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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-


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.


Nick Stumbo