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

Changing Desires

“The creation of a new heart, the renewing of a right spirit is an omnipotent work of God. Leave it to the Creator.”
– Henry Drummond

“Dad, do you believe I am a Christian?”

Silence.

Each second that passed felt like a minute. We had just had an hour-long phone debate about my life, my struggles, and where I was headed. I felt unheard. I felt talked down to. Then, I finally asked that question.

Silence filled the space.

His answer came.

Working through that one answer has brought me to a question most of us struggle with. We publicly claim to be a Christian, but then someone calls us out for something and stating we are not who we say we are. After a while, we can become paranoid of others, suspicious of ourselves, and scared of our salvation.

What if I do this? What will happen? Will I still go to Heaven? Am I still saved? Does God still love me?

Those questions swarm us like piranhas in the Amazon ready to strip bare the hope we cling to.

What really signifies we are saved? What does it mean when people say our desires will change? Has our desires changed?

A New Life Has Begun

I bet you immediately thought of II Corinthians 5:17. It is the classic verse stating that belonging to Jesus means the old life has passed away, and a new life has begun.

We all love new starts, fresh beginnings, and slates wiped clean. I have a dear friend who one time I said something most cruel to him. My words shocked even me. We did not speak for about two weeks. Then we realized we could not quit each other. I asked for his forgiveness, and what I said emotionally tore me up inside. He forgave me, and he still hasn’t let go of me. Recently, I went through something quite dark, and that friend was right by my side. My shame told me I was rejected, but his love and friendship said, “Fall on me. You’re the reason I’m here.”

That is the love of Jesus. Our sin and wandering away from God is like spitting in his face or (pardon my language) pissing on the cross of Christ. He still looks at us and tells us to fall on him, because we are the reason he came to us. When we do, we experience a new life. Our old life is gone. He doesn’t see us like we once were. Instead, he sees us as we will be – perfected by the righteousness of his Son.

This verse isn’t just a hallmark card of well-wishes. It is a God-given promise. When we come to Christ through faith receiving his grace, our new life starts. It isn’t a question of if a new life is there. No! There is new life! It has started in you and me immediately.

What About My Desires?

However, many of us look at other Christians or our desires and say, “How can I be saved if I still want this?” Sometimes others look at us and think, “How can that person be a Christian if he does that or she does this or has those thoughts?”

Then starts a lot of talk about the changing of desires. Many of us hear about how our new life brings new desires. But, have you realized no one agrees what those desires look like. Everyone says you will desire the things of God, but when pushed for specifics, things get fuzzy.

Romans 6:4 tells us to live in a new way. Ephesians 4:22-24 urges us to put off our old self, and clothe ourselves with a new life renewed after the image of God. Many other passages get thrown around, but none of them state a specific path. Many times we immediately go to what actions we do – what movies are we watching, what music is on our playlist, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how we are perceived, how good we are before God and others, and the list has more red tape than a government mandate.

What does Scripture tell us? The key is actually found in I John 2:6. Our lives are to reflect the way Jesus lived. The way Jesus lived is the way the Father is (John 1:14 & 18). Therefore, when we follow Christ’s example of living, then we are living a new life that is fashioned after the image of God.

His desires were to do the will of the Father, to bring life, to love on people, to heal the sick, to preach the Kingdom of Heaven, to give his life as a ransom for many, to bring sinners to salvation, to build the church, and to restore all things that have been crushed by sin’s curse.

If our desires are beginning to align with those things, then everything else will fall into place. I truly believe Matthew 6:33 applies to this. When we seek God’s Kingdom first, then our desires will change to align to God’s desires. The specifics do not matter, because they will come to order in our life when we seek God’s Kingdom first. We mess things up when we seek specifics before we seek to live out the desires Jesus had.

What About That “Christian”?

But, the specifics still stick with us, don’t they? Those lists we create become the way we look at other Christians. We even may put quotations around that term depending on who we are talking about. We may see a “Christian” drinking a beer, or a “Christian” with tattoos, or a “Christian” who is a single mom, or a “Christian”… you fill in the blank. To be blunt, we judge Christians who do not look identical to our specifics. We say, “I can’t believe they said this, did that, believe this, or think that way!”

How many of us have had that said about us? It doesn’t feel nice.

Scripture guides us in this discussion in I Corinthians 8-10. What Paul boils everything down to is that the heart of the matter is where our heart is. If we are loving God and loving people, we are free. We use our freedoms to love God by showing love to others. We create an environment of grace for each other to grow in God’s grace and knowledge.

Peter experienced this in Acts 10. God gave him a vision to stretch his thinking outside of regulations into a mindset of a relationship with God through his Spirit. Because of Jesus, we are free. But, our relational love with God, because of Jesus, constrains us to live and make each moment about God. This will be in how we love others.

But, what about the specifics? Leave the specifics to the Spirit. Seek God’s Kingdom first. Jesus promises us the Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Do you think the Spirit will lead us astray if we are seeking God’s Kingdom? He will show us how to live in each moment and how to make decisions about things the Scriptures are not black and white about.

We judge so many people if they do not fit our version of the Christian life. But the better question is…

Do you fit the Spirit’s version of the Christian life? Do you follow after the desires of Christ? When we do, that other “Christian” becomes a brother more than someone to question.

