Who Is God to You, Really?

Who Is God to You Really?We all paint pictures of God. Over the years, we gather some information here, some scripture there, some thoughts from a pastor here and, subconsciously, we put them together and piece them in such a way that they make up our God. Our own little personal mosaics of who God is, to us.

As we live, this mosaic changes. I lived a few years with a nice, pretty picture of a young God who was my friend. Then, it was the old man – grandfather – Santa Clause hybrid God. And most popular these days, a more stern God who is disappointed with my sin and behavior when it’s not just right.

Of course, I have days where my mosaic of God reflects love and deep, deep care, but this is a picture I’m only now learning to paint. And still, it is only a picture.

The point is, we can’t help but create God into something tangible because the only thing we understand as people, mortal people, are tangible things. Trees, mountains, dogs, etc. But confining God to a picture is dangerous. It’s dangerous to us and it’s dangerous to those around us.

Take a moment now and picture “your” God. What does he look like? If he were a painting, what form would he take? If he were a mosaic, what pieces is he made up of? And, this is important, where did those pieces come from?

Do you have the picture in your head? Good. Now I need you to do something else.

Take that picture and tear it up. Then, take the torn-up pieces and set them on fire. Then, gather the ashes into a bucket and explode it into a million billion little tiny microscopic bits.

If we want to understand who he is and how that plays into who we are and how we live, we have to be willing to let go of our paintings and our mosaics. We have to be willing to be wrong.

Over the past year this question has been on my lips, “Who are you, God, really?” It’s a question that comes from the suspicion that I have created God to be someone he is not. Whenever we feel like we have an omnipotent being figured out, that’s when we should question ourselves, back away slowly, (maybe repent…), and begin to ask God, Who are you, really?

Are you actually mad at me? Are you really watching my every move, waiting for me to mess up? Are you as distant as you feel, meaning I can operate how I please? Are you really just a nice dad who wants me to have what I want? Are you condemning others but elevating me?

When we live and breathe under our paintings of God, depending on what that painting looks like, we grow accustomed to feeling shame, or paralyzed in our decisions, or we experience the type of freedom that is really bondage. And then we begin to reflect that kind of God to others.

We glorify a Santa Clause God or a BFF God or a cruel teacher God. I wouldn’t feel inclined to worship any of those, would you?

This scripture is becoming more and more true for me these days: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10,12).

God knows us fully. We are pretty easy to understand. And, he made us. He, however, is not as easy to understand. Once you think you have him all figured out, he blows your mind with something that shatters the image of him you painted.

I don’t want to confine God to a painting anymore. Instead, I want to just keep asking, Who are you, really? And keep asking it and keep asking it and keep asking. I think the more we do and the more we genuinely seek an answer, the more glimpses we will receive of truth. And the more glimpses we receive of truth, the more beautiful God will become.

The Lie That You Can Always Be Better or More

The Lie that You Can Always Be Better

Last Monday night I set my alarm for 5:30am to get up for a 6am workout class. My plan was to go to that class, then come home, shower, get ready, go to to work and then go to an afternoon meeting.

This was my Tuesday plan.

What happened instead? Well, Monday night I couldn’t sleep because I was having one of those can’t-shut-your-brain off kinda nights, so when 5:30am rolled around, I hadn’t been asleep long enough to be functional at 6am.

I eventually rolled out of bed around 7am and felt frustrated with myself for not sleeping well and failing to wake up in time. So I resolved to attend the 10:30am workout class instead.

I was going to exercise on Tuesday no matter what.

I show up for the 10:30am class and notice everyone seems to be really sweaty and tired already. Am I late? Did I already miss the warm up? I look at the instructor and mouth, “This is the 10:30, right?”

No, she mouths back. This is the 9:45.

There is no 10:30 class. In my sleep deprived stupor I made up that time and arrived 45 minutes late to a one-hour class.

I left the gym, tired and defeated. I went home and, unable to let go of the idea that I needed to workout today, I went for a run in the sweltering Nashville June heat and almost died.

By the time this shenanigan was over, so was half of my day. Driving to my afternoon appointment, I beat myself up for not only missing the 6am class but for thwarting my entire schedule and wasting time.

