Friday, November 27

Finding God in Music

Most kids my age struggle with finding out who they are, what their place is in the world, what they want to do with their lives, et cetera...

While I certainly can't take any credit for this, I'm lucky enough to have at least part of my life puzzle in place already that some people take years to work out.

I'm a musician. Music is what I love, and the more I experience it, the more I love it. Music puts our emotions on display in the most raw and vulnerable way possible.

I'm not a very "out there" kind of person (even though I used to think I was). I really don't like to talk about my thoughts or feelings because I just don't think that people will be interested. In music, however, I have a way to express pure feeling without even the obstacles and limits that words impose, in such a way that anyone can relate.

For example, I'm listening to a Liszt piece as I write, and throughout the different sections of the piece I hear a portrayal of pure innocence which gives way to feelings of betrayal, followed by unbridled anger which then morphs into determination, perseverance, and eventual triumph. This piece honestly gets me every time because for me, it's so much more than just notes and cool sounds. This piece is about making a decision to seek after beauty and truth with determination regardless of how ugly life can be sometimes.

"Music begins where the possibilities of language end." - Jean Sibelius
Music is very powerful and incredibly important on many levels, both physical and abstract. I can't imagine my life without music because it's how I relate to the world, and it's through integrating my personal experiences in the world into my music that my existence is made relevant (on one level, anyway).

But "musician" is not the only label that I've claimed. Even more importantly than my identity as a musician, I am a child of God and thus am identified with Christ; therefore, it is my reasonable service to honor Him and obey Him.

Growing up in church, I heard my fair share of verses reminding Christians that whatever we do should be for the glory of God, so I knew all along that whatever I ended up doing with my life, I would be doing it for God's glory and not my own. But once I started becoming more serious about my music and realized that I want to be a classical musician a few years ago, I've since then struggled a lot with how one can make music for the glory of God outside of singing sacred songs in a worship setting. It was easy to say that I wanted to honor God through my music, but I was at a loss as to where exactly God fit in to classical music.

As I started studying music in college, I really had to start thinking about how to differentiate my music from anyone else's, and to do this I started exploring how I connected to music personally, both in listening and performing. Not surprisingly, I found that my connections to music are almost exclusively emotional, so I concluded that music does indeed come from the heart, as many people have said before.

I was kind of frustrated because it didn't feel like I had made any kind of progress in my search for how to be a God-honoring pianist. All I had discovered was that music comes from the heart and touches your emotions, and that was nothing new.

There was a pretty basic disconnect happening in my thinking, though. I was making music greater than God and implying that He had to just let the music happen and find some way to be glorified in it. After all, it came from my heart and there was really no way for me to control what happened with it. 

But I was getting things terribly out of order.

People in the music world can be really awful - everyone just wants to get their big break and make their name, no matter how selfish they have to be to attain to those things. They are willing to fight their way to the top with no regard for how they affect others along the way. Those people are completely missing the point of music - to bring people together and touch their emotions in a way too beautiful for words. There is no room for selfishness in music. We should seek only to better people and offer them new perspectives.

It took seeing several selfish musicians perform for me to see just how vital it is for me to be sincere and to have pure motives behind my playing. Music is a gift from God, and to keep it to ourselves or use it only to advance ourselves would be a terrible waste. The best music comes from people who play sincerely from the heart, because they love music and love others. Despite all of the politics and nastiness that happens backstage, when you actually take to the stage to perform, the only thing that matters is whether or not you actually have the substance to back yourself up.

I found these verses earlier today and I think that they sum up pretty well what I believe is the key to being a God-honoring musician.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, 
full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:16-17)

Like with so many other similar issues that I've struggled with relating to how I can possibly please God, it seems that it all comes down to one question: What is my motivation in doing this?

If music comes from the heart, then the most important thing for me to do as an aspiring musician (except for maybe my scales and arpeggios) is to make sure that my heart is right before God, and then to play passionately with love and sincerity from a pure heart.

Thursday, November 12

Perfectly Imperfect

I was watching the sunset tonight, which is not at all an unusual thing for me to do. What was unusual though, was that I was feeling quite melancholy staring up at the beautiful, rosy hues in the sky.

