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Category: Faith

A tale of two miracles

There are two occasions in the Bible when God miraculously parted the waters:[1] the more famous Exodus account (Exodus 14:21ff), and the lesser known Joshua account (Joshua 3:7ff).

The Exodus account gets all the acclaim, primarily because it was none other than Charlton Heston standing at the banks of the Red Sea majestically holding his staff over the water. Thus far, the best we have come up with to portray Joshua is a cucumber from Veggietales.

Still, both miracles fall into the category of “something that doesn’t happen every day.” Both go against the laws of physics, Both defy explanation. And both result in making a way for God’s people, sending them from the old into the new.

The Exodus account is dramatic, precariously sticking Moses and the Hebrews between the raging Red Sea and an approaching enemy superpower (Egypt) bent on revenge. So God places a fiery pillar between the two groups, holding the Egyptians at bay. Pretty amazing, but God is not yet finished. God then instructs Moses to lift his staff toward the sea, and amazingly the chaotic ocean separates into a path for the Hebrews to safely pass through.

In the Joshua account, while waiting at the banks of the flooded Jordan River, Joshua reminds the people that God is about to do great things on their behalf in the Promised Land. However, unlike Moses, Joshua does not raise his staff over the water. Instead, the priests are instructed carry the ark of the covenant directly into the river.

Imagine being one of the priests who hears that bit of information: Wait—you want us to do what?

But the command is clear. The priests’ feet are to get wet. They are to traverse the slippery rocks beneath a swift and swirling river. Only then, after getting their feet wet, do the waters part to make a way into the Promised Land.

I prefer the Exodus method whenever God wants to move me. It’s less ambiguous and more straightforward, an uber hardcore miraclesomething we can definitely talk about during praise time on Sunday morning. Epic movies with big budgets would be made to tell our story. Even pompous scientists and militant atheists with no sense of awe or enchantment would attempt to insert themselves into the narrative by writing lengthy tomes hoping to invalidate it.

In contrast, no one writes about the Joshua account. Many Christians give it little more than a cursory glance. You won’t find a lot people sharing about how God tossed them into the water before anything happened. It’s not dramatic. It’s not cool.

Besides, Joshua’s account involves a rivera much smaller body of water than the Red Sea.

Yet in many ways, the Joshua method is scarier. The path forward doesn’t appear until you make the first move. In other words, with absolutely no guarantees, you must run the risk of getting swept away by the current before there is any sign that God is about to do something.

All you have to cling to is your faith that God is somehow presentand, you hope, a still, small voice telling you to go. The action could kill you instead of providing a way forward.

Why didn’t God simply part the waters and make a way for Joshua, as he did for Moses?

It’s a question we all ask at one time or another.

I think the answer is found in another tiny but important distinction: In Exodus the Hebrews were running from something—a vengeful army, a life of slavery, possibly even annihilation itself; in Joshua they were going to something—the land promised by God to the generations before them.

Recently I’ve felt forced to go through the Joshua method, asking myself whether I am running from something or to something. I am writing this from a hotel lobby, my temporary home until our prospective house closes. My wife and I are in a transition from Portland, Oregon to Helena, Montanaa transition that’s been bumpy, rough, and uncertain. In the past months, we have deliberated about this move. For over twenty years I have lived in Portland while eagerly hoping to return home to Montana. In Portland I felt on the outside of the culture, never fitting in and complaining ad nauseum, ad infinitum about my life in the city and about the city itself.

When I got a job offer in Montana, I had to ask myself: was this my chance to finally flee city life and return to a less stressful smaller town? Brush the dust from my shoes and leave Portland in my wake? Sayonara, Portland! I’m outta here.

A Moses-style “parting of the waters” would have been the perfect way to do that. All I needed God to do was to part the waters and let me pass.

But what if this move is not about fleeing from something as Moses did, but going toward something as Joshua did? What if this move is for my growth?

