The Freedom to Resume

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I confess I lost my way.

When I started this endeavor, it was with specific intent. It was to bring encouragement to fellow believers and show the path to a true relationship with God to those who didn’t know it.

It was to represent grace in today’s world and in today’s church, where it’s often lacking. Lacking not because people are cruel, but because they don’t always understand how to display grace in the tough situations. Or sometimes because we’ve been conditioned to react in ways that – while commonly accepted as Christian – are far from what Christ taught or modeled.

It was to speak freedom to people who were caught in a cycle of hiding and dragging their chains with them because they felt too ashamed or hopeless to stand up to their jailer – a jailer that takes various forms:

  • Our past – shame over the things we have done or people we’ve hurt.
  • Current struggles – things like addiction, unwanted but seemingly inescapable habits or desires, negative mindsets, poor self-image.
  • Our spiritual Enemy – Satan, Lucifer, the Devil, whatever you want to call him.

(I personally believe that ultimately the jailer that holds the keys to every chain that binds us is this Enemy. Yes, I believe he exists. And I believe he is active. He doesn’t want us to live free, because it scares him! A world full of free-living people could bring the roof down on all his hopes and plans, and he knows it!)

Whatever or whoever the jailer is, the truth is that we have a Savior who brings freedom which transcends all the brokenness. A God who represents everything the Enemy doesn’t want us to realize.

That message was my motivation. But I lost that. I got caught up in lies, and allowed the lies to derail me from these truths. As a result, I lost my focus, and then the path. Until the next thing I knew, I was in the thickets not even sure where the path was or when I had left it.

I had allowed exactly what Paul warned the Galatians not to allow – “do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

The result – a year of almost total silence.

But praise God for the freedom to resume. The freedom to get back to the work when we realize we need to re-center. The freedom to shake off the chains, and engage afresh.

Let me encourage the reader: if you’ve lost the path – if there is something that God laid on you and you got caught up in distractions or discouragement or apathy – God is still calling you to serve Him. Pick it up, whatever it is, and serve Him. You will not be happy until you are serving where God has called you to serve.

Eternity starts today, and in God’s economy the game never times out. No matter how long it’s been paused, we have the freedom to resume.

Lane Changes

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It’s a familiar scene.

I’m slowly crawling through the parking lot between home and office – the ‘parking lot’ officially known as Northern Virginia’s Interstate 95.

I’m following a semi. I don’t remember the markings on the truck, but let’s called it “ACME Corporation” (I was always a big Road Runner fan as a kid).

At some point I grow tired of following a truck that I can’t see around. That, plus the lure of the slightly-faster-moving traffic in the lane to my left, compels me. I make my move. I change lanes.

Five minutes later, guess where I am? I am sitting in left-center lane, staring at the “ACME” truck in the right-center lane…which is at least a half mile ahead of me. And I’m thinking If I had just stayed where I was…

And it occurs to me…isn’t that the way we live our lives sometimes? We make a decision, and then later we look back on that decision and say If only I’d have just decided differently…

But guess what? We can’t re-do those decisions any more than I could make four lanes of interstate traffic back up and allow me a do-over on my lane change.

But still, it’s easy to look back and imagine how perfect things would have been with a different choice. But imagination is not reality (profound, eh?).

So here’s a few things we can do when we catch ourselves in those moments of second-guessing.

  • Remember Hebrews 13:5 – “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” God is there. Always.
  • Be thankful for where you are in life, instead of regretful of where you might have been.
  • Pray that God will show you how this works into His plan. Because it does. Even if it was a bad choice, it still becomes part of the fabric of His plan. Because He’s sovereign that way.
  • Remember that perception is not always reality, and that the whole can’t be derived from a snapshot. It’s about the entire race, not just a few paces somewhere in the middle.

Lane changes happen.  Some of them turn out well. Some of them not so well.

Sometimes you look like you’re going nowhere, only to look up one day and realize you did get somewhere. (Case in point – I ended up ahead of the ACME truck just a few miles later.)

Sometimes you don’t get where you wanted to be, but find out where you are is pretty good.

Sometimes you don’t see any of these things, but have to trust God that you are where He wants you to be (I wish I could say that we always see the happy ending, but that’s just not true).

So keep moving forward. Trust your decisions. But most of all, trust God.

 

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!

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.

Dealing with Ugly, Part 1

Sin and temptation are ugly things.  Sometimes we try to dismiss or discount them.  For example:

  •      We shrug off lust by saying ‘it’s just the way I am’ or ‘doesn’t everybody struggle with some form of that?’
  •      We reclassify anger issues as justifiable or the other person’s fault.
  •      We excuse an addiction with ‘it helps me cope’ and ‘I can quit anytime I want.’
  •      We write off a proclivity toward gossip as ‘sharing a need’ or ‘something people have to know about.’

But in the end there is no valid way to ‘pretty up’ the temptation or dismiss the sin.  If it doesn’t honor God, it’s ugly – plain and simple.

I speak from experience.  I wouldn’t assume anything I write would be worth paying attention to otherwise.  My issues will not be the same as yours.  My perspective on certain issues will not be the same as yours.  We all travel different paths.  But rest assured my path has been littered with its share of mistakes and hurt.

I will not go into detail on what my sin is, any more than I would care to know the specifics of yours.  Details are often not productive to the general discussion.  Suffice it to say that my faults and failures are ugly and have left deep stains.  Where they began I do not know – and honestly that is irrelevant on today’s battlefield.  With so many things there are large debates of nurture vs. nature.  I don’t discount any side of those discussions, but one thing I do know is that when you’re in the heat of battle, you often don’t really care how the war began.  You are in survival mode.  If your struggle is with alcohol or drugs and you recognize their destructive power, how it got a hold on you is really not relevant – you want to defeat it.  If you deal with unwanted homosexual attractions, it doesn’t matter whether there is a ‘gay gene’ or your desires developed through environment or experiences – you just want victory.  And to different degrees the same can be said of countless other things – addictions, compulsive behavior, domestic violence, and on and on.  Granted, some of these have more proven theories regarding causation than do others.  Regardless, today’s battlefield is where the fight is fought.

So, where does that leave us?  It leaves us in the midst of a fierce battle for freedom, and in need of a battle strategy.  I propose a three-part strategy: (1) realizing the inherent ugliness of our struggles, (2) realizing that we need to deal with that ugliness appropriately, and (3) how to deal with it.

This post has intended to deal with (1).  The next two posts will delve into (2) and (3).  Together, this will hopefully form a solid groundwork for recognizing, acknowledging, and dealing with whatever ugliness haunts you.

Whether it is something in your past that you carry deep-seated guilt about, something recent that has left an open gaping wound, or an ongoing struggle…that ugly thing is being leveraged by the Enemy to hold you down.  It’s time to get the upper hand.