Sunsets always bring a flood of memories for me. They've usually been pleasant, sometimes with a hint of sweet, naive longing. Tonight was different, though. The memories were painful and overwhelming to the point that all I could do was cry. The colors in the sky blurred together like a watercolor painting as my eyes filled with tears. Still I watched the sky, holding on to the hope that I always feel when watching sunsets. The picture was unclear, but still beautiful.

Have you ever noticed that the most beautiful sunsets are not the ones with perfectly clear skies? The most beautiful sunsets - like tonight's - are the ones that are clouded and have some dark places. Tonight, the sun's rays lit up the underside of the clouds, illuminating even the darkest of clouds with a stunning golden light.

God can do the same thing with the dark places in our lives if we just let Him. There's no shame in being real and admitting that we're broken and confused and hurting - the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

As I looked at the perfectly imperfect sky tonight, it made me think of my life right now. The past has some dark places and hard memories, and as I look ahead with tears in my eyes, the future is unclear. But my life is one of God's creations, and because of that I can know that it's going to be beautiful.

Wednesday, November 11

An Austen Man is Hard to Find

I'm pretty sure Jane Austen was a time-traveler.

How else could her stories be obviously 18th century and yet still so accurately reflective of our modern-day dramas?

Consider Mr. Elton from Emma. Haven't we all known that I'm-God's-Gift-To-Women guy who just can't imagine why you wouldn't be honored – no, indeed, flattered – to go out with him? were just being nice? What? You're not interested? Oh well, no big deal, he'll just keep hunting until he finds a female desperate enough to accept his – Oh look! He's already changed his relationship status on Facebook.
And surely we've all known a Lydia Bennet – she is the 18th century definition of a basic white girl. I can guarantee if Pride & Prejudice (to ampersand or not to ampersand?) were set during modern times, Lydia would have an on fleek Instagram feed covered in the latest Starbucks fraps and just crawling with adorable officers for every last #mcm. And heaven forbid she would EVER miss Selfie Sunday.

I often find myself relating to Knightley when he learns of Frank Churchill's happy situation after playing with everybody's emotions and being dishonest to all: “He has used every body ill – and they are all delighted to forgive him. He is a fortunate man indeed!”

Sigh. Life seems really unfair sometimes, doesn't it, Knightley?

The list goes on and on.

I don't know if this is just me (I certainly HOPE it's not just me), but every time I read an Austen novel or watch one of the film adaptations, I find myself comparing all of the characters' conflicts and squabbles and relationships to ones that I know in real life, and vice versa. The closeness of the comparisons is sometimes almost scary. Normally I do it just for entertainment and I'm able to keep it fun and harmless. However, in one aspect I have discovered that comparing my life to a Jane Austen novel can be very, very dangerous.

Because what do you do when Darcy turns out to be Willoughby?

One of the things that makes Jane Austen's novels so enjoyable is her ability to create most excellent male protagonists – the heroes (or villains, in some cases).

Austen men are ruggedly handsome, chivalrous, kind, well-dressed, eloquent in speech and writing, and most importantly – single and in possession of a good fortune. (Or at the very least, some combination of at least two of those qualities.)

Unfortunately, my bestie Jane apparently had her share of encounters with boys who are just downright not nice. From the players to the snobs to the even worse snobs, she has all these guys pegged.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is possibly the most famous of all of Austen's male heroes. I'm honestly a little confused as to why he's so popular, because obviously Frederick Wentworth is far superior a man. But I digress; either way, Darcy is considered to be sort of the ideal brooding stoic. So I'm not sure if all the girls who go on and on about how wonderful he is are just blissfully ignorant of that or what, but let's just say that I doubt Darcy would deal well with “Babe, we need to talk.”

But at least Darcy realized his mistakes and fessed up to them. He managed to set his pride aside and admit that he was wrong and that he had used Elizabeth ill. Even though Darcy's first priority initially appears to be himself, it soon becomes clear that his duty is to honor first of all. He may have made some mistakes, but he made them while trying to do the right thing, not while trying to further advance himself.
Let's switch books for a second and go to Sense and Sensibility and John Willoughby. Willougby was once described to me as simply “a cad.”

I couldn't possibly come up with a better description.

