Chosen: Shannon’s Story

This week, I’m posting some stories of people whose lives have been transformed as they’ve embraced the ways they’ve been chosen by God. This one is the story of Shannon Conforti, Executive Director of Christian Flights International, a mission in partnership with the people of Ranquitte, Haiti. CFI is a mission partner of Mosaic.

I almost lost everything to anxiety, so let me start there.

More than two years ago, anxiety unexpectedly entered my life. I had always lived with various degrees of stress, but this was altogether different. The therapists and doctors never gave me a satisfactory explanation for what happened. One day my brain just broke. Obviously that’s not the technical physiological answer, but it’s the best way I can summarize it. I suppose years of drama and stress finally took their toll, and my physiological systems simply stopped working properly. I was a highly functioning mom, wife, business owner, volunteer, church member. I traveled and participated in missions to Haiti. I was on church leadership committees. From the outside, I was proving that I could have it all. All the accolades. All the acclaim. All the success. I’ve heard from several women that my life at that time intimidated them, as it appeared I was running full steam on all cylinders.

Then one night, my body simply stopped. I had a severe migraine and anxiety attack that all mimicked a stroke. I ended up in the ER, somehow understanding that life as I knew it was coming to a stark and abrupt halt.

The days that followed were the beginning of my torment. I was unable to care for myself or my children, let alone get to work. Friends and family came in and cared for me, day and night, while I struggled to regain normalcy. My sleep was plagued with nightmares of the gates of hell and my days were spent praying for rescue from the torment raging through my body. Then came a barrage of doctors’ appointments, therapists’ appointments, meditation, oils, prayers, Bible memorization, this medication and then that medication followed by more medication. It was exhausting. And much to my protests, it became an integral part of my story.

In no way do I think God caused any of this. But I am absolutely convinced He used this circumstance to change me and the people in my life. Not the way I would have hoped. Not the way I would have planned.  Certainly not the way I wanted. He took the opportunity to lead me through the desert, the wilderness, and the broken mountain path, all to lead me to a greater redemption.

In the midst of this, I came to Mosaic to speak when the Executive Director of Christian Flights International was unable to attend. Friendships emerged from that visit and our relationships grew fast and deep. They nourished me with prayers while I was in the valley and provided me spiritual support to keep going. My anxiety morphed from a catastrophic plague to a daily annoyance. I assumed it was something I would just have to live with. Bothersome, but manageable.

Early on in my journey with anxiety, I was prophesied over. The message was clear: God would bring me to complete victory. Complete. Victory. Yet in the daily battle with anxiety this promise had taken a back seat. When I heard folks at Mosaic were praying for their mission partners, I reached out to ask for prayer for an almost forgotten promise. At the same time, God was stirring in my heart to apply for a staff position with the Haitian mission organization that connects Mosaic and me. At first I didn’t share this with anyone. Then I talked with my prayer partner, then my husband. From a practical standpoint I couldn’t figure out how a position with CFI could work. Between my qualifications and my anxiety and so many commitments, I just couldn’t figure it out. But the prayers continued. And the prompting in my heart was persistent.

I finally pulled a resume together and sent it to my friends on the CFI Board. My prayers for certainty went unanswered, and I waited to see the outcome of this trusted group. One Saturday night they called for a phone conference to discuss the possibility of hiring me. Concerns were raised. Questions were asked. Prayers were offered, and by the end of the call I had accepted the job. I hung up the phone. And without any warning I began to weep. Deep waves of tears that seemed to come from my very soul. My husband came into the room and I saw him register what he saw. “Oh no! What’s this? What’s happening? What’s going on?” His confusion was thick. I had just accepted a job and I was sobbing.

All I could say was, “It’s over. It’s over. I can feel God telling me it’s over. All of it.” And just like that. My anxiety was gone. Gone. We held each other and thanked God for walking us through an earthly hell.

And as sure as I’m standing here today, I have been completely anxiety-free since that instant. The chains that imprisoned me are just…gone.

I don’t know exactly how this will all play out over the long run. What I am sure of is that God gave me this beautiful gift to share, both here and in Haiti. My prayers for the weary are stronger today because I know what devastation feels like, and I know that God is mighty to save.

