Thursday, April 9, 2015

Scratching or Soothing

Okay, reader. This may seem like a weird thing to share with the world of the internet, but I have chronic dry skin, especially on my legs. I went to the dermatologist a few years ago, and he called it by its fancy medical name, but all I know is that’s it’s extremely itchy and miserable. It’s particularly bad during the summer time, when the heat and humidity aggravate it, making my skin absolutely crawl with itchiness. This past week, as the spring weather has finally, beautifully become warm, my legs and ankles have become dismally itchy.

True, there are far worse things for a person to have to deal with, and I really have no right to complain about itchy skin. But it’s something that I’ve dealt with since I was in middle school, and, though it may seem like an insignificant thing, it’s taught me what I think is a significant spiritual truth regarding dealing with temptation. That may seem odd, but let me do my best to explain.

You see, reader, I’ve learned that when my skin starts to tingle and crawl and scream with an inconsolable itch, there are always two possible responses.

I can scratch the itch, or I can soothe it.

Scratching an itch is always the immediate, natural response. Gross as it sounds, I often scratch without even thinking about it, and for a brief moment, it feels so, so good. You know how it feels when you scratch a mosquito bite – feels good, right? But the problem with scratching an itch, as you probably know, is that it always makes the itch worse. As satisfying as scratching an itch might feel, in the next moment, the itch comes back even stronger and more unbearable than before. Not to mention the fact that you’re scratching (a.k.a. damaging) your skin. Sometimes it’s so bad that my skin starts to bleed, and the itching will always be worse than it was before. Not good. Not fun.

Soothing an itch, on the other hand, looks a lot different. This is when my skin begins to crawl, but instead of scratching it, I get my lotion and lather up my legs like there’s no tomorrow. Sometimes when the itching gets really bad I have to go the tub and run cold water over my legs to calm down the inflammation (or whatever it is that’s going on). Either way, with lotion or cold water, the itch actually subsides, and my skin isn’t damaged in the process. In fact, the lotion helps to heal my skin as it soothes the itching.

Maybe this is all way more information than you want, but something that I’ve learned is that having a really bad itch is the same as facing temptation. And there are always the same two responses.

My first option is to scratch the itch. The response that comes most naturally is to satisfy my sin by giving in to temptation, which provides immediate, false satisfaction. Pursuing sin only makes temptation harder to resist the next time, and it’s incredibly damaging to me, my relationships with others, and, most significantly, my relationship with God.

My second option is to soothe the itch: I can fight temptation by speaking truth to myself, by running to the Father and asking for His strength and grace. I can remind myself of who God is and who I am in Christ. These are the things which quiet the voice of temptation and help to heal the brokenness in my heart and mind.

Though they seem to be opposite parts of who I am, my skin and my soul actually need the same kind of treatment. Just like I need good lotion to ease the itching of my dry skin, I need the truth of God’s goodness, grace, and greatness to calm the restless cravings of my spiritual flesh.

And when I put on lotion instead of scratching and when I run to God instead of pursuing sin, I can always trust that healing will take place. The only question is if will I be intentional in pursuing that healing. Because healing is always available. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Uphill Hike

This past Monday, I hiked the Chimney Tops trail with my dear friends Pamela and Beverly. It was the first time I had ever hiked that trail. My friends tried to warn me how difficult it was, but man! I felt like I was dying. It's been a good month (at least) since I've made time to go running, and even if I had been running faithfully, hiking is a different kind of exercise. When I'm out exploring nature, I like to look at the trees and sky and everything around me, but it wasn't long before all my attention was focused on the ground in front of me. My legs burned and felt like jelly at the same time, and I struggled to keep putting one foot in front of the other as we walked up the steep trail.

Now, I generally think of myself as a pretty athletic person, but I was the one in our group who had to take breaks the most often. Pamela and Beverly were very gracious in stopping for me and walking at my pace, and, though I'm usually a the-more-the-merrier type of person, I was actually relieved that my other friend, who walks and hikes at a much faster pace, was not there to make me feel even slower than I already felt. (Sorry, Kristen. You know I love you.)

I'm not going to lie, my sluggish pace and intense difficulty in hiking was very discouraging to me, especially when little kids and senior citizens started passing us on their way down, looking like they had taken a five-minute walk in the park. I was utterly embarrassed to realize how weak and out of shape I am, especially compared to Pam and Bev and all the strangers around me. We would take a short break to catch our breath, then Pam and Bev would look at me or ask if I was ready to go, and we kept going. Then a few minutes later, I had to stop again. Pathetic.

