The Dangerous Invitation of Authenticity

take-off-your-mask

When I was about thirteen years old, I was at a theme park with the youth group from my church. Now you should know that I’m not much of a “thrill seeker” type, but when the group goes on these trips you go along to hang with friends…even if you’re miserable the whole time.

One of the guys in the group was one of those “prankster” types who definitely had a promising future with the guys from Jack*ss. Normally I would have distanced myself from this sort of behavior, flown under the radar, and made it out of there without incident. But not this time. Jack*ss guy was coming for me.

We were all standing around in one of the quintessential “youth-group-outing huddles” (the ones where you talk for twenty minutes about whether or not we want to eat next, go home, or ride more rides then eat and go home), when the aforementioned “funny guy” came up behind me and gave a swift and terrible tug to my cargo shorts. Yep, the fear of adolescents everywhere: I was “pantsed.”

Now, to be fair, it didn’t turn into one of those “everyone was pointing at me and laughing hysterically” moments (like the scenario in the classic “I showed up to work and forgot to wear pants” dreams), but I was pretty embarrassed. What early teen wants to reveal their taste in undergarments (boxer briefs if you’re curious) to the surrounding strangers, friends and enemies (specifically girls)? Not me.

Who knows what kind of deep psychological impact that event had on me, but I would guess that it’s events like this that make being vulnerable later in life so difficult. We learn from an early age to hide who we are because if people see it they may reject us. Before we know better how to handle it, things happen to us that expose our awkward and flawed selves, and we spend much time and energy trying to avoid more painful exposure.

But here’s the problem: we aren’t meant to live fake lives. God made us exactly who we are for a reason and he gets glory when we live fully embracing who he made us to be. This idea has really challenged me lately.

One of the staff values at our church is authenticity, and it isn’t one of those “honorary” values that people say but really don’t care about. It’s real. I keep getting told over and over “just be you,” and it has taken a while to sink in. It’s a godly value that is truly upheld and valued.

But old habits die hard. When you’ve spent your entire life trying to adjust your behavior to the expectations of people around you (think “social norms”), how do suddenly find a way to just “be you”? How do you dig deep and find where the real you begins and the fake you ends?

“Be you” means you have to first “see you” and be ok with it. This is probably the hardest part. For me the challenge is trying to understand the why behind the way I am. I want to know why I do what I do and why the heck God decided to make that thing a part of me.

Some of it seems pointless, like “Really God? Couldn’t you give that ‘quality’ to someone else??” But there is power in the acceptance of who God made you to be. When you believe he loves you as you are, you can begin to love others for who they are, instead of rejecting them for being different or liking the people who are like you (or even worse trying to change people to be just like you!).

I don’t have all the answers, and I can tell you that the process isn’t easy and it isn’t quick. When you start to look for them, there are all kinds of opportunities to go a little deeper in your answer, opinion, or encouragement. There will probably always be a slight sense of hesitation when confronted with the invitation to be authentic and vulnerable. The fear is deep-rooted.

But I have found incredible freedom in the invitation of authenticity. Just as I want to really know others, others want to really know me. If God makes each person unique, we miss out on an aspect of God when we fail to know and be known.

If you’re up for a challenge, try inching your way toward letting people see the real you. Or better yet, ask God to help you see yourself and receive his love. It will be the first step in helping you love yourself and others better. It’s an invitation to a better life and richer, deeper relationships.

To Be Hunted

260f7c21241f149e84fc30fc8087e844I’m pretty much a nerd. At best I’m an old soul. I guess that’s why I really enjoy watching the BBC’s many fantastic documentary series’ on animals and nature. Planet Earth and The Human Planet were both incredibly beautiful. Most recently I’ve been watching Life Story, a series focusing on the different phases of life within the animal kingdom.

In one of the episodes, an unsuspecting impala is stalked by two young cheetahs. The impala is exhausted after the weeks of fighting that precede mating season and seeks a moment of repose in a stunningly beautiful patch of trees (imagine the dramatic music starting to build).

In the quintessential stalking scene (which are of course the favorites in nature documentaries) the stealthy cheetahs creep steadily closer to the grazing animal. He picks his head up once or twice to look around but doesn’t seem terribly bothered, not knowing he is in his final moments of life. The cheetahs strike and…well, you know the rest.

