A steep section of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Walking buddies

When I went to England last summer, I got to walk along Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman fortification that separated the “civilized south” from the “barbarian north.” The section that we walked is called Steel Rigg, and it’s a beautiful trail that winds up and down through the green windswept highlands. Maybe some people think it’s barren, but I think it’s beautiful. And steep. It was ridiculously steep in some places, and I’m not the most graceful or coordinated person. The photograph I picked today shows a particularly treacherous bit. I snapped the picture while the three people ahead of us were trying to get up the side of the hill, just for perspective. You probably have to enlarge the photo to see them (yes, that man is wearing a camouflage poncho….Americans).

I’m not a really active person. I’m trying to be. I’m working on being more active, walking more and taking the stairs and such, but a three or four mile hike up and down wet stone steps with crazy wind isn’t something I do every day. So I was a little nervous about it. And, plus, since I have a clumsy streak, I was absolutely sure I was going to trip on one of the ancient stone steps and tumble down a hillside. But I was determined that I was going to finish this. And I did.

Granted, I had my best friend along with me, reminding me to take it slow and walking beside me in spite of my snail’s pace. And we had a guide with us who knew where he was going. And my brother was along, who’s just a calming influence on me anyway. Without the three of them, there’s no way I would have braved Hadrian’s Wall.

A steep section of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

A steep section of Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verse is Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

New years are hard work. They’re sort of like starting from scratch, except you go into them carrying all your excess baggage from the previous year. There are only so many resolutions you can make (only so many resolutions you can keep), and most of the time you find yourself giving in toward the end of the second week anyway.

I’d love to believe that a new year means you can start over again, but turning a calendar page doesn’t give you the power to start a new life. It just means you have to press forward in spite of all the junk you didn’t finish last year. Let’s just be real here. Can you honestly say you’ve done everything you had planned to do in 2013? How about in 2012 or 2011 or 2010? You get the point. I still have projects I started in 1994 that I’m trying to get done (maybe that’s just me).

And that’s discouraging. Personally I have so many awesome things I want to do, so many things I want to accomplish, but life keeps getting in the way, and it’s frustrating beyond measure. And when I sit down with my calendar to figure out how to fit everything I want to do into this set of 365 days, I begin to see how impossible it is, and it makes me want to give up, especially when I meet resistance from every angle.

Then, I run into a verse like Isaiah 41:10 that reminds me not to be afraid or discouraged. Whether it’s the start of a new year or not, life is full of uncertainties, and if you focus on them, you’ll depress yourself. Not knowing is always depressing, I think. And that’s why it’s important to focus on what we do know. As Christ followers, we know that God is with us. We know that He’s promised never to leave us, and we know that He’s working everything in our lives out for good, in spite of how crummy our circumstances may look right now.

It’s like walking along Hadrian’s Wall. It’s hard work, living life. Sometimes you have to watch your feet instead of the scenery because you aren’t sure if your next step is going to be solid enough to transfer your weight from one stone to another, but you can’t stop moving. I mean, you can. But what good will that do you? You can give up and stop moving forward, and then you’ll be stranded out in the middle of Northern England until someone brings a helicopter to come pick you up.

Like Hadrian’s Wall, life has ups and downs, harsh inclines and steep drops, damp stone steps and uncertain footing, and it can be tempting to give up and stand still. That’s why it’s important to have somebody walking with you, someone who moves at your pace, someone who knows where they’re going, someone to catch you when you fall.

Everyone is facing something today. Financial challenges. Work challenges. Health challenges. Family challenges. There’s a challenge for every person–sometimes more than one, usually more than two or three. But as Christ followers, we’re not facing those challenges alone. We just have to remember that. God has told us not to be afraid and not to be discouraged. He will give us the strength we need to keep moving forward. He is always victorious, and He’s offering that help to us today. We just have to take it.

Wheat at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Endure when it feels like nothing will change

For me, the hardest part of endurance is the length of time I have to wait before I see results. I’ve mentioned before that I really hate waiting. I don’t mind training and preparing and planning, but once what I have trained and planned and prepared for has happened, I want immediate results. I want to see a ROI–a return on investment, as we call it in the marketing world. But most of the time that’s not how it works.

Following Christ and living for God is less like a marketing campaign and more like wheat farming. In a marketing campaign, you do the work, you submit the materials, and you wait for your leads to come in so you can track them down and try to convince them to buy product. It’s all very rapid, and you get fast results. In wheat farming, or other types of farming, you plow your ground, you plant your seed, and then you wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. And pray that it doesn’t get hailed to bits or blown away. And pray that there’s enough rain but not too much. And you keep waiting until it’s finally time to harvest.

