Get Out of Jail FREE

For a period of five years when I lived in Georgia, I did weekly jail visitations. It began when a teenage member of my congregation shot and killed his friend during a game of “Russian Roulette” with a new gun he had just purchased off the street. His mother implored me to visit him, and thus began five years of weekly visits that also brought other inmates into my life. The guards knew I would come every Monday, and they often greeted me with a list of inmates who had requested a clergy visit. Some weeks I sat in the window-encased attorney/clergy room for five to six hours, listening, praying and serving where the Lord had called me. It was challenging, awful, inspiring and exhausting.

I suppose that is why I love the prison stories in the scriptures. One of the most dramatic stories is found in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas found themselves thrown in prison in Rome because they deprived slave owners of their potential income. You see, these men owned a slave who was a psychic, and made money for them by telling fortunes. When Paul cast the demon from her, they lost their income, so they had Paul and Silas beaten and arrested for disturbing the peace.

What happens next is a Netflix-worthy sequence of events. They spent the night singing hymns and praying, and then God caused an earthquake to open up all the jail doors. The poor jailer woke up, and thinking they had all escaped, almost took his own life. But Paul prevents this, and the jailer took them to his home to tell his family about the Lord.

Acts 16:31-33 “Then Paul and Silas told him and everyone else in his house about the Lord. While it was still night, the jailer took them to a place where he could wash their cuts and bruises. Then he and everyone in his home were baptized. They were very glad that they had put their faith in God. After this, the jailer took Paul and Silas to his home and gave them something to eat.”

It strikes me that perhaps the jailer had been the most imprisoned of them all. His lack of faith was a prison. His fear of reprisal by his superiors (to the extent that he would kill himself rather than be killed) was a jail. The entire oppressive Roman system was a jail. But Christ set him free.

How about you this morning? Are you free? We have a tendency to lock ourselves in prisons of our own making, especially if you are a Grudge Holder. Grudge Holders can live in a bleak cell of self-grudge-righteousness that is a very dark stronghold. It manifests itself in the constant replaying of the injury or betrayal that led to the grudge’s formation. The tape plays over and over in the Grudge Holder’s mind in a continuous loop, at the expense of joy and peace. And worse yet, the person who caused the harm has most likely moved on and hasn’t given you a second thought.

A former Nazi prison camp survivor named Corrie Ten Boom once said,

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

God can open any prison door…….if we just let him. He longs to set you free from yourself. The message today is to be like Paul and Silas, and sing and pray yourself out of your jail. Our communion liturgy reminds us of this truth:

Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit anointed him
       to preach good news to the poor,
      to proclaim release to the captives
          and recovering of sight to the blind,
       to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
       and to announce that the time had come
          when you would save your people.

The time has come. Set us free, King Jesus.

Photo by Michelle Robertson.

The Monster of NOT ENOUGH

Confidence and strength flood the hearts of the lovers of God who live in awe of Him, and their devotion provides their children with a place of shelter and security. (Proverbs 14:6)

Speaking of priorities…this proverb speaks volumes about a parent’s influence on a child’s spiritual and emotional development. I often think of the children in the churches I have served, and what a blessing it is to watch them grow up in the church. These kids have troubles, for certain, but they have a place to take their troubles, and that makes all the difference.

There was a time in our distant past when recreation departments and schools honored a family’s need for church. Dance, athletics, cheerleading, etc. never took place on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings. Society politely reserved these times for church participation. But no more.

I ran into a colleague from my former church last month. We had worked together on a Wednesday evening children’s program that brought hundreds of kids and their families to church every week. On our other campus, hundreds of Middle Schoolers attended their weekly youth group gathering. Both of those programs no longer meet on Wednesdays due to lack of weekday availability of families.

I heard a wonderful speaker at a conference who identified a parenting problem she called “the Monster of NOT ENOUGH”. She explained that this monster grows in the brains of expectant parents and continues to grow in size and importance as the child grows up. NOT ENOUGH whispers in a mother’s ear, convincing her that her attempts to raise and nurture her child are not enough. NOT ENOUGH speaks to a father every day, pushing him to push his kids into activities and programs that will supposedly help them deal with life issues. (“But it’s a team sport! They need to learn teamwork!”)

Unfortunately, over-scheduling our children into multiple activities and sports ends up being NOT ENOUGH to foster their spiritual walk of discipleship.