Willoughby swoops in on Marianne, who is the epitome of naive romanticism, and woos her with sweet words and promises of a future together. But then, out of nowhere and with no explanation, he disappears, abandoning Marianne and breaking her heart. Eventually we find out that Willoughby's family was unhappy with his attachment to Marianne and forced him to break it off so that he could find someone with a larger dowry. True to form, Willoughby fails to acknowledge his wrong to Marianne, choosing instead to avoid her, leaving her confused and questioning if he still has feelings for her, if he ever had feelings for her, and what she could have done to change his feelings so drastically. His situation finally becomes clear when Marianne unluckily happens to see him being romantically associated with a silly and foolish – but rich – girl at a ball. Apparently Willoughby's family is less concerned with the actual character and depth to a person and more concerned with outward appearance of good status (when really they haven't seen the true form). A lot of people feel bad for Willoughby because they think he felt like he was stuck and had no choice. Personally I feel bad for Miss Grey, his betrothed, because she thinks she's getting a prize, but sooner or later the truth about Willoughby will come out, and she's going to feel like a fool.

One positive thing about Willoughby is that it cannot possibly be denied he truly did care for Marianne at one point. However, he really had no business pursuing her when he knew that it couldn't work out, so that really only shows his immaturity and a lack of self control. Willoughby's actions show his true character, and it becomes clear that his dashing demeanor and grand speeches of romantic adoration and old-fashioned chivalry were just a facade to cover up his inner cadness.

Marianne should take heart though, because as Mr. Knightley so wisely said,

Willoughby clearly has no sense.

As bad as it is just to have had to deal with Willoughby alone, it's a whole lot worse when you think you're dealing with Darcy – someone who might appear arrogant and condescending but is really noble and honorable and can be trusted to do the right thing – and you end up dealing with Willoughby – a selfish, pathetic cad with no backbone, easily turned by shallow distractions when things get hard.

Talking about being honorable means nothing when you then turn around and compromise all those standards you claim to hold yourself to just so you can have some easy fun. Someone who will so quickly depart from things that are good and honorable doesn't deserve to have anything better.

So I've given up on Mr. Darcy, and heaven knows I'm not interested in Willoughby. Maybe there's still a Knightley or a Wentworth out there for me. Who knows? A good man - an Austen man - is hard to find.

One thing I know is true though, as long as I keep my holding myself to higher standards of character, there's someone out there for me who does the same for himself – truly and consistently, not halfheartedly just so he can fool most people.

Even if your Darcy turns out to be a Willoughby (or even an Elton, heaven forbid), hold fast and know that good things come to those who wait. Very rarely did the Austen heroines end up with their perfect man without much time and heartache.

And no matter what happens, we can all be glad that we don't end up with Mr. Collins.

Sunday, October 11


So there's been something troubling me for almost the entire year now, and since I believe that oftentimes those little nagging feelings are really the Holy Spirit showing me a spot in my life that I need to investigate, I've done a lot of thinking and praying about it. I kind of already settled this for myself back in May, but the issue is something that I face almost on a daily basis, and consequently, I don't think it could hurt to revisit it.

While many people desire to be thought of as pretty or funny or smart (all good things), I've always had a weirder ambition - I want people to think I'm nice. This reputation is something I've been pursuing for several years, and although I think I pretty much achieved it a long time ago, I knew I wasn't being sincere. I don't know for sure when I became aware of it, but I realized that the very same people that I would greet with hugs and compliment to no end in public often became the victims of vicious gossip in private. Luke 6 says that our mouths speak out of the abundance of our hearts; if our hearts are full of good things, we will speak good things, and vice versa. So if only bad things were coming out of my mouth, what did that say about the state of my heart?

My close friends have probably heard me say before that I hate girls. I say that because we have such a tendency to be petty and catty and just straight up mean and malicious. In addition to that, in general we really like to talk. The combination of these two attributes is a recipe for disaster.

There are two quotes that I've seen that have really stuck with me as I've dealt with my own tendency to talk badly about people behind their backs. The first is this: "Confidence is silent, but insecurities are loud." This caused me to investigate the real reason for why I felt the need to talk badly about so many people. If I was talking about how annoying someone else was, was it because I really was worried that all my friends secretly thought that I was annoying too? What was I hoping to accomplish? Every time I put someone down, it made me feel a little more superior and a little more superior. I mean, obviously I must be cooler/smarter/funnier than them if I can see fault in them.

