My Compass

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” – C.S. Lewis

I feel lost in the chaos of my mind.

Each thought leads to a different path. Each path can’t be taken at once. I have to choose my path.

But, which path should I choose?

A compass always points north. When the compass is broken I cannot find my way. I begin to follow paths that bring destruction to my soul rather than life.

It is time I choose…

The Ecclesiastical East

When my compass points East, I find myself focused on the church. It isn’t the church in the biblical sense. Instead, it is a obsession with an institution.

I live by how a group of people view me. Do I meet their standards? Do I appear good enough to them? Have I covered up enough for them?

The weight on my soul is a pharisaical pressure. The rules, the lists, the image… The very core of my being is held together by how well I handle their pressure on my soul. It is the same weight given by the religious leaders in the time of Christ. They tiered your relationship with God by how well you followed their standards.

Do you dress a certain way? Do you stop listening to certain music? Do you believe the right positions? Do you go to the right kind of church? Do you say what you are supposed to say and think what you are supposed to think?

You cover anything “too worldly.” Your path is one of following in the steps outlined for you. There is no guidance of the Spirit down this path. It is man’s traditions and man’s systematic theology that dictates where to step.

It is honestly a path of slavery.

Where does it lead?

I have been down this road. It is a path of destruction. The Ecclesiastical East caused me to cover up, wear masks, and fall in line. But, the burden inside grew heavier and heavier. It was their way or the way to hell. It is all I could see. I popped, and attempted to take my own life.

So often I forget where this direction led me, and I return towards the East. Remembering keeps me off this path.

The Worldly West

However, if my compass takes me to the West, I end up worldly.

When I say “worldly,” I am not saying smoking, drinking, sleeping around, etc. That is the Ecclesiastical East’s path. When I study Scripture, I truly believe that being worldly is to reject God and not live in his creation with him as your center. Instead, you put yourself as the decider of the path.

When I John 2 talks about not loving the world, it is not about what you’re actually loving. Instead, it is about what you love more – God or your own desires and decisions. Everything becomes about you.

The Worldly West is about giving up my faith. So many people have asked after all the hurt I’ve been dealt by Christians and the church, how can I stay inside the church?

Why?

Because, there is something inside me that can’t let go of Jesus. There is something inside me that draws me to Scripture. There is something that draws me to worship music.

It is not the opiate sensation creating a high for the masses. Instead, those things bring me life. For the longest time, “the spiritual disciplines” were seen as a way to God. But now, they express my relationship with God.

How can I throw off my faith when God really has done so much for me? He spared my life. He brought me an understanding wife who loves me and never gives up on me when everyone would tell us to divorce. He placed friends in my life when I walked away from fundamentalism who showed me Jesus reaching for me rather than judging me.

To throw away my faith and leave God would leave me in despair. Nothing would make sense without God. Even though the Worldly West puts me in charge, it takes away the relationship I was created to cultivate deeper than any romance on earth.

The Stalemate South

When I turn my eyes to the South, I am met with the stalemate path. This is the direction that focuses on my past. The guides are those who have abused me, used me, and take to me to sit stuck sulking in my past.

This is a path I love to turn and fantasize about. I want to follow the justice I want towards those who have wronged me. I want to run after the “what ifs” of changing the past and swimming in the rivers of regrets.

Yet, this doesn’t lead to anywhere. It is a dead end. It is the Stalemate South. It never goes anywhere. It is a path that circles and circles and circles. You think you will obtain justice, you think you will escape pain, you think you will be better, but where does it lead?

It leads to a dizzy end of vomiting out bitterness and unforgiveness… which leads to that cycle again and again.

The New Life North

However, when my compass points North, I become uneasy. I become anxious.

It is because it is New Life North.

The path is of a new life I’ve never experienced. It is unfamiliar with things I am not used to. It is filled with twists and turns unexpected and mysterious. It is filled with questions, tensions, and paradoxes.

Everything in me doesn’t want it, because it is new. New is not comfortable. New is not safe as I see it.

The guide towards New Life North is the true Jesus. It is not the commodity Jesus who hangs on the cross just to get a transaction complete. It is not the picture perfect, white Jesus. It is not the Jesus who calls me to a list of rules or an image.

This Jesus holds my hand. This Jesus promises an abundant life. This Jesus reaches out to me, tells me to pick up what I see as the bad in my life, and to follow him.

He is the Jesus who brings life; while all other paths bring destruction.

It does not make sense that Jesus would want my struggles, my confusion, my paradoxes, my questions, my tensions, and my chaos. But in this new life, it is truly new. He takes me one step at a time. He does not want me worrying about finding all the answers. Jesus looks at me and says, “Take my hand. Let me carry your bags. I was meant to take up your cross. I will walk ahead of you. Just follow me.”

Jesus,
You have given me a compass to walk the path of abundant, joy-filled life. I swat your hand away, because I fear the newness of where you lead me. I turn away to all the other directions, because they make sense. There is more comfort in what I know, than in a new. But, the more I follow these directions the more death and chaos is brought into my life. I have forgotten the Jesus of life and believed the false Jesus presented to me in my past. You desire a relationship with me that is intimate, close, and special. You don’t desire my works, perfections, and looks. You do want my struggles, tensions, paradoxes, and confusion. Because when I give them to you I follow your way through them rather than running in every direction to avoid them. Avoiding them leads me away from your living water. Your living water gives me the strength to face them, to look them in the eye and be bold with you by my side. Jesus, I have been wrong in turning all directions out of fear of the new. Forgive me for how I have left your hand for the chaos of all the other directions. I take up your hand and take on your path again.
In your name and in your relationship of the new, Amen.

This is where I start again.

This is where I take a step back to where I was.

This is where I let go. This is where I can accept being the “Bruno” of my family. This is where I can wrestle with the “inner red panda” of my life. This is where I can safely cry, question, doubt, and be vulnerable.

This is where I can be me with no masks, no fear, and no instability.

It takes time. It takes more time than I thought.

But, I will admit. I am weak. I stumble. I want to turn everyway. I need friends to pray for me, love on me, and to walk with me down this path. I need to be open and honest when I turn the other directions.

But, when I follow my compass North to New Life, I find the everything swarming around. However, it no longer stresses me out or causes panic. Sometimes it may, but I know there is something there I’ve longed for.

Hope.

As I walk North, hope arises in me that I will see and find a relationship in Jesus like I’ve never experienced before.

This is where I am at.

This is where my compass is pointing.

The Me I Keep Hidden

“Remember who you are. Don’t compromise for anyone, for any reason. You are a child of the Almighty God. Live that truth.”
– Lysa Terkeurst

I have an odd trait about me. I call it my “secret identity.” When I go into certain lighting, my dirty-blonde hair turns red. It is not just a slight red. It looks like I am ginger! In fact, some people have mistaken me for a redhead.

Joking about my secret, ginger identity is fun. However, this leads me to point out something serious…

Deeper than my hair color, deeper than my scalp, is someone I have kept hidden. In fact, we all keep someone hidden. We have been trained to bury what others consider less desirable. We will do anything to keep that trait, that look, that interest, that quirk about us hidden in order to please those around us. We learn this as a small child as we find our acceptance in our families and in our communities at school. Even in our churches, we are formed into people-pleasers.

The Mask I Wear

My name is Stephen. I was born with a birth defect called Spina Bifida. I walk with a limp and need to wear leg braces. I have bathroom issues involving bodily control.

Yet, everyday I wake up ready to fool you that it even exists. I’ve mastered my craft so well that people who need to believe I have a disability have seriously questioned it demanding a doctor’s note.

From a young age, I learned to keep it hidden. Wear long pants to hide the braces, take shorter steps so the limp isn’t noticeable, hide my bathroom supplies in ways no one would suspect a thing. If an accident did happen or I had to stay home from school, I became the world’s best liar as to why something happened. I had to throw everyone off the trail of discovering who I am. Why? Who wants to bring shame and embarrassment to their family and friends? The less people knew; the better.

As I grew older, my interests and personality became a concern. My family became embarrassed of me. As each morning came, another mask came on to not be a burden. The more less desirable traits or interests in my life came up, the more masks I wore. There were days I wore layers of masks. Each stare, each invitation, each new friend became someone or something to be careful of. What would happen if they found out?

