Living in the mystery

Confession time: I’m an analyzer.  Ok, make that an over-analyzer.  I am the type that has a deep drive to take every fact or experience and try to fit it into a category or framework; some sort of structure to show me what it all means.  It’s the never-ending push to understand, to know, that drives this desire to analyze, dissect and pick everything apart, so I won’t be lost on the dim plain of chance.

Let me explain it this way…

Imagine you’ve stumbled upon an abandoned battle field that now lies silent in the late moments of dusk. The sun has fled the horizon but the moon isn’t yet out, and the last shafts of daylight are reflected and diffused by a low-hanging cloud of battle-smoke and fog.  The wounded have long since been taken away, and now all that remains is a slowly shifting landscape of indefinable shapes; figures walking the field slowly, though for what purpose you have no idea.  Here you stand on the edge of the plain, wanting to walk through, but here’s the problem: simply don’t know what lies ahead.  You stare for a while, seeing the dim outline of several paths through the mist, but can’t discern where each one leads.  What’s more, you don’t know whether each one is level or rocky, whether you can run with abandon or must instead creep along to avoid pitfalls.  You just… don’t… know.

Not only that, but what to make of the figures and objects you see through the fog?  All you can see are shapes, undefined masses in the mist, with no way to see whether they are inanimate or alive, friend, foe, or neutral.  If you don’t know what the path looks like, and you don’t know much at all about the scattered details on the horizon, how can you possibly decide which way to go?

For me, and I believe for many, if not most of us, this scene is a constant part of our lives.  Each person will see it a little differently of course, but the feeling of not knowing what to expect, of lacking solid understanding about what the scattered events around us mean… well, it’s simply part of the world in which we live.

Now, the way we handle this varies widely.  Some will approach with abandon, running recklessly through the field with no idea what lies ahead, maintaining the attitude of “it’ll all work out in the end”.  Others will stop at the edge and sit, waiting and waiting for answers until their days simply fade away and end with them never having moved at all.  Still others will begin to walk, then retrace their steps and try another path, only to repeat again and again in a cycle of indecision.

Even among those who claim to follow Christ, it usually seems to work the same way.  The only difference is some will run recklessly while confidently proclaiming that God is with them, and others will spend their waiting time in prayer and Scripture reading, trying to find a black-and-white plan they can believe in.

Here’s the problem with this… God is not merely black-and-white.

To be sure, the Bible reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) and, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num 23:19), but there is a HUGE difference in acknowledging the unchanging constancy of God’s character, and trying to fit all of His plans and actions into a neatly predictable package.

No, God is a God of wildness, of mystery.  He is a God who loves His children fiercely, and does desire all sorts of good for them, but what seems good on this side of eternity may not always be the case on the other.  There is nothing wrong with praying for answers, seeking guidance and direction, and asking God for specific things in our lives, but when we try to fit God’s actions into a mold that assures our comfort and success, when we try to assign to His ways criteria that always make sense to us, then what we are doing is approaching the eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe and demanding that He work in ways that we approve.

We must remember that the same God who gave His people water and mana in the desert also later sent them famine and drought.

The same Jesus that healed the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda also left other invalids there, unhealed.

The same God that came to Solomon, saying “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (1 Kings 3:5b) and then granted the young king’s request far beyond his wildest dreams, also came to righteous Job and said “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man and I will question you, and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand…” and on and on (though in the end He did restore to Job all he had lost, and more).

This is a God of tender kindness and awesome judgment; a God who always keeps His promises, but in His way and time; a God who lets His children wrestle and argue with Him, but will not be pinned down, and it is because of this, that He is worthy of awe, respect, worship, and love.

In my life, I find more and more that as long as I am raging my own private war against uncertainty, I become more and more miserable.  It’s like boxing the wind or resisting the tide: I can struggle for a while, but in the end I am the one that must admit defeat, every time.

True peace comes when I am able to embrace the truth that life and God are never completely predictable, never fully knowable this side of eternity.  To the degree that I embrace the marvelous mystery of this thing we call existence; to the degree that I can learn to not fight the current, but ride the rapids; to the degree that I am able to trust in the character of God, I can be content.

Ultimately, standing at the edge of the foggy unknown, I am not the one who can – or should – try and know the path or the objects on the field.  All I must learn to do is stretch out my hand to the mist and wait for the grip of the One who does know, and when it comes, simply close my eyes… and walk.

Phillip Gonzales
7/25/2009

VIDEO: Phillip's American Idol Adventure 13: American Idol on the inside

Phillip’s American Idol Adventure! If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like on the inside of American Idol Auditions, this is pretty much it.  Lots of crowd footage and no background music for this video, but it’s authentic!

