My Life is an Obstacle Course (not a Marathon)

I have great respect for marathon runners.  I know several distance runners who convey to me the joys of being “in the zone “and finding great exhilaration as they push past the pain and into the bliss of completing a long and satisfying run .  I am fascinated by the marathon, but I don’t think it’s for me.  It’s not so much that I can’t run the distance (although that is definitely in question), but it’s more that I just don’t find it all that interesting.  With deepest apologies to those who are passionate about distance running, I just find it kind of boring.

With that being said, I admit that I do run and I occasionally even run long distances.  More than once I have done a thirteen mile race (which is a half-marathon distance).  However, all the races that I’ve run in have been extreme obstacle course races.  Maybe you’ve heard of these races (which are sometimes called “mud runs”), that start out as regular trail races except that someone has scattered dozens of military-style obstacles throughout the course.  About every half-mile you have to crawl under barbed wire or climb a wall or carry a bucket of rocks or maneuver through a field of live electrical wires.  Now that’s the kind of race that interests me!  I think that I could run 26.2 miles if it was peppered with ridiculous challenges along the way.

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Why is that?  What is it about the obstacle course that appeals to me in ways that the marathon does not?  I think it might be the way that I’m wired.  I don’t view life as one long slog that can only be conquered by pushing on and powering through.  I view life as a series of obstacles and adventures.  Each obstacle requires a different set of skills and a different approach.  It’s not boring, it’s not monotonous and it’s not meant to be run alone.

When I view life as a marathon, I often get discouraged.  I feel like I don’t have what it takes to keep going and I struggle to keep the motivation to move on.  But when I view life as an obstacle course, I become invigorated.  If life is a series of short sprints and challenges, then all I have to do is make it through this one and then I get to discover what is next.  If life is about overcoming obstacles and not just marking miles, then when I am stuck there is value in trying new ways to overcome the obstacles and not just powering through.  If life is an obstacle course, then there is always excitement around the corner.  This is the type of life that God has called me to live.

I am inspired by each day that God gives and each new challenge that it holds.  We live in a very trying world.  Sometimes the obstacles seem overwhelming.  Sometimes it feels as if we are never going to make it through.  But I am encouraged to know that the path is not endless.  There is a destination and there is a purpose.  If you are getting discouraged on your path, don’t give up!  Maybe you’re a marathon person and you can be inspired to dig deep and just keep going.  If that’s the case, I applaud you!  But maybe you’re more like me.  Maybe you don’t need to just push through, maybe you need to take a different approach to the obstacle.  Maybe you need to have a new outlook and fall in love with the adventure that God has placed in front of you.  Maybe you need to know that it’s not always going to be like this.  This obstacle will eventually be overcome.

This is how I view my life and it might not be how you view yours.  Are you a marathoner or a obstacle course racer?  Or maybe something else all together?  For each of us I believe that we are called to “run the race set before us”.  Mine just happens to have barbed wire.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  Hebrews 12:1-2jordanspartan2

 

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The Art Inside

Recently, I was looking through some old files and came across this journal entry I made over five years ago.  During that time, I was wrestling with the fact that I would pour all of my energy and creativity into preaching a message on a Sunday or pastorally counseling someone during the week only to wonder if it made a difference at all.  It felt that I was working hard every day but not leaving anything behind that was lasting.  I had a desire to express the beauty, love and joy that I felt in Christ but was frustrated that I could not create anything that reflected what I was experiencing on the inside.  I definitely still feel this way on some days, but don’t think that I could say it any better than I said it here.treebuterflies

October 17, 2011

I wish that I could compose music or paint masterpieces. To be able to express myself without words. My life, my feelings go beyond what I can cram in letters on a page. Writing them down does not feel like art. Punching on a keyboard and seeing black pixels appear upon a white screen feels so bleak. So reductionist. So unlike the songs in my soul. I wish that I could write them down in beautiful script and fill journals with deep and luscious thoughts. But when my pen touches paper, an ugly scrawl emerges. Barely legible to any reader, even if the reader is myself. The disjointed scribbles do not match the music in my mind and their garishness drains my inspiration. So I type here on a computer. How drab.

When I speak, I am alive. When I talk and communicate. But right now, there is no one in the room. Even when ears are present to absorb the words, they are intangible. They flow through the atmosphere and leave no trace of their existence. My art, my soul floating away, evaporating in the wind. No evidence is left. No galleries remaining behind. No books to be tucked away and discovered again. No scores to be replayed and to inspire more. Only words spoken into the wind.

To be able to write words that are worth reading again! Songs that lift the soul, paintings that bring tears. But I cannot do these things. Instead, I speak- if people listen. I listen- if people speak. Communication is my art. How strangely lonely it is.