I suspect that a “parting of the waters” enabling me to flee Portland would not have been spiritually healthy for me, but would have allowed me to run away from the city with a hard heart and a suitcase full of bitterness.

Instead, I am beginning to believe that God wants me to see this transition as going toward something, a new chapter in the journey. I am going because God wants me to.

The Joshua-style river parting forced me to put my feet in the water before it parted, forced me to remember and appreciate this chapter closing in my life. I thought about the friends I have made in Portland, the people I grew to love there. I celebrated and memorialized the good moments (getting married, buying a house, publishing a book, and being a part of a wonderful church community) as well as my deepest heartaches (the loss of my teaching job and the doctoral degree, the deaths of my father- and mother-in-law, and years of spiritual darkness).

Portland has been a significant part of my story, and if I had left it by fleeing through a parted sea, I never would have grasped the good.

I believe God wants me to remember those years—the good, bad, and ugly—as years that he was working in my life. And to rejoice in what he has done there.

God forced me, like Joshua, to step into the water first, before it would part.

So, with feet clumsily planted on the slippery rocks, I move to a new chapter of my life—in Helena, Montana.

My feet are wet.

The rest of the adventure is up to God.

[1] Technically, there are three “partings of the water” if we count the third day of Creation when God separated the waters to make “land” (Genesis 1:9)but I omitted this account since no one was around to see it except God.

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When the world rejects your prayers, pray anyway

It didn’t take long after the tragedy in Las Vegas for the bloviating and hyperbole to begin. While many expressed shock and sadness for both the victims and for the city itself, sadly others took the massacre as a call to arms to press their political agendas. In the name of compassion, this latter group rejected the compassion of a country that was shocked into momentary paralysis as though they even had right to reject it in the first place.

Armed with the principle of never letting a crisis go to waste, they insist, “No! Only action is compassion.” And so, they shame, guilt, and demand action even before the blood is dry.

This has always bothered me. While the nation is still doubled-over in shock, using intense grief to promote an agenda—no matter how sincere—seems to amount to little more than emotional abuse. Any grief or pastoral counselor will tell you, decisions made in the heat of emotion almost never turn out well. In seminary, I had a professor tell his class, “Never resign on a Monday.”

Nevertheless, the demands for action ring out. In the past, that tactic hasn’t worked. So, inevitably, the outraged turned up their rhetoric to include blame, hate, and even prayer-shaming.

The cry of “prayer is not enough” became the new catchphrase. Following other mass-shootings before Las Vegas, U.S. Representative Elizabeth Etsy once said, “A moment of silence or prayer is insufficient to the task.” Senator Chris Murphy once tweeted, “Having lived through Sandy Hook, I know that thoughts and prayers are important, but they’re not enough.” Then-President Barak Obama said, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel.”

Comments like these in the face of tragedy irritated me. They seemed condescending and elitist. However, in the days following the Las Vegas shooting, my perspective shifted a little. Why should I be irritated? It made complete sense that a non-believer or a worshiper of the secular culture would see prayer as nothing more than a platitude, a superstition, a symbolic ritual, or an empty gesture expressed by simpletons. They see no power behind prayer. Why would we expect them to believe anything different? They’re simply staying true to their belief system.

On the other hand, for the Christ-follower to say such a thing is more troubling. In her response to the tragedy, Christian writer Jen Hatmaker posted on her Facebook page that her “blood is boiling over and I want to run screaming into the streets. I feel like we are standing in the middle of a violent, endless nationwide crisis swirling all around us, and we keep ‘sending thoughts and prayers.’ I want to rip my hair out.”

To say prayer is not enough says a lot about that particular Christian’s view of prayer. Prayer is good, so long as it is not the holy-roller, chandelier-swinging variety, but it doesn’t truly have a power to make a difference in anything. It is something to say with children before tucking them in. It makes us feel good. It is merely an act of faith, something to hold onto. But in the face of evil, these prayer-shaming Christians seem to see little actual power in prayer.