That’s what the Christian life is like. And that’s why we need to learn how to endure patiently because some things can’t be rushed, and if you give up too soon, you’ll miss out.

Wheat at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Wheat at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Galatians 6:9.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

It’s hard to do the right thing. It’s hard to press on and do good when all it seems to accomplish is to get you in trouble or to encourage others to take advantage of you, but that’s what we are called to do. As Christ-followers, we are called to live a life that honors God, and that means living according to the Bible. And maybe you didn’t know this, but the Bible isn’t exactly popular anymore. If you want to be politically correct, the Bible isn’t really the source for that.

It’s tiring to live the way the Bible says in a culture that mocks everything you believe. And it’s growing more and more difficult every day, it seems. And sometimes, in that quiet dark corner of my heart that I don’t like to admit is there, I wonder if it’s really worth it.

Have you ever been there? Where you’re just tired of being treated like a fool? Or you’re tired of always having to do the right thing and be branded as a goody-two-shoes? Or be labeled as “The Christian” when you really know the label means “self-righteous” to the people who use it?

Or are you tired of having to deal with other Christians? I think sometimes we focus on how frustrating it is to work in a culture with people who don’t believe the same way we do, but what about having to work with people who do believe the same way you do? It’s twice as frustrating because we have expectations for how Christians are supposed to behave, and when they don’t meet those expectations, it’s easy to get angry.

I get tired. I get worn out. I get exhausted with dealing with people and situations and circumstances, and there never seems to be an end to any of it. But then, I see a verse like today’s verse and I remember that many times I’m just in the growing phase of the season. People are growing. I’m growing. And if I try to harvest too quickly, I’ll kill my crop.

That’s why we have to endure. That’s why we can’t give up, whether you’re dealing with believers or unbelievers. We’re planting seeds every day, and maybe we’ll see something sprout. Maybe we won’t, but most of the time we’re going to harvest something. Maybe we won’t recognize it. Maybe we won’t even realize it, especially if we aren’t looking for it.

So don’t give up. And if you’re frustrated, try shifting your focus. Instead of seeing only how long you have to wait, try looking at how much your crop is growing while you’re waiting. We had so much moisture recently here in Kansas that the wheat outside my window has turned the most brilliant shade of green I’ve seen since last March. I got so used to the dull, dead colors of winter that seeing so much green nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And it reminded me that even in a season when it feels like nothing is growing, something is. You just have to look for it.

Glen Eyrie Castle - Colorado Springs, CO

God is a God who finishes

If you know anyone who writes or who fancies themselves a writer, you will know that one of the hallmarks of either is that they have a hard time finishing their stories. To write a story is a marvelous thing. To build a universe inside your head, to craft characters who are like real people to you, to weave a complicated plot line–all of that takes time and effort. A lot of time and effort, mixed with concentration, dedication and much gnashing of teeth.

Writing is frustrating. And I’m not even talking about the publishing process. Just the act of writing is difficult, and it takes a lot of sacrifice to finish a manuscript. Even if writer starts a new book, you don’t really know if they’ll finish it.

Fortunately for us, God is the kind of author who always finishes what He starts; it just might not happen when we think it will.

Glen Eyrie Castle - Colorado Springs, CO

Glen Eyrie Castle – Colorado Springs, CO

Today’s verse is Philippians 1:6.

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

I like to finish things. It doesn’t matter what I’m working on; finishing projects makes me feel accomplished. Maybe it’s my performance-based mentality, but that’s just the way I am.

The trouble with finishing is that it takes a lot out of you. And that’s just finishing, not finishing strong. Finishing strong? That’s something else entirely.

Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, including Philippians, was an athlete. He loved sports, or if he didn’t, he just talked about them all the time. But one of the most common sports Paul talks about is racing.

I don’t run. My office puts on a Fun Run every year; I don’t think those two words should ever go opposite each other. The only time I run is when there’s a skunk in my yard, and that has nothing to do with fun.

But many people do like to run. If you’re one of them, good for you. And I’ve watched enough Olympic track sports to know that the quick, fast speed of the sprinters is impressive but what really requires the discipline and endurance of a champion is the long races. The 1,000 meter races. The marathons.

