Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday 10: Things in 2013 to Thank God For

Last year proved to be full of trials for Kaitlin and I; but too often we dwell on what went wrong and not on what went right. The list of reasons to praise God in 2013 goes far beyond ten items, but it's a good start (though it is not in any particular order, as always):

10. We have an amazing, loving church to lean on and grow with. 

West Rome Baptist Church has become for us the family that every church needs to be, especially within our Growth Group (our fancy word for Sunday School Class). All we feel from the moment we enter the doors is love, and the friendships we have gained are true blessings. Whether we need to be sharpened and reminded of God's truth or simply need to let it all out in the open and be completely transparent and honest, God has used our church and church family to strengthen our faith and help us feel His love. When I broke my leg in the accident and was out of work for over two months, our Growth Group all pitched in to help us, cooking us meals and even raising money to help pay hospital bills (they didn't hold back any love either, they raised over $2000). 

9. Monk (Also, Netflix (until they stopped streaming Monk (which was too soon, so not Netflix, actually))), Ducks, Reba, and George Lopez.



These guys kept me company for months while I was bedridden and bored out of my mind. I probably would have lost that mind I was bored out of, if not for their help. I'm thankful for clean, funny shows. Why is it so hard these days to find them?

8. Our God, the Provider

I cannot tell you how many times I looked at our bank account in shock because the numbers just didn't add up. In our favor. The only explanation was that God was providing as He promised. He was not letting us go down like that. There is no other way I could have been without work for 3 months, up to our knees in debt to hospitals, and still be able to afford to care for ourselves. God was in control and provided all our needs, putting money in the account that literally could not have been there, helping our Sunday School class raise over $2000 to help pay costs, etc. Our God was true to His promises to us, though we were undeserving. To say I am thankful is an extreme understatement, for sure. 

7. Toyota (because nothing beats Toyota (besides maybe BMW)

We came into 2013 without a car in our name. Both of our vehicles were totaled during the previous month, so we were either using rentals or borrowing from family. In February, we found a Toyota Avalon XLS at an unbelievably great price from the original owners, who took great care of it. In the fall we found a Toyota Tundra Limited (Access Cab), which is also in great shape and an incredible deal. It sounds weird and I hesitate to say that material things can be associated with God's glory, but I do know this: God knew a need we had and was faithful to provide that need for us through these two awesome Toyota's.

6. Creation (and our dear park ranger friends who make enjoying State Parks a reality)

Most of our bestest dates happen while camping. Being totally immersed in God's creation never fails to bring us a sense of tranquility and awe. God created this Earth and the life upon it and called it good! Why do we spend so much of our life inside buildings and in cities, completely shut off from the beauty in nature? As soon as my leg was healed from my wreck, we took as many opportunities as we could afford to go camping. Black Rock Mountain has been our favorite so far. If you've never been, go!

5. Weekends (and jobs that don't require us to work on the weekends)

I may have to set my alarm for 3:50am every morning, and it isn't always easy being responsible for teaching Spanish to every child at school, but it only makes the weekends more glorious and special to us. Being able to leave work Friday and know we will have a few days to rest is a blessing that not everyone is able to enjoy, and I am very grateful for that. 

4. The love of our families

I thank God for families we can depend on and lean on in times of need. I also thank God that we both have parents who love each other and everyone around them. It's hard to find marriages that last as long as our parents' have, and it is a great blessing to have such loving examples to follow. 

3. Owl City

Who can listen to Owl City and not feel good inside? If you find them, tell them to call me. I don't believe them.

2. The Mustard Seed Mission and our many missionary friends in Nicaragua

Not only did Kaitlin and I have the amazing opportunity to serve Christ in Nicaragua, but we did so in the company of a God-centered host family that housed us, cared for us, and prayed for us. I am so thankful for that experience and for the opportunity to return! Visit SendZackandKaitlin.com for more information on our next missionary journey and how you can help us get there!

1. Jesus

Jesus dies for my sins and saves me every single day. Being saved isn't a one time event, it's a sanctification process and I'm thankful for every moment of it. I'm thankful for being able to constantly walk in His grace, covered by His blood. I'm thankful He calls me friend and that God calls me son. I'm thankful that no matter what, I have His Spirit in me so that I can do great things through Him and never be far from His guidance or comfort. 2013 (and every year before and every after) was made possible by Jesus. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What if Everything DOESN'T Happen for a Reason?

I've heard it said way too many times, and so have you:

"Everything happens for a reason!"

