The Christian Life is Hard and That Is A Good Thing

COMCAM Sailors Take On Tough Mudder

I wrote this nearly three years ago and still believe it. I am asking God to change me no matter what it takes. If he needs to tear me down or remove things from my life or bring failure to help me see him and only him, I want him to do it. To encounter the presence and power of Christ is enough for me. That is what I long for.

(Originally published in May 2016)

Have you noticed that in spite of countless listicles and click bait slide shows that give you “Five Tips To The Perfect You” or “This One Thing Will Change Your Life Forever and Its Jaw Dropping,” we are more attracted to difficult achievements than cheap shortcuts that have no substance?

How else can you explain the rise in participation in marathons, Tough Mudders, and Spartan Races? Why are CrossFit and Fitness Bootcamps so popular and P90X before them?

Conventional wisdom would say that no 21st century person would be tough enough to commit to these things despite the positive results. Could it be that the we actually prefer a challenge over short cuts?

American churches have tried for the last 30 years or so to make the Christian life seem easy. Either by reduction of the message or making the hard parts seem unnessary, the idea was that if we portrayed the Christian life as difficult then no one would try it.

It was Chesterton who said, ““The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” But it is that difficulty that you really need. You want to feel as if you are really committing to something that is rich, deep, hard, life changing, and worth it.

A product that is given away or comes cheap seems disposable or lacking but something that you pay a large sum seems worth it because you worked hard to pay for it.

The Christian Life isn’t hard for hard sake but it is hard because nothing else in life is worth more than life transformation and growth. To discipline and die to self and see what Christ can do with our humble efforts has so many more benefits than taking the easier path.

Do the work and see what Christ does with it.

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Need A Cure For Insomnia? Try the Psalms

Can’t sleep? The weight of your thoughts and worries keeping you up at night? Does your mind churn and churn with repeated images and doomsday scenarios?

I found a way to beat these midnight demons though I never believed that it would really work. Dallas Willard has said on multiple occasions that if you are down and having trouble sleeping to start reading the Psalms. He would make this suggestion and then say, “try it, you’ll see.”

This sounded like a nice thing to try but I have read the Psalms and they are inspiring, life-giving, wise, honest, and full of praise but could they really bring peace and needed sleep for the weary insomniacs? I was skeptical.

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But then, I found myself in a situation where there was much on my mind and my penchant for pessimism had turned to depressive thoughts and barely controlled worry. I was stuck in a mind loop that I couldn’t get out of and it was keeping me up at night. So, I started to try Dr. Willard’s remedy. I just started reading the Psalms.

I didn’t have a plan, I just kept reading. I tried to let all of the promises, all of the cries for help, all of the moments of praise, all of the laments just wash over me. I didn’t try to interpret all of the meanings. If there was a section that didn’t apply to me, I didn’t sweat it because I knew that a few moments later there would be lines that were as if the Psalmist knew my inner thoughts and the fine details of my situation. As I read, and it didn’t take long, my anxiety, that included a disturbed stomach, began to dissipate and the heaviness of the moment turned to calm and a sense of relief. I found myself relaxing and dozing off.

J.R. Briggs, in his book Fail, tells of pastors who said that the Psalms felt like ointment rubbed on their wounds. That was what I was experiencing. I tried it the next night and it worked again. Why would I ever doubt the wise counsel of Willard? He obviously had spoken from experience. So, if you find yourself in a dark time and it is affecting your sleep, try opening the Psalms and just read. The words and the Holy Spirit should do the rest.

The Truth About Sloth

I have had the nickname Sloth since I was a teenager. There are people in college that probably never knew that my real name was Scott.

You would have to ask my friend David why he started calling me Sloth but apparently the name fits my approach to life and general countenance. It is interesting that Sloths are trending now. You can’t walk into a store without seeing stuffed Sloths, t-shirts with Sloths on them, or flip around the web and not see sloth videos and sloth references.

Strangely enough, the term sloth also makes the list of deadly sins. This has obviously nothing to do with the animal but is a life characterized by lack of motivation and effort. But are we just talking about work ethic and productivity?

