directions that anger is pointed: inanimate object…your favorite sports team…your co-workers…your friends…your family…your spouse…those in the church…Christians in general…and ultimately—God.
-         If you find yourself sinning more often and that it’s easier to do (as in: you rationalize it, feel less guilt over it, or repent less).  When you are physically starving, it becomes difficult for your immune system to ward off diseases.  When you are spiritually starving, sin spreads like an infection, and you are less equipped to fight it.
-         If you find yourself spending less and less time with Christian friends and more and more time with non-Christians. (*As I stated last week, it’s okay to have non-Christian friends, but they shouldn’t be your only friends.*)
-         If you spend more time on your hobby than you do reading the Bible, praying, and talking about God with others (combined).
-         If you don’t think about God unless you “mess up” real bad.
-         If the fifth episode in a row of Sportscenter actually looks appealing.

A big thanks to my brother Joe for those last three…the Sportscenter one made me laugh, so I had to include it.  As for the rest of you, please feel free to include others if you think of any.

A rather large question usually comes up right about now: Whose fault is it that I’m not being fed properly?  Some people want to blame the church, and sometimes they would be right to do so.  Let’s face it…some churches are just going through the motions.  Some people want to blame the Christian—you—and sometimes they would be right to do so.  Let’s face it…sometimes you’re just going through the motions.  Overall, I think the answer is pretty clear: It’s no one’s fault.

When Steph and I moved to Eureka, one of the first things on our checklist was to find a church that we could call home.  As it turned out, our neighbor was the associate pastor (who later became the head pastor) of a non-denominational church, which was perfect for us.  We started going to services there, and never went anywhere else for four years.

We liked it at Crosspoint.  We joined a small group before we officially decided that Crosspoint was our home church.  Most of the congregation were our age and great people, the music was awesome, it was rapidly growing…we felt home there.  Eventually, we started to see cracks in the foundation—not necessarily in the foundation of the church, but the foundation of our relationship with the church.

One major problem for me came during the weekly sermon.  I was never moved by it.  I went to that church for four years, and even today I can’t remember taking anything from a single sermon.  During the sermon, I would daydream…I would think about that week’s slowpitch softball game…instead of taking notes, I would write possible trades for my fantasy football team.

Eventually, Steph and I realized that Crosspoint wasn’t feeding us as we needed, so we left.  I can’t blame them for us leaving…it’s still a rapidly growing church, so obviously plenty of other people are being fed.  We weren’t.  Crosspoint no longer worked for us, and while that’s okay, it meant that we needed to find a different church that would work for us.

We didn’t for over a year.

And began starving ourselves.

What Happens When Spiritual Hunger Becomes Starvation?
The same thing that happens when physical hunger becomes starvation:

Death.

Let’s Make a Grocery List
Before you do anything, you should take a spiritual inventory of yourself.  Where are you at this point in your spiritual life?  I have been to some churches with a very spiritually young congregation.  This meant that a lot of very basic instruction was going on, most of which I already knew fairly well.  Staying there would have been like me returning to elementary school to relearn addition and subtraction.  I’ve also been to churches with a very spiritually mature congregation.  This meant that a lot of what was being discussed was so in depth that it flew over my head.  Staying there would have been like me returning to college and jumping into the middle of a pre-med program.  If you know where you are in your walk with Christ, it will be a lot easier to find a church that’s at the same place.  You also need to know what you are and are not comfortable with: Large church or small?  Raising of hands during worship?  Speaking in tongues?  Hands-on prayer?

Once you know where you’re at, here are some things to look for when you are shopping for a church home that will feed you properly (in no particular order):
-         Do they uphold the Bible as their authority, being the word of God?
-         Do they teach through the Bible?
-         Do they rely only on the leaders to do the work of the ministry, or do they educate and promote other leaders through small groups, youth ministries, children’s church, missionary work, etc?
-         Are they teaching the essentials of the faith to the new believers?
-         Do they have weekly meetings, small groups, Bible studies, etc. where people can get to know each other and have fellowship with one another?
-         Is there freedom (and encouragement) for people to exercise their spiritual gifts and talents to be used for each other and the community?
-         Who are they affiliated with?
-         Is it a church that will provide spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth?  Will it challenge you?
-         Can you respect and follow the pastor?  Do you like their preaching style?  I have seen pastors who yell and scream…who preach in soothing, loving tones…who (literally) danced down the aisles…who tell jokes…who barely move…who pace and gesture frantically…who sit down.  What is your preferred style?  What do you need in order to learn from them?
-         What is the music like?
-         What is the congregation like?  Age, enthusiasm, etc.
-         Are they trying to build stronger Christians or simply larger congregations?  By that, I mean are they doing things merely to pull in more people, sacrificing the teaching of God’s word to do so?
-         How do they feel towards women in leadership?  Homosexuals?  Any other hot-button topic that you may feel strongly about?
-         What is the accepted form of attire?