I find that it is most often used as a way to comfort someone faced with some sort of trial, loss, or other unfortunate situation. I also find that many Christians quote it as though it were God's word itself, when in reality I think it paints an awful picture of God that is far from His glory.

Maybe I'm a blasphemer, but I just don't believe that God purposes trials or has predestined "reasons" for them. I don't think He's looking down on us struggling or suffering, hoping we "get it" and learn the lesson our situation is supposed to teach us. He may not take our suffering away when we call on Him, but that doesn't mean He willed it. He just wants to be the One we call on when we're going through all our junk.

He gets it! He gets our junk. In fact, He so gets our junk, that He fatally nailed all of it to His own Son. He knows life gets hard, and wants to walk us through it and give us strength and peace. He wants to fight beside us and be there when we need someone to run to. He wants to be the one to carry us and catch all our tears. Jesus himself said this:

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - the Gospel according to John, Chapter 16, verse 33

Jesus clearly separates His doing from the world's doing, and the troubles of the world from His desire. Why would He have to overcome troubles that He Himself purposed in the first place? He wouldn't! He doesn't want us to look at our troubles as lessons to learn. In fact, He tells us here that He gives us His word so that we can have peace through our trials knowing that He has already given us victory.

What if, instead of telling people that "everything happens for a reason" when they come to us faced with tragedy, we tell them to "take heart"? What if we told them that our LORD is sovereign and good, and that He already beat this world and all the stuff it throws at us thousands of years ago. What if we told them He cant wait for us to experience His gracious and compassionate love (Isaiah 30:18). The phrase "everything happens for a reason" is a lie that needs to stop!

It's not just a lie we often tell others; it's a terrible lie we often tell ourselves. Have you ever felt like you were going through tough times because you did something wrong and God is "mad" at you? It springs from the same exhausting concept. Yes, exhausting. Awfully exhausting. We trap ourselves in this worldview that if life sent us into a rut, it's because God is disappointed in us and He's trying to teach us something. Cause and effect. Everything happens for a reason.

How exhausting! God never wants us to feel like we are constantly disappointing Him, especially when life isn't going "our way". He wants to be our Rock, our Foundation, our Guidance, our Everything. He wants us to hand it over to Him and trust Him, even if things don't change. That's the whole point of our faith, right? We follow God because we love God and know He is true even if we can't always see it. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

There is an Enemy who doesn't want you to have the peace of heart that Jesus promises you. There is an Enemy who does want you to feel like God is disappointed in you and "punishing" you through trials and tribulation. He is a cruel, evil Enemy and a oppressive, hateful Enemy. And he can get you so frustrated because you feel like you're doing everything "right" but God still isn't pulling through for you and is instead punishing you for not working hard enough. He can make you feel like you're never doing enough for God, and that's the "reason" life isn't happy.

He can't, however, pluck you from the Hands of your eternal, divine, loving Daddy because no matter how much he tries to hide from it, Satan is a defeated, overcome Enemy. Jesus paid too high a price for God to let you go down easy (or at all). If there is a "reason" at all you're going through tough times, it is not God's doing, it is the doing of the Enemy and of this broken, fallen world. Ever since Adam and Eve, man has been giving evil an open invitation to pervert God's word, design, and creation, which He all has called "good." God is not the cause or reason for your sorrow.

No matter what, there is always good news. Very good news. Jesus. Jesus has overcome this entire world and everything that makes us feel anything short of peaceful. He overcame it all and gave Himself for us, and now we share in that victory. Don't let the Enemy trap you in exhausting, unhealthy thinking, but rather let the power, love, and grace of our LORD give your heart rest and your spirit peace, knowing that many like you are suffering as well, and that God sees and cares. You can have peace knowing that God carries you through the storm and hurts when you hurt, and that your name is written in Heaven, and that one glorious day, He will bring you home (my apologies for the run-on, I got a little carried away there...).

But not before He does great and mighty things through you right here.

Photo taken during the spring of 2013 of an oncoming storm at Fort Mountain State Park

"[Satan's] cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." - C.S.Lewis

Sunday, July 14, 2013

True Joy (Lessons Learned as a Missionary in Nicaragua [Part 2])

Earlier, I attempted to share my experience as a missionary in Nicaragua, only to discover how very much there is to share! I only got far enough to tell of how God got Kaitlin and I to Nicaragua, I didn't even begin to tell of our time actually spent there. If you haven't already read it and are interested in how God provided for our journey to Nicaragua despite great difficulties, check out my previous post.

