Friday, December 27, 2013

Loving Thorny People: For the Love of Roses, We Must Tolerate Thorns

In the Spring through the Fall, I work for the family business doing landscaping and general shrub maintenance. When it comes to shrub and tree maintenance, the bulk of the work is trimming, and having been involved with this line of work for over ten years, I’ve seen a fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly.

For instance, there are easy shrubs that make one love the job, mundane ones that make one say TGIF, tall ones that require working from a ladder--usually on uneven ground (this keeps things interesting), small ones that require knee pads if you cherish your knees...and then there are the beastly ones that make one want an office job. The most annoying and irritating of all plants are usually the tall or massive shrubs, like cedars or spruce, which require standing on the section of the ladder labeled, “Do Not Stand or Sit” (a.k.a., the top)--on uneven ground, of course--with outstretched arms high above the head to reach the top of the plant with pruning shears; these massive ones are sure to make one sore by the end of the day. 

Besides the massive shrubs and tress, however, there are a couple types of shrubs that send “pricklies” down my spine--literally: rose bushes and barberry bushes. These shrubs have hellish thorns, and if they were removed from the face of the Earth, I would be a happy man.

Barberries are tolerable and I have managed to work with them (only with steel gauntlets, though), but rose bushes have incessantly provoked the defenses of my sanity for years. I hate rose bushes because they are from the pits of hell.

Do we seriously have rose bushes in our yards only because of their flowers? The destructive power of the barbs of death that line their branches far outweighs any beauty those pedals can emit. They ought to be destroyed.

Of course, the only ones complaining about roses are landscapers like me and robbers who happen to rob the houses with rose bushes. For the most part, though, people adore roses. Dozens of them make florists rich every February, and they brighten up centerpieces or bedroom dressers in no time.

Roses are perfect example of love because the flowers cannot be separated from the thorns without the picker being in danger of being poked by the thorns. Every time we desire the “good part,” (the pedals), we must handle the “bad part” (the thorns) in order to separate the two. Love consists of the good parts and bad parts, and rose bushes have them both. 

The question is, why is it so easy to focus on the thorns? When two people interact, it is likely that one (or both) will detect the “thorns” of the other. There will be something about the other person that repels the first person, and the other way around. Every given relationship between two people in the entire world will consist of them eventually finding something wrong with each other. Add a third or fourth person to the relational mix, and the thorns multiply. Why do you think slander exists?

Yet everyone in the world seems to find friends with a number of these “thorny” people. What determines which thorny bush will befriend another when they all have thorns? 

What makes us tolerate our friends’ thorns while rejecting others with the same thorns?

Why can’t we understand that there will always be thorns in people? 

This whole world is filled with thorns, so why do we make it such a big deal when we see them in someone else? 

I think it’s time to rethink how we view others--both friends and enemies. 

Personally, I abhor arrogant attitudes in people. I am repelled by many vices, but arrogance is the worst. The arrogant stature of a self-centered worldview is hard to tolerate. I would liken arrogance to a rose bush with only one half of a flower pedal and ten-thousand branches with a million thorns on each branch (I’m being hyperbolical). 

I forget, though, that I have thorns myself. I hate arrogance, but am I completely void of it myself? Certainly not. So who am I to insist that others change their arrogance when I possess the same vice? The same holds true for all vices that I hate. 

All that’s left for me to do is learn to live with the arrogance and vices of people, and only with the grace of God can I tolerate such thorns. Even if someone’s thorns may have pierced me and are imbedded beneath my skin, I still must learn to coexist with them. It’s hard, but forgiveness and grace are necessary if we are to live alongside thorny people who have jabbed us with their thorns.

Sadly, I can’t rid the world of rose bushes, nor can I rid the world of arrogance. What I can do, though, is let God rid the arrogance in me, and learn to live with the thorns of others. I may not be able to change the thorns of others, but I can do something about my own. I may not be able to change how my thorns affect someone else, but I can be gracious towards them when theirs poke back.

Forgiveness is hard to find in our thorny world, and I want to see more of it. Thorns of friends and thorns of enemies all require grace and forgiveness. It’s a necessary part of what it means to love others. I want to see everyone, myself especially, live with the thorns because love requires us to do so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parents Don't Get a Vacation: Why Christmas Cannot Forsake Discipline

Is Christmas a season filled with love? It sure appears that way. Thoughtful gifts fill the carts, an extra dose of Dickens’ Tiny Tim is in everyone, and the sentimentality of a peaceful walk through a snow-riddled Christmas display are all clear signs of the season. Love fills the air. Mistletoes and warm, cozy evenings by the fire fuel such amorous emotions. 