But this is such a foolish way to gain confidence. A confidence built by tearing others down is unstable and fragile - merely a facade that could crumble away with any blow. Rather than dwelling on the faults of others, we should be focusing on our own faults and improving them. The confidence that comes from working to improve your own character is what will last even through times of insecurity.

The second quote has really helped me more in evaluating my friendships than it has me personally (although it has also helped me be a better friend, I hope) It basically says that anyone who will talk badly to you about others will just as soon talk badly to others about you. I have since found this to be true, and it can be very hurtful. I don't want to have that kind of friend, and I certainly don't want to be that kind of friend.

This summer I became aware of how odious it is when someone is constantly talking badly about other people, and I decided that I don't want to be that way. I especially don't want to be that way only in private and cause people to think something of me that I don't deserve. Even though at the time there were still a lot of bad things in my heart, as I started trying to control what I let out of my mouth, the bad things started to be replaced by good. I'm thankful that God has helped me get to a point where I can be sincerely nice to people. 

The ancient Greek culture was one that valued honorable behavior and had a concept called "sophrosyne", which was considered to be the epitome of good character. Someone who has sophrosyne is sober-minded and has control over themselves through a knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses. From the oracle of Delphi - which had a major influence on religious beliefs in this period of time - came numerous sayings (many of which contain similar principles to the Ten Commandments) which became guidelines for how to achieve sophrosyne. One of the most famous of these is simply, "Know thyself." In the Greek culture this was a reminder to not build yourself up beyond what you truly are - know your weaknesses.

Romans 12 contains much wisdom on this matter: 

"I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment..."

"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor."

"Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."

Whether it means that I'm being nice, that I have Greek sophrosyne, or whatever else, ultimately I want my behavior to be honorable and to reflect well on my Savior. I know that saying unkind things about other people is not edifying, and even worse is not pleasing to God. Sometimes it can be really difficult, and my decision to avoid this kind of conversation has really hurt some of my friendships, but I know that in due season I will reap rewards if I don't give up on doing good. 

It is always worth it to do the right thing.

Wednesday, August 26

University of Kanye

As many of you know, I started college on Monday, and as this is apparently a semi-big deal (?), I figured I would write a post for you all and let you know my thoughts.

Most people aren't familiar with the school I'm going to, though, so to make this post #relatable, I'm making up a pseudonym to make things more exciting. So here are my thoughts on college life after three days at the University of Kanye (enhanced with Kanye in various forms, naturally).


My thoughts on college life after three days:

1. Most teachers seem to relish seeing the terror struck into their students' hearts when the phrase
"Let's get to know each other a little better" leaves their mouths. When one of my teachers showed up with an entire PowerPoint presentation devoted to ice breaker questions for the morning, at first I was like

And then I have to admit I started looking for an escape route. (but it turned out to be super fun actually so yay)

One of my teachers actually gave us the assignment of writing a paper about ourselves - who we are and what we hope to accomplish in life - in an effort to "get to know us better".

And I mean honestly I think I got a little carried away maybe...

But nonetheless, I thought that was kind of a cool way to go about "getting to know each other" while managing to avoid awkward in class activities.

2. Why are there always annoying people everywhere no matter what? I'm generally a pretty nice person, but honey, if we just met and you've been oversharing with me for the last ten minutes while I respond almost exclusively with "Oh cool!" or "Wow!" and then I pull out my phone and you start flipping out because there are suction cups on the inside of my case and then you get all grabby with my phone case/wallet which has my phone and my cash and all my ID cards inside of it... DON'T BE SURPRISED IF THIS HAPPENS.

Assuming my unavoidable stereotypical social ineptitude as a former homeschooler, if I can tell that your behavior is socially unacceptable, you should be very ashamed of yourself. I would love to talk to you and be a friendly human being, but please don't get grabby with my important personal items.

