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Naked

In ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Hans Christian Andersen weaves a tale about a couple of conniving tailors who promised the Emperor a magnificent set of magical clothes that would be invisible to any of his subjects who were either incompetent or intellectually inferior.  Loving fine fashion and thinking this was a great way to weed out weakness from his empire, the Emperor gladly paid a great price for clothes that did not exist.  Upon discovering that he was unable to see the fictional attire, the Emperor panicked, but fearing that people would think him unworthy of his reign, he ‘put on’ the imaginary garments and paraded about before the people.  Afraid of being counted among the inept, the crowd went along with the façade, complimenting him for such exquisite apparel.  Everyone dishonestly but whole-heartedly engaged in the charade.  Until a child with tender-aged honesty spoke up and declared the obvious.

Hans was on to something.

Why are we afraid to call it like it is?  Why must every chapter in the story of our lives be told as though it all makes sense to us?  Why the insatiable need to appear as though we have it all together?  Where does the pressure come from that dictates we always know the purpose of every disaster that befalls us?

What a tragedy that the house of God is so often a place of such posturing.  So many of the Father’s children have been pressured to feel ashamed of their imperfections, deny the existence of their problems, and declare a reality that does not exist.  Far too often, the honest child is made to feel like they are unfit, stupid or incompetent.  Or at least ‘lacking faith’.

“Don’t speak negatively.  You’ll curse yourself.  Speak positively.”  I have had statements like this thrown at me in the past, and they have brought a disheartening effect.  I felt as though I was being asked to come to a costume party; that the person speaking to me was in a panic because my mask was not fastened as tightly as theirs.  It is true that there is power in our words.  There is no doubt that we will influence our future when we choose to speak words of life and cling to the promises of God.  But part of what makes these declarations so powerful is that they can be made in full recognition of the agony of a tormented life.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.  Of course, if that is the last step you take, you are in for a depressing existence.

I crave hope-filled honesty.  I don’t think that God has ever asked us to deny reality and pretend that things are all okay.  There is a freedom that comes when we set aside the masks of denial.  Real power is not displayed in playing make-believe with our lives.  Authentic liberty comes when I admit that life isn’t working the way I want it to, but I am daring to believe for a greater tomorrow in the midst of brokenness.

The Bible declares that God gives life to the dead and calls into being things that are not.  But this is not a declaration that denies the current state of affairs.  It is a proclamation that launches forth from broken circumstance into the miraculous.  Present reality with all its imperfection is the context that makes the promises of God so beautiful.

David knew what it was to be brutally honest in expressing his discouragement.  He felt forgotten by God, oppressed by his enemies and in physical agony.  He did not hesitate to declare that ‘life sucks’, and it was FROM THAT PLACE that the beauty of hope was displayed.  After writing of his despair, he penned, “Why, my soul, are you downcast?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”  David understood his circumstance, but he also knew that was not the end of his story.  His tormented state was his current reality, but he refused to let it define him.

God is not disappointed when you dare to recognize that you are naked.  He is not threatened by your honesty.  He is not frustrated when you look at your difficulties and weep.  His eyes do not roll when you are brave enough to admit that you have no clue what He is doing.  But He is not intimidated by your nakedness either.  And He does have a wardrobe for you.

The emperor WAS naked.  In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the emperor chose to ignore the honest calls of the child.  He chose to save face (and ironically lose respect).  He continued the drafty masquerade.  How sad.  Only by first recognizing his nakedness could he have really done something about it.  Only by admitting that all was not as it should be could he have seen his shame come to an end.

Do not let your story end like the emperor’s.  Reject the mask and face reality, as embarrassing as it may be.  And place your hope in the One who can clothe you.

Romans 4:17; Romans 12:3; Psalm 119:59; Psalm 42; Psalm 43

Resolution Revolution

I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution before.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I always thought the idea was kind of cheesy, and the track record for resolutions kept is notably poor.  The greatest benefit brought by this tradition is the boon to the owners of the local gym.

I may not have followed the traditional New Year’s promise-making trend, but boy-oh-boy have I made my share of resolutions.  ‘No more succumbing to time-wasters’.  ‘Better consistency in my time spent in prayer’.  And as cliché as it may be, I’ve even declared that I will lose weight.  (Believe it or not, skinny little me has begun to develop some love handles!)  My life has been peppered with new resolve and nearly as often that resolve has been followed with self-disappointment.

