Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

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A few years ago, having finally fully embraced the promises of Jesus, I set out on a journey of faith and pursued the impossible love only possible with faith.  I wanted to transcend that “it” that always kept me just short of success and finally put to rest the fear of being the servant who buried his talent.

My mom had always told me that God had saved me for a special purpose.  My name, she told me, meant strong-willed and the name was appropriate given that my first week of life was a desperate fight to survive.  But my fierce determination and persistence could not have kept me alive.  It is only because of the dedicated care of physicians (including my uncle Elam) and nurses, along with the prayers of relatives and friends, that I am writing now.

Still, that was a battle that didn’t end without some scars both physical and otherwise.  I was the late-bloomer, notably smaller than my same-age peers, often riddled with anxieties, and seemed perpetually stuck trying to catch up—but never able.  There have been many times in my life when it felt like one of those nightmares where you know what to do but your reaction is slowed and you can’t avoid the disaster.

Failure and Moving Forward

Over the years I began to doubt my mom’s words.

What great purpose could I have, a thirty-year-old living in Milton?

But, spurred by faith, I decided it was now or never; I put aside feelings of inadequacy and began to write.  I wrote a book, “Paradox of Faith,” and then started to blog here.  I decided to say “yes” when asked to speak at church and my confidence grew as a result.

However, I still wanted to trust God more; I decided to go all in on faith and reach out for something impossible for me.  I thought I should be a missionary overseas (an activity very encouraged in my church) and yet knew that it was something that I would need some help to do.  So I prayed earnestly for a way to overcome my limitations and then reached out to those whom I trusted were my brothers and sisters in faith.

What I got in response was a cold shoulder and harsh dose of the faithless reality behind their well-polished religious facade.  Not only couldn’t they help me, but they smiled to my face then slandered me behind my back, and drove my faith into the rocks with their complete indifference.  I have to wonder how many of them realize that I’ve stopped attending their church six or seven months ago?  I’m obviously not needed there, nor do I feel especially wanted or truly cared for by most who attend there.

I hit the rocks again.

If it was not for one person, someone on the opposite side of the world, who told me, “if you go, take me with you,” I would likely have ended my life by my own hand.  But, I had helped them through their own time of despair and desperation, I believed they would be thrown back into chaos and confusion if I failed them—I could kill my own hope, but I could not rob them of theirs.  My faith had been ruthlessly murdered by those who were supposed to help it, but my precious bhest was determined to pull me back from the grave.

It has been a real struggle, despite all the good things going on in my life, to see past this failure of faith in my church.  I’ve always been a Mennonite, I wore it on my sleeve, it has been my identity both religious and cultural, where I sought acceptance and validation—but there’s no way to remain there after all that has transpired over the past couple years.

But how do you go forward when you lost your faith?

I cared and yet I didn’t.

I was angry and simultaneously indifferent.

I continued living on the outside but my hope inside was dead.

I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me—but, without faith, how was it possible?  Why would I?

One of the reasons I continued writing was because of the unconditional love of a good stranger, now my editor and friend.  They came to me like the angel that ministered to Elijah, telling me that my writing had spoken to them and offering to help.  This wonderful person offered to be my faith when I had none and didn’t abandon or harshly judge me.

I began attending a church of another older Christian tradition.  That choice was the result of a fatherly figure who came into my life about a year prior and had gained my trust with his humility.  I was amazed by his prompt and detailed answers to my inquiries.  For the first time in years I left church feeling renewed.

But then something happened.  I spooked.  I looked back and became mired in those questions nobody could answer.

I did not attend any services for a couple months.  However, a few weeks ago, because of my special someone, my bhest, telling me she needed me to be strong in faith for her, and a timely meeting with my wise fatherly friend, I decided to follow the paradoxical advice given to John Wesley who also doubted:

“Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

As someone who sought to be authentic, that advice (basically “fake it until you make it”) bothered me when I first read it years ago.  It seemed dishonest to me.  It also seemed silly and irrational.  If we must fake something being real for it to become real in our mind, then what’s the point?  Isn’t that the very definition of delusion? Why not only believe what is real instead?

But now the choice wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the one that I loved, my bhest, and to love them properly required me finding my faith again.  I could not find it in those who took it, nor produce it of myself.  I was already reaching down as deeply within myself as I could to find faith and coming up empty.  And yet, right at the right time, right before a meeting with my fatherly adviser, my mind was ready to receive some council.

