Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Singing in the dark

American Christians are fortunate. It seems like every day we lose a little more freedom, but at least for now, we still have the right to public worship. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t be picked on, but American Christians have no idea what persecution looks like. We think we do because a kid gets suspended because of a Christian t-shirt or you can’t have a Nativity Scene on your office desk at Christmastime, but little things like that can’t compare to what other Christ followers have to live with on a daily basis around the world.

When the times get difficult and things don’t go the way I want them to, it’s difficult to hold on to joy. It’s difficult to be cheerful when everything is wrong, but it’s not impossible. We just have to remember where that joy is supposed to come from. According to Galatians 5:22-23, joy comes from God. “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”

If you’re living a life filled with the Spirit, joy will be evident in every aspect of who you are, whether you are an American Christian who suffers in the court of popular opinion or if you’re a Christian around the world who faces real physical danger for your faith.

Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Today’s verses are Acts 16:22-26.

A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!

If I had just been beaten publicly and thrown in prison, I can’t tell you that I would be singing about it. I would like to think I’m that good of a Christian, but I don’t think I am.

This story has always thrilled me since I was a child. I can just imagine it from the perspective of the other prisoners. And remember this wasn’t a nice prison. Prisoners didn’t have rights at all at this time, and they weren’t treated well. The prisons were horrible dark filthy places, and that’s where Paul and Silas were taken after they were beaten.

You’ve probably heard of Paul. He’s the one who wrote the majority of the New Testament, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Silas was his mission’s partner. Paul went on many missionary journeys, and on this journey Silas went with him. And they were thrown into prison because they healed a woman who was possessed by a demon. They hadn’t done anything wrong, but the woman had been a fortune teller. And without the demon, she couldn’t make her masters money anymore, so they took Paul and Silas and dragged them before the town authorities. That’s where they were beaten and then thrown in prison.

Nothing like that has ever happened to me. But I have been in situations where my life hasn’t gone the way I wanted. I’ve been in situations where I had to make hard decisions. And I’ve been in that place where making the right choice has made others very angry with me. I’ve been the one people spread rumors about. I’ve been the one people tell lies about. I’ve been the one who becomes the brunt of someone else’s frustrations. And I never did anything to deserve it.

And when you get to that place in life, you have two choices. You can focus on the bad stuff that’s happening or you can focus on the good that God is going to bring out of it. Yes, that can be difficult to focus on the good because we don’t know what it is, but that doesn’t mean good won’t come.

I’m sure Paul and Silas had no idea that God was going to release them from prison. That was a miracle that had never happened before–or since at least that I know about. I mean it’s one thing for a prison to experience an earthquake that shakes the prison doors open, but I’m not sure how an earthquake can open chains and stocks too.

Beaten and humiliated and imprisoned, Paul and Silas worshipped God. They kept their perspective where it needed to be, and in their darkest moment they still had joy. And that’s where I want to be. I want to be that kind of person who responds to trouble with a smile. I want to be that person who isn’t shaken when people let me down or when life turns on its head. I want to be the kind of person who keeps moving forward cheerfully because I know that no matter what my life looks like right now, God is going to do something.

So let’s keep our heads on straight. And let’s remember that even if we’re going through a rough patch right now that God is still in control and He still knows what He’s doing and what He’s doing is good. We have the Holy Spirit, so God has given us joy. We just have to access it and making a choice to see the good in bad circumstances is the first step.

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Marching band at K-State during a volleyball game, Manhatten, KS

Endurance is hope

What wakes you up in the morning? For me, it’s coffee. Strong, strong coffee with real cream. My current dietary requirements prevent me from eating grains, starches, or sugar on a regular basis so real cream in my coffee every morning is the indulgence I allow myself. But if I didn’t get coffee, I’d like to think I would still get out of bed. I guess when it comes right down to it, what gets me out of bed (not necessarily wakes me up, mind you) is duty and obligation and responsibility.

I’m being honest here. I do love my job, but, man, it’s a job. And I’m thankful for all my opportunities, but they can be overwhelming and exhausting. And just to be frank, duty, obligation, and responsibility will only get you so far before it wears you out. I hit that point last year where even my sense of duty could barely get me out of bed in the mornings. So what do you when you get to that point? What can you do? And can you prevent yourself from reaching burn out on that level?

That’s what I want to accomplish this year. I don’t want to burn out. I want to stay fresh and excited about everything that’s going on in my life, even though it’s exhausting at times. And what I feel like I need to do that goes beyond duty, obligation, and responsibility. I need endurance.

So what it endurance? Why is it important? Why should we look for it? Well today’s passage, I think, encapsulates the need for endurance pretty succinctly.

Marching band at K-State during a volleyball game, Manhatten, KS

Marching band at K-State during a volleyball game, Manhatten, KS

Today’s verses are Romans 5:3-4.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.