Christmas is certainly conducive to love in all its forms, but do we forsake certain uncomfortable nuances of love so that we do not spoil the spirit of Christmas? 

The author of Hebrews tells us that God disciplines the one he loves (Heb. 12:6). Discipline is an essential part of love, and if we are to love children this Christmas, we must not neglect discipline. 

When one conjures up images of Christmas, discipline is generally not an image depicted. This time of the year is filled with love, but if love and discipline are inextricably linked, why do we shy away from the latter?

How often do we leave room for discipline in this season?

Whether it’s during Christmas or not, “taking a break” from discipline is not a healthy option for parents. Christmas is not a time to take a “parent’s vacation” and spoil a child. It may be tempting to do so, but children will most likely be parents one day and we do not want to pass on a legacy of inconsistent principles. 

Being a child who grew up adoring Christmas, I know the feeling of unmet expectations after all the presents have been opened. I know what it’s like to “want more.” These unmet expectations ruined my attitude, and discipline is needed to realign my attitude to a more selfless one--one that is more thankful.

What spirit produced those selfish expectations in me? Certainly not the spirit of Christmas.

What will an undisciplined child do with unmet expectations? They will grow even more selfish. They will sulk. 

Remember Dudley, from Harry Potter? He was intensely aggravated by the amount of gifts his parents gave him for his birthday because there was “one less than last year.” He sulked with unmet expectations. That is why it is necessary to guide children through those unmet expectations. Although discipline may sound severe, it is not evil--far from it! Indeed, the most powerful lessons from discipline are often the soft words of reprimand. 

When a child has unmet expectations, a parent must address it or else it will slowly fester into embitterment as more unmet expectations will surely be added to it over the course of his/her childhood. A parent who doesn't walk with their child through unmet expectations is only letting embitterment fester. What parent would leave a thorn to fester? Then why would we let embitterment fester?

But if we neglect discipline and guidance altogether, what are we raising our children to be?

Do we want our next generation to be filled with people like Dudley? 

Some might say, “Well, after all, it’s Christmas! Let the children be spoiled a little bit.”

Who cares if it’s Christmas! How is this season different than the rest of the year? There are no holidays in the occupation of “parenthood.” It is a full-time, 24/7 job.  

What is Christmas anyway? What is its spirit?

Christmas is about the coming of Jesus, who came for a single purpose: to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

The Devil loves selfish hearts. When we celebrate Christmas, we are also celebrating the destruction of our selfish hearts. In the work of Jesus, we are freed from the bondage to our egotistical strivings. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of freedom.

Discipline may seem to clash with the notion of “freedom,” but discipline is the means through which we obtain freedom. Those who find themselves in Christ are freed from sin, but that does not make their habitual deeds completely perfect. In other words, nobody will be perfect in this life. We are saved from sin, but we have a lot of work to do in the area of growth.


What do children do? They grow.

How can a child grow without discipline? 

We certainly cannot grow in our new life without God, and children cannot grow without the guidance of their parents. Discipline, no matter how mild, is something that appears severe, but it is always a means to an end, not the end itself. 

If we maintain discipline during Christmas, our children will find greater joy because proper discipline will open the door to a selfless life. There will be less “unmet expectations” and more thankfulness in a disciplined child. 

As a child of parents, I ask all parents to consider their children’s future this Christmas. Stop satisfying selfishness and start satisfying growth. Give them gifts they will truly value, not just gifts that will cast aside half-a-year from now. Don’t dump gifts on them in attempts to alleviate any past or current negligence on your part.

And always remember that God is our loving parent who disciplines us, his children, so why should we not love our children the same way? We are not to lightly regard the discipline of the Lord (Heb. 12:5), and nor should we lightly regard the discipline of our own children.

I may be sounding severe here, and it may be brash coming from a non-parent, but I will be a parent someday, and I do not want to raise my children to be selfless without other parents doing it as well. I need help, and I know you do too. That is why we must never be ashamed to seek help with guiding our children into a life of selflessness because that is the life we want for them.

Love fills this season, so let’s teach our children what it means to love.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The God of Wonders and the Joy of Being Human

The stories in the Gospels become so mundane to churchgoing, Bible-reading folk that it’s easy to miss the obvious fact that the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were people. Further, all the Bible stories we read consist of real people.

Could you imagine following someone who appears to be an ordinary spiritual teacher only to discover that this guy is borderline magical? He turned water into wine, walks on water, calms storms, casts out demons simply by speaking, raises the dead as one wakes a sleeper, and heals the sick and blind. Are we reading the Bible or Harry Potter here? This sounds more like the work of a fictional magician than a 1st-Century Rabbi. 

