Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Ordinary Can Make Life Extraordinary

This summer I was selected to be a part of the launch team for Melanie Shankle's new book, Church of the Small Things. Melanie has a special way of putting you at ease, like you're in her living room having a chat, while tackling this internal struggle that plagues numerous women: whether or not they are living a worthy life. So much of life seems focused on our "big moments," and not enough attention is given to those everyday, consistent actions that truly make up a life. We all strive to be Pinterest perfect, but we need to remember that just getting out of bed in the morning can be a victory in and of itself. Somehow in our search for significance, we forget about the importance of our very presence in people's lives.
Church of the Small Things made for a quick read because it was so easy to relate to the subject matter and it celebrates the little things in life. From hospitality received from grandparents, to loyal friendships, to figuring out how to house train dogs, this book has a way of impacting readers from all backgrounds with topics reminiscent of our own lives. Melanie draws you in with her wit and humor and her book has many moments where you will laugh until you cry, and then cry until you laugh again.
I've always been a fan of quirky imagery, which is why I think I love Melanie as an author. While I absolutely love her deeper thoughts about learning to trust God having a plan for your life and accepting that one must inevitably endure failures along the way, my favorite quotes from this book include, "Ironically, the laser was called the Cool Touch 1000, which is the biggest oxymoron of all time. The Cool Touch 1000 burned like the heat of 10,000 white hot suns surrounding a planet of volcanoes filled with molten lava that has been set on fire, and, "Because even though it's a stationary bike, I felt a little bit like a cat who has accidentally found itself in a tap-dancing competition."
If you neglected to pre-order Church of the Small Things, do yourself a favor and hop on over to your local Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy. And if you don't feel like crawling out of bed or leaving the house, feel free to order it online from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Refiner's Fire

There's a courage that is forged in pain
There's a purpose in the furnace flame
~Live Alive by Rend Collective 

