Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Counting by Subtraction

We count our blessings by addition. That's how it's done.

But I wonder, can we also count our blessings by subtraction? 

Can we look at the things that have been taken from us, and count ourselves blessed? Can we see the grace of God by what he gives AND by what he takes away?

Often when we pass through the valleys of life well-meaning people will tell us to think of those who have it worse. In the beloved movie White Christmas, Bing sings, "When my bankroll is getting small, I think of those who have none at all, and I fall asleep counting my blessings." 

Is this how we are meant to traverse the trials of life? There are two major problems with this approach! First, it reveals a tremendous lack of compassion for those whose struggles are greater than my own. The fact that I have it better than another person is no reason to rejoice! That thought should double my grief, not ease it. Second, this approach fails for the one is at the bottom of the pile. Finally someone has it worse than everyone else. Where is their consolation? I don't think that God ever advocates the comparison technique. It's great to have perspective so that we don't become completely overwhelmed by a hangnail, for example. But we can't grade God's grace on a curve. His grace and love are always 100% for every living being. 

If I start there-- if I begin with the belief that come what may, God is always acting on my behalf with amazing grace and unending love, then I look at my trials through different lenses. In fact, I think we need such lenses--corrective lenses--to see our life and our circumstances more clearly. 

So while 2014 has been a beautiful and blessed year in so many ways, we have also had the privilege of walking a difficult path, where regret threatened to overwhelm us. But the mighty hand of God proved greater and stronger than all our shame.

Many of you know that back when we lived in the States, our house flooded severely. We lost everything on the ground floor of our home and it took more than six months to rebuild and refurnish. Because our house was situated in a 100-year flood plain, and because the house hadn't flooded in 80 years, we figured that we had suffered our one flood for our lifetime. We put great care into every detail of the rebuilding, believing that this would be the home where we would spend the rest of our lives. And then God called us to France. So we rented out our home, believing that keeping it would allow us to continue paying off a mortgage so that when we finally retired we would have a paid-for house. 

But the house flooded again in 2012. By this time we were in France. Renters were left homeless and we were left without renters for another 4 months of renovations, which we managed to negotiate from France because we had enormous help from dear friends in Spokane. 

Once again restored, the house was happily occupied by a young widow and her four children. She loved the house! And we were thrilled to have such a great renter. The only problem was that house needed a new roof. We had saved some towards a new roof, but we were far from having the full sum. Then David's beloved Granny died and left us an inheritance. While it wasn't millions, it was probably the most money we had ever had at our disposal in one lump sum. We thanked God for his provision, and we spent every penny of it on a new roof for our house. That was in October of 2013.

Then, in 2014, the house flooded again. Severely. Twice.

 That made four floods in eight years. Clearly, the "100-year flood plain" designation was no longer accurate. We looked at having the house raised and numerous other options, but in the end, we couldn't find anything that would work.

So we found ourselves with the grave realization that we could not continue to rent out a house that flooded every other year. We could not sell a house that flooded every other year. Nor could we afford the mortgage on a house that flooded every other year when God had called us to be missionaries in France.

We didn't regret buying the house, because there wasn't a single day that I lived in that house that I did not sense God's hand of grace on our lives there. We had many, many happy days in Spangle. But we did regret the fact that we were helpless to repay a loan on a house that was no longer habitable. And we did regret that fact that we had just put a beautiful new roof on an uninhabitable house. And we scratched our heads and wondered how that inheritance--which had seemed like such a blessing at the time, had slipped through our hands into oblivion. 

We did our best to keep up on the mortgage while we explored options, but in the end, the only option that made sense was what the bank called a "Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure." The bank got the house and all of the insurance money for the last two floods, and we walked away without any further mortgage obligations. We couldn't even take the new roof with us. The fig trees failed to blossom....

Yet, I will praise him. 

There is no amazing twist to the end of this story. Sometimes God works a miracle and turns a lousy situation into something great. But sometimes lousy is the end of the story. The story of our house, our retirement plan, our new 30-year roof, ends in loss. 

Yet, I will praise him.

Because his love for me is not revealed through my circumstances. His love for me is revealed despite my circumstances. His care for me is sure. He knows the plan in full, I only see parts. My house is gone. But my feet are sure. Like the feet of a deer. He makes me able to walk on the rocky cliffs.

In fact, I think I finally understand what Paul meant when he wrote, "Whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ." 

The cost of true discipleship is not cheap. Following Jesus costs me everything. I know this. But do I hold my blessings in an open hand? Am I in love with the blessings or the bless-er? And if all the blessings were suddenly gone, would I still praise him? His love for me is unconditional...but is my love for him unconditional? 

