Refinement: How We See and Experience Adversity

“See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” — Isaiah 48:10, NRSV

In a previous post, we talked about the fact that adversity is a guarantee in life. Struggle, as you probably know, happens to everyone at one point or another. The intensity, causes, and manifestations of struggle may change, but the fact is adversity is a companion we should get used to. This leaves us with those two all-important questions: how will we face it and how will we surface on the other side?

For me, one of the most adverse experiences that I have been faced with is the loss of my job and calling, all in the span of a few months. After being let go from working at my appointed church, I was eager to  get back into ministry elsewhere. The problem was, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go back. Don’t get me wrong, we have been attending churches and I have still kept my Christian spiritual life in tact. I also want to get involved at whatever church we join, teaching classes, serving in missions, etc. However, I want to do those things for free, not tethered to the institutional church. There are some who are called to that and who do amazing work in professional ministry. My personal sense of integrity, idealism, and faith keep me from being one of those people. Others may be called to use these gifts in professional ministry, but I have learned it is not my way.

On one hand, this was a good realization. It is just as much a blessing to know when one is not called to something as knowing when one is called to something. I fostered a lot of resentment in my time in professional ministry, mostly toward other clergy who had a sense of belonging that I never experienced. I also had major issues with a necessary component to church in the United States, which is keeping the right people content. To me, if something is true or in need of being presented, it needs to be presented, regardless of the implications for a person’s spiritual life. If their spiritual life is selfishly constructed, what are we even doing?

Anyway, I won’t go much further down that road.

On the other hand, this one hurt. I was planning to spend my life in ministry. I wanted to be important in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God. I wanted my life to matter for the cause of Christ.

I should say that being fired was actually a bit of a blessing. I had issues with that placement. I was bad at keeping boundaries that protected me, my relationships, and the amazing congregation of youth and adults I love. Being let go and having the opportunity to face those ugly truths has actually made me a better man, and it also allowed me the chance to see what I should (and shouldn’t) be doing with my life. All in all, I’m happier now than I have been in a long time, and I have God and my amazing wife, family, and friends to thank for that. However, this is not the only result that could have come.

You see, adversity like this is not strange or uncommon. Whether it is brought on by chance, our own doings, or the doings of others, we are all going to face the ugly side of life and free will at many points throughout our brief existence on this earth. With that in mind, we need to answer those two all-important questions.

I submit that we look at adversity as divine testing. Now, before my more progressive friends close this window, and before my theologically… assertive (Calvinist?) brothers and sisters jump sky-high with delight, let me expand on what I mean by “divine testing.” When most of us think about the idea of God testing us, we look at it in academic terms. Just as the teacher is the one who hands us the blue book or scan-tron, we imagine God is the one who engineers the particular circumstance by which we are tested. God hands it to us, and we are expected to do our best to pass it.

For some of us, this may be comforting, but it isn’t for me. It makes God seem a bit cruel. However, I do believe we are tested in that God watches how we respond to certain things. God gives us freedom and the tools to make choices, even gives us the means of making the right choices, however, it is up to us to complete that act, and God is watching, prepared to give revelation in either an affirming or corrective manner.

This is a middle road opinion, to be sure, but I find it to be the most Scriptural of the available options. For example, take a look at the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. A situation of adversity comes up (4:5), God warns and encourages Cain (4:6-7), a regrettable choice is made (4:8), and God responds accordingly (4:10-12). The same happens with everyone, from the heroes of faith (like Moses and David) to the entire nation of Israel and the body of Christian believers. All are tested, but not because God puts them in crappy situations. Rather, we are all tested when we face adversity that is common to all, specific to our situation, and has the potential to cause us to act unfaithfully. 