How in the world did the disciples respond to this?  

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41b)

Right before this statement from the disciples, Mark says that they were filled with fear. It’s almost comical. Here they are, trapped in a small boat with this guy who just calmed the storm by merely telling it to do so. I think I would be afraid too. 

After reading this section of Scripture, I am reminded of the film, Man of Steel, and a line spoken by Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, who tells Clark (Superman) that the world would be filled with fear when they discover that someone like him exists. 

Perhaps Man of Steel and Harry Potter show us something that has been missed in Christendom.  

Although God's activities with humanity have dramatically changed since Jesus and the stories of Scripture, he still works wonders today. Even though the type of wonders are different, the God who performs them is the same.

Humanity craves these wonders of God, which is evident from the fact that the Bible is the most-read book in the world. We all want to experience the power of God. When reading the Bible, we learn about what he can do and how he interacted with humanity in ages past. In doing so, we can vicariously experience it for ourselves. 

Still, there's a gap between what we read and what we experience today.

When is the last time I saw a blind person healed?

When was the last time I saw someone walking on water?

When was the last time I saw a storm calmed by someone speaking to it?

Can I recall a time when I walked around in a furnace? Survived a lions' den?

The Bible tantalizes us with stories of grandeur from days gone by. We know God has always been God, but we find it hard to reconcile what we read with what we witness in our daily lives. Where are the wonders of God for us today?

The point is not trying to see wonders, but to see God. Forget what he can do, let's focus on who he is. Every time we read the Bible, particularly the Gospels, we enter a "simulator" and experience him from afar. We may only be able to glimpse him from our simulator, but that is enough for us to drop our jaws.

How prepared is a soldier for the enormity of war after playing a simulation game? How prepared is an astronaut for the wonder of space after training in a simulator? The same is true with Jesus. Reading the Bible can only do so much to prepare us for the moment when we will see him; no matter how much information about him that we have, nothing can prepare us to meet him as he is. Reading about God, as he is described in the Bible, ushers in a wave of anticipation for Heaven. The anticipation of meeting Jesus in Heaven is perhaps the greatest joy of being a human.

Only when we begin to see God can we begin to see the wonders he has given us in the 21st Century. The horse must pull the cart; we must first desire God, not his wonders, because only then will we be able to appreciate his wonders. Perhaps the best wonder we have to enjoy in this era is our new life in Christ. This new life unleashes joy and goodness into all of our experiences, and the more we tap into it, the more we will anticipate meeting the one who gave it to us. Let us begin to anticipate again--the world needs Christians who anticipate Jesus. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Prayers of Irreverent Coating: Why God Desires More Than Decorum

Logically, it makes sense to not all.

How is it even possible to measure the effectiveness of prayer? How can we even know that our prayers are heard? Why do so many prayers seem to be unanswered? Why is _____ not healed yet?

Prayer is such a sloppy subject because it is intensely mystical and seemingly inefficient, but that doesn’t seem to stop most believers from performing the discipline of prayer. What is it that drives us to our knees in reverence of someone (or something) greater? This prostrated attitude seems to be a natural response to living on Earth, since the thousands of years of human existence is one grand tapestry of seeking God or gods. We humans can’t seem to shake our conception of the Divine, and I, for one, cannot shake it either.

The Bible records Jesus’ example of prayer as well as his teachings on the subject. The most universally recognized prayer from the Christian tradition is the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). In Luke 11, a disciple happens to see Jesus praying and then inquires how he himself should pray. Jesus then responds with what we know today as “the Lord’s Prayer.” What is interesting to me, though, is what follows in verses 5-13. Jesus decides to instruct his disciples on the effective method of prayer using a story of a man who is in need. What Jesus is saying in this story is that it is not the relationship between the pray-er and the one receiving the prayer that will determine if the pray-er receives what is desired. It is the impudence of the pray-er that determines if the pray-er receives what is desired. A similar story is recorded in Luke 18:1-6, where a widow annoys a judge because of he persistence supplications. Jesus is saying that people who push their limits get what they desire.

We are invited to be annoying to God because of our incessant prayers of impudence. 

Impudence? Really?

Some translations change this word in Luke 11:8 to “persistence,” but most maintain “impudence” or “importunity.” The NIV phrases this Greek word as “shameless audacity.” Is Jesus saying we should pray to God with shameless audacity? Wouldn’t this impudence sound irreverent to God? Wouldn't incessant prayer annoy him? I think that once we begin to assume that God only desires “proper” prayers that don't annoy anyone, we verge away from true faith. We start to assume that God can't hear brash prayers from the heart, or that he will be offended with us when we fail to pray “properly.” God expects more from us than decorous prayer; he expects us to give him a piece of our minds. 