I once knew a family who was active in their faith and loyal to their church. The raised two little boys and brought them to Sunday School, children’s ministry events, and worship every week. But at some point, they decided this was not enough, so they began to sign the boys up for every possible soccer team available. It started with a seasonal soccer program that expanded to soccer camps, away soccer teams, lightening soccer, year round elite soccer….it was a soccerpalooza. We began to see less and less of this family in church.

I asked the mom where they had been one rare Sunday when I saw her in church, and she recounted tournaments and games that required weekend travel. She felt a little defensive, and explained that the boys were so gifted in soccer, they were sure to get college scholarships, and maybe even go Pro someday!

Guess what? They didn’t get scholarships, and they no longer play soccer. And as young adults on their own now, they no longer go to church, either. Their parents taught them that church wasn’t important, so why go?

Shelter and security come from a parent’s devotion to God . Teaching our kids to love Jesus, to go to Jesus when we are troubled, to pray daily, and to turn to scripture for answers are life-long lessons that will stay with them years after the last soccer practice is over. As parents, we will always struggle with feeling that we are not enough for our kids. That is Satan’s lie in our ears. So whenever you hear the Monster of Not Enough, stick your fingers in your ears and loudly sing LALALALALALA.

And remember, Jesus IS ENOUGH. This parenting thing is a team sport! Churches have all kinds of teammates who are ready to help you. With God’s help, we can do this together. And it will be enough.

Of course your monster drinks coffee! But the brand you buy is not enough!

Becoming Local

It is hard to act like a local when you first arrive in a new place. Ten years ago, after just moving to the Outer Banks from the Atlanta area, I took on the task of trying to blend into the culture. Part of it was that teenage desire to just fit in; part was an effort to make myself approachable to people in this new community. It was a bit of a learning curve for me. My stiletto heels were replaced with flip flops, my skirts got packed away to make room in my drawers for capris, and I actually allowed myself to order a glass of wine in a restaurant instead of pretending I don’t drink wine, like I did in Georgia for twenty years. There were downsides and upsides to this becoming a local thing!

One custom that seemed strange to me is that locals drop their flip flops at the entrance to the beach access in order to walk on the sand. Walking barefoot in the sand is much easier than flipping sand up the back of your legs, so that part I understood. But having been raised in suburban New Jersey by a father that was extremely paranoid that everything we owned was fodder for thieves, I was uncomfortable leaving my dollar store flip flops by the dune fence and actually walking away from them. I said to my local walking companion, “Are you sure they’ll still be here when we get back?” And she flat out laughed at me. She picked up my oversized pink flip flop with the dog teeth marks in them from when my lab was a puppy and chewed EVERYTHING, and said, “Who would want these?” Still, I was prepared to drive home barefooted.

Last month I was stuck in a beach rental while septic repairs were taking an epically long time to complete. (we’ll talk about “island time” another day, but suffice it to say that if a worker says a job will take 3 days he means 3 weeks). The upside was that I got to walk my dog on the beach every morning, leaving my flip flops at the dune fence like all good locals do.

Now these flip flops are quite a treasure. My husband brought them home from a trip to Brazil. An airport station manager gave them to him as a gift of friendship. They are green and yellow, and have the Brazilian flag on the side. I like them because my husband, who is an airline pilot, makes friends all over the world, and this man was celebrating his friendship with him with this treasured pair of flip flops with his country’s flag.

I left the beach house to attend a 3 day seminar in Atlanta, so on the day I returned, I looked all over the cottage for my flip flops so we could walk across the street to the beach. No flip flops. I knew the dog sitter would not have used them, I knew I hadn’t packed them, (one would NEVER wear green and yellow flip flops in ATL!) so I looked everywhere in the cottage and the car. Finally it dawned on me that 5 days earlier I had walked the beach with Georgia, and they might still be there.

And they were. I am sure my Dad (in heaven) was surprised that nobody had stolen them, but my Father in Heaven was not. Had I left a diamond necklace there, it would have been gone, but nobody would treasure that old pair of flip flops the way I do.

Matthew 6:21 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I treasure these unattractive green and yellow flip flops because they remind me of what a great guy I married. Others passed them by because 1. They are green and yellow and 2. Local culture respects each other’s property, at least each other’s flip flops left at the dune fence, and 3. Did I mention they are green and yellow?

