FIND YOUR MARGIN: How to Put Back In What Life Takes Out

A young friend, and when I say young I mean thirty years younger than I am, recently confessed that he had said yes to so many things that he finally had to say no to a regularly scheduled workday.

“I’ve found that when you have construction skills you also have lots of friends with projects that need your help,” he said. “I became so wrung out that I had to shut down for a day. I wasn’t sick, but I was going to be if I didn’t rest.”

Richard Swenson, M.D., author of the book MARGIN wrote: Something is wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.

Swenson calls the problem marginless living. “Margin,” he says, “is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.”

Jesus understood better than most the need for margin. He called it Sabbath. To Jesus the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to man. Its purpose was not to put man in a kind of straight jacket. It was for his good–to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship. (Mark 2:27).

We work in a world cursed by sin. That makes work difficult and draining. It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with the challenges of living with frail bodies in a fallen world.

Fatigue, I have learned, is incremental. It is also cumulative, building up unrecognized in our souls until we become ill or have a nervous breakdown. We know we are tired, but we don’t know we are impaired, skating along the edge of physical and psychic burnout.

We need Sabbath time. It restores us.

Pastoral work doesn’t require much in the way of physical labor. But it does demand a lot of psychological energy and careful concentration on multiple strands of information, multiple relationships. It is stress inducing. Motorcycling on roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and Cherohala Skyway is one of the things that restore me. The physical exertion of wrestling a six-hundred pound bike through the mountains at speed, the concentration required to keep it on the road, and the sheer joy of experiencing grass, tree, granite and sky in beautiful combination puts something back in that work takes out. It drains me physically but restores me spiritually. It helps me think about things that the normal flow of life prohibits.

God wants us to be strengthened by the gift of Sabbath, but like so many gifts we have to learn to use it. Often all that is needed is the setting aside of a day, like Sunday, for worship and celebration and rest. But sometimes we need more than that. I find Sabbath on two wheels on the BRP. Where do you find it?

Sabbath is one of the best things you can do for your soul and your body. For, when a man or woman is not resting, he is not reflecting, she is not thinking about the things that are most important in life, he’s not thinking about what he’s investing his precious, limited time and energy in. More importantly he or she is not putting back in what life takes out.

OLYMPIC IDENTITIES: Who You Are is Greater than What You Do

Michael Phelp’s amazing return to gold medal form for the 2016 Olympics is the story of a man with a new mission in life. He was contemplating suicide in 2014 when his friend, Ray Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker and Christian, convinced him to enter rehab and gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

Phelps recovered and thanked Lewis, saying to an ESPN reporter that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”[1]

Phelps isn’t the only American medalist whose identity is anchored outside the pool. The silver medal winning U.S. 10M platform synchronized diving team of David Boudia and Steele Johnson also gave credit for their poise under pressure to something other than their training: their “identity in Christ.”

What’s going on here?

Ask the average Christian about their identity according to scripture and you often get a blank stare, or sometimes, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” But the New Testament fairly bubbles over with illustrations of the principle that once we have been “born again,” as Jesus said, or “regenerated and renewed,” in Paul’s idiom we are no longer simply saved sinners, we are “new creatures in Christ. The old things have passed away, and new things have come.”

Here are just a few Scriptural phrases that articulate the concept:

  • Colossians 2:13 – You have been “made alive with Christ” and are no longer “dead in trespasses and sins.”
  • Colossians 3:1 – You have been “raised with Christ” and your life is now “hidden with Christ in God.”
  • Hebrews 10: 10 – You have been “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all.”
  • Romans 6:3-4 – You died with Christ and were raised with him to a new life.

Athletes are, by definition, under loads of “performance pressure.” How they do on the field or in the pool will determine not only whether they win or lose, but often how they feel about themselves as persons; their self-worth measured by the few tenths of a point or hundredths of a second between the bronze medal and fourth place. At the highest levels, as was the case with Phelps, they often have no identity outside of their sport and once they age out, or can no longer compete with the best, become depressed. The internal need to succeed is enormous.

That’s why Boudia’s answer to how he handled the pressure was so important.

