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.

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Tough Love

Old West 253“If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” – Galatians 6:1 (ESV)

There are times when tough love is necessary. When the person is outright refusing to see the cliff they are approaching, or they are blatantly disregarding harm they are bringing to others and have ignored repeated warnings.

At other times, tough love is mostly counter-productive.

For the person who hasn’t really realized the gravity of their choices, tough love could merely trigger defensiveness, denial, or counter-attack. Once the walls go up or their sword is unsheathed in response, they are not likely to think very rationally.

For the person who is trying to do the right thing, tough love could cause them to recoil in shock and make vows to not be honest anymore because it only brings judgment, accusations and pain. If trying to bring their struggles or mistakes into the light only results in harsh responses, they’ll slam the lid back shut and nail it closed more securely than before.

In either case, what has been accomplished is the opposite of the stated goal.

We sometimes have this tendency to want to thump our chests and proclaim the necessity for tough love. Somehow it makes us more of a courageous Christian if we can say “I told them exactly what they needed to hear and I didn’t hold anything back.  I know it hurt, but it needed to be done!”

Actually, the truth is, it probably was exactly NOT what they needed to hear. And NOT what needed to be done.

Sure, we may feel good about our bold uncompromising grit in “standing up for what is right and telling so-and-so a thing or two.” We may feel an extra swagger in our step, like the Dirty Harry of Christian morality, bravely keeping our churches free from riffraff (“Do you feel lucky, punk?”).

But this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he said “keep watch on yourself.” It’s easy to fall into the harsh attitudes of religiosity and pride. And no matter how many times we lament outwardly “I hated to have to do that” it doesn’t change the pridefulness that’s under the surface.

The truth is, probably what the person really needs to hear is that they have someone who will stand with them and hold them up.

They need to hear that someone is there who will be brutally honest with them when necessary, but first and foremost will be there to love and encourage them. And when brutal honesty is called for, it will be with a heart of compassion and sensitivity, not a broken display of hubris disguised as fearless candor.

What they need to hear is that someone is there for them who will pull out the ‘tough love’ only when it is absolutely necessary, and then will only do it gently and prayerfully…and *always* with more ‘love’ than ‘tough’.

Because in the end, most situations don’t need a Detective Harry Callahan.

They need Jesus.

Courageous Grace

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“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

I wrote last time about battlefield etiquette. Particularly, how to properly care for the wounded among us on the spiritual battlefield.

This takes courage.

It’s easy to show grace to someone who has been hurt by someone else or by their circumstances.

But it’s much harder to show grace to someone in the throes of addiction or suffering the consequences of their own poor choices.

First, we must get past our initial ‘religious’ instinct to condemn and distance ourselves.

Then comes the hard part – facing all of those who insist on clinging to that religious instinct. You see, not everyone manages (or even desires) to work past that initial reaction. Some people are perfectly happy in their religious reaction.

Often, whether we admit it aloud or not, we fear the condemnation of these people if they see us helping a broken person.

What rumors will start about me? Will I become guilty by association? Will the religious lot suddenly put me in the ‘condemnation box’ with them because I am coming to their side?

The truth is none of these things matter.

The words in Joshua 1:9 were spoken by God to a man who was about to venture into a foreign land and step onto many physical battlefields.  If you look through the entire quote (verses 2-9) you will see that God used the term “be strong and courageous” three times (vv 6, 7, 9).

God knew that when Joshua led the armies of Israel out onto that battlefield, he was going to be hit all sorts of opposition.  Not only was he going to face sword-wielding adversaries from outside his camp, he was also going to have to deal with criticism-wielding antagonists from within.

God wanted to be sure he knew that if he was doing what God expected of him, he could hold his head up and know God was beside him.

It’s the same for us.  We may not be facing savage blood-thirsty warriors who want to split our heads wide open. But we sometimes face assailants who are trying to get into our heads and maybe even soil our reputations – intentionally or unintentionally.

If you are loving people the way God wants you to, though, know that “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” and because of that you can be “strong and courageous.”

Next time I’m going to write a little more about how God has our back, and why we can confidently draw courage through our trust in Him.  But for now, let me leave you with a quote from Joe Dallas:

“Courage is not an absence of fear; instead, it is a willingness to do the very thing you are afraid of.”

So don’t be afraid to step out there and help the wounded. Be courageous. He has your back.

Proper Care of the Wounded

Civil War 014This life is lived on a battlefield. And as with any physical battlefield, our spiritual battlefield includes punches and counter-punches, strategy and happenstance, really solid decisions and really lousy decisions.

And the result of the lousy decisions, the unexpected counter-punches, or the happenstance (happenstance from our perspective mind you, because nothing surprises God), is often wounding. Wounding that affects both good warriors and bad warriors. Wounding that is very often self-inflicted.

As part of the body of Christ, we have an obligation to care for these wounded and do everything we can to get them to safety and help them heal.

No warrior deserves to be left to bleed out on the spiritual battlefield.

Yet so often, that’s exactly what we do.