What do you treasure? Think about how you spend your time, your attention and your money. If you say you treasure God, your family, and your relationships but spend most of your time on your electronics or binge watching Game of Thrones, your treasure and your heart don’t match up with your priorities. Priorities and how we actually spend our time starkly reveals what we really treasure. But priorities can change.

Today is a new day to realign your priorities with what you really treasure. Matching treasures, heart and TIME is a way to find real peace. Are you out of balance? Put the phone/iPad/laptop down, and go fix it. Every day is a new day to get it right.

Photo by Shannon Blosser.

On Guard

Memorial Day Weekend brings many things to the Outer Banks: tourists, traffic, revenue, beautiful beach days and good times. On the Friday prior, it brings something else; the return of the Life Guard Stands.

This almost acts as a catalyst for locals. When we see the stands coming out of storage from the beach houses and being erected, our pulse quickens. Summer is finally and officially here! Businesses prepare, restaurants shine up, rental agencies ready welcome packages, and I begin to pray.

The season we all depend on and wait all winter long to enjoy will bring another thing that we dread: ocean rescues. I used to get excited whenever I saw the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead until I realized they aren’t training, they are rescuing. I see the guard stands returning as that sure sign of summer, but now I see it with a sigh in my heart. Someone will lose his or her life here on our beach this summer.

The beach areas on the North Carolina coast are subject to undertows and rip tides that have a deadly force. Posted all along our beach accesses are signs with information on how to stay safe in the water, but unfortunately, many folks don’t read these as they trundle by, arms laden with umbrellas, towels, shovels and coolers. 80% of all ocean rescues involve getting swimmers out of rip tides.

HERE IS HOW TO SAVE YOURSELF FROM A RIP TIDE:

1. Don’t panic. Rip Tides are only about 20-100 feet wide. You can swim out of one.

2. Don’t swim directly to shore. When you feel the undertow pulling you out to sea, the urge will be to swim straight to shore. That will result in your being pulled out to sea.

3. Swim parallel to the beach. This will enable you to swim out of the the current. Think of it like a treadmill that won’t turn off: you have to “step off the side” to get out of it.

4. If you are too exhausted, just relax and float. Tread water until the current dissipates, and then slowly make your way back, swimming parallel to the shore at an angle. Signal for help and wait for the Life Guard to come to you.

5. Learn how to spot rip tides. They look like disturbances in the wave line. They can be a flat and glossy break in the wave pattern, or a foamy one. While the waves come parallel to the shore line, rip currents run straight out to sea, cutting the wave in half:

We struggle with rip tides in life as well. There comes a time in everyone’s life when a rogue wave suddenly breaks on your shore, cuts you off at the knees, and threatens to sweep you out into the deep. Death, divorce, cancer, job loss, the discovery of a spouse’s betrayal…all the things that catch us “off guard” can feel like we are caught in an emotional current of foamy power, and we can’t even keep our heads up.

But just like a real rip tide, with God’s help you can swim out of yours. Even if all you can do is tread water and float until rescue arrives, you can survive. The trick is to keep your head up. Stay focused on God’s activity in the midst of your panic. Keep praying toward heaven for help until it arrives. Lift your eyes upon Jesus and don’t look down.

Isaiah 43: 1-5

“Israel, the Lord who created you says,

    “Do not be afraid—I will save you.
    I have called you by name—you are mine.
When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you;
    your troubles will not overwhelm you.
When you pass through fire, you will not be burned;
    the hard trials that come will not hurt you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the holy God of Israel, who saves you.
I will give up Egypt to set you free;
    I will give up Ethiopia and Seba.
I will give up whole nations to save your life,
    because you are precious to me
    and because I love you and give you honor.
Do not be afraid—I am with you!

No matter what it is you are floating in, God is with you. As big and frightening as they are, your troubles will not overwhelm you. YOU belong to God.

Gracious and Loving God,

Save me today. My head is going under for the third time and I can’t breathe. The weight of this wave of despair holds me down and spins me senseless. Come into my troubled waters and save me. I am yours, and you are mine. I wait, and I watch. My deliverer comes! Help me in my waiting. AMEN

ThreeOlogy

Want to know Jesus more? Talk to a three year old. The study of theology should include a mandatory class on how three year olds experience God. All of the books, commentaries, studies, and wise masters of thought can’t hold a candle to the simple observation of these tiny theologians.

