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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Grace for Today

If you think the idea of running a marathon is hard, you should try training for one!

In my lifetime, I have now trained for, and competed in, seven marathons. Over the course of the training, I have often found myself battling the same defeating thought process. As the weekly miles add up, the legs and body inevitably begin to fatigue. After a tiring 7 or 8 mile run on a gruesome day in the Pacific Northwest, I will find myself looking ahead at my training schedule. (Typically, I have mapped out a training plan of about 20-24 weeks from start to race day.)

My brain begins to jump ahead to the weeks to come, and my emotions do as well. I will begin to think, “If today’s run was so challenging, how will I complete the longer run this weekend?” Or, “This week is really wearing me out- and next week is only harder!” Or, “If I’m this fatigued after 7 hard miles, how can I possibly push myself for 26 miles on race day?” As these negative thoughts begin to pile up, and the fear within begins to rise. Doubt and worry have a way of reaching up and grabbing the soul until I am tempted to bag the whole thing.

As this happens, I have developed a helpful mantra: Run the next mile. Simply put, I try and focus on the only mile I can control: the one I am on. When I start to worry about next week’s speed workout, I’ll tell myself, “run the mile in front of you.” When I’m getting tired during a run and wondering if I can make it home, I’ll say out-loud, “run the mile you’re on.” When I find myself fearful at night about how I’ll perform on the day of the race, I think to myself- you guessed it- “Just run the next mile.” Something about this approach has a way of calming my spirit and focusing my emotions.

Recently at East Hills, I have been preaching through a series on grace. “How does grace relate to training for marathons?” you may ask. Well, in life, like in training, we have a tendency to begin looking ahead. We might wonder if we have what it takes to forgive someone if they hurt us again. We worry that our kids will grow up to make poor decisions, or choose lifestyles that we disagree with. How will we maintain a positive relationship if that happens? An old habit continues to rear its ugly head in our lives and we fear we are powerless to ever change and be free. We see challenges looming down the road in our workplace, and question whether or not we can handle it. Fear assaults us in situation after situation- what if the diagnosis is cancer? What if the car breaks down? What if a red cup at my favorite coffee shop really does signal the end of Christmas celebrations in our culture? This kind of fear can cripple us and steal the confidence of faith.

So, may I suggest that you develop a mantra similar to mine? Grace for today. One day at a time, God gives us grace for ourselves and for others. In Scripture, the prophet Jeremiah declares,
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning,
Great is your faithfulness.
-Lamentations 3:22, 23
Did you catch that? New every morning. Not every week, or month or year. But each morning, a new supply of his compassion- His amazing grace- is poured out for us. He gives us for today just what we need for today. And He’ll do the same tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. Some days, we may only need a little of His grace. We’ll have it. Other days, we may feel we need a truckload of grace, and we will have what we need on that day, too.

So when your emotions begin to creep up and grab your soul, when fear of the future has paralyzed your progress, repeat after me: Grace for today. Run the mile you’re on. Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air- they do not sow or reap or stow away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you be worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:26, 27) Birds don’t worry about tomorrow. At least, I’m guessing they don’t- I’ve never really asked. But the principle is good- God cares about us so much that He will give us today exactly what we need.

So we trust Him. We look to His grace. And when our heart grows feeble at the thought of tomorrow, we can say, “Grace for today.” For tomorrows marathon can worry about itself. His grace is yours today.

Run on!



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Powerless or Powerful?

 Is AA off-base with step number one?

As a people, we seem to have two basic schools of thought out there as to how we should face problematic behaviors in our lives. The one school, made most famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, says that I am powerless against my addiction (step one of twelve). The other school, promoted by well-intended Christians and secular psychologists alike, says that I can do anything I set my mind to do. This approach feels quite Biblical, especially when you attach to it the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Sounds nice. Empowering even. “Me and Jesus” can take on the world!

