Who’s In Control Anyway?

Clinton, Trump pick up big winsLast night, as I sat in my chair listening to the news on the television in the other room, I opened my Bible to 1 Kings. The kingship of Israel was a tumultuous position. David was a man after God’s own heart despite his flaws. Solomon was the wisest man to live despite his affinity for foreign women. Rehoboam exploited his people and threatened to be more harsh than his father had been.

And on and on the story goes. While there were some bright spots here and there for Israel, there were far more duds.

And you know what? God was still in control. Just because the kings weren’t obedient didn’t change the fact that God was still there.

When he was writing to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul told them, “…for there is no authority except that which God established.” Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it by saying, “All governments are under God.”

The thing is, I don’t think that the Church has been doing a really good job in the past days of really believing this and living as if it was true. I think we’ve been driven by fear. I think we’ve believed that the president of a democracy has the power to somehow seize control of that democracy and make it a dictatorship.

It’s hard to think about evil rulers without considering King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. When the Hebrew young men who were in exile refused to worship the image of gold that the king had set up, Nebuchadnezzar was furious and threatened to cast them in the fiery furnace.

I love the way that the young men responded to the king. They said, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

I think that their response is such a foreign one to the ears of so many of us who consider ourselves western evangelicals. God is for us, right? Who could possibly be against us? The United States is a Christian nation, right? God has shed his grace on us, right?

Jesus spoke often about how those of us who follow him would experience persecution. As many times as I’ve read the Bible, I’ve still failed to find the section that talks about how following Jesus sets me up for health, wealth, power, and comfortable living. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place, but I don’t think so.

I’ve not been thrilled coming into yesterday’s election. To be honest, I didn’t vote for either of the party nominations. In good conscience, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. But I’ve got friends who voted for both candidates, and I still consider them my friends today. I’m not judging them, I’m not angry with them, I still love them.

Yesterday was an election, and going into that election, I don’t think that the Church has done a very good job of exhibiting our confidence in a sovereign God. I think some of us have been led by fear. I think some of us have been led by anger. I think some of us have let our imaginations get the best of us after having read too many apocalypse novels.

I truly believe that this is just the beginning of a season of opportunity for all of those who believe in the sovereignty of God, all of those who consider ourselves to be faithful followers of Christ. People will be looking at us to see how we respond, not so much when we agree with the powers and authorities over us, but more when we don’t agree. We’ve not always done a good job in the last eight years of modeling a Christ-like attitude in following our president, will we continue in that vein for the next four years?

If I could have gone back and lived yesterday again, I think I might have made a pin or sticker for myself that said, “I’m with Paul” because Paul’s words still ring true today, “…for there is no authority except that which God established.” They were true back then and they still hold true today.

So, I’m going to do my best to let this be an opportunity for me to shine Christ in the midst of it all. I want my children to see that when I say that I believe in the sovereignty of God, that I mean it. I want my children to see that when their dad gets up and preaches about trusting in God, that he means it. I want my children to see that authority is still authority, regardless of whether I agree with that authority. While I won’t go against anything that God speaks against, I see this upcoming season ahead as a crucial time for the Church to be an example of what it really means to believe in the sovereignty of God.

#ImwithPaul

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Faith and Fear

faith and fearI’ve been going through a particularly stressful situation lately and I’ve felt my blood pressure rising with my anxiety. In the midst of it all, I’ve been intentional about carving out time to seek the wisdom of God and to meditate and pray.

The other day, while I was driving, I remembered a verse that had struck me which I had memorized while our church was going through a study of the book of 1st John in the Bible. The verse is 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” It was as if that verse had just been implanted in my brain and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Within just a few short hours, I encountered two additional references to that very same verse, one in a phone conversation with a friend and church member whose small group had discussed the verse during their study the night before, the other from a friend on social media who mentioned that Bono, the lead singer for the band U2, had quoted it during the band’s concert in Paris the night before.

As I went throughout the day, continuing rolling the words of the verse over in my head, I made it part of my prayer and I eventually encountered it again as my brother-in-law shared it on social media as well.