Within the Bible there is much imagery dedicated to gold and silver being purified in fire. Just as smelters seek to rid precious metals of their impurities, the Lord seeks to purify the hearts of His followers. God desires to strengthen the faith of believers and draw them closer to Himself. 1 Peter 1:6-7 seeks to illustrate this point by stating, "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith -- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire -- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." In light of this Scripture, and looking back on 2016, I very much believe that I spent the year in God's forge.
To impersonate Sophia Petrillo, "Picture it! Galilee, PA: February 2016." It was my least favorite month of the year and the gloom of winter was causing my mind and thought processes to spiral downward. For those who don't know, I struggle with anxiety and depression that can either be general, circumstantial, and almost always seasonal. If I'm diligent in prayer, I can usually catch myself and hold off the downward spiral. But other times, like last winter, my mind can become its own worst enemy and I can create problems that don't actually exist.
Being an introvert, I'm very observant and attuned to patterns, and I had convinced myself that a particular pattern in communication had become fractured. Instead of dealing with this situation rationally, I allowed my anxiety to take a stranglehold on my life. I believe that the best description for the mental sabotage i endured can be found in Zach Eswine's book Spurgeon's Sorrows. In it he states, "Though none of the bad things we imagine have happened to us, we 'convert our suspicions into realities and torture' ourselves with them in our own imaginations." And as Spurgeon himself declared, "On the very slightest turn of circumstances we begin to fret." Believe me when I tell you that it's not a fun place to be in mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. For anyone who has either experienced this personally or had a friend struggle, you'll know that an unfortunate byproduct of anxiety and depression is anger, and that was the next phase of my year.
At this point, I opted to go on a disaster relief trip for a change of scenery in the hope that this would cure my inner turmoil. While I was able to mask my struggles during the day for the most part, during my alone time the internal battle continued to rage and I began pleading with God to make me well. I was very aware that I was starting to lash out at close friends and couldn't figure out how to stop and just chill. I could totally relate to Anna Kendrick in her book Scrappy Little Nobody where she admitted, "The real problem is that I let my anxiety cripple my relationships." It was agonizing to notice shifts in friendships and painful to realize that my behavior was the most notable cause for the shift.
For the longest time I couldn't recognize the purpose behind my struggles. Thankfully God knew they were necessary to strengthen my resolve in order to minister to others while I dealt with the so-called trainwreck of my mind. Looking back to May, there was a particular morning that I was rather anxious and a chaplain pulled me aside at breakfast to pray with me. You know it's getting bad when the chaplains make a beeline for you. The blessing, though, was that I ended up working at the home of a woman who struggled with anxiety that bordered agoraphobia. I felt that God had placed me there specifically, so I took the time to share music with her, along with letting her know that it was okay to be frustrated and that there is an entire book in the Bible where the author voices his frustrations, which is aptly titled Lamentations. All of this was discussed while we carefully went through her closet looking for and thankfully finding the deed to her house. At the end of the day, another chaplain, who happened to be a trained counselor, expressed how he struggled to see past the clinical aspects of this homeowner's anxiety, but I was there in a capacity that allowed me to relate to her through shared experience. That was one of the few times all year that I felt like I had a purpose and that God was using my struggles to benefit others.
Although I came to this realization, I still endured a summer plagued with anger and negative thought processes. There were some notable bright moments spent with friends watching soccer, but I remained consumed by things that had gone wrong and yearned for my life and friendships to be restored to how they were in previous months. I forgot that change is inevitable and God had His own plan. He desired for me to focus solely on Him and in order to do that, certain aspects of my life needed to be refined and idols discarded. It wasn't until August that I finally began implementing some of these changes, which included taking better care of myself mentally and spiritually. This involved rearranging my work schedule so that I could finally make it to church on Sunday. This in turn gave me an opportunity to stop by work on my way home from church to share what I had learned during the sermon.