It is not enough, they insist. Prayer is not enough. We must do something.

Because everyone knows that we humans are far better capable of solving the problem of evil than a God who created the universe and defeated death. Seek ye first the kingdom of government, and all these things shall be added unto you. Most certainly, the problem of evil can be fixed through congressional legislation, which is often brought about through manipulation, fear-mongering and compromise.

Rest easy, America.

And please ignore Paul’s words about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of humanity (1 Corinthians 1:25). Or that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). He certainly didn’t mean it that way. We must invoke action. We must do something. And we must do it in the moment when the world is rocked back on its heels.

Sarcasm aside, it is imperative that we ask ourselves exactly what is prayer. What happened in Las Vegas was the face of evil.

The very thing prayer-shamers reject is the very thing that can help.

However, before we get defensive and counter, we followers of Jesus must come to terms with prayer as well. Do we believe it? Is prayer a platitude, an exercise to say before dinner, or a symbolic act of ritual? Do we believe that in prayer we are seeking the face of Jesus against whom no evil can stand? Do we truly believe that invoking the name of Christ is an act in which the demons flee and the captives go free?

Prayer acknowledges humanity’s helplessness in the face of evil. It forces us to see our own powerlessness. Only through prayer will we ever understand the true nature of the battle.

So if politicians and media trolls want to shame Christ-followers for “merely” praying, let them. I would expect nothing different. Let them think they are doing something productive. Let them think that prayer isn’t enough. This has never intimidated God before. I would place my trust in a holy God that I cannot see over politicians who claim they have the wisdom to curb the power of evil when they don’t even have the know-how to overcome the NRA.

Besides, prayer-shamers—both within and outside of the body of Christ—should not be our focus. God should. Legislative acts will do nothing to stem the face of evil other than make the legislators feel good about themselves. That is, until the next evil act occurs after which the whole cycle repeats.

Finally, I would like to comment about what I believe is a legitimate point that prayer-shamers make: Prayer should never be used as an excuse for apathy. There is enough truth here that should challenge us Christ-followers and even make us feel uneasy if we realize that it in fact applies to us. If we say that we are praying for Las Vegas and we do not actually pray, then we are using prayer as an excuse for inaction. That truly is apathy.

Posting a picture of the Vegas skyline with the words “praying for Vegas” is not praying. Actually praying for Las Vegas is.

If all we do is share a “praying for Vegas” post on social media without any follow-through, then we indeed have reduced prayer to simply another form of hashtag activism—a narcissistic attempt to show the world we care while accomplishing nothing. Saying we’ll pray without actually praying is nothing more of an empty exercise than that of jumping up and down with outrage, pulling our hair out, demanding “now is the time” that we do something to fix evil.

Rest assured, we will get our just rewards, if patting yourself on the back is all the reward you desire.

Meanwhile, evil prevails and the suffering continues.

I challenge us Christ-followers to pray. Really pray. Don’t pray for show. Don’t pray to make yourself feel good or uber-spiritual. Pray from the position of helplessness. But pray truly believing the power of prayer. Pray with the full knowledge that we are seeking the face of a holy God.

In the face of mockery, when others reject the power of prayer, I want to encourage you to pray anyway.

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Living in the ‘now’ not the ‘what if’

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:25–26.


I don’t run marathons; the only running I do is from the couch to the fridge during Super Bowl ads. But I have a friend who does. And he says that in a marathon, he can’t focus on the finish line lest he get overwhelmed by the size of the task. Instead, he must stay in the moment and focus just on the current mile, one step at a time.

 Writing a book is like that. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon—a long, exhausting, brain-cramping marathon. If I focus on the finish line, I’ll  get overwhelmed and never make it. Instead, I must stay in the moment and focus just on the current chapter or paragraph—one sentence at a time.

