LenBanks

a continuing story of trust, grace and community

Tag: Christianity

The  Beautiful Paradox

Over the years I’ve heard from many who don’t understand why so many in the Church appear to have a “woe is me” mindset. I can see their confusion, because if anybody should be joyful, it should be the Christ follower!  And yet there is a paradox that exists in our faith.

In fact there are many!  We’re already saved yet are working out our salvation. We are at the same time both in eternity and yet also bound by time. We are righteous but know full well we are being sanctified. This last one leads to the what I think is the most beautiful paradox of all. It’s the place where mourning and joy exist in their fullest at once. It is in that state where grace is realized in such beauty!

The Sermon on the Mount is a powerful and core teaching by Jesus that can be found in Matthew 5-7. The first section has become known as the beatitudes and has challenged and transformed me as I have wrestled with what seems like an impossible way to live.  We know Jesus came to set us free from the “law” and yet at first glance this sermon calls us to a life even more severe. And so one is compelled to look deeper to reconcile the apparent contradiction.

The first section of the beatitudes is where the tone is set.

““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  Matthew 5:3-6 NIV

I used to think of each of the Blesseds like individual traits to attain.  “I like the peace maker, but mourning, not so much.”  Sort of like a buffet.  But I’ve come to realize it’s more like a 6 course meal.  It’s not a buffet, not individual attributes that we pick and choose from, but a layering, a building to become the person Jesus calls us to.  And the first is necessary to move on to the next.

When you are poor in spirit having come to the end of yourself, acknowledging you have nothing to bring to God, it’s then you mourn deeply for the reality of sin and it’s destruction in your life. It’s then that the power of meekness, the control of yourself is able to set in. The choosing of God’s control rather than sin’s.  And at that point one is spiritually bankrupt, desperately hungering, desperately thirsting for God’s righteousness!  The promise?  We are filled. God imputes, or puts in us HIS righteousness!  Then and only the does the rest of the sermon makes sense. Then and only then can any of us begin to live the sermon out!

For example, take the passages on murder and adultery (Mt 5:21-30). It’s easy in our righteousness to live a life of fidelity and never murdering someone. Most succeed in that!  But by age three we’ve all called someone a name in anger and by 12 we’ve all lusted.  And so in my abilities I am a failure. And if we haven’t come to the end of ourselves and realized we have nothing, we are nothing apart from Christ, then we will never live the life God has made available to us through Jesus.

Do I have a purpose and potential?  Of course!  Do I have gifts I bring to the table?  Absolutely!  Are they of any value?  For this life and the common good?  Sure.  But for eternity, no!  My righteousness is nothing and His is everything!  And in His hands those gifts and potential will become something wholly different, better.

So the beautiful paradox, the sweet spot…is being both mournful and filled with joy at the same time.  Not dwelling in ashes, but acknowledging my capacity and propensity to sin.  Not “woe is me” but most definitely full on mourning.  “Woe is me” is a self-focused declaration. The mourning Jesus calls us to is recognition of our sinful condition.

And the joy?  It can and should be full-on crazy celebration!  As I mentioned earlier, the sermon can seem like an even more severe life than the law. And here is what most fail to see and even when we see it, we find hard to experience. Jesus knows we can’t. We can’t live free of anger and lust and judgement and unforgiveness!  That’s why He offers us His righteousness. That’s why mercy is given. That. Is. Grace!

And until I come to the end of me and bring my nothing to God, there is no room for grace to be experienced. And so the dance of the paradox begins. Living in spiritual poverty and the riches of Christ together is the challenge.

If you’re like me, and you are, you begin to take credit for spiritual maturity at times. You take for granted the all-encompassing nature grace must have in our lives. The longer I live in Christ the more I realize how much I need Him. The dos and don’ts are easy, grace is not. It requires dying and mourning and spiritual bankruptcy. But then and only then do we experience freedom and joy.

By the way, this why we desperately need each other!  But that’s another post.

It’s a journey and one in which I hope you find joyful mourning.

Embrace the “SUCK”

Wisdom…goals…safety…accomplishment…health…pushing to limits.

These are all values in a delicate dance I just played around with. Now let’s be clear, I didn’t do anything that was truly dangerous or outrageous. But the dance was danced nonetheless.

It seems most of my posts have been around running and yet, they end up not about running at all. Well, here we go again. 😉 This year has been a difficult year for me since March when I ran the Oakland Marathon. My feet have never felt well since then and with all the training for a Marathon one craves food more. But a person with weight issues like myself has a hard time keeping the food intake in balance with the lessening of training once the run is over. So the weight has creeped back up a bit. Combine that with the foot pain, Achilles bone spurs and tendonitis, and then an additional muscle pull from a half marathon in May, and well, running has been difficult.