If you look at the Scripture at the beginning of this post, you’ll find that it is a quote from a context in which Isaiah is making note of the times Israel failed their tests. This failure led to their conquest and exile as a natural out working of their violation of God’s covenant. There are many tests that we have failed or will fail. However, the grace of God in Christ is relentless. While we may fail, God calls us to repent (to change our ways and move in a different direction). If we do this, and if we continue to put in efforts to better ourselves and stay connected to God, we will eventually see a change in how adversity affects us.  What once drove us to sin, anger, bitterness, addiction, and other negative actions can actually be an opportunity to live in faith, kindness, compassion, and honesty. When we move from the former to the latter, it is the grace of God working within us, refining us, and making us more whole.

I have responded to the recent tests in both positive and negative ways. I have been hurt, angry, and resentful. However, I have also gotten help for those things, and a result, I have grown closer to God, my wife, my friends, and my family. I have also gained more understanding regarding what kind of life I want to have in order to serve God and others best. In the end, I hope you will pray for me that I may come through this process refined and improved. I will also pray for you in that regard, dear reader. 

Go forth in hope, knowing that every day, we are being tested. Every situation presents us with an opportunity to do good or evil, and we must choose. Remember that God is always with you, no matter what, and rise to the occasion the next inevitable time adversity comes to meet you. By the grace of God, I know that we can overcome.

Peace be with you!

Feel free to comment on this post or ask for prayer from the Contact page!

Just a Moment to Marvel

“For this foreign affair, I will abide as the middle man, ‘Cause the solo cry is more than I can stand. So I walk on air, and awkwardly seek out a child’s form. And I know that you won’t lead me to the storm.”

Christmas is a-coming! With just two days to go, I have been reflecting pretty intently on the Incarnation. If you don’t know, this is the word that means “to take on flesh,” which is what we Christians celebrate on Christmas: when God took on flesh as a baby in a feeding trough, soon to show us the true meaning of love and humility in the person of Jesus Christ.

The quote above is from a song called “Anything You Say,” by Deas Vail, a band with heavy Christian influence. When I hear this verse, I immediately think of the gift of the Incarnation, and I wanted to share why this story is so beautiful, powerful, and worth becoming a part of.

When we think of God, we often picture a big person or figure in the sky, like Zeus. Maybe we imagine an invisible, impersonal force. Some just don’t even think about it at all. In any of these scenarios, God is something hard to look to or imagine, much less something with which we can have an honest, intimate relationship.

That’s why this story is so important! God desires to have us love Him, know Him, and follow His ways. Because God is so immense and, in some way, unknowable, He has made a habit of revealing Himself to us. We see God in Creation, on Mount Sinai, in the still silence on a mountain, and, in time, our very own flesh!

The Christmas story is the tale which reminds us that God is not some distant tyrant who lords over our lives. God is willing to humble Himself, becoming a lowly child, not born in a palace or house, but in a barn. This child grew to be a wandering preacher and healer, crucified because of the wickedness of those He came to save, only to break the powers of sin and death by rising again. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the beginning of this beautiful story, which teaches us that, wicked as we may be at times, God still earnestly desires to dwell among us in love. That’s some inspiring and instructive stuff!

Peace be with you!

“To Bind Up the Brokenhearted”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” — Isaiah 61:1

This is a pretty popular Scripture among Christians, as it should be. After all, Jesus quotes this very passage, using it to refer to himself in Luke 4, which actually makes this a perfect Scripture for the coming of Christmas!

Christmas isn’t always a full-on occasion for celebration. Many people find it to be one of the hardest times of years. It is a time for family, love, togetherness, and joy, but many of us experience it as a reminder of the absence of these things in their lives. I myself am experiencing that this year. I am unemployed, changing careers/callings, and about to close a chapter of my life that I was so sure had many more pages to go. I will be battling shame and a major sense of disappointment as I interact with family this year. This is one of several Christmases that were more painful than joyful. Odds are, you yourself know what this is like.

This is why it is essential that we remember Scriptures like this one from Isaiah. They remind us that the coming of Christ isn’t about family gatherings, presents, and being of good cheer for a month straight. Christ is entering into the dirty, dark depths of human existence. When Christ takes on flesh, it is that of a poor carpenter’s son, nestled into a feeding trough. Christ’s life is lived in the service of others, homeless, wandering from place to place, His great love rewarded with a cross.