The inner burden of mask-wearing broke me. It led to my darkest day. March 2020, I drove down the wrong way on a busy road hoping I could relieve others of the burden and embarrassment I was.

What About God?

How many times did I ask my parents, “Why did God make me like this?” Their response, “We do not know, but God has a purpose.” Usually, their remark was followed up by Psalm 139:14. The answer never settled well with me.

If God created me with a disability, then what was his purpose? I don’t think a day passed where I could only see my purpose as being a burden or the butt of a joke. So each day, the mask came on to hide what was there. Maybe God would heal me. Maybe he would give me a great purpose. Instead, I saw only the shame I brought to my family. I saw the shame I brought to myself.

Who was God? In reality, I did not have a correct view of God. I saw him like my father treated me: out-perform my disability in order to be seen as normal as possible and to bring the family pride from being their ideal Stephen. God was not loving. He was transcendent, holy, and without error; just like my father made himself appear. If I stepped out of line, consequences. If I embarrassed anyone in the family for doing something quirky or weird, punishment. Even when I was a small child, as I was still getting a grip on my bathroom needs and having accidents, my father rubbed my nose in a soiled pull-up to train me. God became sculpted in the same image.

God wasn’t pleased with me unless I could overcome everything. All the world became a stage, and I its greatest actor. Performing for reviews became my life. I endeavored to be their ideal; rather than something more personal.

God gifted me masks to cover up the curse of the Fall which scarred my body.

Having Eyes, But Not Seeing

A lot of masks have eye-holes to see out of. Yet, the ones I wore had eyes prepared for me on how I should see the world: cruel, bullies, suspicious, hurtful, and only wanting to humiliate me.

It wasn’t until I began cutting away at those fake eyes that I realized something. God isn’t how I perceived him. I made him into an image I knew. I did not allow him to reveal himself to me as the loving God. It took till I was almost 30 years-old to see the God of the Bible- the Creator who loves every bit of me, who isn’t embarrassed by me, and sent Jesus to redeem me to a purpose greater than myself.

For so long I yearned to know God and studied God, but who knew God could be encountered just simply in his Word and through a worship service? Once I could cut away the eyes of an image, I could see what is reality – God is love, he loves all of me, he made all of me, and he desires a deep relationship with me based, not on my performance, but on faith and love.

Eyes of an image only see what the image wants you to see. Eyes of reality allow you to see the world and its Creator.

Removing The Layers

30 years of layering mask after mask after mask. The glue clings to my skin like another layer of skin. I attempt to remove the first mask. Some of the outer layers are easier to pull off. But, as I get closer to my real self, the masks get tougher and more painful to remove. Yet, I cannot continue living with them on.

How do I remove them?

First, I need to admit I wear masks. I need to admit the many layers of masks glued to the face God gave me. I wear a lot. I hide and I lie in order to avoid people knowing the real me I was created to be.

Second, as each mask comes off, I need to forgive the person who gave me the mask. God never gifted me a mask. His gift to me was me. It still is me. So, I need to forgive those who acted in the place of God to give me masks to hide myself.

To Bob Jones University, you taught me I was not good enough unless I fit your image. Through you, I learned to hate myself. I learned I could not be a good Christian, leader, or person in ministry unless I had conquered my struggles. It was your spiritual abuse which led me to March 2020 wanting to end my own life. To the counselors I had, to the four ministerial peers I looked up to, and to friends I went to for advice, you hurt me. You taught me to hate myself, to beat myself up spiritually until I was good enough. I forgive you.

To dad, mom, and my siblings. You place on me the burden of the family scapegoat. You taught me to hide myself, to be ashamed of myself, and to become a man grown up in your ideal. You blame me for the family tensions and why our family had and still have issues. You rejected me for opening up deep, personal issues in my life. You hurt me. However, I forgive you.

This is how the hardest glue comes off… forgiveness.

The Hidden Me

My name is Stephen. I am disabled. I am quirky. I am weird. I enjoy books, stuffed animals, and the theatrical-arts. I love research and studying. I love studying languages, and (for the first time) I love who I am. God made me this way.

God did not decide to fate me all the bad stuff. It is when I make room for what I perceive as the “bad stuff” in my life that I begin to accept and grow into the person God made me to become. That is what potential is.

What is good about me? Because of being disabled, struggling with same-sex attraction, and going through what I have endured, I am a great teacher. Everyday, I get to teach social-emotional skills to my students. I understand pain, rejection, being marginalized, and being the weird one attempting to make sense of his life. My co-teachers bring the gold out of me each time we chat on the playground or at lunch. They see the gold that I was meant to bring and give to my students.

However, it is not easy living as my true self daily. The temptation to glue the masks back on can be as strong as a beast within me. How do I fight that? I need to remember I have friends who love all of me, who are not embarrassed or burdened by me, and I need to accept their love for me. Mask wearing causes me to be suspicious and cautious of accepting love that penetrates all layers. Instead, I need to lean into and submit to their love. Receiving love is to admit their love is real and what they see in me is real, and to begin living out their gift of sight of who I am.

But, most importantly, my personal narrative with God needs to change. I crush the image I made of God, and I submit to what his Word says about him. It is much more beautiful as he reveals himself and I encounter him in real life. My learned theology can be a noose to hang myself on or it can be a catalyst into seeing God truly as he is as he works in and through me.

Revealing what we’ve hidden behind masks is so daunting. It is like killing a character in a story. But, that’s really what it is. Revealing ourselves is killing the imposter we penned into God’s novel, because we were not happy with the character he authored us to be.

Am I that real person now? Has the final chapter been written? A character changes and grows through his novel. I guess I am at the part where I am growing into who God authored me to be as I work to kill the characters I thought would be better to tell my story of redemption than the real me.

It is time to be me. It is who God created me to be in the first place. Submit to his narrative; not the lies I was told for years. It will take time, but it is better to bring the hidden me of divine design to light than to suffocate behind a mask of human design

Look At That View

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
– C.S. Lewis

What do you see?

The painting above is one of my all-time favorite works of art. The more you look at it, the more you see.

At first, you see a farm house and land falling apart. But, look deeper.

There is more to see. A story begins to unfold.

This painting reminds me of a truth I am slowly beginning to learn. God is opening my eyes to something deeper than I thought was there.

So often we look at three aspects of life through a certain lens that we miss the story being told. We only see the broken and falling apart, but God changes our reality so we begin to look deeper.

View of Myself

How many times was I told by my father, “Keep going down that direction, and you’ll up end in jail before 25” or “Would you like to be sent to the City Mission?”

Now, I know I was not the easiest kid to bring up. But, what do you think happened to my mindset after years of hearing that? What happened to how I viewed myself?

I am never going to be good enough. I have to keep proving myself that I am not a failure. I am always going to have to strive for perfection, and constantly seek affirmation from everyone to know I am doing right.

I see myself through the lens of the Fall – my sins, my failures, my struggles, my stumbles.

Where does that leave me? Continuing to always strive for something I was never meant to strive for.

But, how does God see me? He sees me through the lens of redemption and restoration. He sees me walking with him, perfected by Jesus Christ, and on a mission to live out the purpose he has for me. He does not see the sin that used to be a part of me. He sees what his Holy Spirit can do in and through me.

Have I ever seen that in me? No. Instead, I have listened to everyone else who told me I am not good enough. I am not wanted. I can’t do anything amazing, because if people found the real me, then I would be done. This is the fear mentality I grew up in, attended college in, and tried to grow spiritually in.

However, God sees me as good enough, wanted, eager to do something amazing in me, and sees my story as something beautiful!

Why don’t I see that in me?

View of Others

I discovered I had very racist thinking in me….

I was with my wife. We were going to cash in a jar of coins for cash at a local Walmart. As we walked through the parking lot, a group of African-American guys walked beside us. I quickly covered the jar with my jacket. My wife turned to me, and she called me out on it.

Where did that come from? I quickly repented and realized racist thinking was in charge of how I viewed that group of guys.

It was me looking at them through the lens of the Fall. I see people as suspicious, backstabbers, liars, fake, and only out to get me. I was raised to think that way. I was raised to see the world through the lens of the Fall – full of sinners, wickedness, and all on their way to Hell. Follow that with a “Praise Jesus, I am not one of them!”

