Lookout Points

One door closes and another opens. The way is always forward not backward even if it seems like I moved to the side. That being said, there are moments when the way provides lookout points to assess where I’ve been and where I’m headed. I have come to view these lookout moments as pauses or breaks in the action. The hustle and bustle of life has a way of swallowing them up. When the way provides breaks in the action, wisdom demands that I respond in kind. It’s so very important to recognize where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.

I’m not suggesting that introspection is the ticket. Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit, but my gut tells me that there’s a difference between introspection and reflection. The former requires that I look inward for the answer while the latter searches outward. The tagline to The X-Files show has some basis in reality: “the truth is out there.” When I scan the horizon at this current lookout point, what do I see? One thing I realize is that my view seems partially obstructed by my finite condition. Some of the path is perceptible, but some of it isn’t. When I glance behind me, the view is clear. I see the dark and shadowy patches as well as the lush ones and those moments that were somewhere in the middle.

Now, the way forward seems more or less visible to the naked eye; however, I can’t help noticing that I’m looking for higher ground in order to get a better view. From where I stand, I see what I am able to see. I want to see more, to know more. Way off in the distance, I see the final destination. It’s a glorious sight, and my heart yearns for it. There’s still much more of the journey that remains. I know that as I keep moving forward, the moments between here and there become clearer. Each step requires faith in my Lord because this fuels hope and perseverance during the rough and tumble moments. Faith is also the sight needed for perceiving people, places, and things along the way. Without it, I’m a blind man ambling along the way oblivious to moments of blessing and danger.

Not only does faith in Jesus give me sight, but his word lights up the way that I walk (Psalm 119:105). What I find ironic about this is that the journey is real and takes place on this physical earth; however, the only way that I can truly navigate it requires that I have spiritual or unseen things in my possession like faith in him and the indwelling presence of his Spirit. Both of these grant me the ability to make sense of his word in order to apply it to my life. If I don’t have faith in Christ and the indwelling presence of his Spirit, I’m a blind man on the way. It doesn’t matter how clear the path is, or how bright and sunny the weather is, a blind man is blind. It was a wonderfully, gracious and merciful act on the Lord’s part to enable me to see. The journey demands it.

Advertisements

From My Youth

For the sake of disclosure, I am not a father of a son or daughter.  My time will come, but at the present time, I do not have any children of my own.  Do I fully understand what my siblings and relatives and friends deal with on a daily basis with their children?  It is not as if I can exchange knowing glances with any of them about potty training little Johnny or Lucy.  There are some things that I will need to experience firsthand in order to grasp in a fuller way the weight of fathering a child.  This is not to suggest that I cannot empathize with the struggles and hair-pulling circumstances faced by my siblings, relatives, and friends.

Here is an example of what I mean.  I have zero experience raising a child who later rebels against everything I taught him or her.  What I do have some experience with has to do with rebelling against authority figures.  When I attended middle school, I warred against my teachers.  I talked back to them, refused to follow directions, and basically acted like a little stinker.  Needless to say, my behavior lead to many after-school detentions.  During these middle school years, the Lord took hold of my life in a profound way.  I repented of my sin, professed faith in him as Lord, and followed him in believer’s baptism.  Little by little, my defiant or rebellious spirit began to lessen over time.

My experience is rare for a twelve year old.  Most adolescents continue in their rebellion throughout high school and into their early twenties.  Some turn the corner, but many remain steadfast until the end.  It seems to me that fathers and mothers need to spend many hours on their knees before the Lord.  It was the Spirit of God who reined in my heart and soul.  If the Lord had not plucked me out of my rebellion at twelve, I would be on a very different trajectory.  I still have memories of friends and acquaintances from middle and high school who took sharp left turns toward shaky living.

During my teen years, I remember becoming more aware of the differences between my peers and me.  No matter how awkward or imperfect I was in following Jesus, I kept seeing how he preserved my life from life-altering choices.  My friends and I bonded because of our shared experience with living in a fractured home.  I cannot explain what lead me to run to the Lord while my friends ran away from him.  It had nothing to do with being smarter, being wiser, attending church, you name it.  In fact, the youth group that I attended and the surrounding church culture actually made it harder to follow Christ.