I spent all week putting that list together with the help of various people, websites, etc, but feel free to add any others that you can think of.  This list is merely meant to get you thinking about what you’re looking for—it is by no means a checklist of stuff that the church must have.  Some, like the first two, should be deal-breakers, but most of the others are more your preference.  For example: While I love music, I can live with a mediocre worship period if the pastor is awesome.  I need that pastor to reach me or everything else will fall on deaf ears.  Others feel differently, and that’s fine.  Regardless of what’s important to you on that list and what isn’t, there’s one thing that you must keep in mind:

There’s no such thing as the perfect church.

You will never find a church that perfectly matches all of your requirements, that’s why it’s so important to prioritize and decide what’s a deal-breaker for you and what you can live with.

A few of things that help narrow your search:
1)    See if the church you’re looking at has a website.  You can find a lot of the information listed above there.  Many times, they even have audio (or even video) of past sermons so you can check those out as well.
2)    Be sure to “shop around.”  First impressions are important, but can be misleading (good or bad).  Go back again.
3)    Don’t be afraid to email or even set up a face-to-face meeting with the pastor.  Come with questions.

In the end, don’t be stubborn.  Don’t go to the local Methodist church just because you grew up in the Methodist church.  Go where you will be fed.  If that happens to be the local Methodist church, great.  If the local Methodists can’t give you what you need, however, you need to be willing to look elsewhere.  If that means you wind up in a Catholic church, so be it.  Find the church that will help you grow spiritually.

Bon appetite!!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Awake and Alive

Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost – 1 Corinthians 15:18

I have stated numerous times over the last couple of months that I am “awake.”  A lot of people have asked me what that means, and I’ve never been overly pleased with my response.  I have used the term “sleeping Christian” as well, but have been met with the following question: “But…you’re still a Christian, right?”

If only it were that easy.

In Matthew 26:39-45, just before Jesus was arrested, He was praying.  He had instructed His disciples to do the same, but every time He went back to them, they were sleeping despite His insistence to stay awake.  In Mark 13:32-37, just before the Passover meal, Jesus tells His disciples three different times to stay awake (or keep watch/alert).  In Luke 22:39-46, Jesus is again praying, only to find that every time He returns to His disciples, they are asleep.  Verse 46: “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them.  “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

Jesus said something similar to this multiple times to His disciples.  Get up/Wake up/Be alert and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  What was He telling them?  What was He telling us?  Simply put: If you are asleep, you are defenseless against Satan’s attacks.

Think about it.  When you are tired, you don’t feel like doing anything.  You just want to sit on the couch and watch TV…or go straight to bed.  No work.  No quality time with friends of loved ones.  Just rest.  Eventually, you drift off and become oblivious to the world around you.  A sleeping Christian does the same thing.  When a Christian is asleep, prayer isn’t as important to them.  It becomes difficult for them to find time for church or to even read their Bible.  They stop attending small groups, youth groups, Sunday School, they stop serving as a greeter or in the nursery.

If you aren’t serving God, then you will drift from God.

And life.

If you are drifting from God, then you are drifting towards Satan.

And death.

For those that don’t know much of my past, let me rewind a bit.  I was raised in a Christian home.  I went to Sunday School, followed by church itself.  Every Sunday.  I dedicated myself to Christ when I was sevenish (don’t exactly remember), and had been baptized by the time I was in fifth grade.

And basically put it in cruise control after that.

I could quote nearly every stat of every baseball player, but could not state one line from scripture (I even frequently misquoted John 3:16).  I committed virtually every sin that’s been invented, and probably even created some new ones.  During my four years of college, I can count on one hand how many times I attended church.

I didn’t worry, though, because I knew I was going to Heaven.  Why?  Because I could say the words: I believe that God is my Lord and Savior.  I believe that He sent His only son, Jesus, to die on the cross for my sins, and that Jesus rose again to defeat death.

But that’s all they were to me…words.  I didn’t believe them.  I didn’t know Jesus.

When Steph and I moved to Eureka, we wanted to find a church, and found one quickly.  We attended it (nearly) every week for about four years.  While there, I would see people raising their hands during the music.  I never judged them for that, but I never felt compelled to do it myself.  I watched as people would cry during prayer…during the message…during the music…during communion.  I thought, Is something wrong with me?  I never feel like that.  Truthfully, I feel………nothing.  I chalked it up to the fact that I’m not much of a crier in the first place.  I thought maybe it was just the way I was wired.  Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been me.  After all, I dedicated my life to Christ when I was sevenish…was baptized by fifth grade…went to church (almost) every Sunday…and could say all the right words to all the “big” questions.  Surely, it couldn’t have been me.

On January 13, 2012, I finally realized just how wrong I had been.

It is common for people to receive a wake-up call when they come face-to-face with their own mortality at a funeral.  They see the deceased body of a loved one, and they realize just how fragile life is.  That’s not what happened to me.  I came face-to-face with God.  I constantly hear Christians talking about being in the awesome presence of the Lord.  How amazing it is.  How it just fills them with love and peace and understanding.  Some Christians feel this every day.  Some feel it every week.  In my twenty-sixish years of being a “Christian,” I felt this once prior to Christen’s funeral.

The first time, the feeling I received was more of a See…I really am here.  Feels awesome, doesn’t it?  It did, but I quickly fell back asleep.  Two months ago, however, God was done playing around with me.  Enough.  It’s time to wake up and get to work.