From experience, I can say that prayer is not always decorous. Prayer can get nasty and nearly irreverent at times, especially when offered constantly. Life hands us lemons and we don’t always want to make lemonade. We want relief from the pains that plague us. Life causes us to be restless and the prayer of a restless soul tends to be messy and distasteful. This type of praying may sound counter-effective due its irreverent coating, but this is what Jesus is encouraging. He doesn't want us to coat our prayers with formalities and particularities. Instead of praying with rigid decorum, we are invited to be ourselves with him. We are invited to get it all out, lay it out and hash it out like group therapy. There are no rules to follow when it comes to conversing with the Divine. 

The impudence of prayer doesn’t mean, though, that we are to distrust God. This is important. Prayer must maintain this one thing: trust in God. Once we distrust God, our prayers become messages of hate instead of messages of supplication. Instead of making seemingly irreverent prayers filled with trust, we become irreverent people filled with distrust. This is not what Jesus encourages. 

Although life often tempts us to distrust God, our prayers must never be infected with such distrust. After we lose trust in God, we lose the desire to seek him, and then prayer becomes futile to us. We end up ceasing to pray altogether and thus lose our bond with God and grow cold to anything pertaining to him. When we stop trusting God, our unanswered prayers, in a sense, become our “gods,” and we exchange faith in God for faith in our broken hopes.

I mentioned at the outset that prayer is illogical because of its mystical and inefficient nature. It’s just not scientific! This may lead one to wonder why people pray, but perhaps it is not the logicality of prayer that brings people to their knees. Maybe it’s the hope that life is not something to be lived alone. It’s the presence of a Friend that is there when all other friends betray. It’s hope that life will always work out, even if things don’t turn out as expected. It’s the trust that God is there no matter what

I’ve heard it said that “Jesus is just a crutch.” Prayer, by extension, is then the use of such a crutch. Well, I would agree--somewhat. I think we need more than a crutch. We need surgery, rehab and therapy. Prayer is the evidence of a hurting soul, and the supplications we offer to God are the chances to receive medicine that a hurting soul needs. Prayer is the courage to endure rehab, and it is what helps us work through therapy. 

Even though prayer can seem futile at times, it must be remembered that prayer fuels something deeper than the satisfaction of our wants and needs. We may pray for those, but at a deeper level, we solidify our bond with God, and that is what truly matters. When compared to our bond with the Creator, unanswered prayers are infantile. This may be upsetting, but nothing should sever our bond with God, even unanswered prayers, because what we expect from prayer is not what matters. What matters is what is given to us because what’s been given is exactly what we need. We must trust that God will always give us what we need, even if we don’t expect what's given.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Outdoorsman's Diary: Elmer Fudd or Jason Bourne?

There was approximately one hour of the Minnesota rifle hunting season left, so I had little time to spare. I was hunting in new territory and there were no established hunting posts (stands or blinds) in the area, so I had to quickly find a promising game trail and position myself accordingly. For me, this was a move of desperation since I don’t normally post on the ground for rifle hunting, especially without a reasonable amount of time to prepare the site. I had to act and think quickly, and fortunately, as I was looking for a good location, I spotted fresh deer sign on a game trail that went into a swamp filled with mature black spruce trees. I figured whatever deer had made those tracks could possibly emerge from the swamp at dusk, so I decided this particular game trail would be the spot for the ambush. In addition, this particular game trail diverged, so I positioned myself in such a way that I could cover the spot where both trails became one. After finding a good spot, I sat down on the bog’s soft moss with my back facing the swamp and the targeted game trails to my left. There was a fallen log to my left, which I planned to use for a gun-rest as well as for concealment. My back was against a black spruce tree, my hands held a 1917 Enfield .30-06 rifle on my lap, and there was a thermos full of coffee and a Primos “Can” call to my side. Thus I sat and waited for my last chance at a whitetail for the season.

The previous days of the season were rough and disheartening. I had seen a total of three deer, and they were all seen when I was not hunting. Furthermore, the number of deer harvested around Northeastern Minnesota--where I was hunting--was below average for the year. Until the last day of the season, our five-person hunting party harvested only two deer. Roughly two hours before the season’s end, the third one was harvested--within a quarter-mile of where the other two were harvested. With that in mind, I decided that this particular place was where I would hunt for the last minutes of the season.