The Unfinished Artwork

Ever seen a painter work? While they work, we may see things that look like a picture, but it looks strange. We may even give advice on what colors we would use and disagree with what they are doing. Yet, who’s artwork is it?

It is the same with other Christians and our changing desires. God is the artist. We are not. We need to give space for the Spirit to move and finish the artwork of God’s love in another person’s soul before we try to form that individual in our image. Encourage them to pursue Christ’s desires and God’s Kingdom. Then, step back and watch God work. Read through the Old Testament. Many of those people were messed up. One family had the struggle of lying (Abraham and Isaac; like father like son), plenty of murderers (Moses and David), plenty of doubters (Esther), a king who liked to have a new woman every day (Solomon), and a prophet who cursed God when he didn’t nuke a nation (Jonah). Yet, he still made their lives beautiful. They are recorded in Scripture for our encouragement.

No one is a finished canvas. God will fashion our desires as we seek his Kingdom. The new life is there. As we follow the Spirit everything else will fall into place.

When The Silence Breaks

So, what did my dad say to me when I asked if he thought I was a Christian?

He said because he felt my desires were not pursuing the things of God, he doubted if I was still a Christian.

That was May 2, 2021. I remember the date so clearly. It was a Sunday afternoon. His words hurt deeply. Our relationship has not been good since. Would I like a relationship with my family? Yes, but right now it seems impossible. All because of disagreements of the Christian life. In my family there was no space to grow in grace. Instead, it is one way – their way.

Do you think I am a Christian?

It is a tough question to ask. The silence and the answer can crush a soul and suffocate hope out. But, our hope is not in our actions, our specifics, or in how we are perceived. It is in Jesus Christ, our living hope. He breaks the chains, his Spirit changes our desires, and he will finish our canvas. Our life will become his beautiful artwork he will display for all to see.

When we ask that question, we need to preach the Kingdom of God to our heart. What is the river running through this Kingdom? It is the blood of Jesus poured out for us as the seal for God’s new covenant. We have a relationship. We have bold access. We have his Spirit baptizing our life. We need to start with that, then all the specifics will fall into place.

Our desires will change as we seek God’s Kingdom. We should never align our desires after a Christian image made by man. Instead, let’s align our desires to be changed by the desires of Jesus. There is a reason the Gospels are in Scripture and not just a list of do’s and don’ts. It is because it is in the Gospels we see our living hope living out God’s desires.

Let the Spirit change you. Let the Spirit change others. Let’s work together to be more like Jesus and to seek God’s kingdom first…

Then our desires will change to be God’s desires.

The Path of the Vulnerable

It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success.
– John Steinbeck

Once it is said, you can’t take it back. No matter how your try, they know. You do feel a huge weight off your chest, but now comes the worst part –

They know

Now they begin to look at you in a different way. They may avoid you, label you, exclude you, replace you, or treat you only with shallow kindness which is easily wiped away with a makeup wipe.

It is a trait we all honor, but never respect. It is a position we desire to be at, but we treat with disdain. To be vulnerable and open seems to be so free, yet our reality shows us it is a prison.

Opening up and being vulnerable can be a very lonely road. People do not know what to do with you. You see yourself only by the news of what is revealed. Whatever difficult secret has been unveiled is given away out of trust, and it is either shared with everyone or cherished. To be honest, how many times has the latter been portrayed only to have the former become our reality?

How do we walk down a road spoken with praise, but hardly a hiker spotted along its path?

A Disdained Value

We all know what it is like to be open and vulnerable. We carry that weight of a dark secret. It is like a tumor we must show in order for healing to happen. We all know this! We hear pastors laud the praise of stepping into the light and finding God’s forgiveness to soothe our weary souls.

Yet, what really happens? We step out of the dark. We take off the mask, and, immediately, shunned. Some are told to put the mask back on. Some lose positions. Some put into counseling. But, all are silenced. Sure, those things can be good depending on the situation. But, all are silenced so no one knows. We would rather uphold an image of perfection than allow flaws to flaunt.

But, is vulnerability flaunting?

A Mindset Honored

The truth is vulnerability is a mindset to be honored. It is something to be practiced and treated with honor.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults before each other, so we can intercede in prayer for each other. Galatians 6:2 presses the need to share our burdens. Why should we help each other with the burdens they carry? Because Jesus carries our burdens for us (Matthew 11:28-30). Our savior carries our burdens out of love. He gives his life to shoulder what is too heavy for us. This is how he loves us, and this is how we are to love each other.

The qualification for Jesus to bear your burden is to come with your heaviest weight and to give it to him. He does not care if it is pretty or dirty. He doesn’t mind being seen in public with your load. He was stripped bare for the public in order to take your sin upon himself. Do you think he is embarrassed by your burden?

Unfortunately, we say yes. It is because we are embarrassed by it. Our vulnerability is scorned. We have experienced what Bartimaeus endured. He cried out for Jesus to heal him. He only wanted Jesus, and people tried to hush him up. The ones who should have loved him enough to bring him to Jesus silence him. It wasn’t until Jesus called him that the crowd’s attitude changed (Matthew 10:46-52).

The majority of people Jesus healed had to become vulnerable in order for healing to happen. God honors those who have a vulnerable mindset. His light truly heals when we are vulnerable.

No Longer A Curse

So often we know the consequences of being open. We lose friends, family, positions, reputation… shall I keep going?