Maybe my story will remind you if you’re in a valley right not that God does hear our prayers and he still works in miraculous ways. For me, the real miracle in my story is the connections that happen in the Body of Christ. Somehow all the seemingly inconsequential details of our lives get woven together — our histories, our stories, our random lives — and they lead us to each other and bind us to a cause. Missions matter. Relationships matter. The Body of Christ matters. Surrender to a greater thing matters.

Even when anxiety threatened to sabotage the good plans God had for my life, praying people invested in me first through partnership with a Haitian mission, then through personal relationships. Because of our history, our relationships, and our shared knowledge that the miraculous is possible, lives are being saved and then transformed, both here and abroad.

Truly, a miracle.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part two).

In a previous post, we explored the damage caused by the demon of regret. We noted that the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them. This fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality. Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart, by tempting me to hold out hope for something that doesn’t actually exist as a possibility. What damage we can do to ourselves and our relationships when we refuse to live a wholehearted life!

Want to tackle the demon of regret? Think honestly about how you view your life choices now, and where you’re giving in to regret rather than owning your reality in partnership with God:

Don’t let the numbers fool you. One of the ways the enemy tempts us toward regret is by using numbers to taunt us. We look at our age and wonder, “How did I get here?” We feel time slipping by and wonder if we missed it on marriage, on children, on career, on health, on … name your time-bound regret. It makes sense that this would be the voice of the enemy and not the voice of God because while God is eternal, the enemy feels the rush of time. He knows that for him and all who follow him the end is coming. Eventually, he will be obliterated and Jesus wins (this is good news, folks!).

The enemy has a vested interest in convincing humans to feel that rush of time — to experience life not as heading toward the Kingdom but of slipping away and being lost. In the practical outworking of your life and thinking, the enemy of your soul wants you to deny the power and promise of eternal life. Toward that end, he will feed your anxiety over all you’ve “lost” by inviting you to give full expression to your doubts in a hopeful and endless future.

Listen: The antidote to regret is to remember it has not all passed us by. To the contrary, we just got started. We who follow Jesus have endless opportunities before us. If you want to stifle the voice of regret in your life, start practicing hope in an endless and joyful future, most of which will be lived out in the unhindered presence of Pure Love.

Don’t give in to shoulds and oughts. Naming possibilities is not always a bad thing. When we’re making big decisions, it is wise to pray through the possibilities to discern which options are most viable. What will lead us to God’s best? That question takes us down a very different path than regret. It feeds possibilities, not “shoulds” and “oughts.” Allowing the tyranny of “shoulds” and “oughts” to breed guilt for all we didn’t choose, or ought to choose (but don’t) will only breed regret, insecurity, fear and frustration.

Consider this: You are doing exactly what you’re capable of doing right now. If you could do more, you would. I’m not speaking to the sins in your life (because you can do better than drinking yourself to death, my friend). I’m talking about your honest efforts at parenting/working/living. You may not be happy about your pace/progress/proficiency — there may be room for growth in any of those areas — but given your reality, you’re doing what you can and God is aware of that fact. You can stop feeling guilty for not being perfect. Isn’t that a glorious freedom?

Consider the possibility that the best you can do is good enough. What we have is what we actually have, and what we choose is what we are capable of choosing. To the extent that we live under the illusion that we have access to some other reality or to an ideal we are being denied, we will live with regret and never embrace what we actually have or better yet, what God can make of it.

Let me say again that this doesn’t mean that our bad choices and sins are the best we can do. We’re all about sanctification — going on to perfection. What I’m saying is that the best way to make progress is not by passively regretting all the opportunities we missed or fretting about worst-case scenarios.

This life is not all one big test. Jesus told us he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That promise was not predicated on getting every choice perfectly right. That promise was and is predicated on grace. Jesus came to cover the gap between the best we can do and God’s best for us. His purpose for us is love, joy, peace and all the other signs of the Spirit. His desire for us is freedom from guilt, shame, and sin.

Which is all to say that God is not some cosmic hall monitor in the sky, taking names and handing them over to the demons that make us unhappy. God is not there to punish but to save and set free (he said so himself). God loves you. God desires greatness for you. And God is capable of taking the best you can do and making it beautiful.

