Oceans Deep

Finding & Following Jesus in the Deep End of Life

Month: November 2015

The Beauty of Community

If I’m honest, I have to confess an unfortunate truth: for the vast majority of my life, I haven’t been very good at making friends. Ever since my family’s move to “the country” before my 8th grade year, I’ve had a hard time opening myself up and letting people in. I say “the country” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the massive growth explosion that occurred in the county where we moved—it is now anything but country.

The pain of going from a small, private school with classmates who were tantamount to brothers & sisters, to a large, taciturn public school left its indelible mark on my soul for far too many years. I had no skill set for making friends, as I’d never needed to before—I made my friends in those early preschool years, long before self-consciousness takes over a young person’s being. My youthful mind assumed I’d show up at this new school and voila! I’d instantly have a group of friends, just like my former school.

No such luck.

Where I thought I’d be met with open arms, I met only blank stares of disinterest and rejection. I’d lost my place as the “it” girl, and the enemy used it to plant all kinds of lies about my identity and worth—lies that only began losing their hold well into my adult years.

The Great Wall of Self-Preservation

As a result of that move, I felt crippled in my ability to form deep, lasting friendships. The pain and fear of rejection led me to build up a Great Wall around my heart. I became a master of the understanding head bob, a sensei of listening to others … but to very, very few (if any!) did I open up my true heart. That was reserved for family only (and for this I’m incredibly grateful, for those deep relationships I formed with my family still stand strong today and will until we leave this earth).

High school felt like a constantly rocking ship, lost at sea in a mix of the emotions that inevitably accompany coming of age (even under the best circumstances). College was better, but an emptiness still plagued me as I tried desperately to fit in with the “cool crowd,” trying to be the extraverted sorority girl I thought I needed to be.

I thought that by changing locations and leaving high school behind, I could also leave behind the lies that had hijacked my ability to make friends … but naturally, those lies jumped in with all of my perfectly-coordinated dorm décor and made the trip with me.

Perhaps one can survive high school and college while tucked safely behind an imposing wall of self-preservation—I certainly did. But what happens when you reach a point where life is too hard, too real to continue shutting people out? It’s one thing when the most tragic life occurrence is not getting the lead in the musical you’d so hoped to play … it’s quite another when the cancer has spread or your house is foreclosed on or you aren’t sure your marriage is going to make it.

Get Real

Recently, I experienced one such trial—one beyond my capacity to cope alone. I needed support and love, the encouragement of a compassionate, listening ear. I needed the beauty of the body of Christ coming together and working out real faith in real love. I needed something deeper than the surface level relationships for which we so often settle.

God has been in the process of healing me from those old wounds and ridding me of the insidious lies I believed about myself … but I had yet to actually take the plunge into deep, authentic community—where you’re opening up every space of your heart and mind and letting others into the hardest places. Where you admit your need for support and lay down your false bravado that claims I don’t need anyone, I’ve got it covered.

In that moment, I found myself facing a choice—I could continue in my old pattern of crouching behind my protective wall … or I could take a deep breath, reach out, and whisper hi, friend, I could really use a listening ear.

The truth is, it was just as scary to make that admission as I imagined it would be—but it was also far greater and more encouraging than I ever expected!

I found myself ensconced by a depth of community I haven’t experienced in so very long; the relief of allowing others in and sharing my burdens felt like a breath of cool, fall air. I finally understood what I’d been hearing for so long—all the sermons and Bible studies and articles about authentic community. And I didn’t even realize how desperately I craved it until that first taste.

This is how the early church operated, and it’s how our current churches should operate. The earliest churches were rich in community, springing up in the intimate settings of people’s homes. There was no dressing up in our prettiest clothes and best hair for an hour, then heading home with a heart still heavy from carrying cumbersome, painful burdens.

As believers, we need to let each other in—we need to be a part of both supporting and receiving support from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Galatians 6:2 says, Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (NIV). I’ve felt the power and wholeness of that verse lately, and it’s thrilling!