3. In conjunction with my first day of college, I did my first mostly independent grocery shopping trip, and what I learned is that while it may make you feel like a responsible adult to buy vegetables, yogurt, and granola bars for your lunches, when it comes down to it, you have to actually eat the stuff you buy, and later in the week when you no longer have that "I just bought vegetables as an independent adult" high and all you want is junk food and all you have is cucumber slices? You will be unhappy. BUY GOLDFISH CRACKERS. (this is actually always good life advice)


So yeah. Three thoughts for three days of school because one thought a day is really just about as much as I can handle. Also, everyone should consider the University of Kanye because it's like, super fly. And to all of you guys, I hope your lives are absolutely awesome right now, and remember:

Sunday, August 23

I have no idea what I'm doing

Summer is drawing to a close, and honestly I could not be happier. Tomorrow will be my first day as an official college student, which is only mildly terrifying. I think I would be much more anxious had I not dual enrolled for two years already. One of the questions that adults like to ask me a lot is "What part of being a college student are you most looking forward to?"

Honestly, I'm just excited that I'm not going to have to try to explain dual enrollment to everyone anymore, because that always got overly complicated.

Person: So what year are you in school?
Me: Well, I'm technically a freshman in college, but I'm also a junior in high school.
Person: *looks confused* Well um. Isn't that different.

Starting college really doesn't feel like that big of a deal to me. Maybe it's because I'm taking almost exclusively music classes, which I feel pretty comfortable with. Or maybe it's because I'm an idiot. Or maybe a combination of the two.

Even though I don't necessarily recommend that anyone take advice from me about how to do life, one thing that has really helped me was realizing that I don't have any idea what I'm doing. As I was growing up I cultivated kind of an elitist mindset within myself, which I think came from feigning confidence at all the music competitions I did throughout the years. I got used to people thinking I was a big fish without even stopping to consider the size of the pond I was swimming in (let me just tell you, the pond was very small indeed). Thusly, I got to thinking that I kind of knew what was up and thought I was hot stuff. Aaaand then I had to start applying to college and registering for classes and buying textbooks and looking for a job and doing other adulty things while also finishing up high school, practicing piano, and trying to maintain a normal life aside from all that.

I quickly came to realize that not only is life very difficult and often requires a lot of paperwork, but also that I do not, in fact, have the slightest clue what I'm doing.

And even worse, I had to admit that there are other people out there who actually know better than I do! *gasps of shock and horror*

Even though it was kind of humbling for me initially to ask people for help (because asking someone for help is a nonverbal recognition of the fact that they know more than you do), now I've learned that most people are willing and happy to help you out in a very kind way.

If I had decided to continue pretending that I know what's up, there's a good chance I would be a lot stupider than I am now.

Basically what I've learned already this semester is that before you can get your life together, you have to admit to yourself that you don't have a clue, and then let people help you figure things out.

So maybe it is a little dorky that I still want my mom to go walk around campus with me while I try to find my classrooms for the first day (even though I only have classes in two buildings), but I really don't care. It makes no sense to go into an institution of higher learning thinking that you have it all figured out. The whole point of being there is to learn new things and find your own personal strengths (and weaknesses) and to grow as a person and flourish. So admit to yourself that you don't know everything and you're going to need help along the way, and don't be embarrassed about needing help sometimes, because trust me - everyone else does, too.

So even though I have no idea what I'm doing, I'm very excited to do it anyway, and I hope all of you (if you're still out there for me) will have an amazing, clueless semester!

Wednesday, June 24


Before I even get into what I'm planning to write about today, I just want to insert a quick disclaimer: While it would certainly be nice to be right all the time, I know that I am often wrong, and I acknowledge that what I have to say is by no means the end-all best point-of-view; however, this is my opinion and I feel like this is an important message for Christian young people.

One of the highlights of many church kids' summers is what they like to refer to as "church camp". The church I go to puts on a pretty fantastic church camp over the course of several weeks throughout the summer. The main point of the week of camp is the preaching, according to the camp administrators. This statement brings to mind only one question: did those people ever actually go to church camp? Admittedly, some pretty dynamic preachers are featured during the weeks of church camp, but I still doubt that a survey of the campers' main reason for paying money to come to camp would indicate that the preaching is the biggest part of church camp for the teens.

When I think of church camp, I think of awkward games and staying up late and lots of unhealthy snacks and week-long relationships and having to share a bathroom with seven other girls. The two main features of church camp (and I think most teenagers would agree with me) are terrible camp relationships and having as much fun as possible.

After three years of summer camp (and looking forward to my fourth in a couple weeks), I have a decent amount of experience with all the positives and negatives church camp has to offer. However, one negative sticks out in my mind above almost all the others: invitations after services.

