Discontentment As Incentive

CrownThe car was still running. I enjoyed the heat being blown out at me for the last couple minutes before stepping out to run a couple miles on the Centennial Trail. The last few swallows from my coffee mug went down as I read three pages of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King to supply a starting place for a conversation with God. I extracted the thought that the Kingdom of God has already started, even as it is being built.

I switched off the ignition and slid the key into my pocket as I jumped out and headed down the trail – slowly at first due to a twinge of pain in my back. There weren’t many others on the path this morning. A few bicyclists. Another runner. I greeted them in passing with, “Good morning.”

Absentmindedly, I asked the woman walking her dog, “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she said, as I clipped past her.

The way she said it lodged in my mind. It became the new topic of my runtime prayers, or rather, a practical extension of the idea of kingdom building.

Bothered by my own lack of compassion

My prayer dialog is perhaps unusual and a little hard to describe. A conversation runs through my thoughts, with my own voice taking both parts. It’s not like I’m asking questions and God is answering – more like I’m asking and answering, but God is moving freely in both.

“That woman needs to be encouraged. Go back and pray for her.”

“Hunh? Based on what – that she said, ‘okay,’ and not, ‘fine?'” I’d had these compulsive ideas before. I’ve come to recognize them not as tests, but more as opportunities to follow Jesus that are given as gifts. Without exception, they always require an action that most people would consider foolish. The feeling of regret I’ve faced from ignoring these calls to action in the past far outweighs the risk of injured pride. Still, it always takes some convincing.

“I can’t just turn around now and go back to her. I’d look like some maniac. And what would I say?” I had passed her, running in the same direction that she was walking. The space between us grew with every jogged step.

“You definitely need to go and talk with her. Say, ‘Excuse me ma’am, but you seem to be carrying a burden. Is there some way that I can pray for you?'”

“Okay, but I don’t want to interrupt my run. I’ll wait for her back at the parking lot. Then it won’t be so awkward that I’m going back to talk to her.”

“Don’t miss it! Remember how rotten the lost opportunity feels. She could turn around and head the other direction at any time.”

A Decision is Made

“I’ll cool down after my run by walking back that way. If I meet her on the path, then I’ll know that I’m really supposed to talk to her.” There are always negotiations and deal making in these dialogs. I was a mile away from where I’d passed her when I turned around and started to retrace my steps.

“What should I say when she calls me a weirdo, frowns at me, and tells me she doesn’t believe in God?”

“I don’t want her to feel endangered because a strange man stopped to talk to her.”

“Doesn’t matter. Gotta do it. Take it as it comes.” After 5 or 10 more minutes of internal debate, I rounded a corner and there she was – still headed my direction. There was no turning back now.

She eased the awkwardness by looking up and smiling. She said, “Going for another round of road punishment?”

I smiled back and stopped. “Actually,” I said. “I was hoping that I’d run into you again. There was something in the way you said, ‘Okay’ that made me think you had a burden that I could pray for.” I stopped talking. What would happen next?

Bricks and Mortar in The Kingdom

Janet was her name. She had arrived from Colorado in time to hold her granddaughter before she died. As believers, the newborn’s parents had time to baptize the tiny girl – prematurely born before her lungs had developed enough to support her breathing alone.

Standing there on the path in the woods, we prayed together. God’s compassion to engineer this moment built faith in both of us. The dog waited patiently.

Now, I’m not bragging about how I obeyed God’s call on that path. You can probably tell from my feeble thinking process that I’ve experienced more failures than successes in this battle. But discontentment in my irrelevant, safe life drives me more and more to be willing to consider foolish actions for the chance of creating relationships. I believe that’s what its like to live in a kingdom that isn’t finished being built yet.

The Value of Discontentment

Building a kingdom worthy of King Jesus is the adventure that satisfies. The paradox? The incentive to build is found in embracing the feeling of discontented hunger.

Have you been struggling with identifying the source of your own discontentment? What do you think of the idea that staying hungry is a good incentive to guide a life of obedience?

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Meeting Muslims, Part 2 – Where Are They?

IdrissMosqueI took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.

In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.

“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.

He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?

Shoeless in Seattle

I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.

The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.

Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?

Artificial and Forced

In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.

How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?

Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?

Alternatives to Mosque Hopping

In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.

Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.

Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?

