Friday, December 30, 2005

Reflecting on 2005

This year has been absolutely incredible. It was full of hardship in the beginning months, but I learned much as a result and came through stronger. Here are some of the highlights:

God worked through my former youth pastor to restore my marriage which was dry and virtually lifeless (click here for more). It is now better than it ever has been and we are growing in God together and growing ever closer as a couple.

I bought my first new car this year in May. Mine was to the point where it had to go. The constant repairs it was needing were costing more than a car payment would. I had always bought used "American" cars, especially because Cindy's dad is a retired auto worker. However, in his words, it's different now because so many cars are "mixed". We got a Mazda 3 and are very happy with it. I haven't driven it since the day we got it because I consider it Cindy's car, but it was still a fun experience to actually buy a car new.

At my job I was making below "market value" for someone with my degree and technology experience. I took the job when I was laid off and I didn't want to risk negotiating my way out of the opportunity. Money was tight in the beginning months of this year and I knew that it would be hard for us to make it on my salary alone (Cindy has always had a desire to be a stay-at-home mom). In June I felt led to sow some money to my former youth pastor. I gave him almost $1,300. About a month later I got a new job that pays $20,000 a year more than what I was making last January. PRAISE GOD!! Cindy and I are excited about the fact that she can stay home when that time comes. The higher salary has also enabled me to sow even more which I love to do.

God spared me from drowning when we were on vacation and the experience completely changed my outlook on so many things. Each day is a precious gift and I do not take anything for granted (click here for more).

And finally, as you may have recently read (click here for more), Cindy is pregnant with our first baby!! I really have a hard time expressing in words all the joy I have about being a dad. Being married has helped me understand more about Jesus and His Bride (the Church). I know that being a father will show me wondrous things about the father heart of God.

As we close out this year it is my prayer that all of you will look back and see God at work in both your good times and your struggles. We're all in this together and I am blessed to have the opportunity to share what I have learned with you all as well as learn from your experiences. Thanks for being my blog neighbors!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Tale of Two Hearts

In case the title of this post is misleading, this "tale" is true.

Sunday morning during church I was just getting into worship and heard something strange. It was a high-pitched "cheep" kind of sound that I first thought was part of the percussion. I heard it again and decided there must be a small bird in the building. After the third time I glanced to my left and saw that the man beside me was clipping his fingernails. It'd be bad enough if a woman was doing it, but a man...who I guessed to be in his mid-fifties! It would have been funny if it wasn't so sad. He was not singing or even engaged at all with what was going on around him - just concentrating on getting each nail just right. I nudged Cindy and pointed with my eyes so she could get a glimpse. How vain does someone have to be to do that during worship? I closed my eyes and shut it out, thanking God that the man wasn't wearing open-toed sandals.

The Presence of God was so heavy it was not hard for me to get right back into worshipping. Tears were falling down my face and I couldn't sing because of the knot in my throat. I just adored my Lord and basked in His goodness, mercy, and love. I heard a man in the row behind us glorifying God like there was nobody around, which to me is the way it should be. Every now and then (I'm sure you can relate) there will be people who you can tell are just trying to draw attention to themselves. This guy was different. It was genuine, heartfelt, and raw. From a natural, musical standpoint, his singing voice was one of the worst I have ever heard. He could have made the "bad" audition clips from American Idol. Yet, at the same time, what he was presenting was absolutely beautiful. God sees our hearts and I know He thoroughly enjoyed listening to this guy behind me sing. I know I did. Don't ever fall into the trap of thinking your voice is not good enough to sing to the Lord. Man looks at the outward appearance (or aesthetic sound), but God looks at the heart. I'd rather have tear-reddened eyes than trimmed nails any day.

Monday, December 26, 2005


My wife is pregnant with our first baby!!!! :)))

Praise God forevermore!!! He is

We actually found out on December 17th, but my wife swore me to secrecy until we could tell her parents. She went to the doctor on Tuesday the 20th and he estimated her at about 7-8 weeks. We have a tentative due date of August 7th. He did an ultrasound and my wife got to see the umbilical cord and the baby's heartbeat! She called me at work to tell me and it took all that was in me to keep from breaking down in joy.

On Christmas Eve we exchanged presents with my in-laws and after everyone was done I just happened to "find" one more gift. We had put the ultrasound picture in a shoebox and wrapped it up. My mother-in-law was speechless when she opened it and it really didn't hit her until yesterday (our baby will be her first grandchild). I told my parents yesterday and they were equally ecstatic.