[youtube]VkhSs6X-4-I[/youtube]

More updates here, and on my YouTube channel at: youtube.com/phillipgonzales

Midnight and witness

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” Acts 16:25 (ESV)

Previously, we saw that for Paul, Silas, Peter and the other apostles in the New Testament, suffering is  not something to lament over, but rather to rejoice in, and that the reason for this response is found in a  dynamic relationship with the Living God.  Their lives are one of many evidences in Scripture that the deepest, most fulfilling, most real experience this world has to offer is actually not of this world at all, but rather beyond it, and that true joy and meaning are found only in when our spirit enters into communion with the Spirit of God.  We saw that because of this, any circumstance, “good” or “bad”, that brings us into communion with Him is one to be rejoiced in, and that this understanding of reality produces the kind of instinctive joy that we see in the lives of these men of God.

There is another thing in this passage, though, that particularly stood out to me.  It is the little phrase at the end, “and the prisoners were listening to them”.

Picture for a moment, the setting of this passage…

This story does not take place in a climate-controlled, well-lit, moderately sanitary cell in an American county jail.  This is a first-century Roman prison.  Picture one or two sputtering torches fighting to stay lit under dripping ceilings, bolted to mildewed walls blotched with red stains from the untreated wounds of former prisoners.  Think of the smell of an untended room with no running water, waste bucket in the corner, unwashed bodies now sweating in the heat of the day, now chilled in the drafty air of the night.  Hear the skittering feet of rats, the constant drip of poorly diverted rainwater from a flat roof, the moans and fragmented ramblings of broken men, delirious from sleeplessness and malnutrition, and the occasional scream from a nearby interrogation going badly.

This is what midnight looks like in a first-century prison in Rome… not just dark to the eyes, but dark to the soul.

Now picture that night again from the perspective of one of the other prisoners.

You know what night is like in the prison.  You know the sounds, the smells, the way people behave.  You’ve seen it yourself, night after night.  Tonight though… well, tonight something is different.  The new inmates have only been here a few hours, but already you’ve noticed they aren’t like the others.  They don’t have the same bitter eyes and snarling insults.

Then, all of a sudden in the middle of the night, they start to sing. Not only that, but these aren’t the usual songs of protest or vengeance you’d expect to hear from prisoners, not even songs about the hope of getting free someday.  No, these are songs of praise to God, right now! They aren’t angry.  They aren’t bitter.  They aren’t plotting and scheming their escape or revenge.  In a dark, putrid cell, with bleeding backs and bruised ribs… they are singing songs of joy.

Think of the questions that must have sprouted in the minds of the other prisoners; questions about these men, their stories, and the God they sing to.  Even more, think of the opportunity for these men of God to share the reason for their joy and bear witness to the reality of the power of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.

This is what happens when God’s power works in us to see every circumstance as a path to communion: not only do we have joy in our own hearts, but those around us will begin to notice and wonder why.

For the Christ-follower, one of the truest evidences of a faithful life is that it is not lived in secret, but in the open, where others can see a difference and know that “this Jesus stuff” actually works.  Anybody can parrot the sound bites and say the lines of the Christian faith, but when midnight comes and we respond with joy, people notice, and that is the greatest witness of all.

Phillip Gonzales
7/17/2009

Midnight and communion

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” Acts 16:25 (ESV)

I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a warm, humid summer morning.  The sky outside is mildly overcast with a light breeze, and I keep thinking I should turn the air conditioner down a notch because my hands are getting sweaty.  I haven’t eaten breakfast yet and I’m hungry, but I can’t stop typing.  You see, I flipped open my Bible to have some quiet time with the Lord, the passage it dropped open to was this one about Paul and Silas in prison singing to God, and it just spoke to me.  Deeply.

They had been going about their everyday life, preaching the Gospel and helping others, when they were seized by their enemies, unjustly accused, beaten severely and thrown into prison.  Their response?  Praising the Lord. What struck me was that when my day goes bad, chances are it isn’t anything close to that bad and it’s hard to rejoice, yet here they are, in prison, up all night, singing hymns to God.  Talk about a joy that transcends circumstances, and this is normal! Paul writes to the church at Corinth,

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed… Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  2 Cor. 4:8-9, 16-18 (NIV)

… and to his friends in Philippi,

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Phi. 4:11b-13 (NIV)

When Paul struggles, his reflex is praise.  When he suffers, his reflex is joy.  Not only that, but he’s not alone in this response.  In Acts 5 we read how Peter and the other apostles were also preaching Christ, were also arrested and beaten viciously, and their response was to leave “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41)

Do you see what’s happening here?  In their midnight in prison, Paul and Silas sang hymns to God, and their spirits were lifted to His in communion.  In their “midnight” of false accusation and beatings, Peter and the apostles “shared in the sufferings of Christ” and their spirits were lifted to His in communion.  For these Christ-followers, the Good News had so taken hold of them, had settled so deeply into their soul that they not only understood, but lived in the reality that the truest, deepest joy in life comes not in success, accomplishment, or freedom from suffering.  It comes only in communion with God, when the lines that divide the temporal from the eternal are blurred and the Holy Spirit breathes fresh life into our being.  With that understanding rooted in our heart, there is no darkness that can drive away our peace; no circumstance that can take our joy.

