What does it mean to have expectations? Oxford defines the word to mean: “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case”. I have an expectation that the sun will rise each morning, and that I will want a cup of coffee when it does. I also expect to have a headache if I don’t get that coffee, just like I expect there will be consequences if I make poor choices. Having expectations are reasonable and justified, but can get us into trouble when we don’t articulate those expectations that are related to other people we are in relationship with, and especially when we begin to have expectations of God.

There are different types of expectations. The most obvious ones are the ones that are written or clearly communicated like working contracts. You are expected to work a given number of hours performing a specific task and will be compensated in a clearly defined manner. The consequences for not meeting those expectations are clearly understood. The same can be said for students in a classroom where responsibilities are clearly defined and feedback and grades are given through clear, objective measures. These employees and students will be able to accurately predict what will happen as a result of any given action. This is helpful for everyone and can lead to a supportive and encouraging environment.

There are also unspoken expectations, especially those within relationships. Due to our family of origin or past relationships, we have a preconceived idea of how things are “supposed” to be. This can refer to roles and responsibilities within the relationship, or even how someone should respond in certain situations. This can cause tension and resentment due to the other party being unaware of the expectation, meaning that when someone gets hurt it’s often due to some unspoken expectation being unmet. Effective communication and clearly defined expectations are the best ways to avoid these problems, but they aren’t often articulated clearly or at all, leading to many types of arguments and discontent.

What’s even more dangerous is when we place expectations on God, either purposely or unknowingly. We expect God to answer our prayers the way we want Him to in the moment we want because we’ve been good and faithful. Even though we might never articulate it like this, we unconsciously want something in return for our faithfulness and our work in the church and our neighborhoods. This leads to a dangerous place in our hearts and minds. We get into this precarious position because we don’t fully grasp what it means to serve the holy and steadfast creator of the world. 

We see this play out in the book of Job in the Bible. Job experiences terrible loss, then demands God to explain himself. God replies to him by asking “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” (Job 38:4) As humans, we need to be reminded that we are beings that were created by a loving God who cares and provides for us. All that we have is from Him, and things happen according to His timeline, not ours. Through the prophet Isaiah we then hear God say “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) These two scriptures tell us that it is best for us to rely on God’s knowledge and timing instead of trying to control the outcomes based on what we think is best.

Not all expectations are bad. We should expect God to be faithful, consistent, loving, and just. These are characteristics of God that are clearly and repeatedly explained in the Bible and we know that we can trust the Word of God. The problems arise when we begin expecting Him to do our will as opposed to seeking to understand His will, treating Him like a Genie in the sky granting our wishes. So how do we overcome this? We should spend time in prayer reflecting on what expectations we have placed on God and other people in our lives, and then seek to understand why we have those. We can ask God to reveal the expectations we have so that we can put those things aside and seek to live our lives in joyful anticipation of seeing the will of God played out, knowing that our role in it is a gift that was given to us. This perspective can help us to stay focused on God as we seek His will and His ways. 

Which Direction are You Running?

I was recently asked a question that stuck with me for a while. The question was: How do you balance the desire to be a Christian with the desire to simply avoid going to Hell?

My short answer was that you must decide the motivation, whether you are running away from something, or running towards something.

Here are a couple examples to consider:

Politics: There are two candidates to choose from. One of them (candidate A) is hated and some people want ANYONE other than them, it doesn’t make any difference who it is. Some people truly love and support the other candidate (candidate B). If you are voting for candidate B, is it because you love them or because you hate the other option? What is your motivation?

Sports: There are two teams playing soccer. One team (team A) is mediocre at best without a winning record this season. The other team (team B) is spectacularly bad. Throughout the course of the game team B commits so many errors that team A has no choice but to win. Would it be better to say “Team A won that game”, implying that they outscored and outwitted their opponent,  or “Team B lost that game”? Both are technically true, but which is a more accurate statement?

So what is your motivation? Is your desire simply to avoid Hell? Are you trying to “be good” to avoid the eternal pain and suffering of an eternity separated from the Creator of the Universe? Or is your motivation to better know that same Creator? To be in relationship with the One who created the whole beautifully amazing world, while specifically creating humankind in His own image? Simply desiring to avoid Hell does not lay the foundation for the kind of relationship that God desires for us. It is a “self-focused”, “all about me” response to an eternal problem. However, an intentional desire to know God and to be known by Him is the foundation for a true, lasting relationship with God. It’s a “God-focused” response. 

So what direction are you running today? Are you simply running away from Hell, or running towards the God who is waiting for you with open arms?

The Church is Out of Style

There was an article in the local newspaper recently explaining how the Basque society is more and more secular. The youngest Catholic priest in our province was interviewed and he was quoted as saying “we aren’t in style”, referring to the church. Part of his reasoning was that as society flourishes from a material and physical standpoint, it’s harder for people to recognize that they NEED God. Only a small portion of Basque society goes without their basic needs being met so many people don’t notice that they are missing something or someONE. It’s a beautiful area with amazing food and an intriguing culture, the world would tell you that it seems like paradise just as it is. 

The young priest went on to say that the church is more “ideological” than “evangelical”, meaning there is more talk about what we believe as opposed to sharing the Good News with those outside the church. He did seem hopeful for the future though as he is seeing more conversions among young people.