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Rebecca DeYoung, in her book Glittering Vices, points the reader to the ancient Christian view on sloth. That the vice of sloth is not just a lack of diligence but a lack of diligence in matters of the faith. It is the unwillingness to work to care for Growing Up.

This lack of effort is a demonstration of a limited level of love for God. For if love for God was truly present then the person would have the motivation to work on their spiritual life and apply the discipline to take on hard tasks for the benefit of God and our own development. DeYoung states, “Both inner and outer manifestations of sloth are thus linked to one’s religious commitment and one’s attitude toward the demands of the spiritual life.”

And it is not just the couch potatoes that can be accused of slothfulness. The over-busy and the go-go overachievers can be just as slothful because in their constant effort towards productivity and industriousness they fail to take the time or the intention to devote themselves to God and develop into Christlikeness.

How does one remedy a slothful tendency to neglect love’s demands on our self? One thing that can be done is to stop treating God as a means to get what I want without any personal responsibilities of my own. Just like an effective marriage requires work and effort and sacrifice to cultivate the relationship, our commitment to God is not all mountain tops and worship highs and comfort zones. We need to take the long view and develop a sense of intention that sees past the immediate for the greater reward of a lasting, sustainable, and eternally rewarding commitment.

I am proud of my nickname for it reminds me of those incredibly interesting, monklike creatures but it also reminds me of the necessity of commitment, true love, and even sacrifice needed for a healthy Christian life.

How My Journey As A Chick-Fil-A Cow Led To An Exercise In Faith

The last two years has been a pile-on of difficult, trying, desperately sad, and draining circumstances.

About a year ago, I began searching for a healthy escape, an outlet, that was not going to be dangerous to my health, my spiritual growth, or my family. Sometime in the Spring, I saw an announcement on Facebook calling for auditions for a Chick-Fil-A promotion called the Herd of Cows. This marketing team needed more people to serve as Chick-Fil-A Cows (in full costume) at birthday parties, sporting events, and community gatherings. Beyond my need for an outlet, I was instantly intrigued. One of my secret ambitions has been to be a professional sports mascot. Sometimes at games, I almost spend more time watching the mascot as I do the actual action on the field. This was my chance to fulfill a dream and to do something a little crazy and maybe let off some steam and frustration.

The audition turned out to be more a training than a rigorous assessment of my mascot chops. I was in and was ready to attend my first event. But there was one big problem.

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When I put on the cow head for the first time, I panicked. I didn’t expect to not be able to see, to not be able to breathe very well, and for the tight, trap like quarters that giant head would present. Even writing this description gives me a slight sense of dread and unease bordering on panic. The claustrophobia was real and I had the base desire just to tell everyone thanks for the chance to do this but no thanks on the actual costume and that I had made a poor choice. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Still, I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

It would be a month before I had a chance to participate in my first event, so I had time to work on my anxiety and develop some kind of strategy to overcome this. I was determined. I wasn’t going to let this tiny thing ruin something I knew I would enjoy and if I could overcome this, I would have a testimony about not being defeated by fear and anxiety.

My anti-anxiety regiment leading up to my first event included listening to inspirational podcasts, exercise, hot baths, and visualization. Yes, I went all in on this thing, as I am prone to do. But the single most effective means of overcoming my claustrophobia was something I had already been doing and had done in previous high stress situations – meditation and the Jesus Prayer. On the day of my first event, I laid down, closed my eyes, began breathing slowly and reciting the Jesus Prayer:

Lord, Jesus Christ,

Son of God,

Have mercy on me,

A sinner.

I would say the first two lines on my inhale and the last two on my exhale and just repeat for the time allotted. I don’t believe in magic formula prayers or some kind of repetitive number of prayers that will bring a resolution to a problem but in my base fear and human anxiety I needed something short, easily repeatable, soul-stirring, and rhythmic.

The meditation session was helpful and I was relaxed and ready to give this a go. And the beauty of this prayer is that I could repeat it very easily in the midst of putting on the costume and doing the thing. So throughout the lead up to the event and as it began to be showtime, I just kept saying the prayer and it remind me that God is with me, that I am perfectly safe in his hands.

