Faith and The Life of a Hermit

One of the things that I get to do in my church is participate in leading the high school and middle school students in our semi weekly meetings.  Interacting with these students in this way is pretty challenging on my patience at times, but it is also significantly rewarding both mentally and spiritually.  During our most recent meeting we were reading and discussing the first chapter in 2 Peter, when we came to a point in the discussion that challenged the way many of us thought about life as a Christian.

According to verse 2 Peter 1:5-10, if we as Christians supplement our faith with goodness, and our goodness with knowledge, and our knowledge with self control, and our self control with endurance, and our endurance with godliness, and our godliness with brotherly affection, and our brotherly affection with love all while making every effort to confirm our faith and identity in Jesus then we will never stumble in our faith.  Never.  Not again. At all.  Never is a strong word and it seems pretty unlikely that we will never stumble or sin as Christians, but I’m not trying to convince you of my viewpoint, I am just reading from the Bible.  In order to keep from ever stumbling or faltering in our faith we must not only possess the qualities listed, but have them in increasing measure (according to verse 8 of that chapter).  This is a huge request, but the promise still remains in verse 10 “you will never stumble” (emphasis added by me).

As encouraging as this promise is, there could be a case made that “stumble” does not mean sin, it means to fall away from faith in God or something less than sinning because no one is perfect.  I believe that the God (through Peter) is telling us that it is possible for Christians to go on living their lives without sinning if they are doing the things listed in the previous verses.  If you disagree on my interpretation, feel free to let me know, but my faith allows me to believe that God would make it possible for us to live life without sinning again.  However, this interpretation of scripture is not why I write this post.  It was my personal reflection on this idea of living the Christian life without ever stumbling (or sinning) that I felt worth sharing.

Starting with the assumption that it is possible for a Christian to go on living his or her life without ever sinning again, so long as he or she is living in the prescribed manner, my first thought was that I might be able to satisfy these prescribed actions if I sat at home all day everyday concentrating on nothing more than these things.  Simply put, if I were a hermit I would be able to live life without sinning.  I would be (seemingly) free from distraction, temptation, frustration, manipulation or anything else that would lead to me stumbling in my faith.  Then I realized that while this would seem true and might even be partially true, I don’t believe that God desires His people to be hermits.  Rather than pull away from the world to look for God, I think God wants us to engage the world and interact with all the things and people in it with the knowledge that we possess about Him.  God wants us to live abundant and vibrant lives which requires us to go out into the world instead of drawing away from it.

The catch is that going out into the world and engaging and participating in it puts the Christian in a place that does not understand or encourage his faith.  When God asks or commands us to go into the world it requires us to trust that God will make it possible to do the things that will lead us and others back to Him.   While it would be easier to not sin while living the life of a hermit, excellence in morality is only the prerequisite and aide in God’s true desire for our lives.

Maybe I am wrong, but when I read the God’s words to us I see a God that wants us to desire Him and please Him instead of just trying to not disappoint Him.  For this reason I am actually in the position to lead our high school and middle school meetings.  I have not actually received any formal training on how to lead this young students, but I have had several mentors model what it means to lead students in ministry.  It would be easier to study to and get a degree or certificate in youth ministry and in 3 or 4 years be able to lead these students in the “right” way, but I honestly think that God would rather me trust Him and trust the people that He has already put in my life to equip me to do this work.  The former option takes time and gives me confidence in myself and my education, the latter option takes faith in God’s ability to use me despite me and a reliance on the promise of forgiveness when I fall short.

End Note: I write this not to boast in my faith, but to encourage you to walk in yours.  More often than I care to admit I am left wondering whether these student meetings are making an impact in any of the students lives’.

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I am what I am.

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“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10

It was not my culture, birth place, family, morals, actions, worldview, academics, time period, church, pastor, or my will that allowed me to know Jesus as savior.  It was God’s grace.  The work I do as a result of this (regardless of amount) is by His grace too.

My Prayer: Father, help me to remember this at all times so that I may remain humble.