Yet, how does God see those around me? He sees them through the lens of redemption and restoration. He sees people in the light of his saving love. He sees their heart in need of a savior. He sees them in need of healing. He, then, sees their potential, their purposes, and what could happen when they allow the Spirit to lead them.

How drastically does that differ from the story I shared? Very much so. When I see people through the lens of redemption and restoration, I begin to see the best in people, I see the gold inside, I see what God can do. That is how I need to see others around me.

Jesus never saw others as out to get him. He saw them as needing to be caught by him.

Why is it so hard for us to view others through a lens of redemption and restoration?

View of God

“Be holy like God is holy!”

I heard this so many times in my life. The focus was on holiness, being holy in all I do, and the list that came with it. God becomes someone you must impress with your holiness, because anyone who isn’t holy will not see God.

God was up there with one eyebrow raised and recording each moment of my life. Was he going to use me if I messed up? I remember the president of the university I attended saying to me before I separated from them, “Stephen, by doing this, you have limited God’s opportunities for you.” All because I told my students why I was leaving, God couldn’t use me anymore. I remember when I first told my parents about my struggle with same-sex attraction. They told me how much I was not following God. They told me I was no longer living in light of the truth, and they questioned my salvation.

How did that make me see God? Through the lens of the Fall. His holiness and my sin. Everything revolved around his holiness.

Where does that lead?

However, how does God view himself? Good question. It is clear in Scripture that everything he does is out of love. His lens is redemption and restoration. The heart of that view is love. He sent his Son out of love. He gave us free will out of love. He wants a relationship with us out of love. In God’s love (even that is how he is personally) everything is wrapped up.

Through the lens of redemption and restoration, I can have a real relationship with God. He wants me. He wants his glory out of love. He loves people. He loves me.

Yet, is that how I view God? He doesn’t view me from the lens of the Fall, and neither should I. He never wanted us to. We get so stuck in the Fall-mindset that we never truly encounter him through the lens of redemption and restoration.

Why is it so hard for us to view God through his own lens of redemption and restoration?

Two Views

The painting above is one of my favorites. Each time I see it, I see something new. A new detail hidden. If I quickly glance at it, then I see a broken down picture of a farm. Interesting, but let’s look at something else. But, when I take time to see it through the lens of the artist, I see a whole lot more.

It is the same for which lens we see ourselves, others, and God.

Do we see through the lens of the Fall? It impacts us, others, and God. It is all about sin, wickedness, Hell, punishment, the curse, and so much misery.

Yet, what happens when we put on the lens of redemption and restoration? It is all about grace, Jesus, the life in the Spirit, and the love of God.

Do you see the difference?

Which lens are you seeing through?

My world is changing when I meditate on this truth. It is a war for my soul. It is a battle of my mind. Switching lenses is not easy. But, it is worth it.

I can’t go on seeing life through the Fall. It only brings me into the pits God has rescued me out of through Christ. It is when I look at life through the lens of redemption and restoration that I can live in the Spirit.

Why are we not looking through God’s lens of redemption and restoration as he intended us to do?

Don’t Force It

“If one could run without getting tired I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” – C.S. Lewis

It was like any other day in my classroom. Students were knee-deep in homework. The concentration was tight. Except for one student. The tension in this kid’s face was obvious. I swear I saw a vein pop in his head.

I walked over and pulled a chair next to him. “Are you ok? How can I help you?” He informed me this homework must be finished. He had a big test the next day. You could tell the studying was getting to him. His eyes almost looked like mine when I would pull an all-nighter in college.

I offered him a chance to take a break or I could sit with him to help. The student dismissed all the choices I gave him. As I checked on the other students, I kept my eye on him.

About 10 minutes later, his chair went over. A blur rushed out the door. I saw the student dart into the bathroom across from my classroom. Suddenly, as I stood in the doorway of my room, a smell told me what happened…

Our Spiritual Homework

How many of us have left church, small group, youth group, or another Christian gathering with something we had to do? We had a chapter to read, questions to fill out, Bible reading to do, prayer time to get through, etc.

When you’re a Christian, there is always something to do or something to work on.

I remember in college, when I went to see the Dean of Men for help, I was given a list of things I needed to work on in my life and a list of ways to accomplish those things. I felt overwhelmed. In fact, my school work began to slide as I focused my attention on my spiritual life. I had to get an “A” in my spiritual life. I had to do better. I had to…

Have you had a similar experience?

We all have been given spiritual homework. Some of it is easy. Some, though, feels worse than writing a grad-project. Our focus is on how bad we want to see change in our life. We work and work and stress over seeing change that what happens?

The same thing that happened to my student…

We end up with a “spiritual upset stomach.”

Are we supposed to live this way?

Frustrated With Fruit

One of the clearest examples of this way of thinking is in regards to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). We have heard plenty of sermons on this passage. Usually these sermons end with a call to practice the Fruit of the Spirit.

What happens afterwards? We begin our homework to practice them. We force ourselves to love, have joy, be patient, have more self-control, etc. Sometimes it is through gritting our teeth we force ourselves.

But, does fruit grow at the will of the farmer? Does a farmer do all the work? Or does he prepare the field for fruit to grow? A farmer cultivates an environment to grow fruit, but he doesn’t force the fruit to grow on his timetable.

Ecclesiastes 5:11 tells us we cannot fully know how God works. We see the effects of God working, but sometimes we do not know the details of how he is working.

If we take the Fruit of the Spirit in context (Galatians 5:16-26), we see the truth in this passage. We are never once told to practice these fruits. We are only told to walk in the Spirit. That is the main call to action here – walk in the Spirit. The Spirit will produce these things in our life, but we have to cultivate the field by walking with the Spirit.

Is there something for us to do? Yes, walk with the Spirit. What part is not for us to do? Produce the Fruit of the Spirit inside us. That is the job of the Spirit.

Yet, how many of us still end up with a “spiritual upset stomach” as we try to produce the fruit in ourselves?

That Stubborn Struggle

Let’s look at another example…

How many of us have that one struggle that will not leave? We go to small group, pray at the altar, rededicate our life to Christ, read Scripture, pray on our own, read every spiritual book on the topic… Yet, it still will not go away!

We look at Jesus as say, “Behold, all that I have done for you. Why are you not taking away this struggle?”

I have had way too many upset stomachs over the struggles in my life. There were days I felt sick to my stomach, because I could not completely conquer that struggle. Have you felt the same?

But, doesn’t this ring a bell to a similar story in Scripture? It is the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus arrived at their house. Martha was all about their place cleaning, cooking, dusting, adjusting furniture, and everything else that could be on that hospitality list. We know she loved Jesus, but why was she doing all of this? Was she hoping for a blessing, wanting to impress Jesus with her gratitude… what could it have been?

Eventually, she gets frustrated. He explodes in front of Jesus demanding her sister, Mary, help her. Jesus, probably after telling Martha to take a deep breath, calmly says, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The one thing Mary was concerned about was sitting at the feet of Jesus. She did not need to do anything except be in his presence.

Titus 2:11-12 gently reveals the role of the grace of Jesus. His grace teaches us to reject ungodliness. So often we focus so much on killing sin in our life, that we end up killing grace. It is in the presence of Jesus that we receive the grace we need to turn from sin and turn to Jesus. We cannot fight and kill sin with our own efforts. Otherwise, Jesus would have died in vain. We can avoid the bars, put up the internet blockers, memorize Scripture, etc. But, if we are not sitting at the feet of Jesus as his grace begins to transform us, then we will never see our struggles as he sees them.

Jesus sees our struggles. He sees our efforts to conquer them. Yet, he hushes our busied hands. He stills our frantic feet from going from one thing to another. He holds our gaze and says, “Spend time with me. Let me take care of your struggle. In your weakness, I will show myself mighty in your life (II Corinthians 12:7-9).”

Stop what we are doing. Stop giving yourself a “spiritual upset stomach,” and spend time in the presence of Jesus.

The Contentment Conundrum

One of the most annoying phrases I have heard from Christians is – “You need to find your contentment in God.”

How many of us have heard that phrase? Be honest, it caused us so much frustration as we pursued and fought to find contentment in God. When we ask how to do that, we are told to read our Bible, pray, attend church, or given yet another book to read.

I will tell you trying to find contentment in God is quite frustrating. I have done all the work, but there are still days I find myself shaking my fist at God wanting to know why. Be honest, we have all been there.