Divorce was a bad word twenty-six years ago within certain Evangelical streams of the church.  This brought with it a stigma much like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.  Because my two brothers and I came from a divorced home, this put us at odds with our peers.  There was pure nastiness taking place between the church leaders and my parents.  Those church leaders had kids who attended the same youth group as my brothers and me.  Please excuse my language, but like my dad used to say, “crap flows downstream.”  Both of my younger brothers hated the youth group, and they stopped going as soon as they could.  I understood their decision, but I knew that I went to the youth group because of the Lord rather than my peers.

Where did I get the will to behave like that let alone the idea?  Again, I see this as insurmountable evidence of my genuine conversion by the Spirit of God.  There was a moment where I made a decision for Christ as the saying goes; however, an objective, third party would struggle long and hard to find any compelling reasons for the choice that I made at twelve.  If I had written out a list of pros and cons with respect to following Christ, the latter column would have won out by a wide margin.  My background was no different than that of my friends.  I did have an inner desire to obey the Lord, read my bible, and live it out.  Frankly, I attribute all of that to the Lord.  His fingerprints are all over my salvation.

Two verses come to mind as I end this piece.  They capture the essence of my youth to a tee:

“O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds” (Psalm 71:17, ESV).

“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Psalm 119:67, ESV). 

Leave it to the Psalms to contain pithy statements.

My Tears in Your Book

All around me I see men and women going about their lives without a care in the world.  The afterlife does not trouble them neither does their before-life or even their present life.  None of it really occupies their minds in such a way as to live better.  If there is any goal, then it might be fulfilling a dream, or securing exhilaration moment by moment.  Truth be told, there are some who succumb to despair and then suicide.  The late Robin Williams comes to mind, which refutes the opening sentence to this paragraph.  What this means is that one cannot judge a book by its cover.  It is superficial and harmful as it ruptures any sense of connection or community with others.

Five years ago, I struggled mightily with my purpose or direction in life.  The path lacked clear definition and solidity.  It seemed like the fog refused to go away no matter how bright the sun shone down upon me.  I longed for clarity, for a greater sense of knowing where I was going.  What I ached for was the very thing that eluded me.  It was similar to catching a fish with my bare hands.  The prize kept slipping out of my hands.  Anger turned into frustration, which morphed into exasperation.  Whenever I saw a hamster running on a wheel I understood its predicament.  Here is a bible verse that comes to mind:

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a, ESV, NIV, & NKJV).

This text was both infuriating and soothing.  It convicted me in the midst of circumstances that defied my ability to understand or to perceive them with certainty.  The plain meaning of this passage put me in my place.  Because I am strong-willed, this was not what I wanted to experience.  It came off like an insult to my intelligence as if I needed turn a blind eye to reality.  Anger surfaced with ease as did my invective toward the Lord.  My counselor at the time kicked me in the butt about suppressing my anger.  He reminded me that Job vented his anger and aching heart toward God.  When I listened to my counselor say this to me, I heard it as a challenge; however, the Lord changed my heart to see it as an invitation to come into his presence with the good, the bad, and most importantly, the ugly.

I sat on Psalm 46:10 for a bit.  It kept popping up into my mind and heart everywhere I went.  One day I opened up the above verse in the NIV and NASB translations.  I noticed that the latter rendered the first half of the verse as “cease striving” rather than be still.  This caused me to scratch my head, so I grabbed my Strong’s Concordance in order to find out the Hebrew word or wording for “cease striving” and “be still.”  What I discovered brought comfort to my heart and soul.  The Hebrew verb translated as cease striving in the NASB or be still in most English translations means to leave off your own attempts.  Basically, stop being like a hamster in a wheel, i.e. running around and getting nowhere in the process.

If I truly desired to see real change and growth in my life, I needed to stop living life my way and begin living it God’s way.  The only way that I could do this with any degree of success meant opening up myself to the Lord with honesty.  Rather than bury my feelings deep down, the path before me required that I express them to the Lord.  I began realizing day by day that he wanted to hear me give voice to my heart’s longings, fears, joys, and concerns.  It was an invitation into a fuller and more intimate relationship with the Lord.  Through my church community, my counselor, my mentor, and my time with God and his word, the Holy Spirit began leading and empowering me along this path to cease my striving and know that he is God.