I really cannot put into words what I have felt these past few days. God's timing is perfect. We always planned to wait at least five years so we could do some traveling, get settled in a house, and so forth. We had been trying for 2 1/2 years. My wife has not gone to many get-togethers because everyone talks about their children and she really had nothing to contribute to the conversation. I can totally see why she would be uncomfortable. Considering the things that I have learned in this past year alone, I am so glad I had the chance to make the necessary adjustments before becoming a dad.

Does anyone know any good pregnancy websites? I searched a bit last week and found very little that did not require you so sign up for stuff. Cindy (my wife) has had some nausea but for the most part she is doing very well. Any websites, books, tips, advice you have for us would be greatly appreciated.

Glory to God!!!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Greatest Gift

...For that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

Holy Bible
Matthew 1:20,21
John 3:16,17

Thursday, December 22, 2005

'Fear Factor' Material?

Ever seen that show called "Fear Factor" where contestants perform stunts and have to eat things that are unimaginably disgusting? My wife and I have caught it on occasion and she usually poses the question, "Could you eat that?" I tell her that if it did not involve chewing creatures that are still alive (I'd feel bad for inflicting pain on them), I'd probably do okay. Now I am not so sure.

I work with several people from other countries and we all brought dishes in for a potluck type meal. There were dishes I didn't recognize but they still looked pretty good. Some deserts were awesome, some were just average, but one in particular I had a very hard time eating. It was a "sweet" that smelled exactly like Icy Hot (a cream used for pain relief and also to loosen muscles - similar to Ben Gay). I used it all the time when I ran track in high school, but of course I never ATE it. This desert tasted just like it smelled, and I could feel my stomach turn a bit as I ate it...and I have a very strong stomach (only thrown up 3 times in my life). I managed to finish it and keep it down, but I really don't think I am "Fear Factor" material anymore.

It's funny how we get accustomed to certain things in our own culture and become "conditioned" to what is supposed to be good or not good. I never want to get in the rut of thinking that my tastes are the only tastes or even the best tastes. There is so much of the world that I have not experienced. It was nice to step out of my comfort zone. Maybe that particular desert is what they call an "acquired" taste.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Memorial Stone #13 - Death came calling, again.

I absolutely love animals. One of my favorite shows is "Planet's Funniest Animals" on the Animal Planet channel. I am especially fascinated with wildlife. I mentioned in a previous post that my first time in the ocean was in Hawaii and I was on cloud nine. One of the best memories of the honeymoon was a snorkeling tour we took off the coast of Maui. I was mesmerized with all the sea life that I saw. I rented an underwater camera so I could take pictures of it all. I even saw a couple green sea turtles. When I told the tour guides they didn't believe me at first because apparently those turtles are almost extinct. I knew I had the pictures to prove it.

Last September my wife and I went to Florida for a week with her family. I had been to the ocean a couple more times since the honeymoon, but there was not much to see in the water. I was excited to see that the water was very clear and I bought a disposable underwater camera as well as a pair of goggles. I spent hours taking pictures of fish, crabs, stingray etc. and got myself a pretty bad sunburn. One day we saw a fishing boat circling a ball-shaped buoy that was some ways out. It circled for 20 minutes or so and I wondered what they were looking at. Traps maybe? More photo opportunities? My wife wondered the same thing and asked if I thought I could swim out there. I played football and ran track in high school and feel that my judgment of distance relative to yards/meters is pretty accurate. It looked like about 80-100 meters of shallow water and another 80-100 of deep water. I reminded her that I had swam 500 meters and then biked and ran during a triathlon I did in 2002. I failed to consider the fact that I am 50 pounds heavier now than I was then (will post about that some other time). My answer to her was, "Yeah, I'm sure I could probably do it." I really wanted to know what was under that buoy. As the saying goes, "Curiosity killed the cat." Curiosity, and stupidity, almost killed me.

A couple days had passed since the conversation about the buoy and I had pretty much captured everything on film that I had seen to that point. I kept looking at that buoy. It was about 4 in the afternoon and we would be heading inside soon to get cleaned up and go to dinner. I asked my brother-in-law if he wanted to swim out there with me and he agreed. We got out to where the deep water started and he said, "You're on your own from here, dude." I should have stopped as well. I started swimming out there and realized right away that there is a big difference between swimming laps in a pool and swimming against incoming waves. What maybe was only a couple hundred meters was actually much more. It's like walking the wrong way on one of those people-mover belts at the airport (which I have been known to do just because it is fun).