Now, I have a tendency to be stubborn and sometimes thick headed, but not so much so that I would miss a message that was being given to me over and over again, especially all within the same day. I felt like there was a reason why that verse had come to my mind and that was just confirmed when it was mentioned no less than three more times as I went through the day.

When we come to decisions, situations, or crises in our lives, we have a choice in our decision making. We can either choose to be led by faith or led by fear. That was the truth that seemed to strike me between the eyes as I pondered and meditated on that verse the other day.

As I thought more about it, I thought that the leap from faith to fear doesn’t seem to be so large. Somehow, it seems so much easier for me to make that leap, almost effortless. On the other hand, the leap from fear to faith can sometimes feel like a leap from the earth to the moon, it feels like it’s the longest distance that I’ve ever traversed in my life.

But God…

That’s a phrase that we see in the Bible repeated numerous times, and I think it applies here. We often may find ourselves leaping from faith to fear and needing to find our way back to faith again, but God reminds us that he is love, he is not fear. While there is a way for us to think about God in a fearful way, that is more of a reverential approach rather than a trembling and cowering approach, especially when we’re being obedient to him.

There is no fear in love because perfect love casts our fear. People use fear to punish, to control, to manipulate, and to push. Fear has nothing to do with God and those of us who use fear as a means for getting our way as well as those of us who embrace fear as a way of life need to find ways to make that leap back to faith.

Over and over again, as I’ve been ruminating on this verse, I’ve realized how easily I can fall into the fear-filled trap rather than living in the faith-filled moments. God calls us to live lives full of faith, it’s the essence of who we are as we follow Christ. We are not called to be led by fear.

In the midst of a world that has a lot of scary things, it doesn’t mean that we don’t concern ourselves with those things, it just means that we still trust that our faith isn’t in those things and the people behind those things, our faith is in the One who is the very definition of love, perfect love. We do not fear because HE is with us. We pray, we fight, we move, we stumble, but our faith is not based on any of the things that WE control.

As we journey through a fear-filled world, may we find hope, peace, joy, and perfect love for the journey.

No Fear In Love – A Book Review

no fear in loveAndy Braner grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist church and it seems that his adult journey has been spent trying to overcome its effect on him. He realized that he had spent a lot of time getting to know about God rather than actually trying to know God and let him influence the way that he lived. As he unpacked his own experiences and why he was taught to respond to certain things in certain ways, he realized that much of the response that he had been taught was governed and fueled by fear.

Braner writes, “We are far too concerned with the outward appearances of daily life without really addressing the core fears brewing deep inside ourselves.” Instead of questioning and spending time in relationship with those with whom we disagree, he says, we attack. We don’t build relationships but build walls instead. He asks his reader to ponder what might happen if Christians began to look at people as people and relationships rather than battles to be won or arguments in which to triumph.

Somewhere along the way, Braner claims, Christians excelled in becoming defenders of the Gospel and of God rather than becoming examples of Christ to the world. In these efforts to protect God and the Gospel, we have actually created places where sin is prohibited and managed to such an extent that people can’t be open and honest with their struggle and where they can’t confess to one another because of the fear that’s driving them. God is not a sales pitch, Braner adds.

In embracing a culture of protection, we have feared the “other,” anyone who is different than us. We have failed to engage them and find common places of thought as starting points. Instead, we have created walls, building them up instead of building the relationships that are so important in which God could work. Braner suggests that we enter into relationships free of agendas and with a simple desire to know the other person and where they are coming from, regardless of the differences in opinions, beliefs, and ideologies.

Throughout this book, Braner shares personal stories about how he has found success in confronting his own fears and found ways to engage the “other” in his life. He shares of praying in a mosque, of engaging a whole group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and inviting them to dinner, of boldly mixing Christian and Muslim teenagers for a week of summer camp, and other stories. He says that, “The most compelling adventures are those that happen when we recognize fear, address it, and move to a place of reliance on what God is doing in the hearts and minds of others.”

Braner questions where Christians are known more by what they are against or by what they are for. In our media-saturated culture, he sees that we have lost the art of healthy dialogue, instead tending to trade it for brief shouting matches between experts in which the winner is the one who yelled the loudest. He adds that, “This practice has done nothing to help us reach out and discuss things in a civilized disagreement. It promotes anger, yelling, and extremism.”