I have been in the presence of one for a week, and it puts my seminary years to shame. And to the test. Yesterday we came upon a dead bird on the street on our walk. My alarm bells instantly went off. Danger, danger, warning, Will Robinson!! You’re going to have to explain death in a minute! Sure enough:

Connor: What’s that?

Me: Oh, that’s a dead bird, Sweetie.

Connor: How did it die?

Me: It looks like maybe it fell out of its nest. (Or was attacked and dropped by a larger predator bird….edit…yeah, it fell out)

Connor: Will it wake up?

This is when my sweating turned to praying. The concept of death is a terrible struggle for an adult, much less a concrete, literal thinker who has only been on the planet for 36 months.

Me: No, Sweetie, it won’t.

Connor: Then where will it go?

AHA! Something I know about! Here is a chance to talk to this boy about heaven! Eternal Life! The power of God! The hope! Something I can explain!

Me: It will go to heaven and live with Jesus.

Connor: How will it get there?

Me: (hoping that by tomorrow the bird will have been removed) God will take it there.

Connor: But how can God lift it up?

Enough with the concrete thinking, young man. We live by faith, not by sight! Boy, was he putting my schooling to the test….and then I remembered a song he had just sung at his Pre School end-of-year program. Thanking God for all things Presbyterian, I said:

Me: Remember the song you just sang at Pre School?

Connor: Yes!

He started to sing “What a Mighty God We Serve”. I started to breathe again.

Me: So God is Mighty enough to take the bird up to heaven.

Connor: Can God lift up a bird?

Me: Yes.

Connor: Can God lift up a bush?

Me: Yes.

Connor: Can God lift up a boat?

Me: Yes.

Connor: But God can’t lift up a cactus.

Me: Why not?

Connor: Because he will get a pokey poke.

Me: Its OK, God is stronger than a pokey poke.

We then worked through how God can lift up houses, helicopters and sharks, even though they bite.

Connor was silent for a moment and then said, “I think the Mommy bird will be very sad.” The sweetness of this response still stings me at the back of my eyes. Yes, all mommies are very sad if they loose their little birds.

I guess the point of all of this is to say to you today, GOD IS A MIGHTY GOD. He is strong and caring. He doesn’t sleep because he is so busy taking care of you. (That was this morning’s conversation) And no matter where life is giving you a major pokey poke, God is even bigger than that.

“God stretches the northern sky over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing. He wraps the rain in his thick clouds, and the clouds don’t burst with the weight. He covers the face of the moon, shrouding it with his clouds. He created the horizon when he separated the waters: he set the boundary between day and night. The foundations of heaven tremble; they shudder at his rebuke. By his power the sea grew calm. By his skill he crushed the great sea monster. His Spirit made the heavens beautiful, and his power pierced the gliding serpent. These are just the beginning of all that he does, merely a whisper of his power. Who, then, can comprehend the thunder of his power?” Job 26:7-14

Photo by Michelle Robertson.

Some Gave All

Galatians 5:13 “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

Today we will gather around picnic tables groaning with hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, watermelon and apple pie (OK, that’s what I’m serving; how about you?) as we experience another day of freedom. Today’s cook-out is brought to you by the men and women who won’t be feasting with us today. But we remember them.

Remembering is a sacred act. Remembering gives voice and life to the dead, and adds dimension to the living. Remembering is what keeps people centered on the reality of the cost of things. The well worn cliche, “Freedom isn’t free” is at the center of our remembrance. Freedom costs the lives of millions in order for the lives of millions of others to continue.

We are a Navy family. From my father-in-law’s 30 years of service, to my husband, who was a Navy pilot, to my son-in-law and niece who are currently active duty, our family serves. Freedom is hard won for many families. It is our privilege.

I was blessed with the sacred opportunity to officiate at the funeral of a Navy Captain who was buried in Arlington National Cemetary. Dan Kohl was a friend, a leader, a mentor, a guy with a great sense of humor, and a man who loved his country. He was an influencer in my life who taught me how to stand in front of people and lead them. The subject at the time was learning how to be a Drum Major. The life lesson also applied to one day learning how to be a pastor.