Just for the sake of clarity, I don't mean like "Hey, wanna go to Steak and Shake?" (does anybody actually go to Steak and Shake anyway?), I'm talking about when a preacher issues an invitation to his audience to come to the altar to pray (basically).

Here's how a lot of these services go:

Preacher opens message with an emotional anecdote or startling statistic.

Preacher reads Scripture for two minutes.

Preacher paces around the pulpit, yelling and sweating like it's summer in Florida.

Preacher yells some more.

Preacher closes with an intensely emotional story. (yelling optional)

Preacher issues an invitation.

Entire audience goes forward to make a decision.

If this sounds familiar to you, first off, you're probably a Baptist. (lulz) Either that, or you've been in a similar service, whether for camp or not.

Personally, I have a problem with the invitations preachers issue at youth camps. Teenagers are notorious bandwagon jumpers in any environment. But pack us in a building with over a thousand other teenagers, get the audience so emotionally charged that everyone is super uncomfortable, and use manipulative language when asking (demanding?) us to make a decision during the invitation at the end, and you have a recipe for mass spiritual disaster. 

I have many examples that I could mention, but I've picked two that I think best show why I think these invitations are so dangerous.

At my first year at camp, a preacher spoke passionately (or maybe just loudly) about why purity is so important for Christian young people (true). Upon finishing his message, he invited the campers to come forward and make a vow of purity to a camp leader (a little awkward, but not bad). But then he continued to say that he expected 100% participation. Some kids might resist the invitation even after this was said, but who is going to stay behind after everyone else goes forward at an invitation and look like a hardhearted rebel resisting the conviction of the Holy Spirit? What about all the kids who have already done that? What about kids who would rather talk to their parents or home pastor about it first? What about kids who just aren't ready quite yet? What about kids who want to think about it and make sure they fully understand what they're doing before they make a promise to Almighty God about something? What about kids who just aren't convicted to go forward? What about kids who are too young to even know what the preacher is talking about?

It's hard enough to be the only one not doing something when everyone else is doing something that's obviously wrong, but what about when everyone else is doing something that looks so right?

Well, like good children, every last camper went to a counselor and took their hand and said what the preacher had told us to: "I promise." Even as I was participating in it, it felt weird to me. While I don't regret making a decision to remain pure, I can guarantee you that my decision wasn't made then, and those words I said to a counselor I didn't even know certainly didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't convicted by the Holy Spirit to go forward in that service, I was convicted by a preacher and by peer pressure.

The other example is actually from a camp service I visited just this past week. The message was good right up until the invitation. The preacher worded his invitation in such a way that any conscientious Christian teenager would feel guilty not going forward, no matter their reason for staying in their seat. The moment he opened up the altar, probably 80% of the campers got out of their seats. But what I saw next is what bothers me the most.

I watched a boy sit in his seat, his body language indicating that he was not planning to get up anytime soon. Then the girl next to him stood up and started to move towards the altar, followed by the boy on his other side. He looked from one to the other, tensed up, and then started to move to stand up when he saw that both of his companions were going forward. However, the aisles were so clogged that Boy #2 was having difficulty getting out, so he started to sit back down. As soon as Boy #1 thought he wasn't going to be the lone not-serious Christian, he relaxed and settled back in to his seat. The next moment the aisles were clear and Boy #2 got up to go again, and Boy #1 instantly jumped up to follow his friend down to the altar. 

Boy #1 clearly would not have gone forward if his friends hadn't been going, especially if he hadn't seen that hundreds of other kids had already gone.

Peer pressure isn't all about crazy partying. Every time a preacher at a church camp issues an invitation and a mass exodus to the altar begins, we have to deal with a lot of peer pressure. Most teenagers can't discern if the pressure they feel is the conviction of the Holy Spirit or if it's pressure created by their peers or the environment or the preacher. 

Preachers and youth leaders need to be careful not to confuse their teens. I'm sure it's easy to get caught up in the thrill of seeing hundreds of teenagers come forward, but the focus should be more on helping teenagers to really understand and make sincere decisions and less on getting everyone in the building to respond. Luke 15 says that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over ONE sinner who comes to repentance than over ninety-nine just people who don't need to repent. Teens need to know their own hearts and use discernment (easier said than done, I know). But most importantly, teens should never be made to feel guilty for not going forward at an invitation. Whether they want to make a decision is between them and God, and that exclusivity and privacy should be carefully maintained.