 The writing process can be rich and inspiring, but it can also be slow and grueling. Frustratingly tedious. Mind-numbingly painful. Sometimes the ideas come in rapid succession; other times, the brain is a dry lakebed. Times of writer’s block—when my fingers desperately want to tap-dance their rhythms across the keyboard, but the hand-to-brain connection is frozen—are more common than rare. Even if ideas are flying around in my head, sometimes my fingers just can’t get them out.

 My ultimate objective is to complete the rough draft of my current book manuscript this spring or summer. My daily goal is a minimum of five hundred words—roughly two pages. Five hundred measly words a day. For someone delving into a writing career, this should be a cinch. How hard can it be?

 This month? Very.

 Ideas crash around in my cranium like kids in a bounce-house. They want to be put to paper. They want out.

 But my fingers are on strike.

 Thus begins a spiral: the more my fingers refuse to cooperate, the more frustrated I become. The more frustrated I become, the more the ideas shrivel. The more the ideas shrivel, the more desperation sets in. And the more desperation sets in, the more my fingers refuse to dance.

 Then it hits me. I have shifted my focus to finishing the whole manuscript, making it harder to concentrate on the current sentence.

 All of this brings me back to the marathon as a metaphor. In fact, it’s more than a metaphor for writing; it’s a metaphor for life.

This month marks the ninth anniversary of the date when my academic life disintegrated within the rich, dark walls of a British university. Since 2008, I have prayed about, begged for, and sought after the next open door—any door—that God wants me to walk through. Yet I can’t find it. A teaching career seems out. Ministry opportunities seem rare. I have engaged in a great inner battle over whether I am really qualified to do anything.

And now I am 50—in a world where most institutions and organizations would prefer to hire someone with similar education in their 30s.

 It would be inaccurate to say that doors are closing all around me. Rather, it feels more like I am walking down a dark hallway with no doors at all.

 So, for nine years, it seems there has been only one thing to do: writing.

 Yet my writing is not supporting me. My wife is. Ultimately, of course, God is – but he is using her to do so.

 Today, writers can write and publish whatever they wish—but of all the hopefuls, relatively few make a sustained living at it. The pursuit of writing does not guarantee success by any concrete measure, including the measure of guaranteed publication—or income.

 This situation is unsettling, especially as the specter of “retirement age” looms ever closer – and even closer for my wife than for me. What will happen after she retires? How will God provide for us then? I’m worried about retirement. I’m worried about provision. I’m worried about everything except the next step, which still seems to be: Keep writing. Unprofitable or not, it’s still the only thing God seems to be telling me to do.

 The more I try to guess the end result without being able to see it, the more frustrated I become—and the less I focus on the needs of the current moment, like completing a chapter.

 I must stay in the present. If I try to look too far ahead, I’ll go into a spiral.

 So the longer I walk down this endless hallway with no doors, the more I can’t help but think this is where God still wants me right now. As moments of desperation overwhelm me and frustration stifles my spirit, God’s voice leaks into the heaviness I feel over not knowing what else to do. And he says…

 “Keep walking. I will provide the path.”

 “Keep writing. I will be your muse.”

“Keep going. I will take care of you and your wife. I will take care of the rest.”


The outsiders: Faith and exile in America

5130991619_5f2a3bd38d_zLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as an outsider, marginalized by society.

Being an outsider is the focus of a chapter I am currently working on for my next book: when I am not researching, I am writing and reflecting on the topic.

I have always struggled with a feeling of “outsiderness,” but the feeling has been getting stronger recently. I really don’t “belong” anywhere. Academically, I wear the scarlet letter of a failed PhD. Philosophically, I am a small-town Montana boy whose beliefs and values go against those of my city (Portland, Oregon). Temperamentally, I am an introvert in a society which prizes extraversion. And politically, I find the most popular candidates for president to be either childish and vulgar, or lacking in credibility, or both. So even in my own country’s political process, with “outsider” candidates capturing huge numbers of votes, I feel like an even bigger outsider than they are because I don’t understand what their supporters see in them. I don’t get it; I just don’t fit in. I keep thinking, Why am I so out of step with everyone else? What am I missing?