We consider their sin too atrocious, or their struggle too embarrassing to be associated with, or their spiritual/emotional condition too untouchable.

And so we act like the priest and the Levite who turned a blind eye to the dying man, instead of the Samaritan who stopped to lend aid (see Luke 10:30-35).

And that’s at best.

At worst, we kick them while they’re down, wag our heads in disgust, and go off to speculate about them and their brokenness in the comfy circles of the mask-wearing gossips. You know, those circles where the real goal is to keep the focus on the one whose mask has slipped so as to avoid anyone noticing what is behind our own mask.

That’s not the way Jesus’ church is supposed to act.

How many times did Jesus Himself kick someone who was down? Never. If it can be said that He kicked anyone, it was the ones who were standing upright in a spirit of arrogance and pride (which incidentally were the ones who were consistently kicking or neglecting the wounded).

Let’s take a page from His playbook.

He treated the adulterous with love and compassion – why can’t we do the same with the sexually broken?

He embraced the tax cheats and extortionists and inspired them to make positive change – why can’t we do likewise for those caught in the downward spirals of substance abuse?

He took a few hot-headed sailors (who probably had the demeanor and vocabularies to match) and empowered them to change the world – why can’t we show grace to those in our midst who might not fit our idea of ‘acceptable church people’?

This isn’t to say everything is okay. Sexual brokenness, substance abuse, greed, abusive tempers, etc. do not allow anyone to reach their full potential. And there is so much damage done to innocent people when such things go unchecked. Cycles of brokenness have to be addressed and personal change (sometimes drastic personal change) must be pursued.

But if a warrior is lying wounded in a pool of his or her own blood, and is desiring restoration and wholeness…neither criticism nor desertion are what they need.

Love them like Jesus. Bind their wounds. Stay at their side. And see what happens.

Chances are, you’ll witness a miraculously changed life.

Three Keys to “Being There”

People - General 194All our differences aside, there is one great equalizer among us – we all make some pretty lousy decisions once in a while. The nature and gravity of those decisions vary, of course, but the act of making poor choices is pretty much universal.

And subsequently there are times when we have to face up to our choices and the consequences.

That this is a universal phenomenon means we see it from both sides as we travel through life.  There are times when I must face my choices and consequences, and times when someone else in my life is facing their choices and consequences.

Particularly for those of us who have been there, we often find ourselves driven to be present for the next person.  It’s something I refer to as ‘paying grace forward,’ and I think it’s a natural response/drive (Jesus Himself talked about this principle in Luke 7 while He was hanging out at Simon the Pharisee’s house).

So how do we encourage someone going through a rough patch?

Really being there for someone is more than just showing up, isn’t it?

Well, actually, it does kind of boil down to simply that.  Kind of.

Often we think we need to have some profound advice or witty contribution. When we don’t have something wondrous to say, we feel like we’re a huge let-down. The truth is: just being there is comfort enough.

But of course, there are moments when having something to say is important also. It’s about balance.

Based on my own experiences on both sides of this coin, I think there are three things to keep in mind. I’ve seen (and felt the effects of) positive and negative applications of these principles. And I think all three of them are key to helping us find what to say and what not to say.

Don’t judge.  I know that one sounds obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes it’s hard to resist that knee-jerk reaction of saying “What in the world were you thinking?!?” Or to make sure they understand all the consequences of their actions.

But in reality, if they’re grappling with this, they’ve probably already thought about that ad nausea. The last thing they need is someone reinforcing their negative self-talk. What they need is understanding, encouragement, and help developing a plan to get through this and make things right.

Save your judgment and indignation for the ones who are actively and blatantly bringing hurt to others. Don’t kick the wounded.

Don’t assume you know. If you’ve never been there, don’t assume you know what they’re going through. You don’t. Maybe you’ve been in something remotely similar. Maybe your Aunt Sally has been there. Maybe you’ve been associated with numerous people who have been there. It doesn’t matter. None of that makes you qualified to say “I know exactly what you’re going through.”

Even if you have personally been there, don’t assume you know what’s going on inside them. You may have first-hand experience of their pain, but you are not them. One thing I’ve learned from my own journey, and from helping others through theirs, is: we all process differently. A mentor of mine once told me that, and I’ve found it to be consistently true.

That doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to say “I can relate.” Just don’t think you have them all figured out.

Don’t try to solve it. Listen intently, pray fervently, be the shoulder to lean on, help them talk through it, even throw in a few suggestions on what they can do.

But know that coming up with a complete solution is not your purpose.

It can be tough, being there in the right way.  There are judgment calls involved, and you will miss a few. But if you keep love and grace at the forefront you’ll be a good friend and the right kind of supporter.

And they’ll appreciate it.

Be Safe

 

A crucial part of experiencing freedom in Christ is dealing with our weaknesses, struggles and mistakes. And that means finding a safe person with whom we can be open.  

On the flip side, we need to be safe people.  Without that, we end up with churches full of people who need to find someone safe and approachable, and no one who knows how to be safe and approachable.

So, how does one “be safe”?  Here are a couple thoughts to get the conversation started.

