Weathering The Major Storms!

Recently during a summer storm strong gusts of wind split a very large silver maple. As we cleaned up the mess, I was surprised by the integrity, or lack thereof, of the wood. Although the tree appeared healthy outwardly, many of the limbs had significant internal hollow spots that were vessels for major decay.

After doing some research, I found this is common to the species. Silver maples grow very fast and have nice foliage and thus they have been popular to plant in yards for shade.  However, despite these outward advantages, these maples also have several important internal weaknesses. For example, they have shallow roots and their wood is brittle making them highly susceptible to storm damage. As I picked up these massive chunks of wood, two feet in diameter, with healthy outsides and hollow cores, I couldn’t help but think my own life and perhaps the lives of others is or has been like the silver maple when it comes to spiritual matters.

If you are like me, as you made your way into adulthood, your focus was on rapid growth in your professional and personal life.  As my life progressed, my career developed considerable foliage. Sure some small branches died or broke off here and there but for the most part it was up, up and away. The same has been true in my personal life. (Yet here I’ll admit even though there has been growth, there also has been major branches broken along the way.) At any given point in my life, if you were standing in assessment, you might easily come to the conclusion that my tree was healthy and growing.

Of course all is usually well in our lives until a severe storm strikes. When that occurs we are too often dumbstruck with the level of destruction. Our tree splits in half and this time the limbs that come down are so big that the earth around us is also damaged. How does this happen? We were so strong and healthy.

Often times, we can trace the problems back to our spiritual life.  When young we become so focused on growing our personal and professional lives that we don’t dedicate enough time and energy to developing our spiritual roots. For me, regrettably, my spiritual life while present wasn’t the centerpiece of my growth strategy. Like the silver maple, all my growth was in the outwardly foliage at the expense of the roots.

The strength of a tree, however, is not in the limbs. Yes, they are beautiful, impressive even and fun to climb. Branches provide cool shade from the summer heat and a good place for a swing, but rapid growth in our silver maple lives comes at the expense of our spiritual roots.

If we spend more time and energy developing strong spiritual roots, we greatly increase the integrity of our wood. We are healthier on the inside and down deep. Most importantly, we are better prepared to weather the major storms!

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Change The Comfort of Discomfort!

Slipping into something less comfortable as many of you have pointed out is not as easy as it sounds. Ironically, one of the most difficult parts of slipping into something uncomfortable requires us to become comfortable with change. Generally, change is something we all want but are afraid to make because it is necessarily unfamiliar and requires us to relinquish control. Moreover, change is harder to recognize than we think. Often times, the very change we need is to become less comfortable with discomfort!

Our daily lives at times can be quite difficult–perhaps we have a bad marriage or an unhealthy family situation, continuing financial hardship or trouble at work. These situations can be so pervasive and complex that we they trap us into believing that they are a fixed part of our lives. As the years wear on, we become so comfortable with the most discomforting element in our lives that it’s the only part we never change.

In other words, our most troubled area can become the constant around which all else revolves. It may even become our defining reason for existing. It has made us miserable so long that we busy our lives with a constellation of unrelated changes but the mother planet of all problems is left untouched and unvisited.

Our cry for change is really a cloaked cry for peace. It’s hard to change and have peace after a life of tumult. Living with peace is not easy and most of us struggle with the symptoms of peace. Peace feels weird and is boring in comparison to the big tumult in our lives.

Too often, we mistake the change we need in our lives for action. We spend all our change energy on the inconsequential and external–our hair, our car, our job, our house. These changes may capture our attention but they don’t help us achieve our potential in God. If you are like me, you’ve flailed around desperately trying to grasp change like its a lightening bug. It’s lit up over there, so we run to it only to find that it’s lit up somewhere else just out of our grasp.

Even when we do focus on internal change we can miss the boat. We work on being more patient or more understanding yet the relationship we are in is a disaster. All the patience and understanding in the world won’t fix it. Everyone around us knows its destructive.  We cannot see it, but we love the new haircut.