Lessons Learned

Important lessons have emerged from this experience, one of the chief ones being isolation is Satan’s playground. If our enemy can isolate us so that we think we’re the only one experiencing a certain trial, then he’s won. He’s separated us from the pack, ready to take us down. Freedom is found in embracing the truth (see John 8:32), and we’ll be hard pressed to reach that truth when we’re suffering silently in our solitude.

We fear opening up, we fear the risk of “losing face” … but where we may lose face, we gain genuine fellowship. And what a sweet blessing that fellowship is—balm to the soul!

I’ve also seen that my closed-off heart was actually a manifestation of pride. We tend to think of pride as the puffed up person telling you how perfect her life is, and that indeed is a form of pride. But an unwillingness to share one’s life and heart with others is simply the other side of that hubris coin. Rather than risk potential embarrassment, rejection, or humiliation, I closed myself off—and whether intended to or not, this type of attitude gives off an air of “I don’t have any problems to share.”

It’s another one of those sneaky lies the enemy uses to catch us—pride wrapped in the seemingly justifiable cloak of timidity or fear of rejection. But pride, in any form, is a cancer. It has to go.

A Challenge

Y’all know how much I like ending with a challenge, so let me extend one to you today: are you holding back in all your relationships? Maybe you find yourself not nearly as broken in this area as I was, but perhaps you do find yourself with plenty of surface connections, yet no deep, intimate friendships.

If so, I’d like to encourage you to just go for it. Don’t allow fear to keep you locked up behind your own wall of self-preservation anymore. Yes, we should use wisdom when deciding with whom we’ll share our truest hearts. But for that person or persons in your life who have proven trustworthy and safe, take the plunge and allow yourself to experience the strengthening, restoring work of community. What a perfect picture of the body of Christ working as it was meant to work, encouraging one another and building one another up as Paul taught in 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

Take it from this former skeptic, who once scoffed at mushy rhetoric praising the beauty of community and connectedness—it really is a beautiful thing. And it really is worth it.

But don’t just take my word for it … inhale a deep breath, and jump in with both feet.

You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

 

The Cold Reality of Sin

Well, if the title didn’t give it away, this isn’t exactly what you would call a “warm and fuzzy” post. Not that I’m into writing warm and fuzzy things. Indeed, I prefer to dig into the dark, hard places of life where our need for God is glaringly apparent. But even so, I’ve found in my writing and the writing of many others an unfortunate reality: a lack of focus on the inescapable consequences of sin.

Please hear me clearly: I am a huge proponent of grace, embracing God’s forgiveness, and living in the power of His transformative grace. But there is another side to the equation, and I don’t believe we’re doing ourselves any favors by ignoring it.

It’s perfectly understandable why we don’t talk much about sin, be it in articles, our regular conversations, or even at church. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. If given the chance to talk about the realities of my sin or the sin of others, or undergo a root canal, I would probably choose the latter. Facing sin—in ourselves and in others—forces us to rip off the mask of perfection and pride and stand humbly in the reality of our fallen nature.

The problem is, God isn’t remiss to address our sin. Indeed, the very reason we need the grace we so often talk, write, and sing about is because of that sin.

I was struck this week by the words of James:

When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:13-15 NIV).

Those words left the page and slapped me across the face … death? It’s a shocking proposition, because we so often coddle ourselves and soften the blow of our sin with the beauty of grace.

All of James was a bit stunning, because he tells it. His letter reminds us that faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26 NIV), that Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4 NIV), and that Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins (James 4:17 NIV).

It was an unsettling reminder of how often we don’t hear or listen to the cold, hard truth: our sin has consequences. In the midst of James’s hard-hitting, no-nonsense instructions, he recognized that The Lord is full of compassion and mercy (James 5:11 NIV). But as wonderful and comforting as these attributes are, they were never designed to remove the consequences of our actions.

God forgave Adam and Eve and extended grace to them—but they still had to leave Eden.

God forgave Abraham for taking matters into his own hands with Hagar—but he still had to live with the messy results of his actions.

