Monthly Archives: October 2015

On His Shoulders — Nothing to Prove

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The past year has been one of recognizing my own weakness.  And there is nothing like recognizing your own weakness to cause you to reevaluate your perspective on life.  I don’t like to be weak; I like to be strong.  I want to take care of everything and everyone else around me, making life run smoothly.  So I toil beneath the crushing burden of my own expectations of perfection, determined to be strong.

What boxes are you carrying?

What boxes are you carrying?

Yesterday, as I balanced an unwieldly jumble of boxes while attempting to open a door, a friend ran up to help me.  “I’ve got you, Sabra,” he said.  Assuming he was coming to hold the door, I readjusted the boxes in my arms, thanking him earnestly.  But when he reached to take the boxes from me, I was surprised.  He smiled and said again, “No, I’ve got you, Sabra.”  Such a brief encounter, such a simple kindness, yet I was undone.  Here I was, waiting for someone to hold the door when someone was willing and able to take my boxes.  As I considered this, I wondered how often I misunderstand Jesus like that, hoping He’ll hold the door when He really wants to carry my burden.  He’s standing here telling me, “I’ve got you, Sabra,” but I’m so busy being strong that my greatest expectation is for Him to hold the door for me.

I always liked the moment in Pilgrim’s Progress when Pilgrim laid his heavy burden at the foot of the Cross and journeyed onward, lightened and free.  Yet like all analogies, it has its shortfalls.  The Cross is not a moment we come to then move beyond; it is a grace we live out a daily basis.  Salvation is not a point in time; it is an eternal, ever-present reality.  It is indeed that first Jesus-encounter before the Cross that gives us full access to grace and relentless forgiveness.  However, learning to walk in that freedom takes both time and practice as the Holy Spirit works in our lives, renewing our minds and transforming our habits.  We must learn to live beneath a new yoke – not the self-inflicted burden of rules and failures and expectations, but the light load that Jesus offers.     

Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest.  For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.
– Matthew 11:28-30 GNT

But why is the burden or “load” that Jesus gives us so light?  Why is His yoke so easy?  It is because He takes our burdens upon His shoulders.  That is what the Cross is: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4, 5).  In light of the fact that pride causes problems but humility finds grace from God, we are urged, “Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your cares upon Him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:5-7).  God has not called us to lonely toil beneath heavy burdens of expectations and rules; rather, He has called us to sit quietly at His feet, finding our value in the restful place of His presence.  (Check out the Luke 10 account of Mary and Martha.)  He can faithfully promise rest because His shoulders carry the burden.

Jesus is our strong, steady companion who shoulders the load for us little oxen.

Jesus: our strong, steady companion who shoulders the load for us little oxen.

I had a cold this week, and on Thursday morning my mom essentially forbade me from going to class and chapel.  She told me that I needed to rest in order to regain my health.  “Sometimes it is just reality that you take a sick day,” she said.  Just reality.  I didn’t want that to be reality – I wanted to be strong.  It was difficult for me – I had to delegate my responsibilities and let other things go.  Last fall, considering my other commitments, I took on an obscene number of class credit hours.  When people mention that they barely saw me in the previous fall semester, I say that I barely saw myself.  My continued 4.0 GPA and high praises from work may not have made it seem as though I was struggling, but the reality of that situation is that I can scarcely recall anything from that semester.  Apparently my stress level was so high that my brain decided to blur my memories – and that makes me sad, because I missed out on the pleasures in my quest to be strong.  That same semester, I did not want to break down when my dog was put to sleep.  I felt embarrassment as I cried through a whole biology class.  (Of course, I would never have thought to skip the class that began minutes after I received the news about my pet.)  And even as I sought comfort from my closest friends, I wished my grief weren’t so messy.  I often find myself caught between the reality of my need and the depths of my pride. 

So you see, I write this not as one who “has it all together” (an unrealistic notion as ever was) but as one who is still learning to relinquish her boxes and let her Savior shoulder her weakness.  I am learning that my strength is not enough.  Though I knew it, it is another thing entirely to understand it.  Alone, I attempt to navigate an endless sea of expectations that I have for myself.  Yet like a shipwrecked sailor my strength soon wanes and I begin to sink.  I become so preoccupied with proving my strength, with doing everything perfectly, that I forget His yoke is easy and His load is light for me.      