The Tortoise Always Wins

Two years ago as Britt and I were preparing to get married we were looking at our finances and making plans for how to pay off her school debt.  We thought we might be able to pay it off within a year or two because of Britt’s diligence to keep her debt to a minimum and God’s blessing for me to make it through school without incurring any debt.  The plan was going well until we had an unexpected C-Section when Jonah was born.  The hospital bills backed up our plans significantly, or so we thought.  As I am writing this, Britt and I are completely debt free!

This is our filled debt thermometer.

This is our filled debt thermometer.

How did this happen?  If you are a listener or reader of Dave Ramsey (as we are), you have probably heard Dave say that the tortoise always wins.  This is a reference to the story of the Tortoise and the Hare.  In the story the Tortoise and the Hare are competing in a foot race.  The Hare has the obvious advantage in speed and flaunts it in the beginning of the race.  However, the twist is that the Hare gets distracted and stops racing for a little while allowing the Tortoise to catch up and eventually win the race. What Dave Ramsey means by “the Tortoise always wins,” is that if you are patient, persistent, and diligent with your plan to get out of debt then you will always succeed, just as the tortoise succeeds in beating the hare every time you read the story.

Honestly, I agree with Dave, it took Britt and I almost two years of focused budgeting and saving to pay off all of our debt, but I think that there is more to the story than that.  The story of the tortoise and hare is static and never changes and it only focuses on the power of will and determination.  There is much to be said about persistence and determination, but the story also speaks a lot about the danger of getting distracted from your goal.  Like I said though, I agree with Dave.  There was however a greater power at work in our story I believe.  It was because of God’s provision and plan that we were able to pay off around $11,000 worth of hospital and school loan bills in under two years, not just my and Britt’s persistence and determination.

This book was very helpful in getting out of debt.

This book was very helpful in getting out of debt.

In His perfect timing God provided the money that was being held in an account from the previous year.   Last year I was only getting paid a portion of my full support that was available.  All of that remainder was dispensed to me at the first paycheck of the year.  This “bonus” (if you want to call it that) was actually deposited into our bank account on my birthday.  What is more incredible than the coincidence of the day it was deposited was that it was deposited when we needed it the most.

Only a couple of days beforehand, I sitting at our church staff meeting and looking at my bank account online.  The posted balance was just over $13. As you can imagine, this caused me to get a little nervous about our financial situation.  With $200 dollars in cash leftover from Christmas gifts and $13 in the bank I began to see the beautiful picture that was about to be painted. At our staff meeting, the other pastors and I began discussing my salary and how much money was left in my account from the year before.  Acting as advisers, both Mat and Jason recommended that I take as much as possible from the left over while still leaving a couple months worth of paychecks for the period of time that I was going to be securing my funding for the next year.  This way Britt and I would be able to pay off our most expensive monthly bill and keep that much more money in our wallet each month.  At this point I thought that all we had to do was make it to the next Wednesday and then the money would be in our account and give us comfort again while we continued to pay off our smaller debts.

As I left our staff meeting I was comforted by the fact that we were going to be able to survive without over drafting into our savings.  Then I began to think about the phrase “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  I thought it seemed appropriate for our situation, going from $13 to paying off our hospital bill was quite an encouraging thought.  Thinking about this I was reminded of Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection.  To his disciples, the crucifixion must have seemed like the darkest and worst imaginable scenario.  In their eyes the person that they had been following for three years that had sufficiently proven his divinity as God in the flesh, had just been executed as a criminal.  Jesus was supposed to be the savior of the world.  All of mankind had been waiting for him to come and reunite them to God and then he came.  However, he was killed before he got a chance to establish God’s kingdom and reunite people to Him.  Jesus was dead and his enemies had won.  Or so it seemed.  Three days later the sun rose and brought the dawn after the darkest hour.  When Jesus came back to life, he validated and proved everything that he had ever told the disciples.  The disciples joy must have been immeasurably more powerful than their previous sorrow had been.  So the crucifixion made the world the darkest just before the resurrection had caused the dawn to come.

This is the greatest story ever told.  Jesus overcame even death itself to bring joy, love, grace, and truth to all of mankind.  I’m not comparing my paying off debt to Jesus’s resurrection, but I am saying that I was reminded of it when I thought of our situation.