I remember when I opened up to my family about being same-sex attracted. Instead of listening to understand, they began to debate me. They could no longer say with certainty if I was a Christian or not. They began to stalk and google friends who were supporting me. I was called weak-minded. It got to the point, that a “picturesque family gathering” could no longer happen. The relationship I have with them is shallow. I have a better relationship with my students than my own family. In fact, a dog has taken my place.

I opened up. I had to be honest with them, yet I was met with debating and shunning.

To many of us, we fear what I experienced as we decide if we should be vulnerable. All the “If” statements crowd our thoughts and create our anxiety to go through the roof. Or, if we have opened up, we can only think of the “If only I had…”

How many friends have we lost? How has our family relationship slowly disappeared because of us wanting to be honest?

Doesn’t vulnerability seem to be a curse?

Scripture actually calls the open and vulnerable blessed. In fact, it is the first beatitude. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).”

If we realize our need for him, then we become open. Our vulnerability reveals our poverty of spirit. It is the lack of vulnerability that poisons our life with the deception of an image.

It is no longer a curse! Jesus wants us to boldly come to him. He wants to take our burden and give rest and grace. He empowers and commands the church to take the shame of vulnerability and turn it into a blessing for those who are will receive the King of Heaven.

The Path Ahead

Vulnerability is so difficult to do. We know what will happen. We will be shamed, shunned, while those who hear are shocked while showing their surface smiles.

I have learned that being open can bring a lot of pain. It ruins relationships. It rips apart a reputation. It mutilates that mask we grasp so closely. Yet, it has healed a lot of my deep wounds. It opens a deeper relationship with Jesus and shows me the power of the Holy Spirit.

I remember one Sunday going to my pastor for prayer. Our lives turned a chapter we had to pretty much read upside-down. The burdens were too great for us. He then said he was proud of our vulnerability. I couldn’t believe my ears. So many times I was shunned for opening up about our struggles. Yet, for once I heard a pastor tell me how proud he was for me being open. I never even got that from my own father.

That is what the church is to be about. Fear is what keeps us from being open. Protection of an image keeps us from allowing others to open up. Yet, who was known as the friend of sinners who ate and drank with them? Who was the one whose disciples and followers were not seen as the most impressive people? It was Jesus. He did not come to preserve an image or fear what others were thinking. He came to bring life. In order to do that he created an environment of grace so the people around him could open up.

Does our life create that environment of grace? Do our churches value traditions and images over bringing people into the life-giving presence of God?

Look, I’m not perfect. I do not even strive for perfection. It is not mine to strive for. I struggle with depression, anxiety, body shame, and same-sex attraction. I’m a mess. No “good” church would want me on their leadership. I stumble, fall, get angry, blow up, and hurt others. Yet, I pursue and seek God daily. I have to be in his Word. I have to pray. I am not who I was, but I’m not yet where God’s vision is directing me.

If being vulnerable has taught me anything, it has taught me to let go of my image, my mask, and go pursue Jesus. If I am vulnerable, then the darkness loses control to light. If I am open, then the light of Jesus can flood in and awaken my soul.

It has not been easy. It is harder to do than to say. Yet, I am blessed to know that I do not have to hide. I do not have to avoid people or church just because of a secret controlling my life.

Without vulnerability there is no light.

The path of vulnerability is lit with the lamps of grace fueled by the blood of Jesus.

and…

The path of the vulnerable should be the path of the Christian.

No Prescription Available

“A lot of what is most beautiful about the world arises from struggle.” – Malcolm Gladwell

“Pray.”
“Read this passage.”
“Go see this therapist.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“It’s just a phase.”
“Just get over it.”

The voices of instruction, criticism, and advice swarm your head like bees attacking an intruder at the hive. They see the problem, and that problem must be eradicated. You swat the bees away before you are stung again. Their words are good, but their help is no better than taking sugar pills hoping the disease will go away.

You’ve tried everything. Your mental medicine cabinet is stocked with empty prescription written by another friend, another counselor, another pastor. You fake a smile out of gratitude, but deep inside you know the infection is still there. The struggle is real. You can’t take anymore pills. You are annoyed with the next person offering you a “magical cure” as one would be with an essential oils salesperson.

Do I just give in? Do I give up? How long can I hang on?

When the loneliness of night finds you surrounded by your empty prescription bottles, your mind and heart tearing you apart, where do you turn?

When no prescription is available, what do you do?

Spent

We’ve all been there. Hopelessly spent. Our wallets empty, our minds deleting all the spam advice messages, and our hearts sick of all the prescriptions we’ve taken.

We find ourselves in Chapter 5 of Mark and John. (John 5:1-15; Mark 5:24-34)

A woman invisible in the crowd. A man with no one. They all had a disease no one could cure. The woman ran out of money. The man ran out of hope.

The woman couldn’t stop the bleeding. She went broke searching. The man had been lame for thirty-eight years. The healing pool in arms reach, yet he had no one to place him in when the waters stirred. Everyone else seemed to be healed or living the dream, but them.

How spent am I with my struggles? I have mentally spent everything fighting. I’ve spent everything emotionally working through things. I have physically spent too much searching for that one thing. I can look through Barnes and Nobles’ thousands of titles and come up empty. I can pray and pray and spiritually I feel like I am on the Titanic with no help around; only to be met by the icy cold touch of the ominous ocean.

Seen

Yet, the stories do not leave that man and woman without hope. Each of them met someone when all else failed. They met Jesus.

