Unalone // The 3rd Chair

I used to be far less comfortable with being alone than I am now. In college, whenever anyone would visit my dorm room, I’d find myself lamenting their departure and trying to do all I could to prolong their stay. I’m sure there’s some deep-seeded childhood trauma there but I’m not interested enough to excavate it. Just kidding. I think.

The sense of aloneness is one of the most claustrophobic, disorienting, discouraging, and despair-driving sensations a human can have. And I don’t mean that people can’t live alone or even thrive while being alone, but when that idea that “I’m alone in this (insert trial here)” sets in on the emotional level, it brings with it an isolative mindset that is tough to shake. (Oh, let me introduce you to the word “isolative”. I just made it up.)

That’s why debilitating aloneness is one of the first arrows the enemy draws from his quiver when he sets his sights on your mental, emotional, and spiritual destruction. If he can get you feeling alone, he can take you anywhere he wants.

I’ve recently found myself in conversations that have completely upended the reality that I am being hunted and the crosshairs of aloneness are set on me. I’ve been reminded recently that while I may sometimes feel alone, I have never been actually alone.

There’s a premise I have tried to live in and pass on to others when I am helping resolve conflict. Its the principle of the 3rd chair. It’s as simple as it sounds. There’s you, and there’s me, and there’s God. He is the one in the 3rd chair, attending, listening, prompting, enabling. Its His truth that is the rock we’re on, and not our own.

But if I may, I want to take that sense of Unalone into my (and your) everyday, inhale/exhale existence. I want to live in the deepest knowledge that regardless of the current visibility or lack thereof, I can see God. Not by sight of course, but by faith. And isn’t faith-sight far more important than eyesight? Isn’t what’s unseen the real stuff? After all, if its seen its material and therefore currently decaying right in front of us. But what is unseen is immaterial and therefore untouchable by decay.

So as I’ve had these conversations recently, I’ve been divinely cognizant (can I say that?) of the unaloneness we live in. That comes in the form of a conversation over coffee at Waffle House between friends and the words being exchanged across the table may seem like mere soundwaves, but are actually infused by God with incredibly vital truth that each person needs. Not by human effort, intellect, or slickness but by the Holy Spirit of God being present. There it is. The 3rd chair.

What is it that pulls us away from this unaloneness? What is it that trumps the true sense of walking so close to God that we no longer see Him because of head knowledge but know Him because of faith knowledge? I think identifying the specifics when it comes to our tendency to focus away from that is our first step.

There is far more than our eyes can see. We know that on every level. That’s not even a spiritual statement. If I were an atheist I could say that same thing and be right. But it’s especially true (perhaps most true) on the spiritual level.

With the full knowledge that you are utterly unalone today, I pray that you’ll walk in social, mental, emotional, and spiritual confidence.

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The Curve

I remember exactly which curve in the road I was on those several years ago now when I said to my oldest daughter, “Truth doesn’t need my help to be true.” We had been in a conversation that centered on spirituality, faith, God, the Bible, and ultimately Jesus. In that same conversation I invited her to search the world over, consider every view, dig into every philosophy, dismantle every religion. Go ahead. As a follower of Jesus I knew and know that scrutiny of Jesus only leads to more revelation of Truth. The more intense the scrutiny, the sharper the point of truth becomes.

But the funny thing about truth is –even truth found in Jesus– its forgettable. The foggy conditions of life’s pains, trials, or even subtle inconveniences can cloud our hearts and remembrances until truth is sidelined and we’re living under some other proposition. We all do it. We forget what we know and trade it for what we’re told by our circumstances.

That proverbial “curve ball” comes whizzing from the mound and before we even realize what we’ve done, we lose our grip on solid ground and feel our footing give way as we succumb to the lies being whispered.