Each day was its own battle.  In fact, each hour or minute or second was its own battle.  Years of thinking and doing one way no longer worked anymore; however, that did not stop me from slipping back into what was second nature to me.  This entire season had been a test of my faith and trust in God.  I needed my Lord’s daily bread for sustenance and energy as I kept taking each step (Proverbs 30:8, NIV).  Some days I felt up, or down, or in, or out.  I experienced the whole gamut of emotions, yet I noticed an increasing assurance that God was with me.  I wanted to put some of this down in writing, so that I would not forget God’s grace and mercy toward me.

Something I had read two weeks ago spurred me into action.  During my daily bible reading, I stumbled over the following passage: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your book” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)?  This verse comforted me as it illustrates that my Lord and Father knows and sees everything that I experience.  For whatever the reason, I recalled this season of my life that became the subject of this post.  I did not have to collect my thoughts in order to preserve them.  According to this verse, God already tucked away this whole entire season of my life into his book.  He had beaten me to the punch, and I did not even know it.  When I realized this fact, I sat there motionless.  I’m still sitting motionless.             

 

From 35,000 Feet Up

There is a first time for everything.  I like that saying.  It rings true at the moment as I’m writing this post from an airplane in excess of 30,000 feet.  This is one of the perks of being married to a working professional.  I realize that sounds highly reductionistic, but it’s true.  My wife is a business woman at the top of her game, and I reap the benefits as her husband.  It costs money to use the internet on flights, but my wife had a promotional code in order to waive the cost.  I could say that I’m fortunate, but what about blessed?

Once again, I know that previous statement crosses the line into ridiculousness.  Let me just say that I’ve learned quite a bit about traveling and airports from my wife.  Gone are the days of using paper boarding passes.  I have the airline apps to Delta, United, and American, and checkin online while using my iPhone to scan the electronic boarding pass.  In Disney’s Aladdin, Princess Jasmine and Aladdin sing the classic tune, “A Whole New World,” as they enjoy the sights and sounds high above on a magic carpet.  It’s a romantic song underscoring a romantic sequence.

Here is the connection between the song and my life.  Marriage to my wife has thrust me into a whole new world.  I’m soaring on great heights enjoying fabulous sights and sounds from a vantage point totally foreign to me fifteen to twenty months ago.  When I saw her at the birthday party in March of 2013, I only pictured a potential date and nothing more.  I had been on so many first dates that I lost count.  My current wife could have been another statistic.  Instead, she is my partner for life, who knows a thing or two about life and airline travel.  I am blessed, but it humbles me, too.

I know that I made a conscious choice to strike up a conversation with my wife at the birthday party.  I engaged my will to keep dating her and then take things to the next level.  Those are very real decisions that I made after praying through them.  Somehow I cannot quite escape an inner knowing that God guided me to my wife.  He was behind my will to choose my wife.  He opened my heart and eyes to see  and receive her.  God brought her to me the same way he brought Eve to Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2:22b, ESV).  It is amazing that such goodness and blessing has been possible in a fallen world.

Again, it causes me to stop and think.  In the midst of a sin cursed world, life and beauty and love spring into being.  Thorns and thistles continue to grow, but only for a time (Gen. 3:18; cf Roman 8:21, ESV).  My marriage is evidence that the kingdom of God has broken into this world.  The Spirit of God has formed my marriage, and it is my hope and prayer that I allow him to sustain it.  There are things I am to do as a husband; however, I am to do them by the power of the Spirit.  This means surrendering to God and his word.  He has the answers, the wisdom, the know-how.

Before I sign off, there is one more thing that I want to add.  Marriage has given me new insight.  It has softened some rough edges, but more remain.  Humility has been a constant theme.  I have needed to rely on God, his Spirit, and his word more than ever.  It is crucial for me to recognize where God is, who he is, and my place in relation to him.  I will end with these words from the prophet Isaiah: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in a high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite'” (Isaiah 57:15, ESV).  