The truth is we become comfortable in our tribulation. Our discomfort becomes a badge of courage that we wear as a testament to our strength when in fact it is our biggest weakness. We may even convince ourselves that God wants us to bear that cross when nothing could be further from the truth. God wants us to reach our fullest potential and that isn’t possible if we don’t have peace. That is why we must change our comfort with discomfort!

It’s Time To Slip Into Something Less Comfortable!

If you are like me, you have a favorite pair of jeans and at least one favorite tee-shirt.  My favorite pair of jeans are faded and the front thighs are worn to the point that they could rip any day now, but they are soooo comfortable. The same with the tee–it’s been worn and washed so many times you can no longer read the writing on the front but it’s incredibly soft. I actually catch myself, a grown man, looking forward to the day of the week that I get to wear them!

Does this sound familiar? I suspect that I am not the only one who is most comfortable in their oldest clothes. In fact, for many of us, our daily lives have become like our favorite jeans–very comfortable. It’s not that we haven’t experienced heartache or loss periodically, that’s part of life, but rather that we have slipped into our routine like our jeans one leg at a time and in doing so have become very comfortable.

Perhaps you are thinking about now that after your tumultuous early years or a particularly rebellious phase, you are thankful for a little routine. There is certainly nothing wrong with routine per se nor being comfortable in our lives. Yet, it’s important to evaluate where we are in life by where we are in relation to God’s plan for our lives not in relation to where we have been.

We generally measure our lives by the yardstick of the past and what we have experienced to arrive at this point. We may have overcome major obstacles to reach what now appears to be a stable life, but according to God’s divine plan for our lives we may still have miles to go (and even greater hurdles) before we can truly enjoy God’s blessings. God measures our lives according to our potential not our past and our potential most assuredly lies ahead of us.

Often times we are so comfortable in the garment of our lives that when we do branch out into something new we simply try to patch it into our old routine. This approach may be holding us back from achieving our full potential. In Scripture, Jesus reminds us when we patch an old garment with new unshrunk cloth the old fabric tears worse.

What does this mean for us? It means that sometimes we have to throw out our old favorites in order to achieve our full potential. It means sometimes the good is actually the enemy of the great. Rather than patching in new cloth here and there, we have to periodically look to change the fabric of our lives according to God’s plan. That’s not to say that we should all upend our lives for the sake of change but rather that we should always prayerfully evaluate our lives and our growth according to God’s will.  More often than not, a new greater garment awaits us when we slip into something less comfortable!

The Courage To Follow!

Can you imagine the strength of faith that it took for the disciples to continue following Jesus after his crucifixion? Or the faith of Paul remaining committed to spreading the word as he was jailed and tortured? It’s one thing to have faith while Jesus is beside you performing miracles and reassuring you, but quite another to keep the faith after he is gone and much of the world is against you.  What tremendous acts of courage!

Recently, as I was reading the works of Paul, I recalled the words of a colleague who followed someone out of a room where the boss was telling an inappropriate joke. I’ll never forget her words: she said “I didn’t have the courage to lead but I sure had the courage to follow!” Once more, she wasn’t the only one to leave. Another colleague followed her out of the room and echoed her sentiment.

What has always stayed with me was not the courage of the leader but of the followers. The leader was already gone and the point clearly made. The colleagues had nothing to gain by following but they stepped out of their comfort zone and potentially put their jobs on the line. Leaving the room took both courage and faith.

In many ways this is the central challenge of faith–having the courage not to lead but to follow. When we lead, we are in control and we are relying on our own inclinations. A leader may or may not have faith or even guidance, but a true follower has both courage and faith. A true follower comes into agreement and in doing so is strengthened by the power of union. (This is a point that is sometimes lost on congregations.)

Moreover, and as importantly, a follower’s faith is significantly strengthened by the faith of others. Followers inspire others to find the courage within and to exercise their faith. This is in part what Paul is saying in Romans when he says “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” In other words, by following God in faith, and having the courage to join in the union of agreement we experience God’s goodness and we strengthen others so that they may enjoy the same.

Paul’s commitment and methodology toward spreading the gospel, in this context makes perfect sense. Paul understood well that faith begets faith and strength begets strength when we have the courage to follow!

Travelling Light In The Lord!