Overall, I didn’t walk away from this book feeling as if Braner had shared anything groundbreaking with the reader. In some ways, he dwelt heavily in generalizations to the point that he made it seem as if there are no Christians out there who are making in-roads in building relationships with those with whom they don’t see eye to eye. In fact, there were times that I felt his stories were shared more for their shock value than because the readers could actually benefit from them. If the average Christian falls into most of the generalizations which Braner lays out, chances are that they wouldn’t be impressed with his stories as much as they might be shocked and turned away.

I appreciate Braner’s heart shining throughout this book. The reader can tell that he is passionate about which he writes. He is passionate about building relationships with those with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. If you have sought a third way, a way to engage the “other” without offending, turning off, or defeating, Braner offers his own stories as possible suggestions. If you fit into the generalizations of Christians that Braner shares, you might be better served looking elsewhere for a safer and more comfortable read. Braner doesn’t pull any punches and he does so with a purpose. While this book didn’t “wow” me, I don’t feel that it was a waste of time either.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Close Calls

Have you ever had a close call with something dangerous? Did you know about it at the time or did you find out about it after the fact? Sometimes, we might not find out about close calls until they are past us and we retrospectively look back with relief that we were ignorant while we were going through it. Maybe it was a ride that broke at the amusement park right after or before we rode it. Maybe it was a transportation tragedy, an accident that happened right before or after we passed by an area, a plane that we were supposed to be a passenger on that had issues.

I’ve had some close calls in my life and I remember looking back on those experiences and wondering how on earth I managed to get out unscathed. Cars that spun out on the highway in the snow and managed to hit no one. Wheels that came off a car in front of me and miraculously missed hitting me. Along the way, I wondered about my own protection in the midst of a potential tragedy.

The other day, my air conditioning in the house stopped working and a friend came over to look at it. Turns out that an electrical box had a bad connection in it and fried up. When I say “fried up” I am not speaking metaphorically, it was literally fried, plastic melted, pieces disintegrated, singe marks on the wood frame, and the burning smell still lingering as we investigated the area. Things could have been much worse than they were.

As I told my wife the news, I couldn’t help but thinking about the “what ifs.” What if it had been worse? What if we were all sleeping? What if…..?   What if….? And the possibilities are endless.

When the day was done and I finally laid my head on my pillow, I looked over at my wife and said, “I guess He’s keeping me around for a reason.” Having felt the protection of God, it was a bit unnerving thinking about the possible outcomes, in fact, I would dare say that someone could be crippled with fear in thinking about those possible outcomes.

If I’ve learned anything as I’ve gotten older it’s that life is risky. Every day, there are dangers lurking around every corner, and if I stop to think about all of them, I can easily find myself paralyzed by fear. I could find myself sitting alone in a room with no electricity, with every potential danger removed so that I would be “safe.” But, as much as we might think that we are in control, we’re not, and there will always be one more thing that is beyond our control that might pose another danger to us.

I’m at the place now where I realize that I have a decision to make as I become aware of these dangers lurking around every corner, I can live in fear or I can live in full. I can either let fear dictate everything that I do or I can take every day as a potential and live my life to the fullest. Fear isn’t something that God calls us to, he calls us to put our faith in him and trust. That doesn’t mean that tragedy doesn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that bad things never come across our paths. It does mean that we can face everything head on because we know that we can’t control the circumstances that come at us.

I’m sure that this won’t be the last close call that I will experience. I can let these close calls paralyze me with fear, or I can trust in the one whose love casts fear aside. I know what I want to do, it’s just a matter of trusting, which is much easier said than done. Close calls will still scare me and the temptation will be to fear, fear, and fear some more, but living in fear doesn’t seem to be living much at all.

Perfect Love and Fear

We’ve been going through a series in my church on 1st John. As John writes the letter that is 1st John, he speaks over and over again of the love of God and how that love needs to play out in all of us. We love because we have been loved by God. We love and it’s a testimony to who we are in God. We are different and changed by the love of God that he has shown us in Christ Jesus.

In the middle of John’s letter, he writes a verse that has come back to me over and over again in the past few months. John writes in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” That verse has been a gift to me.