For most of my life I have been “on the outside,” but like most people I have never wanted to be – and I have wasted much time and energy fighting to get “in.”

I wasn’t always an outsider. In grade school, I was the “it” kid (whatever “it” is); my house was the happening place. I reached out to everyone, and every prepubescent person in our neighborhood congregated at the Hochhalters. At church I won every “bring-a-friend” contest, and each summer they sent a Vacation Bible School bus directly to my front door to carry all of the friends I invited (true, the bus did make a few other stops, but not many).

But after my parents’ divorce, everything changed. I became bitter, shy, and fat. I definitely wasn’t popular anymore. Kids no longer came over because I had “it”. They only came over because I had a BB gun.

I flunked sixth grade and started my journey as the reject, always dreaming about what it would be like to be cool again.

4268300971_baf56e495d_zAnd then I added yet another undesirable “outsider” trait to my already-long list: gradually, over time, I decided that I was serious about being a Christian. This choice has only increased my “outsiderness”. Culturally, I long to be accepted and live in the center; but—especially in Portland, one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.—I am marginalized. The harder I resist being rejected for my faith, the more society insists that Christians like me are outsiders, relegated to the margins.

Yet as much as I dislike my “place” on the outside, at the edges, in the margins, I see that it is here where God is the most comfortable—the most intimate and redemptive. It is here where grace shines the brightest. It is here where Jesus lives.

Jesus is the epitome of an outsider. At his birth he is laid in a manger (Luke 2:4-7), certainly not the hippest choice for a crib. He grows up in Nazareth, a town held in low regard (John 1:45-46). He lives to upset cultural and religious norms (Mt 10:34-39). He dies as a reject (Isaiah 53:3). And he says that, in this world, his followers will experience the same. Instead of status and prestige, he promises us hostility, saying: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22).

Not the strongest recruiting line I’ve ever heard.

Throughout scripture, God is always working in the margins. In Genesis, he chooses as his people a bunch of nondescript nomads who become slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14) and, to lead them, Moses – a fearful, stuttering individual (Exodus 3:11, 13 and 4:1, 10, 13) with anger issues (Numbers 20:9-12, 27:17). After Moses dies, the people inhabit the Promised Land and eventually grow into the great nation of Israel, led by a succession of three great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. But their golden age of wealth and expansion as a superpower lasts only a couple of generations; then Israel fractures into a divided kingdom and ends in another form of rejection and outsiderness: exile.

While the Israelites are living in exile, as outsiders in pagan Babylon, God does not promise immediate rescue but instructs them to embrace their “outsider” status for the long haul:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).

During this time, God never tells his people to seek recognition or acceptance in the center of society. He never tells them to fight for their rights – not even the right to worship him. In fact, he almost seems to prefer the times when they live as nomads, slaves, and exiles. If so, I don’t know his reason, but it could be that those are the times when his people are the most humble, teachable, and dependent on him.

In our time, God’s people are again being pushed to the margins. Many previously “Christian” countries, including the U.S., are now post-Christian; Christians have lost the culture war. More and more, we are in exile. We are outsiders.

This reality, though painful, is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the Jews in exile, maybe we are meant to accept and thrive in our outsiderness – because it is on the outside, in the margins, where the church really thrives.

Political pundit and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes:

Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises. Force it underground and you empower it. You draw rebels, real rebels, the kind society doesn’t acknowledge till half a century later, but powerful people nonetheless. The faith will not only endure but flourish, and, as it does in times of adversity, produce real saints.[1]

110631988In fact, the most powerful periods in Christian history are not when Christians are in the center, but when Christians are on the outside looking in – or better yet, looking up.