Through all of this, I finally recognized that God had protected me during certain events and kept me out of particular circumstances. He also made me keenly aware of the blessings He bestowed on me. The most apparent blessings came in the form of friends and fellow believers who desired to minister to me, pray for me, and help restore my lost joy. I'm thankful that I finally recognized the purpose for walking through God's refining fire this past year. I've taken to heart James 1:2-3, which states, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." Without facing trials, I may fall prey to thinking that I can do life without relying on God. Through my many trials, though, I've drawn closer to God, restoring my loyalty to Him, with a renewed desire to stand for my faith.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Who is Your Captain?

Through waters uncharted my soul will embark
I'll follow Your voice straight into the dark
And if from the course You intend
I depart
Speak to the sails of my wandering heart
~Captain by Hillsong United

I'm a natural born wanderer. I just can't seem to sit still or stay in one place for very long. I know this pains some people who wish that I would be a more consistent presence in their life, but sadly, that's just not how I'm wired. At the same token, though, I'm not just aimlessly going through life. I plan to some extent, but God typically nudges me in a different direction, which has been pretty obvious during my past four years, but especially in the past four months. Four months ago I had a job. Four months ago I was trying to figure out what job to apply to next. Four months ago I got a text alert about wildfires in Middletown, CA, and took a leap of faith and told my job I was no longer available to work.
Sounds silly and foolish, I know. But disaster relief is one of those things that I feel called to do, even if that means giving up the safety and security of a paycheck. Nowhere else have I felt purpose and the ability to live out the Gospel than when I am serving people who have lost everything. We can't constantly live our lives chasing after the "almighty" dollar. That is the surest way to feel empty inside. For me, God is constantly showing me that it's serving others and the people I come across in life that help provide adventure, fulfillment, and meaning. By allowing God to lead the way, I've lived the most random four months in my entire life, and I don't think I've ever been more thankful for the path that He chose for me.
If it wasn't for that leap of faith back in September, I would never have met friends who have become family, I may not have known about a seasonal position in Charlotte that helped get me through December, and I would have spent Thanksgiving at home in Pennsylvania, rather than in New Mexico like I did. There's also a chance that I may not have had the courage to pack up my room in Charlotte on New Year's eve in order to hit the road for more volunteer work in Texas, which then led me to Missouri for more flood cleanup.
It's really awesome looking back at how God lined everything up for me up until this very moment. If it wasn't for that trip to California, I may not have had the option to head west to visit friends in Colorado after volunteering in Missouri, which could have left me stranded on a highway trying to venture east through this past weekend's epic blizzard. It's a constant reminder that I'm not in charge of my life as much as I'd like to believe that I am. God is the true captain of my life, which is ever apparent to me at this very moment. Today has been the embodiment of Proverbs 16:9, which states, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." This morning I left one friend's house with the anticipation of spending the next few days with another friend. As I hit the road today, though, my friend informed me that her daughter is currently sick and we'll have to postpone my visit. I opted to not panic, but instead, got a hold of another friend who just so happens to currently live in Colorado, rather than Vermont. She thankfully has room for me to crash tonight, so I don't have to stay forever at the Super Target I'm chilling at right now. Although my initial plans fell apart, God provided another option. I may not understand the reasoning behind it all, but I don't doubt that there is a purpose that might be revealed one day.