There was a certain section of the trail that I really thought was going to kill me. It's over a hundred yards (I'm really bad at estimating distances.) straight uphill, like a never-ending staircase of doom. I had to stop so many times, and I felt humiliated because of my own inability to do what seemed like a simple thing. Something that everyone around me seemed able to do with far less difficulty than me. Halfway up that section, we took a more significant break, actually sitting down on some rocks next to the trail. Dozens of people passed us by on their way up or down the trail, and all I kept thinking was, "Why is this so hard for me? How am I supposed to make it to the top?" I looked up the trail, and all I saw was more stairs, more steep trail, more difficulty. (In fact, I'm pretty sure that, as we got further into the hike, every time we turned a corner and I saw more uphill trail, I verbally moaned. I don't know why Pam and Bev didn't slap me around or tell me to quit my complaining.)

Then Pam, sensing my discouragement, said, "Look back at the trail. Look at how far you've come." From where I sat on the rock, I turned around and looked at the trail below. I had certainly made it a long way.

"You've made it this far," Bev chimed in. "You can do it."

I don't think I had the breath to respond, but after a minute, I stood up, and we kept walking, slowly putting one foot in front of the other.

Maybe it seems really insignificant and lame (because, let's be real, I am incredibly out of shape), but the hike became a mental battle for me. "Just put one foot in front of the other," I thought. "Just one foot in front of the other. Don't think about the whole mountain, just make this step. Now this step. Now this step. Step. Step. Step."

It was hard. I didn't want to continue. But I realized that I would never make it to the top if I didn't keep moving. It didn't matter how slowly I walked (and, gratefully, Pam and Bev are very patient people), I just had to keep plodding up the trail. It didn't matter how much faster everyone else seemed to be going, I just had to keep hiking. I knew that if I kept going, eventually I would reach my goal.

And I realized that the same thing applies to my spiritual life.

Sometimes I feel like I'm climbing an impossibly steep trail, a trail that seems so much easier for everyone else, a trail that I can't see the end of. Sometimes this walk with the Lord is so hard that I can't even look around at the beauty that surrounds me, and even making the next step feels like a challenge. I'm often embarrassed and discouraged by how much I struggle, by how often I fail and need help, encouragement, and rest. I feel like I should be doing better, that everyone else finds it so much easier than me, that they'll surely reach the mountaintop sooner than I will.

The truth is that I am climbing a steep trail.

I realized while I was hiking that it's okay for my spiritual journey to be hard and painful and challenging. But I shouldn't let that stop me from putting one foot in front of the other. I'm not called to be as fast as everyone else - I'm not even on the same trail as everyone else. I'm called to keep making small steps, slow as they may be, toward the top of the mountain, toward joy and grace and intimacy with God.

Not only is it okay for me to go slowly, it's also okay for me to need encouragement and rest. I know I wouldn't have made it to the top of the Chimneys if Pam and Bev had not been there with me, and I know that God uses the people in my life to encourage me to keep going in my spiritual journey too.

And even if I can't see the end of the path, I know that it's there, and I know that it'll be worth all the pain of reaching it. I can find encouragement in how far I've come and the things I have conquered, and the more I go on climbing the mountain, the more I fight sin and pursue God, the stronger I'll be.

And more than all that, I know that I'm not called to walk up the trail in my own strength. God is with me, giving me strength and leading me to Himself, where there is grace and love and joy everlasting.

The view from the top.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Snow?

In December, I heard from several sources that we would be getting quite a bit of snow this year - more than last year. I still didn't expect what we've gotten these past two weeks. Never in my memory has snow lasted this long in Knoxville. If we're out of school tomorrow for another day, that'll make two full weeks of snow days.

As much as I'm inclined to complain about how this affects my lesson planning, I love the snow. 

Last week, one of my roommates and I sat in our living room, reading and watching the snow come down. After a day of freezing rain and sleet (which wasn't pretty at all), this was her observation:

"I'm glad that God made snow and not just ice and sleet. It's so pretty."

I don't think she realized how profound that was.

God could have just made sleet and hail and freezing rain that cover the world in ice. But He didn't. He also made snow. 


No matter how many times I've seen it, I'm still left amazed by how it coats the earth in a soft, white blanket, muting the sounds of restlessness and busyness that normally fill the air. Cold and lovely. When I walk through the snow, it's like I turn into a four-year-old, giggling and tromping around, watching my feet make footprints as I run around under snow-frosted trees. I love getting bundled up and heading out into the snow, the cold air kissing my nose, my fingers going numb when I make snowballs.