So which is it? These two lines of reasoning can’t possibly co-exist, can they? They appear to be two radically different approaches to health from completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

Both have their merits. Consider the “powerless” mentality of AA. To admit powerlessness is to acknowledge my need for others. Knowing my own susceptibility to an ongoing struggle or addiction keeps me humble and open to a process for change. On the other hand, the “powerful” mindset seems much more positive and responsible. I am encouraged to grab life by the horns and be master of my destiny; captain of my own ship. I embrace the truth that I can become all God made me to be!

As someone who wrestled with an addiction to pornography for over 15 years, this battle between the two schools of thought makes a ton of sense to me. I have benefited from the positive merits of both schools. I have, however, also found the pain, the shadow side, of each approach when taken alone. The powerless approach can become defeating. A mantra of “I am powerless” can become the excuse to give in when the soul no longer feels like fighting. The powerful approach may feel more hopeful, but I have discovered, like so many others, that it offers a false boast. No matter how empowered I felt, I continually found my way back into the same old patterns. When this happened, I was left with no choice but to conclude I wasn’t powerful enough, and the guilt and shame game would get played all over again.

So I ask again, which is it? Like many of our problems, perhaps the issue lies not in the answer, but with the questions itself. “Which is it” implies immediately that one or the other must be true, thus making the other false. But what if this isn’t a question of either/or, but both/and? What if the key to recovery and healthy living is to embrace both simultaneously?

“Wait, wait,” you may respond, “These two ideas are fundamentally opposed to one another. How could they possibly both be true?” Let me explain from what I have seen and experienced.

The starting place of healing and recovery is always humility: I must be willing to admit I have a problem that I simply cannot solve on my own. In that sense, I am powerless. I have learned countless times that when I place myself in certain situations without safeguards or community around me, I will do what I have done a thousand times before. And then, a thousand times I tried to change without success. What choice do I have but to embrace that, in that scenario, I am powerless?

But here’s the key: in that scenario. The scenario of my powerlessness, and yours, is one of isolation, self-effort, and repeated patterns. In other words, I cannot do the same things in the same ways and expect to get different results. Someone once called this the definition of insanity. And in that sense, our struggles and addictions are absolutely a form of insanity.

What happens, though, if I change the scenario? If I recognize that isolation, self-reliance, and repeated patterns are the graveyard of my hopes, I can make a choice to change. I can move into safe places of community where my story is heard and accepted. I can learn to trust God and His plan for right living in this fallen world. I can develop new patterns of behavior that develop healthy neurological patterns in my brain. When you and I do this, we are no longer powerless. Because we recognize the scenario of our powerlessness, we can choose to walk in places that lead to lasting health. This is a position of power.

Notice, however, where the power comes from. Is the power really in me? I would say no- the power is in community, faith in God, and a renewed mind. I am powerful because I recognize where I am powerless. I believe this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said, “So now, I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9,10) Do you see that? Paul says I am weak AND I am strong- the two working together hand in hand.

So here’s my conclusion: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me because I have embraced that I am powerless. I can gladly embrace my place of powerlessness because I know that through Christ I can do all things. Do you see the interplay? Do you see how these two ideas, when put together, actually enforce the message of the other? Powerlessness without power is hopeless. Power without powerlessness is arrogant and alone.

This paradox should come as no surprise if you take a look at the God of Ages and His eternal Word. Throughout Scripture, we are told that the way to live is through dying; the way to joy is through pain; the way to contentment is through self-denial and sacrifice. So also, the way to power is through powerlessness- two seemingly contradictory ideas put into perfect harmony through the work of Christ in us.

So today, embrace that you are weak and powerless. Celebrate that you are strong and powerful. And remember that you never want one without the other.