My friends, please don’t feed the demon of regret. Conquer it, and then give yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part one).

FoMO is a social media-induced acronym that popped up a few years ago. A Time article defines FoMO (fear of missing out) as ‘‘the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.’’ Social media has amped up this anxiety disorder by giving us constant exposure to everyone else’s “best life now.” We become anxious by reading everyone else’s awesomeness. We give in to the fear that somehow we’ve missed it (or will) if we don’t get on the stick.

FoMO is a more recent label for an ancient soul-sickness: regret. Regret cultivates a perspective that views our current reality or history from a disappointed place. Or worse, it distorts our view of the future, so that as we gaze down the road we are already disappointed or fearful of being disappointed before we even step out. That way of thinking depends on believing other options or better options exist, when in fact they don’t. Do you see how damaging that is? I’m not talking about a fatalistic worldview that prescribes a life out of our control. I’m talking about a mindset that frustrates us by constantly churning up options we never had access to in the first place. I’m talking about a mindset that makes the best we could do not good enough. And that makes us feel like victims.

In a Psychology Today article, the author writes,

The truth is, there’s no reality existing somewhere else that says, “Darn, you’re not going to get to join us over here in the happy life, where you could have ended up if you had made the right choice and picked the other path.” That other, imagined happy life is and has always been just a thought. The particular reality that would have come, had we made the other choice, never was and never will be our reality. 

Can you hear how the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them? The fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality.

And as I think of all the ways regret can steal my joy, here’s what really breaks me: Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart. To the extent that I live with regret or the fear of it, I will hold my heart and my hopes out for an imaginary “better.” I will  externalize my discontent (“I never got what I deserve.”), feed my self-pity, and cause folks around me to also feel the frustration of never quite measuring up (after all, they live inside my world of regret).

The demon of regret has one goal: to get me to hold back from wholehearted love, surrender, devotion, commitment. And that’s why I’m convinced that a pattern of regret is not of God. It is a mindset that needs healing. If you find yourself wasting mental energy on the things that could have been, or on the better choices you could have made but didn’t (keep in mind that I’m not talking about willful sin here, but about your honest, best, if imperfect efforts), or on all the reasons this path you’re on is unsatisfying, I want to encourage you to consider that maybe you’re feeding into a demon intent on your discouragement. Journal your thoughts. Seek God’s healing. Ask him to open your mind to possibilities over regrets. Confess regret as a brokenness you’re living out of and ask God to transform your mind. Ask him to help you own your reality, so you can stop living in regret over your past or your future.

Regret is a lie. Meanwhile, the most creative Being in the universe stands ready to offer you an abundant life that doesn’t depend on your circumstances, but on His presence in the midst of them.

In the next post, we will look at three common areas where we tend to let regret have a voice in our lives.

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Ten 21st-century sins (and one remedy)

The funny thing about sin is how it can lure us into thinking ours isn’t so bad. Most of us who sit in church have mastered the big ones. Not all of us, obviously, but most of us don’t smoke, chew or dance with the girls who do (as we say in the South). We grew out of getting drunk. We don’t kill or steal.

What, then, are the sins of our generation?  The quiet, insidious ones that sneak up on us and steal our joy? Here are ten thoughts to challenge your ideas about sin and your place in this fallen world:

1. Entitlement. Another generation might have called it greed. One of my friends wisely noted that a sense of entitlement actually disables our ability to connect with others, perhaps because it fosters a spirit of competition (which kills community). We condition ourselves to weigh everything and everyone against some unattainable ideal or against what we think we deserve. I deserve what you have or I deserve more or you deserve less.

2. Fear. Related to this one is shame and unforgiveness, both of which are generated out of a spirit of fear. Shame is “in” these days (google it), so we’re finally calling out this base emotion that keeps us trapped in immaturity. It refuses to acknowledge that the One who lives in me is greater than the one who lives in the world. It also causes me to practice a self-protective posture. A self-protective (read “fearful”) crouch is fundamentally opposed to the personality of Jesus.

3. Jealousy. One of my Facebook friends also mentioned “professional jealousy,” which is an insightful twist on a very biblical sin (“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1). We wouldn’t think as adults of voicing our jealousy over a friend’s car, raise, or more functional spouse. But we won’t think twice about subtly sabotaging successful co-workers. Subtlety in this context is another term for passive aggression, which I personally consider to be among the most evil of community-destroying behaviors.

