Cowboy

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The light fades on the prairie as he settles in. Just a dull orange glow remains on the horizon, countered somewhat by the orange glow of the campfire flames.

Close by there’s a rustle as something scurries through the brush – probably a rabbit or some small rodent.

In the distance somewhere a coyote bellows.

There’s comfort in the solitude.  No one to answer to. No one to keep up with and no one keeping up with him. He’s self-sufficient.

Community is overrated. This much he understands. Letting someone get close means responsibility, accountability, and lots of other troublesome “ility’s”.

Sure there are responsibilities out on the plain, but if he fouls something up it’s only him that has to suffer for it. No one else hurts. No one is disappointed. No one looks down on him or judges him. He can be his own person out here.

But what he doesn’t allow himself to see is that he was built for fellowship. There is this innate part of him that just doesn’t function as designed out in the wilderness. That part of him needs others to lean on. It needs the sense of accomplishment that comes from being present for others. If he messes up, there are no apparent persons to be impacted, sure. But the truth is, repercussions of his choices emanate out into the world even if he doesn’t see it. In fact, his mere absence is impacting lives.

These are the things he can’t afford to realize.

And so he just presses on. He settles in next to the fire. He thinks over his choices of the day, and wishes he had made different ones. In fact, most times he wishes he could make different ones, because the same regrettable poor decisions seem to pop up again and again to the point that he feels incapable of doing anything differently.

‘Oh well, put a lid on it and cowboy up,’ he tells himself. No time for sentimentalities.

It’s time to get some shut-eye. In the morning he’ll wake up, kick some dirt on the embers from the fire, saddle up, and move on. Whatever happens, whatever poor choices resurface, hopefully he’ll at least do some good along the way.

 

Though this might fit the loner hero in a lot of old westerns you’ve seen, that’s not really what I have in mind as I describe the scene. I’m describing everyday people – each of us – enmeshed in our private struggles.

We have this tendency to be cowboys (or cowgirls). Particularly when it comes to those private, shameful things we don’t want to admit out loud.

We long for solitude. That open plain where we can be alone seems so inviting. Sometimes even the ones who seem the most comfortable around people still spend a lot of time out on the prairie when it comes to some aspects of their lives.

But none of us were meant to be lone drifters in any part of our lives. We were created for fellowship, relationship.

When God said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t just talking about a sexual partner. He wasn’t even talking exclusively about a marriage relationship. Yes, the immediate plan was to create a female companion for intimate relationship (including physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological intimacy). But we mustn’t overlook the fact that one result of that relationship was procreation, which led to multi-faceted community and a vast breadth and depth of relationship types.

It is in these relationships that we find support, accountability, encouragement, a sense of value and achievement, among other things. And though some of these things may at times seem more trouble than they’re worth, they are in the long run indispensable ingredients for personal growth.

Truth: there are people all around you who will support you. Even for your most embarrassing struggles – those private things that you are sure no one could possibly understand – God has intentionally placed people in your life who will understand, and even if they don’t understand they will still love you. Ask Him to show them to you. He will.

So come in out of the wilderness. This will take courage. Sometimes you’ll get hurt. Sometimes you’ll hurt others. But it’s better than spending your time alone; trying to convince yourself this is for the best while trudging through hopeless solitude and letting the plans God has for you stagnate.

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Leave It at the Cross

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“You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross.” – MercyMe, Dear Younger Me

This line strikes home for me every time I hear it. Because I look back at things that I know I shouldn’t have carried beyond the cross and see the pain it brought and the problems it caused.

I think to some extent all of us have things that we try to carry beyond the cross.

We talk about turning things over to Jesus. We nod confidently and agree there is nothing that He can’t carry for us.

But still there are things we try to carry ourselves.  We plant our feet firmly, heave it up on our shoulders, and trudge forward, one laborious step at a time.

Maybe it’s because we feel like it’s not something that’s worthy of turning over to God – it’s too trivial to bother Him with.