With that in mind, the Incarnation we will celebrate this coming Monday is more than a cause for joy; it is a cause for remembrance. We are to remember that there is no darkness, no heartbreak, no addiction, no dishonor, no shame, no scars that are strong enough to defeat the love of God revealed in Jesus. We are to remember that, knowing all that we are and all we have done, God still chooses to be immediately and powerfully present among us, sharing our pain and guiding us to wholeness by the tenderness of His Spirit. Further, we must remember that we are called not only to experience this wonderful story, but also to take part in it. Through Christ, we are made members of God’s family, and as members of God’s family, we are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ. We are called to be sensitive toward those who are in pain, and to develop a rule of life based on the compassion, justice, and grace we receive in Christ.

As you go about the final days of preparation for what truly is a joyous holiday, remember why it is joyous. It’s not about your successes or failures. It’s not about what you have lost or what you have. It is about the God that meets you right where you are, with open arms and a heart full of love as He calls you to experience grace. Believe in this Good News, and share it through your own love of others.

Peace be with you!

 

Fruit-Making and the Gospel

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” — Matthew 12:33, NRSV

The Gospel is a black-and-white kind of thing, right? In some ways, yes. You are either intentionally seeking and following God or not. There are strict consequences for fitting in the “not” category. You either love your neighbor and your enemy or you don’t. There are strict consequences for those in the “don’t” category as well.

Now, many of my liberal brothers and sisters don’t like when you bring up the idea of hell or punishment or consequences, as there seems to be no grace in these things. On one level, they are right. On the other hand, consequences are naturally built into our world due to the nature of free will, so it isn’t God’s lack of grace, but our sinfulness that lands on our own heads (Psalm 7:16). In fact, as discussed in a previous post, the teachings of punishment seem to be serving a gracious purpose, and I’d like to re-emphasize that in more detail today.

Before my conservative brothers and sisters pump their fists too high for my argument against avoiding the judgment language of Scripture, it’s only fair that I throw out some challenge in the opposite direction as well. If we get too caught up with this judgment stuff, we run the risk of treating others as though we are the ones who get to judge and condemn them, as opposed to God, the only one with the information necessary to do so. Hopefully, I don’t have to remind you that this is frowned upon by our Savior (Matthew 7:1-5). When we do this, we tend to write people off, and this is dangerous for any faithful person.

Have you ever been written off? Have you ever been categorized according to the worst parts of yourself and given in to that identity? I have. I have believed the lies other people told me because they only knew me for the mistakes I had made. I have known people who lacked grace for themselves, therefore they had even less to show others. The only thing that mattered was the black-and-white of justice, even if the truth was far more complicated. Whatever I had done wrong, that’s what I was, and you can bet I have repeated this cycle with others.

We all, in some way, do this. We categorize each other. We determine who we like, who we don’t, and we define them solely based on those characteristics. If we like or love them, we overlook the flaws. If we despise them, we overlook any complicating factors that might taint our truth. We do this with ourselves. We overlook either our faults or our gifts, usually a combination of both, and we become defined by the most narrow bit of information.

For example, consider this parable from Matthew 13:24-30. This is a pretty classic “day of judgment” piece from Jesus’ teachings. Now, the traditional interpretation that I hear when going over this Scripture is that eventually, THE judgment will occur, and some people are wheat, some are weeds, and one had better hope they are wheat! What’s more, far too many people use this to justify their prejudicial categories against others. We say things like, “One day, they’ll get what they deserve,” and “Thank goodness I am not one of those.”

Looking at the text though, we spot something interesting. When the enemy plants the weeds, the “slaves of the householder” point it out, and the response of the householder is not what we might expect. The slaves ask if they should go ahead and uproot the weeds, and the householder (Jesus) responds, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (13:29-30). On the surface, it would seem Jesus is worried about accidentally uprooted those that are wheat with those that are weeds. The problem is, people aren’t rooted in the ground, and this is a parable.