At the core of it all, we desire to connect. The true artist creates something through a medium. He builds a relationship with that object (poem, sculpture, song) and then leaves it out in the open for others to come and have their own relationship with it. He pours himself into his masterpiece and it exists. The crowds might love it or hate it, but he doesn’t do it for the crowds. He does it for that one person whose gaze freezes when they see it, whose breath quickens when they hear it, whose mind is captured when they read it. He does it so that the art regenerates in someone else. And all of this is still a dream in the artist’s mind for he can never know what his art produces in another person. Truly, the artist creates because the art is in him and it must get out.

Something is in me and I don’t know how to get it out. Communication is my art. Like all the other artists, I hope that it captures someone. I dream that it takes root in another heart and reproduces. That somehow my joy, passion, depth might somehow transmit through the wavelengths between my mouth and their ears. And like all the other artists, this is a mystery to me. I never know what impact has been made within someone. But unlike the other artists, I have nothing left behind. At the end of the day, the painter has a painting- even if no one else wants it. It’s still his heart and his moment tangibly displayed giving evidence of his existence. He can go back into his room all alone and start to paint again.

But my medium is the air. My art requires others. Communication is not an art that can be done in solitude. My art is not just speaking into the void. My art is listening and interacting and responding and creating together. My art is understanding what someone is saying beyond the words that they use. It is letting God’s spirit take over and seeing in someone’s life what they cannot see themselves. It is discovering the perfect words that, when spoken, brings clarity to someone’s life. The art of expressing what is on someone’s mind better than they could express themselves. The art of revealing truth in a compelling way. Like all artists, I do not create but I reveal. I love my art. Praise God for the gift of it! How alive I feel when I am speaking alone with a person struggling in their life and God inspires my heart to share one phrase or one image. To masterfully find the words that speak into the mystery of their heart. To truly listen to them so that they feel heard and seen- perhaps for the first time in their lives. I love my art. To be able to stand before others and uncover truth that has been laying in the open for thousands of years but cannot be seen by the naked eye. To take something so complex and ethereal and make it accessible. To see the light bulb go on in people’s eyes. What an amazing honor to be used by God. It is all His work. His inspiration. But, oh, how fun it is to make this art.

But when the people go away, so does my art. There is no tangible intermediary that remains behind. There is no studio where I can go and continue creating alone. I said that my medium was the air, but I don’t think that this is true. My medium is relationships. My art is communication painted on the canvas of souls and lives.

All art is communication between people. Communication between the artist and his world. The physical artwork stands as the intermediary. My art has no intermediary. It is direct connection between me and others. Naked and vulnerable. The composer, the painter, the writer all interact with others without being in the room. That is not the case with the communicator. My art is direct. This is both an amazing joy and a crippling curse. I love the direct contact. The partnership, the immediacy, the risk and danger. To feel God use me. To experience that connection with another person. To be used in their life for His purposes.

But when the other person does not respond, my art fails. When there is no one around, my art is silent.

My art is always in the present. It is not stored away in crates to be discovered by future generations. It is always in the now. And this, perhaps is why I am often in mourning. It is why the moments of my most exhilarating artistry are often followed by periods of great sadness and discouragement. It is because the art is gone. Perhaps it remains in the heart of the listener. Perhaps they were changed and impacted and molded. Perhaps God used it to do incredible work in their soul. Perhaps. But I have no way of knowing and I have no painting to hang on my wall.

Lord God, my art is yours. All I have is yours. I lay myself at your feet. May I bring glory to you and not to myself. Forgive me when I see things only from my perspective and only from what benefits me. Open my mind to see like you see, Lord. Thank you for creating me the way that you do. Thank you for making me an artist and for those moments of being so fully alive through Your inspiration. Without you, I am nothing. I savor those moments because they are when I feel so close to you. I am so grateful, Lord. Forgive me for the times when I lose my gratitude and focus on me. My art is in the moment, so let me enjoy the moments when I am creating. And yet, I cannot be creating all of the time. So God, let me also enjoy the moments when I am not creating. Let me enjoy the artwork of others. Let me enjoy the artwork of each day that you create. It is not about me (so I keep telling myself). I do not have to be at the maximum of my function at all times. Come, Holy Spirit and take your place. Speak through me if it is your will. Reside in me (I know this is your will). Keep me from evil. Fill me with good. May my soul be deeply satisfied by you.

Finding Your Own Way

When I think of the great spiritual people of the world, I tend to think of men and women who spend hours in prayer and meditating on Scripture.  I think of people who have a clear sense of mission and are able to accomplish great tasks for the glory of God.  I think about all of these incredible people and how I want to be like them in their passion, discipline and effectiveness.  And then I want to take a nap.