It wasn’t until I came across this verse that I realized the secret of being content in God. I began reading through The Passion Translation this year. Romans 11:36 stuck out to me like a big neon sign:

“For out of him, the sustainer of everything, came everything and now everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen!”
– Romans 11:36 (The Passion Translation)

So often finding our contentment in God is about working it up within ourselves. It is something we must muster inside our soul. Yet, Paul is saying that everything finds fulfillment. Contentment isn’t about a feeling. It is about fulfillment. Everything we need, want, desire is found in Jesus. It all flows from him like a cascading waterfall into our soul.

All we have to do is spend time with him to see this truth. It is not about our grit that awards us this contentment. It is already there. It is like a treasure hidden in a field. When we find it, we sell everything in order to have that treasure (Matthew 13:44).

Running Not Fainting

When the student returned to the classroom, I sat next to him. I brought him a cup a water, and, together, we worked through his homework. He spent all that time working himself sick to his stomach, but all he had to do is ask for my help. I was willing to help him. He just had to sit next with me, so we could walk through the work together.

It is the same with our Christian life. So often we try to do it all on our own strength. There are church cultures who pride themselves on their image of perfection. They read the right books, listen to the right music, attend the right church, and fulfill other such lists. But, guaranteed, the surface makeup will only hold for so long.

I was in a similar place. I worked myself into such a “spiritual upset stomach” that I attempted suicide. My works were not getting me anywhere. The place I was at still promotes this works-based mentality of the Christian life. It is all about the next thing to do, the next book to read, the next time to be at church, the next checkmark, the next prayer. It is all about trying to do the right thing, in hopes, he will notice us and, we hope, to be used by him.

This will only give us a “spiritual upset stomach” ending in spiritual vomit. It is not good, and it is not what God intended for us.

We can do a lot for him, but it has to start with us being like Mary. We cannot give into the temptation to work harder. All Jesus desires is for our presence. He will change us, transform us, and show us things we’ve only dreamt of.

Our fainting is because we have stopped trusting in God. We have begun trusting in our strategies, our works, and our doings in order to get where we want to be. God promises us in Isaiah 40:28-31, that when we trust in the everlasting God, he will give us wings like eagles. We will run without getting weary. We will not faint. We will walk confidently, because he is our strength for everything in our life.

Are we tired of giving ourselves a “spiritual upset stomach”? We need to repent. We need to lay our vulnerabilities before Jesus. We need to walk with the Spirit, and allow him to do the work.

Don’t force it.

God’s already at work in you, and he will finish what what he start (Philippians 1:6).

That is his promise to you.

Suggested Song – Make Room by Community Music

In The Beauty Of Holiness

“We are never nearer Christ than when we find ourselves lost in a holy amazement at His unspeakable love.” – John Own

Worship…

What do we think about when we hear that term? What images come to mind? Are there any verses quickly being voiced regarding worship?

There is one that is central to worship that many Christians ascribe to what worship is…

Psalm 29:2 Honor the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.

But, what does it mean to worship the Lord in the splendor or beauty of his holiness?

While countless books, sermons, and articles have touched this verse, I would like to share what God is teaching me about this phrase being tossed around.

Twisted Holiness

I remember sitting in many Bible classes and ministry classes discussing Psalm 29:2. We discussed what it meant to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Many times we think about the style of music, the setting of the church, the dress code, the lyrics, how church is conducted, and many, many other things.

We hear holiness, and we immediately think it means God is without sin. He cannot stand to be in the sight of sin. We see ourselves unable to approach God without being perfect.

Jesus is the only one who can make us perfect in order to come to God. However, when it comes to our worship, we try to show God how “sacred” our worship is. We only use “sacred music.” We must be in a building that looks the part. We must dress the part. Everything must look the part. In all honesty, we come to God unsure of our standing before him.

We all believe God fully accepts us because of Christ, right? Then why make sure we “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” A.K.A our attempts at being holy?

We make his holiness about being so separated from the world, that we regress to Old Testament thinking. We build our tabernacles, we sing our hymns, we do our rituals. But in reality, we have accepted a shadow for the real thing (Colossians 2:17).

I sat through classes scared of approaching God in the wrong way and end up being swallowed up by the earth or burned alive (Leviticus 10:1-2).

We have twisted his holiness. We keep God’s holiness in the Old Covenant. We do not worship in the beauty of holiness. We worship in the fear of his holiness.

From Top to Bottom

We need to see worshipping in the beauty of his holiness from the New Covenant. Jesus sealed a new way of relating to God with his own blood. He hung on that cross till he cried out, “It is finished.”

We all agree that his death and resurrection forgives us of sin and gives us eternal life. But, how does it relate to our worship?

In the Old Testament, people feared approaching God unless they accomplished certain tasks. (Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?) The dress had to be right. The approach just right. The rituals done in a certain way. They did everything to make sure God wasn’t offended.

Praise God that mindset and life is gone! See, in the temple, there was a gigantic curtain separating people from the presence of God. In order to go behind that curtain, things had to be done a certain way by certain people. Even then, people were frightened if God would smite that individual down.

But…

Mark 15:38 boldly declares that when Christ died the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. No more separation. No more rituals, certain individuals, or works. All and anyone could come to the presence of God.

Christ died so we could stand in the holy presence of God without fear.

A Vision and Perfume

When I think about worship and holiness, I think of two passages – Isaiah 6:1-7 and Luke 7:36-50.

In the first passage, we see Isaiah and his vision standing before God. He sees the holiness of God, and he is broken. He says he is an unclean man, and he is undone.

In the second passage, we see a strange scene. A sinful woman comes before Jesus. She breaks open a bottle of perfume. The scented oil pours over the feet of Jesus. This woman washes the oil off with her hair. She is undone. She is broken before Jesus – God incarnate.

Yet, how does each passage end? The kiss of holiness and vulnerability births forgiveness. Each one was forgiven by a holy God.

So often we come to his holiness out of fear; hoping for a pardon. But, the holiness of God brings out our vulnerability in order for him to heal our deepest wounds and sins.

A Change of Heart

Recently, I was at our church’s revival service. As I stood there singing and praying, I heard the Spirit speak to me. He said, “Stephen, take off your leg braces for where you stand is holy ground.”

Right there, I took them off. As we continued to sing, I realized I could not stand. My strength was giving out. I plopped down on my seat and cried. I felt weak, vulnerable, unable to participate. I felt unworthy to be there, because I could not worship like the others could.

Then, God spoke to me one word – Mephibosheth

The crippled man who David brought into his house and sat at his table (2 Samuel 9). This man, who could not do anything, was accepted and brought close.

That night, I felt like Mephibosheth. I was undone. I could not stand and worship. Then, our pastor came to me and asked if I needed prayer. Her words spoke what God was saying to me. She prayed for the spirit of an orphan to break and that I would feel the Spirit of Sonship (which is the Holy Spirit).

My heart changed. I was no longer supported by my braces, supported by my words, my actions, my rituals to enter the holiness and presence of God. My vulnerability was kissed by the beauty of God’s holiness.

Worship in His Beauty

It is our vulnerability we find the ability to worship in the beauty of his holiness. Holiness isn’t something that will wipe us out, because we have Christ.

David was so vulnerable in the Psalms, and he worshipped God in the beauty of holiness.

We cannot experience that beauty unless we bring our vulnerability. Throw out the “sacred music,” throw out the dress code, throw out the building. Scrap it all.

Just bring your vulnerability to the Creator of the world who tore the curtain from top to bottom in order for you to encounter his presence.

We will be undone. We will break into tears. But, thank God it will not be for how we’ve failed. It will because we see the beauty of his holiness touching our soul through healing our many wounds inflicted by the curse of sin.

That is what it means to worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness. The fear of holiness leads to condemnation. The beauty of holiness leads to our acceptance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is in our vulnerability we worship in the beauty of holiness. No more trying to play a part, fit an image, or fulfill a law. That is all done away with. The curtain is torn.

We are invited by the nail-pierced hands to break open our jar of perfume and worship. As we do, we will hear what we all have longed to hear…

“Son, Daughter… “

Suggested Song – You Are Holy by Gabriel Allred

Taking The Journey

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” —​Henry David Thoreau

“Stephen, due to your actions, you have limited God’s opportunities for you.”