4. Anonymous anger. Yet another version of passive aggression, this one often manifests itself online (an addiction to being online gets an honorable mention here as a valid 21st-century sin). The heart beneath anonymous anger — the kind that shows up in traffic, in the comment sections of news sites, in gossip, in tweets about people we don’t personally know — reveals a lack of compassion. This is a heart sickness that comes back to bite us. Paul says as much. “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

5. Passivity/ sloth. The other end of active anger is emotional disconnection. This one will sneak up on us from behind. Over-stimulated by so much aggressiveness and so many words, we find ourselves disappearing into binge-sessions of NCIS (preaching to myself here) or worse yet, reality TV (where we can feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not them).

6. Instant gratification. Trolling website after website, gathering pictures of stuff on our Pinterest pages, which we then become impatient to own or make. No boundaries. No patience.

7. Self-deception. One friend says this is us “trying to convince ourselves that we as individuals are more valuable than those around us.” Related to entitlement, self-deception takes us a step further down the road, adding fantasy to frustrated destiny. When we are not honest with ourselves, that gap between who we are and who we want to be is a breeding ground for frustration.

8. Objectification. Clumping people into piles then slapping broad labels on them, we learn to treat people who aren’t like us as if they have nothing to teach us. That includes those who live in other political camps and even those who live in other sin camps. But what if the people who are least like us are actually doorways into the Kingdom?

9. Narcissism. The friend who voted this one onto the list specifically mentioned selfies, which seem innocent (and probably are) until the accumulation of them begins to make us believe that we are the center of our universe around which everyone else is circling, hitting the “like” button as they pass by.

10. Pride. The deep root out of which all our contemporary sins sprout turns out to be the oldest sin in the Book. As a sin, pride never seems to go out of style. Oddly, its bedfellow is self-hatred. Pride and self-hatred are two sides of the same coin. It is us, like the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” doing our best to make ourselves appear more powerful than we are so we won’t be labeled worthless, which is what we actually believe.

Which of these is your personal battle?

Choose your sin, and the remedy is the same: humility. Or Jesus, whose primary personality trait is humility. It is the willingness to get outside ourselves, to get over ourselves, to believe in something bigger than ourselves. To place our time and emphasis on loving God and loving others rather than protecting self.

Humility. An old remedy for what ends up being the oldest (only?) sin … pride.

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The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender, part two)

My last post ended with this question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control?

To answer that question, we first have to ask ourselves what it is we want to control. In general, my suspicion is that we want to control it all (or at least everything we can get away with). Our natural inclination (the state of human fallenness) is to “medicate” fear with control, so we exercise control:

  • with our children, our spouses, our employees, employers, the guy in the line in front of us at Kroger. We want to control people.
  • in our circumstances. We’re conditioned by our anxieties to want to be on top of everything. That way, bad stuff can’t sneak up on us.
  • with God. What we do with people and circumstances, we think we can do with God. We may not say it this way, but secretly we want to control God. That’s what bargaining is. “God, if you’ll pay this bill/ fix this relationship/ get me a better job … I’ll do better by you. I will never do this thing this way again.” That’s a control tactic.

Basically, we want to control everything, and we try with both our emotions and with our behavior. We’ve learned by conditioning how to let people know what we want with nonverbal cues — the silent treatment, lack of eye contact, the hug you lean away from. And sometimes we skip the emotional on-ramp and impose control with less passive and more aggressive in the mix. We yell. We praise. We reward and punish. We manipulate to control the ways others respond.

Unhealthy control is me trying to control your behavior. And just so we are clear, this is not our redeemed nature but our fallen nature at work. Why do we habitually act like this? I can think of a few reasons why we work so hard to take control of people, circumstances and the universe in general:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Things we are afraid of
  • Things that make us nervous
  • Worry
  • We believe lies the enemy tells us
  • And did I mention fear?