Like the stars
Your Word
Will align my voyage
And remind me where I've been
And where I am going
My Captain
My soul's trusted Lord
All my allegiance is rightfully Yours 
~Captain by Hillsong United

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Metaphorical Thorn

"Arguably, issues of mental health are always invisible – always something embarrassedly swept aside in favour of problems easier to acknowledge and talk about." ~Claire Bennett

For those of you who are unaware, I've dealt with anxiety and depression since around the age of 15, so I've had some personal experience with what would be deemed mental health issues. For awhile, I used to be ashamed of my struggle and it was always hard to talk about it because, unfortunately, there are many who either don't understand or accept mental health as "actual" issues. The reasoning behind that can range from ignorance to the false assumption that those individuals struggling should just think positively and need to change their frame of mind. Truth be told, it's not that simple. But it's not easy to explain, either, especially to those who don't really want to listen. 
Anxiety and depression are each their own animal, but can occasionally be packaged together in a single individual's brain, such as mine. Anxiety has a tendency to make me hyper aware in certain situations, especially anything that's new and unknown. I joke that there's a little hamster on a wheel running in my brain constantly, because in all honesty, that's one of the best ways for me to describe how I feel. I'm a classic over-analyzer and over-thinker, which just creates more rabbit trails for my anxiety when it's close to the surface. This is what makes my ability to socialize difficult at times. My mind has this way of sabotaging me at times just for its own amusement. Simple conversation can be made difficult when I have thoughts coursing through my brain wondering if I'm talking too much, annoying somebody, or discussing topics that are uninteresting. This doesn't just happen when I talk to people in person, either. I almost have to give myself a pep talk when it comes to calling or texting people at times. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and it is, but that's how my brain works sometimes.
Then of course there's the depression. When depression rears its ugly head, it can plunge me not only into despair, but also a state of numbness. It makes me feel like I have no emotions at all sometimes, and I desire strongly to isolate myself from others in order to avoid talking about my struggles because so often I'm unable to put them into words. How can I possibly explain my sadness when nothing is truly wrong? Saying you're depressed is usually met with responses like, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," but nothing more. People have a tendency to walk on eggshells around people with depression, or just avoid the issue altogether. It takes a very special friend to be willing to remain steadfast with someone in the midst of a battle with depression.
When I think about it, though, I wouldn't change my life or take the battle away. The battle has aided me in certain situations because those who struggle with anxiety and depression are more empathetic to others in a similar plight. I recognize some signs in others on occasion and have had the opportunity to start discussions with certain individuals about their own battle. On some occasions I have desired to have a "normal" life and not have to deal with my depression and anxiety. Much like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8, when he desired to have the thorn removed from his flesh, I have pleaded to have God ease the anguish enveloping my brain, but the struggle remains in varying degrees. I think it remains as a reminder for me seek God with all my heart and mind in order to find peace because if I had a so-called easy life, I believe that I would forget God's provision for me. I just have to remember that God's grace is sufficient. Nothing more. Nothing less.

