Unmistakeably God

My summer was incredible.  I was awed by nature, I grew in confidence.  Nearly every day I found myself laughing so hard that my abs ached.  I made so many new friends who immediately made me feel completely at home in their unique community.  These are friendships that I’ll treasure forever.

In many ways, my summer was a breeze –  I was being paid to jump in mud puddles with 6-year-olds (could life get any better than that??).  But at the end of the day, I often felt alone.  I want to be careful how I say this, so as not to offend some of the people that I really care about, but I think that my friends on staff would be quick to agree that we had quite different worldviews.  We had vastly different opinions on faith issues and social issues.  We drew lines in totally different places.  And at the end of the day, I just felt…so different.

For the first few weeks, I didn’t mind being the different one.  It felt like a God-sent opportunity to share my convictions.  But being the different one 24-7, week after week, with few opportunities to find encouragement from the outside world, it just got exhausting and lonely.  I knew I valued my convictions, but as day after day passed interacting with people that did not share them, I began to feel less secure in them.  It didn’t help that my two hours of break each day were devoted to showers and naps, and I regret to say that my devotions became shorter and further apart as the summer progressed.

My prayers also became short and demanding.  “God.  I’m tired.  Why did you put me here?  I went where I heard you calling me.  So why do I feel like I’m being pulled away from you?  Sure, I’m having fun, but I feel spiritually empty.  I know you want more for me, so why withhold it now?  There’s only so much you can ask of me.”

Finally one night after the kids were in bed, I had had it.  I excused myself to the bathroom so that for once I could be completely alone and have a break from holding it all together.  “God.  I cannot do this.  Obeying what you have convicted me of day after day is becoming a charade.  I’m alone and I don’t even feel you with me.  That’s not fair.  You need to help me.  Please!”  Finished with my rant, I pulled myself together so no one would ask any questions back at the dining fly.

Nothing happened the next day.  I wasn’t terribly surprised at that; after all, what could happen?  Here I was in the middle of nature with my beautiful campers and goofy co-, but not exactly in touch with any other part of the world.  No significant change could possibly happen.

Except that something did happen.  I just didn’t know it.

That very evening, my co-counselor for that week was quietly in much the same state that I had been in.  He too felt alone in his beliefs.  He texted a friend asking for prayer.  He just wanted to know that there was someone else there at camp with him who shared his convictions.

The following night we found each other.  I came out from the cabin after singing a homesick camper to sleep to find my co sitting under the dining fly reading his Bible.  This was a first!  Excited, I ran to get mine too, and we sat there quietly reading together for a few minutes.  Then we began to talk. We quickly realized how similar our religious beliefs and lifestyle convictions were.  It was exciting!!  Finally there was someone to talk to about the struggles and frustration of being alone.  But the most exciting part was realizing that we *weren’t* alone anymore!  Even though we wouldn’t be able to spend too much time together after that week, it made the biggest difference to know that there was someone else who believed in the things most important to me, that I wasn’t delusional.  And in that moment I felt, not only knew, with absolute certainty, that God was right there with me.

To someone else, this may not sound like a big deal.  But to me, it was a miracle.  Be encouraged by it – you are not alone.  Even when He feels far away, God is with you, so hold fast to Him.  Know that He is willing to work miracles in your life, and that He will keep you safe.

And don’t be afraid to be seen reading you Bible..you never know what a difference it might make to someone. 😉

Freedom Summer

Oh hey there, blog!  I suppose I should start by apologizing for cheating on you (and the rest of technology) with nature, but now I am back and full of stories and lessons from these past 9 weeks as a camp counselor.  Saving the more serious stuff for later, here are just a few of the moments and letters that made me laugh and miss “my” kids all over again!

ImageOne night, my co and I decided to tell our campers that we were married, just to see if they would believe us.  We drew hearts with our names on each other’s arms and then went to bed.  When we woke up the next morning the girls “ooh-ed and ah-ed” over my marker “tattoo” and fake relationship.   But when we went outside to meet the boys, we found Kevin (7), who had a cute crush on me, loudly telling my co: “You are not good for her!  Get away from her!”  Then he came running over to me: “Are we going to lake swim today?!  Because I need to scrub that heart right off of your arm!”  So funny…but that declared an end to our little joke!  We told the kids that actually we were only trying to trick the other staff, and they could be in on the “secret”.