Fast forward to September. My muscle pull is healed; I complete another 10K and half marathon challenge; and am feeling well. I come to realize that I am one 5K and one marathon away from completing 3 of each distance in 2015. I’m not sure why, but that sounds like an impressive and cool thing to accomplish! I mean, just a few years ago I was a couch potato, a 435+lb potato. So to be able to say I did this, well, it’s just cool.

And that’s how goals get set I suppose. A dream comes out of nowhere, gets imagined and one goes for it. I never thought I would run at all, anywhere, let alone do an official event of any distance.

And that’s how goals get set I suppose. A dream comes out of nowhere, gets imagined and one goes for it.

The problem though is that my body didn’t cooperate with this self-created goal. Sure the muscle pull is well, but the heels are worse. So I attempt a marathon training plan that my body just can’t manage. The extra weight on the Achilles is not a good fit and admittedly I am struggling to get the weight back off. But I press on to accomplish the goal. I get a 5K done in October. That was easy enough. Just a marathon to go. just…

I get some long cycling distances in, do some short runs, spend time in the gym trying to keep fit, but the runs are short with more days of rest between than allowed for a good training plan. I try the Jeff Galloway method of run four minutes/walk one and that seems to be good to let me get further without killing my feet. But let’s face it; I am not in as good of shape as I was in January when I ran my first marathon.

But with goal setting comes determination and stubbornness. Isn’t that how we push ourselves? And so the dance with wisdom begins. I knew this was going to hurt and not be a good running time. I wasn’t ready, but I wanted to complete this new dream.

Race day came and actually I was feeling pretty good. My legs were fresh, my heels were in a pretty good spot and I was prepared for ways to manage the pain and allow myself some latitude in walking and going a bit slower. And actually as the race began I was doing really well.

The first 11 miles were well under the pace I needed to finish within the 6 hour limit. I even could end up with a personal best if kept it up. But then my body had different ideas. My heels had moments of pain all along, however, it was manageable and expected. But my left foot started to hurt horribly under the arch and that started to slow me down.   Miles 12-17 were below pace but still ok and the average would be good enough. I was going to do this! I was walking more than I wanted and had some serious bouts of self-doubt and thoughts of quitting, but I pushed on.

I noticed a different pain than I had ever felt though on my right foot. The pad next to the ball of the foot was really tender. I could feel the sock rubbing. It had been raining at times so I thought the wet sock was causing some pain. By this time I was beginning to lose it mentally. I was hurting and I couldn’t run and now even walking was getting hard. Diane met me at mile 18.5 to give me fresh socks and shoes, but the damage had been done. A bruised pad and blister had formed. The dry socks helped, but I could not get my body to get moving and my feet were killing me. And then the real emotional battle happened. The race crew began to open up the roads behind me and I desperately tried to stay ahead of them. In my attempt to give my feet relief by walking, the slowing down caused my muscles to stiffen and so I became even slower. I just could not get my body to respond to a quicker gate. There were less and less runners around me and I began to think I was dead last. I wanted to quit, but I just couldn’t. I was well over 20 miles into this. How could I give up now? But how could I continue? I was hurting so bad. I knew it wasn’t injury hurt, it was just pushing myself to the limit hurt. And so I continued to hobble on.

Different people along the way shouted out encouragements that I soaked in to get me steps further. At mile 22 or so is when I made the final decision to just not consider quitting any longer. At the top of an overpass, one that seemed like it was miles long to get to the top, there was a volunteer who spoke truth to me in the most encouraging way. You see, up to this point people were saying things like, “You’ve got this!” or “You’re killing it!” and I was thinking, you are being kind, but I am so not killing it. I am near the back, the race is closing down and I am dying in pain. I am SO NOT DOING WELL.

But this lady was different! She asked how I was and in my saddest voice I said, “I hurt so bad, I don’t know if I can make it”. And she agreed with me! She said, “I know, it sucks, huh?” Throughout this short conversation she encouraged me to “embrace the suck”. I was going to hurt the next day whether I finished the race or not. But the pain I would feel would be far worse if I gave up at this point. So keep going!

And so I pressed on. I did finish! The race had been completely closed down and they were removing the finish line as I neared. My incredible wife advocated for me for them to stop just a bit so I could finish and she stood there at the finish line for me. They gave her the medal to place over my head as she gave me a kiss.