Did you catch a pattern there? I’ll give you a hint: fear. Fear is a devil that convinces us we can control stuff, when the reality is that we can control much less than we’d like to think. The spirit of fear opposes the things of God, because fear and anxiety are rooted in distrust and ultimately lead us to distrust God himself. The antidote to anxiety is surrender rooted in trust (and not just any trust, but trust in God). 

The basic lesson of recovery is that the only thing we actually can control is ourselves and interestingly, every biblical prescription for control is about self-control. In other words, the only things the Bible tells us we can control (and even should control) are focused on our own behavior. Things like:

  • Our thoughts. Paul teaches us to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), recognizing that it isn’t what goes into our minds that is the problem, but what we do with those thoughts once they get there.
  • Our bodies. Romans 12:1 tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. This means surrendering our bodies to the care and control of a holy God.
  • The pace of our decisions. Jesus teaches us to count the cost before we build the house (Luke 14:28). In other words, make fewer knee-jerk, fear-based decisions and more prayerful ones.
  • Our finances. Jesus tells us store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Mt. 6:20). In other words, spend with eternity in mind.
  • Our passions. James talks about the fights and battles within us that come from our unbridled passions (James 4:1).
  • Our emotions. Paul tells us to be angry but do not sin. (Ephesians 4;26).

While unhealthy control is manipulation of others, healthy control is about surrendering myself to the discipline of Christ. Healthy control is called self-discipline. It is about the self-limiting behaviors that send us toward our created design. Healthy control leads to freedom. When we choose surrender over control we discover what is most important. We will deal with our trust issues. We will be messier and be okay with it. We will experience spiritual freedom because real freedom is in surrender.

So let me ask again: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Pick something. One thing. You don’t have to pick everything you’re wound up about. Just pick something you’re trying too hard at and lay it out there for Jesus. Think of something that makes you anxious, something you’re living with right now that is a cause for anxiety. What thing has a “but first” in front it? I’ll do this thing for Jesus … but first … Pick that, and take it to God in prayer. Say to him, “All I can see right now is this anxious thing but what I want to see is your glory, Lord, so in this situation, please get me past my fear and expose your glory.”

There is such freedom in surrender to God’s more perfect will. Give yourself to it, and it will transform you.

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What I know about the enemy of your soul

It is easier to blame someone else than to deal with my own issues.

But if I’m going to blame someone, I ought to at least make sure I am blaming the right person. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that the real enemy of my soul is not flesh-and-blood but a power that seeks to keep me at a distance from the God of perfect love. Knowing the real enemy makes me more effective in the battle.

So what do I know about the enemy of your soul?

He is not creative. Creativity is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls. There is no genius about him; he only knows how to mimic God just enough to deceive us. Contrary to being creative, he tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. He entices us with fake power, fake love, fake progress. Spiritually disconnected people will take the bait every time.

He is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always creating, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again … predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, chaos.

He works within systems to generate chaos. The enemy of your soul is fond of the herd instinct. He abuses systems like racism, socialism and atheism, and even some forms of religion, but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. It isn’t so much that he has great forethought and strategy; he isn’t purposefully systematic. In the absence of a system, he will use whatever presents itself as most convenient but he gets big “wins” when people thoughtlessly follow the crowd.

His great lie is that there is no hope. Hopelessness is the enemy’s rearview mirror. He uses it to make us look backward while he whispers the lie that things will never get better. Hopelessness leads to fear and fear separates people from God’s love. When the enemy of your soul can get you to believe there is no hope, he gets a twofer. Hopelessness isolates in both directions. We feel isolated while others allow fear of our pain to create distance.

He breeds fear. This is the enemy’s ultimate goal — to create distance between us and God, between us and others. Fear breeds that distance. Fear kills love, so when Jesus tells us that our goal is to be made perfect in love, he is telling us that his intention is to make us stronger than our enemy. When Paul tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love but that perfect love casts out fear, he is showing us a path to spiritual victory.

He loves the fear of conflict. One of the things he most wants us to be afraid of is conflict. It isn’t conflict itself the enemy likes. In fact, he’d rather we never raise questions, think deeply, press into issues, get passionate enough to express a dissenting opinion. Why? Because conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

That is so important it is worth repeating: Conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

I’m thinking about Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair. Conflict reveals truth and exposes weakness and challenges us toward our destiny. A conflict well navigated breeds grace and deepens love and honor. Meanwhile, fear of conflict creates emotional distance and inhibits relational progress. Too many people who have blown up and walked away from conflict have missed great opportunities to encounter real growth. To walk through conflict maturely and with the mind of Christ is to walk through the valley of Psalm 23 to the feast on the other side.

