The Struggle for Freedom

“I thought when I drove off the property that it would sink in but it still feels weird, different,” she said about an hour after her release.

These are the words of Dana Bowerman, one of over 6,000 inmates released recently around the country as a result of the change in the way the U.S. punishes people convicted of federal drug crimes.

She was a first-time, nonviolent offender who got sent to prison in 2001, at age 30, for taking part in a conspiracy surrounding a methamphetamine ring. Under the sentence in place at the time, Bowerman had been scheduled to serve 19 years and seven months, or until 2018. (Source)

When Dana left the prison, she was freed of the physical prison walls that surrounded her since 2001. But as soon as she got out, a new sensation arose that was unfamiliar: a taste of refreshing freedom, not being stuck in a square cell 24 hours a day. She was so excited for one thing specifically, to be able to enjoy a thin-slice pizza, a privilege not given to her since she stepped foot in prison.

Most Christians face this same dilemma on a regular basis, though mostly not from being trapped in a physical prison. Many believers face the struggle of being free as a result of the work of Christ and not knowing how to handle that freedom.

As explained by Roger Olsen in “The Bonds of Freedom” (Christianity Today; October 5, 2012):

Unfortunately, two very different ideas of freedom get confused in many people’s minds. The biblical idea of freedom is different from, but easily confused with, the cultural value of the same name. And neither one is the same as “free will.” It can be confusing to the average Christian who wants to know what “real freedom” is. Is it having choices? Is it lack of coercion and constraint? Is it being able to do whatever you want? In what sense does Christ set us free, and how is that different from what Madison Avenue and Hollywood promise?

At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the strange truth that real freedom is found only in giving up everything secular culture touts as freedom. The gospel, it turns out, requires a distinction between the enjoyment of true freedom and the mere possession of “free will.” Not that free will or independence from tyranny is a bad thing; they’re just not true freedom. True freedom, the gospel tells us, is trusting obedience, the obedience of faith. That’s not exactly the image one finds portrayed in popular culture.

The great church father Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint, but being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out. The closer we conform to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, the freer we become. The farther we drift from it, the more our freedom shrinks.

There is a great focus today on the right to do what you want, when you want to, and not being restricted in any way. But for the believer, the only way to be truly free is to become more and more like Christ in character.

This is a giant task. To become like Christ means to focus on your purpose and remove distractions that deter you from that purpose. This requires the ability to say yes to the right things and no to the wrong things.

A Christian is free from the bondage of the law:

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. (Galatians 5:1, NLT)

Olsen adds:

according to Luther, because of what Christ has done for her and because of her faith in Christ, the Christian is absolutely free from the bondage of the law. She doesn’t have to do anything. On the other hand, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for her and in her, the Christian is bound in servitude to God and other people. She gets to serve them freely and joyfully. A person who doesn’t “get” the “get to” part simply doesn’t know the joy of salvation.

What does this boil down to? As Christians, we must strive to use the freedom gained through Christ to reveal Him to those around us and not be caught in this stage of not knowing what to do with this freedom, as Dana felt with her new independence only an hour after being released in Texas today.

May we as believers strive to be truly free as the redeemed children of God we are. And let Christ be revealed through us.

The Urge to Lead

I made a statement in the summer of 2001, before the start of 9th grade at Mustang Mid-High School. It was primarily a statement to myself more than anything. The statement was simple: I would not aim for any kind of leadership role or spotlight among my classmates; my goal was to remain an invisible student who just made it through the four years in the suburban Oklahoma City city. More than that, it was my goal to never become a leader of any kind. I simply did not see myself in that light at all; it was my goal to blend in the background.

That changed in a big way because of one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Diane Cerny. I needed an elective, and I ended up signing up for a Marketing Fundamentals course. As I walked into what was the North building at Mustang High School in junior year, I had no idea what God would end up doing through one amazing teacher and a student organization. Because of her consistent urging, I gave in to running for a local chapter position, won and proceeded to be a state officer my senior year.

I will never forget the final assembly of the 2005 State DECA Conference at Union High School when my name was called as the 2005-06 Oklahoma DECA Reporter. As I recollect that day, I thought back to the time when I vowed to never push for a leadership role. As I walked to the stage of an auditorium of high school students from all over the state, I was amazed how God was not limited in how far He can take us, despite the limitations we place on ourselves.