There was however a miscalculation on my part.  I thought that we would be able to pay off our hospital bills and have a little left over to pay off some of Britt’s school loans.  I was wrong, but in a good way.  We actually had enough to pay off all of Britt’s school loans after the hospital bill was paid.  I think this miscalculation was even a way that God was trying to reveal Himself to me though.  You see, I was anticipating paying off the hospital bills and having a measure of comfort and a plan to finish paying off the school loans.  However, Jesus’s resurrection wasn’t intended to give us a measure of comfort from the pain of sin and provide a plan to work out our salvation.  The resurrection was for complete freedom from sin.  In the same way, God didn’t want my “bonus” to give us comfort and a plan, He wanted to give Britt and I complete financial freedom.

Because of the faithful giving from our ministry partners Britt and I are freer than we have ever been to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and broken world.  We are extremely excited to be able to share with others the story of how God provided for us all along so that we could enjoy his blessing of abundant giving at one time.  This all happened after we returned from Mississippi to find that our pastor had installed a new (used) refrigerator and stove in our home while we were gone.

It took patience and diligence for me and Britt to see financial freedom, but we are focused on something much bigger than financial freedom.  We want to see students find spiritual freedom.  If you have been following my newsletters or blog for a while you might remember that I have been meeting with multiple students that claim no religious belief.  I just wanted to share with you all that some of them are now reading the Bible.  None of them have committed their lives to following Jesus yet, but God is working in their lives, even if they can’t see it.  With your prayer I hope to see “the tortoise” that is God’s unfailing plan, win these ones too.

Engage Conflict

For as long as I can remember I have been the kind of person that avoids conflict.  I have been able to get along quite well without taking any seemingly unnecessary steps that might result in conflict. Recently however, I have begun to think of conflict in a new light.  I have been learning that when I avoid conflict I might actually be avoiding a beneficial experience.

I used to think that conflict could only result in someone being offended and another person having to ask for forgiveness or in the event of a business relationship, the relationship would end altogether because neither party has a personal connection to the other.  With this perception about conflict, I thought it an event that would best be avoided if at all possible. The problem with my view of conflict is that I was only seeing part of the story. Many times this can be true of conflict, it can result in hurt feelings or strained relationships.  However, these outcomes are not always the results of conflict.  Conflict, if handled properly, can be benefit me as a person and have an eternal impact that displays attributes of God’s character.

To unpack this somewhat scandalous idea, I want to begin by establishing an understanding of conflict.  Conflict is anything that prevents a person from achieving his or her goal.  Conflict might be a tornado the destroys your home and prevents you from living in peace or it might be a difference in opinion of organizational strategy.  Both of these can prevent a person from achieving a goal that is set.  In these examples there exists an additional truth about conflict.  In some circumstances it can be avoided (not discussing organizational strategy with your boss avoids conflict) and in other scenarios it cannot be avoided (one cannot prevent a tornado).  Because this world is not perfect, conflict will always exist and people will have to choose how they react and interact with it. Avoiding conflict is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it might not be the most beneficial.  After all when we avoid conflict we are merely trying to accomplish our goals with as little interruption as possible.  Morally we have committed no treason by avoiding conflict, assuming our goals are righteous from the outset.  What is or is not a worthy goal is not a topic I wish to discuss here, I am merely pointing out that avoiding conflict does not have to be associated with any sort of cowardice.

Often the word conflict brings to mind connotations of fear and struggle, but I think that it is possible to think of conflict in a new way that might result in wanting to engage conflict rather than avoid it.  When we run into conflict we can either choose to fight through it and persist in our efforts to meet our goals or we can give up on our goals and let the conflict prevent us from ever achieving the goal.  If we choose to fight through the conflict we are affirming to ourselves that our goals are worth fighting for and that we will remain motivated to see them achieved. In the fight against conflict we will often gain a new perspective that will prepare us for similar conflicts in the future.  So the result of engaging the conflict (assuming we win the fight with conflict) is that we have renewed and strengthened motivation and a new perspective of our goals which prepares us to continue fighting for our goals.  If we avoid the conflict we neither strengthen our motivation nor gain a new perspective.  Therefore it is more beneficial to engage conflict than avoid it.