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“After 2 days, I will go to NY. I am sad. While we stayed at camp, I saw you every day, but when I’m not at camp anymore, I will never see you again.” -Korean camper

Another week, I had 14 campers straight from Korea!  They learned a lot about American culture from us; for example, that just because a girl hugs a guy doesn’t mean that he is her boyfriend (“Teacher Emily, you very many boyfriends!  You bad girl!” said one, with a teasing snicker).  After I finally persuaded them that I didn’t have any boyfriend at all (“Why not, Teacher Emily, why not?), two of the boys disappeared for five minutes.  The next thing I know, they come back and one saunters right in front of me with his shirt off and slung over his shoulder.  His buddy sits down next to me and starts an obviously rehearsed speech in broken English: “He the full package!  You know what that is, Teacher Emily?  He has six-pack, very good in studies, AND he’s rich!”

ImageIn yet another unit, I had a 5-year-old camper named Lulu.  As she bit into her s’more, she reminded me that: “We’ll have to brush our teeth after this, so that we don’t get sweet tooths.” (I’m never calling them cavities again…)

Another week, a camper named Sam broke our hearts when he interrupted bible study to ask “What is praying?”  We explained what it was as simply as we could, but he still seemed pretty doubtful.  I was surprised then, when, two days later he started telling me about things he was praying for.  They were such funny little prayer requests (“I prayed that it would rain so that we could leave our bags at the picnic table!   And it *did* rain!”), but it was still such an encouragement to witness that those seeds we had planted were starting to sprout!

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(All names were changed).

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Inspired by a Bus Driver

“Are you married?” Jesse inquires loudly. I have learned to expect the most random of questions, but this one always makes me smile. Jonathan taps my arm lightly, competing for my attention. He signs the word “funny”, raising his eyebrows to imply a question: Why are you laughing?

“Jesse asked if I’m married,” I explain, simultaneous signing and speaking so that neither the deaf nor the hearing clients feel excluded. “That’s funny because I’m only seventeen!” Jonathan nods in agreement, then catches Jesse’s attention. This time I do not translate what he is signing, knowing that I would only be spreading rumors. “No, no,” I sign at Jonathan. “I’m not divorced! I’ve never been married!” After a moment of silence, I steer the conversation in a safer direction, and soon the table is happily rambling about something else.

It’s been over a year since I graduated high school and stopped volunteering at JBC, a center for mentally disabled adults.  Sometimes I miss all the fun times I had there.  After all, playing War with these people was even more fun than my family’s hardcore games of Settlers of Catan.  And let’s be honest, I rocked at our JBC “game” of slamming the ping-pong ball to make it bounce against the ceiling.  I let the clients beat me at Connect Four, gave home-style manicures, and chatted with them about anything and everything.  I was there to serve them, but actually it was them who ended up teaching me a lot.  They reminded me to see the beauty in simple things, like the butterflies dancing in the shrubbery outside and the glittery snowflakes we cut out of paper. They were patient, always more than willing to slow down and teach me how to sign a new word. They were masters of unconditional love, and no matter how long I had been absent, never failed to great me with cheers of “Come sit with us!”  These people were among the most forgiving, understanding, and loving that I have ever met.  It’s kind of ironic that I learned such valuable lessons from such unexpected teachers.

It’s also kind of ironic that it was an equally unexpected teacher, a random bus driver, who reminded me why I was given my experiences at JBC.

This was late in the afternoon, several weeks ago.  It hadn’t been a particularly long or hard day – actually I had had fun grocery shopping with two of my friends.  But by this point in time, we had been sweating at the bus stop for almost an hour, we were totting a week’s worth of meals, and we were more than ready to get home and make dinner.  We awkwardly wrestled our groceries on board the bus, fished for the right number of quarters, and finally, gratefully, collapsed into our seats.

It was then that a man, speaking authoritatively, caught my attention.  “You can’t have that [the bin of groceries] out in the open like that.  You have to put it up there,” and he pointed to a storage area where that bin couldn’t possibly have fit.  Flustered, I glanced around for a sign – was it even ok to have such a big bin on board? – but didn’t see one telling me that I had to put my groceries anywhere in particular.  I looked towards the speaker, who was repeating his command, confused.

The man looked older than he probably was.  Forty-something, maybe fifty-something.  His teeth – the few that were left – pointed in every direction.  His clothes were not clean, his hair definitely not brushed.  His identification information hung around his neck.  In short, he was quite clearly not the authority on where I had to store my groceries.