Today I find myself in a very curious place, in a lead role with my local church and affiliated with several parachurch organizations in my community. I find myself in leadership roles for events I never dreamed I would be a part of back in 2001. I stand amazed every day at the journey God has put me on and the opportunities He has given me that I undoubtedly do not deserve. I continue to learn every single day that in leadership and life you never stop learning. Just when you think you’ve mastered something, you soon realize you’ve got a long way to go. Failure is that ever-present reminder that I still have a lot to learn.

I share this because there are those in our church community who are called to lead but who may not feel equipped and therefore will not step up when the time comes. I am a testimony of someone who God has blessed and used in ways I never expected to be used. Know that when you step out in faith when God calls you to lead in your local church, in your workplace or in your school, He will equip you and guide you for that season of life. But we must respond to the call and not cower in fear when we feel the call to lead.

Doubts and a lack of confidence will always come up and threaten to bring us down, but in those moments we must remind ourselves of the One who created and called us and who knows our beginning and end. Keep your eyes on your Creator, not your circumstances.

In those moments, the words from God to Israel’s new leader Joshua come to mind:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9, ESV

“Remain”ing confident in the Lord

David begins Psalm 27 with a section scholars refer to as a “statement of confidence” (Ch. 27:1-6). In verse 7, he shifts to an “individual lament” and implores the Lord to teach him God’s way in his life and to be led in a straight path. But in concluding this great psalm, David returns to his statement of confidence when he says:

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:13-14 (NIV)

 

For David to remain confident in God means that:

-At one time, he had a confidence in God.

-At some point, he was tempted to lose his confidence in God.

-But through faith, he nonetheless remained confident in the goodness of God in his life.

 

We all have moments where we are strong in our faith. And then we have moments where the foundation of our faith almost seems gone and we lose our sense of confidence and hope.

This is a struggle King David went through; we all can relate as we go through trials in our lives. There is speculation as to when in his life David wrote this psalm, whether in the end as a reflection of his life or in the middle of his rule when military tensions were high.

There are moments when things make sense and moments when things may seem to fall apart. But in that moment when things seem to be falling apart, it is important to remember this: Above the clouds of worry and doubt and your circumstances, the God who reigns over the earth and knows your beginning and end remains above the stormy clouds that seem to dominate your perspective in life.

And when you focus on the One above the storm, you are able to trek confidently into the unknown, armed with the strength given by God.

The Power of Rejection

Rummaging through old items in my room today, I came across a number of things that evoked memories of different moments of my life; among those are the following: a letter I received from then-President Bill Clinton in 2000, a handwritten copy of the Ten Commandments I used likely once when reciting them at a youth meeting, a thank you card I received from the UCO president while I was a journalist there.

But there are 2 items in particular that stand out that have special meaning, one that speaks of the power of failure/rejection and another that speaks of the grace of  God. The second item will be my next posting.

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I have in my position a letter I received years ago. I was in college at the time and not living at home, so I did not get the letter until I came home one weekend. And upon arriving home I saw this letter waiting for me. I saw that it was from the company I had applied to and immediately hope built inside of me.

The excitement of possibly starting a new position in this great company was rising inside me. The rush of going to work there the first day, settling into my desk, became the overwhelming thought of the day. That position was a role that involved a lot of movement and interaction with senior staff, and the thought was exciting to say the least. But before I could go further, I had to open the letter, just to be sure.

Inside the envelope was a brief letter informing me that the position I had applied for had been filled. My immediate reaction was one of utter disappointment, but it was my next reaction that was more significant. In the emotion of the moment, I considered how ridiculous it was for me to think I was qualified for that position. What audacity did I have to think I was capable for that job?

As these thoughts were going on inside my head, I realized I had to decide what to do with the letter, and I basically had two options: throw it away, or keep it. In that moment, I made a surprising decision (upon reflection) and decided to keep it.

Till this day and into the future, I will refer to that letter of rejection to serve as a token of the many failures that led me to the place of ultimate success God leads me to. When I see that letter, I am reminded of all the failures and rejections of my life thus far and how they all played a part as to where I am today.

I was not selected for that job, but because of not getting that job I gained other valuable experiences that helped shape who I am today. EVERY experience you endure in your life shapes who you are and become. Your greatest failures and rejections are opportunities for growth and development that you would never get otherwise. 