As we walked the mile from the chapel to the columbarium, following the band down the hill with the caisson rolling behind us, the solemnity of the still and perfectly aligned white stones was overwhelming. I was engulfed in the silence of the men and women entombed there, who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. I spotted Christian Crosses, Jewish Stars of David, Muslim Crescents, and symbols I couldn’t identify. Other stones were blank. In all, there are 60 different religions represented at Arlington. There is so much diversity in the unity of their singular cause: peace in our land, and freedom.

Our scripture today celebrates the freedom we have in Christ. Freedom from sin and death are the gifts offered to us at the cross. We weren’t offered this freedom for superficial indulgences, for wasteful living, or squandering away our time and our abilities, but rather for a purpose: to serve one another in love.

To serve one another in love….what a tremendous calling! What a sacred responsibility. Imagine if you could live a life worthy of having that engraved on your white stone: “She served everyone in love.”

What can you do this Memorial Day to rise to the challenge of the Galatians? What single act, or life altering change, can you make this day that will impact someone you know with transformative love? Where is God calling YOU to be an influencer to a young woman or man? To love your neighbor?

It is sometimes in the ordinariness of life that our legacies unfold. It is in that random place of stepping up, volunteering to work with squirrelly teenagers, offering a word of encouragement to a beaten down coworker, writing a check that keeps someone’s lights on….these moments define us, and they also define others. When you choose to humbly serve those around you with love, you choose the Christ-way.

So go and celebrate your freedom by making in difference in someone’s life. Your legacy might just be the defining moment in theirs. Do this in remembrance of someone you never knew, who died for your freedom to love.

I remember you, Captain.

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Game of Throne

The current frenzy over Sunday night’s series finale of the HBO blockbuster, “Game of Thrones” has taken on a life of its own on social media, talk shows, newscasts….it is everywhere. Whether you are a fan, a proud “I’ve never seen it” type, or somewhere in between, the power it had over the imagination of today’s society cannot be denied.

The short version of the eight year series is a struggle to see who of the Seven Kingdoms would ultimately rule the Iron Throne. Many wars and three dragons later, the series ends with the naming of an unlikely successor. The character Tyrion Lannister, who has served as the de facto narrator of what has really been happening all along, says this:

“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? No. Its stories.”

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived… He’s our memory. The keeper of all our stories. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines, our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?”

This “breaking of the fourth wall”-like moment, where a character seems to pull away from the scene to speak directly to the audience, sums Game of Thrones up beautifully. It was just a story, folks. And nothing is more powerful than a good story.

I love stories, and story telling. Stories have been part of my life since my mother read to me every night in my bed as a child. I raised my girls with stories, and this love of story has been passed from generation to generation in my family. Stories allow us to escape, imagine something better, find both courage and wings, and reveal truths we otherwise might not observe about ourselves and the world around us.

Tyrion was right. Almost. Game of Thrones was a great story with an unlikely king at the end, but the greatest story of all time was Jesus on the cross. Born of a unwed virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried….but on the third day: oh, on the third day! He rose again! He is the unlikeliest of kings, but he was born to reign from the beginning of all creation. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men of earth can’t compare to the story of the salvation of mankind:

Colossians 1:16 Common English Bible (CEB)

Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him
.

Jesus’ throne is a throne of GRACE. Jesus’ throne is a throne of power over evil. His throne will reign forever, for he is the King of Kings. And his throne is a mercy seat.

So come before his throne, and lay down all your troubles and cares, your failures and disappointments, your triumphs and your sins. Nothing else in life is worth bowing down to, except the one true King. And that, my friend, is the greatest story, for all eternity.

Loving and Gracious God,

How have I put so many things on the throne in your place? Forgive me. All the things in the world that tempt me, all that glitters and shines, everything that distracts me that I worship in your place are things not worthy of your throne room. Draw me up onto your mercy seat, and change me forever. I bend the knee only to you. AMEN

Trapped

It’s a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. Many people think a claustrophobic reaction comes from closed-in spaces, but the real anxiety comes from being trapped with no way out. I deal with this, and speak from experience. It has brought sadness to my life, like the time I couldn’t climb the clock tower at Old Main because the staircase was too narrow and steep. I stood a the bottom step and couldn’t see the top step, and my body shut down. I missed the chance to see my Alma Mater from a wonderful view.