That day I questioned, “Did I make the right decision? Was it God calling me to leave this chapter of my life and go a different direction? Or was it my own emotions?”

I felt guilty for taking a different path which led me away from the place I devoted ten years of my life. This leader’s words haunted me as I walked out of his office into an uncertain world.

Many times in my life, the pathway changed. The map no longer worked. God was no longer following my cartography.

How many times do we find God not following our cartography? We spent so much time studying for that one job. We had goals we went for. Yet, how do we feel when the path changes? We may say, “God is leading,” but, deep down, do we feel like we are settling or we have done something wrong to deserve this?

As the paths in my life have twisted and turned, I have learned somethings and still learning things I would like to share with you.

The Individual Race

In the last few months and year, I have witnessed many of my friends from seminary be ordained into the ministry. I remember the days where we swapped notes, vented about frustrating professors, and spoke of future fruit as we dreamed about the path God had us on preparing for ministry.

Fast forward from 2016 to now…

What happened? I can’t think of one person I was in seminary with who isn’t in some sort of full-time, vocational ministry. Well, except one… me. The one who had dreams to be a missionary in France. The one who wrote a 120-page grad project on how to do missions in France. The one who talked about it in every conversation.

God, what did you do? You took me way off of my cartography work! I am now a full-time teacher. I head up the after-school program for 1st-5th graders. I have a piercing, two tattoos, have come out about my struggle with same-sex attraction, lost the familial relationship with my parents and siblings, and now attend a church where my learned theology has crashed. God, what did you do?

He took me on his journey.

The first lesson I had to learn about the Christian walk is that the journey isn’t the same for everyone. Hebrews 12:1 tells us Christ puts a race in front of each one of us. It isn’t the same for everyone. However, it leads to the same place and our companion is the same – the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 11 shows example after example of how different each person’s race is.

God tells the same story, but he doesn’t have us follow the same path. Our story is always about redemption in Jesus, and our individual path is faith.

The Pathway of Faith

When my path began to divert from my friends, they slowly grew faint in the background.

Was it God still directing me or was I following my flesh?

This question swims in our mind constantly when what we know disappears behind us and the horizon isn’t quite visible yet. Has our emotions dictated this path or is it God?

When we are following God for each step of our life, there will be times where the path goes off our cartography. Friends and family will leave. But, following the Spirit will sometimes lead that way.

A path following our emotions will always have sight. A path of faith forces us to take our eyes off of our plans, our friends, our ideas, and focus on the Holy Spirit showing us his glory at each step. II Corinthians 5:7 encourages us to live by faith; not by sight. The pathway of faith means closing our eyes to our visions, our reputations, our expectations, and stepping out to where we know the Spirit is nudging us to.

One of my favorite illustrations of the walk of faith is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy, following the journal through the tests to get the the Holy Grail, finds himself looking at a great abyss separating him from his goal. In order to cross, he needs to take a leap of faith. Watch the Scene Here

So often we find ourselves on a pathway of faith. Our eyes become focused less on the steps away from the certain and more focused on the steps towards Jesus. Our lungs no longer breathe out comfortability. Instead, they breathe in the Breath of Life; the Holy Spirit. Paul and Habakkuk both state that those who live for God will walk and live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17).

The pathway of faith may lead from our comfortable people, plans, and places, but this pathway follows the voice who is for us and is our destination – God.

He is for You

However, this journey isn’t all meadows and sunshine. There are wraiths trying to kill us, wicked witches twisting beautiful poppies into deadly toxins, and sly snakes deceiving. The terrain goes from flat easy paths, to rugged trails tripping with roots, to snow encumbered mountains, to foggy valleys. Each part of the journey leads to places where we may not know how to navigate.

The path may bring a struggle where you feel like God is against you. You feel like giving up, turning around, because your guide is gone. He’s given you something for your destruction.

Believe me, I know this feeling. Being a Christian, married to a woman, and struggling with same-sex attraction feels like your whole self is being rent in two.

God knows all the details of our life. He wrote them all down in our story. He sees where we have been, where we are, and where we are going (Psalm 139:13-16). Yet, why does it seem when we can’t hold onto our cartography we say God is against us?

Is it because we are off our plans? It really shows how much we want to be God when we fight him when he leads us off our dreams and plans.

Scripture tells us that God is actually for us. It is not that God is for us when we get all our wants and desires. He is for us all the time. Romans 8:31, Psalm 56:9, and many other passages all praise God for being for us! He knows the hardships we go through, but he is for you. He is for me. He doesn’t give up on us. He will not see us destroyed. If he made sure that his Son wouldn’t see corruption in the grave, how much more can he do since he is on our side?

All of You

Our race is individually created and planned for us. Our pathway is a journey of faith; not one of sight. Our guide is God, himself, as the Holy Spirit leas us and is for us each step of the way.

What great truths! It makes my heart swell!

We want this journey of a lifetime with abundant life. Yet, how many of us only want a part of us to go? We want the part that is gifted, the spiritual part of us, the parts we think Jesus can use, but not that part we are ashamed of.

It is so difficult to allow all of me to go on this journey. I want to scrape off the parts I am ashamed of in order to follow Jesus. But, he calls me to bring those along. In Luke 9:23, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We deny ourselves by denying our image, our reputation, our cartography, and we follow him. However, we must also pick up our cross. A cross isn’t something we parade around like accomplishments on a resume. Our cross is found in the things we want to hide, those things we see as weak, those things which will tear our image apart. Yet, Paul stated in II Corinthians 12:8-10 that our weaknesses are accepted in order to show Christ’s grace, strength, and resurrection power in our life.

What is more powerful? A testimony of someone who has figured it all out? Or the testimony of someone who falls, gets back up, and keeps going? The story of transformation is stronger than the story of perfection, because Christ is the author of transformation.

This is why he wants all of you on this journey. He is going to use all of you to reach others, to bring healing, to show his power to the nations. This can only happen if you take all of you on this journey.

He doesn’t just see the gifts in you. Your Father sees all of you, and he desires all of you.

Ready?

Do I have it all figured out? No. I do know, however, that the journey I am on has been purposed and planned for me. I must walk it in faith. I must always believe God is for me. I must always give all of me on this journey.

It is a journey I cannot look back, because my journey isn’t back to where God brought me out of. It is forward towards the intimacy of God following the Spirit into the arms of my Savior.

So, stop rejecting the twists and turns. Stop asking God why he doesn’t follow your cartography. Crumple up the map you drew and follow the Spirit each step. You may lose your reputation, but you won’t lose your soul. You may need to start over. You may need to find your community. But, you won’t lose the love of God. You won’t lose the hand of the Savior, and you won’t lose the guiding breath of the Spirit.

Ready to take on the journey?

Don’t look back unless you plan to go back that direction. Instead, give all of yourself to the journey ahead of you and watch God, not only allow your life to shine, but make you burn in the darkness like stars in the sky.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step…

A step into the unknown.

A step following the Spirit.

A step in closer intimacy with God.

A step on his perfect journey for you.

Are you ready to take this journey?

The Banner Year

“The smile of God is victory.”
– John Greenleaf Whittier

January 2021…

I remember it well. More like I remember the sermon at our church for the beginning of 2021. Our pastor stood before us and declared this year would be a banner year. 2020 brought a lot of burdens and shakes in my life. This declaration fell on my ears like rain in a severe drought… hopeful for life to return.

Then, 2021 happened…
Rejection. Pain. Bills. Lose of job. Betrayal. Heartache. Loneliness. Depression. Our life could have been turned into a soap-opera. There was more drama in our life than in the career of an Oscar winner. I even had some friends tell me I was lying or stretching the truth of what was going on. It was a rough year on all fronts.

So, where was my banner year? Was God unhappy with me? Did he withhold blessing from me for any reason? What was I doing wrong?

Then words from a dear friend began to take root in my heart…

Change the narrative

Let’s take the advice of Blockbuster. Be Kind. Rewind.

Did the banner year happen?

When The Narrative Changes

A lot of bad things happened. There were days I thought, “Would my life only be the drama I faced?” Were the happy faces of my friends going on trips, taking myriads of photos just God’s way of teasing me? Was I to see the “good life,” but not partake? I saw someone post a prayer request saying they feared they would never walk again if something went wrong with their surgery. They stated not being able to walk and play sports would be an awful fate. All I could do was just stare in disbelief someone would think that when I…

Yes, when I. Looking at all the things blowing up around me, I can easily begin to compare.