We met to discuss my “God problem” and first agreed that there is no rational means to prove the existence of God.  With the mystery of God established, he broke my dilemma down to two options: 1) accept a life void of deeper meaning and purpose—nihilism, or 2) live with the assumption of something greater to come, embrace the mystery of God, and have faith.

He encouraged me to attend services again and that’s what I did.  My questions are not all answered, but with his help I’ve established the right trajectory again, and—oddly enough—my feelings of faith have begun to return as I act in faith for those whom God loves.

What is the paradox of faith?

Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, came upon a crowd in an uproar and asked what was going on.  A man, the father of a sick child, explained that the disciples could not heal his son.  To this, Jesus tells the crowd, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?” and then requested the boy be brought to him.  The father explained the boy’s condition then gave his plea:

“…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b‭-‬24)

This father seems to have both belief and unbelief in him.  His initial plea is so weak that Jesus repeats it back as if to test the man a bit.  At this the exasperated father beautifully expresses a contradiction that only a person who has truly ventured out in faith can know: “I do believe, so help me to believe!”

It is this father’s contradiction that has become real to me as I ventured out in faith, the deeper we go the less we can rely on ourselves and must reach for something bigger.  Here are three paradoxes of faith I have encountered:

A) True faith is acting in faith before you have faith.  Faith is setting out in a direction, even when the outcome is uncertain, often while facing controversy and even despite some self-contradiction.  Faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking the first bold step in spite of your fears, anxieties and doubts.  Faith means deviating from what is our natural inclination, letting go of our own human understanding and reaching for what is only possible with God.  Faith, from a practical standpoint, is courage in the face of the impossibility.

Faith requires different things of different people.  It could mean swallowing pride and dipping in your own version of the river Jordan like was required of Naaman.  It could mean selling all you have, giving up your awesome plans and leaving your family behind.  It could mean marriage or remaining single.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription in faith.  But faith is never passive, nor does it mean being placid; it takes persistence, and requires that we step out of the boat, like Peter:

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27‭-‬31)

That is an astonishing story.  Peter is both believing and disbelieving at the same time.  He challenges Jesus to prove that he is who he claims to be: “Lord, if it be you…”  Peter, bold as ever, asked for a miracle that applied to him.  There is no passivity or hesitation there, either.  Peter is willing to get out of the boat and attempt the impossible.  He is actually putting to practice the “take courage” part.  He, like the father with the sick child, is asking Jesus: “I believe, so help me believe!”

There are many religious people who avoid the humiliation of coming up empty-handed by re-branding their true faithlessness as “godly contentment” or being “realistic” or not testing God.  But the truth is that it takes no faith at all to sit on your hands, take life as it comes and do nothing.  Faith aims for the impossible at risk of failure.

You don’t have faith unless you practice faith and to practice faith means to love as Christ loved.  Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong and atrophies when unused.  The exercise of faith is to love your neighbors and especially brothers and sisters in faith.

Faith comes from praxis of faith.

B) Faith is acting in love before you feel love.  Anyone can love as the world loves.  Anyone can “fall in love” with someone who is attractive, adventurous and otherwise convenient to their own personal ambitions.  It is easy to love those who have already proven their value or have what you want, but loving only those who are like you and only because you anticipate getting something in return is not Christian love.

The church of my childhood is good at loving their own and especially good at loving those who represent their ideals.  (I know, because I am like them; I have shared their ambitions, I wanted a Mennonite wife and friends.)  But we are not good at loving those who are different.   We do not love courageously or in faith.  Sadly, with few exceptions, the love I’ve received at my church seems primarily to be a very explicable human kind of love (for biological family or for their religious cliques) and not the exceptional kind of love that transcends differences.

Why don’t we love as Jesus commanded?

The problem is when feelings lead rather than faith.  Many go through the motions of outreach and missions.  However, it is too often only a do-gooder project, a chance to prove our religious chops, a way to feel good about ourselves, and not sacrificial or done in sincere love.  The problem is not that we are bad people.  The problem is that it truly is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to love those who do not produce feelings of love within us first.  We may excuse our lack of love as “being a good steward” and wise use of resources, but could it be that we simply do not have the faith to go beyond our own calculations of another person’s worth?

