Lions & Bears

I love when God brings those “Aha” moments where the stories in the Bible suddenly become so relatable and powerful. When we realize that these “stories and ideas” were actually real people that felt and experienced countless undocumented details and emotions within every historical example. The moments when we put skin and bone to a simple sentence in the Bible that represented years of intricate and complicated interactions.

I had one of those moments the other day while thinking about the story of David. Most people know him as the musician shepherd boy that famously defeated the giant-sized, make-an-entire-army-wet-their-chainmail, soldier named Goliath.

Here’s how it went down… Essentially it was Justin Bieber vs. “The Rock”. Two armies, the Israelites and the Philistines, were supposed to send their best fighter out to settle the matter with less blood. The problem was, NONE of the Israelites wanted to smell what The Rock was cookin’…because this guy was massive. In strolls Justin, delivering lunch to the real soldiers, when he realizes they’re all paralyzed in fear. The confident Biebs called the rest of the army a bunch of babies, then grabbed his slingshot and strutted out on the battlefield while humming “Despacito”. With one sniper sling between the eyes, Dwayne fell to the ground with a rock wedged in his skull. Both armies stood with their jaws on the floor. Then a deep voice yelled out from the crowd, “Finnnish himmm!” So the slender little guy walks up to the invincible battle machine and lobs his head off. I don’t care who you are…that’s badass.

Sounds like a cool movie, but not very realistic…how can I possibly apply that to my life? As I was reading the details leading up to this event, one quick passage (that could easily be missed) changed everything for me.

34 But David persisted. “I have been taking care of my father’s sheep and goats,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, 35 I go after it with a club and rescue the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death. 36 I have done this to both lions and bears, and I’ll do it to this pagan Philistine, too, for he has defied the armies of the living God! - 1 Samuel 17:34-36 (NLT)

Wait a minute…what? When a LION or a BEAR comes to steal a lamb from the flock, this kid goes after it, grabs it by the jaw and clubs it to death?? Are you freaking kidding me? He didn’t have a high powered rifle…not even a sword? That’s insane!!

Yet even that experience wasn’t the result of just one moment, perfectly blended with luck and bravery. I couldn’t help but think of those moments that David experienced leading up to the lion victories…put myself in his shoes. Imagine the first time he heard a startling noise and looked up to see a LION lunging at his sheep. Absolutely terror. His heart racing. “What if that thing sees me?? I can’t believe this is happening! Oh Lord, keep me safe! Am I going to die today? Ok, breathe. What if it kills the whole flock? If I somehow survive, am I going to lose my job and all respect? Oh God, what do I do! Help!!”

How many times did he think God had abandoned him and his life would be over? How many times was he paralyzed with fear during an attack? How many sheep were stolen before he chose to be brave and try fighting back? How many deep bite and scratch wounds did he take along the way? How many weeks of healing? How many swings of that club? How many stones did he fire with his sling shot to get THAT good? How many times did he miss?

Years of work. Years of fear. Countless mistakes. Scars and pain. Doubt and uncertainty. Belittling comments and disrespect.

I think I’m starting to understand what it really took for David to defeat a giant and become a king…so much more than a few impressive sentences.

Pain. Perseverance. Grit. Discipline. Bravery. Humility. Trust. Patience.

He faced the same emotions I have…he battled the everyday struggles and the overwhelming attacks, yet God used him to accomplish history-changing things. He became a king. He’s remembered and described as “a man after God’s heart”. It’s so fascinating and inspiring to me.

So what can I learn? Whether we’re “tending the flock” in our mundane jobs or facing giants on behalf of an entire nation, character matters most. We will experience attacks and pain at every stage, but what we do in those moments will determine the impact of our lives. What we choose to do every day in the pastures will prepare us for the battlefield.

Maybe you feel like what you’re doing is boring and doesn’t matter…pick up a slingshot and start practicing. This could be a season where God wants to train you for the next step. Know you’re not alone and your character is never wasted.

Or maybe what you’re going through right now feels like the claws of a lion or the teeth of a bear. Lean into God and fight through the fear…you will make it out the other side! You’ll see that it was all training for even bigger victories in the future. Keep fighting.

And when the time comes, you’ll be standing over a headless Goliath in victory…and everyone will see that God can use a shepherd boy like you to bring a nation to its knees.