Let’s start with a simple one. Simple as in three words, but not so simple based on the fact that not everyone believes it: God is good. The fact is that the bible declares this multiple times in multiple ways. But we look at our world, our job, our family, our pains, and we question: “Really? ‘Cuz he sure doesn’t seem so good right now. If he saw what I was dealing with and if he actually cared, and if he really were good, then logic says I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

The lies that attack the truth sound a lot like this: “You’re on your own.” “God sees you, but he doesn’t care.” “You did this to yourself, so you have to fix it yourself.” “You’ve gone too far. You’re out of God’s reach.” “God’s mad at you and that’s why this is happening.” “God doesn’t need you so God doesn’t want you.” “That was the last straw. God is done with you. Fed up.” “God doesn’t have time to deal with your mess. He’s helping people who actually matter.” “You’re too broken for God to fix.” “You’re a lost cause.”

But imagine for a moment that every one of those statements originated from the father of lies. What if you knew and believed that there is no truth, absolutely zero truth in any of those words because of where they came from. What if those words were rendered powerless not because you refused to believe them, but because they never held an ounce of truth to begin with? You see, the issue then is not whether or not you’re going to believe lies, but whether or not you’re going to let truth be truth.

Have you ever stood in a pitch black room? A room so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face? And while in that room have you ever lit a match or turned on a flashlight? Have you ever noticed that even the smallest light defeats darkness instantly? You’ll never be in a room so dark that the slightest light does not drastically impact it. Likewise, you will never stand in the midst of lies so dark and overbearing that one flicker of truth does not push it back in an instant.

What truth does your heart need right now? Let me spread a table for you:

The love of God for you is immeasurable and untouchable. You can’t do enough bad to diminish it and you can’t do enough good to increase it. And it has nothing to do with what you do or don’t do. It stands as it has for eternity. Read Romans 8 all the way to the end.

The weight of shame you feel over that sin can vaporize with a simple prayer. God never intended for you to bear that weight. 1 John 1:9 declares that forgiveness is but a breath away. Take it.

The God of all creation is with you and within you. Joshua 1:9 and 1 Corinthians 3:16 stand as powerful reminders that where you are right now, there God is. I have been in crushingly dark spiritual places and have found that God has always been there with me. Right now. He’s here.

That tomorrow you’re dreading? God is already there, commanding and ordering things for your ultimate good. You may feel helpless and aimless but God knows exactly what you need before you even know you need it. Read Isaiah 46:10 and Matt. 6:8 and let truth seep in to every part of your heart. Let the fear that’s based on lies hit the road. God knows. God loves. God works. Trust Him.

So what curve ball are you staring at? What truth do you need? What fear needs to fall from your heart?

In my mind, I go back to that curve in the road and those words I said so boldly and still believe so confidently today. Truth doesn’t need my help.

The He[art] of Reconciliation

502155-iStock-176884046I didn’t expect for last week’s post to have a “part 2”, but apparently God wasn’t done teaching me through my empty tank situation. If you haven’t read about that, read the post right before this one. Then meet me back here.

You good? Okay.

On my way to work yesterday, I was just rolling along thinking about stuff that I can’t even recall right now. My mind zips from one thing to another but it likely had something to do with students or student ministry or my wife or Chipotle or ducks or who knows what.

So a week ago I was driving to work and knew that I knew that I was going to run out of gas. It was just a matter of how far I’d have to walk when it inevitably happened. And here I was yesterday on my way to work; same road, same route, same minivan, same time, same everything. And on this winding, woodsy road I see up ahead a car that seems to be stopped dead. I slowed down to see a man emerge from the driver’s side, notice I was there and began pushing his car forward.  Yep. You guessed it. He had run out of gas.

I’m not a “favorites” kind of guy except for when it comes to things like books, movies, tv shows, restaurants, smells, shoes, toothpastes, cheeseburgers, music, and my children. But I will say this: One of my favorite passages in the bible is 2 Corinthians 5:18-19…

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

I quickly surmised that this guy was out of gas, so I pulled up next to him (now in the wrong lane on this narrow 2 lane road) and asked the obvious question: “You outta gas?” “Yeah.” was the reply. I continued, “Let me pull onto that side street and I’ll help you.”

As quickly and safely as I could, I got my car out of the way and then ran back to the rear of his car, leaned all my weight into thousands of pounds of metal, and together we began to roll that dead weight forward.  All the while I’m thinking, “I’m gonna feel this tomorrow.”