Lately, it’s been really hard to keep my head up. It seems that everything around me is reminding me of the fragility and frailty of life. Cancer. Severe burns. Infections. Leukemia. Death. It’s all fairly overwhelming when you take it at face value. It’s hard to see past what’s right in front of you. It’s hard not to be overcome by fear of the outcome.

That’s where John’s words resonate in such a powerful way. There is no fear in love. NO FEAR. Not only is there no fear in love but perfect love drives out fear. There is only one kind of perfect love, the love that we receive from God and that love drives out fear. In fact, the Greek word for “drives” here literally means, “to throw.” Perfect love takes fear and throws it away, it’s not there anymore.

I can too easily be caught up in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the current circumstances. Fear of what MIGHT happen. But none of those fears come from God. While the circumstances might, and probably will be, difficult, we need not fear them if we really trust that God is sovereign and in control of everything and that he loves us. Do we really believe that he loves us?

Over and over again, I’ve had to recite this word in my mind. Over and over again, I’ve had to allow the love of God to throw my fears away. Fear has to do with punishment, as the verse says, and God is not about simply seeking ways to punish us when we live in obedience to him.

As you enter this day, remember the love of God. Remember that his love is perfect. Remember that perfect love throws fear away and there is no reason for us to give in to that fear. Perfect love drives out fear, so may we seek out the love of God in the midst of the ruins of our lives. May we find that perfect love is able to combat every fear that we might entertain. May God’s love help us to conquer all of our fears.

Fear of Heights

replacing the chandelierThe other day, my wife and I were talking and she said that she was beginning to feel “normal” again.  By that, she meant that there was a “fog” in which she found herself after having all three of our kids.  She said that about the time that they all turned 2 was about the time when she began to feel like herself again.  So much happened in the first years of all of my children’s lives, so it’s no wonder that neither of us have completely felt like ourselves.  Seminary.  Job changes.  Health issues.  Loss of parents.

Surveying the house, my wife began eyeing all of these projects that she had been wanting to do but either never had motivation, energy, or time.  Thus the creation of the “Honey Do” list.  I told her that she was trying to make up for 4 1/2 years in seminary.  Painting.  Lighting fixtures.  Chandeliers.  New toilets.

Of course, the best laid plans seem to fall by the wayside at times.  What begins as a little project can easily spiral into something bigger.  Having a house that’s a little bit newer, we thought that we would be in pretty good shape when repairing or replacing things.  We were wrong.  We have found shoddy craftsmanship in many of the nooks and crannies in our house.  A simple replacement of a lighting fixture generally means some kind of drywall repair as well.

My wife is a bargain hunter too.  She’s been looking to find just the right deal on the lights that she wanted.  The other day, I got an email from her announcing that she had found the new chandelier for our entranceway foyer.  The price was about half of what it usually would be, but I wasn’t certain about it for a number of reasons.

First of all, I had no idea how I was going to get to the ceiling of our 2 story foyer.  I didn’t expect that my ladder would reach.  Secondly, and more importantly, I have a fear of heights that can easily disqualify me from jumping buildings in a single bound…..or replacing lamps at 2 stories.  I just didn’t know that I would be able to hack it.

I put the plea out on social media for a ladder that might work and within hours, some friends came over with a ladder.  Together, we managed to conquer the job, but not without a lot of sweat and a lot of fighting my inner battle with heights.  I guess that I realized I was more afraid of my children and wife thinking me a coward than I was of heights.  My hands were incredibly sweaty though, and I had visions of me falling the 15-20 feet from the top of the ladder because of my sweaty palms.

Many times in the past, when I’ve tried to conquer my fear of heights, I have found that if I am distracted, I can easily put aside the fear.  When I have something that I am focusing on like replacing a chandelier, cleaning a gutter, repairing siding, or something else, I can more easily focus on the task at hand and put aside my fears.

I wonder how many of us have fears that might be conquered in a similar manner.  Sometimes, our fears seem bigger because they are the only thing that we are focusing on.  We look at them and they seem so big and glaring and we neglect to focus on the bigger thing, usually the task at hand.

Fear can easily overtake us, paralyze us, and convince us that it’s bigger than it really is.  What we need in those times is perspective, to look at something bigger to pull things back into perspective.  When we do that, somehow the fears seem to diminish..