Yet, I will praise him.

I will praise him because he saved me. He fills me with joy and he grants me his peace. His love is inexhaustible and his grace is greater than all my sin. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, which means that wherever he leads, I will follow. But if I want to go to the heights with the Lord, I need sure feet and empty hands. And so when the Lord takes something dear from my hands, I can be sure he is taking me to the heights. And I can praise him.

Can you count your blessings by subtraction? When he takes something from your hands can you count the loss among your blessings? What have you lost this year? Yet, will you praise him?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Unlikely Christmas Letter

Advent. The season of anticipation, where we look forward to the coming Christ. It's also a time when many of us look back over the year, reflect and evaluate. As we prepare to write those Christmas letters, we look for highlights and focus on the positive. No one wants to read about hardship and suffering, so we all become spin doctors, putting a shine on the stories we choose to share.

And while I understand the heart behind these glad tidings, while I rejoice that your child is on the honor roll and I'm thrilled that you finally took that long-anticipated vacation, and I'm excited that your remodeling project turned out even better than expected (if not a wee bit over budget), I find myself asking if maybe we are missing something.

Don't get me wrong, I hear (and I share!) your genuine gratitude for the many ways that God has blessed you this year. And there is nothing wrong--in fact there are many things right--with taking time to recognize the hand of God in our lives. We bless God for the good things. As well we should. But have we learned to bless God for the bad things?

Can we appreciate the sovereignty and grace of God in the messy parts of life, and bless him? I wonder what would happen if, in all sincerity, my Christmas Letter read like Habakkuk 3, where the prophet speculates about a season of total and utter disaster. The fig trees don't blossom, there are no grapes on the vine, the olives fail, and the fields produce no crops. To top it all off, there are no sheep in the pens and no cattle in the stalls. Remembering that Habakkuk was speaking to a group of people whose total livelihood was dependent on agriculture, this is a pretty grim picture.

Can you go there? Maybe, in fact, you have been there this year. Maybe everything that you attempted failed. Maybe your child is not on the honor roll, but is struggling to earn passing grades. Maybe you didn't take a vacation--and you can't imagine that you will ever be able to afford one. Maybe remodeling isn't in the picture because you can barely keep up with the mortgage. Add to that the death of a beloved pet, a scary health diagnosis, and a fractured friendship, and we'd be getting close to the what Habakkuk was talking about. In essence, the Christmas Letter in Habakkuk 3 reads like a tragedy in verses 16 and 17. Which is why the following verses are so profound. Habakkuk basically describes a worst-case scenario, and then he says this:

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Why is Habakkuk joyful? Is this that fake Christian "paste a smile on your face and don't let anyone see your pain" sort of rejoicing? Is this some platitude of what "should" be, but something that no one actually experiences? Or does Habakkuk live in the State of Washington, where pot is now legal? The following verse gives even greater depth to what Habakkuk is describing:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

No, this is not a shallow joy. This is the hard-won joy of a weay traveler. The sovereign Lord--that is to say, the one who allowed all of the crops to fail, the one who had the power to stop my suffering and didn't, the one who may have even ordained such pain for my life--the sovereign Lord is my strength. Have I learned to let the sovereign Lord be my strength? Do I trust the one who brought me TO the hard places to take me THROUGH the hard places?

Here's how I'll know. My feet will be agile, able to tread on the heights. Agile feet don't get bogged down by rough terrain. Agile feet keep moving. Agile feet love to run broad meadows, but they are not detered by steep cliffs. Many of us want to tread on the heights, but we are not willing to scale the mountains. The heights are often discoved through the depths. 

When I finally grasp that, then suffering becomes a welcome friend--an invitation to climb a mountain with the one who will make me sure-footed. 

To be continued...
Later this week, I'll share our Habakkuk 3 experience from 2014.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tending or Sending?

I spent the first half of the week at a conference in Lyon that brings together leaders from 9 different French denominations to work to accelerate the rate of church planting in France. This conference is part of a three-year project, where participants gather every six months for a little teaching and a lot of figuring out how to understand and apply what was taught so that, working together, the National Council of French Evanglicals can reach their goal of tripling the existing number of churches in France. This was the third of six gatherings over the three-year period, and I came away, once again, blessed  and amazed by the work that God is doing here. 

It will take more than one blog to summarize even just the high points! Let me start by telling you about the first speaker, Jeff Fountain. Fountain is the former director of YWAM Europe and the founder of the Schuman Centre for European Studies. He talked about the history of Christianity in Europe and its relationship to the the state of Europe today. Missiologist Lesslie Newbingen says (and Fountain agrees) that the difference between the pre-Christian pagan and the post-Christian pagan can be likened to the difference between a virgin and a divorcee. Europe was fundamentally shaped by the Gospel, and subsequently by its rejection of the Gospel. But Fountain is not discouraged. He sees how these roots of Christianity have benefitted Europe and believes it is time to reclaim those roots!