The Journey into Life

This past weekend, I participated on the ministry team for a discipleship retreat run by Cleansing Stream Ministries (CSM).  If this peaks anyone’s interest, then click here to learn more about this ministry.  One of the things that I have seen in my own life is the absolute necessity to take the Lord at his word.  Jesus said a myriad of times throughout his earthly ministry that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  He demonstrated  this by his very presence, by his teaching, and by his works or demonstrations of his power and authority.  When Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV).  These two forlorn disciples encountered Jesus, who rebuked them for being slow to believe in his word and in himself.  The wonderful thing about the Lord is he meets these disciples in that place of despair, but he does not leave them in that condition.  By opening their eyes to how all of Scripture points to him, Jesus builds their faith and emboldens them for a life of testifying about him and his word (Luke 24:30-32, ESV).

There is a journey depicted by these two disciples, which mirrors my own.  Despite different circumstances, I have found myself at one time or another in despair or forlorn over my condition like those disciples on the road to Emmaus.  I had high hopes for what the Lord said in his word about himself and new life in him; however, the reality told a much different story.  The other possibility is that my perception of reality was off.  At times, there is a mix of incorrectly interpreting my experiences and what the Lord says about them, which may spin me in a thousand different directions.  This seems to be a systemic condition of mankind since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.  A lie entered into reality, which caused doubts about the truth and the one who is truth’s source.  Shame and fear take hold of me like the first man and woman.  I run around attempting to make things right, but nothing works…The indicator light to the gas tank flashes empty, but I still keep going.  Does that make any sense?

The obvious answer to that previous question is a resounding no.  Running on empty never makes sense, so what is the reason for doing it?  On some level, I have perceived rightly that something is off or amiss about me.  The problem seems to be my response to the recognition of something wrong.  Rather than admitting it to God and trusted friends, I cover things up like Adam and Eve.  I seek out people, places, and things in order to hide or conceal what I have seen that is unpleasant within me or about me.  Instead of taking time to pause or stop, I keep going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny except my tank is empty.  How long can I keep this up?  I may even realize at times that I must stop, but I will not or cannot.  There are numerous factors that come into play here such as false expressions of fear, guilt, and shame.  May I submit to my readers and followers that those three bugaboos mask the root, which I believe to be pride or an unwillingness to admit that I have a problem.

I believe that there are right expressions of fear, guilt, and shame; however, most of the time those wind up twisted into the false ways so quickly that it is hard to ever conceive of fear, guilt, and shame serving a good purpose.  The book of Proverbs says in multiple places that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  If fear was always a negative emotion, then there is no way to ever understand what the author of Proverbs maybe driving at with that statement.  Guilt has a tendency to cut both ways like shame.  There is an aspect of guilt, which is necessary for producing genuine confession and repentance over one’s actions.  The apostle Paul speaks of a Godly sorrow that leads to repentance.  This particular passage reveals how good guilt and good shame work together.  Good guilt acknowledges that I have done something wrong, and good shame expresses genuine sorrow for the pain and separation that it has caused between God and me and others.

What I mean by this is that shame exists in two forms: the good kind and the harmful kind.  From my personal experience, I found the latter to be all too common in my life and in the lives of men and women throughout the world.  It is my personal belief that the presence of negative shame within all people regardless of race, age, tongue, tribe, you name it, gives tremendous support to the historical, objective fact of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the garden.  I do not know how else to explain the prevalence of such an universally transcendent emotion, which any person is able to understand in spite of language and cultural differences.  Harmful shame blocks life from entering the person because he or she believes oneself to be inherently unworthy of it.  Bad shame is an insidious emotional state, which fuels all addictive behaviors.  If I believe that I am a bad person or unworthy of God’s life-giving touch and presence, then there is no reason to pursue life in Christ to better my condition.

Before I wrap this up, I want to expand upon the notion of shame having a good or beneficial aspect to it.  This may already cause some to think that I am off base or confused.  Allow me to walk us through some passages in both the Old and New Testaments.  In the sixth chapter of Jeremiah and the fifteenth verse, the prophet proclaims God’s word of judgment upon Jerusalem because its people committed sinful acts without any shame over them being wrong in the Lord’s presence.  This was such an important point for the Lord to convey to his people that he had Jeremiah repeat this word again in the eighth chapter and twelfth verse.  Jumping over to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to avoid sinful acts and speaking about them because the latter is shameful (Ephesians 5:12, ESV).  If participating in sin without shame is wrong from God’s eyes in the Old Testament, then the bar winds up being raised even higher in the New Testament with the prohibition against repeating the sinful acts taking place inside and outside the church.