Clearly, that is not a stroll the enemy of your soul wants you to take.

He feeds on denial. Denial holds us in a self-defensive posture. It creates an atmosphere of blame. If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to blame God, he’ll entice you to blame someone else for the things that are wrong in your life. Remember that it isn’t healthy conflict the enemy likes, but the lies that lead us to respond to conflict in unhealthy ways. Denial speaks the language of victims, the heart language of the enemy of our souls, who would rather we never learn anything from our circumstances.

He doesn’t care what you’re thinking about, as long as it isn’t Jesus. If you want to win a battle today, meditate on Jesus. Hear the wisdom of your spiritual fathers, who taught you to talk about him when you’re sitting at home or walking among others … even as you stand up to leave a room (Deuteronomy 6:8). if you want to defeat a defeating mental loop or an angry situation, refuse the voice of the enemy and allow yourself to glory in the One who loved you first and loves you most.

Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to have the last word. That privilege must always belong to Jesus.

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Holiness and the Billy Graham Rule

The issue is rarely the issue. Usually the issue is a symptom of the real issue beneath it. Which brings us to this week’s conversations about Mike Pence and the Billy Graham Rule. The discussion gives us a great reason to discuss the issue beneath the issue.

For the uninitiated, the Billy Graham Rule was coined after Graham made the public commitment to never meet alone (in a car, restaurant, hotel or office) with a woman other than his wife. His was a high-road choice to avoid the rumors swirling around other national leaders of his generation. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy both battled their own demons where sex and women were concerned.

I commend Billy Graham for making a strong statement about his personal boundaries. For him, that was the right choice. He was a target and his public declaration put the world on notice. Since his “rule” became famous, scores of Christian leaders have taken the same tack as Graham. Many have accepted it as a clear and easy way to avoid temptation or even the appearance of it. For some, it is the right choice, given their personal challenges (either internal or external). But is it the right choice in every instance, just because it was the right choice for one high-profile man?

A Washington Post editorial by Laura Turner spells out the nuances for both men and women of invoking this rule:

The impulse that led to the Billy Graham Rule — which was actually a solidification of principles guarding against several kinds of temptation — is a good and honorable one: to remain faithful to one’s spouse and to avoid the kind of behavior (or rumors of behavior) that have destroyed the careers of church leaders. Evangelical pastors having affairs is so common as to almost be cliche, and damages the integrity of the church.

But good intentions do not always produce helpful consequences. In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided. It perpetuates an old boys’ club mentality, excluding women from important work and career conversations simply by virtue of their sex.

The question is one of how both men and women leaders can live irreproachable lives while raising up those in their spiritual care. What is the right balance to strike? And what is the real issue beneath the Billy Graham Rule?

In a word, holiness. How we live out our lives before Christ so they bear fruit for the Kingdom is the real issue. When we pursue our own holiness, address our own brokenness, and face our own fears, then and only then can we effectively live out our own call to raise up others.

Lead us not into temptation. Jesus knew what he was teaching us when he taught us to pray against temptation. He knew temptations would come. That’s not an “if” but a “when.” He knew any effective follower of Christ would come face to face with the darkness. It is not ours to avoid temptation, but to learn how to not to cross the line when we’re faced with it. Paul said as much. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

What is the “way out”? Is it to limit access to other people, or is it to increase access to the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ and Paul are both teaching the same message: Don’t expect to handle temptation on your own; find victory by taking it to God. Use the temptations that inevitably come our way (don’t go generating them!) as an opportunity to evaluate spiritual health and an invitation to become more healthy. This will be a process, not an event, but the goal is internal transformation.

Fear bleeds. When our choices concerning spiritual leadership are born out of our own fears and insecurities, we not only self-limit our potential, we end up bleeding on those around us. We expect others to adjust to accommodate our fears.

