Nailed It!

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While paging through an old notebook some time ago, in the margin of some meeting notes, I found a sketch of a nail. Yes, a nail.

The meeting was April 6, 2009. I don’t remember what the meeting was about, and probably nothing else on that page will ever mean anything to me again. But the nail does.

Because on Palm Sunday 2009 (which happened to be April 5), I listened to a message on forgiveness, and at the end the speaker handed out small nails as a reminder of the forgiveness we’ve all received and the forgiveness we should offer in turn.

For many years I carried one of those nails in my pocket regularly (some days I still do).

The man who delivered that message that day was pastoring a church we visited. My family and I didn’t stay there – it was over twenty miles away and we opted for somewhere closer to home. But we would be back.

It’s funny how we cross paths with certain people along our journey, never suspecting the major role that person will play in our lives someday.

This man had no idea the lasting impact this particular sermon made on my life. He had never met or even seen me before, and considering there were a thousand plus people in attendance that day I doubt he noticed me even then.

I had no idea that three years and one month later I would be in his church again…this time for counseling after a personal crisis would drive me into a spiritual wilderness.

He had no idea that his ministry would be the oasis in that wilderness that was exactly what I needed.

Neither of us had any idea that we would form a friendship, that we and our wives would see one another on a regular basis, or that I would one day consider him one of my most valued personal mentors.

But God knew all of that.

On that day in 2009 as I was doodling in the margin of my notepad, God had already mapped all this out. The meandering path I was about to take would lead right back to the same place I had been the day before, to see the man I had just heard speak.

These are the orchestrations of life that convince me there has to be a God who not only cares but is fully engaged in our lives. Nothing else can explain it.

And it makes me wonder…

…who did Saul of Tarsus see in the crowd that day at the stoning of Stephen who he would one day collaborate with for the furtherance of the gospel?

…what fellow wanderer would Joshua share a campfire with in the Sinai desert that would later become one of his loyal supporters or trusted advisers?

…what skeptic could Peter or John have had a run-in with who would eventually become a champion of the early church?

…which of King Saul’s soldiers may David have spied when he was hiding in caves who would someday serve in his own army?

…who is on the fringes of your life right now that will someday come back around to be a key person in your future (or vice versa)?

Predictability isn’t always God’s modus operandi, that’s for sure. But one thing is certain – He’s always working to bring things together in the most fantastic ways.

And when it happens, and we look back and see it, we can only marvel and say “Wow, God…you nailed it!”

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Trust Me

Level of transparency – this is something that I have debated internally many times.

It’s a valid debate. Lack of transparency inhibits being there for those that need to hear that they are not alone in their struggles. Too much transparency becomes counterproductive as we expose loved ones to unnecessary hurt, and risk inadvertently encouraging others to stay in their brokenness (“Well at least I’ve never done anything as bad as him”).

Recently, as I prepared for a church presentation which called for openness about my personal struggles, I trudged through this internal argument once again. And as it transpired, I slowly came to realize that the issue was a matter of trust.

“Can I trust people with my revelations?”

“Can I trust that they will not react harshly?”

“Can I trust that they will continue to love me and support me?”

“Can I trust that they will not jump to conclusions?”

I concluded that no matter what arguments I made regarding why I should or shouldn’t be transparent, and to what extent, underlying it all was this issue of trust. I just wasn’t sure I could fully trust everyone in my listening audience.

Then I heard it.  So subtle that I almost missed it, yet so profound that I was certain it could only be the voice of God.

I’m not asking you to trust them. I’m asking you to trust Me.”

You see, God isn’t looking for us to obey because we trust that it will sit well with other people.

He’s not asking us to do what He has called us to do because we can trust that others will support us and not judge us.

He’s asking us to serve Him because we can trust HIM to carry us through whatever comes.

Look at scripture.

In Acts 9, God calls a man named Ananias to go heal Saul of Tarsus, and Ananias essentially says “Lord, that is the craziest idea I’ve ever heard! Don’t you know that guy’s killing Christians?!” But God says “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (v 15, ESV).

God was telling Ananias “Don’t trust Paul, trust Me.”

In Exodus 4, Moses is arguing with God saying “They [the people of Israel] will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say ‘The Lord did not appear to you'” (v 1). God then proceeds to instruct him regarding a series of miracles (turning Moses’ staff into a snake, making Moses’ hand turn leprous, turning water into blood), and God says “When they see these things, they’ll believe I sent you.”

God was telling Moses “Don’t trust the Isrealites, trust Me.”

There are other examples throughout scripture and history. We don’t have time for all of them here. But believe this – God is trustworthy, and He is asking you to put your trust in Him…and not anyone else.

“So we can confidently say,’The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6)

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.

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.

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!