Platform or Prison

2016 was the best year I’ve had yet.

I’m not saying that to make anyone else feel bad about their problems. And I’m most certainly not saying that because I had zero struggles or hardships this past year. It was incredibly difficult at times. I’ve had friends and family members commit suicide or pass away suddenly. I’ve had friends stab me in the back. I’ve felt relational pain and moments where I thought recovery was hopeless. I’ve felt exhausted and taken-advantage of. I’ve had huge financial setbacks and surprises. I’ve been sick more than usual. I’ve doubted, stressed, hurt, and stretched.

As a pleaser, I usually just dismiss my pain and remind myself of all the people who have things far worse. I don’t want to do that…even as a pastor and caregiver, my feelings do matter too. But what I DON’T want to do is allow the Enemy to cloud my vision so that my focus is on the pain, negativity, or attacks.

Pain has a way of driving our focus inward. It’s our nature. It’s animalistic survival…if you’re in danger, you protect yourself. If we’re hurting, we either wear it on our forehead for the whole world to see (and hope someone cares), or we retreat behind our walls, shut everyone out and  tend to our wounds. But it’s amazing how this blinding self focus always leads to isolation, broken relationships, and even more pain. We’ve all been there. It’s an awful feeling and sometimes we don’t even know how we got there.

But is there a power capable of breaking us free from the downward spiral of self-focus and victimization? Why, yes…I’m glad you asked.

Love.

A father and his child get into a terrible car accident. After rolling multiple times, the father was thrown from the vehicle. With multiple broken bones and bleeding from his forehead…disoriented and in pain, his first instinct is to find his daughter. Hearing her screaming from inside the battered vehicle, he notices that it begins to catch fire. Now do you think ANY father would say, “Eh. My arm is broken and killing me right now…I think I have a few cracked ribs and my head needs stitches. I really don’t want to risk getting burned by that fire and maybe she can unbuckle her own car seat, open the door, and come down to me.” Absolutely not!! Because he loves her so much, it pushes him past the instincts to stay safe or protect his own wounds. Then that selfless act of love actually ended up making him feel so much MORE fulfilled and at peace than he would’ve if he ignored the cries.

Although it’s natural to focus on ourselves, also wired into us through God’s image is the ultimate desire to love and be loved. Deep down, this need will trump every other. (I’m sorry for using an offensive word after the election…let’s stay focused) But it’s absolutely true. It’s no wonder that this tug-of-war battle between [God’s plan for us to selflessly love one another]…and [our innate fear to protect ourselves] is such an exhausting task! Yet while we’re stuck on this earth wearing the heavy armor of broken flesh, we must continue to fight on.

“Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” - Romans 8:6

When get consumed with ourselves (our own desires, needs, pains), we actually wind up in a dead end. Yet when we focus on God, even through the pain, He leads us into a spacious FREE life. It’s amazing how many people think following Him is oppressive and constraining. I’ve chased my own desires for a long time or focused on my own problems, yet somehow in the not-often-enough moments when I choose to seek God in it, I feel more free than ever. More peace. More joy. More fulfillment.

I’m not saying at times we can’t ask for help or heal from very real damages. We all experience very real pain and it does need care. But what I AM saying is that during these times, we have to do it together. We have to lean on God in our messes. We can’t ever completely raise the white flag of “victim time” and refuse to still care about others around us. We can’t afford to miss out on the blessings and encouragements God has for us when He says, “I know you’re hurting…but I still want to use you. Don’t worry, I’ll give you the strength.”

Earlier this year, my younger sister Chelsea’s husband committed suicide. It was by far the most traumatic and painful thing my family has ever walked through. As we rallied behind her to help heal in this excruciating season, it was incredibly difficult to understand how someone could experience what she did and come out the other side.

But you know what makes me the absolute proudest brother in the whole world…what brings me to tears every time I hear about a new example? Even though she is nowhere near healed up (I don’t know if someone ever fully does from something like that), Chelsea has already impacted the lives of other people who are going through the same struggles of depression and hopelessness. She has already literally saved someone’s life in a time of crisis through her choice to love, even in her pain.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for us? He chose to step into torture, unimaginable pain, and death. He could’ve pulled the plug any moment He wanted to…could’ve aborted the mission, killed his accusers, and healed Himself. Yet He chose to push through His pain because LOVE was more important. Paying our price was more important.