I recognized that this man was mentally challenged and wanted to be kind, but I wasn’t really sure what to do.  I gave him a nervous smile and said that I would make sure to hold onto the bin tightly so that it wouldn’t slide around.  In response, he insisted that this wasn’t enough and that I had to move it out of the aisle.  But to where?  I smiled another nervous smile, hoping he’d let my “violation” slide.  I was just too tired for this right now.  Is it even my responsibility to inconvenience myself just to make him a little more comfortable?  Would it be horrible to…just ignore him?

This was where the bus-driver stepped in competently and confidently, speaking to the man.  “Hey there, General.  We have a problem because the girls’ bin won’t fit up there.  It’ll have to stay on the floor, but do you think you can watch it to make sure it doesn’t start sliding around?  If it does, just let me know.”

“Yes, sir!” the man responded, in a tone that made me wonder if once upon a time he had fought for our country.   He straightened his back and inched a little closer, his face serious and his eyes smiling.  He looked glad to have a responsibility.

Relaxing now that the situation was under control, I started to watch our bus driver, realizing that he was not only driving responsibly, but also chatting cheerfully with a few other handicapped passengers.  I knew he had probably had a long day already, and still hours of driving ahead.  He probably couldn’t wait to get out of this bus and stretch his legs.  And yet, he was beyond courteous to these people who needed much more of his attention than his “normal” passengers who rode in silence.  He had obviously taken the time to get to know them over other similar trips, because he knew how to keep them calm and satisfied now.  If they wanted to think that they were in charge of making sure people stored their belongings properly, he was happy to play along, and was clever enough to do so in a way that didn’t inconvenience his other passengers.

I was impressed and inspired by the way he interacted with these people.  Thinking back, I knew I had learned enough at JBC to have come up with a solution like he did.  Like him I knew the value in these people, like him I had at least basic experience talking with them, like him I had had plenty of opportunities to be patient and handle situations even when I was not in the mood.  But I hadn’t been prepared to use those skills in my “real world”.  Actually, I had never really thought that I would ever use them outside JBC.  Now I know that I will need to, and that next time there probably will not be such a gem of a bus driver nearby with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle the situation; next time I should be ready with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle it myself.

Sometimes we students fall into the trap of thinking that for now we just accumulate knowledge and that sometime in the distant future we will use all that knowledge to do good for the world.  How self-centered!  With that mindset, we will never get around to doing good.  What we learned yesterday, we should try to use today.  Life is not about waiting until you are thoroughly equipped to do a job perfectly.  Do your best now, with whatever you have, and whatever you know, and whoever you are.

Simply Miraculous

Last semester, my psychology professor repeatedly declared that “the existence of something so perfectly intricate as the eye is simply miraculous!”  The fact that he, a nonbeliever, would use the word “miraculous” stuck out to me, despite his disclaimer that he was not referring to a supernatural God.  What else could miraculous mean?  Natural, beautiful complexity points to an intelligent designer.

Have you ever had one of those moments when a piece of creation takes your breath away?  Maybe you were lying on your back at night, staring up at the sparkling little jewels of stars.  Or maybe you were walking alone on the beach, enjoying the waves ticking your toes and the wind playing with your hair.  Maybe it was while you watched a newborn breathing gently against your skin as he slept peacefully on your chest.  Or maybe it was when you lost yourself in the infinite blue of the sky.  Whatever the moment, you suddenly saw God through it in as real a way as the scene surrounding you.

Psalm 19, which C.S. Lewis describes as “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world,” describes these moments as a testimony of God’s existence:

“The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,

like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens

and makes its circuit to the other;

nothing is deprived of its warmth.”

The testimony of God’s creation is continuous, abundant and universal.  “Day after day” and “night after night,” there is never a moment in which God’s creation takes a break from glorifying Him.  This message is not whispered, but “poured out” —God was not stingy in creation.  There is no language barrier withholding the message from anyone even to “the ends of the world” – even those without the ability to see or hear can experience creation with their other senses.  Everyone witnesses creation, and creation declares that there is a God worthy of praise.

Aristotle: “Should a man live underground, and there converse with the works of art and mechanism, and should afterwards be brought up into the open day, and see the several glories of the heaven and earth, he would immediately pronounce them the works of such a Being as we define God to be.”

Albert Einstein: “I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Robert Jastrow, a leading NASA scientist: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Let us not overlook or undermine the importance of creation as we seek to grow in our faith.  Just as we learn about an artist from his painting, we learn about God through the “general revelation” of His creation.  Romans 1:20a says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”  (Note: Remember that at present, creation is distorted by sin.  Not everything seen in nature directly reflects God.  For example, the existence of diseases does not point to God as being evil and twisted.)