"I was reminded tonight of just how brave people who suffer from depression/anxiety/etc are. To fight those battles & survive is just...heroic." ~Mandy Hale

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rejecting the Kingdom of Self

"Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake."
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I've been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and let me tell you, it will definitely convict you of your shortcomings and unveil any selfishness that still exists in your heart. Though it's hard and feels like a slap in the face, it's necessary in order to live with complete abandon to Jesus. Pride and self-centeredness are two great evils that must be combated in every individual so as to preserve the integrity of the Christian mission, and I'll be the first to tell you that I've been complacent in my own battle until recently.
I'm not exactly sure how it happened, and it was probably due to a myriad of factors, but at somepoint, I stopped making an effort to reach out to people and be truly concerned about what they were doing in life and what struggles they were facing. I was taking the ostrich approach to life: head in the sand to ignore what was going on around me. But by being too busy focusing on myself and all of the recent changes in my life, I forgot to use my spiritual gift of encouragement. I think in my mind I convinced myself that if I was discouraged with the path I was on, what's the point of trying to encourage someone else? And that's where I was wrong. I forgot that the Christian life is upside down and backwards, which meant that I forgot that by choosing to encourage someone else, I in turn would end up being encouraged. Selfishness will do that to you, though. It'll convince you that there's no sense being involved in somebody's life when things aren't going they way you had hoped.
It wasn't until I saw a particular post on Facebook that I had my head yanked back out of the sand. I can't remember the exact wording, or even who posted it, but it basically called for the reader to ponder how many people struggled to get through their day because the person God appointed to encourage them chose not to. In that moment, the hamster on the wheel in my brain literally started sprinting and my eyes were opened to how I was being flagrantly disobedient. Not only was I not wielding my spiritual gift, but I was ignoring other Scriptures that call for us to encourage others and be supportive of the Christian community such as Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. It also made me wonder how many times I'd potentially missed the opportunity to make a new friend because I was too busy wanting life to be all about me, rather than about Jesus and his kingdom.
As of late, I feel like I've finally returned to my old encouraging self now that I'm a little less focused on my own life and am instead reaching out to others. It honestly doesn't take that much effort, which makes me realize how selfish and complacent I had really become to not bother extending myself either via text, phone call, or any other form of communication. You, also, can easily encourage others by either going to an event a friend is participating in, streaming it online, forwarding posts that remind you of someone, patting someone on the back after they courageously share their testimony in public, or passing along information about a cause that is near and dear to someone's heart. All we need to do is burst the bubble of self and cheer on other people and we will in turn realize that we end up getting blessed by purposefully choosing to bless and encourage others.

"The inability to celebrate what God is doing in and through someone else simply reveals a profound sense of fear, insecurity, and lack of trust in a big, gracious, faithful, and loving God. If you are in your lane running your race and another person is faithfully in their lane running their race then there is no possible way that the success of one can diminish the effectiveness of another. It is God who calls us and He is good and He does good. We need to get a bigger view of God so we do not allow our own flesh, feelings, thoughts, and limitations to rule and reign. Why don't we choose to celebrate each other rather than compare and compete with each other." ~Christine Caine

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Facing Fears for God's Glory