Fountain talked a lot about "soft powers" and the "powerful minority," harkening back to how Christians in Europe have succeeded in impacting their continent through powers like forgiveness and reconcilliation. The demolition of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the result of some such efforts. He encouraged the church to persist in these efforts, bringing life and truth into the comunities where they are planted. He also reminded us that Church Planting was not the end goal--God's Kingdom coming on earth is the end goal. Church Planting is just one of the means we can use to achieve that goal. In fact, Jesus spoke very little about the Church, and a great deal about the Kingdom of God. Which  one are we pursuing?

Finally, Fountain pointed out that we, the church, tend to prepare people to work in the church and not in the world. Those who are celebrated and considered faithful are the ones building up the church--when really the church is called to be serving the the world, not itself. We train pastors to tend their flocks rather than send their flocks. And we create churches that are ends in themselves. This needs to change.

I'll be reading Fountain's book, Living as People of Hope, over the Christmas break. This man has important things to say to the Church today, particularly to the Church in Europe. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

In His Courts

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of teaching a class on Leadership. While it is a subject with which I am fairly comfortable, it was a big challenge for me because all of the teaching was done in French. I prepared for months, had lots of help, and benefitted from much prayer. And (thanks be to God!) in the end I actually had a lot of fun and it seems like the teaching was well received. 

I asked the students to create a Biblical model of leadership
based on the principals that I outlined
This lovely classroom is at a retreat center near Grenoble, where 65 women gathered to begin a two-year training program that is designed to equip and empower them for ministry. The program is called Zoé, and it is a ministry offered by LifeSprings International. Students attend classes just three Saturdays a year over two years, and in between sessions they have homework, coaching, and a minnistry project that they must complete. LifeSprings has been providing this type of training in Europe for several years, but this was the first time that it was being offered in French.

Students hard at work on the their models
while I survey their progress
Women ranged in age from early 20s to mid 60s, each one passionate about the work of Christ and his call on their lives. Most of them work full-time jobs while volunteering in key ministry positions. 

Holding one group's model of leadership
so that a student could present it to the class
I taught the same course to students at a Torchbearer's Bible College that same week. Also in French. And for those of you wondering why Hawkeye Pierce  is peering over my shoulder it is because I used a three-minute clip from the TV series M*A*S*H in my teaching.

In some ways, teaching a class on Leadership is no big deal. In other ways, for me, it was monumental. Because there was a time, not too long ago, when French was such a struggle that I honestly wondered if God would ever use me in this way again. And to tell you truth, I got to the place where it would have been perfectly fine with me if I never got asked to speak again. I used to need to do this stuff to feel validated and important. By stripping me of my gifts for a season, I learned to bask in the unmerited love of the Father. Now when I teach, I am all about Him and the ones I am called to serve, and I'm no longer seeking validation for myself. I used to be building the Kingdom of Jenn. How ashamed I am to say it! Now I'm building the Kingdom of God. Better is one day His courts than thousands eslewhere! 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Shallows

I recently spent a week attending some classes for my master's program at the Portland, OR campus of George Fox University. Since I went to high school in Lake Oswego and spent my early married years in the same area, I was in my own stomping grounds. I had a GPS with me, but after a couple of days it malfunctioned, and I quickly realized that I actually had no need for the device. I was in familiar territory, able to navigate from the recesses of my own memory, even though I hadn't lived in the area for over 15 years. 

Fast forward one month. David had gone to Paris for the day, and when he returned I had to pick him up from a nearby train station. The station is in the town of Amboise, about 20 minutes from Loches. Though I've been there many times, I would've been completely lost without my GPS. We've lived in the same house for 3 years now, and the only place I drive without the GPS is the local grocery store. 

Granted, I do a lot less driving overall in France in that I did in the States. But still, the difference in my ability to navigate here is a little disconcerting. I've never HAD to get around in France without a GPS, and as a result, I have become entirely dependent upon it. Which kind of makes me feel like I'm getting dumber. And then I remember that I've learned a new language in that same time frame, so maybe I shouldn't reduce my intelligence to my capacity for navigation.

Nevertheless, the experience got me thinking about the effects of modern technological advances on the workings of the human brain. I've been reading a book on the subject, and frankly, I find the research to 1.) Accurately reflect my experience and 2.) Prove that the dangers are real.