Listen: I am responsible for my own brain, and those with whom I relate are responsible for theirs. When either of us are in a place spiritually or emotionally where we are unable to take every thought captive (remember: it is not the thought that comes into your head that is the problem; it is what you do with it that matters), then we have our own work to do. The right answer is not to place an “invisible burqa” on someone else. The right answer is to get the personal and spiritual healing I need so I can be the adult in the room and fulfill my calling, which is to raise up those around me called into spiritual leadership.

Go and make disciples. In their study of the challenges faced by women in leadership (published in the Harvard Business Review), Robin Ely and Deborah Rhode note that women often have difficulty accessing the same information as their male colleagues. Men in general have greater access to inner circles of support. But if women who lead don’t have access to other successful leaders who are ahead of them on the journey, how will they become better leaders?

We do not in this day and time have the leisure to consign one-half of the human race to “the women’s room” when it comes to leadership development. Shepherds are responsible for shaping the lives of the sheep in their care. All the sheep. Please don’t relegate gifted, driven, faithful women to the B-team because of fears, temptations or a lack of motivation toward holiness. Men of God, be holy as your Father in Heaven is holy. And out of your own holiness and call to lead, mentor those in your care. Raise up the men and women around you who will effectively make disciples, so that together we can welcome and advance the Kingdom of God.

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Trust God (and other things I learned from a penny).

Maybe you have heard me tell the story of my pennies. About six years ago I started finding them everywhere. The first time it happened was just about the time we found out that the cost of our first warehouse renovation would be more than we could afford. One morning I was out walking and talking to God about the situation. I remember saying, “Lord, I don’t see how this is going to happen. I don’t see how we’ll ever get the funds together to get into this building.” And just as I said that, I looked down and saw a penny in the road.

Now, I’m never one to see coins on the ground. I’m a big picture person; I don’t see details. But there it was — a penny shining in the early-morning dark — so I picked it up and laughed to myself. “Okay, God, so is this your contribution to the project?” Then it hit me that maybe this was God’s way of reminding me that he will provide. Not in the ways I expect and not on my timeline, but he will provide.

Be skeptical if you must, but I decided to take that penny as that kind of message from God.

After that, I started seeing pennies everywhere. It got to be a joke almost, like someone was planting them in my path. And almost like the punchline, one day just I pulled into a parking place a woman on the sidewalk stepped toward my car and started picking up change by the driver’s-side door. She looked up at me and said, “Look at all these pennies!” I had to laugh! I let her pick them up but I was thinking, “Lady, those are my pennies.”

Years have passed since that moment, and the penny phenomenon waned … until recently. We’re in the middle of another building renovation and campaign and again I found myself wondering if God will provide. These seasons can be complicated — keeping all hearts and minds moving in the same direction, helping the late adopters get there. One day in my office, I heard myself whining about something building-related. The person I was unloading on had the wisdom to suggest we pray and when I bowed my head there it was.

Right there on the floor staring back up at me was a penny.

I don’t believe God is walking before me tossing pennies in my path like some kind of cosmic flower girl. Not at all. But I do have to wonder if he uses the occasion of a penny on the ground to remind me not that He will provide all the funds we need but that He can be trusted.  After all, God wants us to trust him and every single penny carries that message: “In God we trust.”

Whether with pennies or unsure moments or invitations to jump, what if God is constantly trying to start a conversation with us about trust? Maybe pennies or critical moments or small decisions we make every day are a way Jesus is training us to trust him in the small things so we can trust him with more. Maybe this is why the “micro” matters. If we’re going to accomplish the macro, we have to be able to see where he is working right now … to accept the gift being held before us now.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. In this word, Jesus is hoping to convince us to lean on God for our needs because Jesus gets it that we don’t lean on God for our needs. When we choose anxiety and whining over trust, we expose our deepest fear — that God is not a giver, that God will not provide, that God can not be trusted. We won’t ever say this out loud but in the ways we over-protect, over-plan, over-defend, in the ways we guard our hearts and control our circumstances, we expose what we really believe.

Our actions betray us. They expose to the world our deep fear that God will take us only so far, that God can be trusted but not completely. That if we want something, we’d better go get it ourselves.

So what is that thing you don’t want to trust God for? Maybe you will trust him for a lot of things, but not for that thing. What is that thing? And how will you practice trusting him today in the small things, so you can build up strength to trust him for that thing?

