Monday, May 30, 2016

When Suffering Brings Clarity

A couple of years ago I noticed that I strained to see.  It was certainly true when I didn't have my glasses, but even my low-prescription glasses weren't helping all that much.  When I went to the optometrist, I was shocked to find out that my eyesight had gone from 20/35 to 20/100!  Over time, my eyesight subtly got worse, and I didn't even know it.  But when I got my new prescription, I could see far more clearly.

Suffering can be like a visit to the optometrist.  If we keep it in the lens of God, His Kingdom, and His Gospel, suffering brings sharper clarity to life.  The house fire has been one such act of clarity.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."  (James 1:2-3)

James, and the rest of the early church, knew trials.  Whether it was the poor being neglected, or the apostles and others beaten or killed for their faith in Christ; Christians knew trials of various kinds.  And James calls them to count it all joy.  Why?  Because it produces steadfastness in faith.  

I've learned a lot through the fire.  I learned how fragile life and time is, how quickly things can turn to disaster, and how possessions can be so quickly lost.  I have learned to be grateful for having a roof over my head, food to eat, and a pillow to rest my head.  The last one is especially sweet to me, because Jesus famously told someone that He did not have a pillow to lay his head (Luke 9:58).  I've also learned that I'm not the only one that has either deep sorrows, or deep joys.  

Around the same time of our fire, others that I know have had deep suffering.  The death of a loved one.  Excruciating pain that has no end in sight.  A cancer diagnosis.  A premature baby recovering in the NICU.  The rejection of employers.  And yet, at the same time, there are deep joys as well. 

The adoption of a foster child.  New marriages on the horizon (including one where I get to stand with one of my best friends!).  New relationships, including one that has a beautiful, decade-long redemption story.  New brothers and sisters in Christ.  

And this is only what I know about.  

God is wise to let us suffer for so many reasons, but one is to push us to see things from His perspective.  It's how we find better joy.  

It allows us to move past our own lives to see a broader view.

It allows us to enjoy more of what we have, including our relationship with God.  

It helps us to mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice.  

It produces thankfulness in even the smallest things... a reminder that we are forever dependent on the God who breathed life into us.

And it produces thankfulness that one day suffering will be gone.  What a beautiful hope.  What shocking clarity suffering provides.  That we would see and rejoice in the wisdom and majesty of the God who deeply loves us, and proved it once and for all in Christ.   

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stained with smoke, Stained with Sin

Many of you saw my earlier post about our house fire.  A number of things have caused me to think deeply recently, and most of my thoughts can be attributed to the fire that took place three weeks ago.  As I have played back all the details in my head, there was one in particular that lingered.  Not just in my mind, but in its effect.

The smoke.  The fire itself was destructive, but it was the smoke that is causing us to be out of our house for multiple months.  The fire was the most threatening, but the smoke was ever-reaching into all the crevices of our home.  The smoke blinded my eyes and stained my skin the day I fought the fire, and three weeks later it still resides in the air, bringing me back to the moment of where it all began.

It was the smoke that destroyed our food, clogged the electrical motors, and stained clothes and filled our books.  It was the smoke that infested our couches and mattresses, that covered Shane and JJ's toys and ruined our painted walls.  Who knew that smoke could carry so much power?

On the surface, you wouldn't think it did anything.  Everything (aside from the kitchen) looked normal.  But it was tainted, stained, and infested with smoke.  It will take months to restore everything back to normal.

It's a modern parable of the "private sins" we hold close.  When we take one extra lustful glance, excuse a little slander or gossip, or cling a bit more to our anxiety, we often think it won't hurt us.  We think justifying our fear of men or our anger is ok because it has no lasting effect.  But it's like the smoke of a raging fire.  It stains, infests, and destroys our lives, but we often don't see it until it's too late.  Just like smoke is evidence of fire, our "private" or "small" sins reveal that our hearts are on fire with sin.  And our sinful hearts leave smoke damage everywhere.

It's why temptation increases as you train your mind every time you glance where you shouldn't.

It's why we become more easily angered and agitated as we age.

It's why our relationships deteriorate each time as we normalize gossip.

It's why we are often on the fast track towards depression as we make it a routine to sin in our thoughts.

The Apostle Paul captures this in his letter to the Romans:  "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

The wages of sin is DEATH!  We must take sin seriously!  And not just "big" sins, not just "public" sins, but all sin!  We must see that the "smoke" of our sin is slowly killing us.  And we must see how we are restored, which is the Gospel:  Jesus Christ died so that we might live forever in heaven with Him!

Life is found in Christ, death is found in sin.  It's why the author of Hebrews says:  "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Sin clings closely, so we must throw it off to run the race set before us.  And as we do it, we look to Jesus Christ and run towards Him.  

We have a restoration agent and he has guaranteed me that there will be no remnants of smoke left in our home.  As we look to Jesus, He promises to cleanse us to the point where there will be no remnant of sin left in our hearts.  Are you running towards Jesus so that He might cleanse you of all your sin and wickedness? 

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Better Shelter

This isn't a normal post.  I don't even know if it will be coherent.  It's essentially the beginning of what I've been processing over the past 72 hours.

Most of you know what my family and I, as well as Sarah (our friend and renter), have been going through.  Around 4:30 PM, Monday evening, we had a grease fire.  I had placed a skillet filled with oil on the burner and went to ask Heather a question.  I got distracted, only to hear the smoke alarm a few moments later.  I ran in to turn the burner off, but when I got into the kitchen, the smoke I expected to see was not there.  Instead, it was a wall of flame engulfing our home.