I think it's very important for teenagers heading off to church camp to know that it is okay to not go forward if you're not feeling led to. I know that it's hard to just stand there when everyone else is going forward, but if you are honestly not convicted to go forward, why would you? Going forward (or not) for an invitation makes a statement. Unfortunately, the statement that it makes is more along the lines of "I'm a good person, look at me" and not "By God's grace I want to make serious changes in my life". If you're not serious about making changes in your life, going forward at an invitation sends the wrong message to people around you, and even though it's a positive message, that's dishonest. In general we as teens suffer from a tendency to not think about what we're doing. So just think before you go to do anything, and know that it's okay to decide not to go.

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. 
Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 
(Romans 14:22)

Friday, June 5

Trouble in Big People World

The news has certainly been hopping lately with various stories applauding certain events and people while viciously attacking others. It has definitely felt to me like increasing numbers of these issues have been attacking Christians and Christianity in general, and sometimes even basic morality itself.

I don't want to jump on any bandwagons here, because I'm sure everyone's news feeds have been overwhelmed with all the latest articles. I'm also by no means the best person to be talking about any of this. There can't be much more to say on any of these recent issues, and I doubt I'll say anything new. In lieu of all that, it is my goal that the thoughts I present in this post would be not only immediately relevant, but also applicable under other circumstances. (Plus, writing this all down will, I hope, help me work it out in my own mind.)

Jesus told his disciples many times that they should expect tribulation in this life. This is explicitly stated throughout the New Testament, and it is evident in the Old Testament that followers of God have been suffering persecution in various forms almost since the beginning of time. It comes as no surprise to me that attacks on our faith – specifically from the media – have become more frequent recently; however, it is still disturbing and saddening.

Even though it's hard to imagine how this could possibly transpire from the circumstances at hand, I know God will be glorified.

He always has a plan and works things for ultimate good. Even though God's schedule may not match ours, it's important to keep the bigger picture in mind. In the vast scheme of things, even these problems that seem to be a huge deal to us could be infinitesimal and insignificant from God's perspective; and yet He chooses to work through them.

God has been using recent happenings in Big People World to help me learn and grow. Over the last month or so, I've read dozens of articles on the various issues that have been hot topics in the media. Many of them were intentionally written to elicit an emotional response, and they certainly didn't disappoint. Unfortunately, the desired response of anger to the point of action was not what I experienced, but rather an overwhelming sadness for the state of...well, mankind, really.

I moped and sulked a little, stewing and festering and not accomplishing much of anything. Then I went to the Bible, and surprise! God helped me break through my mental fog and establish some clarity – even as He's helping me do right now. (Funny how reading the Bible always seems to help, and yet I always seem to forget to do that.)

These are a few of the thoughts that came to my mind today as I sifted through articles on the same hot topics that I'm sure you all were sifting through articles on as well.

First, it seems to me that non-Christians don't really know what Christianity is all about. 

One of the biggest complaints that the general population has about Christians is that we're all a bunch of hypocrites. And yes, many of us are, but not all. The foundation of Christians' interaction with nonbelievers has to be the realization that we are all sinners. In that most basic of ways, we're all the same, and that means that nobody is better than anybody else. And even if we think we're somehow superior because we have already received Christ as our Savior, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

If somebody gave you a present, would you go around afterward bragging about how great you are because you received the present? Common sense says of course not; you would go around bragging about how great your friend is for giving you the present. And that's exactly how we as Christians should be about our salvation. To receive a present is nothing, but giving it is remarkable.

And that sort of leads in to the next thing I think people misunderstand about Christianity. In some cases there seems to be a downward spiral from hypocrisy – Christians get to feeling like they're big stuff because they have been enlightened to salvation (oh yeah, and it was by the grace of God, but you know), so they think that because they have reached higher understanding, they now have the right to criticize what everybody else does in an extremely nitpicky and sometimes petty way. And believe it or not, being criticized by Christians all the time is not going to make people want to accept Christianity.