I love these shows because they move me to worship. For example, did you know that meerkat colonies have a leadership structure based on those with more wisdom and experience? Or that hermit crabs line up by size and do a “house trade” for bigger shells when a new one washes on the shore? How about an octopus that can use an abandoned coconut shell as a shield against predators? I watch all of these creatures with their complex patterns of survival, leadership and courtship and think “Wow…God designed all that!”

As I was watching the poor impala in his imminent demise, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. He may just be a creature of pure instinct, but I wonder if there was a thought in there somewhere. Did he know he was being hunted? Did he think about the danger that was lurking? Does an animal’s life flash before his eyes in that dramatic chase?

As modern Americans, most of us don’t face the daily reality that we may be killed by hostile predators. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like physically, but the Bible does tell us that we are being hunted by a powerful enemy. 1 Peter 5:8 says “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I don’t know about you, but don’t often live like that is real.

There are seasons, however, when the reality of the prowling lion comes piercing through. You know the lion is real when you’re running for your life. Recently I have felt that spiritual weight in some ordinary situations and some (painfully) unusual ones. To be a Christian is to be hunted. Signing up for God’s work means you have a target on your back.

The good news is twofold: (1) we know we have an enemy so we, unlike an instinct-bound animal, are able to discern when we are being stalked and take the appropriate action; (2) we have a victorious Savior who has already decisively and finally defeated our enemy. Thus we can fight (or sometimes flee) without fear of being completely destroyed.

I guess you never know where God might speak to you, even in a nature documentary. So don’t forget you’re in a fight. Take shelter in the only Hope you have for survival.

 

Warring Desires and Self-Denial

542940737

In the season of Lent, many Christians (myself included) choose to fast from some type of food, drink, or activity as an exercise in spiritual discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Historically in the church, Lent has been a season of preparation for baptism–the final push for catechumenates (Christian converts in training) was a fast that ended in an all-night vigil and a glorious baptism service on Easter morning. Christians who had fallen out of fellowship with God or the church would also fast during Lent and were re-admitted into the fellowship of believers at Easter.

Today many churches don’t usually restrict baptism (or repentance) exclusively to Lent, but it is still a great time to practice self-denial as we prepare for the highlight of Christian celebrations (Resurrection Sunday). These practices have tremendous spiritual benefit. Self-denial helps us remember that Christ is Lord and we are not slaves to anything, especially to those things that we so naturally go to for comfort. We remember that we are weak and that we desperately need the help of God’s Spirit to walk this Christian journey–a power that Christ’s Resurrection has purchased for us. It is an act of war against our flesh, that sly and sticky force within us that wants so desperately to rule our lives.

But this aggression seldom goes unanswered. I find that when I fast, no matter what I fast from, the desires in my heart rebel with great force. This always surprises me (although it shouldn’t). Whether I’m denying myself sweets or television or social media, I invariably start to notice the restlessness of my heart rear its ugly head. I didn’t think I cared so much about the thing I gave up…until I started to say “no” to its beckoning cries. The things that seek to take first place in my heart begin to bare down with white-knuckled desperation. Then I remember I’m fasting…this is Lent…and it all starts to make sense.

This is the nature of many spiritual battles in our lives. We don’t notice them until we are right in the thick of things. Without disciplines like fasting we are all like the frog in the pot, slowly and ignorantly boiling to death in our own desires. When we say no to the things that seek to rule us, we are remembering that Christ actually rules our lives (and the universe). Spiritual disciplines snap us awake and help us see reality.

This is one of the reasons I love worship. Worship orients us to reality, as the psalmist writes about in Psalm 73. He, like so many of us, gets fed up with the (apparent) effortless and consistent success of wicked people (v. 4). The voice of arrogant scoffers is overwhelming at times…especially in an election year. The psalmist almost gets lost in his frustration until he goes into God’s house and sees the truth: they are destroyed in a moment (v. 19) and those who are far from God will perish (v. 27). What was the turning point? Worship. Drawing near to God broke the cycle of bitterness and frustration and helped the psalmist remember that the highest good is to be near to God (v. 28). It doesn’t get any better than that.