I am not strong enough.  And that it is a healthy knowledge, because I have nothing to prove.  I want to be strong in His strength, and righteous in His righteousness alone.  I want to be a refuge and a resting place for others because I am at rest in His arms, safe in the shadow of His wings.  He has taken all my burdens upon His shoulders and simply waits for me to step into place and walk alongside Him. In His place of rest there is nothing to prove.  Our gentle Savior only longs for us to enjoy the spacious place of His gracious presence as He teaches us to operate in the freedom of His light load.

I’d like to share with you a song that I listened to as I wrote this.  Take a few minutes to listen to it; and as you do so, consider not only who Jesus is but also who you do not need to be because of who He is.  May we learn to find our place of rest at the side of Him who carries our every burden upon His mighty and unfailing shoulders.  We have nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

“Shoulders” by For King & Country

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It’s Not About the Swimsuit

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Let’s talk about legalism.  It’s demanding, prudish, and ultimately ineffective, yet so many Christians get caught up in it.  I can define the entire legalistic Christian mindset with one example: swimsuits.  This is especially controversial when it comes to swimwear for girls: one-piece or two-piece?  Modesty or scandal?  Oh, the drama is endless!

I go to a small-town Bible college which I really do adore.  When we do school events that involve swimming, such as pool parties at a nearby YMCA, we wear swimsuits but, as I discovered, NOT two-piece swimsuits.   As it happens, two-piece swimsuits are not prohibited in the school handbook but apparently they are not allowed.  However, I was not told this prior to the party.  We were, in fact, only encouraged to wear our most modest swimsuits.  (I don’t consider any of mine immodest, but that’s blog material for another time.)  So, owning only two-piece swimsuits, and being a girl fresh from a missionary life of beach living on the Indian Ocean,  that’s what I wore.  A bikini.

After an hour of swimming, some of the girl’s resident hall staff suddenly realized that I was – gasp! – wearing a two-piece swimsuit.  Then, in the ensuing silence, with nearly a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on me, I was required to remove myself from the chin-deep water where I was swimming, and walk past everybody to get some sort of additional garment to put on atop my swimsuit.  Let me simply confess that in my indignation, I stalked away from the pool and didn’t come back.  I also considered delivering an impassioned soliloquy about injustice and the absurdity of legalism, but I would most definitely have said something regrettable. Anyway…

Long Beach, CA, 1937

Long Beach, CA, 1937

Something snapped in my spirit at that moment.  I was absolutely livid – though not for the reasons you might think.  First of all, I should have seen it coming.  I was the only female not wearing extra clothing over her swimsuit.  Then I felt hurt for a few moments – if there had been a real issue with my swimsuit, wouldn’t one of my friends have said something?  If there had been an issue, they certainly should have spoken up.  It wasn’t as if we all weren’t swimming together already!

But, you see, it’s not actually about the swimsuit.

I’d also like to make it clear that it wasn’t about my person.  Prior to the pool incident, some of the other girls had seemed surprised by my attire (I really should have known what was coming).  One of them said, “Well, if I were skinny like you, I would wear a two-piece and I wouldn’t care what anyone else thought.”  This deeply disturbed me.  As if being a smaller size was the sole validation for wearing a particular swimsuit!  This idea, too, was completely missing the point.  The fact that I am small-framed does not make it acceptable or unacceptable for me to wear a two-piece swimsuit.  The fact that another girl is larger-framed also does not make it acceptable or unacceptable.  If the only reason women choose two-piece swimwear is because they are vain or prideful about their bodies, it would be completely wrong – impure motives being the problem.  This post, then, is not meant to exalt or even recommend two-piece swimsuits, nor being “skinny,” nor any other sort of nonsense because those things are simply NOT the point.  One could easily look at this issue through any number of examples: what movies are appropriate, what music is fine to listen to, whether people should be allowed to wear jeans to church – the possibilities are practically endless.  Because, just as it is not about the swimsuit, it is not about size or shape or skin color or any of the external particulars that we might argue over.

I have always been a rule-follower, the stereotype “good girl.”  It comforts me to have a list of rules because I can follow them – oh blessed list! – and feel good about my appropriate performance.  My performance need not even face accusations, because I am always on the right side of whatever powers that be.

Now, as we get into this discussion, understand that when I talk about “rules” and “laws,” I don’t mean the obvious Biblical commands that we are called to obey (love your neighbor, do not steal, etc.) or the federal laws that we are bound to obey as citizens of our country (in accordance with the mandate of Scripture to obey authorities – for example, check out Romans 13:1-7).  I am talking about the gray areas of personal regulations or the other Christian-ese rules that we compile with the other laws we should obey, to make up a single, lofty list: “Requirements for Being a Good Christian.”