The woman heard of Jesus. Her hope rested on touching just a thread of Jesus’ garment. The man wanted someone to put him into the healing pool, yet he heard something said to him. Jesus saw both of them. The woman he sought, after he felt power leave him. The man was offered a chance to be healed in that moment. Jesus saw them.

He sees me. He sees you. In the darkest struggle where no pathway or solution is clear, Jesus sees you. His heart breaks for us as our hope begins to break. He isn’t so high that he can’t relate to us. He, also, isn’t so low that he can’t do anything about our struggles.

Jesus never followed the “correct path” for healing. The woman was healed by touching his garment. The man healed by the word of Jesus. Jesus always takes the unexpected route in order to show how loving he is.

In my darkest hour, Jesus sees me. He has the perfect path. I am not just an invisible ghost attempting to get his attention. He sees the battle. He sees my whole self being torn apart.

Shining

So many times we want to be fixed and healed now. We hate the struggle. I know I do. I hate when my mind and heart are at war. I hate when nothing seems to work. I hate myself so much that I just wish I would die. I wish an end would come rather than feeling like my struggle is choking every last breath out of me.

Yet, maybe the salvation isn’t in a silver bullet or in a prescription. Maybe it is in the struggle. Maybe what shines a light in our struggle is knowing it is ok to struggle. God never used perfect people. They were people who struggled each step of the way. Yet, we read their stories over and over in the Bible. We miss the mark when we romanticize these people. They were sinners redeemed by God like you and me. They struggled deeply like you and I.

A man who is pursuing God’s heart isn’t one who has it all together. It is a man who can’t breathe without God. That’s what it means to shine. The power isn’t in the perfection. It is in the persistance.

My good doesn’t come from beating my struggle. It comes from Jesus. My perfection doesn’t come from my image or reputation. My perfection comes from Jesus.

Too often we think we will shine if we have a certain image. That thinking only reduces the Gospel to clothing, outward looks, and the daily masks we choose from. Shining comes from the dawn of Christ breaking through our darkness. Shining is Christ working through us. The mess is what makes his light shine brighter; not our self-righteousness.

Standing

Too often I focus on how often I fall or how others will see my struggle. I feel like a beast meant to crawl on my belly. But, whether or not I fall, Jesus makes me stand.

Jesus made the woman with the issue of blood and the lame man stand in confidence. They had none, but he gave them all. He gives us the same hope, the same confidence, and the same feet grounded in the Gospel of peace soothing our souls.

We can stand despite what we struggle with. We are grounded in the Gospel. Jesus isn’t going anywhere. When the Gospel becomes our ground, we can stand with confidence, because it is not of ourselves but of Jesus.

Surrounded

Not only am I seen, shining, and standing, but I am surrounded. God purposefully places people in our lives to show us himself.

He never leaves us alone. We think we are alone, because we do not look from God’s perspective. It is like playing chess. We look at the board from one end thinking we are losing, but if we switch to God’s side, we will see all the pieces surrounding us to keep us safe.

I remember, two weeks ago, experiencing something awful. I couldn’t do anything to fix a situation. Yet, when I breathed and prayed for help. God didn’t relieve the situation. He opened my eyes to see who was near me. It was overwhelming.

We need to see the same in our struggles. Sure, there may not be a prescription to fix it, but we are never alone. We just need to raise our eyes and voice our struggle. We have a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and eyes to look into telling us to keep going.

I must no longer look for the next prescription, I need to look for help from the body of Christ. It is in the body where we find the perfect anti-bodies to stand up to the infection which plagues us.

Striding

How many times have I asked God to take away my struggle? Too many times. Too many wasted prayers. Wasted? Yes. Because, it isn’t about me being cured. It isn’t about the miracle.

It is about being seen, shining in the dark, standing on the Gospel, and being surrounded by the body of Christ. The testimony doesn’t rely on what I once was. It is a story of what I am becoming. It is the story of my strides not my sins, shames, and slips.

Yes, there are days I feel like I cannot get up. But, I can still stride down the foggy path. My story becomes like messages in a bottle thrown to those coming behind me in these uncharted waters.

I do not have answers. I do not have the magical pill. I can only give my struggle to Jesus each day. It is a burden too much for me that he alone can carry. When he carries it, I can stride. When he carries my burden, I can be who I am created to be – his image bearer.

What is stronger? A story of a perceived perfect person? Or a story of a stumbling, yet striving saint?

These are the thoughts of someone who struggles with same-sex attraction. A battle I never chose. Something I have prayed over and over about. It is not easy to live with. There is no quick answer. All I can say is realize you are seen by Jesus. You were created to shine. You can stand despite what people say. You are surrounded by more than you realize. And, you can be striding each step of the way by following the Spirit. It is one day at a time. One step at a time. Follow the Spirit. It is not easy revealing my struggle. I have lost family and friends over it. I can only accept it and give it to Jesus each day. I have no answers expect Jesus has to take control of it. I have to be led by the Spirit to stride. I am imperfect. I am broken. I am not the example to follow. But, I can leave notes in a bottle to give some sort of map through these uncharted waters.

Light In Our Dystopia

We are living a life of shadows, of echoes, of fake distant whispers of what once made is real.” The Giver

Dystopia

Some of us are familiar with this word. It is defined as, “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” Dystopia appears in many of our literature and movies – The Hunger Games, The Giver, The Maze Runner, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Divergent (to give some examples).

