Endurance Training


Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 8:4-7, 18-9:6, Romans 5:1-11, John 8:12-20

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…
– Romans 5:3-4

I did not put you here to suffer. I did not put you here to whine.
I put you here to love another and to get out and have a good time.
– The Rainmakers, “Let My People Go-Go”

Suffering, while an inevitable part of the Christian journey, is never meant to be the destination. We are assured that, through the glory of God, all suffering can be transformed for good. We don’t need to seek pointless suffering just for the sake of enduring it, but when we need to exercise self-discipline or find suffering inescapable, we can turn that suffering over to God. But let’s not for a minute assume this is a passive process which requires nothing of us but curling up into a cocoon of self-pity and waiting for divine metamorphosis. It takes intention.

The steps in this process all require conscious choices on our part. Endurance training is something we take for granted in athletics, but not as often in other parts of life. Can we teach ourselves to view suffering as a form of spiritual training which develops our spiritual muscles? What about character? We romanticize the idea of sports building character, but not every top athlete is an upstanding citizen. Our spiritual training needs to be tempered with humility and mercy, a desire to serve rather than conquer.

The best coaches – and their best players – embrace being part of a greater story. It’s that type of character – the type that recognizes our greatest glory does not begin and end with our personal achievements and failures – which opens us up to hope. Hope is only present when we can see the big picture, the picture that tells the story of God’s kingdom becoming reality.

Athletes build endurance through difficulty. Butterflies nearly die before leaving the cocoon. Neither of them are victims of suffering; they use it to transform themselves into something miraculous.

Comfort: Suffering is not inflicted on us by God…

Challenge: … but God can help us through it.

Prayer: God of holy mystery, I trust you above anything. Amen.

Discussion: How have you dealt with suffering?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Isaiah 54:1-10 (11-17), Galatians 5:1-15, Mark 8:27-9:1

It’s always darkest before the dawn. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. No pain, no gain. These and other clichés remind us most successes are preceded by a period of hard work, struggle, and failure. We usually hear these when someone is trying to offer us  comfort, or when we are doing the same for someone else. Unfortunately, they aren’t always helpful when we are in the thick of the darkness, the brokenness, or the pain.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he spoke more bluntly with his disciples. He knew hard times were coming and he wanted them to be prepared. They had not been especially insightful when he taught through parables, so he told them in no uncertain terms he was going to suffer, be killed, and rise again.

The disciples didn’t welcome this news. Peter went so far as to pull him aside and rebuke him, prompting Jesus to utter his famous reply: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus knew fulfillment of his mission would require great sacrifice, and Peter’s misguided attempt at redirection embodied all the temptation he had resisted from the beginning of his ministry.

Are we willing to face the work and struggle it takes to follow Jesus (or any worthwhile goal), or are we listening to the Peters in our lives who may mean well but misdirect us to an easier but ineffectual path? Maybe our own inner voice is our Peter, the Satan loudly rebuking us in one ear while our more angelic conscience whispers urgently in the other.

It’s always easier not to voice the unpopular opinion, not to deny ourselves something we desire, not to risk losing what we’ve worked so hard for. The easy way is indeed tempting, and on extremely lucky days it may be the right way, but those cliches are common because they are true: success – especially spiritual success – requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of ego, comfort, money, time … whatever it is that stands between us and God. We have to crack that shell before we can get to the gold.

Comfort: This too shall pass.

Challenge: We offer clichés when we don’t know what else to say. Sacrifice a little time to think about and prepare for what you might say the next time someone you know is experiencing a difficult time.

Prayer: Thank you God for giving me the strength to endure so I may be triumphant in you. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve worked hard to achieve?

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Deep Calls To Deep


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 4:1-27, 1 John 4:7-21, Matthew 11:7-15

“Faith: Sometimes it makes you miserable!”

Not much of a sales pitch, is it? But it’s true. The church teaches us to depend on God always, but often we may feel as if God just isn’t coming through for us – maybe isn’t there at all.  Enduring such disappointment and confusion may be harder than rejecting belief altogether; after all, we can’t be angry with someone whom we don’t believe exists.

When and why did we start believing that doubt and anger stand in opposition to faith? Christ and Paul both taught faith does not protect us from the evils of the world, but promises us something beyond.

The author of Psalm 42 wasn’t afraid to express doubt and anger. He says tears have been his food while his enemies mock him by asking “Where is your God?” Their taunts feel like a deadly wound to his body. The psalmist asks, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”  Yet he knows he will praise the Lord again soon, even as his suffering continues.

Your suffering is not a failure of faith. Nor are your anger, confusion, and fear. Allowing yourself to feel these things is an indication of a solid faith that outlast all hardships. Expecting faith to eliminate such feelings can only end in a discouragement which truly does erode our faith. Your ability to cling to your faith during times of adversity is a much more powerful, truthful testimony than pretending faith creates all good times and no bad – people are too smart to buy that story.

Two images in Psalm 42 are especially well-known. One compares the psalmist’s desire to know God to a deer panting for water. Only God can slake the thirst for assurance, but the thirst will always return, and so the psalmist will always return to God. The other is captured in the phrase “deep calls to deep,” which refers to the primal cycle of tides and waves. They ebb and flow, rise and fall, but the power behind them is immeasurable, steady, and eternal. We can’t control the waves, but we can trust their creator.

Comfort: At every point in life, through every emotion, God is steady.

Challenge: Embrace your doubt; it doesn’t deter God.

Prayer: Thank you, eternal God, for understanding, accepting, and loving me no matter what my heart holds. Amen.

Discussion: Do you trust God to love you through your anger and disappointment?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 3:1-12, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 10:17-24

Burnout is a reality of modern life. We can experience burnout at work, at church, and even with our family. When we become burned out, our motivation, dedication, and productivity all suffer. More than fatigue which saps our physical and emotional strength, burnout saps our spiritual strength. Exhaustion is the inability to go on; burnout is the unwillingness to.

In Exodus, Moses first encounters God when he notices a bush that is burning but is not consumed. From the flames, God speaks to Moses about how He plans to use this exiled Egyptian Jew to free the nation of Israel. In the decades that followed, Moses might have felt a lot like that bush. Igniting him to a higher purpose, the power and will of God infused him with a spiritual fire that led the people out of Egypt and through forty years in the desert, yet he was able to endure it all without being consumed. Sometimes an exhausted Moses might have wished for it all to be at an end, but God sustained him.

When we suspect we are beginning to burn out, it is time to reevaluate what we are doing. Is it really our job or family that is burning us out, or is it our attitude? If it’s the former, we can seek an external change. If it’s the latter, we must work on internal change. Either way, let’s consider one of the first things God said to Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It’s not enough to simply stop what we’re doing. We need to find a way to make contact with the holy ground God would have us walk. We need to strip bare not just our feet, but our souls, emotions, fears, and desires until we hear God’s call again. Maybe he will start us on a new journey, or maybe he will fortify us for the next forty years.

Every place we stand is holy ground, if we are listening for the voice of God. Let us hear. Let us burn.

Comfort: When you are tired or unsure, bare yourself to God for renewal.

Challenge: Where in your life are you most subject to burnout? Work? School? Home? Pray about what you can do to transform your situation from an out of control wildfire to a burning bush.

Prayer: Ever loving God, grant me the wisdom to find the path you have laid out before me, and the strength to follow it faithfully. Amen.

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