2016 had a lot of hardships, but what I didn’t list were all the GOOD things that I have to be grateful for. I have been more blessed than I ever have been. I have loving people around me, amazing opportunities, continued growth, experienced peoples’ lives being made new, and had greater intimacy in all my relationships. I’ve seen how God will always provide and He’ll always be with me. More examples…one after the other. (Because I’m a stupid human and need to be constantly reminded)

Going into 2017, I have all the confidence in the world that this year will be my greatest yet. There are so many exciting things on the horizon and I can’t wait to see where God takes me and how He uses me. I’m assured that He will work ALL things for good for those who love Him. (Rom. 8:28) We can stand firm on that.

I invite you to join me in a positive attitude and ambitious spirit as we together roll into the new year. We’re in this together. Let’s let our love be our focus.

“The most painful part of your process will also produce the most power in your life. Your pain will either be your prison or it will be your platform…it’s your choice. You can’t choose your season, but you can choose your spirit.” - Carl Lentz

Isolation

iso·la·tion  noun\ˌī-sə-ˈlā-shən alsoˌi-\

: the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others : the condition of being isolated

: the act of separating something from other things : the act of isolating something

Even the word itself carries a certain weight, doesn’t it?

The weight of our past experiences, our present circumstances…all affect our relationship to this word. Some people might be terrified by the concept of isolation. Some find comfort and safety in it. An inevitable lifetime of complex events and repressed pain will drive all of us in one direction or the other…whether we know it or not. This word has been on my heart lately as I’ve seen both the beneficial and destructive sides of it’s powerful effect on our lives.

To give you a little perspective on my relationship with isolation, I’m a “pleaser” or a “responder.” (If you’ve ever gone through the studies on love styles or life languages, you’ll know more of what I mean.) In a nutshell, I don’t enjoy being isolated from relationship with people. I naturally desire connection, approval, happiness, and comfort with the people around me. If someone is upset with me, I hate it. If I have intimate relationship with someone and they begin to feel distant, I hate it. (If you don’t believe me, you can ask my girlfriend, Melanie!)

However, I spend so much time interacting with people, I absolutely LOVE my alone time. When I lived in Nashville, I’d drive home to PA (instead of fly) to save money. Thirteen hours in a car by myself. People would always ask how the heck I did it… “That sounds terrible! Don’t you get insanely bored??” But the thing was, I looked forward to these drives. I had zero obligations or to-do lists. I’d spend the whole day alone watching the sun rise and set, singing, praying, and thinking. Some of the most powerful times in my life happened while trying to see Rt.81 through tears of vulnerable prayer and worship. All thanks to some time of isolation in that two-door Chevy Cavalier.

But if isolation can be both a good thing and a bad thing, that means there has to be a healthy way to operate and an unhealthy way. If we ignore it, our sinful “nature+nurture” will absolutely sweep us away into an unhealthy operation…whether we gravitate toward too much isolation or we’re terrified of it.

So let’s talk about how the Bible encourages healthy isolation.

We were created for relationship with God. Not just as acquaintances, but intimately. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us how to pray…and ironically He recommends some isolation. Now He was speaking contextually to the “religious” behaviors of doing certain things intentionally for others to see. People would give to the poor and pray publicly so that everyone would see their “good deeds” and give them praise. Is it genuine love or intimacy if you’re only doing something to receive praise in the end? Nope. Jesus shows that prayer and intimacy with the Father is better done in private to make sure you aren’t doing it for your own glory.

5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.6But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6 NLT)

Even more than verbal instruction, Jesus taught us about healthy isolation and prayer through his actions.

“15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:15-16 NIV)

“35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35 NIV)

Now this doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t pray with others. There is plenty of Scripture to support prayer in numbers… (19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” -Matthew 18:19-20 NLT)

But either way, we can agree that Jesus does teach the value of solitude and prayer. The key factor in that is prayer…communication and relation to God in those moments of seclusion. So healthy isolation isn’t actually isolation at all...it’s actually just a break from interaction with people so that we can find intimacy with the Father.

