Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tempted or Tempered

As I was editing the last blog post I caught myself dreaming/staring at the word "tempered" on the screen. I later deleted it before I posted "Walking on Water" because it didn't fit that post but I was thinking about how I heard it put by someone early on in the summer: God forges people. It's very similar to the concept of the potter you always hear in church but I like this one better.

There's a forge, a smith, and a lump of metal ore. I think you might know where I'm heading with this. So the forge is life and the smith is God and the lump of metal is you. Unformed, untested. You. And what God does is stick you right in the fire, you know, that part that's the hottest and he settles you there for a while. I think this is why people use the potter metaphor: it's easier to imagine. There's water and a wheel and God's hands. And the clay is smoothed out and shaped and it's all just so beautiful. But here, this forge and this fire are scary and hard to wrap your mind around and while the idea of a potter is beautiful and we should look at it once in a while, it's also easy to start thinking that our trying times should look like that wheel and that beauty. Especially when life often doesn't look that beautiful and when it doesn't feel that easy.

Back to the forge metaphor:

God sticking you into fire isn't so that you dissolve into nothing and its definitely not because he's being malicious and likes seeing you squirm. No, its to soften you so that he can begin to shape you into the shape you need to be to do the job you have waiting for you. The time in the fire is different for each type of metal and the time of growing is longer or shorter depending on who the person is. And the smith is responsive to those differences among our metals. We're not all the same type of metal; no one is exactly the same as everyone else no matter how we might stereotype when we're angry.

Honestly, I've wasted so much of my life wishing I could be made of gold, too. Until last night. Last night I was talking with my closest friend and I told him how my struggles with self-esteem have come back and have lead me to that place again where I felt the Tempter trying to get his foot in the door and tempt me back to that road that leads down to you know where. And Friend told me I was an iron shield. "People beat you up," he said, "but you don't have to remain battered". He reminded me that God forged me once. He's forging me again. "Nothing is easy," Friend reminded me. Regrettably, I didn't believe him in the moment. I should have. Friend means more to me than the Tempter - as it should be. But that's how temptation works. Humans are easy to figure out, really. I mean, just whisper something about what they really love and how it might not work and humans just freak out. We want things so badly right now even if we tell ourselves and others we can wait. And that's where the Tempter's waiting. Fortunately for us, that's also where God keeps watch for us. Because as I left the Picnic Grove where I didn't want to listen, I happened to look up at the sky for the first time in about a week spent in head bent, avoiding the world. And when I looked up, that's when I saw the millions of stars in a clear sky that has been rare all summer.

And in those stars I remembered the conversation I had overheard so long ago at the middle of June. And it went something like this:

God is forging us into the tools we need to be to do our jobs.
He will not leave us in the fire to burn away into nothing.
We have a job to do and its no use wishing for a job we weren't forged for.
This is the exciting part of life where we know that God has a job for us.
And he chose only me for the job he set aside for me.
And only me.

It's not in our own strength. And that's the point. Back in time when soldiers wielded swords, one could pull out a sword and appreciate it's strength, the sharpness of its edge, or the balance but it wouldn't have been anything without the smith to craft it. A sword can't make itself. Even though it has a job to do and does that job well it still can't make itself or repair itself without the help of a master to forge it out of steel, to smooth out its jagged edges. That actually takes the pressure off of us, an action which leaves us to focus on properly doing our jobs. If we're not worrying about the outcome it's a little bit easier to be brave, to rush into the fray, and to finish the work he has set aside for us.

The set of verses I was thinking about for this post was right before the Armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-13 (ESV): "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." Have you ever heard just these verses talked about in church? What a sermon that would be! We are called to stand. We are to do everything we can possibly do and then we are called to stand. God asks us to fight with him against the darkness. That's why we must be forged in the hottest fires our metals can withstand. We are not called to live easy lives filled only with easy metaphors and cutesy stories. We are helping fight the most dangerous fight this world will ever know: for the very light of the world. That thought makes me feel a little better about feeling so stressed about growing and feeling pain: God is in control of it all. And even though people may batter us and the Tempter may be stalking us, God is there. All we have to do is trust that the smith knows what he's doing.

To wrap this post up I'll just summarize:
If you think you're nothing, that's probably a temptation.
If you think you'll never do anything with your life, that's probably a temptation.
If you think you'll always be alone and no one will ever help you, that's probably a temptation.

However, that's not where we have to remain. Remember, Jesus was tempted too. And he won that fight. He won it for all of us. One thing I always tell people is that I must have an extremely important job to do because the Tempter is trying his hardest to make sure I can't do it. Don't give him the satisfaction of pulling a strong one down. He's a tempter and that's it. He wasn't strong enough to do the right thing. He can't create: he's not a smith. The Tempter destroys because he can't create. So don't give space for him in your life. We all want to make our lives better so don't listen to someone who steals and destroys. However, God tempers us. He is making us stronger. He pulls us apart to find the good within us and then reassembles us into the shapes that will fill in the puzzle of the world - into the weapons he needs for the most important battle of the world.

And although I am afraid of that fire, all I know is I'd rather spend my life knowing I'm being tempered than to wake up one day and regret all the days I spent being tempted and giving in.

To Walk on Water . . .