Or maybe it’s too ugly and we don’t want to expose it to our relationship with Him – like somehow revealing the thing (which He already knows about) will somehow taint His impression of us.

Or maybe someone has convinced us that God’s grace doesn’t quite cover that.

But Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

He didn’t say “all who labor and are heavy laden with big things.” Or “all who labor and are heavy laden unless your burden crosses this line.” He said “all.”

So no matter the size, shape, appearance, or form of your burden, bring it to Him. You were never meant to carry it beyond the cross.

Alcoholism? Bring it. Pornography? Bring it. Unwanted homosexual desires? Bring it. Bad temper? Bring it. Guilt from a painful past? Bring it. Hurt caused by someone else? Bring it. Drug problems, gambling addictions, trust issues, gossip, hate, lying, cheating, jealousy, judgmentalism – whatever form your flaw or your struggle takes…bring it to His cross.

And leave it there. Don’t carry it one step further.

When we try to carry it ourselves, bigger problems result. Struggles become addictions. Secrets become complex networks of deceit. Angry outbursts become abusive behavior. One more compulsive bet becomes financial ruin.

The scenarios are exhaustive (and exhausting!).

Trust me, carrying whatever it is ourselves and trying to keep it stuffed inside only leads to more (and deeper) hurt. I know. I’ve been there.

So make the commitment now to leave everything at the foot of the cross. Everything…and live free!

p.s. – since I mentioned it, take a listen to this song if you have time. It’s worth it.

Three Things to Consider While You Wait

Household 791Did you ever wonder about the years between the time the prodigal son took off with his inheritance and the time he returned?

We have a pretty good idea of what happened in the son’s life during that time, but virtually no insight into the father’s.

First, I wonder how hard it was for him to let go in the first place. How it must have torn his heart to hear his son say “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’ll just take my money and move on.” What emotions did he grapple with? Confusion? Anger? Feeling like a failure? Desperation? Guilt? Resignation? All of the above?

And what went through his head while the boy was away? We don’t know how long it was, but we know it was probably years. Partying away a small fortune, living through a famine, hitting rock bottom, and entering the workforce in the most demeaning job imaginable – all of that doesn’t happen overnight.

So what about dad during this time?

Did he yearn to go out searching for him? Did he think about sending a search party or hiring a private eye? If the story were pulled into the modern age, would he try to turn on the GPS on the boy’s phone, or Google his name to see if he turned up in the news? Would he have constantly fight the urge to text or email him?

It had to be grueling, just living with the silence, not hearing any news. Thinking about the old times, choking back emotions when memories arose. Maybe wishing he had done some things differently – spent more time with him, worked less, had more patience. Maybe he made some serious mistakes that he wished he could take back, or at least have a chance to explain. Maybe he looked back on the good times and felt a twinge of hurt and anger that his son would dismiss all that good and fly from the nest.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what went on at the home-front while the prodigal was ruining his life. But some of us can draw from personal experience, and feel like we have a pretty good idea.

Which leads to my point (yes, I have one).

Maybe there’s another lesson in this parable besides the return of the prodigal. We must not lose sight of that key lesson – that just like the prodigal, we can always return home, find unconditional acceptance, and be embraced by our Heavenly Father.

But maybe for some of us there’s also the lesson of what to do if we find ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken father.

Some of you may be there right now.  If so, here are three thoughts about the wait that may help.

First: Life goes on. We can’t allow the pain of that damaged relationship to damage the rest of the relationships in our lives. Others still need us, and we have responsibilities to them. The hurt is real, and we can’t ignore it. But to dwell on it at the expense of other, intact relationships is wrong. Take the pain to God. Find counsel if necessary (there’s no shame in getting counseling – don’t get caught by that lie). But keep loving those that are still in your life. As far as we know, the father still attended to his farm and the rest of his family in his youngest son’s absence.

Second: God is in control. No matter how bleak things seem, God never relinquishes control, and He never drops the ball. Whatever is happening, He is there. He’s not surprised, He’s not outmaneuvered, He’s not stumped. We don’t know how long the wait was, but we know this: the father was still waiting and watching expectantly right up until his son appeared on the horizon.

