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.