So a word of encouragement: If you are (trying to) practice self-denial and are finding some surprising thoughts, desires, or habits rearing their ugly head this Lent season, take heart: Christ has won the battle! Saying no to little gods can be a challenge, but nearness to God is worth the fight.

 

 

Image credit: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/sport-spare-time-boys-at-a-tug-of-war-1933-vintage-property-news-photo/542940737

The Worst Version of Myself

ape_mirror

This past weekend I spent about nine hours under the hood of my car. I received the bad news that my A/C compressor needed to be replaced a month or so ago, and rather than pay the thousand or so bucks they wanted to do the repair, I decided I would buy the parts and do it myself to save a little money. People do crazy things to save a little money.

Summers here are hot, so I knew I couldn’t just go the old 4/70 route like I used to (that’s when your A/C system is four windows down, driving seventy down the road). Never having done this repair before I did as much prep as I could and didn’t really expect it to take too long. After all, the instruction manual had all the steps laid out right there in front of me, and they looked simple enough (If you’ve ever done a major repair on your car, you know that it doesn’t take long before you want to hunt down the people who wrote the manual for mocking your pain while insulting your intelligence.).

Things were going smooth until the first hiccup. Then the second, and then the third, and so on. All tolled I had to go out to the store five times for parts or tools, sometimes getting home only to turn right around and go back. That’s ten or fifteen minutes each way, so I spent at least an hour driving instead of working. I’ve had similar scenarios with home improvement projects. No, I can’t do it, and you’re really not that much help. I’m sure the auto parts store guys thought I was an idiot. We were basically on a first name basis by the end of it.

But actually I felt like an idiot, but not because I struggled to get it done. I was very quickly reminded how bad my temper is when things don’t go my way. I mean, it was bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to hear the things I was saying (and thinking) while I was in a tight squeeze or couldn’t figure out how to get to the next step. Anger (or rage?) rose up in me so quick I didn’t know what hit me, and that was surprising and disturbing. Suddenly there wasn’t much love, joy, or peace, and definitely no patience.

Here’s what bothered me: I don’t know if I was more disappointed or surprised. I’ve been following Jesus for some time now and I thought I would be better at handling a challenge like this. I expected at least some fruit to show up. Have you ever thought that? You react to something in a way that is so unlike Christ that you think, “Have I been paying attention at all…to anything??” This isn’t just true in a difficult project like a car repair for a quasi-mechanic, but in every area of life. I sometimes look around at my lack of ability to control my appetites, my desires, or my reactions and I have to be honest, I get a little discouraged that I haven’t been transformed a little more into Christ’s image.

As I’ve been reflecting about it though, I think I’ve only been seeing half the story when it comes to maturity. I have been thinking that as I mature as a Christian, God’s work in my life would change me as a person so that I become fundamentally different, who I am gets changed from jerk to non-jerk. In this line of thinking, the assumption is that more you walk with God and learn his ways the better your choices will be and the less likely you will be to react with rage when you don’t get your way. Makes sense, right?

Well, this view of maturity may be true to some extent, but it’s only half the story. There are other things at play. No matter how “mature” you think you are, you always reap what you sow. So if you’re not sowing to the Spirit like Paul says in Romans 8, you won’t get spiritual results when difficult times come. Doesn’t matter if that difficulty is disease or a long line at the grocery store.

I don’t think Christian growth works the same as physical growth. In physical growth, or the development of a person, you come into the world as the most dependent of all humans and your job is to grow to become more independent. Feed yourself, dress yourself, earn money etc. I would say that in Christian maturity it is actually the opposite. We come to God as rebellious children, desiring nothing more than our own independence and freedom. As we grow with him, our job is to become more and more dependent on him and less likely to depend on ourselves to make it all work.

That’s where I go wrong. I tend to assume that since I’ve been “in the game” for a while, I can make it happen on my own. I stop sowing because I assume I don’t have to. But walking with God is more about abiding that adapting. God’s plan is not to have me walk with him just long enough for me to learn how to do it without him. I’m not supposed to be an apprentice of Christ I am a disciple, and there’s a big difference. An apprentice learns from the master just long enough to strike out on his own and become a master himself. Apply this to God and it’s pretty ridiculous. Even if I could grow to the point that I didn’t need God’s help anymore, what happens after that? There is no other outcome other than I become my own god. Since I know that isn’t the plan, I have to go back to the fact that dependence is primary. I never outgrow my need for him.