Third: Do what you can, and let God do what He will. You can’t control this. Relinquish the urge to try. If an opportunity comes to let them know you’re still thinking of them, take it. But trust that the love you showed them while you were together will stay with them, and that God will remind them that they can always come home. The father didn’t pursue the prodigal, but somehow the son still knew that he could return, and would find some sort of welcome (even if it was just a job as a farmhand).

And one other thing…

Keep your running shoes on so you can dash out to meet them when they return!

Duck Test

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He was the leader of the world’s only superpower. He had subdued enemies, conquered lands, captured cities, built spectacular palaces, and oversaw a thriving economy.

And then one day things went sideways. And before it was all over he could add to his accomplishments adultery, treachery, betrayal, and murder.

His name was David, King of Israel. Most people know the story: He slept with and impregnated his neighbor’s wife, and after a hastily planned scheme to cover up the consequences failed, he orchestrated her husband’s death.

You don’t have to agree with David’s actions to understand how they came about. Hopefully we’ve not been down the path that led to adultery and murder, but we’ve all been down paths where we would never have ventured with a clear head.

But here’s what I want you to see about David: When he finally came to himself, David called it like it was.

David’s prayer following the fallout from his actions is the prayer of a broken man who was done with maneuvering and making excuses.

See, we need to be honest with God in our confessions.

We need to learn to say simply, “I sinned against You.”

I didn’t ‘have a weak moment.’ I didn’t ‘make a mistake.’ I didn’t ‘falter’ or ‘stumble’ or ‘lose a battle.’

These phrases are accurate, and in proper perspective can help us press forward. Because our weaknesses combined with the barrage of influences we face, sometimes lead to bad choices. We can’t live a perfect life, and God will never give up on us (even after all this, David’s character is still immortalized as “A man after God’s own heart”).

But the duck test says “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck”

Like David, we need to learn to be raw and honest with God and say,

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:3-4).

When he says “against You only have I sinned,” he’s not dismissing the fact that other people were hurt by his sin.  In this case Uriah, Bathsheba, the unborn baby, and many others close to them, were hurt terribly by his choices.

But it was primarily God against whom he sinned.

Every sin is first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

So let’s be careful to maintain balance.  We can’t spend our time condemning ourselves for our mistakes, wailing and wallowing in our filth, expecting ourselves to live the perfect life and never slip up.  But we also can’t use our flawed humanity to smooth over or minimize the fact that we hurt God and others by our actions.

Living like new means constantly renewing our mind and spirit through self-inspection, confession, and trusting that God lifts the penalty for that sin from us.

It’s “Freedom 360” – freedom from excuse-making and freedom from condemnation.

It’s a package deal.

Dungeons and Dragons

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It’s a strange dynamic.

Dungeons are dark, dank, and scary places. But sometimes the dark, the dank, and the scary can strangely morph into a comfort zone. As bad as it is ‘in here’, we fear the uncertainty of what might be ‘out there’ and so we accept where we are.

Addictions, compulsive behaviors, sins of our past, guilt and shame, false labels – these things tend to build formidable dungeon walls. Even as we detest them, we are fearful of what might happen if we step into the light. How will people react? What will our friends say? Our critics? What will become of our lives and our families?

And so we hunker down in our musty, cold, hopeless dungeon cells. Secretly relishing the chains that we despise. Appreciating the company of the occasional rodent that scurries by.  Telling ourselves that the meager light that filters in through the bars is all that we need. After all, there are dragons out there.

Much of the safety of the dungeon is protection from the fearsome dragons that we’re convinced are lurking outside. We appease the little dragons ‘in here’, because the really big and scary ones are waiting ‘out there.’ And they will certainly devour us and our relationships and our reputation and maybe even our careers if we so much as stick a limb outside.

There is this unspoken and often unrealized idea that somehow indulging our habit, or tolerating our flaws, or keeping the lid tightly shut on our shameful past, keeps the hovering gods of our secrets appeased.