I’ve tried and tried to conquer my fear of heights.  I think I’ve done a pretty good job.  I’ve rappelled off of buildings, climbed ladders, stood on rooftops, and ridden roller coasters, all in an attempt to conquer the fear.  Still, focus remains the key.  I need to remind myself of that the next time a fear seems too big for me.  If it seems too big, I’m probably focusing on the wrong thing.  A simple readjustment might be all that it takes.  I’ll let you know how that works out for me.

Stuck In A Moment

quick-sandLife is full of moments.  We try to capture them, share them, hold on to them, and leave some behind.  Sometimes the moments that we wish to hold on to longest seem the most fleeting and the moments that we would like best to forget seem to linger around, outstaying their welcome.

It’s always a challenge to approach moments with wisdom and discernment, knowing what is helpful and healthy in regards to that approach.  How long do we stay in that moment?  Will it last?  What happens if it feels too long?  Can I move past it in a healthy and helpful manner?

Over the last few years, there have been dozens of moments that I would like to capture in a bottle to be drunk whenever I am in need.  There have also been moments that have been indelibly marked on my brain that I would like to leave behind, to forget and wipe away.  Our brains don’t always afford us that luxury, but it’s always good to hope and dream.

Sometimes, we might find ourselves stuck in moments that we can’t get out of (yes, it’s kind of a nod to U2, but it’s a true statement).  We seem overwhelmed and paralyzed by the moment and all that it entails.  Escape seems futile and we seem powerless to its effects on us.  We may be consumed by anxiety or worry.  We may feel inadequate to move past such a monumental moment.

Jesus had some helpful words for those of us who might find ourselves stuck in moments.  In fact, Jesus’ words really had to do with those of us who might find ourselves stuck in moments that have not even happened.  We may have projected the outcome that we anticipate or expect and begun to live in that projected reality.  The moment may not even exist but only in our minds, and yet we may find ourselves stuck in it.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  That last question is the one that constantly captures me, at least at this moment of my life.  Who of us can add to our lives with worry?

In fact, we are probably doing more harm than good when we worry, causing stress and anxiety to creep into our lives, worrying about a projected outcome that may or may not happen rather than dealing with the moment when it comes.  Worrying does not help our cause, it only complicates it.

As a pastor, I have always been amazed that the sermons people make the most positive comments on are the ones where God has had to do the most work on and in me.  When I share and preach out of the struggles and tests of my own life, it seems to be most effective.  When I share as a fellow sojourner rather than as an expert, there is traction.

The idea of getting stuck in a moment is too near to my heart.  As much as I wish it weren’t, I need to be honest and confess that I find myself too often living in a projected reality without letting things play out.  I anticipate, oftentimes wrongly, what will take place.  Maybe it’s a result of the things that have happened to me and those whom I love over the past few years.  But to let those things paralyze me, freeze me in a moment, is exactly what Jesus tells us not to do.

And how do we do that?  How do we rise above the worry?  Paul writes in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  We present our requests, our struggles, our burdens, and the things that we continue to hold onto (or maybe which hold onto us) to God.  We pray in thankfulness, we open our hearts and minds to Christ Jesus to be filled with the peace which is incomparable.

This is what a pastor I once served with would call a “growing edge.”  It’s an area in my life that I have struggled with, struggled to give up, struggled to abandon myself to.  Some days are easier than others while some days seem nearly impossible.  But, if I don’t succeed at first, I can’t give up.

Yes, it’s easy to get stuck in a moment, to project out the future, and then to live in the worry of the anticipated moment.  The harder thing to do is to trust that God will take that moment and do with it as needs to be done.  It may not always be what we want, but his control is far greater than ours.  I’ve been stuck in a moment and I’m ready to get out, but it won’t happen alone.  Worry and anxiety won’t lengthen my life, so they have to go.  There are moments that I would love to be stuck within, but moments that contain those things aren’t among those choice moments at all.

May we trust that worry and anxiety won’t work out for our benefit.  May we know that when we turn these things over, that God will take them and will give us peace in return.  That seems like a fairly good return policy, and I think I’m ready to take advantage of it.