But, what if I changed the narrative? What if there is something else besides the drama I was facing?

What if I had a banner year all along?

2020 revealed to me how deep I was caught in legalism. I could not see God’s love for me. He could never approve of me no matter how much I did. I remember hating myself in 2020 over tensions in my faith.

Yet, something began in 2021. Something happened in me on May 25, 2021. After reading through Galatians, I journaled this prayer:
“Heavenly Father, I have been deceived about you, your gift of salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and me. I believed I wasn’t good enough. I had to prove myself. All my years I tried to feel your love when it was already there. I believed you hated me and cursed me because I couldn’t reach the next spiritual level. I believed, but I believed a lie. I lived out this lie and it affected and infected everything. It became about me proving myself to you and others to hopefully be blessed. That is the lie I lived. I lived a false gospel. Jesus was just a means to an end; not a relationship of freedom to live. I repent of this lie in my heart and mind. I turn from it, and not to a way of rules and right living, but to Jesus. You love me and want me, so you sent Jesus to free me to be who you you created me to be – not a slave, but a son. A slave is only loved by his performance, but a son is loved unconditionally. So God, heal my mind from these lies. Forgive me for living contrary to your gospel and give me a heart to follow Jesus’ love and grace. I believe and confess this is what is true. No more proofs, rules, standards, and images – only Jesus. Thank you for revealing this blindness and opening my eyes to the truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

My chains of legalism fell off and the prison doors began to open. That August, I was baptized. The pastor who baptized me, then prayed over me to received the Holy Spirit.

2021 brought a freedom to my faith. I’ve experienced God in ways I’ve never dreamed of. I let go of the need to debate theology and hold tight to labels and positions. Instead, I have experienced the freedom of allowing God to take control of my beliefs.

Our experience of God will never be greater than our revelation of God. If we keep God in our man-made systematics, then we will never experience a God out of the boxes we create for him.

The biggest struggle I have faced in my life are the thoughts of being unlovable. Do people just tolerate me, or am I truly loved, wanted, and accepted?

This year, I saw many friends and family walk away. There were days I hung up the phone or left conversations with tears in my eyes. I spent so many nights sitting out on the stairs looking up into the night sky hoping to feel some connection or pull on my soul to know I was not alone.

2021 felt like the sequel to 2020 – More rejection. Yet, when I think about it. I was never alone. I have friends who never let go of me. In fact, they would hold tighter if I began to walk away.

The greatest story I have of this year regarding a friend still astounds me. It was like God had me in a game of chess. October 2021 came around. I was out of town. Something happened in my family that brought on some very dark days. The 4am call still is a vivid soundtrack in my mind. Yet, when I received that phone call, a close friend was with me. I do not think I would have been able to process it all without this friend in my life. In fact, my whole pastoral team was in the same city I was. I prayed with my pastor the day I received that call. This friend walked with me through those days and still is there checking in and not letting go (even if I say dumb things).

This year, I was never alone. My own depression clouded that image, but I really never was. Even if I could only send them a text, they would always respond.

To those friends, I wish I had something to give in return to what you gave me. There is no trinket or monetary value which could replace or replicate your friendship in my life. You texted me out of your fort of work. You surprised me at my 30th. You spent many Saturday lunches over chips and salsa helping me work through the junk in my life. You reassured me of my value by gifting me something that I just look at and begin to tear up. You held my hand as you prayed for me. You saw me as your son and became a father to me in my darkest days.

Thank you.

The biggest obstacle I faced this year was coming to terms with my struggle with same-sex attraction. March 2020, I attempted suicide over it due to the overwhelming burden it was on my life.

However, 2021 brought something else. It brought a new way of seeing God and this part of my life. For so long, I was told and counseled God could not use me until I was rid of it. I was inferior until I was on the straight and narrow path regarding this issue. The hatred for myself was a burden too much to bear.

Yet, 2021, I found a foundation. His name is Jesus Christ. He isn’t angry with me or hates me because I have same-sex attraction in my life. He know about it. In fact, he loves me for who I am. Until I was able to accept myself, I could never begin to see God’s love for me. Sure, acceptance meant rejection from some. But those who accept me (including my wife who is Wonder Woman. Move over Gal Gadot – you have nothing on her) keep pointing me to Jesus and his love. Over and over they remind me to give it to him. It is not all of me. It is another part of me I give to Jesus and allow his Spirit to guide me in how I live with it.

This struggle used to drag me down to the depths of despair. Now, I am walking (with a few stumbles) in the belief God will use it for his glory and it is my weakness he can show himself strong in.

Back to Normal?

2021 was the year to return to normal (mainly in regards to Covid). However, in my own personal life, I do not want to return to how things were. If I did, then look at what I would lose. How far back would I need to go to return to normal?

Faith is a living force in the life of a Christian. It is founded on Jesus Christ. Faith isn’t static. It does not desire the return to normal when your world has been turned upside-down. Instead, it yearns for the new adventure. It yearns to walk without sight following the voice of the Spirit.

Why go back to normal when the Spirit wants to be with me on this journey of transformation into the image of Jesus? Sanctification is far from normal.

The Conclusion of the Year

So, did I have a banner year?

It all depends on how you define what a banner year is. Many of us think it is great, sweeping victories, miracles, blessings, overflows of joy gushing out of our very soul.

But what if a banner year is like the soldiers at Iwo Jima attempting to set up their banner? It was put up in the midst of bullets slicing flesh and corpses corrupting the paradise scenery. Yet, these men had one goal- their banner must be lifted.

Many times this year I questioned God asking where my banner year was. Was it found in the next day or something I missed? No. It is in the present where I am. It is in the smile of God we find the banner year. A banner year is someone standing and planting their flag in the ground declaring they stand. It is not a symbol of wealth, health, and prosperity. It is a symbol of standing.

And I am still standing. I still have a home. I still have my wife. I still have my faithful friends. I still have my church. I still have Jesus.

It is not in the reception of gifts we find the banner year. It is in the present smile of God when we are able to stand. That is when the banner flies.

All it takes is the mindset and heart to change the narrative.

So lift your banner high and stand, because God smiles on you. And in that smile is the victory you stand in.

Suggested Song – Here Again by Elevation Worship

The Releasing

“There was right, there was wrong. Now there is you.” – Hercule Poirot
(Murder on the Orient Express)

It hurts…
It deeply hurts…
They did that to me…
The wound still bleeds when it is bumped or scratched…

Can you remember their words and actions? How long did it take you to forgive them? We may have said, “I forgive you,” but the effects still linger. A picture on Facebook, a comment from a sermon, a song, a movie scene, or anything can trigger that wound to bleed again. We forgive the actions, but it is difficult to forgive the effects of someone’s actions towards us.

We hold them enslaved to their effects on our life. We no longer want to lost control when we are triggered, so we decide to cage and control them. It may not be physical control, but we cage them and hold them responsible for the bleeding that still happens.

Sometimes, we even sit in the shadows ready to strike out in revenge. Yet, how does that make us feel? We walk around with people chained to us.

Can we let go? Can we release them, not only from the facts, but from the effects?

The Enslaving Cage

We remember the days we have told the other of our forgiveness. We forgave the facts of their action. But, is that enough? We still bleed. We still hurt. The effects of offenses carry like bandaged wounds on our soul.

Yet, we do not want them off the hook so easily. So what we do is we cage the offender and enslave them to how they have made us feel now. Our normal has been erased, and they are responsible for our new normal. We cage them to keep power over them. They put us in this mess, so they will build our story, our resolves, and our decisions. Enslaving the offender will build us up as we use them for our good.

How good does it feel to use the offender to build our life up? It gives us power that they do not have power.

However…

We become like a character in Scripture none of us want to admit we are like.

Like Pharaoh

Exodus 5-12 shows us the showdown between Moses and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh listens day after day to Moses telling him to let the Israelite people go. Does he? No. We all know this story. “He didn’t, because Pharaoh had a hard heart.” How many of us have heard this as the reason for his unwillingness to let the people go?