Journey in Freedom-

Nick

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

An Open Letter to Sports Illustrated

You may have heard the news this week that in a recent survey, 72% of Americans view your popular annual swimsuit edition as a version of porn. Most likely in the upper chambers of leadership at your company, executives are laughing this off as a skewed survey and an antiquated perception. “Real” men and “real” Americans know how to have fun and enjoy this like any other good-ole American pastime, so they say.
But they are wrong. You are wrong. And you don’t even know what you are doing to our culture.
I know the world thinks you are harmless fun. You are not. You are creating a picture of sex, and of women, that is unrealistic for nearly every woman and every couple in America. You are creating ideals for our sons that will become the filter through which every woman is judged. You validate sexism, encourage us to judge a book by its cover, and implicitly agree that women are material to be used to satisfy a man’s interest or cravings. In a single issue, you are able to make a declarative statement that quickly out-weighs all our advances in the fight for equality. Your pictures are more powerful than many thousands of words.
You say you value women for their athletic ability, but your magazine cover sends an entirely different message.
For several years of my life, I consumed you. I bought into your lies and deception that it was just something guys enjoyed and it was no big deal. I told myself it was really about the sports and I was just curious. These lies led to a way of viewing the world that almost cost me everything. I learned the truth in time and I stopped. And it’s time for you to stop.  
I know you believe that you are just one small player on a big field where this is standard fare. But you need to realize you are leading the way. You are setting a standard that opens the door for so many others to follow in your path.
So I dare you. Discontinue the issue. Put it to bed and never awaken it again. Then see what happens to your bottom line and your subscription rate. You think that sex sells, but it also repels. Make a statement that sports and sex don’t have to go together for the American man to consume it. Lead the way in teaching our children that men, and women, are valuable for who they are and not for how they look in a bathing suit. Put our attention on their skills and their athletic domination, and you will succeed.
I dare you.
Until then, count me among the 72% percent who believe in my heart that what you are selling is not harmless fun, but a sinister seduction not worth the price on the cover. I, and millions like me, will not subscribe to you or to your brand because we believe there is a better way. I encourage you to find it.

Sincerely,

Nick Stumbo

Thursday, July 31, 2014

7 Principles of Freedom

Five years ago, I was in jeopardy of losing my marriage. Despite the countless promises I had made to my wife about change, I found that was unable to avoid relapsing into pornography. Though I could not acknowledge it at the time, this addiction had a control over me that I couldn’t comprehend. Today, I am porn-free and enjoying a healthier marriage than ever before. While I must continually guard my purity and my heart, I no longer struggle with relapses into this behavior. So what changed? Here are seven principles that I have found at work in my life and in the lives of many other guys who have walked this same journey.

Get Honest. One of the things we all do with behaviors we’re hiding is to minimize them. This means that we have spent a great deal of time convincing ourselves, and others, that porn really isn’t a problem. We use lines like, “all guys do this”, “no one is getting hurt”, or “I can stop anytime I want” to try and reduce the guilt or negative emotions we feel. Freedom begins by confronting these lies. Change will only occur when we say willingly and frequently to ourselves and other trusted friends, “I have a problem and I need help.”

Create Boundaries. When we are busy minimizing destructive behaviors, this keeps us from seeing how vulnerable we are to acting out. If we want to establish freedom for the long-haul, then we will have to make some major adjustments to how we do life. Creating boundaries means that we look at the places where we are most susceptible to accessing pornography and we deal with them. For example, I don’t have a smart phone, but that’s okay. I’d rather have a dumb phone and be a smart user! You will never regret setting your personal boundaries too high. You will always regret the ones that were so low they were easy to step over or ignore.

Join a Group. Especially for guys, we are guilty of thinking we can do just about anything on our own, if we but set our minds to it. But the problem with this thinking, when it comes to pornography, is that porn is a problem we got into on our own. It is through isolation and separation from relationships that this problem grew to the level of addiction. So, we cannot hope to find freedom on the same path. Freedom comes as we process our journey honestly and openly with others who are doing the same.

Commit to the Long Haul. When it comes to not looking at pornography, will power and sheer determination will never be enough. We aren’t looking to simply stop a behavior; we are looking to process life differently. This means changing our brains and the ways we react to certain stress or stimuli. Scientific research reveals that true and lasting brain change takes a minimum of 2 years and as long as 5! If we want to be free of porn for life, then we must embrace that this journey, and this change, takes time.