“You know,” he said during an interview after their dive, “it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ.”

His diving partner, Johnson, agreed, “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest.”[2]

Take a lesson from these athletes and remember: if you’re a believer your identity is greater than your performance. You are accepted in Christ, you are loved by God, you belong to him and whether you have a gold medal day or come in somewhere back of bronze, nothing can change that.

[1] Michael Phelps is Driven; Breakpoint Daily, August 11, 2016, with Eric Metaxas.

[2] http://www.cnsnews.com/blog/michael-morris/us-olympic-divers-following-silver-medal-performance-our-identity-christ

FINDING GOD ON LIFE’S BATTLEFIELDS

The summer of 2009 was an exciting time. I had just finished my first book, JUNGLE FLIGHT, my wife and I were taking a two week trip for our 25th anniversary, and the last week was to be spent at the largest air show in the world: The Experimental Aviation Association’s AirVenture (aka Oshkosh). There I would get to sell the book and meet someone who had walked with God through the battlefields of life: Gracia Burnham.

Gracia and I shared a table for the authors of Christian books on mission aviation. People from all over the world came up to greet her and ask for her autograph. (It didn’t hurt my book sales to be seated next to her either).

Gracia is a beautiful woman because her soul, like her name, is full of grace. If you know her story you might expect otherwise. She and her husband Martin were the missionaries, kidnapped by the Philippine terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, that half the world was praying for back in 2001 and 2002. They endured an excruciating year together of hunger, squalor, brutality and several near misses with death before the final rescue attempt in which Martin was killed.

Here’s what Gracia said about how that affected her faith.

“I used to have this concept of what God is like, and how life’s supposed to be because of that. But in the jungle, I learned I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. I don’t have him in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God—and I’m not. The world’s in a mess because of sin, not God. Some awful things may happen to me, but God does what is right. And he makes good out of bad situations.”[1]

Gracia isn’t the only one who has faced trauma and come out on the other side with a sweet soul and a deeper understanding of God. Study the lives of Moses in Exodus, David in 1 Samuel, or Peter and the apostles in the New Testament. Each man met God in moments of great trauma.

We will also have our battlefield moments when we are shocked, angry, exhausted and numb and the demands just keep on coming. The bills have to be paid. The car has to be fixed. The grass has to get mowed. The job has to be done and we’re the ones to do it. We don’t have time to grieve, still less to whine. We have to lead. We have to absorb the bitterness and grief of others and keep on trucking. We have to help others make sense of the chaos. We have to help others find their vision and their purpose again and make progress on their own battlefields.

The hardest part is when God seems far away and our emotions are in total lock down; we can’t feel anything anymore.

We might be numb, but we still have a choice: to let the battle come between us and God, or to let it push us right up against him; to travel away from Him in our grief, or further in and farther on into the mystery of his majesty.

2 Cor. 1:8-9 reads: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9) Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (NIV)

When that happens, when we stop relying on ourselves and our Sunday School flannel graph understanding of God, we begin to know Him who raises the dead. But here’s the thing: We have to die to ourselves before we can know him that way. When we want to find God on the battlefields of life, the rendezvous is always at the Cross.

[1] Corrie Cutrer, “Soul Survivor,” Today’s Christian Woman (July/Aug 2003), p. 50

 

WHOM GOD SEEKS: The Missing Key to Meeting God

I will never forget Promise Keepers (PK) ’96. I was in the Georgia Dome with ten or twelve men from my church, fifty yard line, on the mezzanine level. The Saturday evening worship session was in full swing; sixty-thousand men in full-throated song. In those days, PK would end with founder, Coach McCartney, calling all the pastors down front to be affirmed and prayed over by the whole stadium.  I had participated in this before, in Colorado in ’94 and it was electric.  We felt like soldiers on parade being consecrated for battle; deeply moving.

But we were an hour or two away from that; just worshiping with full abandon for twenty or thirty minutes, pausing for prayer, and singing again. All of my attention was focused on Jesus, giving him praise and glory, as if I could see him, riding high, seated on his throne up high in the middle of the Dome.