We got his car onto a side road and I offered him a ride to the gas station. Yep, the same one my van somehow mysteriously made it to just a week before. He gladly accepted and off we went. He ran in and out quickly with a small gas can he had bought and quickly filled it up. Hopped back in to my van and within a couple minutes was pouring that sweet sweet gasoline into his vehicle. He thanked me profusely while reaching into his pocket to pull out what appeared to be 2 or 3 dollar bills. He said, “I don’t have much, but—”  I shushed him and with a smile assured him I didn’t want anything from him.  I said, “I’m happy to help. That could’ve been me just last week.”

And as I said goodbye to my new friend Arturo, I thought about what God has saved me for. And us for. And why it is we’re here and not there with Him. I stand on the conviction that God has saved us to serve. We’re forgiven for giving. We’re reconciled to carry out the ministry of reconciliation.

Once again, so thankful that God has given me another chance to see Him move. Thankful for that fact that God has reconciled this wretched man and calls me His. And so very thankful for the ongoing opportunities to love.

I got here on prayer.

overhead woodsI sometimes forget things. Important things. Things that could have a pretty severe impact on my day. Things like putting gas in my car. Today was that day.

I vaguely recall looking at the gas gauge yesterday thinking, “Oh yeah, I should get some gas soon.” When I got into my ride this morning, there it was: a gauge that was not too happy with me and my “I’ll do that later” lackadaisical attitude.

I had to get my two high schoolers to school (like I do every morning) and then I could see to the urgent gasoline matter I was facing. And as I was turning into the school drop-off area, I got a sinking feeling. “Uh oh. This is going to be close.”

Thankfully I got them dropped off with no hint of distress or the quietly emergent situation developing. I was still a handful of miles from the gas station that was thankfully on my way to work, so I began my mental preparation of what I would do when the seemingly inevitable run-out happened. The road to work is woodsy, and windy, and normally wonderful. But today it felt more like a labyrinth with no cheese; each curve taunting me that there were a dozen more of its cousins I still had to survive.

Once I mentally settled on a lovely morning walk along a windy, dangerous, shoulderless road in order to purchase a gas can and then fill it with gas before walking back to my sad van, I simply leaned into a simple conversation with God.

I know its not uncommon to treat prayer like a spiritual flare gun, firing it off when all other options have been exhausted. But this talk was more along the lines of knowing that God knows exactly where I am and exactly what I’m facing and exactly what I need.

Maybe you didn’t face the dreaded “E” this morning with your gas tank. But I know for sure that you need to hear that last sentence: God knows exactly where you are, and exactly what you’re facing, and exactly what you need.

So my talk with God wasn’t “if you’ll just get me out of this mess, I’ll do anything” kind of talk. It was rather a trade that He invites us to make every single day. You submit your problems, trials, stresses, and empty tank, and He supplies His peace. Its a crazy offer we’d be crazy to pass up.

Before I knew, my rickety old van rolled into the gas station and I turned it off with a gratitude not only that I had made it and didn’t have to risk life and limb on a walk to the gas station, but that I had been given the opportunity to be reminded that no matter where we are, no matter what the gas gauge reads, we are held within His hand.

Retreat Debrief

I thought it only appropriate to double back and review our fall retreat for high schoolers that happened this past weekend. Warning: Full disclosure/honesty ahead.

First of all, I really do love fall retreat more than anything else we do throughout the year. I can’t say specifically why that is, but it is. I think it has a lot to do with the overall tone/purpose of the weekend. We build it as highly relational, restful, spiritual, and communal. Because of that, there are prime opportunities to simply sit on a bench swing by a fire while sipping hot chocolate and talking life with a high schooler. You can’t not be refreshed after fall retreat.