"I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears." ~Psalm 34:4

The above verse was my mantra for the majority of last week. I spent the week going through raft guide school, a period of time that I thought would be a stepping stone for a new summer job. There's truth to the fact that it was a stepping stone, but not in the sense that I expected, as you'll all soon come to realize.
The week started out well enough. I met the other raft guide candidates and we all received our cold weather gear that included a wetsuit, booties, and a splash top. March isn't exactly the ideal time of year to go rafting, especially when the water is 47 degrees Fahrenheit, but I figured after a week of volunteering in 16 degree weather in Tennessee, I'd be alright. The first day we were taught paddle strokes and then the instructors took us down the channel of Class II and III rapids. It was a little unnerving at first, but I survived and slowly became more comfortable. By day two, I was doing a decent job of guiding and catching mandatory eddies, minus the fact that I decided to briefly abandon ship when I got bounced out of the raft during a Class III rapid. What I wasn't ready for, though, was our last task of the day: swimming underneath the raft. I totally understand why it is required because we need to be put in every possible situation that someone might experience while whitewater rafting. But for someone who has a fear of getting trapped beneath an object underwater, to the point where I have a hammer in my glove compartment on the off chance my car goes off a bridge into a body of water, this was a terrifying endeavor. I attempted to do the length of the raft, but after about two seconds of being underwater, I freaked out and shot out the side. I did my best to regain my composure and the instructors and I decided on me doing the width of the raft, which I completed, but my mental state was in shambles. I held it together until I reached my car, which is where I crumbled into uncontrollable sobs for my 45 minute drive home. I knew I was okay, but I was allowing Satan to infiltrate my brain and play tricks on me. I knew the next day involved swimming the Class III rapids, and I was petrified and convinced that I wouldn't be able to do it. 
When I got home, I attempted to calm down enough to call home. I was calm for a matter of five seconds before the panic attack returned. Thankfully my mom was able to get me to talk about what I had accomplished that day, which helped alleviate my panic, until I had to discuss what had caused it. I was able to calm down again, but I was at a real low point, actually asking if I was a horrible Christian for getting so anxious and fearful for my life and the thought of death, even though I was aware that the likelihood of me dying at guide school was minimal. I was reassured and told that I wasn't a bad Christian, but that I really needed to pray, and pray a lot. It had become very apparent that I wasn't going to be able to complete guide school in my own strength. 
That night I had a very fitful night of sleep. I was dreading guide school because of the swim portion, and to make it even more fun, it was about 50 degrees and cloudy. Did I mention that the water was 47 degrees? I arrived and was thankful that we just spent time talking inside for two hours, but then it was time to venture outside. I was shaking partly because of the cold and partly because of the idea of having to swim through the rapids. I was doing my best to pray for God's strength and for him to wrap me up in a little bubble and take away my fears and anxiety. The first portion of the swim wasn't too bad, but then I got caught in an eddy, which really exhausted me when I tried to swim out of it. Combining the fact that I was tired with the fact that I still had to swim the largest Class III on the channel made me start doubting myself, which I voiced to one of the instructors. He remained patient with me and promised to float a few feet behind me to make me more comfortable, so I waded into the frigid water, said a little prayer, and began floating toward the waves downstream. As I descended, I held my breath and prepared for my body to get held underwater momentarily. Thankfully I popped up within five seconds and was able to swim to shore feeling like I accomplished something. I was thankful that God got me through that, but the anxiety soon returned knowing full well that swimming a Class IV rapid was on the docket.
As I sat and ate my lunch, another guide began discussing the Class IV rapid that was awaiting us. He mentioned how you really didn't want to go left or else you'd experience what is known as the "spin cycle," which pretty much meant you'd get tumbled underwater a couple times before resurfacing. This put my mind in overdrive and I attempted to pray, but the fear and anxiety lingered in the recesses of my brain. I began to shiver again partially from cold and partially from the thought of the swim. I tried to warm up in a hot shower, but by the time we were to go outside, I had reached my breaking point and told one of my instructors that the water was making me anxious, which of course lead to some tears on my part. Another one of my least favorite things: crying in front of people. He was kind and asked me what about it made me anxious and I explained the unpredictability of the currents. Instead of forcing me to go back on the water, he suggested I go talk to the raft guide scheduler in order to decompress. She was very kind and allowed me to express my concerns and she voiced how she was also scared to swim under the raft. She also said that the instructors weren't there to make me miserable and that if there was anything that made me feel uncomfortable, I didn't have to do it. That seemed to alleviate some of the stress I was feeling. She also encouraged me to not give up so fast and to at least finish out the week, even if that meant just riding along as a passenger in the raft and not actually guiding considering I fell out pretty much once a day as a guide for some reason. I was able to motivate myself into going back out and rafting the rest of the day, thankful that we weren't swimming the Class IV that day like I suspected. I made it through the rest of Wednesday and was less anxious than the day before, but still not at all myself. I had a discussion with Chrissy when I got home, and we both determined that this wasn't the job for me with all of the tension that was clearly wafting off of me. I desired nothing more than to just be done with guide school, but still knew that I couldn't just throw in the towel. I needed to see this through no matter how anxious I was.
Thursday morning rolled around and I started my day by writing Psalm 34:4 on the back of my left hand. To go with it, I also wrote on there 1 John 4:18 in order to remind me of these words: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." That last sentence stings a bit to consider, but in essence, it's true of my life. I don't fully understand the love of God and I think I fall short in truly embracing it at times and trusting God to protect me every step of the way. It's certainly a shortcoming and an area in my faith that I need to improve through studying my Bible, but I digress. 