After being a follower of Jesus for most of my life and being an ordained pastor for the last 12 years, I’ve learned that trying to be like someone else is a recipe for disaster.  I can admire other people, but I can never be them.  At times I’ve modeled my spiritual disciplines after other people and I have found that I keep looking over my shoulder to see if I’m doing it “right”.  Instead, my goal now is to just connect with Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we want to be transformed and changed into His likeness.  However, I think that we have the idea that when we are changed that we will all somehow look the same.  I don’t believe that this is true.  God made each of us to be unique.  What it looks like when you become more like Christ will be vastly different than what it looks like as I journey towards Him.  Definitely there will be similarities.  As we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us, we will see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23).  However, the ways in which love, joy, peace and all of the rest of those traits manifest in our lives will look different.

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I’m learning to fully embrace who God made me to be and not compare myself with what God is doing in the lives of others.  This re-focuses me on Christ himself and relieves the pressure of trying to fit into some pre-conceived notion of being the “perfect” Christian, pastor, husband or father.  I don’t have to be “great”.  I can just be me.

 

The One True Hero

Our world loves heroes.  All of the great stories from our culture are about individuals who stand up and make a difference against all odds.  When things are difficult around us, we innately long for someone who can make things right or we wonder if we might actually have what it takes to be the hero of our own story.

However, no matter how great of a hero enters the scene, the relief that he or she bring is only temporary.  The evil is defeated for today but new evil will arise tomorrow.  That is why the Greatest Story Ever Told is a story about someone who defeated evil for good.  Jesus Christ is unlike any hero before or after Him.  He was perfect and righteous.  His selfless and sacrificial actions won the permanent victory over death and Satan.  He is the one that we have been waiting for and the Savior of our souls.  He is worthy of our worship and our praise.  He is the one true Hero.  If we believe in Him, then we receive the benefits of His actions.  To receive His grace and life we have to admit that we are not the heroes but that He is.

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Here for a Reason

We live in a world where there is trouble, darkness and violence.  Many of us respond to it by complaining and living in frustration and fear.  Some of us ignore it and live our lives in isolation and denial.  But there is another way.  We can recognize that God is in control and that justice is His character.  We can live with hope and courage knowing that He will ultimately right the wrongs in this world.  We can be examples and representatives of Christ’s love and multiply ourselves by helping others become people of God as well. The picture is not bleak!  God is in control.  He has created you and I to be His lights in this world and to live intentionally and vibrantly so that this dark world actually changes.  This is why we are here.  Are we doing it?  Are we living lives of light and changing the darkness?

Unearned Riches

What if your bank account suddenly increased by $100,000?  You would probably be very happy but you would also wonder what happened.  If it turned out that someone had anonymously deposited the money into your account as a gift, how would you feel?  Probably pretty grateful and fortunate.  Would you use the money any differently knowing that you hadn’t earned it?  Maybe you would be more generous realizing that the money was never yours to begin with.  Or on the other hand, you might feel afraid to use it worrying that the person who gave it might take it back.  Or you might spend it all right away just because you can!

In Romans 4:5, it says “To the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”  That means that when we put our faith in Christ, He credits our “account” with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  If we believe in Him, then when God looks at us, instead of seeing the paltry balance of our poor lives He sees the abundant goodness of the works of Christ.  It is not because of what we have done but because of what He has done.  We have unearned riches in our spiritual bank account!  What are we doing with them?  

Good News, Bad News, Great News!

The Gospel message can be summarized simply as “good news, bad news, great news.”  It starts with the good news that the amazing God of the universe created us to be in relationship with Him.  It moves on to the bad news that we turned away from God and were left with broken lives apart from Him.  Then, it turns to the great news that Jesus Christ took our brokenness on himself and restored us to abundant life with God!

Most of the time, we like to focus on just the “good news” and the “great news”.  But to fully appreciate the greatness of the Gospel, we also have to be aware of the “bad news”.  We are all sinners and we are all worthy of God’s wrath.  We secretly (or not so secretly) want to pursue our own desires that will benefit ourselves and our families even if it causes damage to others.  The truth is that when we are unhindered and give in fully to our own selfish desires, it isn’t pretty.  Unless we look our own depravity in the face, we will not acknowledge our need for a savior and will not fully receive the incredible grace that has been poured out onto broken people like us.

 Romans 1:18-2:16 talks about mankind’s sinfulness and God’s justice and wrath.  Most of us don’t like talking about God’s wrath.  However as we look at the whole picture, we realize that Jesus Christ received God’s wrath on himself for our behalf.  He paid the punishment and we are free from condemnation.  That is great news!  

Jesus Doesn’t (Just) Love You

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Jesus does love you.  But you are not the only one.