However, just stating that it is more beneficial to engage conflict does not make it an easier to do so.  Herein lies the another benefit of engaging conflict.  Often times when faced with conflict we might not be actually equipped to engage and defeat the conflict by ourselves.  We must either turn to those around us for help or trust that God will somehow provide a way for us to overcome that conflict.  I believe that this last option is perhaps the primary reason that conflict exists most often.  I believe that God wants all people to realize that they are completely helpless to overcome anything apart from His help or provision.  At that point God wants us to turn to Him and ask for the help needed to defeat the conflict at hand.  In this exchange of our will and power for His will and power we allow God’s power to be displayed as well as His desire to show His love for His people.

It should not be thought that I am prescribing a reliance on divine intervention to overcome conflicts that seem entirely conquerable by human means, but rather the idea that God wants us to realize that it is by His provision that we possess the ability to defeat the conflict at hand.  And in defeating that conflict thank Him for giving us the abilities and resources that we needed to defeat the conflict. In this way, God is correctly credited with the conquering of our conflict whether He directly intervened or He gifted us with the tools needed in advance.

Taking the idea of God’s role in conquering conflict a step further, it be said that all of the small conflicts remind us of the story the God has been writing for all of human history.  Ultimately God is to reuniting all of creation, specifically mankind, to himself.  The universal conflict is that mankind is guilty of rebellion from God and must be punished.  It is in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that God is overcoming the conflict in a complete and permanent way.  Thus each small conflict that we encounter can remind us that God has overcome the conflict that separates us from Him.  In the end it is the everyday conflict that can remind us of the power that God possesses and the love that He has for us.

When we choose to engage a given conflict rather than avoid it we actually have the opportunity to glorify God as well as grow into the person that God desires for us to be.  When we avoid conflict we can alleviate our immediate stress, but we can also miss out on a great opportunity.

My Sub Plot Stasis

Author Donald Miller has written a book called Storyline that is intended to help readers understand their purpose in the life that God has given them.  Miller begins the book by discussing that God is the author of all life and is writing the story of saving humanity by reuniting them to Himself.  After establishing this overarching framework for life, Miller continues to tell about how each individual person gets to choose how he wants to live his life as a subplot in the grand narrative of life.  The rest of the book describes the process of how to determine what your life should be about and how to gain clarity in living for that purpose.

I am currently reading and working through the process myself and when I came to the section that about the roles I play in my life these were my initial thoughts: “As I am identifying the roles that God has given me to fill in life, I find myself hesitant to live them fully.  I pretend as if they do not exist at times.  Other times I find myself trying to focus on roles that are not my primary roles.  I have two options: focus on the roles that I know are my God given ones, or find new roles.  Finding new roles seems to be quitting on what God has asked me to do so it is not really an option, nor do I have a desire to give up on my given roles.  So then the only option is to focus on my primary roles in life.”

After writing that a couple of days ago I would describe my situation as “Sub Plot Stasis”.I have been given specific roles to play in life such as father, husband, and minister.  For each of these roles I am working toward specific goals which all coincide with my life theme which is to know God and make Him known.  At times it becomes quite easy to get distracted from what my goals are in life.  When I observed my recent complacency in fulfilling my roles in life, I began thinking about ways to go about breaking through my complacency.  To my frustration I couldn’t muster any good ideas, nor did my prayer yield a miracle dose of motivation.  To be clear, I believe the time I spent in prayer was beneficial, it just didn’t produce the motivation that I desired. I was willing to give myself a few days to figure out my lack of motivation because I am still visiting Britt’s family in Mississippi and won’t be returning to work until the next week.