Here’s the thing: there is nothing actually wrong with this.  Scripture tells us to obey authorities, to follow rules, and to do what is right – all valuable and worthy goals.  There is a particular mindset, however, that often comes along with “good” rule-following.  The issue comes at the point when we cross over from obeying the rules to thinking that doing so will justify us – that is, legalism.  This brings up a question:

Are we acting as we do because we know it is right and we are showing love to others or merely because it is the law?

We have two major problems that become glaring when we look at legalism.  The first problem is that we tend to cling to the idea that we can “lead” people “into sin.”  But that really is a fallacy.  It is impossible to lead someone into sin.  You can tempt people by what you wear or say or by the choices you make, but it is impossible to “make” someone sin.  Consider the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba.  Obviously there was no room for excuses from David such as, “Well, she was taking a bath where I could see her from my roof, so I really couldn’t help myself…”  Clearly God would brook no such nonsense, and though David was angry that God sent a prophet to rebuke him, David knew his actions were wrong (especially considering he wasn’t out leading his army like he should have been).  (Check out 2 Samuel 11-12 to dig deeper into this example.)  Unfortunately, it is within the realm of Christendom and the Church that this “leading-people-into-sin” idea is most perpetuated.  The entire concept is both disgusting and extremely un-Biblical.

In response to that fallacy, we must realize that we were created for freedom, freedom to choose.  We should not think of this as freedom to do whatever we please but rather as freedom to choose what is right.  We are always free to choose what is right.  Romans 6:14 tells us, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Do you see what this is saying?  Christ gives us power to choose not to sin.

This is why it’s not really about the swimsuit itself – what we actually need to know is whether we females, by wearing our so-called scandalous two-piece swimsuits, are damning men to perdition by forcing them into the sin of lust (and other, darker things, as some might go so far to say).  Is it the swimsuit that does it?  It is the girl wearing the swimsuit?  Whose fault is the sin?  We struggle with the answers to those questions, and others like them, because we don’t really like to think about sin.

So we Christians seek to keep ourselves “safe,” not wanting to bear the guilt for causing anyone to sin – a most covert form of selfishness, because it is bound in a pretty wrapper of being beneficial to others.  You know, “Avoid even the appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22) and all that important stuff.  In order to achieve this “safety,” we construct neat, tidy, towering walls of rules and regulations: no two-piece swimsuits, no shorts higher than the knee, no crazy tattooing, no movies that are over PG-13 (except the Passion of the Christ), no being alone with a member of the opposite sex, no, no, no, no, no….And thus we build ourselves a cozy, sure little bubble of things we can and can’t do, because if we follow all the rules, everything will be fine and dandy.  Or even if we don’t follow the rules, at least we know how to fast-track our way back onto the Heaven-bound path and get right with God: we simply have to follow the rules, a personal checklist to earning God’s favor….

Except that, too, is a lie, which leads into our second problemexternal controls (rules and laws and even other people) cannot change hearts.  No matter how many rules we follow, we can never change our hearts by simply obeying.  And not only can external controls not change your heart; they actually have no power to combat sin in your life!  Colossians 2:20-23 sums up the crux of the matter – which has nothing to do with which cut of swimsuit is appropriate:

‘Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – “Do not taste, do not touch, do not handle,” which all perish with the using – according to all the commandments and doctrines of men?  These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.’

vintage signYou can make rules like the ones mentioned above.  You can swath women in fabric from head to toe, and you can take away every gun.  You can ban abortion and alcohol.  You can listen to only “Christian” music and demand that everyone else do the same.  But none of these things will stop people from sinning.  In fact, rules (even well-meaning ones!) are incapable of stopping sin because they only regulate actions or modify behavior.  Wrong actions are the result of sin, but sin actually begins as a heart problem: dark thoughts, fleshly desires, wayward emotions.  The nature of humanity has been tainted by sin since Adam and Eve made bad choices in the Garden of Eden; and our sin nature, the longings of our flesh, can’t be defeated by the external controls of laws.  These laws appear to be right – noble, even – and yet, as we saw in the Colossians passage, they “are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh”!

Rules can’t set us free from the power of sin.  Until people have an encounter with the living Jesus, their hearts will never be changed.