And God forgave David, a person He called a man after my own heart (Acts 13:22 NIV)—but even that enviable title couldn’t spare David the disastrous consequences of his lust, adultery, and murder.

I don’t write this with the intent of being negative or harsh—rather, I write it as a kind of “wake up” call to you and to me. Our behavior matters. Our sin matters. Yes, God’s mercy and grace are amazing gifts—but His ultimate desire is that we would live by the Spirit and thus not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16 NIV).

Because of God’s deep and abiding love for us, He longs for us to avoid the inevitable consequences of our sin. When we do fail, God’s lavish forgiveness and grace stand ready to embrace our repentant hearts … but I, for one, would prefer to experience the blessing that follows obedience—and I’m guessing you would, too!

What about you? Is there an area of your life where you’re tempted to downplay the consequences of your thoughts and actions? Is the enemy enticing you to redefine your behavior with a term a little softer and more palatable than “sin”?

Dear reader, don’t take the bait. Don’t believe the lie that your sin is harmless. Meditate on the words of Jesus when He said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10 NIV).

I don’t know about you, but life to the full sounds pretty great to me. May we be willing to face the cold reality of our sin and fall humbly at our Savior’s feet, knowing that in Him we have all we need to live an obedient, abundant life.

When You See Failure Everywhere You Look

Do you ever have those times when you look around, and all you see is your failure? Life is beep-bopping along fine and dandy, until some event, comment, or circumstance has you swapping your rose-colored glasses for those of Debbie Downer. I’ve experienced this swift change more than once, and the startling truth is, our enemy can use the subtlest of events—even the seemingly innocuous ones—to jumpstart a cycle of defeat and failure.

I experienced the beginnings of one such failure cycle this week, coming at me in the form of potty training my almost 2 ½ year old son. To put it mildly, Monday was a disaster. And after about 8 swimming pool sized failures, I found myself waving the white flag with nerves shot, reaching for the skittles that were intended as a reward for Isaiah’s potty successes … potty successes that never happened.

Before I knew it, the word failure came calling on me, yowling its accusations in my ear. Therein began the cascade of negative emotions, paving the path toward self-defeat. Before long, my clouded mind told me nothing is right, all is wrong. I looked around and saw failure in everything: every pile of clothes needing washing and every dish on the counter that needed putting away taunted me with my shortcomings.

All at once, my home wasn’t decorated enough, my office wasn’t organized enough, my cooking skills weren’t Food Channel worthy enough, and—basically—the sky was falling.

Accusations flew at me right and left, until my already frazzled nerves wanted nothing more than to run away for a bit.

The Language of Lies

When these moments hit, distinguishing truth from lies can feel exceedingly difficult. Any time we experience that sense of being accused, we would do well to step back and remember the quintessential source of such vitriol: the enemy. Indeed, the Bible describes our enemy as “the accuser of our brothers,” guilty of accusing believers “day and night” before God (Revelation 12:10 NIV).

He is also given the illuminating moniker of “father of lies” (John 8:44 NIV), a name that pairs perfectly with his profession as accuser. Satan’s voice is cruel, nagging, hurtful … it’s unrelenting, yet fruitless in bringing about any true change. He hits us where it hurts the most, then turns tail to run. He cheerily leaves us high and dry.

Conviction Over Accusation

In stark contrast to accusation, the voice of conviction has quite a different “feel.” God’s voice is gentle, yet serious. When He comes with conviction, He doesn’t come to simply make us feel bad—He requires action and obedience. But He also makes a way for such obedience, and He supplies the grace and strength we need to do it! He is exceedingly good, even in our failings.

Conviction is a difficult but necessary part of the Christian life. Sometimes, the painful truth is that we do need to change. Perhaps we aren’t being the best steward of our time and our resources, be it at home or at work. Or perhaps we’re not being disciplined enough in a specific area of our lives. Maybe we find ourselves wearing our messiness as a “badge,” as some articles have criticized … though, as someone striving to write with authenticity and genuineness of spirit, I take issue with this point of view’s characterization of such writing as an “obsession with brokenness.” But … that’s a blog for another day :-).