There is something utterly delightful about snow. Yes, I realize that snow can be inconvenient if you're trying to drive somewhere (or make lesson plans), and I realize that some people just don't like cold weather, but for a child playing in the snow, it's magical. If we're honest, playing in the snow and even walking through the snow is just plain fun. And I think that tells us something about the character of God.

God didn't make a world of pure practicality, creating things merely for their function. God made things that are breathtakingly beautiful. 

God made light and color, waterfalls and sunsets, rolling green hills and vast oceans, autumn colors and spring rain. He made cheerful songbirds and hyperactive squirrels, friendly dogs and mellow elephants. He created microorganisms too small to see, and He created colossal stars in galaxies flung far across space. God created snow. God created a world that fills us with wonder, a world that delights us. 

Why? Why did God bother with such beauty? Why does it matter?

I think that God created a beautiful world because He Himself is beautiful. God created a world full of wonders because He Himself is wonder-full. God created a delightful world because He is delightful, and He loves to delight His children. 

It's like when a husband surprises his wife with flowers. The flowers don't serve a practical purpose. They're just beautiful. And they communicate how much the man loves his wife. 

That's why I love snow. It's just beautiful. It shows me how beautiful and wonderful God is. It shows me how much He loves me. And I think that's the point.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Who I Really Am

Reader, I need to be brutally honest. Prepare yourself for some emotional vomit. If you'd rather not step in that mess, just skip the next paragraph.

I have a very hard time seeing any value in myself. I think that people love me and like having me around, but what I see when I look at myself is a needy, unattractive, disorganized, worthless failure. I fail my friends often but rely on them too much for my security. I'm also the regular debbie downer because I'm usually the first one to leave any kind of activity or hang-out because I'm not a night person. I eat when I'm upset/tired/stressed and have a hard time motivating myself to exercise. I struggle to put myself together beyond wearing jeans and a t-shirt every day. I waste too much time watching Netflix or browsing Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. I struggle with budgeting my money well, and I've got way too much stuff in my apartment (and at my parents' house). I have a very easy life, but I just can't seem to get it together. The talents that I do have frequently go unused since I'm too lazy to discipline myself with my time. I chase after sin and idols and leave my Bible to collect dust on my nightstand, only picking it up to go to church two times a week. I go to church and know all the right answers, but dang it! I just can't (or won't) apply truth to my life and let it transform me. I am a mess.

I don't say any of that to garner your pity. I just need you to see that when I look at myself, I see negatives.

I see all the ugliness, all the broken parts, and I often believe the lie from Satan that those broken parts are all that there is, and they will never be fixed. Like I said in my last blogpost (which, shockingly, was less than a week ago), my life seems like a perpetual struggle.

I can hear some of my friends now: "Even if some or all of those things are true, there are also a lot of good things about you." And that's true. I have good qualities, and I do some good things.

I have a winsome personality and a good sense of humor. I have pretty brown eyes, and I've been told that my curly hair is fantastic. As much as I avoid exercise, I'm a natural athlete, and I can easily run two miles after weeks of not running. I connect really well with students, both the middle schoolers that I teach and the high schoolers at church that I hang out with and mentor. I love giving things to the people I care about, whether it's a cup of their favorite coffee drink or something bigger. I'm involved in two small groups and volunteer with my church's high school youth group. I make friends easily and love investing in both new and old friendships.

Those are all good things. I don't say any of that to brag about myself. I say those things because, as much as I forget it, there are positive characteristics about me that I can be grateful for. But if I'm looking to the good things about me for solace about my failings and brokenness, I'm looking in the wrong place.

The problem with both of those lists is that both of them are entirely about me. As long as I'm continually looking at myself, my spiritual growth will be crippled. Thinking about myself is not what will transform me and redeem my sin and brokenness.

What will transform me - what can transform anyone and anything - is the gospel. I can't heal or redeem myself, but God can, and He will. God says that He will complete the work that He began in me. Regardless of my successes and failures, God is doing a transforming work of grace in my heart and life.

And ultimately, just like I can't transform myself into something better, someone holier, I can't give myself an identity either. I don't have the final word on who I am or what value I hold. My failings don't determine who I am, and neither do my victories. The One who created me and redeemed me determines both my identity and my value.

That is good news. Because despite my rebellion, God calls me His precious child; despite my steady failures, God calls me holy and beloved. That is my identity. Not only that, but the value that God has set on my life is the blood of Jesus, which is of infinite worth.

No matter what I do, no matter what I feel or think, that is who I am. None of the ugly things about me can take away from that, and none of the good things about me can add to that.