Which led me to my endeavor in the swamp. 

The wind direction was promising at first, since it pushed my scent away from the targeted trails. After a while, though, it seemed the wind direction changed. As experienced hunters know, there is nothing more irritating than inconsistent wind. I checked the wind direction using the steam from my cup of coffee. One instant it went west, where I did not want it to go, then it immediately went back east, but then it decided to go south as well. To make matters worse, I was only thirty yards from the targeted trails which. This meant that I needed absolutely no deviance in wind direction, otherwise my scent could inadvertently waft directly to the deer.

To add to this concern, I realized that deer could possibly come from another route to my right. As a hunter, being able to target multiple directions/deer routes is usually a good thing, but being on the ground with minimal coverage meant that I could not target both of these possible routes effectively. To put it simply, a hunter must make as little movement as possible, so if I desired to target both of these possible deer routes--the original one to the left as well as the newfound one on the right--I would need to move my body into a shooting position regardless of where the deer came from. To put it another way, if I only had one direction to target, my body could be preset for that one direction without the need for extra bodily movements. So I had to make a decision about which deer route to target, and since I already planned on targeting the left route, I decided to preset my body for the left route and hope that no deer would come from the right.

After I preset myself for the left route, I thought I heard a soft footstep behind me to my right. I slowly turned my head to look, and there, twenty-five yards away, walked a mature doe. Not a second later, the doe’s fawn stepped into view behind her. 

Of course the deer would come from my right when I wanted them to come from my left!

This was great! I was finally able to have my chance at harvesting a deer! 


I preset myself for the left route. 

I wanted to shoot the doe, so I had to move quietly if I didn’t want either of them to see me. To make it more difficult, I had to completely change my shooting position since I preset myself for the left. As experienced hunters know, the forest’s propensity for dense foliage can minimize opportunities for a shot, so I had little time before the doe was completely out of sight, which made the situation more critical since I had to move quickly--but quietly.   

I had little coverage, my body was in the wrong position, I was dangerously close to the deer, I had to move quickly and quietly and not attract attention, and I only had one chance to shoot. In other words, this was going to be a tricky kill. 

I was pivoting my body and rotating myself into position to shoot, and I thought I was hidden from their sight since both the doe and fawn were hidden behind foliage. The problem, though, was that the fawn could see me. While I was turning my body, I happened to make eye contact with the fawn.

I was done--finished. 

I froze in place, and so did the fawn, but the doe kept walking. I was pinned. The doe only had two steps before it was in position for me to shoot, but my body, conversely, was not in position. As the point of no return arrived, and the doe was in the only opening in the foliage. If I wanted to harvest this doe, I needed to quickly whirl my rifle and torso around for the shot; there was no more time for “stealthy.”

I knew that my sudden movement would surely trigger a negative response in the fawn, who had me pinned with his/her eyes, but I needed to act quickly or else I would lose my chance altogether. If I made the sudden movement, I knew the fawn would react and spoil a steady shot, so the shot needed to be a fast one. 

Would I risk a fast shot or let the opportunity to harvest this doe pass by?

I decided to risk it.

At this point, I was either Elmer Fudd or Jason Bourn; it would either be an epic shot or botched attempt. 

As I whirled my gun and body, the fawn “blew” (a defense mechanism where deer snort loudly to warn other deer of danger). As the fawn blew, the doe leapt through the opening in the foliage and with her little sidekick in tow.

When my rifle was in finally in position, the deer were in the next county.

I was done--finished.

I began using the Primos “Can” call repeatedly to encourage their return. I was trying to communicate: “Hey! I’m just a deer, like you! Don’t run away! I won’t hurt you....” 

The fawn continued blowing superfluously in the distance (maybe they weren’t in the next county). The pair remained just out of my sight while the fawn continued to blow. It seemed they decided to stick around and rub my blunder in my face. After a minute of the fawn’s trash-talk, they were both gone--for good.

Thus ended the 2013 MN rifle hunting season. 

As a hunter, it’s easy to get discouraged after botching a hunt, especially when it’s obvious that it will be the only chance of the season. That evening, I walked out of the woods with my head and heart downtrodden due to my failure. It was hard to see something positive in it, but I could not shake the feeling that I was blessed to have had a chance. I came to the conclusion that I would rather fail my one chance than not have a chance at all.

The woods teaches a hunter many lessons, and this year I learned that a mistake is a better lesson than no lesson at all. Although I felt more like Elmer Fudd than Jason Bourne with my tactical skills, I felt blessed to have been given a chance at a deer. I appreciated my opportunity in the swamp.

