Thursday, December 29, 2011

If Rocks Were the Real Thing

I mentor a teenage girl.  Initially, I thought the only thing we had in common was that we had the same chromosomes.  At this very moment I'm working through my first experience of typing with acrylic nails because last night my Christmas present to her was that we both get manicures.  Outwardly I saw the way they looked on her the last time we got our nails done (which was my FIRST experience getting a manicure) and thought they looked pretty fantastic on her - why not me?  Inwardly, I actually do have a feminine side that enjoys that sort of thing - a little.  Even if my typing skills have dropped 40 WPM.

My teenage friend is also my fashion consultant.  I have a good idea of what looks good on other people - specifically mom's and librarians, but for a woman my age who has more curves than the Indie 500, the wallet of a college student, loves plaid and prefers to have shoes she can walk in the mud with, while still being someone people see as a respectable, fashionable lady... I'm a bit of a project.  Last night I grabbed a hat off the rack at ShopKo - we were killing time before our manicures - and posed like a gangsta would in my dark purple knit beanie, and my fashion guru approved.  Of the hat, not the pose.  This purple wonder is currently on my head right now.  So pleased was I to have gained her approval of my choice in a hat - truly.

But before we did any of that - the shopping or the manicures.  I drove us to a cliff, and within the safety of my car I told her to write down on big sheets of paper, three things she was worried about, considered to be a real burden, as 2012 approached.  I had my three things, all of which had to do with failing in some form, and thought I had a pretty good idea of what she would write.  When we both had our three sheets of paper, I told her to read Psalm 55:22 from my Bible.  Meanwhile dusk quickly approached and the wind outside swayed the trees.  She read, "Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved." (ESV)  Then I had her read Galatians 6:2, which says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."(ESV)

The thing about burdens, is that they're much like a rock on your chest.  And like a rock on your chest, they cause all sorts of worry and strain that does nothing to help your situation.  We think we can and should carry our own burden's, but really we're meant to help each other.  I have a stack of rocks on my chest... it'd be nice if someone helped me carry them once in awhile.  If I'm really honest with myself, the weight of those rocks is slowly crushing me and I need someone's help.  Not something I enjoy confessing, I'll tell ya.  But it was those burdens that my teenage friend and I wrote on our pieces of paper.  With each piece of paper, each burden, we wrapped it in a rock I'd pilfered from the side of the road earlier in the day and we pushed through the wind to the intimidating, muddy ledge of the cliff.  Together, we read each burden, and we did as the psalmist calls us to do - we cast those burden's onto the LORD and HEAVED them over the edge of that cliff for him to take that rock off of our chests and into his hands.

Turns out the Lord was behind us because those pieces of paper came loose of the rocks they were wrapped around and were tossed back behind us by the steady rush of wind.  Who said God had to be at the bottom of the cliff?

It's a fun practical.  It certainly helped me to see things a little clearer about what I was truly worried about and what I wasn't giving to God.  The true test is whether I can take the daily burdens I carry, and like those rocks, pitch them at God for him to carry.  Not hand them over hesitantly, or gingerly, or with reservation like I might want it back, but chuck it over that ledge and launch it into God's hands completely and without reluctance.  It doesn't matter if you think he's in front of you, above you, next to you or if you don't have a clue where he is!  Simply giving it to him, telling him you want him to take it, and then letting go, means he'll take it.  But you have to first let it go.

Did my girl truly cast her burden's on him last night as well?  I don't know.  But if she didn't, maybe one day she can look back at that day and remember not only a fun time getting manicures and approving of her mentor's fashion choice for the first time ever... but also see that evening on a cliff and, when she's ready, do it on her own.

Throwing rocks over a cliff was easy.  I haven't picked up a cigarette in more than two weeks.  By the grace of God I quit cold turkey, and won't go back.  If I can cast that burden on him, I can cast the others as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Thorn in My Side

I started smoking in December 2008.  I didn't do it to be cool, nor did I do it because everyone was doing it and, really, what was the harm?  I knew the consequences, but the effect of what smoking did for me was more important than the physical effects years down the road.  To say I was struggling would be an immense understatement.  It's no excuse, we all turn to various sins to get through life when we should be turning to God, but at that time in my life I wasn't a disciple.  God seemed pretty far at the time and I honestly didn't care what it was doing to him every time I lit up.

I quit smoking in September of this year.  I'd been a disciple for six months and I'd been "trying" to quit up until my pastor came to me and asked me if I'd be willing to mentor his daughter - he had no idea of my sin because I hid it pretty well and it's not something that comes up in everyday conversation.  A select few knew I was trying to quit smoking and I didn't see the importance of telling him.  Never one to be a hypocrite, I quit the habit.  I wasn't about to lead a teenager to live a life of righteousness if I wasn't making every effort to do the same myself.  I had my last cigarette, just quit cold turkey, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Satan will do whatever he can to tear you down.  He's a prowling, roaring lion waiting for the perfect person to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Like a lion, he waits for the weakest of the herd to fall back and then he attacks.  When I quit smoking, I became the weakling.  It's interesting how putting a sin to death can make you vulnerable.  He took advantage of it, and used another sin in my life, a struggle I've faced for years, and put it into overdrive.  Soon, my mind was muddled and clouded.  What used to be a struggle soon began to overtake my life.  I got rid of everything that might trigger this new sin, from listening to new music to changing what I read, to removing myself from situations and developing new boundaries with people.  I discarded everything that might encourage what I wanted nothing to do with, and replaced it with everything I could think of that would point my eyes to Jesus.

