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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Onslaught

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Satan never fires just one arrow and moves on. He fires volleys…salvos…relentless barrages.

Anyone who has been assaulted by the Enemy knows that it is rarely dodging one arrow and wiping our brow, like some fortunate wanderer who just happened to step into the line of fire and made it out to tell the story. It’s more like hunkering down in the bomb shelters of London or Liverpool circa 1941, hoping that the explosion that just rocked us was the last one but fearing that there’s at least one more to come.

That’s why Ephesians 6:16 doesn’t talk about using the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming arrow, but all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

I used to think the plural form referred to the accumulation of arrows over a lifetime of living our faith. But experience has taught me differently. Yes, the arrows accumulate over time, but that doesn’t mean they accumulate one at a time.

And the arrows don’t all come from the same direction. Like a good battle strategist, our Enemy wants to flank us and knock us off balance. So he varies the attack vectors to cause more confusion and uncertainty. Hence, the arrows aren’t just coming from personal temptations, or relationships, or finances, or illness, or car problems. They come from any or all of the above.

It almost seems like a mere shield isn’t enough – we need a fortress.

It just so happens, we have one:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

He is our fortress and our deliverer. He is our strength and our shield.

There is distinct symbolism here that gives us a three-hundred-sixty-degree defense against Satan’s onslaughts.

Sometimes when the battle is heaviest, we need somewhere to take refuge. We need walls and barriers to shield us, and someone to provide cover. We need to defend and just survive. There’s nothing wrong with hunkering down and waiting out the worst of the attack. God is there to be that fortress and deliverer in those times.

Then come the times to go on the attack. No war was ever won by an army permanently entrenched in their forts. At some point, an offensive strategy is needed. We cannot attain freedom for ourselves or anyone else if we’re locked in defensive mode. That’s where the strength and shield come in. When we’re ready to step out of the fortress and take the fight to the enemy, God is there for that as well. He becomes our strength to wield the sword and our shield to quench those arrows we talked about earlier.

So when it seems like the onslaught is at its worst, remember we have options. God’s war plan is multi-faceted. The next time you feel like you’re taking heavy fire: breathe deeply, know that He has all the angles covered, and plan your strategy accordingly.

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.

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.

Winning

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I just want to win. Really. Most days that’s all I’m asking for – to get through without lust or jealousy or coveting creeping in, or bitterness toward someone who hurt me, or guilt over how I’ve hurt someone else.

Just one day without labels undermining my confidence in who God says I am; without anger welling up or judgmentalism sneaking in; without acting on impulses that leave me feeling dirty and unforgivable.

To lay my head on the pillow and not lament like David “[O God] …my sin is always before me…” (Psalm 51:3).

That’s all I want. But I rarely get it. And it sucks, to use a less-than-upright-Christian vernacular. To want so badly to please God, only to find you’ve fallen on your face again…it can be so demoralizing. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

This is the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (see Galatians 5:17). Life is lived on a battlefield.

But here’s the deal: winning isn’t the point! That’s right – getting to the end of our day with our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds shouldn’t be our focus in the first place.

That’s tough to get our heads around, isn’t it? Every part of us screams “Of course winning is the point! Where would we be without winning?!?

Truth: we are in the exact same place without winning as we are with winning.  No matter what our score sheet looks like at the end of the day, we are still under the watchful care of an almighty God who loves us regardless.

The real goal is living in His presence and in His will. Enjoying the journey with Him at our side instead of fretting over whether we’re doing well enough to have Him at our side. His presence is not contingent upon our performance. And when we get that, the battles throughout the day are far less intimidating.

This doesn’t mean we raise the white flag and accept the loss. It doesn’t mean that whatever we may do, no matter how right or wrong, is okay. When we spend our days enjoying the journey with Him, we discover a desire to please Him…but without the anxiety of worrying whether we’re doing it right.  No longer are we fighting against the negatives. We’re basking in the positives – love, grace, and the simple unchangeable fact that Someone far bigger than me believes in me unconditionally.

And then when we get to the end of our day, we realize that we did win after all! The stuff that wanted to drag us down didn’t gain a foothold nearly as easily. And when it did, we were able to get back up and walk on.

We don’t end the day with a perfect score. We still make poor choices along the way. But those poor choices, we find, are far less frequent and have less impact.

This is the freedom of focusing on our Companion rather than on our adversaries; focusing on His love rather than our faults. It’s resting in Christ instead of striving to win in our own strength.

And in the end, that’s the best win of all!