Those little sprinters who can run flat out and set ridiculous records are awesome. But have you seen someone in a 1,000 meter race cross the finish line without difficulty? Have you seen someone running a marathon cross the finish line and not be tired?

Maybe it’s happened. I haven’t seen it. Run for any great distance, and you’re going to get tired. And you’ll be tempted to quit. I mean, why not? It’s only a race. Right?

But that’s not the case at all. Anyone who runs competitively knows that there’s more to racing than just “the race.” It’s the thrill. It’s the challenge. It’s the title and the medal and the recognition. It’s the achievement. Even people who don’t race competitively but who still participate in marathons look at it like something to be accomplished. Even if they don’t win medals or endorsement contracts, they want to finish … because it means they’ve finished.

Finishing matters. Anything else is giving up.

People give up all the time. We drop the ball. We walk away from opportunities. We stall out just in sight of the finish line. That’s people. But God isn’t people. God is God. And He always finishes what He starts.

He has started something awesome in all of us. Each of us is a masterpiece He’s painting, a beautiful symphony He’s composing, a complicated novel He’s weaving, a design He’s engineering. Whatever the metaphor, God is working on us. He’s perfecting us every day.

God wants to finish strong in our lives. On the day He brings us home, whether it be by death or by rapture, can we say that we let Him? Yes, God will do what He wants to do; that’s part of being God. But He never forces anything on any of us. We can choose to let Him work in our lives. But we have to choose it.

Don’t kid yourself, though. Letting God work in your life can hurt. He has to strip away the parts of us that aren’t like Him. He has to put us through difficult circumstances so that we let go of whatever we’re holding on to that is slowing us down. He has to remind us that this life isn’t all there is. But through it all, He’s there. He never leaves us. And even when it doesn’t feel like He’s working, you can trust that He is because God is a God who finishes.

So let Him do His thing. But don’t be surprised if your life blows up. And don’t give up when it does. Just hold on to the promise that He never abandons us and remember that He’s writing a story of His own, and He has some editing to do. And if you can hold on, your life will be beautiful, not only to you but to Him and to everyone you know.

Dirt road through the jungle - Peten, Guatemala

The goal of a marathon

My dad was a race car driver before he became a professional business type. He raced Ford Fiestas and Volkswagen Rabbits. My earliest memories are sitting in the front seat of that beat up old Rabbit pulling the buttons and dials off the dashboard. But because my dad loved racing so much, we grew up with NASCAR and Formula 1 races on the television. So the concept of racing got an early start in my young brain.

I have met a few people in my life who don’t think that racing is a sport. And maybe that’s because they’ve never tried it or have never spoken to anyone who has. Because racing isn’t just driving around in circles. It’s a sport of endurance. And it’s not as easy as it looks.

Dirt road through the jungle - Peten, Guatemala

Dirt road through the jungle – Peten, Guatemala

Today’s verse is Romans 12:1.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

In this context, Paul is referring to running a race in a literal sense, not driving a car. But the concept is the same. When you’re in a race, whether you’re physically running or directing an engine that’s running, you don’t want anything extraneous that will slow you down.

Paul uses sports metaphors to refer to the Christian faith many times throughout Scripture, which leads a lot of folks to believe that he was athlete of sorts. He could have been. I don’t really know. But many sports metaphors do fit the Christian walk very well. Racing is just one of them.

In a race, you’ve got a bunch of people all trying to get across the finish line. But have you noticed the difference between the attitudes of people who run the 50-yard dash verses a marathon? The 50-yard dash is all about speed. The 50-yard dash is about who can run the fastest. But a marathon? The goal of a marathon is to finish. Yeah, it’s great if you can win, but most people you talk to are just thankful that they can reach the end of the race without dying.

One will finish first and win, obviously. There always must be a winner. But whether you come in first or last, it’s your job to finish.

It’s the same with race car driving. Yes, there will be a winner. There must be a winner. But if they can actually finish the race without crashing, they count themselves fortunate.

That’s the kind of race Paul is talking about. Not the short sprints. Not a drag race. Not a race to determine who is faster. The race God has set before us is a marathon. It’s Talladega or the Indianapolis 500. It’s not about speed; it’s about endurance. And we’re not competing against each other to win; Christ has already won the race. He just wants us to finish alongside Him.

Hebrews 12 begins with the word therefore which means you need to refer to what was said in the previous verses to truly understand the context of what follows.