This world is usually characterized by rules in order to prevent something or to keep something out. The people live in fear. The key trait of Dystopia is fear. Fear to live outside the rules, and fear to do anything that might break the norm.

We may look at stories like these, and immediately think our government is leading to that or our culture is heading that way.

However, I want to ask you another question…

Are our churches heading this direction? As Christians, we all agree that the world goes further away from God. But, are we as well? Are we moving away from freedom to dystopia?

The Jewish Dystopia

There is an interesting verse in John 9. It is the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. Once healed, the religious leaders call him in for questioning. How was this man healed? Who healed him? Was this man truly blind to begin with? The interrogation of the religious leaders could have landed them jobs with the FBI. They didn’t leave a stone unturned. Then after a while, they call in the man’s parents. His parents quickly try to escape the questioning saying this man id their son, but being an adult, he could answer. Then the reason for their answer strikes me each time I read it –

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had announced that anyone saying Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue.” – John 9:22

Fear gripped their heart. They did not want to be excommunicated. The religious leaders ran the show in this day. Sure, the Romans had power. But, the religious leaders struck more fear in the people than the Romans. Going against them meant they could become an outcast. The religious leaders controlled how people viewed God, lived their life, and went about their daily routines. In essence, they were living in what could be characterized as a dystopia.

Even Jesus acknowledged this control in Matthew 23:13. He explained the religious leaders wouldn’t walk down God’s path while at the same time not allowing other people to enter as well. They had control, and they did not want to give it up. Their envy of Jesus lead them to kill him (Matthew 27:18).

New Thoughts, New Way, New Covenant

Why were they envious of Jesus? It was more than just his popularity. Jesus brought something to the table which threatened the dystopia of the religious leaders – a new way.

Throughout the Gospels, we see the religious leaders always questioning why Jesus was doing something or what authority he had to say something. Jesus does reply in one particular instance in Mark 2:22. He says new wine calls for new wineskin. This passage is all about how we need a new heart in order to fully understand the new way Jesus brings. This new way is established and sealed by the blood oath of Jesus’ sacrifice to bring about a new covenant (Luke 22:20).

Jesus brings a new way to relate to the Father, a new relationship with man through the indwelling of the Spirit, and a new way to live that is not based in fear of laws and regulations. Instead, the death and resurrection of Jesus brings a freedom and a new life (II Corinthians 5:17). We no longer live to a law, but under the grace of Jesus. Why do you think many of the epistles start with grace and peace from the Father to us? It is because this is how we live.

In Christ we find new thoughts, a new way established in a new covenant to bring about a new life.

Exchanging Freedom

However, to many Christians that freedom does not last long. We ask God to forgive us our sins, bring Jesus into our life, and are baptized. But, what tends to happen? Our expected freedom seems to turn into a tangle of demands, standards, and images we need to uphold. We are told to what church we must belong to, what theological position we must hold, what translations are bad and which ones are good, what music to listen to, which worldly things to avoid, and how to keep ourselves from being corrupted by the world.

In all of this, our view of what makes a good Christian is measured by keeping rules. All of us do not want to be seen as a “bad Christian.” In order to do that, we create lists in our minds. What have we done when we do that?

In essence, we have exchanged the freedom of God’s grace for an idol. That idol is our image. Our worship is out of fear. Our relationship is one sucked dry of boldness before God. We worship an image of a good Christian rather than the Creator of our new heart (Romans 1:21-23).

This exchange was happening in the church of Galatia. Paul’s heart broke for these people, and the Spirit prompted him to write Galatians. In Galatians 1:6-7, Paul is astounded how the people exchanged the Gospel for a list of rules. See, a group of teachers came in saying, “Since being saved, to please God you must do these certain things.” When the church began to do that, it traded Christ’s grace for the law; which means they treated Christ’s sacrifice as meaningless (Galatians 2:21).

Is there anything wrong with standards? No. Is there anything wrong with a personal code of ethics? No. However, the problem lies in when our “goodness” before God is questioned, because of our adherence or lack of adherence to certain standards.

Have our churches and ourselves exchanged the freedom found in the grace of God for a dystopian Christian life?

Freedom Claimed

Then, what is Christ’s freedom?

First, it is being made alive from the death of our sins into the life of Christ by his grace (Ephesians 2:1-9). It is in this grace we are blessed with every spiritual blessing from the Father – the sealing of the Spirit, the inheritance of Christ, our living hope, the gifts of the Spirit, bold access to the throne of grace among many, many things (Ephesians 1; 1 Peter 1:3; I Corinthians 12:1-11; Hebrews 4:15-16).

Think about it. We now have the Spirit of Truth inside of us leading us into all truth. As we pursue the Spirit, we will be changed into the image of Christ, because then the fruit of the Spirit will begin to grow. Christ’s freedom is found in loving others and allowing grace to teach us to put away worthless things in order to follow God.

We are new creations called to live a new life. In this new life, we have an indwelling divine in ourselves – the Holy Spirit. He guides, comforts, and works in us and through us. We no longer please God out of adherence to the Mosaic law. It is because of our relationship of faith which pleases God.

This relationship brings so much freedom. This is what we are exchanging.