I was very mean to myself last Tuesday.

If I had been kind to myself that morning when I couldn’t drag myself out of bed at the crack of dawn, I would have simply let go of working out that day and proceeded with other activities.

Instead, I ignored the little voice inside that was quietly tapping me saying, “It’s ok. Let this one go. Burn calories tomorrow or the next day, or whenever.” Because this nice little voice inside me is often overcome by the loud angry YOU CAN ALWAYS BE BETTER voice that also lives inside me.

This voice says things like, “You’re a failure at sleep, and working out and you better make this right.” And it says lots of other mean and untrue things all the time. It’s exhausting to listen to, but I do anyways.

As long as I keep listening, it will keep talking because the thing with the YOU CAN ALWAYS BE BETTER voice is, it is never satisfied. You can feed it and feed it and make it to the gym at 6am every single day and still, it would want more from you.

But you wouldn’t listen to someone in your life you knew was mean and a liar would you? So why listen to the mean liar inside of you?

When we choose not to listen to our harsh voices, we starve them. They can’t survive if we’re not doing what they tell us to do. And eventually if we starve them long enough, they go away.

So this is what I’m trying to do now when it comes to the gym, and my body and a lot of different things. I’m ignoring the mean me, and paying more attention to the quiet and kind me. I might miss more 6am classes, but at least I’ll like myself at the end of the day.

Two Things Daughters Need to Hear from their Fathers

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A few weeks ago I was assigned to write a Father’s Day article about what daughters need to hear from their fathers as teens. Immediately I remembered this one time I did a Q&A session at a youth leaders’ conference. I and another preacher’s daughter answered a few questions about what it was like to grow up with a pastor as a father.

At the end of the session, the conference leader asked us what piece of advice we would give to fathers in the audience about daughters.

My fellow interviewee gave a very articulate, smart and somewhat long response. People applauded. It was a good answer. She talked about women being strong and independent and how beauty was often too central in our upbringings. I looked at her and nodded along. Then it was my turn.

I felt embarrassed. My answer was much shorter than hers. Less eloquent. It sounded superficial. But it was all I could think to say, so I said it: “Tell her you love her every day. Tell her she’s beautiful every day.”

If I were given the chance to answer this question today, I would say the exact same thing.

I believe when a dad tells his little girl she is beautiful before she is old enough to read magazines or understand dress sizes or compare her selfies on Instagram to others’, she learns to identify beauty as an intrinsic part of her soul, rather than a physical attribute she must strive to attain.

The concept of beauty in and of itself is not a bad thing; beauty is of God. It is the connotations we have put onto this word—looking a certain way, being a certain size, color, etc.—that make it seem like a negative thing.

If a father can tell his daughter daily from an early age that she is beautiful for no reason except that she simply exists, she is raised with a healthy idea of what beauty truly is and where her worth is actually found.

It is the same when she is told she is loved from day one, and every day after that. Somewhere in her subconscious she realizes that she isn’t doing anything to earn her dad’s love because he tells her, even on her worst days, that he loves her. “I must simply be worthy of love,” the little voice inside of her says.

My dad did this for me and my two sisters growing up and he does it still. He told us he loved us. He told us we were beautiful. In my teenage years, I rolled my eyes at these words of affirmation, but I’ve noticed that they have in many ways carried me into adulthood.

Even though during difficulties, setbacks and failures, I try to push this little voice of assurance away, I know it’s still there. And some days, it is the only thing that keeps me going.

What power the words of a father can have over his daughter.

It’s hard for me to hear stories that are not like mine. Stories that come from girls whose fathers didn’t think to say “I love you” and “You’re beautiful.” It’s such a simple thing. It’s such a crucial thing.

If we are sustained by the loving Word of God our Father, why would we not also assume that our children are sustained by the loving words of their earthly fathers?

Thank you to my dad and all the dads out there who are making the daily, conscious effort to speak truth over their girls.

 

You can read a better articulated and explained version of this post in an article I wrote for the June issue of Parenting Teens magazine: http://www.lifeway.com/n/Product-Family/Parenting-Teens

The Opposite of Fear Is Not Courage

The Opposite of Fear Is Not Courage

A few months ago I had a week full of fear related to my work. I felt overwhelmed, andthe thoughts running through my head looked something like this:

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“This is too much.”