Just practically speaking, with all the distractions of our lives…people, social media, technology…we absolutely NEED time of healthy seclusion. Sometimes you need to step back so you can get your emotions/flesh under control. From personal experience, I’ve found that some of the most focused and powerful times of processing and prayer have been in solitude. Whether it be in my car or in my knees in my bedroom, these are the places that I feel His presence the most. This is where I find the most rest. I can’t survive healthily without these times to worship, process, recharge, and refocus.

The beauty of the veil being torn when Jesus died is that we can now have direct access to God whenever we want. No longer do we need a priest/religious leader to act as our phone operator. We don’t need to be “ceremonially clean.” We can come to Him in our most raw and vulnerable words or thoughts. How awesome is that??

However, when I’m struggling and seclude myself without prayer, it ends up being extensive over-analyzation, recycled emotions, and anxiety. So lets chat about some of the dangers of isolation…

This is huge. I really need you to focus with me for a minute because this is where the Enemy has the ability to absolutely tear your life apart. I’ve seen it happen in my life and I see it happen in the lives of people I love…and it breaks my heart.

See, the Enemy hunts like a lion. He prowls in the dark…stays low where you can’t see him. Then in a moment of weakness, he attacks. Amidst the fear and confusion, he drives you away from the herd. He twists and manipulates you toward selfishness, making you believe that you can do it better on your own. That you have to do it on your own.  “You don’t need the herd…they are imperfect and have hurt you before. Look out for yourself. Life is better in YOUR control, so do it on your own.” Lies, pain, bitterness, complacency, self-justification, and hopelessness. As you run and tire, it’s there that he easily sinks his teeth into the back of your neck.

I realize this is an animalistic and bloody analogy, but it’s actually quite accurate. “Ok, Brooke. I get your adorable analogy…but I’m not a freakin gazelle. What does that process actually look like?” Well I’m glad you asked!  Unhealthy isolation is any action that pulls you away from relationship and ISN’T fueled by love. If you are cutting somebody off or simply ignoring communication because of resentment or bitterness…that’s unhealthy. If you are medicating deeper issues with the “safety” of seclusion, that’s unhealthy.

You will inevitably struggle and be hurt in any relationship, community, family, or church you place yourself in. We are all imperfect people. The process of growth and sanctification means sometimes we fail by acting out of our past hurts and weaknesses. But regardless of the difficulty, we were designed to function and survivebest through relationship and growth together. There will be unhealthy moments, but if we allow the Enemy to isolate and divide us, unhealthy can turn into death. Maybe not literal death…but it could be. Maybe it’s just death of relationships. Death of family. Death of hope. Death of fruit in our lives. Death of joy. Death of peace. Death of your dreams or your future.

Maybe some of this is striking a chord in your heart. Maybe you’re thinking, “Whoa…that’s totally what I’m going through.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Well that’s not me…sure, I’ve lost most relationships in my life, but they are the problem. I didn’t need them anyway and can do life better on my own.” In an honest moment, deep down you feel the sharp teeth tug your flesh from bone. The pain is real. You’re merely doing your best by coping and medicating in any way you can. Alcohol, weed, (any drug), music, surface level attention, meaningless sex/porn, distractions.

The beauty of Jesus is that He makes all things new. He can do ALL things. He can restore relationships. He can rewire your brain chemistry. Even if you’ve already been devoured and you feel like merely bones left. God can wrap new muscles and tendons around a whole army of dry bones, then breathe life back into them (Ezekiel 37) …He can absolutely make YOU new again. All it takes is a repentant heart that asks Him to do it…and He will. You wouldn’t believe the life transformation that I’ve seen in people and experienced for myself.

So make the decision to take a stand against unhealthy isolation and press into healthy relationship. We were designed for intimacy, relationship, and community through the ability of Jesus to heal and restore. It may take some serious humility, some genuine apology, some patience for peoples’ weaknesses, some struggles, and some effort. It will most definitely require the discomfort of change. On the other side is life abundant…what’s BEST for you. So much better than the life you lead right now. It’s there that you will thrive and grow as you walk in your purpose. Nobody wants to be blind, but if you isolate into darkness or live with your eyes closed, it has the exact same effect. The light may hurt your eyes at first, but color and beauty is so worth it.

As Three Days Grace once growled, “It’s not too late…It’s never too late.”