All of this is completely illogical, but in the dark corners of the dungeon it makes perfect sense.

And so…imprisonment. Not willing to risk even a peek at what we may be missing. Only concerned with the imaginary or exaggerated dangers we’re protecting ourselves from.

Yes, imaginary or exaggerated…because one of the unique features of our self-imposed incarceration is that the isolation and inward focus allow our fears to build and become larger and intensified.

They’re not all imaginary. Many of us can say from experience that there are harsh critics waiting outside those walls. And sometimes we will feel the heat of the dragon’s breath.

But I can also attest that there is tremendous grace and support out there as well – grace and support that will completely outweigh the harshness.

However, it takes stepping out of the cell, and that’s not easy by any stretch. Fortunately, though, we’re not on our own.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” – Isaiah 61:1 (emphasis added)

In Luke 4:18-21 Jesus personally applied these words to Himself.

He is the one who waits outside the door of the dungeon, and will stand with us, come what may.

Jesus came to empower us to shrug off the chains, to crash the walls, to get out of our prison cells, and to face the dragons.

It’s time for a prison break. Let’s do this.

Hate Properly Placed

Signs 51That title caught your attention, didn’t it?

Yes, it’s what I meant to type.

It wasn’t auto-correct changing a misspelling to the wrong word…though I have certainly cursed the auto-correct feature many times for doing just that.

It isn’t some private rant mistakenly posted to my blog…I keep my private rants in pen-and-ink so that they’re easier to control (how’s that for transparency?).

And nobody hacked my website and posted it in an attempt to embarrass me…I am perfectly capable of embarrassing myself without any help.

No, the intended topic today really is Hate Properly Placed.

First, there are circumstances where hate is proper. But before running with that statement, let’s go a little deeper.

Humans – and particularly Christian humans – can be very adept at displaying hate, anger and other negative emotions. We justify it in various ways. We tag the word ‘righteous’ onto it as if that word will somehow make whatever we are thinking, saying or doing pure and holy. We enumerate why the target of our judgment deserves it and why everyone else should hate them as well. We defend our actions and reactions by claiming we are defending our loved ones, or innocents, or baby seals, or even God.

But here’s what I know: any time our hatred, anger or other negative emotion is aimed at a person, it is wrong.

It doesn’t matter how good the reason is.  It doesn’t matter how justified I feel. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with me or cheer for me or stand on their desks and recite Walt Whitman poetry (who can name that movie reference?).

It is never okay in God’s eyes to hate a human being. We can be upset, irate, or angry about what they are doing. We can hate the things they stand for or the activities they support. But when the hate is directed toward the person, it has crossed the line.

Many of us have heard the term “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It’s become something of a cliché in the church, but it’s the best rule of thumb by which to check our emotions. It’s what God teaches us. It’s what Jesus modeled for us.

Think about it. When people see a need to justify their anger or hate, what is their go-to bible story? Jesus chasing out the money changers (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:14-16). “Even Jesus got angry,” they will say, as they flip pages to one of those passages in a huff.

But notice one thing about this story…Jesus does not get angry with the people, but with what they are doing! He overturns the furniture, He dumps their wares and upends their cash boxes, He even makes a whip and runs them out of the courtyard. But all the while His criticism is directed at what they are doing, not who they are.

Or look at all the places where He contends with the religious leaders (which incidentally are the only ones that He ever really gets harsh with – if Jesus were in some of our churches today, He wouldn’t get nearly as upset with the abortion doctors or the gay rights activists or the drug addicts as He would with the people so arrogantly condemning them).

Anyway, back to Jesus and the religious leaders: He calls them hypocrites, blind leaders of the blind, etc. But He always specifically tells them what the issue is…because His indignation is leveled against their actions and their attitudes, not their persons.

When we aim the hate at the person, we are shackling ourselves in chains that will hold us much tighter than they will ever hold the subject of our hatred. Because, in that case, what if that person changes? Answer: Our hate will remain – in fact, we’ll probably look for other reasons to hate them. Essentially, we develop the attitude portrayed in the sign pictured above – shoot the trespassers, and if they survive (i.e., try to make positive change), shoot them again!