About halfway to the buoy I felt myself getting tired. I considered turning around, but then I thought, "The buoy floats, so even if I am tired I can hold onto the buoy when I get there and rest." So I kept going. I then began getting very tired...tired enough that I knew I had to get to the buoy because I may not make it back if I turned around.

There is a weightlifting technique, "lifting to failure", where the subject does repetitions until he or she can lift no more. Then the weight is reduced and they again lift to failure, and so on. They end up with just the bar - no weights - and it's the hardest thing to lift because there is just nothing left in the muscles. It is a good workout technique, but a very bad thing to have happen when one is swimming. By the time I got to the buoy 3 or 4 minutes later my arms felt like they were full of cold molasses. To my utter dismay, when I tried to grab on to the buoy, I couldn't stay on. It was slimy and moved around a bunch, and each wave that hit me knocked me off. I realized very quickly that I was not going to make it. I looked back at the shore and nobody was in earshot, and even if they were, they would not make it to me in time. I tried to grab the buoy again and was knocked off another time...and another. I felt panic set in and colors, smells, and sounds all intensified as I felt death surround me. I was so out of breath that the only prayer I could muster was a breathy "Father!!!" It was guttural and desperate. I tried once more to grab onto the buoy and this time I was able to wrap my legs around the cable and bear hug the buoy itself. Several seconds later I realized the waves were not as big. For a brief moment I was able to work on catching my breath, but then I looked toward shore again. It was a LONG WAY back. I had nothing left in me. Panic set in again and I started pushing down instinctively with one hand and then fell off again and frantically pushed down with both. In retrospect I realize how dangerous it is to try to save someone who is drowning because they are in a panic-zone and will push down whatever they can (including the person trying to save them) in order to keep themselves up. I recognized that it was panic and repeated to myself out loud, "Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic." I grabbed the buoy again and worked on catching my breath. My arms and chest were beginning to cramp up and "charlie-horse" to the point where just holding on was painful. I knew I was inevitably going to die, but at least I had a little time to think and prepare.

As I clung to life I went through several intense waves of emotion. First and foremost I was overwhelmed with a sense of shame and embarrassment because I knew I had lived nowhere near my full potential in God. I knew in my heart that I'd go to heaven, but I was ashamed for letting my passion for Jesus fizzle into just a "going through the motions" kind of thing. I felt like I would be greeted by Jesus with something somewhere between "Well done good and faithful servant" and "Depart from me for I never knew you." Maybe something like "Mark who? Hmmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. Let's talk." I felt an incredible sense of anger at myself for not using the common sense that God gave me. It saddened and embarrassed me to think that I would be remembered as the one who died as a result of doing something idiotic and dumb. I thought about my wife and grief poured over me because I knew I would not be able to hug her and help her through the pain. I looked at the camera attached to the rubber band that was around my wrist. I actually thought about pointing it at myself and taking a "goodbye" picture in hopes that someone would find it and find my wife. I didn't know if that would make things worse or better. I chose not to. I just could not believe that this was the way I was going to go. 35 years old...just barely getting started in our revitalized marriage...not a dad yet...95% of the songs I have written have never been recorded...I have done nothing...nothing to show for my life...NOTHING.

It had been about 10 minutes since I first got to the buoy. Panic had hit me four times and each time I had spoken it away. I had pretty much caught my breath, but my muscles were so cramped it was like I was frozen in the clinging position. I knew I was just delaying the inevitable, and so I figured I'd at least die fighting. I knew I had to take off and try to make it back. I released the buoy, put the camera in my pocket, and took off. I was only able to swim about 20 seconds and then had to float on my back and kick because my arms just wouldn't work anymore. I did that for a little while and then my legs started giving out. I looked up at the sky, realizing I'd probably be floating up there in a couple of minutes. I decided to give it one last effort with normal swimming, knowing that if my feet could not touch bottom when I could move no more, that would be it. I gulped a deep breath, turned over, and just swam for my life. I swam for my wife. I swam for the future children that God wants me to have. I swam for whoever the people are who God wants me to touch in my lifetime. I swam until my arms and legs had nothing left and tried to touch bottom. The feeling of the sand in my toe tips was the most beautiful thing. It meant life. It meant hope. It meant another chance to be all God wants me to be.

It took me a while to walk in because I could barely stand up. I acted like I was looking for fish to take pictures of because I did not want my mother-in-law to know I had been in trouble. When I finally made it out of the water I looked down and saw that I was bleeding. There were barnacles on the buoy that had cut my chest and the cable had cut my leg. I realized that I had been out in deep water bleeding for 10 minutes and God had kept the sharks away. Each breath that I took was so sweet. I was so weak I could not raise my arms above my shoulders until a few minutes into dinner. I think I successfully hid the fact that my knees were wobbly and my hands were shaking. The whole trip back I had to fight back tears of joy simply because I am so grateful for another chance to reach God's best for me and shun a life of compromise.