Bringing The Light

One of my favorite dystopian movies is The Giver. The people have eradicated all memories and keep a barrier so the memories do not reenter their community. They understand the human nature brings so much evil. When people choose, they choose wrong. Love can turn ugly at any moment. So, they exchanged the memories of being human for a dystopian existence.

I want you to watch the final speech of the movie – Watch Here

We are living a life of shadows, of echoes, of fake distant whispers of what once made is real.

We are living a life of shadows. We look at the love of God, and we recoil at how it can turn into a Christianity that is “unbiblical.” But, isn’t it the love of God which sent Jesus, which held Jesus to the cross, which brought the resurrection three days later, and which bought your salvation and new life?

We are living a life of faint whispers of what once made us real. God’s love whispers throughout our churches, our worship, and our quiet times. Yet, we would rather stick to our rules to make sure we are “good Christians.” This only develops into a Christian dystopia.

Jesus calls us out in Revelation 2:1-7. He sees our hard works, our keeping false teachers away, and everything else we do. But, we have exchanged our love and Christ’s love for a world like one found in The Giver.

We must go back. We must read Scripture again, and see what it truly says. God loves us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants us to believe in Jesus, live in a faith-based relationship with him, and enjoy all that he has given us.

What makes us real? The work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in our life. Yet, we keep it all bottled up for the sake of an image we worship instead of the Creator. We need to let that out. Remember who Jesus is. Remember his love for us. Remember what he has done and given to us.

Until our daily life is a worship song in the Spirit to the Father because of Jesus, we will remain in a dystopia of our own making. Let’s remember his love and spread those memories far and wide. He is the light, and in him is no darkness, no prison, and no slavery. A slave is loved based on his performance, but a son or daughter is loved always unconditionally.

Let’s not give into another form of slavery, but break the chains of our dystopia by bringing to light who Jesus is, what he has done, what he has given to us, and the beautiful relationship of faith and grace with Jesus through the Spirit.

When Your Theology Breaks

“Life is God’s novel. Let him write it.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Ever have something break you in life?
Was it a loss of a loved one?
A move to another place?

Yet, many Christians hardly talk about their theology breaking. What I mean here is that learned theology or inner theology we all carry. It is filled with terms, support passages, arguments for this side, and arguments against that side. Some Christians spend years studying theology. They are able to take an issue like salvation, sanctification, eschatology, and other topics and study them in-depth. They know which denominations and authors believe what, and where they stand on the issue.

When we hear of a Christian’s theology breaking, we worry for them. We pray for their soul to get right with God. We may see new things pop up on Facebook, and we pray God would bring them back to walk in light of the truth. We may send them verses, try to counsel them, or do anything to bring them back to our side (I mean God’s side, of course).

But, have you ever been in a situation where a red flag came up regarding your inner theology? Did the flight or fight mentality kick in? Or did you lean into it to see why the flag was raised?

God, You Want Me To Do What?

Recently, I was studying through the book of Acts. It was at this time, I noticed the phrase “the Spirit” appearing over and over. Soon, I saw things like the laying on of hands to receive the Spirit, the speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other things that leaped off the page at me.

Then the weekend came. Our church was holding a Prophetic Presbytery. It is a time of prophetic word, word in season, and allowing the Spirit to speak to us. As any “good conservative theologian,” I was skeptical. I was scared. I was ready for people falling on the floor, convulsing, speaking in gibberish, and chaos to erupt. My heart told me it was time to fight or flee.

Yet…
That did not happen.

The morning before the event, I was back in Acts. The perceived omen of the evening loomed like a dark cloud. Then a quite whisper said, “Lay aside your training and inner theology. Be still, and watch me work.”

It has been over a week since. I was amazed at the working of God that weekend. He taught me so much.

But, he wasn’t done with me yet.

I finished studying through Acts, and one clear conviction came –
“Stephen, go forward in church. Have someone pray over you to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

God, you want me to do what?!

Suspicion

Don’t you love a good cliff hanger? Or a good, suspenseful story? My favorites are murder mysteries. There is a good build of suspicion towards one character or another. My wife hates to watch murder shows with me, because I will talk out my thoughts all the way through.

Suspicion is key to any good mystery writing. It is defined as, “a feeling or thought that something is possible, likely, or true.” Our thoughts may be true, our evidence may add up, or our theory may fall flat.

Mark 9:38-41 is a story of suspicion. John, the beloved disciple, runs to Christ (probably frantically). “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name. Guess what?! They are not apart of this group. So I told him to stop.”

(Sounds like something a student would say to me out at recess)

John saw someone doing something he felt was not right. He went to report it to stop it. Suspicion of “this isn’t right” drove him to tell Jesus. I doubt John was expecting to hear Jesus’ response – “Don’t stop him! No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

What?! That guy wasn’t apart of the group! Jesus said nothing wrong was happening and to let it go. Jesus does not even stop it.

How often do we see something, and we are quick to judge it? Suspicion turns into prayers to God to stop that person or event.

Sheet of Animals and Changed Theology

Yet, that isn’t the only story of Jesus changing a disciple’s viewpoint. In Acts 10:9-20, Peter gets a wake up call. As he takes a nap, God gives him a dream of a sheet of fabric containing all sorts of animals. Then God tells him to kill and eat. Much to Peter’s horror he refuses, because it would go against the Law. How dare he cross the Mosaic Law. But God speaks softly, “Do not call unclean what I have called clean.”

Peter had his theology changed. God was calling him to see the Gospel would go to the Gentiles, and Peter could enter their homes with fellowship.