You might be protesting my strong stance on this.  After all, according to Romans 14 and 15, we shouldn’t put “a stumbling block or cause to fall in our brother’s way” (14:13); we should walk in love and bring peace, not causing grief for our fellow believers by our actions (14:14-23); and we should bear each other’s burdens and seek the good edification of other believers (15:1-2).  Also, following the previously-quoted section of Colossians, there is the admonition to clothe ourselves with godly ways (the “new man” we have through Jesus Christ) and live in love and peace with fellow believers, helping each other grow spiritually (3:12-17).  This is all poignantly true.  We ought to behave with love toward others, which means not doing things that we know will harm them (even if we think those things are fine) or cause them to struggle and stumble (because that would not be loving).  If any of my guy friends had said that my swimsuit made them even the slightest bit uncomfortable, out of love I would have stopped swimming or found another garment to wear and made things right so that they could be well.

But there is another side to this, and that is what I am trying to illuminate without disregarding the need for treating one another with godly love:

Rules are not love.  If rules had been enough to make love manifest, we would not have needed Jesus to set us free from sin and bring us into right relationship with Father God.

Rules can be good, helping keep us safe and promoting order.  Humans are sinful, and because not everyone is walking in God’s ways, we need to have those external controls.  But I will say again: rules are not love.  Showing true, godly love and consideration for the people around us does not mean keeping a long list of unyielding rules.  Following all the “right” rules cannot, in and of itself, display the love of Christ or truly help anybody.

Though we often have good intentions, using external controls to force a certain result is like keeping something dangerous locked up in a cell: no matter how well-guarded that evil thing is, there is always the possibility that it might escape.  As a Bible college attendee, I have noticed that life at school is somewhat of a bubble where we make rules to help keep people out of trouble and free from temptation to sin.  The problem is that the bubble isn’t real life.  In real life, guys are going to see girls on the beach in two-piece swimsuits.  And when they do, how are they going to react if they have been conditioned that any display of skin is wrong because it will sexually charge them to the point that they have no control and are “led into sin”?

We have a tendency to spend so much time removing temptations that we forget to teach our brothers and sisters in Christ how to deal with temptation victoriously Because of that, we hear so many stories about pastor’s kids (or the pastors themselves), Bible college students, and other “good” Christians choosing to tear their lives apart with sin.  Think about it: if the basis for our actions rests solely in the law, what happens when we come out of the little bubble of our local churches or Christian friend groups (or our Bible college campuses)?  Well, suddenly those external controls are gone, and, with nothing to control you anymore, you run willy-nilly into all manner of darkness and delusion.  Why?  Because external controls remove the need for internal responsibility if we become too comfortable – after all, we are creatures of comfort who would rather not expend any unnecessary effort.

Our focus has been so wrong, because it isn’t about the swimsuit or the person or any of those other external things – it’s about the sinfulness of human nature.

Our sin nature is dangerous and evil, so we seek to lock it up behind a wall of rules, restrained by shackles of law – yet in the end, it is we ourselves who end up shackled by the law and trapped in a prison of rules that can only point out our flaws.

But then there is Jesus.  His statement from the cross that ‘“It is finished”’ (Jn. 19:30) declared His triumph over the powers of sin and evil – it was a statement of completion, a sweeping victory that could not be reversed. When you allow the saving power of Jesus Christ into your life, becoming His, your sin nature is put to death (Gal. 5:24).  It is not merely kept in a dungeon somewhere, leaving you with the lingering fear of its escape; it is utterly destroyed!

Then, by the power of His Holy Spirit at work within you, you come to a place where you do not need external controls to help regulate your actions, because your heart is in the right place.  When your heart is in that right place of relationship with God, you will not need the safety net, the “bubble” of external controls because the Holy Spirit (sometimes called your conscience!) is your internal control.  As Christians, we are called to walk in the Spirit (in step with the Spirit, doing the things of the Spirit) because we have been made alive only through the life of the Spirit (Gal. 5:25).  We are meant to victoriously live out that which Jesus Christ’s death has already won – not because we are strong on our own, but because His Spirit is strong within us (check out Colossians 3:1-5).

1920's swimwear via Pixgood

1920’s swimwear via Pixgood

Ultimately, external controls are not God’s best – freedom is God’s best.  As I mentioned earlier, true freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want but rather the power to choose what is right.  In the end, external controls such as rules can help us regulate our actions or modify our behavior, but they can never be a substitute for the internal responsibility prompted by a heart that has encountered Jesus and been forever changed.