I’m not alone.  Driven by the desire for life-improvement and greater fulfilment, countless millions have resolved to will their way to new heights.  That’s all well and good.  Resolve is to be commended.  But the reason so many of these self-promises are destined to flop is that they are rooted in anxiety.  Guilt-motivated change is doomed.  Making positive changes out of fear is destined to fail, because fear only breeds fear.  Herculean efforts can be made and progress can even be achieved, but when mistakes happen and consistency slips, the dread of failure takes hold and the fear of missing the mark becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

To really make change; to see my life become what I long for, I don’t need more grit.  I don’t need more determination.  I don’t need more resolve.  To discover lasting success in my life what I really need is a revolution:  A revolution of identity.

Many times in the past when I have failed at something, I have found myself looking in the mirror with disgust.  Breaking my promise for the umpteenth time I have literally declared out loud, “I’m such a loser.”  I have embraced the concept that my fragility of character defines my identity.  No wonder my goals are unreachable!

Here’s the thing:  I am not a loser.  I am a child of the King; a prince who walks in the royal favor of his Father, not because of my worthiness, but because of His.  If I can really grasp that; if I can allow that one truth to root itself in the deepest part of my soul, everything changes.  Resolutions become obsolete.  Yes, tenacity and commitment are still required as I serve the Father’s purposes for my life.  Self-discipline is still critical.  But my destiny is no longer tied to my performance.  It is tied to my pedigree.

Walking in the favor of the Father, I become truly free.  Free to dare greatly.  Free to succeed.  Free to fail.  No longer bound by the fear of my limited capability, I am free to trust Him for the impossible, and I am free to walk that ‘impossible’ out with Him.

I am 41 years old.  Statistically speaking, a little more than half of my life is behind me.  Lately I have become increasingly aware of my need to make serious plans and take definitive action to move toward my life’s purpose.  I must make significant investments of time, effort and money.  I must be willing to take risks.  If I do not take action NOW, I will still be here one year from now; maybe even 10 years from now.  My life is made up of time; therefore my time IS my life.  I do not want to give my life to anything less than what I was designed for.  But the life-changes that are necessary cannot come by way of an annual regime of self-powered promises.  They will only really take root as they are driven by an awareness of my God-powered identity.

I’ve never embraced the making of New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t plan on starting now.  I am not going to run off and start making all sorts of promises based on my past failures.  I have a better plan.  Knowing who I am, I am launching into my destiny based on the knowledge that my Father, the King, has chosen me for greatness.  I am embracing the freedom that I have found in Him and will walk without fear.  And I am moving forward with a depth of resolve that is not based upon my questionable will-power, but upon the love and the grace of the Dream-Giver.

This year is going to be incredible.

Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:13-14; Matthew 6:33-34; Joshua 1:9

The Smell Of Hope

 

There’s something about Christmas.  The season brings a barrage of house-decorating rituals, bursting malls of insanity, and the ever-predictable rants about the real meaning of it all.  Some have been longing for this time since January, while others can hardly wait for everything to be packed away and forgotten for another year (or at least until next October). Somehow in the midst of all that busyness and ranting, I can’t shake the sense that we’re all searching for something.

I have come to a conclusion about all of the craziness that I find myself participating in every December.  When I look at all that I do to make things ‘feel’ like Christmas, I think that what I’m really trying to do is to recreate the wonder of my childhood memories.  To re-manifest the innocent astonishment that a sparkling tree brought to my young eyes.  To remember the feelings of love and provision that came from straining on my tip toes in my mother’s kitchen to peer over a rack of cooling sugar cookies.  To feel afresh the sense of awe that I felt as my father read the Christmas story.  There is something of warmth and hope that we long for that Christmas promises to afford.

But sometimes in the midst of all the re-creating, I have to step back and realize that Jesus’ arrival was far from warmly nostalgic.  Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate the sentiments of the season as much as anyone.  I have my favorite Christmas carols and love to see the excitement in a toddler’s face on Christmas morning.  But the smell of Christ’s arrival was more of manure than of sugar cookies.  Yes, the angels sang of glory and peace and favor, but the context that brought all of this blessing was not that of a Norman Rockwell painting.  It was embarrassing.  It was exposed and dirty.  The circumstance was more of rejection and discomfort than of warm and fuzzy.