On June 9th (2013), Kaitlin and I, along with our team members, boarded a Delta flight to Managua, Nicaragua. Before I dive any further, it's important to know a little background information about Nicaragua and its people. Nicaragua suffers from terrible poverty, with over half of the population unemployed or underemployed, and a fourth of the country without safe drinking water. A quarter of a million children in Nicaragua are illegally employed to supplement the bare survival income of their families, and a third of all children suffer some degree of chronic malnutrition. The poor have little to no access to health care, and child mortality rates are six times worse than the United States. 

Our time in Nicaragua was the first in which we had ever witnessed extreme poverty first-hand. Facing that degree of poverty was hard, but also different from what we expected. Most of the people we met with (especially those who already knew the LORD) were joyous, happy people. They may have had lives that were much simpler than ours, lacking the resources we take for granted, but they appreciated what they had and didn't let anything affect their joy. They were normal people, just like you and I. They didn't seem to want to be pitied or bombarded with aide. They just wanted to get to know us and let us build a relationship with their community. It didn't take long at all for God to start teaching re-teaching me another lesson or two...

True joy doesn't come from stuff, it only comes from Jesus. 
Alternatively, We don't need stuff, we only need Jesus.

Perhaps the perfect example of this that we witnessed was an elderly woman named Santita. She was very sick the day that we met her, but still full of the joy of God. She asked us if we would let her sing to us! Of course, we said we would love that. After praying for her singing to glorify the Lord, she blessed us a song, which I was able to get a clip of:

Her love of the Lord is so evident, and we were so grateful to have met her. Despite living in poverty and facing sickness so great that she felt as though she would not live very much longer, she had reasons to sing to the Lord. Her last words in the song were prayers of "Glory to God," and "Praise the Lord." We were all so encouraged by her faith and love for God, and I pray that if Kaitlin and I get the chance to return next year, we will have the opportunity to visit her again. Will you join me in prayer for her? Please pray for her health, and that she would be a light in her community. Pray for her village to come closer to the Lord and be protected from illness and the Enemy.

Santita was not the only one. The villages were full of wonderful people that we fell in love with. They lived simple lives, but were okay with it. I'm not talking about neglecting essential needs. These people need clean water and adequate food, and we did take time during the week to hand those essentials out and meet their needs. The book of James is clear on faith being dead without works, and that there is no sense in telling people that Jesus loves them if we were not going to love on them through meeting their needs. However, you don't see sophisticated living structures, big fancy meals, any cars at all, gadgets/gizmos, etc. They live on the bare minimum. Their lives are simple. But, no matter what my idea of "living standards" and "comforts" were, God quickly changed my heart from an attitude that thought my purpose was to make their lives "better" to one that knew that all they really need is Jesus.

Am I making any sense? I almost felt a little envious of how simply they lived. I get so used to the noise and busyness of the United States, that being in a place away from it all was quite refreshing. I was able to feel God's spirit so much better. I was able to sleep sounder and wake up with much more energy. My spirit desperately needed that break from the noise, and I am so grateful for it.

I think we have gotten too used to welfare culture, and it seeps into the way we look at missions. If our missions were solely based around taking resources to needy communities and giving stuff out, we would not really doing the people a service. All we would be doing would be setting up a welfare system that the people can become dependent on. Our mission host family even discouraged us from giving stuff away to the children, because none of the families want to feel like we pity them. They want to be treated like normal people. We didn't neglect their basic needs, but didn't focus on it the entire week. The focus was sharing the gospel, getting to know them, and praying for them.

There were several instances where the people would even give something of theirs to us, even though they had little. Kaitlin was especially touched by a girl named Kim, who gave her a bow after a church service: 

I'm so glad I was able to capture that moment. For the average American, that would be a small gift. Coming from this girl who had so little, though, it was very special.

We live in a culture that holds on to things. We seek more and more things to satisfy our itches and obtain comfort or happiness. A 2010 Princeton study even stated that Americans believe happiness peaks at a salary of $75,0001. Nicaraguans like Santita probably won't see that kind of money in their entire life, but live life with a joy so complete that none can compare.

Jesus says in John 10:10 that he came so that we "may have life to the fullest." Other versions use the phrase "live abundantly." He also says in John 15:10, "I have told you these things so that you can have the same joy I have and so that your joy will be the fullest possible joy."

Life and joy to the fullest does not come from things or a certain salary, but from Christ alone. I am so glad God chose such an incredible experience to reaffirm this truth in my life. 

- Zack

1. Data taken from an article in Time, "Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?" - http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html