“I need to just find another job.”

“I’m not going to be able to fulfill everyone’s expectations.”

You may recognize this pattern of negative self-talk. Rapid-fire statements rooted in a place of fear. Each one you listen to and believe hits you a little harder and if you’re not careful, you will one day find yourself leveled by your own thoughts, flattened by your own fears.

I think our reaction when we feel afraid about something happening in our lives is to look for courage. We listen to familiar messages about inner strength and digging deep down to find it. Fighting through and being stronger than you think.

But what about those times when you do dig deep down searching for inner strength and courage within yourself and you come up empty handed? What do you do then when your knees are still shaking, what’s in front of you remains daunting and you determine that your inner strength must be so inner at this point that is un-findable?

I am beginning to wonder if courage is the appropriate response to fear.

One morning as I sat on my couch allowing the negative and fearful thoughts to play in my head I noticed a quality of these thoughts I hadn’t seen before: They were ungrateful. Not only were they negative, untrue and made me afraid, but they lacked gratitude.

Which got me thinking, what if I combated this season of fear by being grateful, rather than courageous?

So I tried it out and began to argue fear with thankfulness.

For example, I was worried about an upcoming conference call. It was with people in my field who were much more seasoned and smarter than I and I was afraid I would say something stupid or they would be able to see how ill-equipped I felt.

But before the call, as soon as I caught myself feeling afraid, I stopped and said thank you. “Thank you, God, for the opportunity to speak with people who are more knowledgeable than I am. Thank you for this chance to learn and grow. Thank you that I even get to do this as my job every day.”

The gratitude didn’t say I was courageous. The gratitude didn’t say I was stronger than I thought I was or more capable than I knew. No, gratitude simply put me in my place as a human and put God in his place as God.

When we are grateful in the midst of difficulty or fear, we are forced to take a posture of humility before our God. Nothing like saying thank you can do this to us.

When our fear comes from a place of insecurity in ourselves or uncertainty about the future, courage may not be the answer for us, but gratitude shifts things into perspective. The blur of scary and fearful focuses into a more accurate picture in which God is big and we are small and this is exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Feeling Bent. Feeling Broken.

Feeling Bent. Feeling Broken.

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape. 

– Charles Dickens

I spent about 26 years of my life feeling pretty good about myself. I was always a good student. I didn’t get in too much trouble in my teen years. I was active in my church, and in my community. I went to grad school. I worked out regularly and tried to eat healthy most of the time. I had a “good” relationship with God. I had quiet times. I volunteered. The list could go on.

Point is, I had all the things. All the accolades. And I dusted them and shined them each day and placed them neatly on my mantle.

Then one day, someone (a counselor) slid a blank piece of paper in front me and told me to imagine a picture of myself on it and what defined me, what I was made of. Then she asked me to imagine striping away all of those things, all of the accolades on my mantle. One by one, she said. Strip them away.

Now, she said, looking at me. What’s left?  What is left at your core? What is left at your center? 

I looked down. I stared at the blank piece of paper. I squinted really hard, but I couldn’t see anything. All I could see was a question mark.

Who am I at my core, you ask?  I knew the Sunday school answer, but I didn’t believe it.

Who am I without my things? Who are you without your things?

The thing with things is this: things go away. At age 26, all my things had to be going well in order for me to feel good about life. Because if one area suffered, my identity suffered.

That day with the counselor I began to learn that the alternative to living an exhausting life of keeping your accolades nice and shiny is living a life of feeling broken, bent and empty. Seriously, there is no middle ground. There is no other alternative.

In the Christian life, you either secretly believe you are everything and, therefore, see little need for Christ. Or, you think you are nothing and, therefore, believe all that you need is Christ.

Option one causes us to “fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves,” says Brennan Manning. Option two gives us a “deep gratitude for God’s love and deep wonder at his mercy.”

You can be still be a Christian and adapt a life dependent on things with little need of a savior. You can be. I don’t think it’s a matter of salvation we’re talking about here. But I think the option one life greatly misses out on the truth of the gospel. I think that life misses, completely, grace.