Jesus isn’t hoping that eventually the weeds and wheat grow apart. He is hoping that there will eventually be no weeds. God’s grace is evident in the fact that He doesn’t want judgment to be premature, and He wants all of us to find our way back home. We are not doomed to either be wheat or weeds. Whether or not we are the fruit of the kingdom or not is dependent upon our willingness to seek after God and live a life that reflects the love He shows us in Christ.  

You are not doomed to be anything. I am not, either. We have to make daily decisions, and whatever we decide will determine what we are in the end. Will we make mistakes, even after resolving to bear the good fruit of the kingdom? Absolutely. It happens. The life of faith, however, is not about achieving the perfection of God revealed in Jesus. It is about pursuing it with grace for ourselves AND for each other. It is the refusal to give up on ourselves and on each other, just as God refuses to give up on us. I think that is some damn good news, and I hope you agree.

So, as the quote at the start of this post says, we are free to decide what fruit we will bear in our lives. It is never too late to change our choices, to seek help in order that we may walk a different path. We are not stuck with no way out of the darkness. There is a searchlight that is always shining, and it is my prayer that you will lift your hands, raise your voice, and begin the slow move toward it. God will be there every step of the way, and He will take care of the rest.

Peace be with you!

A Happy Kind of Trapped

“Where shall I go to escape your spirit? Where shall I free from your presence?” — Psalm 139:7, NJB

I don’t know about you, but verses like this one were often used as subtle threats. It was almost like pastors and youth leaders imagined God as Roz from Monsters, Inc, aaaalways watching…

Needless to say, the idea of God always being there watching us and judging us is uncomfortable, and it often becomes a cause for resentment. We don’t like authority as humans, and especially not where I live in the United States (Texas, of all places). We don’t like the idea of being bare before God, whether because of shame, fear, or a general distaste for judgment. 

Honestly, I can relate. I resent the idea that I could be judged or condemned based on how I manage in this life. It makes sense, but what if the ever-abiding presence of God with us is more than a means of keeping tabs on us? What if it is a cause for joy, just as much as concern? 

We all too often are taught to think of God in two extremes: the squishy, love-all deity that forgives us OR what is perceived to be the opposite, full of hard judgments, rendering what we deserve. We are tragically bad at balancing the notion of justice and grace, and it is my hope that this Psalm we are discussing will help.
You see, it is true that God’s presence with us includes judgment. God is just and holy. and when we aren’t, that’s going to get some attention. However, it is important that we don’t separate the judgment of God from His grace. 

God is not one who corrects or judges just for the sake of doing those things. God’s hope is to help us grow if we will let Him. Free will does mean we can choose to ignore the rebuke of God until everything goes to Hell in a handbasket, but it also means we can open our hearts to the grace God offers by showing us a better way. 

Psalm 139 reads:

“If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol, there you are. If I speed away on the wings of the dawn, if I dwell beyond the ocean, even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.” (verses 8-10)

God’s presence is ultimately one of guidance, one of support. God’s presence bears judgment, not for condemnation, but in the hopes of our salvation, our experience of wholeness in relationship with God and each other. 

Unlike Roz, it is not God’s hope to catch us messing up. It is not God’s intention that we cower in fear because of His presence. Rather, God’s intent is for us to find comfort, correction, support, and inspiration, realizing that we are never alone in this life, and that the One who was made flesh in Jesus now dwells within us as the Holy Spirit, guiding and sustaining us. 

It will probably take a long time to heal from the wrong idea that God is like a cosmic hall monitor, always with us in order to smite us when needed. Perhaps it just takes a daily reminder (like this one) that God IS love, and love can mean correction or judgment, but neither of those is without the grace of our Father who loves us enough to die for us. 

Peace be with you!