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The time came to put on the head and the rush of panic started but I kept breathing, began intentionally noticing the things around me to get my bearings, and praying. The last thing I remembered as the doors opened and I had to perform was the thought, “Lord Jesus Christ…I am a cow.” As soon as my “hoofs” hit the ground there was no anxiety, no panic, and I was in the moment and having a great time.

I danced, I played tag with the kids, I pretended to want to eat all of the birthday cake, and tried to swing in a tire swing in my giant costume. I did it and it was tremendous fun and a big achievement for me. I did not let anxiety overcome me, I trusted God down to the second and let him answer my prayers, all for the chance to be a cartoonish cow for 30 minutes. It all was ludicrous yet glorious at the same time. I learned that God desires our good and wants to help us, even in the most silly of costumes.

Books, Music, Podcasts and Practices That Helped Me Grow Up in 2018

If 2016 was full of challenging and unwanted surprises and 2017 was full of struggle and hardship, 2018 may have been worse. But each moment of pain and disappointment was met with a moment of sweet discovery and refreshment from the Lord. God uses music to comfort and inspire me; he uses books to inject wisdom and awareness; and even technology to shape and structure my days. Here is a list of what God used this year to help me Grow Up.

Music

Waylon Live – Jennings was from the same home town as my parents, Littlefield, Texas. I have always been more of a Willie guy but this album is pure country rock and one great song after another. I can’t say any of the songs helped me Grow Up but each time I listened to it, I got a little buzzing in my chest and was able to break the scales off of some of my stress for the day. Music has the power to sooth and ease a burdened spirit, this album did it for me.

Podcasts

Renovare PodcastEpisode 111– I ended up listening to this podcast several times and even played it for my staff at a moment of deep despair and hurt. This episode is full of wonderful stories of the great saint Corrie Ten Boom. We can never be reminded enough that God is more powerful than our circumstances and deeper than our lowest points.

Things Above – I talked about this podcast recently and make a point of listening to it weekly. Hosted by AE creator James Bryan Smith, the focus is on mind discipleship, where we place our mind. Most episodes are less than 20 minutes and full of holy thoughts and keen insight to help with the spiritual life’s most difficult task – setting our minds on things above.

Tim Ferriss Show – Episode 319 – This is a special episode where Ferriss plays clips from the audio version of Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is The Way. I faced a debilitating fear during the summer that I desperately wanted to overcome. I listened to this episode over and over to help me to see that fear wasn’t going to win and if I could work through this, I would have a great sense of accomplishment and growth.

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Technology

Kindle, Audible, Readwise – As a librarian, you would think that I would be partial to the printed work and in some ways I am. This year, though, I embraced eBooks and Audiobooks like never before.

Audible allows me to listen to books on my way to work, while Kindle allows me to always have books with me while keeping a better record of what stood out for me in the text.In addition, I discovered that my Kindle stores all of my highlights in one spot, so I can scroll through them without having to go page by page looking for highlighted sections. When I finished the Apprentice Experience, I went back through all of our readings and re-read my highlights using the Kindle. I don’t think I would have done this with paper copies.

Then, just last month, I discovered Readwise. This app accesses your Kindle highlights and sends you five randomly selected highlights in a daily digest email. I look forward to reading these everyday and have started to share some of my favorites on Social Media.

Practices

Miracle Hour – This manual for spending an hour with God has been exactly what I was looking for. Worship, scripture, confession, and surrender, it is all here. I have only done the full hour once but I will take one section a day and devote about 10 minutes to it as part of my meditation time. If you have the desire for a deeper devotional life but need structure to make it work, this practice is for you.

Small Group – God orchestrated the creation of a small group at my workplace with very little effort or organizing on my part. In fact, people started to approach me out of the blue to make it happen. This was a classic case of if it is to be, it will not be from me. I just facilitated what God was already doing and provided a little intention to it, God did the rest and our times together have been wonderful, convicting, encouraging, and Spirit-filled. This has been one of the great treasures of my year.