I was on a road toward missing it. I get it. I had to break open (part of that story is here) after 26 years of holding myself together.

And guess what. The breaking wasn’t a one-time thing. It just keeps happening.

I recover, I’m feeling good and put back together and then boom, something happens and I break all over again. We are all broken hearts trying to navigate a broken world. But broken spirits searching for wholeness in a broken world are not going to find it.

So now I’m learning what it means to live broken. To walk this life as someone who really has nothing to offer. To look at people and hold out my palms and shrug. Nothin’ there, I say. To go home at night and stare at a blank mantle, the accolades all thrown away.

But if it’s between living a life of things and a life of nothing, I now know to choose nothing every time.

It sounds worse than a life with lots of things, and it certainly looks more pathetic. But it feels real. It feels free. It feels like my core is beginning to find its shape. It just needs a little more bending and a little more breaking.

If I Were a Spiritual Guide on The Bachelorette (Episode 3)

THE BACHELORETTE - "Episode 1101A" - America fell in love with two very different but dynamic Bachelorettes last season - Britt Nilsson and Kaitlyn Bristowe. It was hard to choose between the beautiful, charming Britt and the gorgeous, fun-loving, wise cracking Kaitlyn. So now, 25 eligible bachelors will choose between these two amazing women. For the first time in franchise history there will be two Bachelorettes. Chris Soules sent both ladies home broken hearted, but now with another chance at love, both women are ready to take a journey they hope will wind up happily ever after, on "The Bachelorette" two-night premiere event, MONDAY, MAY 18 (9:01-11:00 p.m., ET) and TUESDAY, MAY 19 (8:00-9:00 p.m, ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Rick Rowell) KUPAH, KAITLYN BRISTOWE
Credit: Rick Rowell/ABC Television Group © 2015 Disney   

I’ve been a pretty faithful viewer of ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette since 2009, Jillian’s season. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while might even remember The Bachelor Audition of 2011. Something I more often than not wish I could forget.

I watch The Bachelor because I live in America, and it is my right to zone out for two hours a week and watch trashy (ok, not always trashy, I’m a big Sean and Catherine fan) TV and drink wine with my friends.

On episode three last night, we got to witness the fight between Bachelorette Kaitlyn and the guy she is super made at right now, Kupah.

Here’s what happened. Kupah and Kaitlyn have not had much conversation time since the show started last week. When they finally sat down to talk last night during the cocktail hour, both of them entered the conversation upset at the other for not taking more time to get to know them.

Kaitlyn said Kupah didn’t come talk to her on the group date. He didn’t. Kupah said Kaitlyn was not really paying attention to him the one time they did talk in the first episode. She probably wasn’t. There were 24 other guys in the room.

Kaitlyn was clearly offended by Kupah’s confrontation, but Kupah seemed willing to talk things through. Still, Kaitlyn said she needed to “go away” and think about this. And while sitting beside an outdoor fireplace holding a glass of wine and “thinking,” she overheard Kupah telling some of the other guys what had just happened.

This is just all too much for her, she decides. TOO MUCH. Because, you know, girls never have a conversation with a guy and then immediately tell all of their girlfriends every detail about it in a group text. This never happens.

http://abc.go.com/embed/VDKA0_wsj1bivn“>So Kaitlyn goes up to Kupah mid-story, pulls him into some sort of closet-type room in the Bachelor mansion and tells him he needs to leave. No rose ceremony; just get out of here.

I’ll state this up front if it’s not already obvious by my tone, I take Kupah’s side on this one. Here’s why: Kaitlyn is letting her emotions make her decisions for her. Therefore, she is blind to what is actually happening.

A lot of girls and people, like maybe me, do this. It’s hard not to. In the moment, the emotion is so real. In the moment, the emotion is your truth. So you do what the emotion tells you to do.

Kupah, though, does not. Maybe he is shocked and maybe he is a little wierded out, but he is not as rattled by the situation (he gets angry at the end, but he’s not angry in the closet). He says it is good that they’re arguing because they can work through it. Kaitlyn says this is bad that they’re arguing already, one week into their “romance.”