A couple of days after my initial observations, I found myself sitting in the car alone in the parking lot of the church where Britt’s mom Patty works.  To be honest, the only reason I didn’t go into the church to join Britt and Patty in introducing Jonah to Patty’s coworkers was that I had ripped the seat of my pants and didn’t want to look like a fool (real life, real problems).  Admittedly I wasted most of my alone time looking at Facebook and Twitter, but in the last five minutes of my time in the car I resolved my Sub Plot Stasis and renewed my motivation.  What was the secret that helped me in this break through?  Nothing, literally nothing.  I stopped mapping out the next steps I needed to take in achieving my goals.  I stopped thinking about “what if” scenarios.  I stopped talking and interacting with people and media.  I rolled down the window and I enjoyed the sunlight and the breeze and I relaxed alone. I don’t think there was anything special about the breeze, but the result of my time alone was a renewed desire to return to the work that God has laid out for me.

It might seem a little backwards and I’m not prescribing it for all instances, but for this time the thing that helped me push past my complacency and stasis was taking a break to relax and enjoy the breeze that God had given me.  No big revelations or paradigm shifting epiphanies were needed- just a moment to relax.  This isn’t a surprise though, after all one of the major commandments that God gave His people in the Bible was to commit an entire day to this every week.  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Storyline By Donald MIller

Storyline By Donald MIller

Your Weakness is Your Advantage.

About a week or so ago I stumbled upon a video of a discussion of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath.  In the video one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, discusses how the idea of David being an underdog who was far out skilled and disadvantaged in every way is actually a misconception.  For a number of reasons, it can be believed that David was actually the one at an advantage in the conflict. The lesson that can be learned from it all is that sometimes the things that we perceive as disadvantages and setbacks, can in fact be the things that provide us our greatest advantages.  Here is a link to the video, which I highly recommend watching if you have 12 spare minutes.

After I watched this video, I began to think of how I have observed this phenomenon.  If this idea seems a little too far fetched or fantastical to be true, let me present an example that might make it a little more tangible and realistic.  Take the hip-hop artist Eminem for example.  I used to be quite an Eminem fan back in my high school days.  Eminem is probably one of the most popular and successful hip-hop artists of all time.  Regardless of whether you enjoy his music or think it is vile and offensive, it cannot be said that he has not been commercially successful.

If you have ever listened to an Eminem album or know anything about his life, you probably know that he did not grow up with a favorable home life.  While, I am not ready to believe everything he says about his young life in the music he sells, I am willing to believe that there is an amount of fact in the songs that is based on real life events.  Among the things he talks about struggling with as a kid are: growing up in a single parent home, having a drug addicted mother, being a victim of Münchausen syndrome by proxy, and being poor.  With these kinds of issues to overcome it would be hard to succeed in any area of life, especially the entertainment business.  Not only did Eminem have to deal with these issues growing up, he also had a passion to succeed in field that was dominated by primarily black artists, when he was white.

The interesting thing about Eminem’s career is that he can attribute much of his success to these very issues.  As I mentioned previously it is impossible to listen to any of his albums and not hear a song about dealing with the issues that he had growing up.  This might be perfectly explained by a song off of Eminem’s most recent album, Marshall Mathers LP2.  In the song “Legacy” Eminem raps about his childhood and how it is the reason for his success.  The first two verses of the song are used to talk about the physical and psychological difficulties that Eminem faced growing up. These are lyrics from the third verse his song “Legacy”:

I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is falling
Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome
‘Cause if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to work
Words like this and connect lines like crosswords
And use my enemy’s words as strength
To try and draw from, and get inspired off em

Eminem has realized what Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his video.  The things that were seemingly very detrimental in Eminem’s childhood, were the things that were fundamental to his success as a hip-hop artist.

Thinking about Eminem’s career in this light is entertaining for a few minutes, but I think there is an even more applicable action that we can derive from this line of thinking about setbacks and disadvantages.  Wanting our disadvantages to become events that provide us the ability succeed in our lives and careers is comforting and ambitious.  Achieving this success despite setbacks is something that requires hard work though.  That hard work must begin with realization that we face the same fight in much smaller ways almost every day.