We use what we know about other people as a reason not to invest in them.  We treat idioms like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as if they are truths.  We use our past and prejudices as guides rather than give freely to those who ask (Matthew 5:42) and trust God.  We do not act in an open-handed way towards others when we presume to know the future based on what we know of past performance.  Unfortunately, in doing this, we too often feed a self-fulfilling prophecy and are actually contributing to their failure.

The paradox?

Sometimes feelings of love come only after you practice love first.  Sometimes it is only after we have invested significantly in another person’s success that we begin to care about their circumstances.  Faithful love is not based on feelings.  Faithful love is doing more than what we are able to rationalize or justify as prudent in our own minds.  Faithful love means loving even when you may never see the results.

Faithful love is only possible for those who know that they did not deserve love themselves and act accordingly.  We were saved by grace and therefore should show grace to those who need salvation.

C) Nobody can save themselves.  Some of us can live in an illusion of independence, but even those without my traumatic birth experience needed the life support of a mother’s womb to survive and could not exist otherwise.  We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining creatures and all have gained through the work of others.  Nobody gives birth to themselves—not even a hermit in Alaska or Chuck Norris.

The same is true of our Christian life.  No man has saved themselves through their own efforts.  We cannot come to faith and remain faithful outside of Christ and the church he established.  I did not come to faith by my own efforts nor has anyone else.  Even the Bible is a written testimony of faith given, compiled, preserved, translated and interpreted by the church.  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and this means that someone else acted graciously on our behalf to even give us a choice to act in faith.

I could get more into the theology and theory here.  But cutting to the chase…

Here’s How the Theory Played Out For Me

My own journey of faith started a new chapter a few years ago.  My faith was stronger than ever, but still could not overcome that invisible enemy that always seemed to keep me just short of success.  So, putting it all on the line, I prayed, “God, make the impossible possible for me” and believed (despite my unbelief) that faith would prevail.

But I did not sit and wait around doing nothing.  I resolved to be an answer to prayer before getting my answer to prayer.  I began to say “yes” (despite my feelings of inadequacy) and became more willing to take on new friendships with strangers that my religious peers would consider risky or dangerous.  I decided to love as I wished to be loved and not worry about my image so much.

Meanwhile, as I reached out in faith, my own hope against hope hit a wall of opposition and from the very people I had trusted to be faithful.  These were supposed to be the ones who would stand up for me, give me a chance, and show me love, but instead I got betrayal and lies.  It was confusing to me.  They would all say that they believed that the extraordinary claims of the Bible were true, but they sure didn’t act like it.

Eventually their doubts became mine.  My experience over the past few years seemed to be only a delusion.  The promises about faith written in the Bible seemed untrue; the existence of God isn’t something we can prove, and I just wanted to be free from the commitment that had just drug my heart through the mud.

Two Are Indeed Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9‭-‬12)

It was because of the words of one very precious person that I didn’t act on my suicidal ideations.  A year before it was my turn to save them from their despair.  She was a single mother at the end of her rope, a little lost sheep, in a cold, dark, indifferent world, and not sure where to turn for help.  In her first message, after I accepted her friend request, she basically apologized and told me she was unworthy to be my friend.  My heart was instantly filled with compassion for her and I made it my mission to restore her faith.

Little did I know that a year later she would be acting as my Jesus and refusing to let go of my hand as I slipped beneath the waves.  She was my only reason not to throw in the towel on life.  I lived for her because there was nothing in myself left worth living for.  Later it dawned on me, in my faithfulness to her over the past year, I had sowed the seeds for my deliverance from despair.  In my love for her I found just enough meaning to the fight when I needed it most.

Around the time I had given up on faith, I got a friend request out of the blue.  This person, someone of admirable conviction and unusual love, was excited about something I wrote in a blog about an unnatural love only possible with faith.  Unbeknownst to them, the paradigm of faith that inspired my words was crashing and burning around me.   As much as I wanted to, I could no longer believe my own words anymore and had given up.