When we purposefully enter into a time (even as brief as a weekend) where we are focused on God’s voice and others’ stories in an intentional way, we come away from that with a much stronger sense of who we are based on who God is rather than who we try to be based on who others say we should be. If I can put it this way, students who get away like this come back with a deeper, clearer sense of self as well as the imperative of spiritual community. And by contrast, those who don’t…don’t. At least not in the same way.  I’ve heard it said that a church’s weekly prayer gathering is a good barometer of a church’s spiritual health. And for better or for worse, I think there’s a similar metric with our fall retreat. I gauge much of what I consider spiritual hunger/growth on who and how many I see coming away for a time like this. And just being transparent here…this year’s group was our smallest one in recent history at 28.

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We spent the weekend gathering around a few different truths. We had 4 “sessions” together and there were 4 statements that encapsulate each of those sessions:

Session 1: “Come Away”: Mark 6:31…. “The investment of conversation you place in a relationship is a very accurate measure of the importance you place on that relationship as well as the consequential health of that relationship.”

Session 2: “For the Mems”: 1 Cor. 9:19-23… “If you want your life to mean something, do something that actually has meaning.”

Session 3: “Unrivaled Love Deserves an Undivided Heart”: John 17:20-21 & Psalm 86:11… “When we are willing to take up our cross, we agree with Jesus that our mission is to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to share as he shared, and to be willing to die before we would turn our back on our Savior. This is revolutionary. This is the most revolutionary life you can live.”

Session 4: “You Share What You Love”: Psalm 96:2-4 & 1 Peter 3:15-16… “It is such a powerful thing to realize that your story interacts and intersects with my story and his story and her story; that God can use your life as an eternal impact on the lives of those around you if you’ll let Him.”

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Every indication is that fall retreat absolutely nailed its purpose. Students came away refreshed, connected, challenged, and encouraged. I’m doing all I can to help students see and take next steps, but much/most of that is the Holy Spirit’s work in each individual. All in all, fantastic weekend retreat. To those who prayed, I can’t simply thank you enough!

Anytime I post to this blog, I always wonder what readers think. And maybe you didn’t go on this retreat–maybe you’ve never been away like that. But what are the most restful, recharging activities you engage in; what is it that is spiritually rejuvenating to you? What more than anything else draws you close to Christ and re-calibrates your heart to His?

“Pretreat”

hammock heavenNext weekend I’ll be heading to our annual fall retreat with some of our high school students. It promises to be an amazing weekend. Despite the fact that our numbers are less-than-stellar at the moment, and that I don’t think they’ve ever been at this point within 2 weeks of launch, I’m still thrilled to get away. Or as the invitation has gone out: “Come away.”

But in the pace of the average high school student who seldom thinks past the next half hour, even an annual retreat can sneak up–on all of us. But not this time. I can see it coming and I’m looking it dead in eye. And honestly, I couldn’t be more filled with anticipation. Our group needs this time. Friendships need this time. Our leaders need this time. I need this time.

So I want to make the most of a weekend; what amounts to less than 48 hours. In order to do that, here are the thoughts I’m focusing on…

  1. Expectation. What we expect is usually what we experience. I can’t lead students into a sense of wonder and expectation unless I’m already swimming in it. Am I even paying attention to God right now? What He’s doing? What He’s saying? Where He’s leading? Who He is calling me to see and to serve? God, don’t let my expectation be anything but representative of the fact that my heart knows You, needs You, and will be refreshed beyond measure as I meet you for a specially divined appointment.
  2. De-cluttering. Assessing in ministry and assessing in life can be tackled by wrestling with one question: What am I doing that isn’t making a difference? Routine can help us in building stability, but it can also create blinders that stop us from seeing where we’re spinning our wheels. This isn’t just about schedule or calendar, this goes for our minds and hearts too. What has taken up residence in my mind that has become a drain on my energy without contributing, like a tenant that isn’t paying rent? God, show me what I’ve allowed to take root in my mind and heart that isn’t growing me closer to you.
  3. Gratefulness. I’ve found that little else does what genuine gratefulness does. Gratefulness is our message to God to that see what He’s done (no matter if you directly benefit or not) and it also puts you in a place of receptiveness and awareness for seeing more of what God is doing. And the beat goes on. God, bring my heart back to a place of sheer thankfulness for all You are and all You’ve done. 