Just as you spend time in God’s written word, spend time in His creation.  Be intentional about finding pieces of his work—big and small—to take your breath away and ask yourself how they reflect the One who created them.  Remember the ways that God has spoken to you through them in the past and realize that at every second such moments are being bountifully repeated across the globe.  Praise Him for His glory witnessed in everything around you!

Rich Chocolate-Strawberry-Coffee Cake

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This cake was a bit of an experiment.  I had never made this particular batter, filling (between cake layers), or frosting before, and I wasn’t even positive that they would taste great together.  I also had to make a lot of changes to the recipes I used because we only had standard ingredients and I didn’t want to walk to the store.  But it ended up tasting incredible!!

(Relatively simple to make, but took me a few hours because of all the different steps.  Requires only standard ingredients.)

Chocolate Coffee Cake:

Combine 1 ¾ cups flour, 2 cups sugar, ¾ cup cocoa, 2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, and 1 tsp salt.  Set aside.  In a separate bowl, beat 1 cup milk, ½ cup vegetable oil, 2 eggs, and 1 tsp vanilla.  Gradually add dry mixture, beating thoroughly.  Stir in 1 cup freshly-brewed coffee.  Bake at 350° for ~20 minutes in four 8-inch pans.

Chocolate Strawberry Layer Filling:

Melt 6 tbsp butter and 4 oz semi-sweet chocolate on low heat, stirring constantly. In a separate bowl, combine 1 ½ cups powdered sugar, ¼ cup milk, and ½ tsp vanilla.  Beat chocolate and sugar mixtures together.  Stir in ¾ cup strawberries.

Light Whipped Frosting:

Whisk 1 cup milk with 5 tbsp flour over medium heat for ~7 minutes (until consistency of cake batter).  Stir in 2 tbsp vanilla.  Let cool completely.  In separate bowl, beat 2 sticks of butter with 1 cup sugar for ~3 minutes.  Beat milk and butter mixtures together on high speed for a few minutes.  Add ¼ cup milk if desired and beat for another minute.

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(Note: Use a potato peeler to make cute chocolate curls for on top!)

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

If you pray as a Christian, you probably use the phrase “in Jesus’ name” multiple times a day.  But be honest with yourself: don’t you tend to slur these words together as the transition from your prayer to whatever comes next?  (I know I do.)  Do you ever even think about what they mean?  (Until today, I never really did.)

What does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”?

True Christian prayers are always in Jesus’ name, even if that phrase is not used.  John 14:13-14 says: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (see also John 15:16, 16:23-26).

Doing something in someone else’s name means that you 1) come in the other person’s stead, and 2) come by his authority.  When you pray in Jesus’ name, you are approaching God the Father with a prayer that Jesus himself would pray.  In a sense you are saying: “Jesus told me to pray this prayer.”

How do I genuinely pray “in Jesus’ name”?

To genuinely pray in Jesus’ name, you must pray based on who Jesus is.  Because you are claiming his authority, you had better be praying for what he would authorize.  Your requests must be focused on bringing glory to him, not yourself.

If your prayers are sinful, you are not genuinely praying in Jesus’ name.  This is not to be taken lightly: It is spiritual forgery to sign Jesus’ name to prayers he would not approve.

When I say “in Jesus’ name”, what am I really saying?

First, you are confessing that Jesus is the only way to God.  Hebrews 10:19-20 says: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (see also I Timothy 2:5).  If Jesus had not died for us, God would ignore any prayers we might offer.  By saying “in Jesus’ name” we are clinging to our salvation through Christ and the promise that through him we have the right to communion with God.

Second, you are acknowledging the superiority of Jesus’ name to your own — or anyone else’s.  You depend on Jesus alone (and the salvation he has brought to you) to be heard by Almighty God.  Acts 4:12 says: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

Third, you are submitting your will to Jesus’, asking that God be glorified through the answers to your prayers.  Jesus himself prayed: “Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You” (John 17:1).  Note: When you genuinely pray “thy will be done”, you are saying: “God, I believe that my requests align with what Jesus would ask of You.  But I am only human, and am often mistaken.  Please ignore the requests that I wouldn’t have made if I could see everything from Your perspective.”

How should understanding this transform my prayer life?

Take your prayers more seriously.  Pray for God’s glory, not your own gratification.  Ask yourself whether you truly want what Jesus wants.  Finally, be confident — God promises to hear you! 🙂