Jesus said “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit.” If I find myself reacting to life’s circumstances in a less-than-Jesus-like way, it’s probably because I am not abiding in him. And if I’m not abiding, I shouldn’t be surprised when the fruit I get is nasty. For me and my sinful self, nasty is natural. I have to plug in to the source of the good stuff if I want to see it working in my life.

The crazy part is that God already sees the ugly side of me, and that’s the side he loves. It’s beyond incredible. The older I get the more I realize that God’s grace is the only thing that makes me different from the worst version of myself. It really doesn’t matter how long I have been doing this, in fact that thinking will probably get you into trouble really quick. Walking in the Spirit requires a constant awareness to where the Spirit is leading, and left to my own devices I go quickly (and embarrassingly) off the deep end. Even though I keep trying to make that terrible person better, at the end of the day I can’t win. Only Jesus can, and has, won that battle to make me something completely different in him. All I have to do is learn to stay right there where it’s his power and not mine.

 

My Thanks for Three of the Best Lessons I’ve Learned

Taking-your-family-history

Do you ever just feel grateful? I think that gratitude is oxygen for the soul, similar to the effect a timely word of encouragement has on you when you’re feeling spent. Seriously, give it a try. “Count your blessings” is only cheesy because we don’t do it. When we do, we realize it actually works. God designed us to depend on one another and function in community, learning things about him and about ourselves through our relationships.

Today I was thinking about how thankful I am to be where I am doing what I do. But none of us got to where we are without a little help from people who cared enough to invest in our lives. I am, like you, indebted to many dear friends for some valuable lessons that were likely hard to learn but are now a part of who I am. Here are three.

First, I want to thank my dear friend John for teaching me to be a problem solver. “Don’t stay in the problem, stay in the solution” is what he drove into my skull over and over again. It took a while to sink in, but now I know a little bit more of what it means to take action, to move things, to get out there and DO SOMETHING to move things forward. “You can’t think your way into good living, you can only live your way into good thinking.” This wisdom has become a priceless to me.

Second, I want to thank my friend Jason for teaching me to have the hard conversation no matter how difficult, awkward, or otherwise intimidating it might be. I haven’t known many people who are better at this than Jason. I have seen him handle awkwardness, difficulty, challenge, busyness, and what would otherwise be extremely stressful scenarios in every area of life with poise, wisdom and determination. I’m hoping some of that got transferred to me from being around him.

Third, I want to thank my friend Robert for pushing me to set goals and step out and risk. You can’t always know everything about where you’re going or what you’re going to do without starting. I can say with confidence I wouldn’t be where I am today without the pushing and prodding I’ve gotten from this wise mentor. Sometimes you just have to begin, and that releases the knowledge, resources and motivation that you need to accomplish your goal. What a gift it is to have friends who will challenge you.

 

There are many others. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my high school English teacher or Dr. Young from my freshman year of college history class. Not to mention the countless authors who feel like they are my lifelong friends and teachers. It helps me to think about them often, to remember their faces and their names and what they did that made such a mark on my life.

Who are your people? What did they teach you? Let me encourage you to make a habit of being grateful. And if you really want to bless the people who have marked your life, share your gratitude with them in a thoughtful way. It’s the kind of habit that binds us together as a people who need each other. And it’s how God made us to be.

No One Cleans the Back of the Store

b7c8e5cc5b8084d381dc8a1f52f05429

Every morning on my drive to work I take a side road that cuts behind a strip mall. Looking to the left I get a view of the back of a line of stores and restaurants that I’m sure look quite nice out front (in fact I know they do). The back view of these places…not so much.

Isn’t it interesting how much effort can be put into making the storefront look great and yet the back door gets neglected? Judging by many places I see, not many people think that what’s out back is important. There are usually mops, garbage, grease traps and goodness knows what else. It’s where employees can go to escape the madness for a quick smoke or some fresh air (is it really fresh?) and it’s where everything but the customer goes in and out. I know this much: it’s not a place I’d like to hang out.

Not many people care about this view, but your stewardship of both the showroom and the alley make statements about you.
How you handle the small stuff is a pretty good indicator of how you handle the big stuff.