How often does God reveal something to us and we almost gasp? It might be a calling or a change in a theological position. God is always bigger than the boxes we try to put him in. He is bigger than the writings of Grudem, Erickson, Enns, or Ryrie (some of the systematic theologians I’ve studied). It is good to study theology, but if our anchor is to a position and not the Word, then we can find ourselves driven by a position rather than the Word.

We would rather remain in our suspicion and comfort-zone regarding other Christians than allowing God to move us. We want to move God to fit our position, our arguments, and our traditions and ways.

But, is that how God works?

I Went Forward

God’s conviction about being baptized in the Holy Spirit was a tough thing for me to swallow. It went against all my training. We would mock people who claimed this. We avoided churches, and sometimes wondered if it was demonic. Yet, I could not escape the small voice inside of me. The verses in Acts swirled in my head like that one song you get stuck in your head. Unless you do something about it, that song will remain stuck.

So I began to pray, to search out Scripture, and to pray (yes, prayer is that important). This conviction was something I had no frame for. It was mysterious. But, I couldn’t shake the fact that many people had hands laid on them to receive the Holy Spirit resulting in tongues and prophecy. A lot of unknowns, controversies, and heated debates are wrapped up in this topic.

Confusion settled in, then peace. I became so scared of the unknown that I forgot who my God is. He gently reminded me that he is with me, gives peace, and would never do anything that crosses his Word. Do I trust him in that?

My fight or flight mentality regarding my inner theology had to turn to surrender. I had to lay down my training, the thing I prided in, in order to experience God in a whole new way. God is bigger than my seminary degree, and he works in more mysterious ways than my training wanted to admit. Just like John and Peter, I gave into God’s Word over what I was trained to believe.

That Sunday, after the service, I found my pastor. I told him I wanted to be baptized in the Spirit. I’ve never seen a pastor smile at me like that. He laid his hands on me, and I experienced something I cannot describe. I let go of my training in order to pick up faith. A faith that tells me God’s promises are true, his Word is true, and that what God prompts me to do is the right path. For we do not walk by our sight, our theological training, or our denomination. We walk by faith.

So often, we fight over our positions and authors. We become like the Corinthian church in I Corinthians 3:1-4. We argue and debate. We tell people if they don’t have verses ready to defend their position, then they can’t. We tell other Christians they are believing an aberrant theology. Paul says that is the way of the world. When our theological training becomes more important than the working of God in our hearts, we become the Pharisees making the Word of God not effective, because we would rather hand down our traditions (Mark 7:13).

“Anything in our lives that is influenced by religious tradition as opposed to Scripture becomes an obstacle to the will of God being accomplished in our lives. Religious tradition comes comes a millstone that weighs us done and keeps us down. It can diminish the potency of God’s promises for us.”
– Lee M. Cummings

When God moves, our inner theology can break. It feels like a priceless vase smashed on the floor. The value is worthless. Yet, the most valuable thing isn’t our training, our systematic theologies we’ve read or those ones we’ve avoided. Instead, it is in Christ. We put aside everything that packages Jesus into our boxes for the sake of knowing him more and more each day (Philippians 3:8). We need to be grateful for our inner theology, but not hold onto it so tight. We always need to be in a position to surrender for the sake of knowing Jesus more and more.

We may have our stacks of books, but Jesus comes before that. The cross must always be before our books. The red flags we experience may not be of the danger outside of us. A red flag may indicate a danger inside of us showing us how our inner theology needs to change.

My inner theology has broken. All those papers I wrote in seminary now seem like garbage. Did I learn a lot? Yes, but I do not count that as everything. Knowing Jesus is more important than holding onto a theological position and debating it. I need to choose faith to follow Jesus on his path filled with twists and turns and bumps rather than on a path that seems paved and systematically mapped out.

It is on his mysterious path I find surrender easier than on a path where I think I know the direction.

We can make this post all about my baptism in the Holy Spirit or we can make it about God changing my inner theology.

God will show himself in ways that breaks our inner theology and the red flags will appear. It is our answer to him which will determine where our heart is…

“My will be done”
or
“God, your will be done.”

Put Down The Books, And No One Gets Hurt

“You want weapons. We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Doctor Who

I spent five years in undergrad and two years in graduate school. I have a total of seven years of formal training. I have read countless pages in books about this topic. I know all the terms, all the arguments, all the history, and all the theories. I even know the original languages. I wrote many, many pages worth of papers on the various topics within this topic. In fact, I was given a page maximum, but the other students were given page minimums.

I studied the Bible. I studied for the ministry. I have a bachelor’s in youth ministry and a master’s in cross-cultural studies (missions focus). My master’s project was a 120 page paper titled, “Mission Strategies for 21st Century France: A Study in the Practice of Contextualization.” After graduation, I was an interim youth pastor for two years, then worked on a masters of divinity.

Then…

Like a tornado transporting Dorothy to Oz, I found myself in a place I never thought I’d be…

Watch Out!

One thing the college I went to prides itself in is the student’s ability to use the Bible. As students in their ministerial school and seminary, we were trained in biblical theology, systematic theology, original languages, and many other things. We were required to participate in weekly ministries. We were required to read the Bible through once a school year. I remember I went street-witnessing, and some nights it turned into debating people.

When I went home over the summer, I debated people on various issues in Christianity.