So we must develop a higher worldview – a kingdom worldview. Our instructions are actually quite simple, but somehow very easy to forget: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).

It’s only natural to try to avoid rejection if we can; I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But I am saying two things: First, we must stop confusing hurt feelings with real persecution (for example, stop complaining about losing our “right” to say “Merry Christmas” – while Christians elsewere are losing their heads). And second, according to Jesus, we should expect rejection and persecution, and face both as he did – with grace and courage (Philippians 2:5-8).

So being an outsider, much as I resist it, is part of the terms and conditions of my faith. Therefore, instead of fighting so hard against my outsiderness, I believe it’s time for me to start embracing it and trying to understand God’s purposes in it.

Following Jesus is not primarily about winning court cases, getting the right politicians elected, or being accepted by the culture. It’s not wrong to care about those things – but it is wrong to make legal and political victories our primary goals, because those things are not what matter most; Jesus is. Instead of raging against our post-Christian world, we should be loving it as he did – yes, even if it hates us.

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Asleep in the boat, part 2: The “reverse ABCs” of anxiety

[This post is continued from “Asleep in the boat, part 1: When God is the cause of anxiety.”]

As I studied the story of Jesus sleeping peacefully in a storm-tossed boat (Mark 4:35-41), I realized how much I want to experience that same peace.
Landscape%20-%20Painting%20-%20Seascape%20-%20Storm%20over%20Black%20SeaI don’t know exactly how to develop it, but I do know I’m sick of being worried and anxious. I want to kick the worry habit, but wanting and doing are two different things. And even scriptures urging us not to worry (Matthew 6:25-27, Philippians 4:6-7), which should soothe me, can increase anxiety because they create a new problem: a load of guilt for being unable to obey them.

Maybe you too have experienced this cycle. I mean, there are plenty of things to worry about, many of them far beyond our control. And for true anxiety addicts like me, even when life is good we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So my prayer is that I can honestly surrender my anxieties to Jesus and, in my imperfect way, claim the true peace of Christ.

Toward that end, I’ve been trying to practice three steps I call the “reverse ABCs of anxiety”: Cry out; Be thankful; Ask for help.

Here’s what I mean…

  1. Cry out to God. First, I’ve discovered that willpower can’t stop anxiety, because willing myself to stop my worrying only increases my focus on it. (For example, try not thinking of the color red. Go!) Instead, the key is to pour out all my anxieties to God: my career (or lack thereof); political issues; global injustices; fragmentation in the body of Christ; my book sales and readers’ responses; ideas for future books and blogs; and all the rest. Confession is the beginning of repentance and healing, so I bare all my worries to God and nail them to the cross.
  2. Be thankful. Following a sermon suggestion, my wife and I started listing five things each day for which we are thankful. My wife can hardly stop at five, but I can hardly even start because doing it “on purpose” every day feels like a superficial routine to me. Yet through this practice, I’m learning that thankfulness is not based on emotion; it is based on reality – the reality that God is good and trustworthy. No matter how I feel, God is still God. So I am learning to intentionally enter a state of thanksgiving and praise regardless of my feelings. Being anxious focuses on the future – but being thankful acknowledges God’s goodness in the present.
  3. Ask for help to do small things. The disciples could not calm the furious winds and waves – but there was one small thing they could do: they could wake up Jesus in the boat. Like them, I can’t calm my overwhelming anxiety – but I can at least wake up Jesus. I can ask him to help me think of a new blog idea, write for an hour without distraction, or post a quote on social media. After completing that task, I can ask him to help me complete another. Trusting God becomes easier when I focus on the next small thing before me. Focusing on big issues beyond my control only makes me more anxious.

Blog-Anxiety2These steps are something I need to do every day, because giving our cares and concerns to God is not a simple one-time prayer but an ongoing process that continues throughout our lives. So every day, we cry out to God and lay our anxieties before him. Every day, we acknowledge his goodness by giving thanks even when we don’t feel like it. Every day, we ask for his help to complete the next small thing in front of us. And every day, we repeat the process again.