I think we need to see our mistakes for what they are: a lesson to learn and an opportunity to appreciate.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Redeemed Complexity

I often gripe at how life is so complicated. 

Why does every topic that we study end up being so much more complex than what we had anticipated at the outset? I remember beginning my Bible classes at OHCC (Oak Hills Christian College) and feeling an overwhelming sense of finiteness.

To add to the problem, at the outset of my freshman year, one of my professors said, “I began Bible school with the assumption that it would answer my questions...but I left with more questions than answers. Then I went to seminary and left with even more questions. Now, after years of experience pastoring and instructing in college, I have even more questions!” 

Throughout my years of school, I progressively became more aware of my finiteness, as my instructor forewarned. Conversely, there seemed to be a progression of knowledge as well. When I pursued a subject, I found it hard to “stop digging.” I had questions run subconsciously through my mind. How could I effectively learn a subject without learning it thoroughly? What if I missed a valuable piece of information? Am I going about this the right way or is there a better approach? 

I didn’t like leaving ends open and suppositions unsupported. There is something satisfying about being sure of something. With knowledge comes control, and with control comes power. Our problem with complexity may be rooted in our desire for controlling power, but I think our more basal desire is to eradicate our fear of complexity. There is a saying, “We fear what we don’t understand,” and I like to believe it because it makes sense. However, the consideration of something to be sensible raises another issue: does something need to make sense for it to be true, or can something be true even though it makes no sense?  

Why is it so hard for finite beings to accept complex ideas that don’t make sense? 

Maybe a different question needs to be asked: is it even possible for us to be finite and simple in a complex world? If we cannot be infinite, can we be simple?

The first humans who walked upon this great world were finite, like us, but they were also able to live with their own complexity and the complexity of God, which is something we find hard to do today; they walked and talked with a complex God and trusted him. In a sense, they were “simple” because they did not fear what they didn’t understand (complexity). It wasn’t until after they disobeyed him that they became fearful. Interestingly, they became fearful only when they obtained the knowledge of good and evil.

I would argue that the knowledge of good and evil invites the knower to blur lines and muddy issues. For instance, if we know black is black and white is white, then we know how to make grey by blurring black and white. If we know neither, how can we know grey? Not knowing black, white and grey doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, it simply means that complicating matters by attempting to color things for ourselves is impossible. In the same way, before our obtainment of knowing good and evil, we could not complicate life and attempt to simplify complexity because there was no need to simplify anything; we simply lived in simple obedience to a complex God. We trusted someone we didn’t completely understand--and we were fine with it. It wasn’t until we became aware of our own complexity that we became fearful of complexity.

Another problem with knowing good and evil is that our ancestors’ attainment of such knowledge cost us our innocence because they attained it by disobedience. This loss of innocence can also be called “sin.” Sin is the fatal infection of innocent complexity. It works alongside complexity to muddy clean water and blur distinct lines; it poisons ideas, minds and hearts. When a finite, complex being becomes aware of its own complexity and is unable to simplify it, it becomes fearful of complexity. At one time, we could be complex and have simple obedience to a complex God, but disobedience made obedience less simple because it turned our complexity into instruments of sin. 

It seems that life as we know it is bound to chains of complexity and we cannot simplify it enough to feel freed from it. The good news, though, is that we have been given light to see past our own sinful complexity as well as see our second chance at innocent complexity 

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3, emphasis added).

Jesus appeals to the innocent faith of children to make his point. We all have the opportunity to turn and, like a child, believe. He is saying that obedience is simple, despite our tendency to either complicate obedience or refuse to obey altogether. All who are in Christ are given the opportunity to be obedient again.

Does our ability to obey mean that our complexity is removed? Of course not. It is one thing to be ignorant of our own complexity, and another thing to have it be redeemed; we were once ignorant, but we cannot be anymore. What we can be, though, is redeemed to live in simple obedience again. We all are trapped in sinful complexity, but that does not mean innocence (sinlessness) cannot be imparted to us. Jesus has freed us from sin, but with that freedom comes the redemption of complexity. In other words, we are able to live with our complexity with new eyes. 

These new eyes give us to ability to appreciate complexity. We are now freed to swim in the complexities of God and trust him again with simplicity. We are freed to explore our own complexity without fear. We are free to explore and study complex issues and leave them complex. Sin is what made us fearful of God, but Christ has removed the cause of fear so that we can live fearlessly in the presence of complexity. 

We are irreparably conscience of our complexity, but, like scars who have been healed, we have had our awareness redeemed and healed.

Our redeemed complexity allows us to be innocent again, and this innocence allows us to experience the fearlessness of living with a complex God who we will never understand.