I once heard a story of a corporate CEO interviewing a man who would be a high level executive in the company. This man had a great reputation and all the right credentials. This lunch was supposed to be a mere formality. He held the interview over lunch in the building’s cafeteria, the kind where you pick all your food up and pay at a register. The CEO noticed that his interviewee was about to pay and pushed a thirty-cent pad of butter under his napkin to avoid paying for it. As much as it didn’t make sense that this guy would cut a little corner like that, he didn’t give him the job. What you do with thirty cents says a lot about you.

The way we handle what nobody sees might just say more about us than the way we “present” the parts that everyone is supposed to be impressed by. When I am looking for a shop to get my car repaired, I don’t just care about your credentials or time doing business, I care how clean you keep your shop. When I go to a restaurant the first thing I experience isn’t the food (which might be great) but the look, feel, and smell when I walk through the front door. And yes, even the cleanliness of your car makes a statement about your life.

It’s kind of like getting up in the morning. Sure, the snooze is only 6 minutes, but that small delay in my day will cost me big. If the first decision I’m making is to put myself behind schedule, I fighting against what I need to win the day.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, just remember that it matters.

The Passive Pop-Culture Male

1280x1024

I’m going to divert briefly from the typical format of theological reflection so I can rant a little bit on something I’ve had in my craw for sometime. Don’t be scared.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy listening to country music now and then. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to anything resembling country, but alas times have changed. I enjoy (some artists’) country music because it tends to be heartfelt, nostalgic, and story based. I like a good story, and I like celebrating the ordinary, everyday things in life that give you joy.

In some of the recent songs I have noticed a trend that’s a little troubling (although not really surprising). There seems to be a rise in songs that celebrate men who want a woman to sweep in and lead them, call all the shots, and basically initiate all aspects of the relationship. I won’t give any examples but maybe you’ve heard one or two of these radio hits. Even though these relationships are typically shallow and superficial, this is a troubling shift because it represents an issue that I see spiraling out of control in the wider culture, something I like to call “baby-man syndrome.”

 

You know you’re getting older when you start looking at the teenagers around you and think “man, they don’t know how good they have it!” This isn’t quite the “back in my day we walked barefoot in the snow” sentiment of yesteryear, but you may be able to relate to your crazy uncle a little better as you age and take a look around. The teens of today are smartphone carrying, new car “owning” wannabe adults, oftentimes with an attitude. All the rights and privileges of adult life are handed to these humans without the mental or emotional capacity to handle them properly. This false sense of maturity is ironic because as a nation we see the age of  “growing up” is getting older and older. Kids staying home with mom and dad well into their thirties, unable (or unwilling?) to get jobs, many expecting to have an upper middle-class lifestyle handed to them without doing the work. This plays right into the man in the songs.

I’m not trying to pick on these artists. As I said, the songs only highlight the underlying problem. See, men who want nothing more than for a woman to come in and take them by the hand and sweep them away into some pseudo-romantic sexual fantasy are doing just that–living in a fantasy. These songs make it sound so magical and romantic, but in reality it sounds a lot like a celebration of laziness. I wonder if women are listening to these messages and thinking, “Mmm, that sounds great! I’d love to do all the work!” If I had to guess, I’d say no way. You can call me old fashioned if you want, but I just don’t think that God designed us that way.

My understanding of how God made men is that we are to be leaders. We carry responsibility to make decisions, set vision, be the protectors and leaders of our families. We do the hard things in order to be servants to the ones we love. My (limited) understanding of women is that they want to be led by the right kind of man, to be treasured, loved, and chased. When women do too much of the chasing you sir are in big trouble. This doesn’t mean that men have license to oppress or take advantage or are somehow better than women. But we have a big responsibility to love like Christ loved, which as we know means to give it everything.

Now I don’t plan to boycott the radio or start listening to only instrumental elevator music. I just think it might be helpful for some of us to be aware of the subtle messages that are coming our way and could affect our worldview. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that waiting around for someone else to do all the work for you is a good idea. It’s not.

It doesn’t matter if you are single or married, take my advice: man up and lead. Take that girl on a journey that assures her that you’ve got her best in mind, that you want her and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win her heart. Then do that over and over again. And please, somebody out there write some songs about being a godly leader. You can still talk about trucks, beer, fields of corn and all the rest if you want, but there’s a lot of people out there who need to know that it’s still ok for a guy to chase a girl. That might just be a little bit closer to what God intended.