When feelings of failure threaten to hijack your mind, take some time to step back and ask God for wisdom in discerning whether you’re facing accusation or conviction.

Fight Back!

Whether our feelings of failure are rooted in some truth or in baseless lies whispered by the enemy, we must confront them the same: we must fight back. We are, after all, engaged in a battle as we walk this earth. Paul understood this reality, and in Ephesians 6:11-12, he admonishes believers to put on the full armor of God:

For 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 (NIV).

To those who have been a Christian for some time, it can be tempting to gloss over this well-known passage. But if we fail to take Paul’s words seriously, I’m afraid we’ll find ourselves cycling through the pathways of failure and defeat all too often. Which is exactly what our enemy wants: us sidelined and distracted from fulfilling God’s call on our lives.

Fight back with the truth of God’s word and cling to “his very great and precious promises” (II Peter 1:4 NIV), given to us through His divine power—a divine power that supplies everything we need to live the abundant life.

Thank Him for all He’s done, humbly asking Him to help you discern whether your feelings of failure are grounded in a genuine need to change something or if they’re merely empty lies—a vexing manifestation of the enemy’s “flaming arrows” (Ephesians 6:16 NIV). If the former is true, then God will be faithful to direct His conviction into action. If the latter is true, then naming off gifts will help disentangle you from those lies. Doing so has been a lifeline for me.

Personally, I like to tailor my gratitude toward the exact things about which Satan is attacking me. So if I’m frustrated at the piles of laundry, I thank God that such piles signify the blessing of clothes. And dirty dishes signify the blessings of nourishing food and family meals. I’ve found this approach turns the enemy’s strategy on its head, sending him running out of my house.

Whatever your circumstances, dear reader, my prayer is that you will refuse to listen to that voice telling you that failure abounds. May your eyes see His transformative grace and power in all the places, big and small, where failure once dwelt. And may we both dig into faith a little deeper and grow a little closer to our Lord and Savior this week.

Loving Well

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships and what it truly means to love others well; to love as Jesus directed and love our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:39). We’re coming into a time of happiness and holidays, celebrations and gift-giving, where cheeriness and good tidings abound … but I know that for many, this season comes with a mixed bag of emotions—myself included.

As an adult, I long for the carefree holidays of childhood, when I wasn’t responsible for creating the “magic” and navigating the tricky landmine of divvying up days among family members and deciding who gets what time. If we’re honest, we could probably all identify at least a sliver of anxiety tucked into the gentle melodies of that Christmas music many of us already have playing.

Families are supposed to love one another, but what if the family dynamic resembles something more akin to Jackson Pollack than Normal Rockwell?

Traditions are touted as grand instruments connecting us to the past, but what if our present renders them difficult to implement?

Friends are supposed to gather and have parties, but what happens if you find your friends have shifted under the strain of unexpected conflict?

In this season focused on good tidings and joy, sometimes loving others well feels anything but holly jolly. What do we do with our twisted emotions?

That friend or “friend” who’s difficult to love?

That neighbor who makes you want to pull your hair out?

That coworker who induces you to make an about face and bolt in the opposite direction?

That family member who causes you to consider boycotting the holidays this year?

I’m probably not alone in loathing the friction that arises from trying to love those who we find hard to love—whatever the season! Perhaps on paper it even appears such persons don’t “deserve” our love. In the words of “Peg + Cat,” we’ve got a really big problem (and it’s not just my children’s love of PBS! There’s a little mom humor for you this morning.).

The Problem

In our cultural climate, we have a twisted sense of “love.” And while I don’t believe all social media is corrupt, I do believe it’s playing a significant role in warping that sense.

Potential mates are boiled down to a single profile picture and a list of interests. We know way more information than we ever should about hundreds of “friends.” We’ve torn down the walls of privacy and replaced them with iron bars that, whether intended to or not, often prevent true intimacy from occurring. It’s as though we know everything and nothing about one another.