It was as if He took those shock paddles hospitals have, cranked them up to their highest voltage, and zapped my soul.  All of a sudden—during the funeral—I felt Him.  Everywhere.  And I understood for the first time in my life what I had been missing.  I saw my life in crystal-clear focus, whereas previously I had been wearing sunglasses in a pitch-black room.

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it – John 1:4-5

The notes in my Bible for that verse put it this way: “‘The darkness has not understood it’ means the darkness of evil never has and never will overcome or extinguish God’s light.  Jesus Christ is the Creator of life, and his life brings light to mankind.  In his light, we see ourselves as we really are (sinners in need of a Savior).  When we follow Jesus, the true Light, we can avoid walking blindly and falling into sin.  He lights the path ahead of us so we can see how to live.  He removes the darkness of sin from our lives.”

How many times have we woken up on the couch and thought, I don’t even remember falling asleep?  It feels like all we did was doze through a commercial break of the show we were watching…until we see that a completely different show is on.  We look at the clock and realize that two hours have passed.  That’s where I was…only instead of missing two hours of my life, it was all thirty-three years of my existence.

I saw myself for what I truly was.  A sinner.  I saw Jesus for who He truly is.  My savior.  Those words from my childhood were no longer words.  They had meaning.  My trivial questions that had always kept me at an arm’s length from God were suddenly that—trivial.  For the first time in my life, I was aware of God’s presence around me…within me.  He woke me up from my lifelong hibernation, and I finally felt alive.

So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God – Romans 7:4

Again—the notes for this verse: “When a person dies to the old life and belongs to Christ, a new life begins.  An unbeliever’s mind-set is centered on his or her own personal gratification.  Those who don’t follow Christ have only their own self-determination as their source of power.  By contrast, God is at the center of a Christian’s life.  God supplies the power for the Christian’s daily living.  Believers find that their whole way of looking at the world changes when they come to God.”

I am a new man in that I now see things differently.  I hope all of you can see this in me.  Feel this when you’re around me.  Don’t get me wrong—I still have faults.  I still have struggles.  I still sin.  But my hope is that now, when you read my words or hear my words, they don’t ring hollow.  That there is weight behind them that hits you with the same force that they hit me.  My prayer is that you all feel this as well.  If you don’t know God, that you find Him.  If you are asleep, that you wake up.  That you experience the awesome presence of God, and that you live through Him.

For it is light that makes everything visible.  This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” – Ephesians 5:14

Once your eyes are open, seeing the world clearly, the next question is, How do you stay awake?

1)    Pray.  Praying is one of your direct connections with God.  If you have a friend, but never talk to them, that friendship fades over time.  It works the same with God.  If you don’t communicate frequently with God, it becomes easier for you to drift away from Him.
2)    Read.  Read the Bible…read literature from Christian authors…find online sermons.  In short—learn.  You could read the entire Bible dozens of times and continually find something new to take from it.  If you read every book from every Christian author that’s out there for the rest of your life, you would die before you even put a dent in the book total.  Thanks to the Internet, you can find sermons from pastors you normally wouldn’t be able to see or read.  The bottom line is that there is a plethora of information available to you.  Think of Christian literature as your caffeine.
3)    Find a church that feeds you.  I’ll write more about this in the near future, but for now—food provides energy.  Energy helps you stay awake and focused.  Let the church feed you.
4)    Find, make, and keep Christian friends.  Is it okay to have friends who are not Christian?  Of course it is.  However, if none of your friends are Christian, then it becomes easier to drift away from God.  Christians need Christian friends.  A Christian friend will help keep you accountable.  A Christian friend can 1) pray with you…2) do a Bible study with you…3) go to church or small group with you…5) work/serve with you.  Two Christians working together for God will accomplish more than you alone.
5)    Act.  Talk about God with others (Christians and non-Christians).  Talk about your faith—your questions, your concerns, your struggles, your beliefs.  Write about it.  Find a way to serve.  Get involved in your church.  Exercising boosts your energy…this is your spiritual exercise.

There’s a song by the Christian band Skillet called Awake and Alive.  I heard it last year and loved it right away—mainly because the music and vocals are awesome.  This past weekend, I heard it again for the first time since Christen’s funeral, and the power of the lyrics punched me in the chest.  The words completely describe what has happened to me in the last two months.  I leave them and the video for you here.

I’m at war with the world and they
Try to pull me into the dark
I struggle to find my faith
As I’m slippin’ from your arms
It’s getting harder to stay awake
And my strength is fading fast
You breathe into me at last
I’m awake I’m alive
Now I know what I believe inside
Now it’s my time
I’ll do what I want ‘cause this is my life
here, right now
I’ll stand my ground and never back down
I know what I believe inside
I’m awake and I’m alive
I’m at war with the world cause I
Ain’t never gonna sell my soul
I’ve already made up my mind
No matter what I can’t be bought or sold
When my faith is getting weak
And I feel like giving in
You breathe into me again
Waking up waking up
In the dark
I can feel you in my sleep
In your arms I feel you breathe into me
Forever hold this heart that I will give to you
Forever I will live for you