Jesus could love and accept Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and Saul of Tarsus because he didn’t hate them for being Pharisees, He hated the religiosity and the judgmental attitudes that Pharisaism represented.

Does that make sense?  I hope so.  Because I have one more thing to cover. I know I’m already running longer than normal, but bear with me as I work out this last very important piece.

Our hate should never be directed toward a person.

You are a person (profound, I know).

So guess what that means?

It means that no matter how ugly you think you are inside, no matter what mistakes you’ve made or how you’ve blown it, no matter who has broken your boundaries or how much you are convinced you are somehow responsible for them doing so, no matter what broken overgrown pothole-covered trail you have traveled to get where you stand today – you have no right to hate or be angry at you!

You can hate the bad things you have done (that’s part of repentance). You can be angry about the poor choices you’ve made (and honestly, you should). You can be upset about the fact you hurt people (again, as you should).

But never, never, never, ever turn that hatred and anger on yourself personally. It’s counter-productive, it’s self-defeating, and it’s a ploy of the Enemy to keep you in chains!

So the next time you feel that hate welling up inside of you, check it.  First, of course, make sure it’s proper. Then, make sure your sights are directed down-range at the offense, and not at the guy standing next to you on the firing line or at yourself.

When you get that right, you’ll realize you’re in a much better position to experience – and show – the love of God.

The Perils of Time Travel, Part II

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I wrote last time a couple of reasons why I think God doesn’t allow us to go back and change our past. In a nutshell, our susceptibility to repeating mistakes or our flawed way of fixing things – or both – have potential to get in the way.

But it goes beyond that.

God has a desire and a specific intention for each of our lives. That intention does not include our brokenness or bad choices – we can look at every bad choice and be assured that God would have preferred we chose differently. He doesn’t cause us to make bad decisions, and He is not the author of our bad circumstances or our hurts.

However, He has woven each and every one of those things into His plan for our lives. He is completely sovereign. Nothing surprises Him and nothing ever comes up that He doesn’t know what to do with. And so He takes everything and uses it to build us into the persons we are.

This is a hard concept to get our heads around, but remember our inability to understand something doesn’t make it any less true. Look at Isaiah 55:8-9 – God is essentially saying “I know what I’m doing, even when you don’t get it.”

Scripture is full of stories where people’s poor choices were part of God’s plan. Look at Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Talk about a winding, broken, dysfunctional road.

From Joseph’s hubris in proclaiming to his family his dream in which they bowed before him, to his brothers’ resentful plan to do away with him, to Potiphar’s wife’s lust and false accusation, to the broken promise of the chief butler who was supposed to put in a good word for him.

How many things do you think Joseph would have liked to go back and change? To keep his mouth shut about his dream? To not go looking for his brothers on that fateful day when they sold him into slavery? To avoid being in the wrong place so the Egyptian woman couldn’t make her accusation stick? To keep his interpretation of the butler’s dream to himself?  Yet every one of these things were cobblestones in the road that led to Joseph attaining a position from which he could save his family from starvation, and the future nation of Israel from extinction.

And so, if we went back and fixed our mistakes, how could He use them to build us and others up? How could He use them to further His kingdom or accomplish His plan?

See, and you thought the whole concept of time travel was mind-boggling!

Admittedly, this is difficult on a whole new level for those of us guilty of breaking others’ boundaries.  It feels almost immoral to say that things I did to hurt someone else are being used for my or others’ growth. And it seems callous and insensitive toward the persons I hurt to say their pain is part of the greater good.

Knowing there are some reading this that fall on both sides of hurtful situations, please know that this is not to dismiss or minimize anyone’s hurt, or to justify anyone’s offenses. It’s merely a humble attempt to analyze the inner-workings of the grace and sovereignty of a loving God. I pray that is understood.

So the next time you want to lament your inability to change the past, turn your thoughts instead to the people, circumstances, and opportunities in the present that your pothole-covered path has led you to.

And thank God for it.