When “midnight” comes in my life and yours, it will take different forms.  The death of a loved one.  The loss of a job.  The end of a dream.  We live in a broken world and we are broken people.  BUT, when God gives us eyes to see every situation as a chance to draw near to Him; when we truly begin to live in the reality that as Christ-followers, our sins are forgiven, our guilt is gone and we have an irrevocable hope in Christ; and when our “midnights” move us in to communion with God, then we can know deep in our bones the joy that God promises us, and that whatever road brought us there, was worth the journey.

Be still my soul, and wait for the Lord.
Phillip Gonzales
7/10/09

Who I Really Am

It’s 2:00am on the morning of American Idol auditions, and I am remembering who I really am, and I’m switching my audition song… again.  This will be the third time I’ve changed my main “audition song” in the past 24 hours.  Mostly I’ve been thinking about what is a good fit for my voice, what I think the judges will know, and what I know how to sing, but none of those are the most important thing.

They say over and over again in the FAQs, message boards, etc., that the most important thing is to “just be yourself”, to be “authentic”, and it occurs to me that even without trying, the tendency to quietly slip into the molds we think other people want us in is ever-present, and has caught up with me already.

You see, I am a Christian.  More than that, in fact, because that term has been so diluted and confused with all the “cultural Christianity” and misconceptions of what true salvation is.  I am a Christ-follower. I gave up my life long ago, only to have it replaced with a new one the follows a different path.  Now, for me to “be myself” means that in everything I do I seek to bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ.  Therefore, if the most important thing is to be authentic, then the most important thing is not for me to pick the song that I think will push me forward, but the one that Jesus places in my heart to be a true and faithful witness to Him.

All around me, such dreams, such fears, such hope, such insecurities!  All around me are calls from the peddlers of ideas, all trying to sell some idea of how to find personal worth and feel like I have value.  Here’s the thing… the drive to “be something” has at its core a desperate need to prove to the world by my accomplishments that I have value.  It says that my worth is determined by my status, fame, money, achievement, etc., and that to really matter I must make a good showing for those around me.  Think about this… thousands and thousands of people will audition tomorrow, and many more thousands in other upcoming locations, because they are following their dream and want to “be something”.

Have you realized though, how there are HUGE problems with this mindset?  If I am to be evaluated on the basis of my accomplishments, whose criteria am I measured against?  How do I know what it is and when it changes, and how long my “measurement” will last before having to re-prove myself again?  It’s madness!  In the midst of trying to “be something” comes the subtle fear that whatever I achieve or become, it won’t be enough, because there will always be something greater, someone better.

No, this is not how I am called to live; not who I am called to be!  I am called to be one thing: a true and faithful witness of Jesus Christ.  My worth is found in my position in Him and His possession of me, period.  Whether I win or lose, whether I triumph or fail, whether my name is known to many or few, I have value and worth and identity in Him, and that is all that matters.

When “tomorrow” morning comes (it’s really just later today), the most important thing is not that I sing with passion and vocal clarity, that I hit the notes right or make good eye contact.  The most important thing is not that I pick the song the judges want to hear, that I remember all the words and pronounce them right.  The MOST important thing is that I am a true and faithful witness of Jesus Christ in everything, from my presence to my answers to the song that I sing.  Disregarding all other things, all other hopes, all other ideas or criteria or advice, I must be true to myself, and come what may, the only way to do that is this: to be true to Him.

Phillip Gonzales
7/9/09

Almost there…

Only 5 hours to go before American Idol auditions begin!  I’m not really nervous, just wanting to do my part to make this whole experience all that god wants it to be.

Not so long ago it would have been my biggest dream to be a STAR, but now, truthfully… my biggest dreams are to bring glory to Jesus Christ, bring hope and joy to people, make a large-scale impact for good in the world, have and love a wife, and raise a family.  Everything else is only a means to those ends.

Now, I also know that only the first one of those has eternal significance, so on the one hand it would seem that I should try and let go of the others.  However, when I think of God’s promise in Scripture… “delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4), I believe that as I am faithful to delight myself in Him, He will change my desires to match His will, and those that remain He will fulfill in His time.

This means then, that it’s not my job to try and do the work of changing my heart from the inside out, only to seek Him and His righteousness, and let Him work it from the inside out.  What freedom then comes when I can let go; what joy!

Be still my soul, and wait for the Lord.

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