Will we trust someone we don’t understand?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

God Is Still Writing

There's something inescapable about a good story because it traps you in itself. The characters inspire us, the settings invite us to environments foreign to us, and the plots can often remind us of our own lives. I wonder, though, how much we consider our own lives to be “good stories.” 

We are all walking stories, whether we care to admit it or not. It’s hard to live life on planet Earth without contributing to one’s own story because each day we “write” another page in our personal stories by simply living life. Sometimes we consider the pages we write to be uninteresting, and sometimes we feel ashamed about what we write. Some days, however, we manage to write masterpieces and feel, not just content, but happy with where we are heading. Most of the time, though, I think we consider the pages we write to be average--nothing special. We simply try to get by and make the most of what life’s handed to us.

It’s easy to think less of oneself because if we “set the bar low,” the less we will be disappointed when life goes awry. We say, “See? Told you my life was nothing special,” when we fail to get the job, have a miscarriage, get fired, go into debt, get divorced, have our house foreclosed, etc. Conversely, if we “set the bar high,” expect ourselves to be something great, and hope to inspire others, the harder we crash back down to “reality” when things don’t pan out as expected. Either way, whether we are optimistic or pessimistic with our personal stories, the same premise seems to permeate (most of) our self-perceptions: we are average, dull, live mundane lives and write mundane stories. 

Of course, we hear about other people’s great stories, where the “bar was set high,” and how they succeeded. We hear how their “son inspired millions with overcoming his disability” or their “daughter is the president of a successful non-profit organization that is bringing water to people in Africa.” We hear the “rags to riches” stories and attempt to learn from them, but all too often we fail to translate their story into ours and end up even more discouraged. Sometimes we don’t even try to emulate those “heroes.” In the face of these stories, it’s hard to not look at our own stories with disdain. There is something repulsive about success stories to those who have grown accustomed to failure.   

Is there any way out of this rubble of mundanity? Must we continue living ordinary lives?

What if they’re not ordinary? Maybe we no longer need to find “good stories” in books or movies because we already have a good story all around us that's waiting for us to join in.

Do you believe it? Could you believe it?

God is in the middle of the greatest epic of them all, and he invites us to join it. He will not only turn our stories into good stories, he will turn them into great stories once we enter his narrative. The outcome of our stories depends on how we respond to God’s invitation to join his story.

Some may think their story is hopeless because they are in a low spot in life, and that not even God could make their ending good. Indeed, it’s hard to think of one’s story as good when it is in the middle of a conflict.

But have we forgotten that all good stories involve conflict? ALL stories involve conflict; it’s a part of our daily lives. We may tend to think that conflict is akin to a bad ending, but there’s more to the story. 

God is still writing.

Don’t let your story end at the conflict; let God finish it with greatness. All we must do is trust him as the Author, and trust that he will always provide us with the strength to finish our stories well. In fact, he already has provided so much strength in Jesus. Christ’s story can become our own story, and our redemption in him is the foundation for our stories to mend. We are redeemed so that we can live better stories that are filled with forgiveness, perseverance, courage, hope, love, faith, reconciliation, etc. We can see our stories as “good stories” when we see them as part of Christ’s story.

Jesus’ story is what guarantees that ours will be great because we already know how it’s going to end--it’s going to end better than we can imagine because it’s not going to end. Stories, like Christ’s, that end with redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness can never end because they continually make life better. Stories with these elements are far better than stories that conclude with bitterness, revenge and hate. The decay of bitterness, revenge and hate can only survive when there’s something to devour. Contrarily, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness can’t devour anything because they are only able to build and construct better lives.  

God has invited us into a story that trumps any ending we could garner for ourselves. He promises to validate our stories by making them great. We can live in a story like those “good stories” that we love.

Monday, November 18, 2013

In Christ

Undoubtedly, the most influential tenet of the faith that I have ever learned was my newfound identity in Christ. These last two words are critical: IN CHRIST. Sadly, I never knew this when I first became a Christian.

Why do so many of us miss these two words?

Fortunately, I have heard more and more sermons addressing and proclaiming this fact. We need more Christians living with the certainty of their identity.

When it comes to the Christian journey, the "first step" of our faith must be more than just a sentimental memory. I love that old proverb that says a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. It's almost cliché now, but it rings true regardless. The point I draw from it is that no matter how great the task, it must begin somewhere.