In the words of American poet and author Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” 

You may want something so bad, a dream you want oh so badly to be fulfilled, but it may not happen in the timing and season you would prefer. When that occurs, what is your next reaction? For most of us, it is frustation, fear of the next step.

But for the redeemed child of God, there is but one source of hope, as expressed by the writers of Psalm 42 (v. 11, NIV84):

“Why are you downcast, O my soul?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.”

—-

My disappointment from that rejection letter is the same as it was on that day, but the strength I gained from dealing with that rejection only made me stronger in subsequent rejections. The power of reflecting on those failures when great successes do occur is important to understand. It is important to recall from where you came and what experiences shaped you on your journey to success. Every rejection I endure is part of a journey to the great success God has in store for me. But I must wait patiently for that moment, and in the meantime, dwell on the words of the prophet Habakkuk (3:17-19, NIV84):

“Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
 he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, 
he enables me to go on the heights.”

Trusting in God or yourself?

Many of the lessons contained in the Word, especially in the history of Israel, are embedded in the lives of the rulers mentioned. From their successes and failures, timeless lessons are taught about the key to true success. This is a quick look at two kings of Judah and their legacies that still speak to us today.

2 Chronicles 17 introduces the fourth king of Judah, Jehoshaphat. The author of the Chronicles presents Jehoshaphat in a favorable light from the beginning, saying in verses 3-4, “Now the Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the former ways of his father David; he did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father, and walked in His commandments and according to the acts of Israel” (NIV).

The reign of Jehoshaphat is similar to that of his father Asa; their reigns featured reform, building programs, and large armies. Jehoshaphat recognized that the source of his strength and success was God and that the only way he could succeed by seeking Him and removing evil things that were dishonoring God. And for Jehoshaphat, this did not change over time.

2 Chronicles 26 introduces the tenth king of Judah, Uzziah. He became king at the age of 16. From his early days, he sought the Lord and that led to his success (v. 5). The Chronicler states it this way: “…As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (v. 5b, NIV).

Many in their journey toward success reach this point of favor with God. They reach a point of trusting God and things begin to work in their favor. However, the tragic legacy of the life of Uzziah is his downfall. People today know Uzziah for his downfall rather than his initial success.

Verses 6-15 of chapter 26 describe the great deeds of Uzziah’s reign, going to multiple battles, rebuilding towns, and even creating devices for soldiers to shoot arrows and hurl large stones from towers and corner defenses.

But then the heart of Uzziah’s legacy is found in 26:16, “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (NIV). He received leprosy immediately after going in to burn incense when that was not his duty.

Whatever success he had achieved to that point was made mute by the fact that his pride got the best of him. He became so proud that he became unwilling to follow the established laws that established Aaron and his descendants as the ones to burn incense on the altar. It is possible to come to a point in your pride and accomplishments that you show disregard for the basic rules and in the process dishonor God and your heart moves away from trusting God completely for direction.

King Uzziah had a sad ending, having leprosy until the day of his death, living in a separate house, and being banned from the temple. Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, lived such a life of trusting God that the author of the Chronicles spent a substantial amount of time on his life. What an honor for one’s life to be featured so heavily in a lasting manner that still impacts lives for the better today.

At the end of Jehoshaphat’s reign, “…the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (2 Chronicles 20:30, NIV)

What do you want your life to look like, a life of rest having fulfilled the purpose of God or one that is living with the ills that this world brings like Uzziah? For every person there are different versions of leprosy, most definitely including myself.

When you look at your life today, are you trusting God for every detail or is your pride and reliance on yourself too high? When you focus on your accomplishments as Uzziah did, your focus will move from the God who sustains you to a false belief that you yourself brought about your success. And that will take you on a journey away from the heart of God.

Gut check: Where is your trust and focus today?

Abide in Your Sphere

We hear the tales of the privileged who get to go on those mission trips to South America or Africa. We hear the stories of the great successes in ministry from traveling evangelists as they stop temporarily in our locale. And we imagine what a life they must have, traveling the globe and making an impact.

We imagine ourselves leaving our present, lackluster life and forging ahead to an adventure-filled path doing the “work of God” as we are supposed to. According to the Great Commission, that is the aim, right? “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NIV).