I won’t pretend these steps are easy or that I have mastered them. I still stumble and feel overwhelmed by anxiety, just as the disciples felt overwhelmed by the waves. And that kind of overwhelming anxiety tends to create more.

But I have grace on my side—the grace of Jesus, fast asleep on a cushion (Mark 4:38a). When he asked his disciples why they had so little faith, I don’t think he was chiding them. Instead, I think he was challenging them. He wanted all of his followers to trust God so deeply that we, like him, can sleep through a storm.

The storms will come—but God’s peace will guide us through.

And as I learn to practice the steps above, I’ll let you know how it goes.

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Facing down fear with faith

4f0115cde03fb27ee24be46deda8454fThe holidays are over, and the new year is here. Traditionally, the masses welcome it by drinking champagne, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” watching the ball drop in Times Square, and kissing or getting kissed by total strangers. There’s a sense of relief in having made it through the old year, and a sense of hope in anticipating the new one.

As for me—well, I am usually in bed by 9:00 p.m.

It’s the classic head-in-the-sand approach: if I can’t see something coming, it’s not really there.

While I absolutely love the Advent season, I always seem to face the new year with apprehension. What I am trying to understand is why. Actually, I am pretty sure I already know why, though I am reluctant to admit it: I think the reason is fear. And part of that fear is not having any choice, any control—because I don’t have any choice or control over the new year; I must go forward into the future, even if I’d rather not.

To me, the unknown new year is a wide, gaping chasm, and I have no other option but to step into it. I feel like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, standing before an abyss, with his father’s notes telling him he must “leap.” But the void is too wide to leap across, even with a running start, a good pair of Air Jordans, and a pole vault. Indy has no choice: the only way forward is to step off the cliff, into thin air.

Yeah—it’s like that.

I can’t help but wonder as I face this year: What surprises might be in store? What catastrophes might befall? When the phone rings unexpectedly, will it bring news that is happy, or horrific? And at this time next year, what will life look like?]

Just like every other year, I know this one will include both tears and laughter, gains and losses, but I don’t know how or when.

And that is what scares me—the unknown.

I fear it.

It’s the fear of a roller-coaster ride in pitch blackness—when you can’t see the track in front of you.

The Israelites faced a similarly unknown future at the edge of the Promised Land. They had sent twelve spies to scope out the land, to see how fruitful it was and to assess the military strength of its inhabitants. And the results were positive, at least regarding the land’s fruitfulness. But the inhabitants were, you might say, a big issue. Ten of the twelve spies reported: “All the people we saw there are of great size….We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33).

And their words struck fear into the whole nation of Israel.

But two spies, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed:

‘Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Num. 13:30)

I can see it now – ten spies, rushing wide-eyed back to camp with the terrifying report: “You won’t believe these guys. They are GI-NORMOUS! They’ll smoosh us like bugs.”

Then the minority has the guts to step up and say, “We can take ’em.”

Fortunately Joshua, the Israelites’ future leader, listened to faith, not fear. Later, when he commanded the people to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, the thought of smooshed grasshoppers littering the desert was probably still in their minds. But just before they crossed, God gave Joshua this assurance:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9)

And based on Joshua’s faith and God’s promise, they did cross over.

So how can we move from fear to faith? There is only one way: like Indiana Jones and the Israelites, we must close our eyes and step into the void, acknowledging that anything—anything—could happen. This year could be the greatest year ever, or just another average rotation around the sun, or an absolute disaster. It’s a roll of the dice.

Well, correct that. It’s not up to the dice. It’s up to God. With each new year, and each new day, we must consciously remind ourselves to place our lives yet again into his hands—no matter what happens, good, bad, or ugly—and proclaim: “God is good.”

Simply put, the only way to move from fear to faith is to obey his command and absorb his promise:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”


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