I more or less told this inquiring reader, albeit in different words: “the show is over, I was a peddler of nonsense, so move along now and don’t trip on the wreckage of my hopes and dreams.”  But, this new friend, instead of taking my advice, offered to be my faith, to be as Hur and Aaron who held up the hand of Moses:

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:11‭-‬12)

They believed in the mission even when I was too exhausted to continue.  More than that, they offered the love that could only be explained by faith, they loved me through some of my most unlovable moments, and have not once failed in their commitment to be my editor.  It is probably their encouragement that kept me plugging away and writing my experience.

Angels, Transition and Forgiveness

This is where the story gets interesting.  To me, offering to edit my blogs was something only an angel would do.  So, to express my gratitude, while feeling beleaguered like Elijah in the wilderness, I announced on Facebook that I had found an “angel” and that choice of wording would become significant a couple days later.

But just before all that, not having a clue what would soon transpire, before my faith ran into a road block, I had blogged about a job transition that I knew was coming and also a premonition that something else bigger was lurking ahead.  Since posting that blog, the word “transition” had indeed been a big theme of my life.   That is why I clicked on a link about transitions that came up on my news feed.

The video, posted by a Christian friend, was one of those prophetic speakers that play to confirmation bias in the same way that fortune cookies and horoscopes do.  Basically, if you keep an insight vague enough it can be personalized by the reader and applied to almost any situation.  I’m pretty skeptical of these things and normally don’t pay too much attention.  However, the word “transition” in the title had hooked me.

I listened, nodding, as he talked about the difficulty of transition, he compared our transitioning to how an army is vulnerable when moving and explained how God would send an angel to guard over the transition.  Suddenly he had my full and undivided attention.  His advice?  He stressed the importance of forgiveness as necessary for success in the new endeavor—which is a message hit me right in the heart and, after hearing that word, forgive is what I wanted to do.

I had been given someone as an angel to guard over my transition.  I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence or not.  Maybe I’m reading meaning into it that isn’t there?  But the message was a profound reminder that the only successful way forward is the path of forgiveness.

Some Final Thoughts About Faith, Doubt, Encouragement and Love

No man, no matter how strong in faith, talented or independent can do it alone.  We need each other and often more than we know.

Maybe you are too proud to ask for help?  Perhaps you believe faith means stoicism?  If that is the case, then please consider that even Jesus wanted companionship in his hour of tribulation and that some of the most noteworthy characters in Scripture were sometimes cowards even after seeing amazing things directly from God’s hand.

If Jesus literally could not carry his cross without help, why do we think we can bear our burdens alone?

If our Savior struggled with anxieties in the garden of Gethsemane, why do we feel like we have failed because of our own fear and doubt?

There may be times when our faith is tested while we are alone and we must do our best to stand.  But that doesn’t mean we should leave others alone in their trials and tribulations.  Being a member of the body of Christ means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26) and James tells us that our faith is expressed by how those in the church help each other:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing for their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

There will be times where we all stumble and fall in faith.  We should encourage each other.  Do not be impatient when someone does not respond instantly to your love.  Sometimes it takes time for the water and nutrients to soak in.  Healing does not happen overnight for those who have been abandoned or severely wounded by the betrayals and indifference of others.

Who have you encouraged today?

Who have you helped?

My prior investment in others was the only thing that gave me the will to fight on.  The investment of others in my life is the only reason I am here writing today.  Do not neglect the important work of being your brother’s keeper.  Love those nobody else loves.  Love those that are unlovely and require faith to love.

Help With My Impossible Task

The church of my youth is full of nice people; a few did call to check in and probably more do care about me than took the time to inquire.  Most of them are very decent people, in my opinion.  However, I still found myself too often feeling spiritually malnourished while with them and I can’t live with settling for mediocrity or going through the motions.  A final act of betrayal by those in the group whom I trusted most left me spiritually dead and has convinced me of a need to change.  I would not have survived had not God provided ministering angels (in human form) to guard over me and I won’t ask for that again.

Thus, I find myself needing to do the impossible.  I am forced to transition from the church where I spent nearly four decades of my life to an orthodoxy that still feels foreign to me.  It is not my first choice, it has not been easy for me, and yet it is what I must do to remain faithful.  Big chunks of my identity, if not my entire identity, were caught up in my Mennonite denomination and letting go of that is difficult.  And not just that, the church is literally full of my family members; aunts, uncles, cousins and only remaining grandparent.  Until recently it was easy and comfortable to be there just putting in time.  But I know that I must live in faith and Jesus said to leave all behind and follow him.