Proactive Check-Ins. One of the greatest faults with traditional approaches to accountability is the relationship where one person says, “Call me and ask how I am doing.” In this set-up, we are giving responsibility for our change to another person. If we really want to change, then checking in with others is something we take responsibility for, and we do it proactively. We commit to calling others a minimum of three times in a week to report on how we are doing and what steps we are taking to stay free. This move keeps us in charge of our own change.

Know Your Pattern. The problem for most of us with porn is that we know when we’ve looked at it (it’s pretty obvious) but we don’t have any clue why. Far too many guys think of a bout with pornography as an isolated, hormonally-fueled episode. But it’s not. Our brain works on a complex system of punishments and rewards, and if we keep returning to a behavior which we know we don’t want, it’s because our brain has associated it with a reward. We must learn to recognize our pattern, and then change how the pattern starts. If we only try to fight against viewing porn as we’re sitting alone in front of a computer feeling tempted, this will be a losing battle. Winning starts when we fight further up in the process.

Tell Your Story. Telling your story means you know where you have come from and what drives you. If we know the pain, turmoil, and the joy of our own past, we begin to unlock the secrets for what drives an addiction to pornography. Our struggle is rooted in the deeper issues of what we believe about life and ourselves. As we learn to see and tell our story accurately, we gain the power to change it. This is one of the primary roles of a group in our lives- a safe, supportive place to start telling our story.

I believe that if you were to remove any one of these principles from my story, I would quickly be back where I started. Much like the 6 or 8 cylinders of an engine must fire together in perfect sequence, so these principles function concurrently to create real and lasting freedom in our lives. Where do you need to begin? What principle have you been avoiding or ignoring? Take that step today, and trust that God will bring freedom you way as you do!

Blessings-

Nick

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Violence In Our Schools

Like many of you, I watched with sadness, anger, and regret as school shootings continue to make headlines across our country. With two such incidences in the Pacific Northwest recently, these tragedies feel closer to home than ever before. East Hills has several Seattle Pacific alums here, and so we grieve and pray with them for what occurred at their school.

In the days and weeks to come, we will no doubt hear varied opinions aired, with great vehemence, about what should be done to curb the violence taking place in our schools. Tighter gun control! Heightened school security! Closed-access campuses! These ideas, and many others like them, all have merit and in some way might create greater safety for places of public education.

But this week, I find myself reflecting on the deeper issues of our society. What is happening in our humanity that this kind of violent action seems to be more and more the norm rather than the exception? Why do so many, especially young people, turn to aggression when life overwhelms them? While I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, I would like to share a brief thought along these lines. Could it be that we have created a flawed culture in which the ideals we teach inevitably lead to emptiness and a lack of fulfillment?

Our young people are taught today that life is a smorgasbord of opportunity just waiting for them to enjoy. The message the media teaches them is to fill their lives with good things, pursue pleasure, and prioritize immediate gratification; after all, it’s all about you . Everyone can have what they want, when they want, how they want. The downfall is that the proposed promises of these messages always come up empty. Stuff doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Pleasure doesn’t equate to real joy. Facebook friends and twitter followers doesn’t create true relationships and deep connection. And so, as a society, we are left wanting.

In Isaiah 55:1-2, the prophet declares, “Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink- even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk- it’s all free! Why spend money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.” Our society seems to be gorging itself on food that doesn’t satisfy. And when we come up empty and alone, violence is increasingly the answer.

So I believe with all my heart that Jesus is still the hope of the world. Because for all our western culture can give- possessions, techy toys, cool cars, and frappuccinos- culture hasn’t figured out how to give us what we most need. Only God can meet us in the deep hunger of our souls.
How will our society be changed? How will gun violence be curtailed? When people come to God to satisfy their true hunger, the world will be changed. It starts with me and you; making sure that we find our joy and satisfaction in Him. And having tasted the goodness of the Lord, we share this message. We look to be light in dark places. We point others to the only source of lasting joy and peace. And the more that people are pointed to Christ, the fewer guns that will be pointed at others. May it be so.