Sin is sin.  It defiles, it separates, and it leads to death apart from Christ.  A right understanding of sin and its consequences only comes through the gracious saving work and presence of the Holy Spirit.  He redeems the ability of his people to express fear, guilt, and shame in ways that honor the Lord, others and oneself.  The redemptive aspect to shame enables God’s people to recognize the impact that their sin has had upon God, others, and themselves.  When it comes to guilt, the good aspect of it enables the believer to acknowledge that a wrong has been committed and it needs to be made right.  Lastly, fear of the Lord provides a necessary, internal check within God’s people that allows them to see sin’s consequences from their Lord’s perspective.  It is not a laughing matter.  Many sons and daughters of the King experienced his redemption from bad fear, guilt and shame for the first time at the CSM retreat this past weekend. For many, the journey into life has begun in earnest for the first time.  Now, the truth of walking by faith and not by sight will be put to the test.  O Lord, preserve them like the apple of your eye.

 

Progress Along the Way

Please forgive the following indulgent, hypothetical dialogue to illustrate something important:

“Have you arrived?”

“Yes, I arrived into town yesterday, but it was a bumpy flight.”

“No, no, what I mean to say is have you arrived in your personal and professional goals with respect to maturity?”

“Well, because you phrase it in those terms, I must answer no. I’m still on the way, but I’m closer than I was last year. I’ll be closer still next year.”

Over the last decade, I have immersed myself off and on in the realm of inner healing ministry. In fact, Desert Stream Ministries (www.desertstream.org) has been a key avenue of transformation and ministry, especially its Living Waters program. This was not my first choice, but I came to the conclusion that Living Waters was the wisest choice.

One of the things I remember constantly from the leaders in Livng Waters was their reminder that everyone is in process. There is a human tendency to check things off of a list, which means that I am done. I discovered pretty quick that there are levels to my sin and brokenness, which means that the sanctification process (or inner healing) will occur in stages. What is wrong with me will not be fixed all at once.

Because the sanctifying work of the word and the Spirit focuses on the soul’s condition, there will be seasons that appear to be covering the same ground. It is in those seasons where I bellow out, “I thought I dealt with this blasted stuff three years ago, or four or five.” It is in those moments that I recall the words of the Living Waters leaders, “You will not arrive to total healing (or sanctification) in this life. That occurs either when Jesus comes back, or he calls you home.”

What I am not saying is that healing is not possible in Christ in this life. The Lord has set me on the path to freedom from perfectionism, the fear of man, and embracing false images and beliefs about others and myself. In general, I see an ability to assert and engage in life with others and myself that far exceeds anything I have ever known over the last decade. What used to trip me up in the past no longer has that same ability. By God’s grace, he has given me the eyes to see such traps, and the ears to listen out for subtle schemes.

When I reflect on these past ten years, I see the intensity of the sanctification process bearing much fruit. The harvest is rich, but it has required self-discipline and the will to remain in the refiner’s fire. Now, I want to say at this point that the Lord does not keep me indefinitely in the fire. That would cause long-lasting harm. There is wisdom and patience in his use of the flames to bring out more of his son through me. This has meant learning to trust God throughout this last decade in ways that overthrew my shallow understanding of his character.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, there is a wonderful section of God’s wisdom and patience. The Holy Spirit inspires Isaiah’s pen to equate a farmer’s insight into handling specific crops with God’s wisdom in handling the various lives and life stages of his people. I do not have time to get into the specifics, but here is the address: Isaiah 28:23-29. The key point in this Old Testament passage is in the last verse: “…he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:29b, ESV).

Each of the farming examples in the twenty-eighth chapter of Isaiah depict the wisdom of an everyday farmer. This person knows the right times and seasons to prepare the soil, plant the seed, fertilize and water it, and then apply specific methods of harvesting the crop in order to preserve and prepare it for eating. I understand this to mean that my soul is the field, and the Lord is the farmer. He knows the exact times and seasons for harvesting righteousness in my life. Do I trust that God is wonderful in cousel and excellent in wisdom as he sanctifies me through his word and the Holy Spirit?