Hebrews 12 comes after Hebrews 11 (duh, I know, right?), but if you have the opportunity to read Hebrews 11, you should. Hebrews 11 is called the Faith Hall of Fame. It’s a chapter of names of people in the Old Testament who ran the race and ran it with endurance. They suffered. They struggled. They stumbled. But they finished.

Faith isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. The day is coming when something will hit you so hard you won’t know what to do about it. Something in your life will break loose. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose a relationship. You’ll lose an opportunity. Your dreams will come crashing down around you. Your family will fall apart. And all you’ll want is an answer. All you’ll want from God is for Him to fix it … or to tell you why. And He may not do either.

But that’s His prerogative. And that’s where faith comes in, believing that even though things in your life aren’t going the way you think they should be that He still knows better. And that His way is better. And that however your story is going to end, you will keep running the race. You won’t look back. You won’t pick up additional weight as you run. You’ll just keep running.

It’s not an easy choice. But the wisest choices in life are rarely easy. Nobody accidentally finished a marathon; someone made choices before they started running and during the race itself to reach the finish line.

Romans 12:1-3 (The Message)

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Dragonfly - Galveston, TX

Just because you can’t see Him doesn’t mean He’s not working

I’ve got troubles. How about you? I have stuff in my life that blows up on occasion, and it’s really hard to recover sometimes. I want God to fix it. I want Him to intervene and make everything right again as quickly as possible so nobody gets hurt, including me. But He doesn’t always work like that. Actually, He rarely works like that. And so I have to go through even more difficult situations, where people are angry or where people make foolish choices and I have to pick up the pieces and start all over again.

If you’ve never been there, you don’t know how discouraging that is. To have invested your life in something only to have something outside your control ruin it all. And you have to start over from scratch.

When I was young, my favorite hobby was writing (not much has changed). And I would sit and write as often as I could. I had this huge book series I was working on. Back then the power grid out here in the country was unreliable at best, and we had an old computer that had never heard of “Auto Save.” You already know where I’m going. I was typing along, just minding my own business, and the power went out. And I lost four whole single-spaced pages. And they weren’t even scenes with basic description or simple dialogue. They were scenes with complicated, plot elements.

I was devastated. This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to anyone, but if you’re a writer, you can identify with the loss. I had to start those pages all over again. And this was before I worked with an outline, so I had to recreate what I had pulled out of thin air. And all I could think about when I got to the end of those four new pages (and saved them six times) was that it wasn’t as good as the first attempt.

I don’t do this very often, but I’m posting an entire chapter. The whole chapter is just wonderful, one of my favorites. And since I’m going to put the whole chapter up, I’m putting it up in The Message (emphasis is mine), but if you want to read it in New Living Translation, it’s also very good.

Dragonfly - Galveston, TX

Dragonfly – Galveston, TX

2 Corinthians 4

 Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times. We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

 If our Message is obscure to anyone, it’s not because we’re holding back in any way. No, it’s because these other people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness. They think he can give them what they want, and that they won’t have to bother believing a Truth they can’t see. They’re stone-blind to the dayspring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get.

Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!

 We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life. Just like the psalmist who wrote, “I believed it, so I said it,” we say what we believe. And what we believe is that the One who raised up the Master Jesus will just as certainly raise us up with you, alive. Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise!

So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

***

God has a plan. Even when nothing makes sense to us, it’s comforting to know that He’s got it all handled. The trouble with following Christ in this world is that we can’t always see the difference God is making to people. They’re either too ashamed to admit it or too afraid or too proud. But even if they don’t say anything, even if they act out, even if they lash out in anger, you can know that it’s probably because God used something we did or said to unsettle them.

God is working, but in the areas that He’s working, we can’t see. Because He’s changing people in a way that will last forever, and that’s something that is invisible, at least at first. So we have to trust that He’s doing something, even if we can’t see it. Especially if we can’t see it. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing.

That’s difficult for me sometimes because it’s frustrating to watch something I gave so much of myself to torn down.  But nothing happens without a reason, and as long as we keep our perspective straight and keep doing what God has called us to do, He can use it to bring about our greatest hopes, to fulfill our dreams. But starting over again is exhausting, and there’s the fear that it will be torn down again. But let’s be honest: sometimes starting over again is the best thing that can happen, even if it’s for reasons we don’t understand.

As a child, I hated those four pages that I had to rewrite. But I tell you what, I learned the importance of saving my work. And a few years later … I ended up rewriting the whole scene anyway. And it turned out ten times better than it ever could have when I was younger.

Just saying.