I have never been where I am with God now. I have had passion and zeal before, but it was based more on preparation for whatever ministry I thought I was headed for and not as much out of sheer love for Jesus. Since the middle of September I have gotten up early every morning to spend time with my precious Lord. Personal time. Not something done out of a need to prepare but based on the desire to love on and learn more about my faithful God. When I do make it to heaven I believe I'll have the chance to watch a replay of exactly what happened out there. I am convinced I'll see angels hard at work. The most important thing I learned from my experience in the ocean was that I am nothing without Jesus. Whatever feeling of being invincible - whatever confidence I had in myself and my own ability - is gone. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. I have been trying so long to accomplish things by my own might and power (which amounts to a hill of beans). I cannot describe what it is like to release everything to God and let Him work through me rather than me messing things up with my own human efforts. This is where my blog title came from. I have released my life to God and He is invading every area of it and working amazing things. I never told my in-laws about what happened because I didn't want them to know I did such a stupid thing. I didn't tell my friends either because I felt I'd come across as implying "You should appreciate me because I almost died." Some people are like that, but I'm not one of them. I thought I'd share it here as a reminder for myself and in hopes that it puts things in perspective for you if the cares and activities of this world have been distracting. Life is such a precious gift. Cherish it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Memorial Stone #12 - A Marriage Mended

There are only a couple more "memorial stones" to go before I hit the present. It has been good for me to remind myself of God's faithfulness and the things I have learned through the good or bad times. Stone #7 described a little about my former youth pastor and the value of having someone in your life who will speak the truth in love. He prays more than anyone I know and just basks in God's presence. There is a raw, straight-from-the-throne anointing on what he says. I am SO BLESSED to have this person in my life.

One subject I will probably write about in future posts is what I have learned about marriage and commitment. There is no possible way I could even start to put all that in one post, so in this post I'll be more general and write about the major thing I learned.

Before I ever proposed to my wife we had a long talk about the kinds of things that I felt God had placed in my heart. She seemed to be perfectly fine with it all. Part of the reason I had chosen education as an emphasis in college was so that I could go on short term mission trips during the summers. I just wanted to help people and she knew missions work was one of the things on my heart. As I mentioned in another post, the door I was hoping would open at my church never did. Somewhere along the line my wife changed her mind and was no longer open to what she once was. What started as "I'm willing to go anywhere" moved to "maybe you can do something here in town" and ended up as "maybe part-time, like a hobby." The problem is, those mind changes happened without me being aware of them. Long story short, she basically put nothing into the marriage because she felt she was holding me back and wanted me to bow out so I could be free to do whatever I found to do. From my perspective it seemed like I was putting in all the work to try to make things better while she was doing virtually nothing. Things were going downhill in year one. I suggested we go to counseling but she refused. I think she viewed "getting help" as a sign that someone has psychological problems and she didn't want to associate herself with that stigma. I had seen so many "professionals" when I was a kid that it was no big deal for me. I view wanting to get help as a sign of strength, not weakness. Each year that went by things got worse and worse. Finally, several months after my friend died and 4 1/2 years into the marriage, she agreed to go with me to a family therapist.

My wife and I both benefited to a certain extent from this woman. She was a Christian, had tremendous experience, and was very well educated. She helped us both understand why we thought or acted the way we did, but that is only half the solution. The other half is to use that understanding to change the thought patterns or behavior. We both had things to change. I changed, but my wife didn't. That just threw me. It made me more discouraged than I was to begin with. After a year of seeing this lady and shelling out money to her, we were no better in our relationship. We stopped seeing her and the chasm between us kept growing.

Last May I went out to eat with my former youth pastor and opened up to him about everything. We sat in the back corner of a little Thai restaurant and talked for almost 4 hours. He has a very busy life, but "just like old times" he was willing to sit and listen. Two or three weeks later my wife and I both met with him. He asked her what she expected marriage to be like and she replied, "Like Cinderella." That explained quite a bit. She expected a fairytale marriage with no conflict at all, no need to work at anything, so sacrifice or compromise necessary because the beautiful couple think the exact same thoughts and have identical hopes and dreams. She admitted she had given up a long time ago and was just trying to get me to leave. Here's the thing was all my doing and all my fault. I had sent a message early on that she was not as important as whatever ministry I felt I'd end up in. It makes me nauseous now to reflect on that because of how terribly messed up that outlook was.