Listen: God is the ultimate Giver and self-giving is at his very heart. Trust him … and then live for him.

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Do it afraid.

I want to ask you to put your hand at the back of your head, where your head meets your neck. That place is the fear center of your brain. When you’re faced with a threat, all your thinking moves back to that place. This part of your brain knows nothing but survival. Some of us visit this place every once in a while. Some of us have taken up residence there; we’ve purchased a condo and moved in.

What are the fears that send you back to this place?

Now, put the heel of your hand to your forehead. The front part of our brains is where rational thinking happens, and it is also where our identity center is. This is where our life purpose is worked out. They say this is also where personal faith is developed.

It happens far from our fear center.

Joyce Meyer tells the story of Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband was killed along with four other missionaries in Ecuador in the nineteen fifties. After that tragedy, Elisabeth’s life was completely controlled by fear. She wanted to continue her husband’s work but was paralyzed by fear. Then a friend told her something that set her free. She said, “Why don’t you do it afraid?” It sounded simplistic … but on that advice, Elisabeth went on to evangelize the Indian tribes of Ecuador, including the very people who had killed her husband.

Being stuck in fear – worried about possible outcomes and afraid to step out – keeps us far from the place where faith develops. So why not do it afraid? Even if our mouth is dry and our knees are shaking, when we step out in faith, we are deciding that our lives will not be ruled by our fears.

In the world of missions and ministry, “doing it afraid” is probably more common than not. I’m guessing every pastor and cross-cultural worker has a story of stepping out when they had no idea if the ground would meet that next step. Those who step out deserve our respect. They are at the front of Kingdom advancement.

This is exactly how the Kingdom comes: not when we do it perfectly, but when we do it faithfully.

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Pray To Be Dangerous.

Most of us have a desire to make a difference.

George Barna, a Christian sociologist, conducted a study asking folks about their commitment to making a difference in the world. He found two interesting strands in the data he collected. First, the older a person is, the more likely they are to want their life to matter (two out of three people over sixty). Second, the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to want their lives to matter. Two out of three evangelical Christians say they want to make a difference in the world, while less than one in four atheists have an interest in improving the world.

Our hearts seem to be in the right place. We want our lives to matter. But how does that desire stack up against our prayers?

Erwin McManus has a great story in his book, Seizing Your Divine Moment, about sending his son Aaron off to summer camp. He says,

“Aaron was just a little guy, and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they didn’t tell ghost stories because we don’t believe in ghosts, they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home, he was terrified.” That first night home, Aaron asked his dad to stay in the room with him. “Daddy, I’m afraid,” Aaron said. “They told all these stories about demons.” And McManus said he wanted to tell his son, “They’re not real,” but he couldn’t say that. Aaron pleaded, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?” In that plea, McManus said, he heard a desire for that kind of warm-blanket Christianity that too many people assume is all there is to it. So he said to his son, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.” And Aaron said, “Alright. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”

At the end of that story, McManus asks, “Have you come to that place in your own life where you stop asking God to give you a safe existence and start asking him to make you a dangerous follower of Jesus Christ?”

Not a bad place to start for those of us planning to jumpstart a prayer life at the beginning of a new year. Because my suspicion is that many of us treat God as if he were some kind of cosmic drive-thru employee. We yell out what we want and God fills the order and asks if we’d like fries with that.

Wouldn’t it be great if it were that … easy?

The problem is, that’s simply not reality. More, it isn’t the nature of the Creator of our Universe. His desire is not to fill your wants; his desire is to make you holy. He aims to shape you into the person you were created to be.

What kind of prayer is God more likely to answer? I believe he is more likely to answer the prayers we pray for courage as we walk into danger than the prayers we pray as we’re running to escape it. I’m not talking about foolish danger but the kind of holy boldness that is not afraid of taking hold of everything God has for us.

Are you praying for God to keep you safe, or are you praying for God to make you dangerous?

Here’s a tip from a boy who learned it from a faithful father: Don’t pray for safety. That’s not a prayer God is likely to answer. Pray instead to be more dangerous than your enemy. In the answer to that prayer you will find the answer to your great longing for a life that matters.

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