In fact, the only thing it seems to accomplish is making people think that good Christianity is about doing every little thing right and severely criticizing when anything is done wrong and just picking and nagging and punishing and sending to hell and negativity and restrictions everywhere. And because Christians represent God to unbelievers, that's what people start to think God is like.

But God is not all about lecturing people about what they're doing wrong. God is all about saving people no matter what because He loves them.

Let's compare sin to skyscrapers for a second. When humans think about sin, we think about it like this:

My sin is that one skyscraper, but that big one over there is my friend's, and that little one over there is my pastor's, and that one is yours and it's pretty big, etc...

We always want to compare our sin and play who's the worst sinner. But God sees sin more like this:

Are all the differing heights still there? Yes. But from this perspective, does it matter how big one is compared to the other? No. From this view, a skyscraper is a skyscraper, and sin is sin. There is no big or little, significant or meaningless. Cheating on a quiz is equally as serious as theft or murder, simply because all sin leads to death, no matter the size that we assign it.

So since we're all sinners, even if we think someone else's sin is "worse" than our own, as far as God is concerned, we don't have any right to tell anybody that they're in the wrong.

Because we tend to focus so much on other people's sin, another thing that seems to be believed about Christianity is that everything we do revolves around our past. This couldn't be more wrong, since salvation and Christianity is all about new life and renewal. To start off on this subject, I want to share some verses from Romans 6 that sum it up pretty fantastically.

"We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin... For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."

People who focus on their sinful past rather than moving on to live their life under God's grace are bringing unnecessary difficulty on themselves. God doesn't dwell on the past, nor should we. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we make really, really big mistakes, but God is eager to forgive us from all unrighteousness - and that applies to anybody who will receive Him.

Ultimately, we as Christians need to stay focused on Christ and His love and the freedom we have in Him. Even though we may not always agree with what a person does, we still know that we should love them as God loves them. We can acknowledge their wrongness in our own hearts without shunning them and publicly denouncing them. Is your getting a chance to prove yourself right really worth making another person think badly of all Christians because of how you treat them?

Before his conversion, the Apostle Paul was the leader of many violent attacks on Christians. And yet, these are his words in 1 Corinthians 10: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved."

Any Christian who lived during Paul's time would certainly have thought him to be the last person God would use, but instead God enabled him to become one of the greatest missionaries in the history of Christianity. Christians are not perfect, and holding us to such an impossible standard is a setup for disappointment. But like Paul, God can use us in spite of our past sins.

So what have I learned? Well, first I would say I've gained a new perspective on how important it is for me to be aware of what kind of testimony I'm presenting. I'm not an in-your-face kind of person, so I don't go around broadcasting to everyone that I'm a Christian, but most people I come in contact with regularly are aware of my beliefs, and because of that it's important for me to keep in mind how I represent Christ to them. Am I showing them the unconditional, accepting love of Christ or am I making them feel judged and criticized? My interaction with them may affect how they view Christianity in general, and that realization somewhat ups the pressure to conduct myself in a manner that reflects Christ.

The second thing I've been thinking about is how I should treat people who have different standards than I do, maybe even significantly so. I often struggle with maintaining friendships because even though I love my friends, I'm not very good at being loyal to them before I'm loyal to what I think is right, but I'm also really bad at telling people when I think they're in the wrong. So rather than address the issue, I just avoid my friend in general. I know that especially for me as a young adult it's important to be on my guard regarding what influences I allow into my life, but what if my friend needs good influence from me? I don't have all the answers on this one by any means, but I do know that Jesus didn't shy away from associating with some folks of ill repute. Just because I don't agree with something someone is doing, I should still show love to them.

Ultimately the most important thing I've learned is that no matter how high or low people seem to be on the righteousness spectrum (that's not a real thing, in case you were wondering), we all need Christ just the same. While it seems reasonable to hold Christians to a higher moral standard (because being holy like Christ should be our goal), to expect us never to fail is terribly unrealistic. Christianity is about being forgiven and accepted despite your failings, not about focusing on your failings and letting them hinder your growth (therein lies the freedom). Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people. Things happen to people, but the ultimate test of character is how people respond to the things that happen to them. Whether I'm being attacked or dealing with someone else who's being attacked or even just having a regular interaction with someone, I have to choose how I will respond to whatever I'm facing.

The right response is always found in Christ.