My friend laid into us both pretty hard because we needed it. He was blatantly honest with my wife and told her things that she needed to change and change right away. He looked at me and said, "Forget ministry. Leave it alone and get it out of your mind. Don't mention it to her again." My initial thought was "That's way off, that can't be inspired of God." However, I remembered Paul's admonishment to husbands that they "love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her." I knew he was right.

Ever since that day I have had one ministry - my wife. Maintaining a personal relationship to God should be the number one priority in our lives, but family should be second. I have heard the term "football widows" that describes the wife who gets no attention from her husband when football is on. There can also be "web widows" and "career widows". I have a feeling there are far too many "ministry widows" - wives who have to take a backseat and watch while the majority of the husband's attention is turned elsewhere in the name of Christian service. How long can that last? I know two things: First, if I had tried to launch out in some sort of paid, full-time ministry with my marriage in the weak state that it was, I would have made a mockery of myself and fallen flat on my face. I said it before and I'll say it again...God knows what He is doing. Secondly, I am extremely grateful and blessed to have friends who are not afraid to love me enough to tell me when I am wrong.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Memorial Stone #11 pt. 2 - One bullet...

My Systems Design class at school was also one in which we worked in teams. I was on a team with two Vietnamese girls who were best friends. One of them, Britney, was extremely shy. I am quite the extrovert (perhaps too much at times) and took it upon myself to "pull her out of her shell." I slowly made progress and could see her confidence grow. I began to see her as a younger sister that I never had. The end of the semester was nearing and we all were frantically working on our presentation. We had even made plans to go out for coffee after it was over to celebrate the end of the class and the completion of our degrees. I was particularly excited about going out because I wanted to use the opportunity to share Jesus with my teammates.

The weekend before the presentation we all were corresponding and sharing the individual pieces that we had been doing. Nobody had heard from Britney, not even Gloria. The presentation was to be on Tuesday, December 18th, 2001. Monday evening I was in the school computer lab with my wife and got an email from Gloria with a subject of "Mourning Britney!" I smiled a little at first because I thought she was being sarcastic and meant to say "Morning Britney (thanks for waking up and joining us)." She didn't misspell it. Here is what the email said:

Britney has been shot! She is dead!!!! I am shocked.

I was shocked. Stunned. Mortified. My world came crashing to a halt and everything became numb and surreal. I never expected something like that to happen. Certainly not ONE DAY before I was going to witness to her! To make it even worse, she had been murdered. She was shot between the eyes by an ex-boyfriend who then took his own life. I called our teacher and he told us we could forego the presentation for a couple of days and present to him only if we preferred. The group wanted to get it over with. I cried all night and did not sleep a wink. We completed the presentation and went to the funeral a couple nights later. I had never been to a Buddhist funeral before and it was very different. I also did not expect it to be open casket.

Everything I had ever gone through in my life was something that happened to ME. I felt like I had not only failed her, but that my failure had doomed her for eternity. I can honestly say that I never felt a leading to witness to her and disobeyed, but the nagging question in my mind was, "What if I just wasn't truly listening? Had God been trying to direct me to say something to her and I was just too bent on getting along with people and getting good grades?" Not only did I feel like I had let Britney down in the worst way possible, but I let God down. How could He love me after what I did??? I felt absolutely awful, like the scum of the earth, and was physically exhausted from sleep deprivation. I knew I had to get help. I called our church and left a message about needing to schedule a time for counseling, but apparently (I found this out a couple of years later) the associate pastor thought his secretary was going to call and she thought he was. So nobody did. How could God ever forgive me? How could He love someone who failed so miserably? I felt myself slipping downward into a despair and hopelessness that I had never felt before. In addition to the pain and heartache I felt, the job situation looked bleak. I had to go back to substitute teaching, so after spending thousands in tuition to get my technology degree I felt like I was going backwards. I felt the claws of depression grip me and choke me. How could I go to God for help? I had failed. I guess I expected God to either have a hammer of judgment ready to fall or a cold shoulder, so I didn't approach. The conditional love from my dad that I had experienced growing up hindered me from even trying.