I am His. That's who I really am. And that's what brings change - He changes me by first changing who I am, by calling me His own.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure. (1 John 3:1-3) 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I'm Not Finished (with Struggling)

Over the last few months, the number of unfinished drafts of posts for my blog has grown quite a bit. The reason for this is that I begin writing a post as I begin to understand what it is that I'm learning, but then I can't quite finish because I'm not sure what God is teaching me. So I leave the blogpost unfinished.

A few weeks later, I think about a different issue or a different analogy for the things I'm learning, and I begin a new blogpost, only to leave it unfinished as well.

Reader, this is very discouraging. Yes, I want to be more disciplined in my writing, but more than that, my lack of completing any blogposts makes something very clear to me.

I have very, very little figured out. I seem to wrestle with things constantly with little progress and very few satisfying answers.

I'm always struggling but never arriving. 

Man! I really just want to arrive. I want to be finished with the constant wrestling. I want to get to a place where I don't struggle constantly, where I've conquered certain chronic idols, where I'm filled to the brim with the joy and peace that I know is available in Christ. But I am not there.

Something I realized, though, is that it's okay to struggle. It's okay to wrestle and to not understand what God is doing. It would be far worse for me to give up than it would be for me to spend each day battling sin and, though sometimes (often) failing, striving to follow Christ.

The truth is that none of us have arrived, none of us are finished, and we won't get to that point until we reach glory. Until we meet God face to face and there is no more sin or brokenness, we will always be struggling toward that end. And that's not fun, but it's okay. And we have help, not only from those with whom we live in community, but also from God himself.
"For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbrith until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:22-28)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Idle Worship

I don't claim to write blogs frequently; usually I'm doing well if I publish one new blog per month. This is because I'm not very disciplined, so I don't sit down to write nearly as much as I should. However, it's also because I think about my next blogpost for several weeks before I ever sit down to write it. Then, even when I do sit down to write it, I'm not sure how to articulate what God is teaching me or doing in my heart. I currently have four other unfinished drafts of struggles and realizations and lessons that I can't quite put into words yet. I'm very grateful for your reading my blog, but it's honestly for my benefit as much as it is yours. It's good for me to have to write down the things God is showing me - that way I'm more likely to actually learn the lesson.

All that being said, I haven't been able to finish a blog lately because I haven't wanted to listen to whatever God may be saying to me for the last few weeks. I haven't wanted to pursue God or pursue righteousness. Writing is one of the things in my life that forces me to honesty, and I haven't wanted to be honest with myself, so I haven't been writing.

In my last blog, I talked about pursuing God despite the difficulty, despite the discomfort, and despite the pain of dying to myself. I related that to the difficulty of disciplining myself in starting to run again, and, while I have been running faithfully, I can't say the same for my pursuit of God.

In fact, in some ways, I've been running the other direction.

I thought that if I just sat idly, I would be okay. I convinced myself that, if I just stayed where I was spiritually, it would be fine. I can pursue God later - I'll just enjoy where I am now. It shouldn't always be a struggle, should it?

But I've found that in my idleness, I latch onto my idols more ferociously. If I'm not intentionally seeking to be satisfied in my Creator, I will seek satisfaction in other things.

In some sense, there is no such thing as spiritual idleness. There is no moment when we are truly inactive, because by our inactivity, we are pursuing self instead of God. Apart from God's intervening grace in my life, I am a filthy, vile, hell-bent enemy of God. It is only God's grace that rescued me and declared me righteous and made me His beloved, purified child, filled with purpose and glory in Christ.

So doesn't it make sense that, although I am being sanctified and transformed by Christ, my natural, everyday state is to run away from God, not toward Him? If I'm not actively, intentionally fighting my idols, I'm allowing them to reign over me. If I'm not deliberately tearing down my idols, I'm bowing down to them. There is no middle ground.

I'm always worshiping something, and idleness allows idolatry.

Paul says this about the idolatry of the unbelievers in Rome:
"... they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things" (Romans 1:20-23).
I read that in my devotions this morning and was so convicted. Here I am, a child of God, and I have traded the glory of knowing Him for the emptiness of other things. I've allowed myself to pursue idols because I haven't wanted to pursue God. Because I often don't believe Him when He says that He is enough. Because I'm afraid of what it will mean to surrender to Him. Because I'm afraid that, even after I pursue Him, I won't be satisfied.

So instead of pursuing Him, I've sat idly, and in my idleness, I cling to other things in hopes of satisfying my soul.

And guess what? My idols never satisfy me. Never.