So, as a final request, please pray for me to have a spirit of forgiveness.  I must do the impossible and move on from the denomination that I loved, but cannot move on while hanging onto my hurts or carrying bitterness.  My sincere faith was treated as garbage, the help provided by those I regarded to be my brotherhood for years was too often given grudgingly and seemingly always too little too late.  It is hard to forgive those do not take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and should do better, but…

“Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.

My engagement ended.  I had hurt someone that I loved deeply.  My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat.  I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later.  The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out.  I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend.  When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside.  Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope.  Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday.  I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message.  The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us.  She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue.  Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia.  There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly.  I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend.  Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain.  I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect.  I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do.  All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better.  My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch.  My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong.  But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later.  I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life.  I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral.  Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed.  They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt.  My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care.  Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me.  It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers.  I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes.  My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death.  Life is never the same after an experience like that.  But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided.  My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever.  My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me.  I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on.  It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.

Just Say Yes!

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Many of my readers may be too young to remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.  But, right off the bat, I want to make sure that y’all know I am not encouraging experimentation with drugs. 

What I do intend to share is a choice, a basic philosophy change, that is key to faith and spiritual growth for those who share my personality type.  If you are one of those confident types who go charging headlong into everything, this might not be the blog post for you.

Anyhow, most of my life has been defined by my cautious restraint and some deep feelings of inadequacy.  I have been reluctant to start off in a direction without knowing that I will stay committed, fearful of failure, etc.  Who wants to waste time and effort on something not your true ‘calling’ in life, right?

Well, this is an approach, taken to an extreme, is completely faithless and ultimately results in endlessly spinning your mental wheels trying to decide what is yours to do or not to do.  Which is ironic, because this effort to be focused and directed can actually be the thing that keeps many from finding a greater vision.

But I decided recently, within the past few years, that my last excuse for waiting to be ready (passing the age when Jesus started his ministry) was gone.  Now was do or die time—time to stop making excuses.  I needed to step out more boldly in faith.  The first part of that has been for me to start using a word difficult to use: Yes.

That three letter word “yes” or rather my newly minted use of it has been transformative.  No, I don’t use it for everything (sorry, Kevin, maybe some other time) and I’m not advocating going across to the other extreme of over-commitment either.  But generally I have decided that “yes” will be my answer when asked.

What I am referring to in particular is my participation in my local church body, but to pursue things beyond that and find the spiritual vision out there waiting for me.  I have, despite my feeling unqualified, begun to say “yes” when asked to teach, to give devotionals, or otherwise step outside of my comfort zone.

I must admit, this is not easy for me, public speaking is not my forte and that might surprise those who know I’m quite capable of speaking when there’s a small and safe audience.  Running your mouth is quite a bit different from trying to find something substantive and worthwhile for a congregation of those who might not be impressed.

However, the experience has been rewarding.  First, I have proved that I am marginally capable despite my reservations.  Second, I have been encouraged by positive feedback, I am learning something new every time about how to prepare and am starting to find my voice.  Overall my fears were overstated.  Nobody picked up stones to kill me yet.

I’m also in good company for my feelings that long held me back.  Moses didn’t feel he was able to speak.  Jonah ran from the prophetic duty God had given to him.  And even Jesus struggled “take this cup away from me” before he submitted to God’s will and started a painful journey.  It is that willingness to say “yes” that leads to the greater vision of our life to be fulfilled.

So, for those fearful, for those cautious to a fault, to all you over-thinking people and analytical types.  To you folks I encourage saying “yes” and, not just once or twice, make it a new habit.  Make it your philosophy of faith and see what happens.  May you find the same blessings I have in my deliberate choice to be more available.

Perhaps vision is not something decided in advance, but something that intersects our path when we start off walking.  As a friend recently told me “it is easier to steer a ship that’s moving.”  And, at very least, doing something rather than nothing might give us helpful experience for when we do find *that* something.

Now, for those of you on the extreme other end and full of big ideas, for those of you who are routinely over-commitmented and sometimes frustrated, I recommend something else.  Have you ever considered that you are so full of yourself that you are like Martha, too busy in your religious duty and missing out on really hearing God? 