I got a programming job three months later and poured myself into my work. I also started running and working out more. Anything to distract myself. Now and then I would feel the Holy Spirit nudging me and would get into reading my Bible, but I still felt like the Holy of Holies was a place where I didn't belong anymore. I felt like I was forever disqualified. After about a year and a half I decided to take a drive. One of my favorite "get alone with God" places is out in the country at night, where you can see most of the same stars that Abraham gazed at when God spoke to him. I had been there many times before, but it had been a while. I knew there was no way out of the mire I was in besides His forgiveness and His love. He was waiting with open arms. My God is so faithful!!! His love is everlasting and His mercy endures forever! We cannot begin to fathom the depths of His love. I am His child. I will make mistakes. His love is unconditional. He wants me - failures and all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Memorial Stone #11 pt. 1 - Striving

I have mixed feelings about including this particular experience as a memorial stone because it was not a good experience. Despite that fact, it is something that I want to remember so that it will not happen again. Part One of this post is devoted to setting the stage.

As you know from Memorial Stone #6, God delivered me from the hurt and the pain I experienced while growing up. Since then I have loved my dad unconditionally and honored him in whatever way I could. I have stayed free from the bondage that held me for years. However, along this journey I have uncovered outlooks and attitudes in my life that are a direct result of growing up in the environment that I did. My dad is obsessive-compulsive and an extreme perfectionist. His acceptance of me and his love for me was based on my "performance". I'm not blaming him for anything as I believe he grew up in the same kind of environment. I remember bringing home my first B on a report card in 8th grade (where I live, an A is excellent, B is good, C is average, and so on) and it was like the world had ended. In high school I could bring home 6 A's and 1 B, and the B would get the attention - negative attention. Grades are just one example. It was constantly reinforced that if I wasn't perfect, I wasn't loved. Even in my church (the one I grew up in) the focus was more on the "rules" of what a Christian should or should not do rather than on the relationship with Jesus. Because of growing up this way, I have been driven to be the best...and have had a hard time accepting myself if I fell short. I am able to have the utmost patience with others (one thing that made me good as a teacher), but I am tough on myself. To a certain extent, it has been good because it has made me a very hard worker. Yet, in my experience I have found that our greatest strengths can also be our biggest weaknesses.

I achieved a certain level of success when I went back to college for my technology degree. I received 2 scholarships, was on the student council executive committee, was a member of a national honor society, was president of the programming club, received a national award for achievement and leadership, and got straight A's...except for one which was an A-. That A- really bothered me. It was in my Systems Analysis class in which everyone was required to work on a team. There were five of us, and two members failed to finish their part of the major project that was due at the end of the semester. The rest of us did not know about it until it was too late. I had earned the spot of "leader" of the team and the teacher basically said that I should have asked to see their progress rather than taking their word for it. I accepted that, but I still hated to see the A-.

It's interesting how God "arranges" for us to be around certain people. In Systems Analysis I just happened to be on the same team as a witch. We all had to prepare anonymous website with our background, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and work history, then the entire class helped form the teams based on that information. I put the "clues" together and knew that a particular website that promoted witchcraft belonged to a woman who was on my team. She was a hard worker and we had a mutual respect for each other (she wasn't one of the two that "dropped the ball" at the end of the semester). After the semester was over we met for coffee and I brought up the fact that I knew she was the one involved in witchcraft. I witnessed to her for about 20 minutes and shared various scriptures with her. I also told her that I believed in what she did, meaning I believed that there truly is a certain amount of power in it. I compared it to the buying power that one could experience with counterfeit money. It works, but sooner or later there will be a reckoning. The conversation was a good one and even though she did not get saved, I know God's Word was planted in her heart. The next semester I had a similar opportunity to share my faith, but it didn't go as planned, to say the least (part 2 coming).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Memorial Stone #10 - What am I Worth?

I started dating my wife in May of '96, proposed on December 16th of that same year, and we were married in November of '97. In the spring of '97 I was able to find a long-term substitute teacher assignment for a music teacher who was out the rest of the school year. Between all the lesson planning and grading I had to do as well as wedding and honeymoon plans that needed attention, I got very busy. Slowly and reluctantly I started dropping areas in which I volunteered at church until soon I was not doing anything at all. Surprisingly, I no longer felt as close to God. Have you ever thought that you had things all together and then realized there were things that were way off kilter? I came to the conclusion that somehow, over almost 10 years of volunteering, I had slipped into the realm of basing my worth to God on what I was doing for Him rather than basing it on the simple fact that I am His child. I felt like a fish out of water. I had left the world that I had known for so long and seemed to be suffocating as a result. I struggled to find my bearings, but it was slow going. I guess maybe because I had felt a call to ministry so early in life that basing my worth on what I was doing (or going to do) was how I perceived things from almost the beginning. It was really hard to grasp that God loves me just because I am His...and I still find myself slipping back into that mindset sometimes.