On my way to school, I opted to listen to Tenth Avenue North, particularly the song, "Closer." Within this song is the line, "Come on, let me know You're near, and push away my fear," which ended up serving as my mantra for the day. Again, we began our day discussing things in the classroom before gearing up and scouting the Class III and IV channel on our way to the swim location. I prayed on and off on our scouting trip, partly thinking that the channel wasn't so bad, until I saw where we needed to swim. Then my anxiety revved right up again. My uneasiness was well known to the other participants and other instructors, along with the rafting manager, who tried to give me some encouragement letting me know that my guiding skills were good and that the I was capable of doing the swim. I nodded and decided that I would attempt it despite my mind trying to convince me otherwise. Honestly, the night before I'd practiced holding my breath as long as possible as a way of preparing for a worst case scenario. Soon we all lined up to take our turns at the swim, waiting for the "go" signal from the manager on shore. When it was my turn, I again said a prayer and jumped into the current. I attempted to steer myself towards the right of the pillow of the rapid and held my breath and closed my eyes as I went under. About seven seconds later, I resurfaced and heard my instructor yelling for me to swim to him in the eddy to the river left. I managed to get over there and swirled up to the side and climbed the ladder onto the shore. I was very thankful to be okay and happy about what God helped me accomplish, but that nugget of anxiety implanted itself yet again since I knew full well that I then had to raft the same channel multiple times with others guiding and soon myself guiding. I continued to think about how perfect love casts out fear and that got me to lunch time. With the temperature dropping and it downpouring and windy, we stayed inside for quite awhile. I secretly hoped the storm wouldn't calm down, but alas, it did, and it was on to attempting to surf the Class III rapids. I found myself volunteering to go first, mostly just to get it out of the way. I did a decent job until the current ripped the side of the boat into the rapid and I feared we were going to flip as I got tossed to the left. I tried to lean right, but my paddle came out of the water, causing the right side of the boat to then tip towards the trough of the rapid, and into the water I fell, upstream of the raft. Thankfully I didn't have enough time to fully comprehend what happened and what was about to happen and was able to instinctively hold my breath because I soon found myself pushed underneath my raft. With the training I had earlier in the week, though, I knew what I needed to do in order to get back to the surface and swam frantically to shore, where I climbed onto a rock totally winded, hands on knees trying to catch my breath again. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that this wasn't fun and so not for me, but knowing that it was not because of the instruction, but was all totally mental on my part. Since it was so cold, I opted to only do one more run and then call it a day in order to avoid hypothermia. I was thankful that God got me through yet another day, but was still wishing I was completely done.
Friday rolled around, a day where it was 29 degrees out and windy. We remained inside until 11am, but I already knew in my head that it wasn't worth risking hypothermia for a job I knew I wouldn't take in the end. I prayed about it and knew that I had accomplished all that was necessary for the week. Regardless, I suited up in my wetsuit and multiple fleece layers, but still found myself shivering. God was watching over me, though, because upon mentioning that I was cold to an instructor, he went and chatted with the other instructor and they both decided to have me observe runs from shore to keep me dry until at least lunch time. I was perfectly content with that idea and could feel my anxiety leaving me, knowing that I could wait to face the Class IV rapids a little longer. After lunch, though, I was still a little chilly and requested to continue my observations, which I was allowed to do. I was thankful and actually really enjoyed watching from shore. I maintained my awareness of what the other guides were doing and I had the opportunity to talk to the instructors one on one for a long period of time, which wouldn't have happened otherwise. God answered my prayers and had gotten me through the week and blessed me with a day on shore in order to stay relatively warm and dry.
After the day was complete, each raft guide candidate had a debriefing interview with the instructors and manager. I explained to them that I didn't think that being a raft guide was a good fit for me because the water made me anxious. To my surprise, I found that I was being thanked and complimented for my perseverance and my ability to guide. They told me that if there was anything they could help with in the future that they would in order to get me to feel more comfortable because they believed in my abilities. They also were thankful that I didn't just bail midweek even though I knew that raft guiding wasn't for me because that would have caused them to question their teaching abilities, so I made sure to emphasize that they were very good instructors and that I was just too in my head about certain things. They then complimented me on the fact that never once did I complain even when I was visibly shivering due to the cold. 
As much as I'd like to take credit, I know that God is the one who saw me through my week at guide school. Without Him protecting me, I wouldn't have been able to manage swimming Class III and Class IV rapids in such cold water. I believe this entire week was a test of my faith to see whether or not I would trust God enough. I know I faltered at times, but I think the blessing of a day onshore on Friday was proof that I ultimately passed. 
This week definitely taught me a lot about myself and the power of prayer. True, I still need to trust God more, but we're all a work in progress. It also helped put some of my other random anxieties in perspective and proved to me that they are nothing compared to facing raging whitewater. As my one friend said in a text on Friday, "Who knew that such a small event could have such a lasting impact on the rest of your life." In light of deciding I'm not cut out to be a rafting guide, I was reminded of a piece of advice I was I was given last year: "Sometimes you have to find out what isn't before you can find out what is." My hope for all of you is that you won't run away from your fears or difficult situations automatically. I hope that you'll pray to God to get you through them and that He can be glorified when you accomplish something that you know would be impossible in your own strength. As Paul wrote of God in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "...'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thoughts on Evangelism