I’m a word nerd. So I like knowing what words and phrases mean. I like knowing where they came from and why they matter.

According to Dictionary.com, endurance means “the ability or strength to continue or last, especially despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions; stamina.” The word itself originated in the late 15th century, meaning “continued existence in time,” although the connotation about enduring suffering didn’t start until about 1660. Usually when I think about endurance, I think about runners. Not sprinters, but the people who run long-distance races like marathons or triathlons. Or I think about musicians, oddly enough. If that sounds weird to you, then you didn’t grow up with a musician in the house. Musicians have more endurance than just about anybody I know.

My mother has played viola, a stringed instrument that covers the octave between a violin and a cello, for more than 40 years. When I was younger, I tried to learn how to play, and I will never forget how tired my arm would be after I played for half an hour. But I’d seen my mother play for hours and hours on end. But she’d been playing for a long time. She’d developed an endurance to play for extended periods of time, just like a runner, just like a dancer.

You don’t start off with endurance. You have to build it. You have to train to obtain it. And that training is usually difficult and frustrating, especially if you’re an impatient perfectionist like me who wants to do everything exactly right the first time.

Why does endurance matter? Well, look at our verses for today. Endurance, which comes from problems and trials in life, help us develop a strong character. That happens because you don’t give up when tough stuff comes your way. You keep gong. You keep holding to what matters, and you plow through the issues and keep doing what’s right even when you suffer for it. And people with good character accomplish great things and live great lives, and they have a healthy perspective on life too–and that’s something you can’t buy.

Trials and troubles create endurance. Endurance develops good character. Good character produces hope.

So, forgive me an algebraic moment, but I if a = b and b = c, then a = c. Endurance produces hope. That’s why it matters.

Our world is dark, and we face difficult circumstances daily, at work, at home, at school, at church. No matter where we are, life is difficult. Life is a struggle. Life is conflict. And all of those trials and troubles can weigh us down, but if we endure it, we will strengthen our hope.

Our hope in what? Check the verse. Salvation.

This world isn’t all there is. Our eyes don’t need to stay mired in the darkness of our world. We need to be living for eternity. We need to make decisions that will affect the future in a positive way, not get stuck in the day-to-day grind of office politics and family strife. Focus on what matters. Endure through difficult circumstances and build your character, because it will make your hope strong. And we can’t make it without hope.

So be thankful for the tough stuff. Endure. Just hang on. God will get you through, and on the other side, you will be stronger. And when those same tough circumstances come around again, you won’t even blink because you already got through them once.

Train. Build. Endure. Hope.

Stone steps at Tikal - Peten, Guatemala

Training to reach the top

If you haven’t worked out at all, can you climb a massive staircase at a dead run without passing out? If you can, you’re tougher than I am. Either that, or you’re not asthmatic. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to jump into difficult physical circumstances if you haven’t prepared yourself for them. That’s why people train for marathons. That’s why those crazies who climb Mt. Everest have to set up base camps along the way to acclimate to the altitude.

The photo I picked for today isn’t a very good representation of the temples at the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. To really grasp their enormity, you kind of have to be there. But I will be the first to tell you that the steps leading up the front of all of them are killer. Most of the steps you can’t actually climb just because the temples themselves are so old, but the rickety old wooden stairs that have been built on the sides aren’t much safer. They’re certainly no less steep. 

Stone steps at Tikal - Peten, Guatemala

Stone steps at Tikal - Peten, Guatemala

Today’s verse is Romans 5:3.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.

Encountering difficult circumstances in life is inevitable. We are going to run into problems because the world isn’t perfect and we aren’t perfect, and we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to sin, and we’re all going to come up short of where we want to be. But when we reach that point, we have the option of pressing forward or giving up.

Giving up means that we’ll never learn anything. And every trial or difficulty in our lives is there to teach us something. Pressing forward is a challenge always, but at the end of the day you will have learned something about yourself and something about God too.

What’s really amazing, though, is that once you get past a difficult spot in your journey of life, the next time a similar problem comes up it won’t faze you. Because you already saw what God did the first time you went through it. So you aren’t afraid of taking the challenge head on.

Like training for a marathon. Like acclimating to a high altitude. When you press forward through difficult circumstances, your faith will increase in strength, and the next time your faith is challenged, you won’t falter. But if you give up in the middle of the fight, you’ll never learn the lesson you were supposed to learn. And you’ll keep experiencing the same problems over and over again until you do.

My first real job out of college was at a library. I loved my job, and I loved the people I worked with. But it really didn’t pay very much. I did okay for a year, but by the second year, my finances were starting to get a little thin because cost of living had gone up and my hourly rate had stayed the same. And by the third year, well let’s just say I wasn’t sure where my groceries were going to come from. I had a couple of options. I could stop giving to my church. I could stop providing for those less fortunate than me. But I felt like God was really calling me to do those things. So I didn’t stop.

