Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Dangerous Prayer

For three weeks I've been getting on my knees and praying the prayer that I saw answered this weekend.  "Lord, humble me."

A friend of mine from the military came into town on Thursday.  It was a 16-hour workday for me (I have two jobs) so I didn't get to see her until Friday evening.  Friday evening we decided that in light of our current circumstances of stress and irritation we would go to a local country bar.  I've been wanting to see this place since I came home about a year ago but had yet to check it out.  I quit smoking back in January and have avoided all bar-like locations for the simple fact of keeping myself from associating with people who do not share my beliefs (Romans 12:16 ESV).  What compelled me to go that night?  I thought I could handle it.

Almost as soon as we stepped out of my car, jean-clad and cowboy boots ready to get from the dirt road to hardwood, she pulled out a cigarette and I knowingly took the step away from God toward sin.  "Aw hell, I'm going to ask for one eventually.  Give me one of those."  In that moment I cared more about her accepting me, not that she didn't already, than I did about righteousness.  I cared more about being part of the group in that bar.  The smokers, beer drinkers, line dancers and mud-flinging tailgaters.  I wanted that acceptance.  We stepped into the bar, drawing the eye of more than a couple of people, got our beers, tapped necks, drank and listened to the live band and people watched through the smoky air.  Barbie cowgirls with their cutoff shorts, bare belly flannel shirts and bleached hair giggled, danced and sat on the laps of men in cowboy hats or baseball caps, Wranglers and button down shirts.  It was a place people came to pretend, to be the Somebody they thought Somebody would want, and to forget whatever reality was haunting them.  I understood.  I didn't want to think about all the loss I was facing in my life.  I wanted to be accepted, however superficially.  My friend and I mostly stood at the bar and talked, few people approached us, but I drank more than I should've, smoked and slid far too easily into the person I used to be before I made Jesus Lord.  She's still there, deep down.

Nothing too significant happened apart from the act of smoking and drinking, but my heart had twisted itself into such a tight knot that I had hardened myself against God.  I knew He was there.  The whole time I was in that bar I could practically hear Him whispering behind me, "Sam.  What are you doing?"  Each time I accepted another drink offered to me, or reached for another cigarette, I could feel the sigh on my neck and the eyes of someone across the room watching, and waiting.  It was as though God was saying, "I'll talk to you later tonight, then."  And He did.  I got my friend back to her motel and despite a lot of laughter that night between the two of us, it quickly died on my lips as I made my way back home.  Wherever you go, there you are, and for someone who belongs to Jesus, He's there too.  Even when you just want Him to look away, He sees all (Hebrews 4:13).

The next morning, I woke with a tender throat scarred from smoke, nauseous and having slept far too little to work a full shift.  It didn't occur to me until later the sickness was due more to guilt than a physiological problem.  As I drove to work I thought, I'm not strong enough.  I won't be fine.  I can't do this.  Friday night I cared far too little when I didn't have a group of people, the Body of Christ, holding me accountable.  When I'm around that stuff, smoking and drinking, I can't stick to my guns and remain sober unless I'm around people who will hold me accountable.  I can go to a restaurant and have one beer with my brothers and sisters in Christ and be just fine.  I can't go to a bar with someone who doesn't want God in her life, and stick to one beer without resentment.  I just can't.  Realizing that weakness inside of me, that level of dependency I have on God and the Body, was humiliating.  I can't do this ONE thing?  I can't just say no?  What's wrong with me?!  Turns out I'm human.

What's most miraculous, is how God orchestrated the aftermath.  I got off work on Saturday and met up with a friend of mine, a sister in the church, and confessed what I'd done and the position I was in.  I feared that if I told my friend I couldn't take that trip with her, I was leaving her stranded in this strange city.  Would she hate me?  She won't understand my need to put my relationship with God first and avoiding anything and everything that might hurt my relationship with him.  I want me yes to be yes and my no to be no... so what kind of person am I to go back on my word?  She suggested I speak to another sister.  So I texted one who's been discipling me, called another who can relate to my struggles and that twenty minute phone call did my heart a lot of good.  Then I sat in the living room of another sister who has become a mom to me in a number of ways and she listened, loved, hugged, reassured me and encouraged me and gave some advice as well.  By the time I left her house two hours later I knew what I needed to do.

God humbled me by making me look into the eyes of my friend over a cup of coffee and explain that because of my weakness and my need to restore and build up my relationship with God, I couldn't take her to Montana.  She listened, asked a couple of questions and accepted it without any resentment but with a heart heavy with disappointment.  We worked out an alternative that night and this morning we parted ways, her on her way to Montana and me on my way to church.  No hard feelings, but having been humbled to a degree I didn't expect and yet had prayed for.  