It seems the key to success in ministry is not having your own ability, your own ambition or you own agenda.  It is depending on God as your strength, stepping out in courage despite fears and being available when asked.  It is saying faithfully “yes” when your mind has a million reasons for saying no.

The church could do with far fewer self-described visionaries and self-important missionaries. The arrogant should stay home where they do less damage.  Instead what is needed is humble and ‘incapable’ men who earnestly seek to do God’s will despite their known weakness, present fears or past failures. 

The church needs more faithful examples like Isaiah who, seeing God’s glory, exclaimed, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  But later answered the call soon after and said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Or leaders like Paul…

“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

God doesn’t need the qualified.  It is not about our being extraordinary or special in the eyes of our religious peers.  It is about being humble, generally available to others and ready to accept an opportunity to serve.  God wants those who simply say ‘yes’ when asked. 

Willingness to serve is a habit and a good habit.  It starts with our learning to use a three letter word when called upon.  So, take courage my timid friends, put your faith in the one who asks, and just say yes!

When Words Fail and Love Prevails

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I forget the exact circumstances.  I do, however, remember the feeling of humiliation and embarrassment. 

I had made a crossword puzzle for my 5th grade classmates.  I was moderately proud of my creation and, as copies were distributed to my peers, ready to savor the accomplishment.

But, I did not expect what came next…

 As the class began to solve the puzzle there started a bit of a ruckus.  There was laughter and an absurd allegation that I had misspelled one of my words.

Impossible! 

I thought as my face flushed. 

How could I have made a mistake so basic? 

They had to be wrong…

But, as I examined the evidence, my initial denial was soon replaced by dismay, and my heart sank weighted down by the reality: I had misspelled a word. The entire puzzle was irreconcilable for those who knew correct spelling and I was an imbecile.

It was something awful.  My lack of proper editing (still a weakness) had made me a laughingstock and I was absolutely devastated.  I wanted to crawl under a rock to get away from the cackling in the room.  But there was no escape and no recourse.

What I had hoped to be a moment of satisfaction was now a nightmarish reality of abject failure.  I couldn’t hold it in.  Emotions overcame me in the study hall period after and I began to cry.

Mr Berger, the shop teacher, was my comfort that day as I sobbed my pain and disappointment.  I’m not sure if he said much, but I know that I felt his empathy and understanding. 

My terrible mistake probably mattered very little to him.  The condemnation and ridicule faded in importance. His love remained.

When exception rules…

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My boss and I generally get along well.  He has his preferences, I have my own preferences and usually we are able to find an agreement.  But occasionally there are times of conflict as well.

Most of the conflicts are caused by abuse of exceptions.  Exceptions are those times when my usual ‘rules’ are stretched to allow something I otherwise do not tolerate.  Surprises, working weekends or working too late on a Friday are some of my understood (but unwritten) terms.

It is reasonable in the industry I am in that some flexibility is required.  Delays often arise that are no fault of my employer and are the surprises I must tolerate to be reasonable.  Then there are favors or the times I am flexible just because my boss is my friend and I want a good relationship.  I will sometimes break my rules voluntarily as a matter of good will.

However, there seems to be a limit to how many exceptions can be made before the exceptions begin to become the rule.  If I do too many favors soon they become expected entitlements rather than appreciated exceptions. 

When I feel the balance of our mutual self-interests has been violated too far I will respond with protests.  I suppose if my boss would not respond appropriately there would be further reaching consequences.

Broader Application and Implications

Individuals make arrangements between themselves my boss and I do.  Groups of people also make arrangements with their individual parts that allow exceptions to the general rules for representatives of the group or to benefit exceptions within the group.

For example, there is an expectation that if one wants to eat they should work, but we do make exceptions for children and the disabled.  But that list of beneficiaries can eventually grow to include irresponsible adults and those less truly disabled.  It can also morph from being a special exception into an entitlement that is eventually is unfair to those paying the cost and abuse.

If the group never considers the needs of exceptions that is also a failure and negligence.  It may not be at a noticeable cost to the group right away when the weak and minorities are unprotected or considered only an afterthought, but there is a cost even if it isn’t measured in financial losses.  Lack of compassion is a moral loss.

Keeping a Balance of All Factors

This complex mobile of competing interests must constantly be fine tuned to maintain an appropriate balance.  Part of balance is order of priority.  It is recommended in an airliner cabin depressurization emergency that adults put their own masks on first so they aren’t incapacitated and unable to help others. 