I have! Plenty of times I have been told, “Do not harden your heart like Pharaoh when God asks you to do something.” While that is a good thing, and we do not want to end up with a hard heart, what if we are like Pharaoh in a different way?

What would Pharaoh lose if he let the enslaved Israelites go? We get a glimpse of it in Exodus 1:11. The people were enslaved in order to build an empire. An empire brings power. Even though a different Pharaoh came to the throne when Moses returned to Egypt, the same mindset applies. He did not want to lose the people who were building his empire and giving him means to his power. The more they built, the more Pharaoh could display his power and control.

Pharaohs built temples, statues, and hieroglyphic murals to themselves boasting of their power. If someone got in their way, then that individual was executed and was seen no more.

I Will Not Let Go

Many of us would say we are not hardhearted towards God, but we are like Pharaoh in another way. We do not want to let go of the people who are building our empire. Sure, it may not be a physical nation or city. But, it is the story we tell. It is how we portray someone in order to show we are the better person.

We have forgiven the facts, but the effects cause us to enslave them to build our story. We want power over them, so we cage them. We are like Pharaoh. When God comes to us asking us to release those people into forgiveness, we do not want to.

It is so difficult to let go of the offender. They have made your story, they have made your power, and to lose that means you will lose your power over them.

My Offenders Released

God has convicted me of this lately. So many people in my life have hurt me. Deep wound cut across my heart. I remember the day I said, “I forgive you” to each of them. But, what have I done?

To soothe the triggers and effects of their actions, I keep throwing them under the bus. I use them to promote my own story. Yes, I have a story of hurt. But, what does it do when I constantly throw it in their face? I control them to build my power and image; just like Pharaoh.

Did Jesus and the Apostles do that? Did they throw the Religious Leaders completely under the bus to show how bad they are? No. They moved on and focused on Christ and his redemption. When I focus on the hurt, I do not focus on Christ.

Secretly, I want them to always know what they have done by keeping them enslaved.

My high school hurt me and bullied me. My college chained me to legalism. My parents deeply hurt me and rejected me. A recovery group asked me to leave due to my struggle with same-sex attraction. A person used my past against me to lose an opportunity. All of this hurts. Believe me, it hurts. But, how often to I keep them in order to use them to build my power?

To all of these people. I am sorry for holding this to you. I forgive you. Will you forgive me? I do not guarantee your wounds will not bleed again. I cannot promise I will forget. But, I will no longer use you to build my empire. You are a part of the story; not the foundation.

My testimony is not being hurt by you. My testimony is coming from death to life through Jesus.

Writing Our Story

Our life story is filled with people who hurt us. Yet, it is how we portray them and use them in our story which shows if we have forgiven them. If it all becomes about them, then we have enslaved them. If the focus is how we have healed and are growing, then we show we have forgiven them.

A story will be told. It is filled with many characters, but it is how those characters are portrayed which shows our heart. It will be difficult.

What is the focus of our story? In writing it, what is the heart the chapters lead us to? Is it back to hurt or back to Jesus?

Setting Your Captives Free

Two movie scenes visualized in my mind as I wrestled with this.

The first, is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As Elsa takes the Holy Grail across the seal, an earthquake splits the ground. She goes after the Grail and ends up losing her life. Watch this scene to see what happens…

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Scene

When we hurt, we want justice. Even if it’s not an illegal action done to us, we do hold them hostage to their actions even after we forgave them. We want to use them to give us power. We chase that “justice” until the point of us hurting ourselves. We need to let it go. Tell the story, but do not use our story to pursue a false justice. Let God take care of it.

The other scene is from Murder on the Orient Express. A gang leader is murdered. Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, sets off to solve the case. Yet, he finds out (spoiler warning) every suspect was involved. Each person is connected to a little girl this gang leader kidnapped and murdered. The grandmother is the mastermind of the plan. In this scene, Poirot says something very profound.

Murder on the Orient Express Ending

“There was right, there was wrong. Now there is you.” How often do we see right and wrong and make ourselves stand outside of those two sides? We rally people around us to cage those who’ve hurt us. What justice is that? It is still enslaving them to what we need to forgive. It leaves us focused on hurt rather than the Healer of our soul.

Forgiving the facts of hurt is easier than forgiving the effects. Our story must be written with redemption as the center; not the hurt creating the gravitational pull.

We cannot heal unless Jesus becomes the center. Psalm 18:19 promises us a spacious place of freedom God will place us when he rescues us from the wicked. What if the wicked is ourselves? What if God wants to rescue us from our own unforgiveness and enslaving of others in order to bring us to that spacious and free place?

I have been hurt. This year, 2021, has been filled with hurt. Yet, my story can no longer gravitate towards the hurt. Instead, it must focus on the Healer, Jesus. I must release them as the main characters in order to move towards Jesus. What they did hurt, but it is not the direction of my story. My life is not built on the enslaving offender. It is founded on the rock who heals me and redeems me.

I release them. I let them go.

Are you in a similar place? Who builds your life – your offenders or your savior?

Are you willing to release them?

Nervous To Hope

“The word hope I take for faith; and indeed hope is nothing else but the constancy of faith.” – John Calvin

The door is in front of you…

It is something you have hoped for again and again. Prayers stained with tears fill your journal. You remember the ache in your soul wishing for God’s soothing balm of his blessings.

Yet, we stop. We are hesitant of the door in front of us. It is like God is welcoming us into a new chapter. Yet, we still hesitate. Whether it is an invitation to experience a blessing or the arrival of an ominous event, we hesitate.

Why?

We are nervous to hope. We feel like God has burned us before. A good opportunity has spoiled. A trial as tested us to a tipping point. We feel God teases us, rips the rug out from under us, and is some sick person wanting a grisly glory out of our pain.

What this leads to is our hesitancy. We are nervous to hope.

But, is that ok?

Burned by God

All of us have faced something where we have felt burned by God. We walked through a door only to have the floor drop out from under us. We have been placed into a trial praising God, but our passion for God waned as we grew weary each step of the way as we prayed for strength.

We ask why, and we question if God is good in doing this. We begrudgingly attend church. Our presence is counted, so we’re not asked the deeper questions. Our once, passionate flame slowly reduces to an ember barely keeping our ever-increasing cold soul warm.

The more you try to fan the flame, the more the bitter wind chills you to the bone. The more you desire and seek for the fire to spark again, the more you find your little ember on life-support.

How many times people have told us to go to church, read our Bible, listen to praise music, pray, or find community? How many times have those words fell like rain dousing all our efforts?

We find ourselves questioning our faith. We hear Jesus call the disciples “of little faith,” and we feel his condemnation. Our heart is heavy, because we feel we have not lived up to the “Christian expectation.”

With all these mixed emotions, we come to the realization we have been burned by God. He knew all these situations would happen. He is in control, and he did nothing.

We feel burned by God.

The Burned Disciple

Being burned by God isn’t an isolated feeling. In fact, one disciple had a situation where I bet he thought, “I just got burned by Jesus. Why didn’t he tell me to stay put?”

Peter could have easily thought that after his escapade on the water found in Matthew 14:22-33.

The disciples sailed into some rough water one evening. The waves battered the sides and shook them to the core. Their unstable situation brought out their fears. In fact, they claimed a ghost sighting! It was a phantom walking along the chaotic currents. Fear focused their minds on the worst.

However, Jesus quickly calms their fears. Peter, then, requests to join Jesus on the waves. Jesus invites him onto the waves. Peter gets out of the boat, walks on the water, sinks, and Jesus rescues him.

I bet one of the thought the now shivering Peter thought was, “Why didn’t Jesus tell me to stay in the boat? I almost died out there.” Peter was “burned” by Jesus. An invitation was ripped from under him.

The Name of Faith

We have felt like Peter. “Jesus if you knew I would go through that, then why did you make it seem like everything was ok?” We already hoped for the best, but now this happened. Peter hoped to go to Jesus, and look what happened to him.

Then when a similar situation arises, we are nervous to hope. Our hesitancy keeps us from stepping out of the boat again.

Yet, there is something comforting in what Jesus says to Peter. He calls him “of little faith.” Jesus points out the small amount of faith Peter had in that moment. So many times we read that and think, it is Jesus scolding Peter. Yet, why would Jesus call him of little faith if Jesus honors the faith small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)?