Books and Reading

Articles – I always think that I will have added time in my day to read articles that I have discovered while browsing the internet and social media. I often collect things to read that I never get around to. This year, I made a point to read one short article (about 3-8 minutes) and 10 minutes of a longer article on a regular basis (about 3 times a week). This has given me access to great stories, important issues, and helpful wisdom.

As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, Eugene Peterson – A collection of Peterson’s sermons from his more than 35 years of pastoring a church, As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire helped me connect with scripture in new and fresh ways and helped me see God more and more in the day-to-day of life. I finished this just before Peterson died in October. I am glad I was able to appreciate him to such an extent in his final moments on this earth.

Becoming Dallas Willard, Gary Moon – I approached this book with caution. Being such a devotee of Willard, I was preparing myself to be disappointed or underwhelmed. Plus, I knew so much about him, I thought I would appreciate the book but not discover anything particularly new. Instead, I was transformed by the book and inspired to live a more personal, direct life with Christ. God working in and through Willard is miraculous and also rather ordinary, just they way all of us should want God to work in and through us.

Needed Words For Needed Times

Things are busy this week as we find the new normal for our daughter after her surgery. Everything has gone better than expected and she is recovering nicely but has a way to go before she is up on her feet and feeling at her best. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement. I truly appreciate it.

As God often does, he has provided needed words at exactly the needed time. I came across this meditation as I was listening to The Things Above Podcast hosted by James Bryan Smith. It is by Luis Espinal. May it encourage you as it has encouraged me:

Meditation by Luis Espinal

There are Christians
Who have hysterical reactions
As if the world had slipped out of God’s hands.
They are violent
As if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history.
The world is not a roll of the dice
On its way toward chaos.
A new world has begun to happen
Since Christ has risen?

Jesus Christ,
We rejoice in your definitive triumph
With our bodies still in the breach,
Our souls in tension;
We cry our first “Hurrah!”
Till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed.
Your enemies have failed.
You are the definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us?
We accept the struggle and the death,
Because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you on the road to the future.
You are with us. You are our immortality?

Take away the sadness from our faces;
We are not in a game of chance?
You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones,
Now has begun the eternal “Alleluia!”
From the thousands of openings
In our wounded bodies and souls,
There now arises a triumphal song!

So teach us to give voice
To your new life throughout the world,
Because you dry the tears of the oppressed forever?
And death will disappear.

Preparing for Life’s Harder Moments

With the help of my wife, Leah, we have told a little of our daughter Joy’s story involving birth defects, multiple surgeries, and God’s means of working and encouraging us during heavy times.

On Tuesday, Joy will be having another surgery. This one will be on her jaw and requires a bone graft from her hip. Recovery shouldn’t be much fun as she must be on a strict liquid diet and have very little activity.

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One aspect of my spiritual growth is an awareness of when I need help. When sticking to the status quo just won’t cut it and I need to be intentional and be willing to prepare, from a spiritual standpoint, for a difficult event. Here are some ways that I plan on preparing myself spiritually and emotionally for next week:

  1. Fasting – I have talked about fasting in this space before. The biblical use of fasting was largely to mark solemn occasions or times of repentance and returning to the Lord. Joy’s surgery, though routine for the doctor’s performing it, still will have deep impact on my daughter’s daily life for the next month and our family’s as well. This occasion requires me, as her father, to be at my best, and to be constantly in a state of prayer. In my recent practice of fasting, I have found deep moments with God and opportunities for spiritual reflection that has been life giving and a needed reset in my spiritual life. I don’t want to go into this time running on spiritual fumes, so I need something drastic to set the spiritual tone.
  2. Asking for prayer – Even though I have a blog and share some of my business, I am normally a pretty guarded person. I don’t like to talk about my own problems for fear that people would think I am fishing for sympathy or think my situation is more serious than someone else. But, in several of my church and work settings, I have specifically asked for prayer for Joy and that the surgery will go smoothly and that recovery will be light and free of pain. I have seen the power of intercessory prayer, and need that power in my family’s life this week.
  3. Surrender – I remember when Joy was just a few month’s old and had her first surgery on her lip. The dust had settled on the surgery and time in the recovery room. I made my way to the small chapel in the hospital where she was staying. I can’t remember too many times that I felt more reliant on God and aware of my lack of ability to control much of anything. I had come to a place of surrender of my child over to God. This is a terrifying yet comforting place to be as a parent. So, I find myself back in that spot again. I have to be willing to let things be for Joy and our family during Christmas. I have to daily pray for God’s will to be done for the surgery and for the aftermath. I have no control over how she will respond and what will cause her the most discomfort and irritation. I have to simply trust that God knows our deepest needs and will provide for those in a way that is best for all of us.