It also results in sermon illustrations, like the time I got trapped in a very, very small bathroom in a Paris restaurant. The entire bathroom was dark green marble, and when the door handle spun in my hand as I tried to leave, the walls closed in around me. Remember the garbage compactor room scene in Star Wars when Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie almost got crushed by the walls moving toward them as they stood on all that nasty garbage? That is what I felt like that day, and I lost my cool as I yelled loudly for help. In Spanish. Yep, seven years of French flew out the window as I yelled, “Assister Moi, POR FAVOR!” Finally a busboy heard me and got a screwdriver and freed me. He must have been from Spain.

Have you ever felt trapped?

There are many things in life that trap us. Bad choices, circumstance, family responsibilities, and illness are just a few things that result in a feeling of being stuck with no way out. Sin is probably the greatest trapper of all, and the effects of sin can trap not only the sinners, but the people around them.

I know a married couple who are trapped because one cannot face his alcoholism. I know another who are trapped because of an addiction to pornography. Both of these families are trapped in a cycle of loneliness, fear, confrontation, anger, arguing, and apology. And then the cycle repeats itself. Dirt, wash, rinse, repeat.

Other things trap us as well; despair, depression, anger, fear….even just holding a grudge can be a bear trap that carries the weight of steel teeth around our ankles.

Jonah once was trapped. He was trapped by reluctance and disobedience to do what God commanded. He didn’t realize that you can ‘t outrun God, so he fled to a place where he thought he could escape, only to find himself being thrown off a ship and swallowed up by a big fish. For three days, he was trapped inside. Can you even imagine the smell? Finally, he submitted:

Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish. He prayed: “In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God. He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried, ‘Help!’ You heard my cry. 
You threw me into ocean’s depths, into a watery grave, with ocean waves, ocean breakers crashing over me. I said, ‘I’ve been thrown away, thrown out, out of your sight. I’ll never again lay eyes on your Holy Temple.’ The ocean gripped me by the throat. The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight. My head was all tangled in seaweed at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root. I was as far down as a body can go, and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever –
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive, O God, my God! When my life was slipping away, I remembered God, And my prayer got through to you, made it all the way to your Holy Temple. Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds, walk away from their only true love. But I’m worshiping you, God, calling out in thanksgiving! And I’ll do what I promised I’d do! Salvation belongs to God!” 

Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore.

I don’t know what is trapping you right now, but I know who has the key to let you out. Jesus was born and died on the cross so that you might have life, and have it ABUNDANTLY. Living in constant fear and anxiety is not the life he wants to give you. Being trapped by bad choices and decisions is not abundance. Letting someone hold you down and hold you back is the antithesis of the freedom we are to experience in Christ. Open the door. Get out, and let Keyholder in. It’s time for that fish to vomit.

Gracious God,

Help us get out. We are weary and worn down, stuck here inside with out feet glued to the floor. Pull us out of our complacency, and free us from ourselves. Open the door to a life of gratitude and joy in you. Keyholder, come. AMEN

Photo by Michelle Robertson.

The Fourth Man in the Fire

In the same way that gold and silver are refined by fire, the Lord purifies your heart by the tests and trials of life. (Proverbs 17:3) #EyesonthePrize

The end of the school year and the flurry of end-of-year celebrations and graduations take me right back to my college days. This time of year acts as a trigger, and I am instantly transported in time to my own final days of testing and thesis writing. The first sensation is fear, quickly followed by exhaustion. Those pivotal moments of “make or break” have lasted a life time for me. Do you still have that recurring dream where you signed up for a class, didn’t attend all semester, and suddenly you are taking the final? Or you dream that it is Monday afternoon and you haven’t been to your Monday morning class for weeks because you forgot what you registered for at the beginning of the semester? I think these dreams last for decades because the fear of failure is so deep and so strong, we can’t shake it….even for a lifetime.

Maybe those lingering test anxieties are preparation for the larger tests and trials we will face. Having once faced the Finals Lion and defeated him is good practice for when the (insert your trial here) Lion suddenly grows into a Game of Thrones-like fire breathing Dragon that can take out entire cities with one breath. You know those Dragons: cancer, divorce, rejection, death of a loved one, house foreclosure, addiction, infidelity, raising a teenager…all those life points that are gruesome, impossible, and potentially incendiary.

As you face your fire breathing dragon, did you ever stop to think that you are being made stronger for having done the battle? In the midst of having your eyebrows singed off, (like when your teenager gets arrested and blames you. Or your wife admits an affair. Or your college age daughter is diagnosed with cancer. Or your husband dies of a brain tumor. Or you discover your spouse has been lying for months and hasn’t paid the mortgage. Or…..) can you see that at the end of this, you will arise from your ashes and be more in the image of God? Yeah, me neither.