Yet we lose sight of the fact that God has placed us where we ought to be, according to His master plan. Our life, from one view, is a set of circumstances that led us to our present position. We entered the school system to learn the necessary lessons for life. We entered college to prepare for our profession. Along the way, we meet the right people who open the door for us to enter into our career. And on we go down life’s journey into marriage, family life, etc.

But in the middle of all that we forget the words of Paul to the Corinthian church, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Corinthians 7:20, NIV). In the words of Charles Spurgeon,”Take care, dear reader, that you do not forsake the path of duty by leaving your occupation, and take care you do not dishonour your profession while in it” (Morning and Evening, June 27).

God has placed you in your profession, or in your educational field, or wherever you find yourself. He has placed people in your life for you to impact. His desire is for you to leave the place you are transformed and for Christ to rule the hearts of those there when you leave.

Spurgeon aptly states it this way:

“Therefore be not discontented with your calling. Whatever God has made your position, or your work, abide in that, unless you are quite sure that he calls you to something else. Let your first care be to glorify God to the utmost of your power where you are. Fill your present sphere to his praise, and if he needs you in another he will show it you” (Morning and Evening, June 27).

In your workplace, in your classroom, in your church, wherever God has placed you, be the best that you can be, to glorify God who created you so that your sphere of influence would be transformed.

Let us not be caught up in the grand, visionary notions of ministry that are filled with thoughts of fame and adventure, but rather be caught up in the essential goal of reaching those within our reach for the Kingdom of God and glorifying His name, regardless of how mundane, dirty or fancy the work.

What is your Vision Level?

Looking into the life of Abram recorded in Genesis, you see God gave him a vision of the Promised Land, and in response, Abram was obedient in stepping out to take possession of that vision. He had the faith to believe for himself and his family to fulfill the vision God had given him.

Without vision, we are on a road headed nowhere in particular in life. When you fully realize you are a child of God and that He created you for a truly unique, divine purpose, you know you are not destined for a life of no value; rather, you are meant to follow the path God has laid out for you.

When it comes to imparting vision, writer Art Sepulveda in his book How to Live Life on Purpose (2004) says people fall into one of four levels of vision:

-Wanderers: Those who never see it
-Followers: Those who see it but never pursue it on their own
-Achievers: Those who see it and pursue it
-Leaders: Those who see it and pursue it and help others see it

Which do you fall into, and “how do you plan to change the vision level (listed above) at which you operate the majority of the time?” (Question posed by Sepulveda, p. 33)

Is your life’s aim simply to simply build up enough resources and a family and survive till the end of your days or is it to thrive in fulfilling the God-given purpose for your life?

This is a season of graduation and transition in life; let this also be a time of checking where you are in your life and making sure you are where you’re supposed to be and not just passing time.

When It All Finally Makes Sense

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The scene was very emotional for Egypt’s second-in-command. His life had been a seemingly random order of events, ranging from terrible to great moments. Yet now, after all the highs and lows of his journey, everything suddenly made sense. I pick the story up in Genesis 45:4:

“Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they came closer. And he said again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharoah-the manager of his entire palace and the governor of Egypt…” (Gen. 45:4-7, NLT).

I can only imagine Joseph’s internal reaction to this moment. In the previous chapters, there are moments when Joseph can only hide from his brothers and cry, while acting as if he did not know them. He was beaten and hurt by his brothers, sold into slavery, tempted by Potiphar’s wife … yet at this moment Joseph knew that everything he went through was to get him to that point where he was a key player in the grand design of God to preserve Jacob’s family and His chosen people.

In this first month of 2012, you may not understand what is happening in your life or why it is happening, but you can be sure of one thing, God has a grand design and purpose for it all. One door may shut and another may open, but God is behind it all. It may be utter chaos all around you, but in the midst of chaos there is calm, originating from God’s presence. Every setback, every trial, every step in your journey…let God reveal Himself to you through every moment. In your education, in your church life, in your career, nothing may make sense, but God has a plan, and if you can trust nothing else, you can trust in God.

Joseph finally understood. So can we.

Back to the Beginning

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NIV).

In the midst of life’s struggles and the moments when uncertainty clouds any glimpse of hope, we must come back to the beginning of it all.

When the earth was “formless and empty,” God decided to take action and use His creativity to form the universe that came to be. The beauty of this realization comes when we realize that in this creation, God made man to have life to be a part of His master plan.
What this means for each one of us is that every moment of our lives is within the sovereignty of God.