2017-hs-fall-retreat-group.jpgIf retreat really is a respite from routine, an oasis in an overstimulated desert, and an appointment with the Almighty, then I don’t want to do anything but drink in every ounce. Even as I seek to minister to students and leaders, I get recharged and refreshed in the process.

So as we gear up for a weekend of laughter, friendships, activities, outdoors, worship, listening, teaching, sharing, eating, and resting, we’re ready for all that’s in store.

An Incomplete Thesis on Love, Its Impact, & Identity

The most impact-full relationship in your life is the one in which you have received the most love, and is likely the one in which you have given the most love. Likewise, the most damaging relationship in your life is the one in which love should have been given and either wasn’t or you were given some damaging counterfeit. I’ll venture a guess that you’re carrying scars from that even today.

Since the beginning of history; the creation of time and space–we can look back and see that love is the one thing we crave, the thing we are fascinated by, the thing we are shaped by, the thing that motivates us, its what directs our decisions, the thing we can’t seem to get enough of, and the thing science alone can’t explain. When its absent, it doesn’t matter what else we have and when its present, it doesn’t matter what else we don’t have. We write poetry seeking to convey its ferocity, we pen music seeking to herald its message. Name 5 songs right now that have to do with love. I bet its easy to do. The Beatles told us its all we need. Lenny Kravitz exhorted us to let it rule. And the Captain and Tennille claim its what will keep us together.

Imagine a world where every single person were motivated first by love for those around them. Can you even fathom what grocery stores would look like, what traffic would look like, or what Black Friday would look like? You’d never see another homeless person. Just imagine your life motivated by a love for humans. All humans. (If you claim to follow Jesus, you’d better view that as your marching orders. Because it is.)

I was recently reminded that there is nothing–absolutely nothing–stronger than love. I’m not being romantic here. I’m being logical and factual. You simply cannot come up with any scenario in which love does not have the ability to win the day. No matter what evil may befall or what struggles come against us, any move love makes equates to automatic victory. And while many people have a personal definition of love that by default has a slanted personal agenda, let me remind us of what love actually is:

“Love is patient. Love is kind. Its does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

While many humans choose to create their own definition of love, there is an actual definition of love that we would all do well to see, receive, and embrace. Otherwise, we are like actors in the same play reading from a different script or players on a field using a variety of playbooks. We as humans can’t hope to move forward until we embrace what love actually is.

12547692_VAI’ve spent the past week in Clendenin, WV seeking to help and bless a community ravaged (and I do mean ravaged) by the flood of 2016. It was called the “Thousand Year Flood”.  All the media trucks and news reporters have long gone home, but this town remains decimated by what these flood waters did. I marveled as I listened to story after story of the townspeople explaining to me the devastation of the flood waters. I saw firsthand the absolute obliteration of a once thriving neighborhood. I saw a completely empty lot as the words “A church once stood there.” fell on my ears. I sat on a bench listening to a man named Stanley retell the story of the flood, pointing to a 12 foot tall lamppost on the corner down the road with a clock on top of it, telling me the water was just up to the clock. I stood in a church sanctuary while a member of the church pointed up to the balcony 15 over our heads and said people were trapped in that balcony for days because the water was that high.

And it was during this week that I was reminded that love is the strongest and will always win the day. We can’t make the jump to say that love makes problems disappear, but we can say with all confidence that love helps us put problems in a proper perspective. Knowing I’m loved by my kids is jet fuel to my passion for living. Knowing I’m loved by my wife is like the oxygen my blood needs to flow. And knowing I’m loved by God is the very reason I exist.

As powerful and transformational as love is in our lives, love was not and cannot be created. We know this because 1 John 4:7-8 tells us what (who really) love is:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE.” 

I’d encourage you to read that entire chapter, but those two verses right there speak to us about the identity of love and thus the origin of the love we experience. Any act of love is a reflection of God who IS love. And no matter what I may face in my life; even to the point of facing martyrdom for Christ, I can die victoriously in love knowing that no amount of evil or darkness can overcome love. Not because of what it can do, but because of Who it is.