Why I Think Differently About Worship

2017 was a very difficult year for me and the beginning of 2018 may have been even worse. So many Sundays, I would arrive at our church’s worship beat down and jagged and angry. But in the practice of worship and in the participation with the transcendent, I would be reminded of God’s glorious riches and his love for me. I would transport past the immediacy of my pain to sweet comfort of a Savior who hurts with me and knows my sorrow and grief.

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If you are not practicing worship then you are susceptible to “what have you done for me lately thinking.” Scripture talks about God’s glorious riches and out of those glorious riches come God’s strength. But if I am not spending time in awe and not willing to worship the God of these riches then I am just left with the immediacy of God’s action and there may not be much there to think about and be in awe of.

God is not only as good as his last action, he is vastly more great, more powerful, more loving, more dynamic, more glorious, and more beautiful than we can ever imagine in our current state of humanness. But in our fickleness and emotionally driven impulsiveness we will miss all of who God is unless we take time for worship.

I pray that you are taking time to worship and sit in awe of God and that you are constantly reminded of his good and beautiful nature. That knowledge was refreshing and healing for me, it can be for you as well.

The Christian Response To Meditation? Do it Differently

The number of Americans who practiced meditation in 2017(14.1%) is 10% higher than the number from just five years ago(4.1%). Children are getting in on the act as well. 5.4% of children practiced meditation compared to just .6% in 2012.*

Yet, the response to this growth from Christians has been non-existent. Here in this so-called secular age, thousands and maybe millions of people are participating in a spiritual practice and embracing spirituality and Christians aren’t noticing and aren’t responding and aren’t presenting the Christian alternative to secular meditation.

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A year and a half ago, I committed to a short blog series on meditation. I asked, “Should Christians meditate?” and I talked about my own experience with Christian meditation. Since then, I have had the chance to speak to a group of leaders on my campus about meditation. In that preparation, I discovered this explanation from Tim Keller on the practice, “Meditation is taking the truth down into our hearts until it catches fire there and begins to melt and shape our reactions to God, ourselves, and the world.”

Like the cow’s process of rumination, or chewing over again, we should take the steps of embracing God’s truths, largely through scripture, and letting them be considered, turned over in our mind, sink into our hearts, and find not just the truth in them but God’s presence in them.

The Christian version of meditation is full, robust, life-giving, a “room full of marvels” and not dependent on our skill or expertise. As long as we can take the time and invite God to be with us and speak with us, He will show up and fill us with his presence. God is doing the heavy lifting, we just have to be willing to surrender to him in that moment.

As Christians, we should be experts on meditation in its proper form and should be practitioners of it. We have a chance to show the world the richness of this kind of encounter with God.

The Real Reason We Should Be Overflowing With Thankfulness

I invite you to stop what you are doing. Take a step back from your activity. Take a deep breath and think about all that you have to be thankful for. I don’t even have to mention the usual list of health, family, and a roof over your head. What I want you to be thankful for is simply the great presence, power, and promises found in life with Christ.

Do you remember that not even death can separate you from the love of God? That the life we live as Christians inside the Kingdom of God is a life full of love, now and forever. That love is not contingent on our ability to maintain some level of goodness.

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Do you remember that you are valuable and precious? As Eugene Peterson said, “we are splendid, never-to-be-duplicated stories of grace.” Christ dwells in you and delights in you and sacrificed everything to be made alive in you.

Do you remember that you are a new creation? That your life from this point on is capable of transformation and deep change. So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

See all that we have to be thankful for? Thank God for our health and our provisions but more than that, thank God for his great love and his work in our lives. Without which, we would be aimless, tossed about by our own desires, and ever on the edge of despair and loneliness.