1) Grace has got to be the core.  The grace that Jesus showed while on earth; the grace that Jesus showed each of us personally when He saved us.  It’s that grace that we should pay forward; that grace should permeate everything we do, say, think.  We cannot compromise the truth (Jesus never did), but can show grace (Jesus always did). Jesus’ display of grace was never dulled by His dedication to truth, and His dedication to truth was never compromised by His display of grace. The adulterer dragged before Him to be stoned; the woman at the well with five ex-husbands and a live-in boyfriend; the tax collector cheating everyone in sight; the thief on the cross being executed for serious crimes – Jesus treated all of them with grace.  Actually, the only ones He was harsh with were those who were judgmental and arrogant in their religious performance. The broken and bleeding always found compassion.  

2) Make a determination to never be repulsed.  This comment came from something Russell Moore said in a panel discussion I listened to recently.  He stated, “Jesus was never repulsed by anyone, no matter where they were in life.”  And so it should be with us.  This is something we need to be intentional about, and undergird with prayer, but it’s necessary if we care about being approachable. Showing grace the way Jesus did means we need to be prepared to love somebody no matter what. That’s the only way to help them get past those struggles and live redeemed.  It doesn’t mean we say all is okay, or we turn a blind eye to continued sin.  But if they are earnestly grappling with it, we need to show them the compassion that will help them through – rather than judgment and condemnation that could destroy their progress.

3)  Never presume to know everything.  Everybody has travelled different roads.  People are wired differently.  They see things differently, feel differently, react differently.  So as you are listening to and praying with people, understand one thing: “that person is not me.”  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been through the exact same experience – you still can’t know how they are processing things.  I have too often heard believers judge another’s level of repentance based on assumptions, and regrettably I have done so myself.  But really, who are we to think we have complete understanding of what’s going on in someone else’s heart?  Remember Job’s friends?  Their fault wasn’t that they had poor advice to give; it was that they were addressing issues they really didn’t understand. They presumed that everything happening was because Job messed up and God was punishing him, and that if he would just own up to whatever he’d done wrong everything would be okay.  We know better, we’ve read the whole story. But how many times do we act the same way – presuming to know another’s heart and God’s motives? This sort of mindset can be extremely hurtful and detrimental to the healing process of someone in crisis.  

So that’s what I have for now.  In a nutshell being safe means showing love and grace, giving space and understanding.   I’m not saying tough love is never necessary.  But it should always be a last resort, never our go-to solution.  Grace must always come first.

Thoughts?  This is a conversation all of us can contribute to, so I’m very interested in your inputs.  Leave a comment and share your ideas, or send me an email

And in the meantime, remember – safety first.

You Are Not Alone

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It’s a simple statement which I have found incredibly encouraging: “You are not alone”.

Poor decisions have led me down some lonely paths. One of the most enslaving things over most of my adult years was the thought that I was the only one experiencing the things that plagued me. Of course I wasn’t the only one in a universal sense, I knew. Others were dealing similar things. But I was convinced that I was the only one in my circles. Other people like me were ‘out there’. Where that was, I don’t really know. I couldn’t point to it on a map, or name a particular socioeconomic group where they were concentrated. But they were certainly not among the people that I was among.

Certainly not in the church. The church was full of people who had it together, people who didn’t have big struggles. Everybody in the church was quick to admit that they were far from perfect. But the offenses they confessed were often superficial: things that many commonly confessed to, or that were generalized to the point of non-descriptiveness. In the end, the ledge these believers stepped out on wasn’t really too far off the ground. And after all, who could blame them? Not me, I’m just as guilty! And, past mistakes aside, certainly nobody in the church was currently struggling with anything really heavy.  (Allow me to interject here that this is not intended as a judgment against anyone in the church…it describes my impression as an observer/receiver, completely removed from any presumption as to the intent of the actor/sender).

In my mind, I was the only twisted and broken and hopeless one in my world. The only one who had done something in my past that would cause people to step back and gasp if they ever knew. The only one who was still plagued with weighty struggles.

But at least, thankfully, I was keeping it hidden.

And then, through a series of events, it surfaced. And, long story short, since I could no longer maintain the mask of the have-it-together-Christian, and it was now obvious that I was broken beyond what it seemed anybody else in my church was, I found myself spiritually ‘on the street’.

Being in that place, though, turned out to be an amazing blessing. Because finding myself forced to seek help elsewhere led me down paths I may never have traveled otherwise, and led to the discover that freeing truth: I was not alone.

The reality was, the assumption that I was uniquely broken was completely off the mark. There were people with shared experiences all around, ready and willing to show grace and testify to freedom. People who were where they were because circumstances had exposed them as broken people, and who had thought they were the only ones.

So, here’s the takeaway: No matter where you are, you can rest assured that someone has already been there. You are not the only one. I promise.

I heard that last thought, and you are right – I don’t know what your story is. I don’t know what mistakes you agonize over or what struggles you wrestle with. But I do know what it’s like to think that if people see what’s inside they would never be able to love you again. And I also know that people will love you. And people will come alongside you and help you. Because you are not alone!