Understanding our identity in Christ should be the “first step” of the Christian faith. Too many of us miss it when we enter the body of Christ. Discussions about divine election, predestination, the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, and how one actually “gets saved” aside, it is clear that living in Christ’s Kingdom requires active action on our part (Note the active responses required: Mark 10:21; John 10:27; 14:15). If we would solidify this one tenet at the outset, our Christian growth would be filled with less frustration. 

I know firsthand what it is like to fail to grasp this and live life frustrated. In the face of my worst habitual sin, my inability to overcome it made me a walking hell; I was continually convicted of my sin, yet chained by remorse. The tension between sin and guilt were debilitating because it prevented me from any forward motion. The problem was myself. I would be so bent on ridding myself of sin that all I could do was focus on myself. I vowed to change my ways only to mess up again and then sulk in guilt, which only made me more selfish because, obviously, guilt only turns the focus onto oneself.

A wise man told me to "get over myself" and understand that I was no longer in sin because I was IN CHRIST. Only then did I began to see the freedom that Jesus offers. The work of our Savior solidified our identity so that we have no need to strive for peace with our own devices. We have been made into new people. Guilt and the preoccupation with “sin management” (to quote John Eldredge’s phrase) prevents us from growing up in our Christian identities. 

Growth, though, doesn't come without decisions and discipline. Discipline often gets misconstrued as legalism, but it is far from it. Being “in Christ” is what balances the tension between grace and work (see Rom. Eph. 2:5-10; Jam. 2:14-26), and it gives discipline the proper perspective. Only in Christ can we simultaneously do and rest without any worry of legalism or spiritual stagnation. It is “in Christ” where we are freed from sin so that we can grow up in our new identity (read Romans 6). If we fail to recognize that we have already been freed from sin in Christ, then we cannot grow. A plant cannot grow on its own; it must rely on the sun, water and good soil. It did not choose to become a plant, it simply is a plant. Likewise, we must first rest in our identity in Christ so that we can grow into our new identity by doing good deeds. 

If we have missed the enormity of these two words, “in Christ,” it's not too late. The beauty of being “in Christ” is that it's a reality whether we acknowledge it or not. It's an objective fact that we are invited to join. It's a fact we must return to over and over if we wish to grow, but it is always there to welcome us in. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Outdoorsman's Diary: Lessons Learned

I have found that one of the most powerful avenues to God is associating oneself with the natural world. Whether its experiencing the call of the hunter, fishing on a glassy lake, taking an observant hike or sitting on a park bench, the natural impulse is to throw up my arms in defeat. How can one compete with such grandeur? The flora and fauna of the world show us that God's creation is far greater than ourselves and our problems--if we only have the eyes to see it. It’s wise to take heed of it’s magnitude and contemplate our place in it.

The woods becomes a wise mentor as it sifts through my soul. Autumn strolls in, and the sights and smells awaken the deep call to test my wits against wild game; the mentor invites me for another session. It’s hard to ignore the alluring grit of the woods, and it is this grit that wicks selfishness out.

There are valuable moral lessons to be learned from the sport of hunting. When determined to harvest the desired game, a hunter learns to wait...and wait after waiting. The patience required for hunting is fundamental, and it is one of the greatest lessons learned from the deer stand or blind. It requires a delicate disposition that is determined to do what it takes at the cost of personal comfort. It forces us to concentrate on our goal, and patience is the fuel needed to reach it.

Speaking of goals, another valuable lesson in hunting is the fulfillment of reaching a goal. The hordes of hostile elements batter against a hunter’s resolve, ensuring that the harvest of an animal doesn't leave us unfulfilled. The more difficult the hunt, the more rewarding the capture.

Sometimes, though, we fail. I know what it is like to miss a trophy whitetail and let it escape. The natural tendency is to loathe oneself and wallow in regret. The memories of our failures often stick better than our successes. What needs to be remembered, though, is that we are finite creatures; we cannot succeed 100% of the time. If we are to get anywhere in life, failures are required. Indeed, mistakes often become the best teachers.

We, as humans, tend to compartmentalize our lives and live as fractured selves. The same is true for hunters; the many lessons learned in the woods often fail to translate into society. We must work with God's Spirit, the True Mentor, to be congruent in both worlds.

The natural world holds many treasures. God covertly hides little lessons in the trees, birds, insects and mammals for us to unpack and learn. These lessons learned along the riverbeds, lakes and fields all point us to a world greater than ourselves. Will we heed their instruction?

Wherever we connect with God, it is crucial that we translate the fruits of that connection into societal life. I believe that the more we can translate the lessons learned in our places of worship to society, the more we can conversely bring lessons from society to our places of worship. We were made to be congruent in all spheres; we cannot live happily if we're fractured.