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Rules must always define the exceptions in the same way the gravity that defines the order of a mobile must be respected or chaos will be the result.  The picture of the Liebherr crane mobile above (watch this video) is a prime example.  It is an exceptional display of engineering and some flexibility in weight bearing capacity, yet there are underlying rules that must be followed or the whole system will collapse.

The results of miscalculation, ignoring factors that influence stability and over stressing various structures (social, physical or otherwise) can result in catastrophic failures.  Failure like that of “Big Blue” which fell into a tangled heap on a gusty day:

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Prevent disasters by finding a balance that puts rules and exceptions in proper order and plans for the winds of life.

When the time for pragmatism has passed…

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Conventional wisdom is usually your best bet in many circumstances.  But there are times when following regular protocol and procedure is not a good option.  Following the rules can ensure failure in some cases.

What I have in mind is a story from the waning moments of the Vietnam war and an amazing last ditch effort. 

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In a desperate bid to escape a Vietnamese pilot commandeered a Chinook helicopter, loaded up his family and headed out to sea.  Short on fuel they found the USS Kirk. 

Unfortunately, the large twin rotor helicopter was too big to land on the ship, but undeterred they hovered over the deck and dropped children into the waiting arms of sailors. 

The copilot bailed, but the pilot had to find a way to ditch in the ocean and survive.  So he lowered the aircraft, tilted it one way and jumped the other.  His strategy worked.  The pilot survived the crash unscathed and was rescued.

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Following the rules would not have produced the desired results in those circumstances.  Determination, not losing hope despite obstacles and creative effort were the keys to success.

Sometimes winning requires wrecking a few helicopters.

Finding your motivation…

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I’ve been listening to a motivational video since a friend posted a link to it.  It is advice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose to prominence through body building, with an unlikely accent began a career as an actor and then later was elected governor of California.

What he said resonates with me.  I know enough of his story to appreciate the ethic of hard work, confidence, need to overcome fear of failure, to break rules, to ignore naysayers and pursue visions.  We limit ourselves.  The truth is that I limit myself and it is because I doubt my chances for success.

Had Schwarzenegger thought like I do sometimes could he have accomplished what he has? 

No, probably not…

I am a driven and determined guy.  I dream of the impossible.  I hope for the impossible and I believe the impossible is possible by the grace of God.  For some faith is an excuse for them to sit on their hands and do nothing.  But for me faith means full investment in the visions that God has put on my heart.  There can be no compromise with those who tempt you to quit.

I have encountered the naysayers, they are many, and they will try to turn you from what is best.  For your good, they claim, you should settle for less and seek the compromise.  They will recount their own failure as reason, cite facts and present logics, but do not let their faithless words take away your courage.  Fight for what is right and good because you trust that God is right and good and is on the side of those who pursue righteousness and goodness.  Do not listen to the naysayers.

I have my own anxieties.  I too often have made excuses for myself and can too easily withhold my best effort with a fatalistic attitude.  Yet, when we do not put forward our best efforts because of fear, can we blame anyone other than ourselves for our own failure?  It is a lie to blame God or fate for our own failure unless we have truly invested our all.  Those who have done their part and still come up short have still won.

Another thing I have done too often is view failure as defeat.  Failure should instead be viewed as a learning experience.  As the saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  If you give up at the first sign of trouble or after facing some tough opposition, then the goal must not be all that important to you.  To stay focused on the prize, despite the pain, the scars and torments of past failure, that is victory.

I am not afraid to think outside the box.  Sometimes success requires being alone and setting the trend yourself rather than wait on others.  Yes, I would rather the comforts and company of the group, but when the group is limiting God’s purpose for them or encouraging complacency, then one must lead.  A true leader does not wait to be sure others are following, they do not pay attention to rules that come between them and doing what God has for them.

Now, there are components I believe are missing from Schwarzenegger’s perspective, namely God’s providence and grace, nevertheless there is much true in his advice.  Those who have faith can overcome pain, failure, naysayers, fear, worldly rules and be willing to work their butts off for what they believe.

So find your motivation, do not be content to live mediocre and safe, go out and change the world with the fullness of your God given abilities.  To do less than your best, less than you are able to do, that is failure and faithlessness.