Discerning Spiritual Attack (Denis Drinks Acid Story)

Have you ever had such a barrage of misfortune that it felt like you were under attack from some unnamed invisible force? Next steps in life are often hard to take as immobilizing questions arise. Was it a test from God? …An attack from Satan? …Or, maybe just coincidental forces of nature?

Let me tell you a story about how that happened to me one time in Lebanon.

August 2000 – Tyre, Lebanon

The phone rang and woke me up early in the morning. I waited for the extra ring so I could try to jumpstart my brain out of dream-mode.

Brianne was hysterical, “Nate! Dad fell down on the roof and he’s unconscious. Please come. We don’t know what to do. Hurry!”

TyreRooftop

“I’ll be right there,” I said, and hung up. I was awake, grabbing clothes, throwing on the nearest pair of shoes. I was only a block away; I could get there quickly. Grabbing my keys, I flew out the door and down the stone stairway.

Four steps above the first landing, my right foot caught on a jagged edge of broken marble and my ankle turned. I fell fast because of my momentum, but my memory always replays it in cinematic slow motion. I grabbed for the cement banister to brace myself. It kept me from falling completely, but the rough, painted concrete scraped my left forearm deeply.

I stopped to take inventory of my injuries for a second or two and recover from the initial wave of pain. My arm was on fire, but the blood that came to the surface of the abrasion wasn’t dripping. Testing my ankle on the landing, I continued on at a slow and wincing hop-a-long pace. My two flights of stairs went okay, but I worried about making it up Denis’ four flights to the roof…

Meanwhile, Just Around The Corner…

Denis had gotten up early that morning to exercise on the roof. On the hottest days of the year in Lebanon, even mornings were scorching. Denis usually spent his morning workout times in solitude and prayer, but Brenda had joined him that morning to enjoy the rooftop garden he had created in planters.

Sit-ups… pull-ups… Push-ups… His workout was almost finished when Denis blacked out and collapsed.

Brenda saw him fall. His head hit and shattered a ceramic pot on the way down. She ran over and swept away the broken shards. After ten agonizingly long seconds he came around. But when he tried to sit up, he passed out again, this time with convulsions. That’s when Brenda frantically called down the stairs to their daughter, and told her to call me.

When I finally made it to the top of the stairs I found an emotional scene. Brenda had hosed down her husband to try to cool him off. Denis had regained consciousness, but didn’t feel like sitting up yet. Together, we laid him on a lounge chair in the shade. Fifteen minutes into the ordeal we came to the conclusion that Denis would be okay. He had heat exhaustion, but was recovering already. The cuts on his head were superficial.

Just When You Think Its All Over…

As things calmed down, we replayed our individual harrowing tales. I showed off my swollen ankle and raspberry forearm as trophies of my heroism, while Denis drank water and slowly came back to life. He asked for some electrolyte solution from their medicine cabinet that he remembered getting from the pharmacy.

Brenda came back with the citrus powder mixed with water and he tasted it. “Are you sure you mixed this right?” he asked with a grimace. He kept working at getting some of it down, and then finally said, “Let me see the wrapper for this. There’s something not right about it.”

The label was written in French, and Denis was the only one of us able to read it. He quickly realized that the reason it didn’t taste so good was that it was not electrolytes for replenishing lost nutrients, but electric coffee pot cleaning solution. He had been merrily sipping on a glass of sulfuric acid!

He drank milk to mitigate the harmful effects of what he’d ingested, and later we bought him some charcoal tablets that we learned would be good for the situation.

In the words of one of my favorite childhood books, it had already been a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” and it was only 9:30 in the morning. After hanging out and sharing lunch with my friends, I hobbled back to my apartment to ponder on the spiritual influences behind the events of the day.

Making Sense of Suffering When You’re Trying To Do Good

Part of me thought that God was inflicting punishment on us for attempting to work against the curses he himself had put on Tyre. He goes on and on about it for almost three chapters in the book of Ezekiel (I had just been studying those passages). I didn’t want to believe that, because each of us had felt God prompting us to move there and bless the community. An attack from the enemy then? Not having a clear answer discouraged me.
SpiritOfGod

I’ve started asking God directly if I don’t have clear biblical precedent to guide me. “God, what do you want me to know about what happened today?” Then I stop and listen, with the expectation that God speaks to his children. I don’t hear an audible booming voice, but clarity comes as ideas formulate or pictures emerge.

Do you believe that God can literally answer your questions in prayer? What do you do to make sense of the curve balls that are thrown at you in life?