There's a song from Hillsong called "Oceans". I'm sure by now it's been made a favorite in church which is wonderful and horrible for the part of me that remains entrenched in what other people are not into at the moment but I digress. It's actually one of my favorite songs whether or not everyone is hyped up about it. One day I was singing it in a chapel service at the Christian summer camp I've been working at this summer and I had to stop because I was suddenly and inextricably struck with the thought that these last tumultuous years have really been my time of walking on water. I've had this idea in my head for a while now: to walk on water. Growing up in a Christian household I've been familiar with the story of Jesus walking on water for as long as I can remember. It's one of those beautiful thoughts that seeps into your consciousness at such an early age that you can't detangle it from your knowledge so that it almost feels like a memory though of course it's not. In the Gospels it was counted as a supernatural act that included Peter walking out on the water as well. I have more to write later about Peter but suffice it to say for this post that Peter sank after a few steps.

The account I'd like to look at is in Matthew. It's the only account of Jesus' walking on water that also includes Peter's walking on water. Matthew 14:23-34 (ESV) says, "And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?""

The first thing I would like to point out about these verses is that Peter asked to come out on the water and then got out of the boat. Often, I ask God for something and then he gives it to me. So far so good . . . until you get to the point where you realize you're afraid of what you asked for. Many times God asks us to grow which requires us to expand beyond the emotional space we previously occupied. Many times God gives us what we've asked for because even though He knows we're going to have our moments of freaking out we need to grow in this way. And that would be frightening if we had to do it alone. This leads me to what Peter does next.

"But when he saw the wind, he was afraid . . ." (v. 30a). Life is hard. And when God is encouraging us to grow, life doesn't stop for us to find our bearings again. Actually, life generally gets worse the more we grow. Peter began to sink. Now, I think the lesson to be learned here is not so much that Peter sank but that he cried out for Jesus to help him. Because Peter was the one who prompted Jesus to call him out there. And Peter was the one who actually climbed out of the boat. The Gospels don't record anyone else asking to do what Peter does. It's kind of like how Thomas gets the bad rap because he doubted but he was also the only one that admitted he doubted. Sometimes just admitting our faults is enough to grant us grace. Just like the father in Mark 9:24 when he said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" And just as Jesus saved Peter, he also allowed Thomas to touch the wounds and know that Jesus was the Messiah.

Time for the personal touch . . .

My life has always seemed to run like this: beautiful childhood made up of sheet-tents in the summer wind, colorful rainfalls of leaves in autumn, snow forts in the winter, and the wonderful heartache of spring throwing itself suddenly on the world. But then things went downhill into the hormone-infested, role-changing thing they call "being a teenager." And things have just started to turn around for me. I think many of you might understand the feeling of waking up for the first time in years and realizing you don't have to convince yourself to get out of bed and enjoy the world instead of facing it with head down and shoulders bent under the weight of everything on top of you.

I wonder if that's what Peter was facing out on those waves. Because, in this moment, in this current struggle, everything you have experienced previous to this second is in your head. And all the bad seems to come to mind at the moment when you are deciding to do what scares you. And you stumble. That's when Peter started sinking. Now I don't want anyone to think that I think I could do better. Hah! I'm not even sure I would have climbed out of the boat! What I am saying is that in that moment, when Peter was at his weakest, "when he saw the wind" (Matthew 14:30a) and began to sink, Jesus "immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him" (v. 31a). Jesus took hold of him! Immediately. Completely.

The whole point of the story of the world is that God sent Jesus to save us. God created us. And then He saved us. And He saves us every time we need to be saved. It's not always immediate but with Peter it was. Jesus immediately reached down to Peter into the water and doubt and fear and raised him up again into the presence of God.

I still hear sermons on this passage that make it sound as if Peter sinking was the worst thing in the history of the planet, right up there with Hitler, Stalin, and global warming. The pastor inevitably reads the verses with a cynical twist, making sure to punctuate the statement of "You of little faith". As if no one else in the history of the planet has ever doubted, stumbled, or failed utterly. As if any of us would have done better when faced with the possibility of walking on water . . .  But I don't see that statement laden with cynicism and the kind of dripping poison that church people call "piety" which they apply to verses like this merely to make themselves feel better than "other people" - secular people *gasp!* That's not how I see it because the rest of the phrase is so laden with kindness: "Why did you doubt?" (v. 31b).

Why did you doubt?

Jesus never said, never doubt. He asks Peter why he doubted. Peter didn't have a reason to doubt because he could see Jesus standing there. He was invited to come out and walk on water by the Son of God. And maybe that's what all those sermons and church people are trying to get at. But we all have our moments of poetically walking on water when we have no reason whatsoever to doubt God. We sometimes doubt and question and sometimes that's okay. But there are other times when we shrink back from what God is giving us or the opportunities He's asking us to take - those are the moments when we are not supposed to doubt. Because then we sink. God doesn't want us to live a sinking life. And although Jesus will always be right there to save us we should be trying to live lives that are gradually losing that repetitive need to be saved every moment though that is what we will have if we need it. We will have Jesus immediately reaching out to pull us back out of the waves and into the presence of God.

Why did you doubt?

If you've read the rest of the New Testament you will know what happens to Peter later on in his adventure we call life. And perhaps I will write more about the person I have thought so much about. But for this post, I will say that though we doubt God can can use us because we're not doing this all in our own power, but God's. Do you think that Peter was able to walk on water alone? Without Jesus' help? Jesus was already holding his hand before Peter came out of the boat. He had absolutely no reason to doubt and thought it is hard to put into our present lives, there's really no reason we should doubt and remain in doubt either.

What I am trying to say is that we all doubt. But we don't have to ever doubt that God is working in the world. We all sink. But we don't have to stay there. We are all in the boat. But we don't have to remain there. We can see the waves. We can feel the wind trying to push us over. But we can also see Him. And He is holding out a hand to us. We just have to walk on water.