And please, don’t get me started on Twitter, the utter personification of quid pro quo affection. Follow me and I’ll follow you—even though I know nothing about you and will promptly unfollow you should you fail to follow me back within 48 hours.

Ugh!

All this works against us, magnifying our worst flaws as humans by feeding our voracious search for self-aggrandizement, self-focus, and self-worth. All the while we plod along, craving genuine, unconditional love—craving the love we’re so slow in doling out to certain people in our lives.

Nearly every advertisement and cultural norm around us—indeed, our very sin nature—points us towards a selfish, self-seeking type of love.

Is it any wonder Jesus commanded us to love one another as ourselves? He called this the second greatest commandment of all (see Matthew 22:39). As our Creator, He knew doing so would not come naturally for us. We were in need of clear marching orders.

Reality Check

This “loving our neighbors as ourselves” thing is a hard truth for followers of Christ. It wasn’t simply a gentle suggestion or a nice thought. It was a command. We have been called to love in a different way. I always want love to be a feeling. I want it to come easily and naturally … but God asks us to love at all times, whether we feel it or not. Challenging, of course—but He empowers us to accomplish this sometimes seemingly impossible task through the Holy Spirit living in us.

If that call wasn’t hard enough, in Luke 6:27-28, Jesus really threw down the gauntlet on loving well when He said:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (NIV).

He goes on to note that even “sinners” love those who love them and do good to those who do good to them (vv. 32-33). Ouch. Add those words to the list of hard things I wish Jesus hadn’t taught!

Likewise, the New Testament is full of similar admonitions. A quick search led me to nearly two-dozen references with cringe-inducing calls to “be devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10 NIV), “serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13 NIV), and “[bear] with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2 NIV). I don’t know about you, but that last one really makes me squirm. Often, I live as if Paul told us to avoid one another rather than bear with one another.

Jesus was so focused on His mission of loving God and loving others. He knew His Father would provide all the strength and ability necessary to fulfill that mission, therefore He was freed up to do the hard work of loving unlovable people (e.g., all of us!). To His last breath, Jesus loved those who hated Him, betrayed Him, and ultimately snuffed out His earthly life.

And we are to go and do likewise.

Finding Peace in Release

But how? I believe the answer is found in the simple yet challenging word release. Our world screams the message that we should hold onto our rights with an iron grip, withholding love from those who do not love us well. We’re bombarded with the call to live within that quid pro quo paradigm of love … and on paper, perhaps this approach seems like a fair option.

But one of the many things I love about our Heavenly Father is His sense of the ironic and how He’s woven the counterintuitive into His plan. Just as forgiving others releases you from the grip of bitterness, so loving others paves the way to a heart at peace. Releasing love, even when it isn’t easy and it isn’t “deserved,” is the express pass to a heart and mind free from the icky entanglements of twisted emotions.

I know how difficult and counter cultural it is to hear those words, especially when you’re in the weeds. Trust me, I get it. But in quiet moments, I think you would agree that when you’re struggling to love someone well and choosing to withhold love, you’re the one who ultimately suffers.

And the great news is that we are never alone in our struggle to love others well—when God calls us, He equips us (see Hebrews 13:21). We have the Counselor with us at all times, to guide [us] into all truth (John 16:13). That, dear reader, is all we need to put the gospel into action and love how Jesus loved.

Let me close by extending a challenge, to you and to me, since I’m right there in it with you. Is there a person (or persons) who came to mind when you read this? Picture him/her/them in your memory, and—deep breath—ask God to show you how you can specifically love that person well.

Is there a phone call you need to make? An e-mail you need to send? A kind act of service that you really, reeeeally don’t want to do?

Take a chance and lay down your rights, grab ahold of God’s gentle, capable Hand, and ask Him to supply the love you need to accomplish such a task. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the result and the change that happens in your own heart. God is itching to dazzle us with His ability to supply grace, freedom, and supernatural love beyond our comprehension … He’s simply waiting for us to obediently take that first step into the Jordan (see Joshua 3).

Step in, my friend, and be blessed by what the Lord can do!

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