Where the "wall of flame" did the most damage.
There are a lot of other things that I remember from that day.  Running out of the house telling people to call 911, asking neighbors to give us their fire extinguishers.  I remember the heat on my bare feet as I tried to put out the fire with said extinguisher, the smoke that filled my lungs and that stained my skin and clothes, the fear that I would lose my home, the joy of having neighbors and the fire department coming to our rescue (and knowing that Jesus orchestrated every detail for His Glory).

But it's the trauma that has stuck with me.  The trauma of walking in to see my house going up in flames.  The trauma of trying to fight a fire.  The trauma of knowing that, with all my grit, will, and determination, I still didn't have a chance to win.

In the words of Nick Fury in the Avengers, "I was hilariously outgunned."

I knew I would feel certain things in the aftermath; the guilt of letting the fire happen, feeling the shame of irresponsibility, the sense of loss, even grappling with despair.  But I've wrestled with all of those emotions to some capacity before.  The shock and awe of discovering a fire and then attempting to fight it?  Wrestling with trauma is something I've never had to deal with before.

The first night I attempted to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I would see walls of flames.  I can't explain it, but I could even 'feel' the heat.  Then I would see the horror of what could have been: my children, my wife lost in the flames.  I feel it when I hear the crackle of oil on the stove top at our neighbor's house.  I sense it when I hear the word 'fire.'  Even the smell and taste of smoke has moved me to fear.

Yet I will praise God.  One day, God will heal me.  I won't fear the flame, the smoke, or the stove.  I can all ready see it happening.  The guilt that I'm tempted to wrack myself with is dissipating.  The shame is fading.  And when I step back, even in the moments when I rebel in my mind and am clouded in emotion, there is amazing joy.

"I have a shelter in the storm
When troubles pour upon me
Though fears are rising like a flood
My soul can rest securely
O Jesus, I will hide in You
My place of peace and solace
No trial is deeper than Your love
That comforts all my sorrows."
-- I Have a Shelter, Sovereign Grace Music  

The psalms constantly describe God as a refuge, a shelter, and a place to hide.  My earthly dwelling will fail me, but God will not.  "Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!" (34:8b).  

I'm sure I will have more reflections on this as I continue to process.  I hope they are helpful for you.  I know they are helpful for me.  Thanks for joining me on my processing journey.

Monday, May 2, 2016

When I'm Exposed

There are seasons of time that are smooth.  I'm spending time in God's Word, having fun with my family, and improving in aspects of ministry.  Feedback is generally encouraging, people are sharing how I've impacted them, and are often talking about how they see God at work.  These are good things.  But I'm content with the status quo.  I don't like change.

A few weeks ago, my pastor preached on Philippians 3, and he ended with this thought: "I'm sick of being content with the past.  I want to move forward."

At the time, I thought, "Yeah, this is great!  I want us to move forward!  I want our church to grow!  I want to see our community transform, to be salt and light to the outer-most parts of our communities, to evangelize the lost, to raise up new disciple makers!  Yes, I want that!"

I forgot that part of the needed change is me.  I might be a disciple, but I'm definitely a sinner.  God reminded me of my overwhelming need for a Savior over the coming weeks:
- Increased temptation
- Scrutiny about thoughts I shared publicly
- Not preparing enough for a public event
- Multiple people reflecting back that I sounded angry and disappointed when speaking to others
- Increased levels of anxiety

Add on a heavy-work season and emotionally-heavy conversations, I feel stretched and inadequate.

Three weeks ago, I thought I was ready to take on the world.  Now, I feel ready to take on my pillow.  I'm frequently sleeping instead of getting into the Word.  When I do get in the Word, I feel distracted.  I indulge other comforts, longing for rest.  I'm anxious about the future, but I don't think to pray for it.  And my joy is low.

I know why.  I'm not spending time with the lover of my soul.  I'm spending more time doing, less time communing.  And because of that, I'm starting to do less, because I'm finding less joy.  I feel dry.  I feel sad.  I am discouraged.  To the point where I compare myself to everyone and everything, and in every instance I see a sign in blinking lights that says "failure."

God is good to expose me.  But I don't want that.  I want to think that I'm doing well.  That I've got my act together.  That I have had a major impact.  That I'm loved.

But the only way to truly be loved is to receive it.  God's love is received, not earned.  Which makes exposure not only possible, but hopeful.  It's what brings rest.

 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Hebrews 4:11-13)

When God exposes, he protects us from disobedience!  He gives life!  He grants us rest!  Why?  Because Jesus already died when I was at my worst.  I can boldly approach God with my failures, because I also come to Him with Jesus.

"And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."  (Ephesians 5:2)

Jesus is our offering, which means even when we see the worst things about us, we are accepted.  He was perfect, because we couldn't be.  It allows exposure to be freeing, rather than crushing. 

So the blinking light that screams failure.  It's right.  I have failed.  And that's okay.  My worth isn't based off of where I've failed.  It's found in where God succeeded.

We have freedom to be exposed.  And because God sees all, and still chooses to love, it propels me forward.

- It allows me to share when I'm feeling temptation, rather than try and fight it on my own

- It allows me to be okay with the scrutiny, and even consider how I can grow

- It allows me to see that I should have prepared better, and apply that to next time

- It allows me to repent of my anger, and instead choose joy

- It allows me to run to the Savior with all of my anxieties, and trust that He will do good to me, because He cares for me.

How can the Gospel help you welcome exposure?