This is when I as the viewer am blown away by Kupah’s mild temper (again, it doesn’t stay mild) and Kaitlyn’s rash decision to throw him off the show.

Can’t Kaitlyn see she isn’t in a state of mind to make a decision right now?

Can’t she see how great this guy is because he isn’t high-tailing it out of there after her reaction and is instead suggesting they talk things through?

At this point it is all hitting a little too close to home. Sure, she’s on reality TV. Sure, she is under a lot of stress because of this, but what we’re watching here is a pressure-cooker version of what happens in relationships all the time. Decisions made from a place of emotion rather than a place of peace and thoughtfulness.

If I were a producer on the show who was not concerned with TV ratings and solely concerned with Kaitlyn’s mental health, I would have pulled her aside in that moment and told her this:

Kaitlyn, your anger right now is not your truth. In fact, your anger right now is probably masking other emotions, like shame, because deep down you are embarrassed for being called out by Kupah. And maybe sadness too, because Kupah hasn’t initiated much with you. This is ok. Feel the emotion. I will sit here with you while you do. Here, let’s walk back to the outdoor fireplace. Let’s put down that glass of wine. Let’s take seeeeeeveral deep breaths.

Then I would ask her, What’s actually making you angry?

Sadly, I have not (yet) been hired by ABC to provide spiritual guidance on The Bachelor, but this is what I would do.

Once Kaitlyn had stopped drinking and taken six or seven deep breaths, I would tell her that it is ok to feel whatever you feel, but it is not ok to make big decisions from that intense place of feeling. If you keep doing this, this show will destroy you. Be counter-intuitive. Don’t do what you feel like doing. Feelings are not your truth but, rather, they are a path to your truth. Ask yourself why you feel what you feel. Then, we can get somewhere on this show.

I have a hunch, because of previews I’ve seen, that Kaitlyn will continue to rely on feelings as a guide during her Bachelorette journey. This makes me completely unhopeful that she will find love on this show, but I am also really grateful for the cautionary tale she is providing.

May it be a reminder to all us emotionally driven—or gifted, if you prefer to call it—people out there. Emotions are not your truth; they are a path to it.

When Church Is the Cause of Your Hustle

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Last week I was feeling irritable. I was busy. I had a lot of things to do and places to be and I didn’t like it. My soul wanted to rest. You know that feeling? When you realize you crammed a few too many things onto your calendar for the week and you feel the pull? The pull between being committed to things and not wanting to do them at all?

I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but I would hypothesize that church people tend to feel this more than non-church people because church people tend to pack their calendars stupid full.

I am church people. I do church, and I do it well. This happens when you’re a preacher’s kid and when you generally like church and always have. That’s me. I like church. I like being involved. I like church activities and church people and I’m so thankful for that because I know that’s often not the case for those raised in the church.

But lately, I’ve sense I may be a bit over-involved in the church department. For the past few weeks, the majority of my calendar has been consumed with church-related activities or events. I’m involved in the youth group at my church, I’m part of a new church plant my church is starting in the city of Nashville, and I’m going on a mission trip with the church this summer to Peru. All good things. All wonderful things, really. But lately all my church things have not left me feeling very…Christian.

Instead, I have felt busy, and sort of tired.

I feel like I’m hustling.

And now I’m wondering: If all of my church involvement is not allowing for a Sabbath day or a Sabbath week, am I really being Christ-like? If most of my nights are consumed with spending time at church and with church people, am I really being Christ to others in my community? Could church be the culprit for my hustling these days? Could it be the culprit for my faint evangelistic heart these days?

I am beginning to believe that being less involved in church could be better for me spiritually. I wouldn’t resent my calendar so much. I would be more rested. I would be “in the world” a little more. Out there, God can be so much more real. In my rest, God can be so much more audible.

A part of me believes I could serve better if I did church less.

Wouldn’t it be cool if you opened your church bulletin this Sunday, and instead of seeing the typical “Volunteers Needed” and “Events Coming Up This Week,” there was just this one statement, “Hey church, nothing’s going on this week. Get some rest. Spend time with your people. Spend time with God” ?

Oh, that would be so good for me. It might be so good for you too.