So when we come to the place where we are tired and exhausted with the worries and trials of this life and the seemingly endless new stresses that arise, we must remember that God knew us before we were in our mother’s womb, that He had a plan for us long before our existence was even known.

And that should be the greatest comfort to us, as that means no struggle or trial we face is too much for us to face, especially with the power of God to back us up. No matter where you are in your journey, do not lose faith in God. Even if you do not fully understand the plan of God for your life, don’t lose faith in the God who sent His only Son to die on the cross for your sins and give you a chance to be redeemed from your sinful ways.

Let us never get so lost and worried that we lose sight of or forget to remember the God who created us with a very unique purpose as part of His master plan.

“It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.”
-Ephesians 1:11-12, The Message

Where We Are, Where We’re Going

Recently, I was in the Starbucks located in the Nigh University Center of UCO in Edmond, Okla. I graduated in 2009 from UCO and often visit the school when an opportunity arises. I had given my order on this day and was waiting for my order toward the other end of the coffee place. As I stood there looking at the wall in front of me, a memory from before the existence of this Starbucks came flooding in:

We (our whole UCO crew) were in the beginning years of our UCO experience and getting to know each other better. We had started a tradition of throwing surprise birthday parties for people in our group, and one party in particular was thrown in this exact area where this Starbucks now stands. Except back then there was this really comfortable red couch and a chest/coffee table thing we stored our stuff in. We sat there so often and laughed and made stories up and ate lunch and threw random food events, memories that will last a lifetime. But for this particular party, which was for Ben Paul, someone had brought in a bunch of silly string and put a lot of it on Ben.

And somehow in the course of that birthday party, some of that silly string ended up stuck on the brick wall. Time went on, and that silly string remained on that brick wall. I remember constantly noticing it on that wall and wondering if it would ever be taken down months after. The couch disappeared after someone (a professor, I heard) complained that there were people sleeping there. Thus, the couch was removed and more chairs/tables were brought in instead. We often discussed missing the couch. As time went on, more parties were thrown, including a huge surprise party for one person, and just a lot of great memories that will never disappear. Also, eventually, the silly string came down, of course (I forget when).

But here I stand in 2011, in that same physical place. In the place of that brick wall, there is a shiny Starbucks wall that never gives the impression of the old “Lakeside Cafe” that once existed there, a place where our group back then made great memories.

But I learned something in that moment. Your life may be filled with great seasons, where you meet some amazing people and make amazing memories. You’ll have great moments that will make no sense to people when you tell them about it later, and the humor of it will be gone, but you know that you just had to be there to really enjoy that moment for what it was worth.

But then at some point, the silly string comes down. The comfortable, cozy seasons of life will not last forever. And you must face reality.

And part of understanding reality is understanding that God has a great purpose for your life, and you must focus on fulfilling that and not wasting your time on things that won’t last.

And the greatest lesson you learn may be that even though you fall into the lowest of lows (that you think is the lowest of lows for you), God will use your experiences to raise you up higher than you ever expect Him to, if you humble yourself before Him. I was standing on a balcony on the campus recently and had an overall view of the campus. As I stood there, I saw all the locations where I had different experiences. And I realized that through every one of those experiences, whether they were good or bad or even devastating, God had a grand purpose, and because of Him only, I am where I am today, despite those bad experiences that I thought would hold me back.

I say all this to make two points, partially to soon-to-be graduates:

-Enjoy where you are in life now; don’t rush it, and just enjoy it to the full extent. Let God use you where you are, and be open to being transformed by Him. But also know that the “silly string” phase of life comes to an end, in some ways. Not to say that life can’t still be enjoyed as much, but the focus of life changes with more education, jobs, marriage, children, etc. So enjoy being where you currently are, but also be aware that at some point, these things will come to an end and you will move on to something greater, part of the plan of fulfilling His great purpose for your life.

-Even though you think you have completely screwed up and ruined any chance you may have had for success, know that NOTHING surprises God. God knows and loves you, and He knows exactly what you will go through. And as a result, He will give you the strength to make it through and use what you go through to make you stronger in the end. Simply believing that He has it all under control will make things so much better.

To add on to this story, today me and Ben work close to each other in Oklahoma City. God has been faithful in so many ways to both of us, and it is no doubt b/c of the mercy of God that we have all we do. It shows that God knows what He’s doing, so we just need to trust Him.

Until next time!