I got a permanent music teacher position (teaching K-6th grade) in August of '97 and the whole year was a whirlwind of busy-ness. The wedding went very well and we honeymooned in Hawaii. We went to Oahu first and then to Maui. It was the first time I had ever been in the ocean and getting "initiated" by the surf on the northern shores of Oahu was quite an experience. I was thrown around like a ragdoll, but I loved every second of it. I bring this up because it is pertinent to an upcoming "memorial stone" that just happened last September. That's another post, though.

I had never felt "called" to be a classroom teacher, but I ended up excelling at it because I believe it is an area in which God gifted me. I love to teach, I love music, and I love kids, but I did not find the three together in a classroom setting to be satisfying as a career. I poured my life into it. I did mostly original lesson plans and presented twice as many musical productions as any other music teacher in the district. The first year was awful, the second was a little better, and then the third was as good as I think it could have been. One of the things that was frustrating was that the pay scale was based mainly upon the number of years of experience. I was putting everything I had into it and Joe Teacher down the hall was doing just enough to get by, yet we made the same. I was never one to be motivated by money. If I was, I never would have become a teacher. However, my wife wants to stay home when we have children, and in January of 2000 when we started looking to buy our first house, we realized it would be very hard for us to make that work. I had done computer work during one summer and realized I had a knack for it, so in June of 2000 I resigned and went back to school full time for a Management Information Systems degree. We moved to a one-bedroom apartment and lived on what my wife made so that I could take an overloaded schedule and get out as quickly as possible.

The day I resigned I felt a release in my spirit and a sense that even though it was purely to be a better provider for my family, God was with me. I had allowed my busy schedule to crowd out my quiet time with the Lord and it had quenched the fire. Outwardly I still shared Jesus with people now and then and stayed away from the "worldly" things that people use to define whether someone is backslidden, but inwardly I was dry and parched. I hadn't volunteered in three years at church and considered starting again, but I just didn't feel it was time yet. After all, if I based my worth to God on the things that I was doing for Him, what would happen if I failed at one or more of those things? I was about to find out.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Memorial Stone #9 - That's My God!

While I was in Bible school my focus was set on learning more about God. I learned more about His character and that He is a generous, giving God. Why did God reveal Himself as "I Am" and leave it at that? I Am...what? He had to leave it open because He is...everything. He is our All in All. I see it like God said, "I Am [the meeter of every need you could possibly have in life]." How can we have the assurance that He will meet our needs? We must be convinced of two things - that He is able, and He is willing. Bill Gates certainly is able to give you 10 million dollars at the drop of a hat, but is he willing to DO it...for YOU. I may be able to convince you that I am willing to give you 10 million dollars, but you would probably have a hard time believing that I am able (and right now you would be right). Most people really do not have a hard time believing God is able to meet their needs, it's the issue of whether He truly is willing to do it for THEM that trips them up. He who comes to God must believe that He is [the meeter of all needs] and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him [He is willing and ready to meet your need upon approach].

When I was in my second year of Bible school there was a girl who caught my attention. She was beautiful inside and out. She had a heart of gold and was kind and generous to people. We both were in the same circle of friends and as time went by I became closer to her. I met her parents and we hit it off very well. They even had me house-sit for them when they were on vacation. I finally got the nerve to tell this girl that I felt I wanted to pursue something beyond a friendship. Her reply was something like, "Mark, I just think your wonderful and the nicest person. I have so much fun with you and I just love you like a brother." For a brief moment I thought I still had a chance...kind of like the movie "Dumb and Dumber" where Jim Carrey's character is told by the girl that his chances are one in a million and he says, "So you're saying I've got a chance. I read ya." But I realized pretty quick that no, she doesn't have a bizarre family life, she's turning me down. I had a lump in my throat and was crushed, but only for a couple minutes. I began to think about what this meant. I thought, "I know my God. My God is not a mean God who dangles a desire of my heart in front of me and then rips it away and laughs. My God is a good God and He rewards those who trust Him." I then got overwhelmingly excited because I knew that if this girl wasn't right for me, it could only mean that God had someone better (better suited to me). I was right.