In moments of fierce and fiery battles, only the promises of God can help us see daylight. When we are beaten down, only the hope of something better at the end of the trial can give us the courage to keep at it. If we lose this hope, there will be nothing but scorched earth around us. That is why it is PARAMOUNT to continue to come into God’s presence in the fire…he is the only way out.

Remember the story of three faithful guys who refused to bow to a Babylonian king? They were thrown into the fire to beat all fires, and look what happened:

King Nebuchadnezzar, his face purple with anger, cut off Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace fired up seven times hotter than usual. He ordered some strong men from the army to tie them up, hands and feet, and throw them into the roaring furnace. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, bound hand and foot, fully dressed from head to toe, were pitched into the roaring fire. Because the king was in such a hurry and the furnace was so hot, flames from the furnace killed the men who carried Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to it, while the fire raged around Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Suddenly King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm and said, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound hand and foot, into the fire?”

“That’s right, O king,” they said.

“But look!” he said. “I see four men, walking around freely in the fire, completely unharmed! And the fourth man looks like a son of the gods!”

Nebuchadnezzar went to the door of the roaring furnace and called in, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the High God, come out here!”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked out of the fire.

All the important people, the government leaders and king’s counselors, gathered around to examine them and discovered that the fire hadn’t so much as touched the three men—not a hair singed, not a scorch mark on their clothes, not even the smell of fire on them! (Daniel 3:19-26)

So take heart. You are not alone in your fire. The fourth man, the son of God, is right in there with you. Jesus never promised that there wouldn’t be tests, trials and temptations, but he did promise that he would be in the fire with you. And when you emerge, you won’t carry even the smell of it upon your skin. You will be beauty for ashes. Rise up!

Don’t Give Real Time to Fake Worries

A few weeks ago I attended the Orange Conference in Atlanta with 8,000 of my closest friends. The focus was on ministry with families, children and youth, but the take-aways were profoundly larger than that. I had the blessed luck to fall into a seminar with a comedic genius named Jon Acuff, and I am still feasting on the manna he poured out that day. In fact, part of the reason I decided to go ahead with starting these daily devotionals is because of this one hour session of encouragement to risk-take.

One of the many great things I heard that day is, “Don’t give real time to fake worries.” Let that just settle into your brain a minute. Take another sip of coffee, and let’s dwell there for a moment.

How many times have you spun out with anxiety over something, only to see it through in real time as the no-big-deal that it truly was? How many hours of sleep have you lost fretting over something, only to wake up to the reality of:

1. It wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be.

2. It was already being taken care of.

3. You had no control over it anyway.

4. It looked much smaller in the daylight.

Yet you spent real time obsessively worrying over it. Time that could have been spent more productively.

I spent a lot of time, and I mean a LOT, worrying about my parents’ deaths. Perhaps this is a preoccupation of pastors, since we sit with a lot of families alongside a deathbed as part of our pastoral care. I can remember in my early years of ministry making the fiftieth visit to a home where someone was slowly dying of cancer, and driving away thinking I could never have the strength to watch my parent linger like that. This worry fueled many a sleepless night.

As it turned out, my father came home from the grocery store one day with a headache and died of a sudden brain aneurysm, and my mother died in her sleep. I was with her that evening, and neither of us had a clue she would die in a few hours as we kissed and said, “See you tomorrow”. And so all those years of fake worry in real time only robbed me of peace in a situation I could not control anyway.

Psalm 46 breathes a word of sanity into our spinning:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

God is looking at your anxiety this morning and whispering, “I got this.”

Jesus reminds us:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

Today, let’s take that worry and cast it out. Let’s bundle it up in newspapers and carry it out to the curb. Let’s approach the throne of grace and lay it down. AND THEN LEAVE IT THERE. The only beneficiary of our worry is the Enemy, who loves the distraction worry brings into the abundant life Jesus is trying to give us. Don’t let him win.

Gracious and Loving God,

Help me let go of the fake worry that consumes me. Fill me with calm reassurance that you’ve got this, if I let go of it. Teach me your ways so that I know your power to set things right in my life if I let you. Ease my anxiety, and fill me with your peace. AMEN