Yesterday I was at the airport and things were not going smoothly.  There were several inconveniences that would have given me reasons to be angry or at least frustrated.  Then it hit me, the very inconveniences that give me the most frustration also provide me with the best opportunity to make someone’s day better.  When we were checking in and things were not going as planned with our flight time getting closer and closer it would have been very easy (and probably understandable) to respond to the airline employee with anger and frustration.  If things go poorly, you are entitled to react poorly (or so we think).  However, when circumstances and events are not favorable, I am in a unique position to bring peace, appreciation, and love into the situation.  When I am at the ticket counter and there are frustrating complications, I can do the unexpected and continue to show appreciation and trust in the employee when they are growing more stressed.  This type of reaction requires more self control and work, but in the end it is a unique opportunity make God’s love known.  This position is more unique than reacting well when things go well the whole time, then your good reaction is only perceived as a matter of being polite instead of loving.  As a Christian, when things go poorly I might have a better opportunity to make God’s love known than when all things go well.

Whether David and Goliath, Eminem, or an airport, all of these things reminded me of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians.

“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 (emphasis added)

Paul is glad to boast about his weakness because he knows that it will bring an opportunity for God to be praised.

AFTER THOUGHT: Much of this writing has been influenced by my reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath.  It appears that I must have been following with Gladwell’s line of thinking more than I thought.  Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians were quoted in the book in a chapter that I had not read at the time I wrote this.

Part Two of David and Goliath

Part Two of David and Goliath

Inherited From Your Family

Going through some small group material with the high school students in our church last night I read something that really caused me to stop and consider my upbringing.  “God put you in the family that you are in so that He could shape you into the person He wants you to be.”  This idea seemed like a pretty basic fact (if you believe that God is in control of all areas of your life), but as I thought more about the ways that my family upbringing shaped my life, I began to consider how my life was shaped in some unfavorable ways by my family upbringing.

Every person inherits traits and attributes from their parents.  We inherit physical traits such as height or hair color, and we also “inherit” learned behaviors such as spending habits, dietary choices, or communication tendencies, etc. .  Some of these traits we love, but others we cannot stand.  “We can’t choose our families, but we can choose how to respond to them.”  This is another quote from the small group material that caused me to consider how I have reacted to the traits I have inherited. I realized that most of the traits that I inherited from my family growing up I embrace, or at least I am indifferent toward, however there are some traits that I actively and intentionally fight against having and displaying.  If I am honest, these are traits that I simply cannot stand.  When I see them in myself I cringe because it seems that if I am not actively fighting to avoid such behavior it will become my default action or nature which would in turn make me the same person as my parents.  This is an absurd notion, but it haunts me nonetheless. I should also mention that in the impossible event that I become a complete mirror image of my parents, it would (in most respects) be an honorable accomplishment.

The fight between my inherited traits (and nature) persists nonetheless though. It was in considering this struggle between my inherited nature and my intended nature that God revealed to me the blessing it is to inherit even the undesirable traits.

I think it is the traits that we can’t stand that God uses the most to bring us to be like Him.

I realized that in my life the inherited traits that I fight against most are the traits that seem to be the least Christ like.  These traits that bother me so much point to a conflict of Christ-like behavior and worldly behavior.  I strive to live and be like Jesus in all areas of my life and these bothersome inherited traits keep me from doing so.  I am bothered by the inherited traits so much that I want to be different and I spend concentrated time and effort actively trying to be different (or better). Unbeknownst to myself sometimes, I am in fact fighting to be more Christ-like in my behavior in these areas.

In this fight it is most beneficial to understand that Jesus wants us to fight to be more like Him in all the areas of our lives, not just the ones that do not suit our preferences.  Realizing that in some areas of my life I am desperately fighting to be more like Jesus helps me to realize that I should be bringing that same fight (the fight for holiness) into the areas of my life that suit my preferences, but are not necessarily the most God honoring.

After verbally processing all of this with my wife last night I realized that it was the areas of my family upbringing that were less than perfect or even painful at times that help me to know how to fight for holiness in all areas of my life.  And so the original statement was proven true.  “God put you in the family that you are in so that He could shape you into the person He wants you to be.”

Afterthought:
I want it to be abundantly clear that I am in no way complaining about my parents or family.  I am very grateful to have two wonderful parents that I love and who love each other.  I was also blessed to have two great older brothers that taught me more than I would be able to give them credit for.  I love my family and would not change a thing about our life together.

Kirtman Family Photo May 2013

Kirtman Family Photo May 2013