As my pastor said this morning, only God can make and fulfill the claim of being able to satisfy our souls. Whatever else I'm drinking to satisfy the thirst in my soul, it will not satisfy. Only Jesus can satisfy my soul. Only Jesus. He is enough, surrender is rest, and He will satisfy every longing of my heart.

So the question is, what then will I do? Will I do nothing and let my idols grow? Will I continue chasing after empty things? Or will I throw off my idols in pursuit of the only One who can fill me till I am overflowing?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Running the Race with Fear and Trembling

In the dim light of the morning, I'm pulled out of my dreams by the sound of my alarm clock. My hand fumbles onto my nightstand until I finally manage to grab my phone, half opening my eyes to locate and hit the snooze. I immediately close my eyes, snuggling deeper under my soft covers. In that moment, the image of my running clothes, laid out the night before, flashes across my mind. My shirt, shorts, socks, and shoes are all ready for me to go if I could just drag myself out of bed.

But that requires actual movement. And I know that running means putting one foot in front of the other until my legs feel like jelly and my lungs are burning and then going further and further. Going running means that everyone who passes me in his car can see my slow pace and my red face and just how out of shape I am.

How about I just go running tomorrow? Yeah, I'll just go running tomorrow. I roll over under my covers, quickly grabbing my phone and turning the alarm off rather than hitting the snooze again.

This is the struggle. Since I had to stop marathon-training last year and was thrown headlong into my first year of teaching, getting back into the habit of running has been an uphill battle. A battle which I have been losing, despite the fact that I know I'll love running again once I get back into it consistently.

I can't tell you what a discouragement this has been for me. While I had neither time nor energy to run regularly during my first year of teaching, I feel ashamed and embarrassed by how out of shape I am. I guess I expected more of myself. But the truth is that I'm a lot less disciplined and driven than I thought I was.

Now, when I go running, it's hard. It's uncomfortable. It's a steady argument between my body screaming at me to stop and my mind trying to convince me to keep going. Lately, I've approached and begun every run with at least some amount fear, and by the end, my legs are often trembling with exhaustion.

But the thing is, if I don't go through the discomfort and pain, I'll never make any progress. If I don't run when I don't love running, I'll never reach the point where I do love running again. If I don't fight the uphill battle, I'll never reach the hilltop.

Isn't that the way it is in our spiritual lives?

I often find myself discouraged that I'm not doing better, not victorious over idols, not filled with joy like I want to be, not in love with God like I want to be. I don't know about you, but for me, pursuing God is an uphill battle. This isn't because He is playing hard-to-get or something ridiculous like that. Not at all! God has always and continues to pursue me with His love day after day, and He pours grace and mercy on me in abundance. He fills me with strength and gives me rest. He gives me everything I need from day to day. He alone is worthy of all my love, adoration, and praise, and He is ever welcoming me into His presence. You would think that it would be easy for me to love Him with all of my life.

But my heart is so easily led astray, and killing my old, sinful self in order to pursue God is a lot like the difficulty of running. I know it's good for me, and I genuinely want to do it, and the reward is so great, but... it's not easy. It's uncomfortable and exhausting.

When I think about fighting the sin and idols in my life, I'm often afraid that I'll never find victory. I've been fighting these battles for so long - where's the proof that I can overcome them? When I'm in the middle of fighting temptation, I tremble with the difficulty of setting my mind on Christ rather than letting my mind dwell on sin.

In my life, in running but more so in seeking to pursue God, there is much fear and trembling. However, if I don't throw away my idols and pursue God, when will I ever find the closeness of fellowship with God that I desire? If I don't choose to fight the battle - fight with every ounce of energy that I have - how can I ever hope to win? If I don't actually run the race, no matter how difficult it is, how can I ever reach my goal?

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." -Philippians 2: 12-13

We work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We pursue God with fear and trembling.

The beauty of this is that it allows for our weakness and calls us to strength. It calls us to pursue Christ despite our weakness, for it is God, the mighty Creator and Sustainer, who works in and through us. We work as God works.

Think about that - we are called to live in bold obedience because of who God is and what Christ has done. We don't have to live in fear of our sin or of the difficulty of the battle. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world; Christ has overcome our sin. We are to live in fear and awe of God. We are to tremble with humility and gratitude before the One who created the universe with the power of His voice and redeemed His people with His own blood.

When I fear and tremble because of my persistent failures and my overwhelming struggles, it's because I've forgotten who God is. When I live in awe of God and tremble with worship before Him, I can step boldly into the life to which He has called me - the life of destroying idols and racing wholeheartedly after Him.

So let us run with endurance the race set before us. For there is joy to be found in spending myself for Him, and with each step He draws me nearer to the glory that waits at the finish line.