 

 

Swallowed-up Salvation

jonah_by_henryz-d390e3mRecently I was reading my daughter a bedtime story and came across something I hadn’t really thought about before. And yes, bedtime stories are awesome.

Of course most of us know this story: Jonah and the “big fish.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to take sides in the “Whale vs. Great Fish” debate. I’m not really sure that matters. But what does matter is that God used something that Jonah thought was surely his demise to save him.

Let’s review the story: God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach a message of repentance. Now, Ninevah isn’t exactly Disneyland. It’s a rough place known for it’s rampant sin and debauchery. Jonah didn’t exactly jump with excitement at the idea of going to Ninevah and calling these people out in their sin. Who knows what may happen to him? So he did what many of us would probably do: he ran away.

Ever done that? Sensed God calling you one way and head (quickly) in the opposite direction? Yeah, that never happens to me either…

So on the way to Tarshish (the opposite direction as Ninevah), a really nasty storm pops up and the good ship and crew are in peril. The crew starts to throw cargo over the side to lighten the load. Jonah is (amazingly) sleeping during this whole thing, until he’s awaked by the ship’s captain asking him to pray to his “god” to calm the storm and save them (apparently these weren’t all good, God-fearing men on board…plus they were desperate so prayers to any god would do).

The men casts lots (Kinda like rolling dice to find out something about someone. Isn’t that weird? It seems to happen a lot in the Bible…and it usually works! Go figure…) and they determine that Jonah is the one causing the turmoil. He tells them if they throw him overboard the storm will stop and they will be saved. At first they don’t buy it. But after all their efforts have failed, they pray a quick “God forgive us” and throw ol’ Jonah into the violent sea. Immediately the waves subside and the storm stops. (Side note: the passage implies that these guys fear God after this incident, and who wouldn’t? Imagine throwing a guy into the water and the giant wave pool just shuts down. That’d get my attention.)

Now here’s where the story gets interesting. The next verse says “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). I just love how matter-of-fact that is. Yeah, no big deal, just hanging in the belly of a fish…for three days and three nights. But just take a second and think about what must have been going through Jonah’s head.

He had just walked the plank off the side of a ship into a giant sea-sized jacuzzi. He’s gotta be thinking, “Well, now I’ve done it. I disobeyed God and now I’m going to die.” And I’m sure his assessment of the situation didn’t change much when a HUGE fish swallows him whole. At that point he’s thinking it’s over for sure. (Ever thought that? “I’ve messed up one too many times. Now I’m done for.” Not so with God.)

But what does the verse tell us? It tells us that God provided a great fish to swallow him. The thing that he thought was his death sentence was the saving hand of a loving (and patient) God. Not only was this dark fish belly a great place for Jonah to do some thinking and praying (which is what led him to the sequel: Call to Ninevah: Part 2 – and this time he got the point and said yes to God), but it may have been the only way he could have made it back to shore safely. I’m guessing Jonah didn’t do much long-distance swimming before he made the trip.

So the insight is this: Sometimes the things we think are the end are just the beginning. The things we’re sure will kill us can end up saving us. The darkness we face, the things that are cramped, smelly, and a little bit scary, end up being the things we needed most. Sure it’s cheesy, but God is interested in our growth more than our comfort. And fish-belly doesn’t sound very comfortable (Unless Jonah could speak whale).

So take heart if you’re in a tough spot. Hold on to what you know is true of God. He is providing a way to save you in ways you may not understand.

 

The Danger of Figurative Faith

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 43 verse 2, it says this:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Now most Christians read these words and are encouraged by them, despite having little actual experience with rivers, fires, or floods. But we get it, right? It doesn’t have to be actual fire. The “fires” are the difficulties we face with our boss at work, or the problems in our personal struggle with sin…right? Well…yes that’s right. But if we aren’t careful, the “translation” that we have to do with verses like this can be a little misleading.