I upheld the theme verse that seemed to come out in every class –
Titus 1:9
“He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. (Emphasis on the last part)

Seminary students were a force to be reckoned with. I was one of them. We preached on sin, avoiding the world, and the dangers of “other churches out there.” Our education became a weapon. We could quick-draw from our stack of books faster than any gunslinger of the Old West. This attitude became our pride.

If you crossed my path, I wanted a debate. I would make sure you knew my position, and made sure you knew yours was wrong and potentially sending you to Hell.

Then…

A simple question…

Haven’t You Read?

My favorite Sunday lunch was Roast Pastor. As we would go to church, I would have a mental debate (greater than any presidential debate – the 2020 debate isn’t hard to beat). I would find any reason to dismiss the pastor.

May 25, 2021 arrived. I was out of work at the time. Struggles were real. A good friend knew the struggles I was going through and encouraged me to read Galatians. “Galatians?” I thought. “I know this book like the back of my hand, the chapter content, the key verses, the biblical theology, and the significance of it in church history.”

But, I sat at Barnes and Noble going to read one chapter, because (if you know me) I had a book list I wanted to get to. However, one chapter turned into two, then pretty soon I found myself at the end of Galatians with notes galore.

“Where was all this? Why haven’t I seen this before?”
I saw things like I never did. It was that day God made a change in my life. I texted my friend so much that day he probably put me on “ignore.” Then, I couldn’t put down the Bible. I would read whole books in one sitting.

Jesus asked the Pharisees a similar question: “Haven’t you read?” In fact, he asks this over a dozen times in the Gospels. When the Pharisees tried to debate Jesus, he most likely brought this question up. He questioned the reading comprehension of the most learned men in the New Testament.

And Jesus did the same to me. I began to see the Gospel in a whole new way. Yet, my books were still at my hip. Each one ready to be drawn and fired at a moment’s notice.

A question led me to the heart of Jesus…

But…

A weekend event led me to disarm…

“You are Home”

Prophetic Presbytery

“Ok,” I thought. “What is this? I hope this is biblical.” Our church was having it’s annual Prophetic Presbytery. Yet, this was the first time I had heard of this term. Not knowing what exactly was involved, my wife and I signed up to help usher.

Then a Tuesday breakfast with my small group leader sounded the alarm. He explained the event using terms like, “prophesying over people,” “word in season,” “hearing God’s message for you,” and many other things where all the alarms went off. Panic and anxiety settled it. My photographic memory kicked in as the many pages I had mentally scanned appeared in my vision. The ammo was loaded and ready. Unfortunately, it fired at this guy.

I was going to honor my word to serve, but my debating skills were revved up. However, I spent the weekdays before in the book of Acts. The morning before the first session, I sensed in my heart God telling me, “It is ok. Set down your seminary degree. Put the books down, and watch.”

I was so uptight that first session. I probably looked like I was going to pop. Yet, things got started. I experienced God in a way I had no box for, no label to put it under, or no way to even put words to it. On the drive home, my wife asked me what I thought. I could only respond with, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then Sunday morning came. We were serving as usual. Similar to the night before, they had another prophetic session. There was just some doubt in me. Then the service ended. We were about to leave, when our pastor came up to me. She said, “Stephen, I have a word for you. God gave it to me last night.”

She said it was for a man named Stephen. Of all places, she runs into my wife washing their hands in the bathroom and asks for my name. My wife leads her to me, and then my theology began to crumble. Our pastor began to explain my past in terms no one at the church new about (not even a very close friend there).

Her final words brought tears to my eyes:

“Stephen, you can stop striving. You are home.”

God had spoken to me. It was in a way we laughed at in our seminary classes. I even wrote papers disproving the use of prophecy and prophetic word in the modern church. But, God spoke to me in a very real way. My inner-trained theology laid broken on the floor.

Disarmed and Arms Up

But, isn’t that the best place to be?

When we encounter God in a way that does not fit into our boxes or under our labels, we see the Creator of the universe and our Savior as he truly is – bigger than we could ever imagine. We then begin to have an enchanted faith.

It is in those moment God says it is ok. It is ok to lay down our seminary degree, our theology books, our arguments and debates, and surrender to a God who still speaks and shows us that we truly walk by faith and not by sight.

When we disarm ourselves and give up our books, we can then begin to reach our arms to up to heaven saying, “God, I surrender. Your way is better.”

This week a song has been on my heart. It is beautiful and I highly suggest you listen to it here – Make Room

Here is where I lay it down
Every burden, every crown
This is my surrender
And I will make room for You
To do whatever You want to
Shake up the ground of all my tradition
Break down the walls of all my religion
Your way is better

Words like these are a dangerous prayer. God will answer. He did in my life. The need to be right, and the need to show others they are unbiblical has left (but doesn’t mean it won’t show up again and I need to keep surrendering).

I choose to lay my training, my books, every argument and debate down and say to God, “Show me you. Not in a way that fits in my boxes, but in a way that changes me. Allow your Spirit to open my eyes to see you as you are.”

There are two attitudes when we come to moments like these…

One of argument and debate –
“Put down the books, and no one gets hurt!”

or

One of surrender and a promise –
“Put down the books, and no one gets hurt.”

When disarm ourselves, we can surrender into the compassionate hands of our Savior who will not hurt us. We will be safe and at home.

Ephesians 3:17
“Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.”