Written Off

“So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” — Matthew 18:14, NRSV

This is an excerpt from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew, a favorite of mine (you probably know by now that I have a lot of favorites) because of it’s encouraging message. Today, I want to share that message with you. 

Life in our world has become full of writing people off. Those who make mistakes, big or small, are often defined by those rather than any other positive characteristic they may possess. I’m willing to bet that you have, at one point or another, been written off in the minds of others. 

You could have done something absolutely awful. You could have simply done the wrong, minor thing. You could even just be of the wrong race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or economic class. In any event, I imagine you know what it’s like to feel cast aside, condemned, and undervalued. 

At the same time, we all have a tendency to write others off as well. 

The “major” sinners?

The “angry black woman” sharing her experiences?

The conservative family member trying to get a word in? 

All of these are examples of my own sinful inclination to shut down and categorize rather than open up and provide a welcoming space for others, as I would like them to do for me. It’s wrong, and it’s something that I bet we all could stand to work on.

So looking at this parable from Jesus, we should note two things: the grace we are to accept and the grace we are to exhibit. 

You see, God’s grace is not meant to just be received. It is to be imitated and shared by those who claim to follow Christ. The same holds true here. 

First of all, there is no specification on the one sheep who goes astray in verse 12. Is this the first or tenth time? Is the sheep intentionally wandering off, going to dangerous places? Does this sheep deserve to just be left behind? Just as it doesn’t seem to matter in Matthew’s text, neither do I believe it matters in life. 

We all stray from the paths of doing right and loving as we should. Some of us do it habitually, time and time again, while others constantly make brand new mistakes. Maybe you’re one who just has a big one every once in a while. In many instances we resign ourselves to our destructive cycles of behavior believing that we are “just that kind of person” because everyone else seems more than happy to accept it. In any case, the only specified truth of God’s attitude toward straying sheep such as you or I is this: “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” 

This is the grace to be received. It is not God’s will that you or I be lost. Regardless of the multitude or intensity of our sin, God’s will is that we will accept the truth that we are worth more than we think. Infinitely so. 

God sees our flesh and being as good enough for the Divine presence to reside in, evidenced in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God is NEVER going to give up on you. So, don’t you dare give up on yourself. 

Addict? Cheater? Murderer? Abused? Abuser? Promiscuous?  Angry? Hurt? Gossiper?  Some of these are sin, some are the result of it, but none are who you are. Those are distortions of who you are. Those are filters that cloud your image of yourself.  You are a creation of God, you are loved, and you can be set free from even the darkest parts of you. I have experienced this personally many times, and I hope you will become open to these experiences as well wherever you are at. 

That’s the grace to accept. The grace to share is the grace to extend to others the same love God extends to us. Just as God’s motherly arms remain open for us to run into, even when we turn away, so should our arms remain open to those who need someone to believe in them. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean we accept abuse or utter mistreatment. It is not God’s will that any person remain in an abusive relationship out of love. Call the police, get yourself safe so that you can be treated as well as God desires for you (that’s a lot).

What it does mean is that we stop writing people off. We let our hearts, arms, and ears remain open to those who challenge us, those we’d like to avoid, those we don’t feel we should respect. We might even call them enemies. 

“Love your enemies.”

Sound familiar? See the quote here. No, it isn’t out of context. No, it is not exaggeration. Jesus means it. Just as God extends grace to us, so we should do the same for ALL others (5:48). 

If we just take and refuse to give, nothing will change! The cycle will continue. If, however, we receive in order to give, accept love in order to show love, THEN we will see the coming of a whole new world. It may hurt or be uncomfortable, but it is is also the most blessed and powerful endeavor there is, for it is the sharing of the Gospel. 

So there you have it. God hasn’t written you off (and never will), so don’t let others (or yourself) do it either! Know that it is never to late, that you are loved, and you are called to love. If we can accept this, we are then free and able to share that love, and usher in a new way of life for all. 

Peace be with you!