Suddenly, I could see him, not with physical eyes, but spiritual sight. As surely as I saw the men in the stadium I knew Jesus was standing before me, speaking to me.

I cannot tell you what this was about, but in that moment my Master Jesus spoke five simple words that comforted, healed, and touched me in such a deep and powerful way that my knees buckled and I sat down utterly stunned, weeping with gratitude. It was as if I had been walking around with a sword deep in my soul and in one motion he removed the sword and healed the wound. What I did not understand at the time, but would later on, was that those words were also preparation for a battle on the horizon.

I share that story because many who seek a deeper experience of God ask, “How can I have an encounter with God? I hear about, and read about, people experiencing his presence and hearing his voice, but that has never happened to me, and I want to know God that way.”

By sharing my story I am not intending to portray God as a spiritual vending machine. We do not put in a certain coin and push a certain button and get God in a bottle. Further, following God’s guidance in our day-to-day, learning to discern his will and the nudges of the Holy Spirit, is as much a matter of using our heads as we engage with him through Scripture as it is anything overtly mystical. Many sermons and books are available on the subject.

Still, one thing stands out that is often missing in such sermons and books: the place of pure, uncomplicated, intensive worship; complete abandon of one’s inhibitions to the adoration of God. Moses’ most powerful encounter with God came when, in the middle of his regular prayer time he said, “Show me your glory.” Jesus explained that the kind of person God seeks is the kind that “worships in spirit and in truth,” nothing held back, no agenda other than complete adoration of and abandon to God for whom and what he is.

Looking back on PK ’96 nothing else the rest of the night mattered. When it came time for pastors to go forward and be affirmed my friends would not let up.  They insisted I go.  I did not have the heart to tell them that they could have torn the building down around me and it would not have mattered. I had been in the presence of God.

Two cautions for those who’ve read this far: Worship with abandon is always the right thing to do, but these moments, these encounters, are the exception, not the rule. That pattern is clear enough in Scripture as is the second warning: often, as it was with me, they are precursors to difficult times, moments of gracious preparation by a loving Lord before the battle begins.

Still, if meeting with God is your highest aim learn to praise, honor, and adore him, in the quiet of your room or with a congregation, with no other agenda than his glory. That is the kind of worshiper God seeks, and what he seeks, he finds.

DISCOVER YOUR SPIRITUAL GIFTS

I do the work of administration, but I’m not gifted at it.

A couple of years ago I ended up being the “Table Host Administrator” for the local Young Life Banquet. In a nutshell that means: ordering, arranging, and tracking hundreds of names with dozens of tables so that everyone has a seat, and each seat has a name, and it all flows smoothly so that the guests have a good time.

I almost pulled my hair out. Everybody got a seat, and everyone got fed, but it wasn’t pretty.

The next year my friend Gail was available to do it. Gail has the gift of administration. Everything flowed like clockwork; no traffic jams, no people wondering where they were supposed to sit. It was beautiful. It was so stress-free for me I almost kissed her.

Have you discovered your spiritual gifts, those things that energize you and bless others? Would you like to? Then read on.

What are spiritual gifts?

A spiritual gift is an extraordinary spiritual ability, brought to us and made operational in us by the Holy Spirit when we are born again, which distinguishes one Christian from another and enables them to serve the church.

There are different kinds of gifts, “varieties,” according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4. Some have the gift of service. Some have the gift of administration. Some have the gift of prophecy, some the gift of wisdom. Paul’s writings include three lists of gifts: 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Romans 12:3-8, and Ephesians 4:7-13. None of the lists are exhaustive.  Only one gives any idea of ranking in importance. The gifts are as varied as the God who gives them. The gifts Paul ends up talking about are usually the ones over which there was some dispute.

Sometimes believers tell me, “I don’t think I have a spiritual gift because I don’t have mystical experiences, and I don’t seem to have anything in Paul’s lists.” But if you can say, “Jesus is my Lord,” then you have the Spirit of God and you have a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:3).

Discovering your gifts.

In 1 Corinthians 12:5 Paul wrote, “There are different kinds of service …” Service translates the Greek word diakonia. It’s where we get the word deacon and it can mean “attendant.”