The most quoted Bible verse begins with “For God so loved the world…”  However, most of us read that as, “For God so loved me…”  It is easy for us to focus on our personal relationship with God and spend lots of time trying to improve ourselves to be better followers of Jesus.  In doing so, I think that we sometimes miss the point.  God doesn’t just work in individuals.  He works in communities.  His heart is for the whole world.  If God has reached out to you, it is so that you can partner with others and join Him in His mission of loving the world.

In 1 Peter 2:5, Peter says that you and I are “like living stones that are being built into a spiritual house”.  The purpose of a brick isn’t to be the most perfect brick in the world sitting off by itself with pristine edges and corners.  No, the purpose of a brick is to join it’s place with others in the wall.  You are a part of something greater.  It’s not just about you.  Following Jesus means that you don’t follow Him alone.  We become the people of God together and we show God’s love to the world by the way that we love one another deeply, from the heart.

You are not alone.  God has called you out to receive His grace and to live differently.  He has called out others as well.  Let’s stop trying to have an individualized, personal faith and instead allow ourselves to come home and be a part of God’s people.  If you are feeling alone, reach out to someone today.  If you are not feeling alone, reach out to someone who is.  We are in this together.

Holy= Perfect or Different?

I struggle with sin.  Pride, envy, selfishness, apathy and all of their friends assault me every day.  I try to resist because I don’t want to live that way.  I want to live in the life of love, joy and peace that is promised us in Christ.  But I don’t always succeed.  I get frustrated with myself for not being perfect.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Maybe you feel like you should have it all figured out by now, but you don’t.  So what do we do?  We can try hard to be perfect and then wallow in guilt when we fail.  Or we can decide that the bar is too high and tell ourselves that our sin is “no big deal.”

Or we can go another way.  We can receive the grace found in Jesus Christ and pursue holiness.  The word “holy” does not mean “perfect”.  It means “different” or “set apart”.  When we say that God is Holy, we are saying that He is different than any other being that exists.  When we say that we want to live holy lives, it means that we want to pursue lives that are different than the rest of the world.  We can do that because Jesus Christ has paid for the penalty of our sins and has made us righteous through his death and resurrection.  We are no longer bound in slavery to sin!  We no longer are condemned by our wrongful actions.  Instead, we can live in the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven and knowing that we have the Holy Spirit in us to help us move forward and make right choices.

1 Peter 1:15 says, “Be holy, because I am holy”.  This command may seem like an unreachable goal, until we realize that God isn’t calling us to live legalistically perfect lives, but He is calling us to live lives that are different.  If we are perfectionistic and gauge our self-worth by our actions and achievements (including “sin management”), how is that different from the rest of our results oriented world?  If we are permissive and let ourselves off the hook to do whatever we want (and justify it by saying we are forgiven), how is that different from the rest of our self-centered world?  No, we are called to be different, to live in grace, and to pursue righteousness by depending on God’s strength and not our own.  

I am a sinner.  So are you.  Jesus Christ offers us salvation and righteousness based on His actions and not ours.  Let’s not stay caught in the trap of finding our identity in our own successes or failures, but let us accept God’s invitation to be different and to live in freedom.  

Fill The Tank

Have you ever run out of gas in your car?  It is a terrible feeling when the car starts slowing down, you press on the accelerator and nothing happens.  It’s a feeling of helplessness as you pull your car off to the side of the road and start thinking about what you are going to do next.  Maybe that’s never happened to you.  But you’ve probably at least had the experience of seeing your gas light coming on and warning you that you are almost out of fuel.  Suddenly, you start to think if you have enough time (and money) to get to a gas station and fill up.  We don’t often think about how much gas we have in the tank, but when the light comes on or the fuel runs out it instantly becomes a priority.

How’s your spiritual tank?  You don’t have a dashboard on your soul that lets you know well you are doing spiritually.  However, you can definitely tell when you are running on empty.  Negative behaviors can become our warning lights.  If we are lashing out in anger, wallowing in negativity, turning to destructive distractions/addictions or treating the people that we love poorly then we are probably not living in a way that is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Galatians 5:19-21 gives an extended list of the warning lights that let us know that we are not walking in the Spirit.  Galatians 5:22-24 lists the “fruits of the Spirit” that describe the behaviors and attitudes that come out of our lives when we are filled with Him.

So check your gauges and see how you are doing.  If you are life is producing love, joy, patience and all of those things, then rejoice in God and keep walking in the Spirit by staying close to Him in prayer and the Word.  If you notice that your life is producing negative attitudes and actions, it may be that you are running on empty.  Instead of trying to keep going on your own, pull over now and surrender to the Lord.  Allow Him to fill you with His life and His presence.  In John 7:37, Jesus says “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  If you are dry and sputtering, turn to Him today.  Open up His Word that you may hear him directly.  Pray and express your heart to Him.  Gather with other believers to get focused back on Him.  Ask for Him to fill you completely and He will!