Another issue that should be addressed is that the average age of all of the priests in our province is 74, while the younger half of the priests are under 60. I’ll save you the mathematical thinking and tell you that this means that the older half are significantly older. This means that within the next 10-15 years, the majority of that older half will no longer be with us and there will be a massive shortage of priests, leading to fewer church services and even fewer opportunities for outreach. 

Amongst the other “church people” who were interviewed, one said we need to involve more laity (non-ordained people) and women, another said we need “less liturgy and more action” calling for more social justice work in the community, and yet another says we just need to be faithful and pray. On a personal level, when I tell people I am a Christian but I’m not Catholic, I’m often met with blank stares of confusion. They didn’t know that was even possible. So with all of these differing opinions, it’s easy to see why the church is considered “out of style”.

What would you do if you already thought you were living in paradise, then found out you could have even more? We have all of the physical needs met, but what about the emotional and spiritual needs? Internal peace and security are just as important as physical comforts, and those can only truly be found in a meaningful relationship with our Creator. It’s our job to show people that it’s possible.

Intentionality in Ministry

Ever since we moved to the Basque Country, we’ve been very intentional and specific about where we do our shopping, what restaurants we frequent, and how we spend our time. We make a point to talk to the people who work in the stores and restaurants we go to and have even exchanged phone numbers with some of them. They will stop and speak to us in the street and call us by name when we come into their stores and restaurants. The Basque culture is all about relationships and that requires investment. Yes, we could have the newspaper delivered to our home or buy a printer, but then we would miss out on building relationships with the people in the local office store. There are tons of restaurants we haven’t tried out, but then we miss out on being greeted with “Hola familia!!” when we go to the places where they know us and what we like to order.

These investments are starting to pay dividends. Just this week I went into one of these local shops and greeted the woman who works there like always. When I asked her how she was doing, I got the standard “good, thanks”, but she hesitated a bit and then started opening up about how worried she was about the war in Ukraine and the possibility of it turning into a world war. She exclaimed that there were problems all over the world and she was a bundle of nervous energy. I felt a strong sense from God to share the source of my peace with her, so I explained that when we stay focused on worldly events we will stay worried and anxious, but if we focus on God, we can have peace from Him. I told her that the Bible tells us this world is not our home, we’re only here temporarily. She told me that the fact that I was able to find peace during all of this was a “wonder” and was very interested in what I was telling her. 

This interaction would not have happened if she didn’t feel like I was a safe person to share this with, and that only happened after consistently going into her store for over 2 years. Building relationships with people takes time and a lot of effort, but when it gives us the opportunity to be heard when we share about our faith, it’s all worth it. Our prayer is that God will continue to put people in our paths that are open to hearing about this Good News, and that we can be bold in our faith as we talk to them. 

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

-Philippians 4:7

Who Causes my Problems?

It was my first outing after a particularly severe case of strep throat during our first year in the Basque Country.

I was getting my hair cut and I was talking with the stylist about all of the unknowns surrounding the current restrictions due to Covid and school for the girls, the seeming impossibility of making any sort of future plans, etc. In a culture where traditions and familiarity are deeply grounded, uncertainty breeds a whole new level of anxiety. She told me there is a common saying here: “Dios aprieta pero no ahoga”. Literal translation is “God squeezes but doesn’t choke”. She went on to explain that it means that even though there are many problems, God will not make it so severe that it kills us. This woman is not a Christian, but was sharing this phrase that she grew up hearing. I felt a strong stirring from God that I needed to respond somehow, even though this woman speaks very little English and I still couldn’t think straight due to just getting over strep throat, much less in Spanish. I told her that I believed God is always with us and helps us when we have problems, but God is not the one CAUSING the problems like the saying suggests. She seemed to be open to that idea (Thank you God for using me when I feel like I can’t be used!!), and we continued talking about other topics, but I couldn’t quit thinking about it. How do we share about a loving, trustworthy, gracious God when one of the underlying cultural beliefs is that God is the one causing their problems? The layers of culture are so important to understand in order to effectively do any sort of ministry. 

The culture in the Basque Country is an interesting mix of guilt, shame, and fear. When you share with a Basque person that something difficult has happened like an injury or illness, the typical response is “Que mala suerte!”, which means “What bad luck!”. Cultural norms here will tell you that things generally happen based on luck, or sometimes karma. It’s not uncommon for people to have cultural symbols of good luck near their front doors, along with a witch to protect them, and maybe even a cross somewhere in their house, just in case. Knowing all of this, how should one go about sharing the good news? Where does the God of the Bible fit into their narrative?

We share our personal testimony, but that often leads to them responding with “that’s good for you, but has nothing to do with me”. They don’t see any relevance for them.

We have honest discussions (AFTER listening carefully, addressing misconceptions and/or answering questions) – they are often very open to intellectual conversations/debate. What we have to do is to listen and have conversation without coming across like we’re arguing with them.

What if it’s true? This is a great question that encourages them to consider the possible implications of what we are sharing with them.

Our goal is to point them towards the God who entered the world to save them. This God is not the one causing the problems, though He can and often does use those problems, along with the lessons learned in dealing with them, in order to further His kingdom. The God of the Bible walks alongside us as we face these problems, and wants to walk alongside the Basque people as well. Will you pray with us that they would accept Him?