There are hundreds of ways to attend to things. A person with the gift of administration might serve in a school. But she might also organize a business. She might be an executive secretary, or she might be a CPA, or she might be a Mom with lots of kids, or a fantastic table host administrator.

If the Spirit of God lives in you then you have a spiritual gift. It should be used to help the church, but it isn’t limited to Sunday mornings.

One of the ways to identify your gift(s) is to determine where you excel and work at developing it, discovering the varieties of how that gift might come into play. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy that helps others?” We think sometimes that if we are enjoying something it must not be spiritual. Or if we are naturally good at something then it isn’t spiritual. The point is that there isn’t just one way that your gift can come into play. There are “varieties of service”, multiple ways that your particular gift might serve the Kingdom of God.

A good way to discover your gift is to take one of the many online assessments, like the one available at Lifeway.com: http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Women-Leadership-Spiritual-gifts-growth-service.

Employing your gifts.

Another fascinating word appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6. It’s from the Greek word Energema, from which we get the word energy, and is translated “working”. It means “effect,” the effects produced by the exercise of your particular gift. Two people with the same gift will not produce the same kinds of effects.

You may have the gift of teaching, but different effects from C.S. Lewis, or the gift of leadership, but different effects from Mitt Romney. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a gift. Your gift has different effects.

The thing is to put your gifts to work, asking: “What kinds of effects do I have when I serve in this particular area? Are they positive? Do people respond well? Are the effects helpful to the mission? Am I energized by it, or drained by it?”

If you are energized, the effects are positive, and people affirm you, you’ve discovered your spiritual gifts.

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS 2

I hope you’ve had the experience of working in a high challenge, high nurture environment. That’s what Tim had with Paul. He spent the first decade or so of his ministry with the indomitable apostle. He hiked mountains, sailed the seas, argued on the Areopagus, preached in parts unknown, and learned the heights and depths of God’s love at the feet of the author of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Tim did all of that – but always in a supporting role – never on the point. His mentor and friend, Paul, was always there to encourage, and comfort, and most of all lead. The benefits of that kind of coaching can’t be counted, but it’s hard to leave it behind.

All of a sudden you’re out there solo. All the decisions are yours to make, yours to fly or die with. That’s where Timothy was and he was finding it hard, so hard it seems he wanted to bail out.

Thus Paul’s exhortation: Stay there. Be content where you are Tim. Fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18). Hold on to faith and a good conscience.

What does it mean to stay there? I suggest it means two things: being content with what we have–our possessions, and trusting God with where we are–our position.

Timothy’s position had changed. He was no longer in the high-nurture environment he once shared with Paul. He was enduring scrutiny he’d never known, making supervisory decisions without back-up (he couldn’t email Paul for help), while simultaneously trying to train the next generation of leaders. That’s a tough position for a young man.

Timothy’s “possessions,” his gifting, and temperament, and stamina were also different from Paul’s. The Apostle to the Gentiles was old – old enough to call Timothy “my son” – tough, and ambitious. Timothy wasn’t wired that way. He comes across in the text as a bit timid, eager to please, and physically handicapped by “frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23).

It would be easy for Tim, and for us, to think that with all those limits, God couldn’t use him; to bail out because of inadequacies, wimp out because of weakness, lay low because of limits. But Paul wouldn’t let him off the hook. Instead, he exhorted Tim to:

“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.” (1 Timothy 4:11-14 The Message).

Paul is telling his young friend: Tim you have powerful gifts! You don’t have to have mine to be effective! Use what you have! Use them and watch God work!

Staying there means giving yourself permission to be happy with where you are: your position, and working with what you have: your possessions.

Staying there means doing what you can, with what you have, right where you are for the glory of God.

It’s Joseph, content to interpret the dreams of fellow prisoners until it was God’s time to interpret Pharaoh’s.

It’s Moses, content to tend sheep for forty years in the desert until God called him to lead a nation out of bondage.

It’s David, content to use a sling to slay a Giant until God made him a King and gave him an army.

And it’s you and it’s me doing what we can, with what we have, right where we are for the glory of God.