Looking back on it now, I’m not really sure how the numbers make sense. Because I shouldn’t have been able to afford to live. But God provided for me in ways that I don’t know how to explain during that time in my life. And He did it so many times that there is no doubt in my mind that it was Him. So now? Well, in the circumstances that I’ve run into in the last two years at my new job when I run across an expense that I know God has put there, I don’t hesitate. Because I know He’s going to take care of me. He’s done it before.

Problems and trials are difficult. But do we really learn anything when life is going our way? Can we really understand something God is trying to teach us when we’re comfortable? I don’t think so. People aren’t wired that way. So at times, we need to be shaken up. We need to experience some difficult circumstances so that we can learn what God wants us to learn, so we can live the way He wants us to live, so we can handle what’s coming.

Climbing the steps up the temples of Tikal is difficult. It’s draining. It’s exhausting. It’s rough even if you don’t have asthma. And those steps are all you can see for a long time. But  it’s worth it because of the view at the top. Trials and problems in life are no different.  

Tikal, Peten, Guatemala

Tikal, Peten, Guatemala

Rejoicing when life sucks

No matter what our situation, the Bible tells us we need to rejoice. Because no matter how bad our situation may seem to us, God still has His hand in it, and He still knows what He’s doing.

It’s easy to say that out loud. It’s very easy to remind someone else of the truth of this. But it’s next to impossible to do yourself, especially when you’re having a bad day . . . or a bad stretch of days . . . or (strangely enough) immediately after you’ve had a really awesome experience.

I think we’re all like Elijah in the cave sometimes. We come down from a mountaintop experience with God, where we saw Him move and saw His hand in so many different ways, and then we get back to life and it sucks and everything goes wrong and you make mistakes and people yell at you and then crazy lightning and thunder and hail keep you up all night long so that you get less sleep than you did the night before when you got home at 1:00 in the morning and by the time you’re back on your feet all you want to do is huddle in a corner and cry your eyes out for no real reason. . . . Has anyone else ever experienced that?

I know I go through it every November. Right after Judgement House, when life goes back to “normal,” I always feel my life implode. So you’d think I’d learn to deal with it by now? It’s funny. I’ve learned to expect it, but dealing with it is a whole different matter.

But I think that’s why God gently reminds us to rejoice in Scripture. Because when our lives get like this (just like Elijah) we need to refocus on what’s important, on what matters.

Today’s verse is Psalm 68:4-5.

4 Sing praises to God and to his name!
      Sing loud praises to him who rides the clouds.
   His name is the Lord—
      rejoice in his presence!

 5 Father to the fatherless, defender of widows—
      this is God, whose dwelling is holy.

This was not what I wanted to read this morning.

This morning I woke up in a foul mood, and rejoicing was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m so tired I can hardly concentrate on anything, and I’ve got a full day at work where I’m still picking up pieces of everything that went wrong while I was at the workshop in Colorado. And I’d hoped to have an early night last night and I’d planned to get a decent night’s sleep last night, but that storm blew through here . . . and while I probably just should have gone to sleep, I wanted to make sure nothing was going to happen . . . and then when I was finally able to get into bed, I couldn’t sleep. Oh, and I couldn’t get a shower last night either because the lightning was so bad . . . so I’m greasy . . . . and all my clothes smell like suitcase because I haven’t had time to wash them.

What I really want to do is sit and whine and complain. That’s what my heart tells me to do. To moan and groan about how unfair my life is and just sit in place because I’m so tired that walking is probably a very bad idea.

But you know, what good does that do me? We puny humans get the concept from somewhere that whining and complaining about our circumstances actually helps us feel better. Does it really? I mean, there is sometimes a need to vent to people. But there’s a vast difference between venting and whining.

What I need to do is rejoice.

I need to praise God for everything that’s going right in my life. And I need to praise Him for everything that’s going wrong too. Because He is responsible for all of it, and even if it seems like what He’s sending my way is bad, God is always good. So when my life seems to be falling apart, I need to remember that He’s the one holding it together and it’s just my perspective that needs to change.

God is always good. He knows what He’s doing. He never makes mistakes. He always keeps His promises. And the best way for me to get through days like this is to praise Him for the good and for the bad, because no matter how awful it may seem, He’s going to use it to make something beautiful, something wonderful, something that will be more than worth all the pain and annoyance.

So praise God today wherever you are. If you’re having a good day, praise Him. If you’re having a bad day, praise Him harder. Because once you get your focus off your circumstances, you can see who God is. And once you can see who God is, the little problems in life (like no sleep and greasy hair) aren’t important anymore.