I know that December 25th does not bring to mind joyous reflections for everyone.  For some it is a time that highlights dysfunction and brokenness.  Others find that ‘good will to all men’ feels like an offer made to someone else.  For those people especially, I want to shout from the reindeer-decorated roof tops:  “Jesus knows!  That is why He came the way He did!”  He was conceived out of wedlock and born in dysfunction.  He was rejected by society even while his mother was still in labor.  He was wrapped in rags for goodness sake.

The contrast between the angels’ grand announcement and the setting of the delivery room was no accident.  God was making a statement.  Out of the strain of Mary’s labor and the hollowness of homelessness was birthed the greatest hope mankind will ever know.  By ‘becoming nothing’, Jesus forever declared that humble beginnings and lowly stature are the birthplace of unimaginable destiny.

I’m not suggesting that we stop relishing in the joy that comes with this celebration.  I’m not proposing that we swap our pine-scented candles for the contents of a horse stall.  But perhaps we should remember the context that brought us eternity’s greatest gift.  Let’s awaken to the realization that dire circumstances are the seed-bed of the miraculous.

And that hope just may smell like a barn.

Luke 2:1-20

Moving On

I have spent most of my life looking to go to ‘the next level’.  I’m not always certain what that level looks like, but I know it is higher, further and more fulfilling than the place I find myself right now.  I am convinced that it is God’s heart for us to grow, develop and achieve.  I believe He has deeper insights, broader horizons and greater triumphs that He wants us to experience.  So why do I so often feel like my Promised Land is out of reach?

Perhaps it’s because I’m living like I’m still here.

Going to ‘the next level’ in anything requires a new attitude, a new strategy and a new discipline.  Moving to a higher level necessitates a shift in our approach, and the higher the step, the greater the shift required.

Those who know me know that I’m all about hope, but hope alone is not enough to bring you to your destination.  Hope is like a football team being revved up by the coach.  It’s a critical start, but it is only the beginning.  You need to train.  You need to learn the plays.  And you need to step on the field and execute.  Risks and all.  A plan must be formed.  Obedience in action is required.  Faith without action is no real faith.

Some would say it is the Lord who will do the work, and I just have to let Him bring me to my destiny.  That’s like waiting for the coach to go onto the field and play your game for you. YOU have work to do. It’s YOUR responsibility to do what is asked of you. The Coach has brought you onto His team because of His grace.  You did not earn your place.  But to fulfill your purpose on the team requires action on your part, and there are victories that you will not taste if you do not play the role you have been given.

These words from the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians are often quoted:  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”  What an amazing and critical truth.  Entrance into the Kingdom of God cannot be earned, and you need not fear being kicked out because of faulty performance.  God’s grace is strong enough to handle your infidelity.  But read Paul’s next sentence!  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus TO DO GOOD WORKS, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (emphasis mine)  You were not brought in to God’s Kingdom JUST to be a trophy of grace.  You were brought in for a purpose.  You were chosen for the team because you have something to offer.  And the Lord is not a cruel Coach.  He loves to reward His players.  But those rewards are just that:  Rewards!  They are earned by obedient effort.

When the children of Israel had finally entered the Promised Land, they encountered the fortified enemy city of Jericho.  God told Joshua that He had delivered Jericho into his hands.  Hooray!  But Joshua couldn’t just sit on the outskirts of town and wait for someone to come and hand him the keys to the city.  He had to believe that what God had declared was true.  He had to learn the strategy of God (as strange as it was), and work to implement the divine plan.  And he had to step out at great risk, and persevere in TAKING what God had promised him.  God declared the way forward, and God declared the outcome.  But the outcome was conditional.  It required something of Joshua.  In order for the purpose of God to be fulfilled, Joshua had to believe God’s promise, learn God’s strategy and walk in disciplined obedience.

I have only a vague concept of the path I am to walk.  I wish I knew more details, but I do not.  Many years of my life have been spent wishing that God would show me a fuller picture of His strategy for me.  Stirred with hope I have often perked up, but then stood waiting for something to happen.  Faced with no instantly tangible results, I have far too frequently sat back on the sidelines in a state of depressed confusion.  I failed to shift my approach to match the call.

Things are changing now.  I choose to believe that as a child of the King, victory has been declared for my future.  I will actively seek the strategy of God.  And I am going to act upon that strategy, however strange it may seem.  Even if the plan seems incomplete, I will pursue obedience.  The Coach will find in me a hard-working ‘team-player’ who tenaciously follows orders and is willing to fight to TAKE the victory that has been assured for me.