I think most of us understand verses like this to be applicable to our lives in a figurative sense, not a literal one. We let the words roll of our tongue without really weighing what they mean. But it would be wise to be careful here or we may forget that figurative isn’t the same as fake. The “figurative” realities of scripture are as real as the screen you’re reading this on. Maybe even more real…

There’s a popular song that many churches are singing right now by Hillsong United called “Oceans.” It’s a beautiful song that speaks of the way that God leads us out to walk on the waters and trust in him. Many people (myself included) sing this song at the top of their lungs with hands lifted high. But this beautiful metaphor falls under the same category of the passage from Isaiah. If we aren’t careful we may be guilty of treating the truth casually.

So let’s think about this: what does it really mean to ask God to call you to step out in faith, to walk where your own feet would fail? Remember Peter? Do you think it wasn’t scary when Jesus called him to step out of the boat and walk on the stormy water?
I imagine it was terrifying! And yet in our minds we tend to think only about how cool it would have been to defy the laws of physics.

Or what does it mean to pass through the water and the fire? Does that sound fun to you? Deep water has always frightened me, and fire that isn’t in a fireplace has a will of its own. I don’t think I’d enjoy passing through either. How many of us take risks like that on purpose, and what’s more, how many of us actually trust that God will carry us through? That takes more than understanding or agreeing with a metaphor.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I have been guilty of praying prayers like “God please grow my faith” and of singing songs like “Oceans” without really knowing what I’m asking for. I have this disease which makes me incredibly envious of people who have gone through hard things (people with a Ph.D, brain cancer survivors, olympic athletes) because of the benefits that they enjoy. It takes me a minute to stop and consider that those benefits cost them dearly.

Am I willing to pay that same price in order to reap the benefits?

Most of the time the answer is no, I’m just looking for my free “go-to-the-front-of-the-line-without-doing-the-work” pass.

Sometimes we tend to think that everything will be pleasant and easy because we confuse God’s love for us with nothing being hard. But that’s simply the wrong way to think. That reasoning will lead us to immediately question God’s love when things go wrong.
Did you notice that the verse says “the fire shall not consume you”? That doesn’t mean it won’t be scary as heck.

So maybe you are in the fire. Fire takes on many forms, and the Bible is very clear that it proves our character and the quality of our kingdom work (1 Cor. 3:13). Maybe you’re in the flood, barely able to keep your head above water. But if you’ve sung “Oceans” and meant it, just know that the fire is what you’ve asked for, because by the fire your faith is grown. You can’t learn to swim in the kiddie pool.

There’s another song that I love by a girl named Ginny Owens called “If You Want Me To.” One of the lines that sticks with me is

“You never said it would be easy,
You only said I’d never go alone.”

That’s the source of our comfort. Life isn’t always easy, but God is always with us.
You can take that to the bank:

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

– Jesus

Don’t Let “Can’t” Ruin Christmas

The way I see it, there are two ways to look at it:

“Christmas is ONLY seven days away.”

                     Or,

“Christmas is STILL seven days away.”

As much as I hate holiday traffic and won’t set foot in a mall between Thanksgiving and December 25th if I can help it (and I stand by that), I recently realized something that I need to confess. I’ve had a pretty “Grinchy” attitude toward Christmas, especially when it comes to giving gifts. When December rolls around, my first thought is not excitement at the thought of giving wonderful presents to the ones I love that will bring joy to their hearts. My first thought is, “Dangit, more money to spend!”

Yeah. Bah humbug. 

But let’s think this through for a second. Who really has piles of money lying around that they can’t wait to throw onto other people, and some out of pure obligation, just because it’s a certain time of year? ANYBODY with ANY money can think of a hundred ways to spend it…and most of the time that doesn’t include buying a tie for Uncle Harry or socks for your cousin Frank. I don’t think Christmas generosity is convenient for anyone. 

But isn’t that the point? Christmas is about the gift of Jesus. When you read the story, NONE of it was convenient! In fact it was EXTREMELY inconvenient. Everyone involved, Mary, Joseph, God himself, went WAY out of their way to make this all happen. But the gift was still worth giving, precisely because it cost something to give. When I think about it that way, it makes me want to put a little more effort into making Christmas special by embracing the inconvenience in order to bless others. 

Jesus said that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Instead of thinking about what you can’t do this Christmas, why not think about what you can? It’s not too late to get a little giddy, to brave the crowds and pick out a little something special for a special someone. I think you’ll be glad you did.