Here at the end of this passionate call to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, I have just two more things I want to mention.  Firstly, I have now purchased a two piece swimsuit with a full-length top so I can honor even the implied rules out of respect for those in authority at my school.  Secondly, I have now also been chosen to be part of the resident hall staff in the girl’s dorm, and I sometimes need to have discussions about what attire is appropriate – and I have times where I need to enforce certain standards.  And in all this, I can’t say that rules are always right or always wrong, and I can’t say that I think two piece swimsuits always good or always bad.  It is not and never has been about the swimsuit, about me, or even about rules.  I desire to promote a culture of honor and grace everywhere I go, and I can only do that when I allow my life to be intimately transformed from the inside out by Jesus.  No matter how silly or even twisted the issue at hand, making space for grace is always the right choice.  Every one of us is learning how to walk in greater freedom and greater love with our Savior by our side.  So be released to live in the spacious place of God’s grace that comes with allowing His Holy Spirit to be your internal control, and journey well, my dear friends!

 

Howzit?

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While living in South Africa my family was frequently greeted, “Howzit?”  This catchy little phrase is a condensed version of “how is it going” – and “howzit” just rolls off the tongue so much more smoothly!  I find myself still using this colloquialism often, although I try to avoid confusing people with my quirky multi-cultural habits.

Don't settle for the mask of "fine."

Don’t settle for the mask of “fine.”

“Howzit” is a tiny phrase for a deep question.  Unfortunately, we tend to use the “how’s-it-going” bit as a casual greeting in passing.  Somehow, we manage to make a very intimate question into a phrase of mere utility.  And though the way we ask it might imply a distinct lack of care for the person we are asking, the ubiquitous and universal “fine” responses we receive are far worse.  Within the Church, we often perpetuate – unknowingly, perhaps – the idea that, once you have met Jesus and accepted Him as your Savior, you enter an even-keeled, continual state of “fineness.”  We somehow draw the conclusion that, because Jesus is our Restorer, our lives shouldn’t be messy and we should always be “okay.”

We act as though God is bothered by our humanness. But the truth is that life is messy.  Sometimes it is lovely, sometimes it hurts, and sometimes it just seems “off.”  The trouble is that we are bothered by our own humanness – and the humanness of others.  Because of this, as the Church, we have a tendency to settle for that “all-is-well” mien.  And when we do that, we end up with “fine” relationships, “fine” lives, “fine” families, and “fine” jobs – a whole world of false fineness built as we hide our messes or complacently slide through the cracks of fellowship.

People who ask me how I am faring will get an honest answer, and I’ve found that responding to (most) people’s flippant inquiries with anything other than “Fine” or “Well” makes them rather uncomfortable.  It is most frustrating to me, however, when I ask that question and receive the ubiquitous response of “fine” when I know that someone is not fine.  When I ask, I ask because I care, I want to know, and I want to do something about it – even if that “something” is just listening.  When people tell me they are fine but I can see the agony, the confusion, or the frustration screaming silently from their eyes, I am not okay with that.  I am not okay with letting people slip under the radar, unnoticed and solitary.  I am not okay with letting people be “okay” – whatever that means.  When “fine” is not actually fine, I am not satisfied.

The Body of Christ – the Church – is meant for so much more than “fine” and Sunday-pretty façades.

Time in fellowship is always time well-spent.

Me and two of my best friends, enjoying the night stars and each other’s company. Time in fellowship is always time well-spent.

As the Church, when we settle for “fine,” we are preventing ourselves from experiencing the wholeness and intimacy of fellowship within the Body of Christ.  Suddenly, in our “fine” lives, there is no chance to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 15:1-6) and no opportunity to do good to our fellow believers (Gal. 6:10).  We close ourselves off from allowing ourselves to love and be loved in a way that fulfills the law of Christ (Gal. 5:14).  We cannot “comfort…and edify one another” (1 Thess. 5:11) or bear with one another in love and enjoy unity in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:2-6).  And if we cannot do these things, we are not truly living as the Body of Christ. 

You see, in the Body of Christ, when one suffers, all suffer; and when one rejoices, the others rejoice in unison (1 Cor. 12:26).  In the Body of Christ, we are safe to confess our sins and embrace the fullness of God’s forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:6-9).  Within the Body of Christ, there is a beautiful cycle of giving and receiving that should be occurring.  It is in this place of fellowship and honest intimacy with Christ and each other that all our needs are met.

Don’t settle for “fine.”  We were not created for “fine” but rather for all the highs and lows of being humans with a good, good God who never fails.  Do not fear your humanness, for you were created in the image of our matchless God, to reflect His glory.  Choose vulnerability and find the wholeness you were meant for within the Body of Christ.  Journeys are best taken in community, so let us journey well and journey together, my friends!

Fellowship of the Ring

Life is a journey — take companions!