Because I was meant to go higher.

 

Joshua 6; James 2:18; Galatians 6:7-9; Hebrews 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10 (don’t forget verse 10!)

Tension

Stress.  Lately I’ve felt a great deal of it.  The pressures of work have been almost overwhelming.  Pulled in a dozen directions and under-resourced to deal with the demands, at points I have struggled to cope.  Although my latest big source of stress has been at my job, there never seems to be a lack of angles from which life’s trials can come.  Financial turmoil, strained relationships, nagging illness, questions of life’s purpose.  All of these stress-sources have launched their attacks at one point or another.

Do you know what I mean?  Facing a gauntlet and unsure how to ‘get through this’, the head starts to throb and the chest begins to tighten.  The past few weeks I have felt like I’m being bent almost to the breaking point.

I’m like a bow.  (The kind that shoots an arrow, not the kind you put on a present.)  Like the body of a bow, my life is bent and arched around the bowstring (the demands of life).  There is tension there, but it is a tension that pulls me toward my destiny.  My life rests in the hand of the Archer.  The Archer’s purpose for me stretches me and forms my posture.  As the hand of the Archer places an arrow on my string and pulls back, my very life bends and the stretch can be uncomfortable. My status quo is disrupted.  The delicate balance that I have tried to maintain is skewed.  After all, I was already under tension.  Given the choice I would prefer for the pressure to be LESSENED; to unhook the bowstring of all the demands and responsibilities of my life.  Instead, with the Archer’s pull, the increase in pressure is bending me to an altered form that strains every fiber of my being.  But that is what I was designed for.  At my most stretched, I am actually capable of the greatest power.  The greatest usefulness.  In the hands of the Archer I can hit targets far beyond my natural reach.  And when the release comes, the satisfaction is immense!  Potential becomes kinetic.  Effectiveness is realized.  Purpose is fulfilled, and skill is developed.  As long as I fight the hands of the Archer, I only make the struggle more difficult, the stretch more prolonged, the results more feeble. But when I submit to the hand of the Archer and be still in His grasp, my strike will be precise.  A bull’s-eye is obtainable.

When I am stressed, do I look for the hand of God?  Am I awake to the possibility that He is preparing to use me?  Or do I give up and long for the days of impotence?  Do I wish for the chance to just hang on the wall and impress people with pictures of my purpose and stories of past battles?

The bowstring – the demands of life – is not a curse.  This cause of so much tension is not a nuisance from which I should be running.  The bowstring is the outlet He has given me to serve Him.  The challenges and the pressures of my world are precisely what provide me with opportunities for effectiveness.  Without tension there is no power.

As I reflected on my similarity to the bow, these words of Jesus kept coming to mind:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I didn’t understand why this passage kept coming to mind, because it seems contradictory to the concept of the stretching of the bow.  But I have come to understand something.  When I yield to the hand of the Master, His yoke will fit perfectly.  It’s not that I will avoid being stretched or that the process will never bring disconcerting alterations to my life.  Rather, when I learn to submit to the Archer, I will operate more effectively and with less discomfort, and I will more quickly be able to return to a position of rest and readiness.

The environment I have been placed in; the situation I find myself in – that is the context in which God is prepared to use me.  Even when things seem the most unbearable, perhaps especially then, I am precisely in the place where He intends me to operate.  Sometimes I long for an easier path.  But it does me no good to release the tension on the string.  Even if I were able to do so; to release all the tension in my life, I would come to a place of uselessness.  I would be utterly unfulfilled.

So what do I do when I feel as if I can take no more?  In those times I need to take a step back and see the bigger picture.  To feel the hand of the Archer in the strain of the pull.  To view the stretch as an opportunity rather than a curse.  To look beyond my bow-string and see the target.  It’s easier said than done, to be sure.  I need to learn, in the midst of the stress, to pause and recognize that even here God can work for my good.  Even now, God can use me.  I need to stop and recognize with a grateful heart that God is preparing to use me to launch a volley into enemy territory.  He is not just hoping that I will learn how to suffer admirably.  He is granting me an opportunity to be at my most effective; to fulfill my destiny as I was not previously capable.

I take great comfort from Peter’s words:  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”

I want the Archer to lift me up.  I want Him to find in me a ready and useful weapon.  So I am going to learn to rest in His hand.

And trust His pull.

 

James 1:2-4; Romans 8:28; Matthew 6:27; Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Peter 5:6-7