"I want to learn how to unlock the locks to our minds, my mind, so that when I hear opinions or views that don’t match up with mine, I can still listen and understand." ~Charlotte Eriksson

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great theologian who was executed during World War II. His life and his convictions have always intrigued me, but I think what fascinates me most is how he comprehended theological issues and applied them to daily life. In his book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas described Bonhoeffer's viewpoint as follows: "To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology. Through Christ, God had shown that he meant us to be in this world and to obey him with our actions in this world." Reading this, I'm drawn to how we're meant to get our hands dirty. We can't be Christians who impact this world by remaining in the confines of a Christian bubble. Yes, we must make sure that we don't get tripped up by sin, but we can't avoid involvement in the community around us just because the people might hold different beliefs and convictions than us. I believe that's exactly why Jesus specifically prayed, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one," in John 17:15. He knows that the only way for us to reach people is by going into the lion's den to confront evil and try to provide hope for those who are lost in this world.
There are a few things that we must all keep in mind when intently sharing the Gospel. First of all, just because you're a Christian doesn't mean that you're better than anybody else. It means that you are forgiven and have salvation from your sins through the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross, but it doesn't move anyone up a rung in some imaginary hierarchy. Ecclesiastes 7:20 is very clear on the matter stating, "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." Christians must never forget the fact that we're all broken and have back stories, especially when trying to minister to those around them who don't share the same belief systems. In his song "Broken," Lecrae raps, "We some broken people, came from broken homes. Broken hearts inside of a broken soul...Ain't a soul on the planet that's better than another and we all need grace in the face of each other." Always remembering this fact will go a long way in your encounters and interactions with those around you.
Something else to take into account when sharing the Gospel is that we're not here to point fingers. Too many Christians have taken it upon themselves to be judge over humanity, which is God's job. This might be why so many unbelievers just assume Christianity is all about following rules, rather than having a relationship with Jesus. We're here to imitate Jesus, which means sharing the truth in love, rather than being judgmental. It's time to remember how Jesus ministered to those around him. A beautiful example of how Jesus advocated for an outcast occurred in the beginning of John 8. The Pharisees interrupted Jesus' teaching at the temple by flaunting a woman they had just caught in the act of adultery. According to Old Testament law, she deserved to be stoned, though they neglected to pay attention to the entire letter of the law in Leviticus 20:10, which states that the man caught in the act of adultery should also be stoned. Jesus responded by scribbling in the dirt and then telling the Pharisees that the person without sin could be the first to stone the woman they had caught committing adultery. Needless to say, only Jesus was left there with the woman and I believe the most important take away from this situation comes in John 8:10-11. It states, "Jesus stood up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.'" He chose not to condemn her. Let that sink in. The Son of God didn't ridicule her for her decisions and the situation she found herself in, but rather told her to sin no more. He extended grace and pointed out where she needed to make improvements in her life in a loving fashion, which is how we must approach unbelievers around us.
I firmly believe that we need to have a certain level of awareness when trying to share the Gospel with those around us. There are those who will be open to listening to what you have to say and others who will completely shut you down. Still, there will be those who will ask questions, but decide that it's not for them at that particular time. Christians need to be astute in how to approach each situation that they are given to share about Jesus, and do so as Jesus. Only God can change people's hearts. We can plant seeds, but whether or not somebody becomes a Christian and trusts in Jesus as their Lord and Savior is up to God. The words Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 are very fitting here. Paul wrote, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." Someone's personal conversion to Christianity doesn't not rest in our hands, but in God's. This should come as a relief to every disciple who is out sharing the Gospel. Yes, it's important to share the Gospel, but it's ultimately up to God whether that person receives Jesus into their heart. We aren't here to shove the Gospel down people's throats. We are here to share it in love and we are to listen to the plight of people around us. It isn't our job to chase people down and force our beliefs on them. Jesus didn't even run after people. Just consider the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to find out what he needed to do in order to get to heaven. After hearing him out, in Mark 10:21, it states, "And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, 'You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'" Unfortunately, this young man went away disheartened because he couldn't bare to sell his possessions. One would think that Jesus would run after him, telling him why he is making a poor decision, but Jesus didn't do that because it wasn't his style. He knew and understood that it was up to God to change the young man's heart and no amount of pleading or berating him with Scripture would do change him.
Lastly, I believe the key to being a good evangelist is to have a listening ear. Too many people in society are so self focused that they spend more time trying to formulate the perfect response than truly listening to what another person is saying. A friend of mine counsels people and he has told me that most people yearn to have others listen and understand them in order to receive validation. As evangelists, we too must take this into account. Don't be so focused on sharing your spiel on the Gospel that you forget to live it out. Jesus loved on people and he listened to them, and we must do the same. If that means altering what your ultimate plan was in sharing the Gospel, alter it. Remember that sharing the Gospel and the love of God doesn't always have to be about the words you say, but the actions you display. If you refuse to listen or appear shocked and appalled by someone's story, do you really think that they are going to want to listen to you about Jesus? By listening, though, you can grasp a better understanding of someone's life and experiences and you can internally grieve for what they have endured. It also provides an opportunity to pray for the Holy Spirit's guidance in responding to a person, whether that be through words or just your presence.
Remember, you are going to come across people in life who you don't agree with, but that doesn't mean that you can't lovingly listen to what they have to say in an attempt to understand their life. We're all a bunch of screw-ups who need the love of Jesus. Sure, other people are aggravating and frustrating at times, but it's our job to get into the fray and encourage others to seek a different path. Charles Spurgeon wrote, "I would go to the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary." Christians need to share this attitude towards the lost instead of looking down on others in disgust. There are billions of people on Earth and not everybody is going to share your viewpoint, which is why it is worth trying to listen and understand amidst sharing the good news of Jesus.
I'll leave you with this quote that has an unknown author. It is one that has helped me be patient with others in the past, and it is my hope that it will help you in the future: "Always see the God in people. No matter what they do or say love them despite themselves. God created them with love and purpose, see that love in them and not their mistakes. We're not forgiven to walk around with unforgiveness in our hearts, we're forgiven so we can forgive. People make mistakes but not one person is a mistake. Let us love like Jesus loved, let our actions bring Glory to His name forever and always."