God knew what He was doing.  I was able to make it to a church service that pertained to me and a couple of relationships I was really struggling through.  Most importantly though, I was able to be with my father at the hospital after his heart attack.  An ambulance had to take him from my house to the hospital.  Twice, he flatlined for about four seconds.  If I had been on my way to Montana I probably wouldn't have had service to answer my phone and I certainly wouldn't have been able to be at the hospital.  He works everything out for our good, even when it doesn't seem like it at the time (Romans 8:28).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Being Refined

Writing down the truth is like screaming in your mind.  It’s as though the words on a page are the cracks in your hands as you frantically try to keep the sand from slipping between your fingers.  You try to convince yourself you can hold onto every grain, and yet you can’t.  I try to convince myself that it’s not true, or that it’ll go back to how it was, and even as I stall with my introduction, the palms of my hands are beginning to dampen with the truth and my heart pounds louder and the tears threaten to fall – and I hate crying.  I’ve done more in 2012 than I think I have in the past five years, because I can’t stay on autopilot anymore.  The truth hurts, even when I pretend it doesn’t.

In two weeks I lost two women I loved most in my church.  One of these women is the same young woman I knew when she was a kid looking to me for hope and love and the whisper of a better life, who, at nineteen, reached out to me from another continent when I was stationed in Okinawa and made a long distance call to get me connected to a Bible teaching church, the same woman who fasted every Monday until I made Jesus Lord of my life, who celebrated with me over Facebook when I was baptized in the East China Sea and weaved me into the church in my hometown when my time in the military had been completed, the woman who led some of the best Bible studies I’d ever been a part of, decided she no longer loved God and wanted nothing to do with the church – the same church she’d considered family.  Consequently, she wanted nothing to do with me.  I still don’t know why she left, or why she feels so much anger toward me. 

I found out this morning, a friend I’ve known since high school who has been through more pain than some people face in a lifetime, a woman I respect and admire and love closer than a sister, who moved halfway across the country to start her life over and be part of a church and a family, a woman I studied the Bible with and baptized in the freezing autumn river into a new life, whose prayers moved hearts into action, whose perseverance inspired leaders and who encouraged me to get up in a way no one else could when I’d fallen, decided she couldn’t forgive God for taking two people she loved most, and therefore was leaving the church.

They’re still alive, but it feels like part of me has died.  As members of Christ’s body, we are all one (Ephesians 3:6) and we share in the promise of Christ, which is the promise of resurrection and eternal life and I don’t mean that in a strictly physical sense.  I’m not writing this to judge either of their positions in regard to salvation.  That’s not my job.  God is the Judge and I leave that responsibility in His hands.  I pray daily for reconciliation, because I know what scripture says, and the mere idea that they might not be with me in heaven, that they may have turned their back on God, brings me grief I’ve never experienced before.  Apart from God there is no other way to salvation (Isaiah 43:11; John 15:5) and its not enough to know God, for even demons know who He is.  Those who do God’s will go to heaven (Matthew 7:21) and you learn how when you open your Bible and are surrounded by other members of the body of Christ who show you by their example.

I know that I haven’t lost the friendship of at least one of these women, but the friendship has undoubtedly changed because we’re no longer on the same path of following Christ.  When following Jesus changes how you live on a day-to-day basis, it changes how you relate to the rest of the world that doesn’t.  I get on my knees every night and beg God.  Sometimes it’s that those I love will return to Him and that He’ll have mercy on them, sometimes I pray for comfort, as he is the God of comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), sometimes for clarity because He is not a God of disorder but a God of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33), and sometimes I don’t know what I’m begging for, but something deep inside my soul utters the word “Please” over and over again through salty lips.  I pray that someday there will be more words to explain my appeal.  In all reality, I’m heartbroken.  But I can say with quiet confidence that Jesus heals the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3) and it’s not with a wave of his hand.  He’s close to the brokenhearted and heals those crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

It’s no surprise to feel pain.  Jesus promised it’d come if we were to pick up our cross and follow Him.  It’s not a shock to see biblical prophecies come true today, and yet the pain is still there.  I know that through it my faith is being tested.  My faith is not in my friends, my Kingdom family, the small group I’m in, the wonderful leaders who guide me, the women who disciple me, or my circumstances.  My faith is in Christ and the cross.  The cross is what I continue to go back to, because despite every hardship, every pain, every injustice I face, it is nothing compared to what Jesus endured for me, and because of me, on that cross.  This is merely a period of refinement.  My only task is to remain faithful, and one day it all will be worth it.  One day, who knows when, I’ll be on my knees before my Lord and every tear I’ve cried in the past will be wiped away by the holy hand of Jesus.  The hand that was nailed to a cross for me because he loved me that much, will hold my face in his hands and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  My beautiful daughter, well done.”