IMG_1003I did it! In 2015 I completed 3 5Ks, 3 10Ks, 3 Half Marathons, and 3 FULL Marathons. Admittedly this final medal gives me mixed emotions and will remind me of many lessons. I am “embarrassed” at the level of fitness I let myself slip to and the poor time to finish the race. In the end it was 7 hours and 46 minutes; almost a full 2 hours worse than my best time. Nobody can say that was done well. But I am not embarrassed at all really, as this is also one my proudest moments. I gutted it out. I didn’t give up. I pushed through pain and temptations and doubt and accomplished my goal.

And so here is where the post is not about running at all. A major take-a-way from this experience is that real encouragement is not in platitudes and “you can do it” type statements, but in truth that acknowledges the pain and difficulty and then moves you to a place to dig deeper any way. I in no way dismiss the well-meaning motives of anybody who cheers you on. It’s welcome and meant well. But when you know you are hurting or not doing well, to be told you are isn’t useful.

As a pastor, I deal with people on many different levels of brokenness in their life. Some are going through serious trials and facing huge odds and the spiritual high-fives aren’t useful. Empathy is to share in one’s pain, to cry with them, to understand. I can’t fix their life or make the pain go away, but I can acknowledge that it hurts or “sucks”. I can pray with them to find the strength that God provides to move through the “suck”. Sure, I feel a bit helpless. I want to fix and rescue and make everything better. But the journey through the “suck” is what is needed to get to the goal. The determination to finish has to be found in each one of us.

God’s Sense of Humor

This past weekend our lead pastor became ill and for the first time in all the 12 years I have served with him he was too sick to present the message.  So on late Saturday afternoon I get the call.  Of course I am happy to do it and since we script our messages out pretty well, it’s not like I had to start from scratch.  But even still, I had to take some time to immerse myself into the message, rework and personalize it, and prepare myself to share.

So where God’s sense of humor comes in here is that, as many leaders, I am a bit of a control freak.  At least a person of strong opinions and a sense of how things should go.  I just think it’s funny that God had a control freak present the message at the last minute with no time to really control it.  The message topic/title?  When Control Meets Jesus.  🙂

While “control” was the issue being addressed, the answer was found in trusting God.  And since my year has really been about learning a deeper level of trusting Him and just how trustworthy He is, I loved that I was able to really speak to this.  I believe it came out of a deep well as if I had in fact been immersed in the text all week.  I hope you listen to it and are strengthened in your faith and trust.  You can find it, and all my messages, in the sermon section of this blog.

 

No Room for Guilt and Shame When Growing Deeper

This weekend I found myself having a conversation with a wonderful lady who was “filled up” with the love of God.  She had shared though how during the week she struggled with yielding over trust to God in a situation and that it surprised her because she thought she had settled that issue.

I then found myself sharing something that I had actually never articulated before and I pass it on to you.  I too have been filled with shame and guilt and discouragement thinking that I too have settled issues only to be returning to them again and again.  I have come to see this differently.  Of course there are times when we actually return to the same issue as we don’t always really give it up and grow through it.  But more often we sell ourselves and the growth that God is actually accomplishing in us short.  Becoming like Jesus is a life long process and just like we can’t see a tree grow moment by moment, we do see it year over year.  We need to get a higher view of our journey and not judge ourselves in the moment.

First off guilt and shame are NEVER God’s desire for us.  So whether we are dealing with the same issue over and over or not, we need to find ways to react that lead us toward God.  He came to offer grace and freedom from guilt and shame.  Godly sorrow and the Holy Spirit’s conviction are more appropriate.  They lead us forward to change and growth.

But in addition to that, I suggest that what we sometimes interpret as discouragement from facing the same issues over and over may in fact not be the same thing at all, but a deeper level.  Here I am not talking about sin specifically, but the areas of yielding trust and faith to God’s control in our lives.  Every step of the way on our journeys is going to be met with opportunities to trust Him.  And they are not like going back to the fist step on our path.  I too wish that I was perfect in trust.  But I am not, and neither are any of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we are not maturing and growing.  And in that process we are digging into deeper layers of issues in our lives that need to be handed over to God.

Instead of interpreting your latest opportunity to trust God as a failure of having yielded yourself fully to God last time, see it as growing deeper.  At the last opportunity you, to the best of your ability and passion and awareness may have fully offered yourself over to Him.  But as He is working in you for His good will, He may be taking you to a deeper or different aspect of something familiar.

Keep leaning in to God’s heart and growth for you.  Don’t let your own guilt or shame derail what God is doing in you.  Instead, and again, let the godly sorrow and Holy Spirit’s conviction propel you to a deeper walk with Him as you become more like Him.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  Philippians 3:12-16 ESV

(Listen to Jeremy Riddle’s Sweetly Broken.  “At the cross you beckon me. Draw me gently to my knees.”)

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