In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains how different technological advances have changed not only how humans interact with the world and each other, but how our interaction with technology can actually change us. For example, consider how the invention of the clock changed human behavior. Carr writes, "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to wake up, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. We became a lot more scientific, but we became a bit more mechanical as well."

Looking back through history, how humans have stored and shared knowledge has evolved with technological advances. Originally knowledge was passed on orally. Eventually writing was invented, and a few elite members of society were given the privilege of learning to read and write. Scrolls or tablets belonged to either very wealthy people or they were communal property, stored in places such as churches or monasteries. For reasons of limited access and limited education, reading was a public activity, always done orally so that many could benefit.

It wasn't until the invention of the printing press in 1439 that books became both portable and inexpensive, thereby giving access to the masses. That technological advance was so significant that many scholars were skeptical. They believed that such indiscriminate access to information could have a negative effect on society as a whole. 

The printing press didn’t just change WHO could read and WHAT could be read, it changed HOW humans engaged in the act of reading. Instead of being a public activity, for the first time in history, reading became a personal and private activity. People were more reflective, contemplative, and engaged in the information that was available to them.

The printing press also changed how people wrote. Not only did written structure become more concise and less repetitive, people were willing to write different things. There are some things that one might not dare to read aloud around a campfire, but would delight to read at home alone. Thus, the reason for the lament over the ills of the printing press.

Fast forward 550 years. Passing by inventions such as radio and television, we arrive at the age of the Internet. Like books, radio and TV are one-way media--information can only flow in one direction. The Internet changed not only how we are sharing knowledge, but made knowledge sharing bi-directional--or rather multi-directional as many can interact with the same subject simultaneously. 

While reading books is a slow, linear process, reading on the Internet has become multi-dimensional, with links offering unlimited distractions. In fact, the Net is essentially one long stream of distractions. And while all of that input and information is stimulating, it is changing the way humans work and think. Here are just a few of the shocking conclusions that Carr draws from results of numerous research endeavors:
"The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively." 
"In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged." 
"We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider."
Attentiveness, memorization, and deep thinking are becoming lost arts--and their loss has critical implications for our ability to be creative and innovative. But it is not only our intellect that suffers. It turns out that our ability to show empathy and compassion is also diminished by distractions. 

So The Shallows has me rethinking not only how much time I spend online, but how I spend that time. I find that I can hardly sit through an entire movie at home without checking email, playing Words with Friends, or browsing Facebook. The distractions don't have to come looking for me, I go looking for them. And now that I know that such behavior is actually re-wiring my brain, I'm concerned. And I plan to do something about it. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Popping the Cork!

Tonight we are celebrating! David is going to be flying again.

We learned today that David's request for a new visa has been approved! He is being granted a three-year card that will give him the right to work in France. 

Back in June he was approached by a man who owns an air taxi service in Orléans. The business owner has planes that are all US registered, and David's licenses allow him to fly a plane anywhere in the world as long as  it has a US tail number. David will be employed to fly individuals (typically business owners) to and from various locations on a contract basis. He will not have steady hours, though he will be able to take and turn down work as he chooses, and he should be able to set his schedule weeks in advance. He hopes to work just one or two days a week--which would go a long way in helping to pay my educational expenses without taking David away from his ministry here. So the whole family benefits!

Join us in praising God for this provision. David loves to fly! The fact that he will earn a few euros on the side is icing on the cake. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Kind of Cool

There was a time in my life when the idea of crossing oceans on planes and Europe on trains would have sounded downright dreamy. Now that I'm living it--well, let's just say that while I love every minute of it, it's not always what I expect. 

Take yesterday. I was on my way to the Rhône-Alpes region of France, where I will be spending the weekend ministering in a variety of ways. The first train that I took was a high speed train that went from Tours to Lyons in three short hours. My next train was a regional train, that made several stops in small villages between Lyon and Grenoble. And then in Grenoble, this ancient inter-cities train pulled up on the track.

It was rusty and covered in graffiti, and then engine made smells that seemed to indicate distress of some kind. It was not at all what I expected. And definitely not glamorous. Rickety is more like it. I actually questioned the wisdom of getting on such a train, but what choice did I have? The ticket had been bought, and twenty minues down the line, someone would be waiting for me.

That is a pretty good metaphor for the missionary life. We live life between two places, and most of the time we keep going in the journey simply because we bought the ticket and we trust that God has someone waiting for our arrival. The how and the when and the where don't always look safe or reliable, but we get on the train just the same. And in the end, we look back and realize that the very thing that seemed scary or even unsafe, was actually kind of cool. And we're glad to have had the experience.