Jesus recognized Peter’s faith. It was his doubt Jesus called out. Similarly, Jesus doesn’t scold us for the smallness of our faith. Instead, he calls out our doubt. He wants to unearth the golden veins of faith covered by the dense dirt of doubt in our soul.

Jesus called Peter Little Faith that day on the waves. It is intimate and caring. Jesus calls us the same when we begin to sink. He says, “Little Faith, why did you doubt? I am right here.” It isn’t a name to shame, but a name to show your golden faith.

When He Calls…

Yet, we still face the hesitancy to follow him through another door, another trial, or another chapter. We know we have been burned before and almost drowned. But did we? No.

Usually when we face a trial, we think God will turn it into an incredible story of victory. I have thought this many times. Maybe God will heal me of my Spina Bifida, maybe God will restore my relationship with my family, maybe God will give me my dreams, and maybe God will take away my struggle. Think about what would happen if he does? Endless possibilities, right?

But, what if the story of victory isn’t in the healing? What if it is found in his sustaining us each step of the way?

September 2020, I revealed to my family I am same-sex attracted and wanted their love and support as I worked through it all. Instead, it has led to rejection and a very tense relationship. Our lives changed October 2021 when my wife was hospitalized for severe depression. Then recently, someone used my past and a grudge to rip an opportunity right from under us. It has felt like God teased us and brought us to places where we have doubted. We have raised our hands in praise one month, and then next month felt like we were flipping God off. We trusted God through each trial, but it felt like all we were experiencing were trials. When good opportunities were opened, we hesitated following Jesus.

It wasn’t our little faith getting in the way of our hope. It was our doubts.

We are nervous to hope when we have to walk out into the storm again. We are nervous to hope when he calls us after we have been through so much. Yet, Jesus reaches to us and gently says, “Little Faith…”

When we are nervous to hope remember your name – Little Faith

My Little Faith, I know what you have seen
I know your world is far from green
I see your heart and soul
I hear your cries as tears down your cheek roll
I feel your hurt
As you fall on your knees in the dirt

My Little Faith, I do not condemn you
It is ok to ask what to do
It is go to lift your fist to the sky
You have my permission to ask why
Your questions make me smile
Because it shows you have faith to go a mile

My Little Faith, I will sustain you and am here
My love for you is deep and dear
The victory is found in the next step
It is not found in a perceived pep
I will use your story for the world
My plan the enemy cannot furl

I see you
I love you
For you, I have plans
In your life, you will see my hands
You may ask why
You may even have suspicion in your eye
In all this world of hardship and wraith
I have chosen and named you my Little Faith

Intimacy in the Desert

“The desert, when the sun comes up. I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the Earth began.” – Tom Hanks

You sit there stunned. No words can explain the ache in your soul. You saw God open doors and you praised him deeply. You lifted your hands as the answer was just what you prayed for…

Then, like a bolt of lightning, your world goes from praise to parched…

The hot air of the desert sucks the air right out of your lungs. The sands stings against your face as the winds of thoughts and doubts seek to bury you. The wildlife’s poisonous pitfalls seek to end your life. Mirages tease your mind and leave you emptier than before.

Was God and my relationship with him only a mirage? Is my life only to be a desert?

I Am Sunburnt

If I knew why bad things happen to good people, then I would be a rich man. Many people try to give answers, but how do those answers feel? It is like rubbing sand into a sunburn. We have been betrayed, backstabbed… burned.

The weather of the world has created a desert for our soul. Our thirsty soul only wants to rest and no long have to seek shelter, sustenance, and sanity. We feel lost. There are no pathways. The wind blows sands over the footprints we were following out of this desert. A sandstorm swarms our vision, and we don’t know which way to go. We might step on a snake or a scorpion which stings.

The desert is not a fun place to be. It wearies my soul. It causes doubts to rise as there is one more dune to climb, one more mirage, and I want to give up rather than keep going one more time.

Personally, I am in a desert place. My soul is parched. The sand infects my wounds, and there is no guide. I did not choose the desert path. Due to no fault of my own, I find myself there. The time of joy and Christmas cheer turned into a time of longings, hurts, doubts, and frustrations.

I am sunburnt. Physical touch stings. Well-wishes feel like rubbing sand in my skin. I need refuge. I need someone to see me from a search and rescue team and to spot me from their helicopter.

The Slave Sent Out

We have all been in a desert or are in the desert hoping for search and rescue. We feel the sunburn as the things we thought God were going to bless us with are ripped out from under us, and we feel sentenced to the desert.

One woman in the Bible felt the same way. Her name is Hagar. She is the Egyptian slave to Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were tired of waiting for God’s blessing, so Sarah gave Abraham Hagar to sleep with and to bear children with. For Hagar, this meant she would be favored. She would be treated different because of her who child is (Genesis 16).

Hagar becomes pregnant! However, instead of praise, she is punished. Sarah hates her. Hagar is then sent out into the desert. No longer is she safe. She is scorned and shunned. The precious child inside her, the gift God gave her, is despised. Sarah treated Hagar so bad, that she had no choice but to go into the desert.

It is in the desert that I see something I’ve never seen. Usually, we see Hagar as Abraham’s rash rushing of God’s promise. But, it is here I find something about God I’ve never seen.

Invitation to Intimacy

Beside a spring of water, God sees Hagar. He approaches her. Her tears stain her dusty face. She lifts her head as God calls her name, “Hagar.” God uses her name. He didn’t say, “Hey, you!” No. He knows her name. He asks her where she came from and where she is going.

In this exchange between God and Hagar, God blesses her and tells her to call her son Ishmael – for God hears (Genesis 16:11). God hears Hagar and gives her a permanent reminder – her son’s name. He names her son. But, God does not stop there. He allows Hagar to name him. She names God and calls the place where she met God Beer-lahai-roi – the well of the Living One who sees me (Genesis 16:13).

By naming her son, God invites Hagar to name him. God becomes the One who sees. In naming people, we have an intimate relationship with that person. We call people brother, father, mother, my love, mon amore, etc. When given the permission to name another, we step into intimacy with that individual.

In the desert, an invitation of intimacy was given. When we are in the midst of a desert we need food and water, but we crave connection. We crave intimacy knowing we are seen, we are not alone, and that we have a hand to hold as we walk.

It is in the desert we see intimacy clearer. Lush paradises block out the sun as we focus on trees, waterfalls, and the beauty found there. The wasteland of the desert focuses our attention on where heaven meets the earth. Our tears and burdens show greater when they fall on the dry dirt. In the desert, it is easier to spot the wanderer than in the midst of a tropical jungle.

God invites us to this same intimacy.

I Am Here

Here I am. I am in the desert. I have doubted. I am hurting. Someone using my past against me hurts deeply. It is a nightmare like a snake biting you in the desert night. I have cried. I have yelled at God. I have withheld praise from him. I have thought about running away.

Yet, what is the best thing to do when you find yourself in the desert? Build shelter, send out an S.O.S., and wait for rescue. Handling the desert on your own never ends well. As I look at the vast wasteland before me, I can see clearly where heaven and earth meet. It is in this place where I can be honest with God. I can tell him I am running. I can tell him these things. But, instead of yelling at me and punishing me, God invites me to name him. He invites me into intimacy with him. He invites me to dance with him in the desert.

Do I know when search and rescue will come? No. But, I know I am seen. He names me in the desert, and invites me to do the same.

Prayers and well wishes are good, but to be seen and called in the desert is much better. It is in those moments that heaven touches the earth and intimacy begins.

In secret, I can stop believing. But, in the desert, all is seen and all is open. All I have to do is be open and honest.

The first step is to know God sees me. It is not easy. I want to give up and run away. But, what good is that in the desert? It will only hurt me. It is best to stop, set up shelter, and wait for search and rescue. As I wait, I can spend each day seeing where heaven meets the earth.

To whoever used my past against me, I forgive you. I truly do. It is difficult to say, but it is the right thing to do. Let’s do coffee together and work through whatever you hold against me.

But for now, I will sit in the desert. I will set up a shelter. I will be open and honest. I do not know when search and rescue will come. But, I will try my best to allow God to name me in the desert as he invites me to name him.

When you find yourself in the desert, look for where heaven and earth meets. It is in that place where invitation to intimacy is open and ready for you.

Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?”
– Genesis 16:13

Suggest Song – Oh, My Soul by Casting Crown