Traveling internationally can be quite rewarding but it’s not without its challenges. One of the first hurdles is learning how to pack. I’m a chronic overpacker, but when I travel for work, I often visit several international countries in the same trip which requires multiple plane changes and extensive security checks.

I had to learn the hard way that carrying luggage is a burden. Not only do you have to keep track of it all, but it’s also heavy to lug around. Traveling with baggage slows you down and is more expensive. Moreover, at security checkpoints they rummage through your stuff requiring you to go back through your bags and repack.

Finally after trips dragging one-third of my closet through Europe, I got the message and left it all behind. Nowadays I travel abroad for ten days with only a carry-on! I can’t tell you how freeing it is to leave that stuff behind and get by with only what I truly need.

Going through this process, I was struck by how traveling with baggage is applicable to our daily lives and our walk with the Lord. If you are like me, you are still carrying around too much baggage–emotional, physical, mental and yes even spiritual baggage that is weighing you down. Perhaps a failed marriage, a strained relationship with a parent or sibling, physical or mental abuse from your childhood, a bad church experience, self image issues, self doubt, self pity…the list goes on and on.

The point is not to discount or trivialize any of these negative life experiences, but rather to point out that we all tend to aggregate issues over a lifetime and all too often drag them along with us as baggage. As these negative experiences accumulate and as they are unpacked and repacked, like going through an international security checkpoint, they take a heavy toll on our current life travels. (In some ways a security checkpoint is better–at least they take away things that could be harmful!)

This is in part what Paul hints toward in his letter to the Philippians. Paul says he is not perfect nor has he yet attained his goal of resurrection, but he successfully has forgotten what lies behind and now reaches forward to what lies ahead. In other words, he has set his old ways aside, he has set down his baggage. Paul may have thought it necessary to carry the burden of those earthly bags before, but once he knew Christ, he realized those bags could only bind him to his old ways.

Sometimes, our baggage can be so ubiquitous that it predominates our lives. When this occurs our relationships suffer, even our most important relationship with God. How we all would benefit if we could only lighten the load and set some of our baggage down! Think about how fruitful our relationships, especially with God, would be if we travelled like Paul into our future with only a small carry-on, travelling light in the Lord!

Make Your Heavenly Tea Come To Life!

Recently on an international flight I got to catch up on a few movies I missed last year. One of the more enjoyable films was The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In the movie, one of the main characters, played artfully by the English actor Maggie Smith, reprimands a corporate assistant for bringing her a tea bag next to tepid water.  She sternly points out that tea is an herb that is dried and that it must have hot water to be infused with life again.  As a lifelong hot tea drinker, I certainly can relate–luke warm water absolutely won’t cut it.  Parenthetically, I know more than a few coffee drinkers who will vouch for heat to bring the coffee to life.

The more I reflect on the scene, the more it occurs to me that this is a wonderful metaphor for our relationship with Christ. Each of us inherits a full, rich and expansive relationship with Christ, but it is left up to us to bring that relationship to life. What we inherit is limitless potential. It is as if God has provided us with the ultimate tea bag, full of grace, mercy, understanding, revelation and salvation. It has been dried, bagged and perfectly preserved since time immemorial.

All that needs to occur for us to realize the full potential of our spiritual relationship is to accept Christ in our lives and add boiling water, metaphorically speaking about the water of course. That sounds simple enough but in real life it is often much more difficult. The important thing to remember is that like boiling water it takes time and consistent heat to bring our relationship with Christ to a boil and make the best spiritual tea.  If our relationship with Christ is sporadic, it won’t boil. Similarly, if we really turn up the heat or intensity in our relationship but don’t sustain it, it won’t boil. The outcome in either scenario is the same–our tea is unsatisfying and unfulfilling because it hasn’t come fully to life.

To make the ideal cup of spiritual tea we have to increase the heat in our relationship with Christ. We can do that in any number of ways: through prayer, through church, reading the Scriptures, acts of love and forgiveness, mediation, reading, etc. The key is to not be luke warm in the application of Christ in our lives. Try turning over all aspects of your life to Christ and to make a habit out keeping the fires burning. This will undoubtedly bring your spiritual waters to a boil and give you what you need to reach your full spiritual potential And make your heavenly tea come to life!