It was like Satan had become a pit bull.  The harder I resisted him, thinking he'd flee (James 4:7), the harder he held on.  I prayed like I'd never prayed before, but the fog thickened so much I couldn't navigate through it.  I was left saying "Amen" and emotionally shutting down because I didn't know how to handle what was happening to me.  I read my Bible.  I became the weird disciple who sat in a coffee shop for five hours doing nothing but reading and studying the Word trying to keep my mind free from the sin and struggle I faced every moment (Psalm 19:7-11).  I'd read in the morning for an hour, go to work or if I wasn't working I'd visit with other disciples, then I'd sit in a coffee shop for HOURS and read and study and pray some more, then I'd go to some event with the Kingdom family and fellowship and return home long after everyone else had gone to bed.  I wept, pleaded with God to take this struggle away believing that he knew I was broken in spirit and that he wouldn't turn away from my cry (Psalm 51:17).  Still, most nights I'd have horrific dreams, or I'd wake up multiple times petrified and alone, but not knowing why (Psalm 22:2).  It was a minute by minute battle, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually and it lasted for months without rest.

This went on until about a week and a half ago.  I willingly stepped back into my sin because, in my mind, smoking wasn't shutting me down, stealing my sight, forcing me to remove myself from the fellowship every time we gathered, and I could control it.  I started smoking again, and the physically raging storm inside calmed, the fog that I couldn't see through that left me praying and reading blindly and an emotional, spiritual zombie it felt like, cleared.  Unlike the struggle I had when I wasn't smoking, with smoking I could decide when I was going to do it, and I did things like change my shirt and only smoke after visiting, or long before I would visit, to keep things like second hand smoke from being a problem.  Then it wasn't affecting people.  That was my thinking, and that was my sin.

Recently I finished a study on 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.  "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, '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.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong."

In verse 8 Paul says he pleaded with God three times for him to remove this thorn in his side.  I imagine his prayers were similar to the prayers Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44).  I imagine they were similarly heartfelt and left him similarly broken as he begged God to have his thorn removed.  Still, God told him "My grace is sufficient for you," (v.9).

Paul makes the decision he's going to boast about his weaknesses because the strength of Christ is in him when he's weak.  When Paul is weak, Jesus will be strong for him so Paul doesn't have to carry the burden of his sin and shame alone.  And boy did he have some hardship, sin and shame (2 Corinthians 11:21b-28).  Paul recognized that in his weakest moments during persecution, insults, hardships, turmoil and calamities that Jesus was glorified all the more because Jesus was the one getting the credit for Paul making it through.

How can I be more like Paul in this manner?  Well, I can start with being weak, and as simple or easy as it sounds, Paul might as well have asked me to climb Everest - tonight.  I've been the rock, remember?  From a child up until I finished my contract with the Marine Corps, I've been the independent woman who can withstand anything... except a bout with weakness and vulnerability and admitting I need help.  No one had come through for this gal in the past when she needed help, so she learned to do it on her own and could do it pretty well.  I could be more like Paul in this way by making myself humble and obedient to God's will and giving my brothers and sisters in the kingdom a chance to love me and help me through my storms and fogs.  It's not a pretty place, and I wouldn't wish anyone to be there.  Still, I can't justify my cowardice by pretending to protect others from the darkness I was in.

We're called to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed (James 5:7), and while I'd like it a lot better if that scripture had a "will be healed" or "shall be healed" or "always gets healed" like it so often likes to use those concrete words in other scriptures, I have to take a step out in faith that the "may be healed" used by Paul will be enough.  My thorn is this struggle that hits me like a hurricane, buries me like a sandstorm and drowns me like the ocean downed the Titanic... but if I confess this struggle and, like Paul, trust Christ to be my strength as I'm hit, buried and drowning... I may be healed, and Christ's strength will be sufficient for me.

So I'll quit smoking again, and I'll take another crack at this.  I have to admit, I'm afraid.  The kind of fear that literally leaves me trembling in my boots, desiring to shut down emotionally until it's all over with, and struggling with beliefs like "I'm not useful as long as I'm struggling with this."  At least as a smoker I was avoiding the storm and could feel useful.  But I'm called higher as a disciple, and sometimes that means going through some really bad storms.  We're not promised God will get us out of it, but we are promised He'll get us through it (Philippians 4:13).  I have to have faith in that.