A month or so before I moved back home from Bible school I felt God say something to me and immediately wrote it off as silly. One of my guitar students was a girl from my hometown who I had known for years. She had expressed a desire to learn the guitar so I started giving her lessons. I had an electric guitar, a classical (nylon-stringed) guitar, and my acoustic (steel-stringed) guitar which was the one I got when I was in 6th grade. I let her borrow my acoustic because she didn't have a guitar. Even after learning a couple of chords she was already writing worship songs. It blew me away and I felt attracted to her heart. Driving home one day I felt the Lord say (not audibly, but in my heart), "I want you to give her your guitar." I was shocked. There was NO WAY that could be God. Didn't God know how valuable that guitar was to me? All I had ever done, for the 12 or 13 years that I had it, was use it to glorify God. The guitar was bought for $225 so it wasn't like it was worth thousands of dollars, but to me it was worth much more because of the sentimental value. I would have given my car (worth about $5K) away before I gave the guitar away. I don't think I would have sold it for $20K - it meant that much to me. I passed off the leading as something from my own subconscious...maybe deep in my mind I had a hidden agenda and thought that giving her my guitar would help open the door to a dating relationship. After all, it had been eight years since I had seriously dated and I was the only one of my circle of friends who wasn't married. Maybe I was just getting impatient and not thinking clearly. I moved back home without obeying...but the leading would not leave. Months later it was still there. I finally prayed about it because I wanted to discern whether it was God or something I made up in my head. I came to the conclusion that while I was attracted to this girl's heart, her personality really wasn't compatible with mine (nothing bad about her or me, God makes people different). I finally obeyed God and gave her the guitar. She cried and we hugged and I let it go.

One month later I met the girl who would later become my wife. She was (and is) more than I ever could have asked, thought, or imagined. Words cannot describe how I feel about her. Our marriage has gone through the wringer and we are stronger and closer now than we have ever been. She is amazing. Do you want to know what kind of God I serve? About a year after I gave the guitar away (keep in mind I did not drop any hints about missing it - I really didn't miss it because I had released it), the girl who I gave it to said that God had told her to give it back. How awesome is that!! It does hold a special place in my heart, but I would give it away in a heartbeat if God told me to again. It was a lesson of trust and obedience. Like the old hymn says...

Trust and obey
For there's no better way
To be happy in Jesus
Than to trust and obey

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Memorial Stone #7 - The Sharpening

This memorial stone is not a particular event, but rather a person. My youth pastor was patient, selfless with his time, not afraid to rebuke me when I needed it, and just always there for me. He remains an awesome friend and spiritual mentor to this day (not that it's been that long ago).

The last months of high school I got very involved in the youth group at church. I played bass guitar for the praise and worship team and volunteered for every special event I could. After graduating I kept active in the youth group as a volunteer. Music was the direction where I felt God was leading me so I enrolled in college as a music major. My emphasis was education and I studied voice and classical guitar. One of the things that my youth leader had to rebuke me for was the place that Christian rock held in my life. I had gone to numerous concerts during high school and ended up at a place where I served Christian rock as a god. If something occupies your thoughts, words, actions, and vision more than God, then it's wrong - even if it has a "Christian" label on it. Many ministers fall into serving the work of the Lord rather than the Lord of the work. Even when I didn't like being "sharpened", I stayed teachable. It was a valuable lesson to learn and one that I am glad I learned early. A year or so later I began leading worship at home meetings...just me and my guitar...and not once did I ever view it as a performance (it isn't). This particular lesson was one of many that my youth pastor taught me and I owe him so much.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A word about my links-

Until now I have not listed any links on my site. However, I have had a chance to browse a bit and have found blogs that really impressed me. If you are reading this and I have posted a link to your blog, please know that I did it simply because I feel readers of my blog could also find value in reading yours, not because I expect anything in return. If you put a link to my blog on your site I would be honored, but if not, I will not be upset or offended. For all who read this, I want to add the following disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all opinions expressed on those blogs to which I have posted a link. If you find anything inappropriate or anything contrary to the Word of God on one of my links, please email me about it so I can investigate.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Memorial Stone #5 - Mission Trip

When I was 17 a couple reps from Youth With A Mission spoke at our church. They showed slides from various short-term mission trips and presented information about upcoming trips. Something leaped inside me and I just felt prompted to go. I ended up going to Mexico and the entire trip was an incredible experience. The bus ride there was a good time of reflection and five songs were birthed out of the solitude. I had taken Spanish for two years and was able to communicate better than I expected. There were three main areas of outreach: we built shelters for those who had lost their homes in a recent earthquake, we witnessed door to door, and we showed the movie "The Cross and the Switchblade" (in Spanish) and prayed with people afterwards. It felt so good to jump out of my comfort zone and share God's love in a foreign country. The experience was the first of three short-term missions trips I have been on and they all have been wonderful. So often we (at least in the U.S.) forget about how good we have it here. I never want to take anything for granted and always want to be "ready and willing" for God to send me out again.

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