Unwilling Adventurer

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Fear drove me to God. It wasn’t fear of Hell or death since they didn’t seem real to me. I was afraid of life. Success scared me because I was certain I wouldn’t be able to keep it up, and failure scared me as the true revelation of my lack of abilities. Though I was only 16 years old, fear completely crippled me.

You wouldn’t guess it from looking at me at that time. I was a straight-A student, clean cut and not making too many horrible decisions. Nevertheless, underneath the surface, I lived in agony of messing up.

I see this same fear in this generation.  As a high school English teacher, I have seen a shift in students who can’t wait to get out on their own to students who are scared to take steps of maturity. A large part of this has to do with our online world where everyone sees our mistakes. The solution to this though is to revive the love of adventure.

Bilbo’s Wretched Adventure

There is no better place to begin than with the quintessential tale of an unwilling adventurer —Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo is quite content in his happy little hobbit hole. He has his food and his routine. Then Gandalf, who sees something in Bilbo that Bilbo would never have imagined, chooses Bilbo for an adventure.  This comes in the way of a motley group of dwarves intent on rescuing their treasure from a dragon. To accomplish this, they need a thief. Bilbo is both mesmerized by their tale and appalled. It isn’t until he overhears them speaking disparagingly about him that his pride is offended.  He tries to prove he would actually be a good burglar when Gandalf steps in saying:

“Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. You may (possibly) all live to thank me yet.”

The next day, when Bilbo Baggins sets out on his own “wretched adventure”, he is initially immobilized by his lack of creature comforts.


“I’m awfully sorry, “said Bilbo, “but I have come without my hat, and I have left my pocket-handkerchief behind, and I haven’t got any money. I didn’t get your note until after 10:45 to be precise.”

“Don’t be precise,” said Dwalin, “and don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end…”

The Journey that Transforms

The first few days are quite miserable for Bilbo, but it isn’t long into the journey that Bilbo has an opportunity to prove himself. This is just the beginning though.  Bilbo follows what Joseph Campbell has titled the hero’s journey. This archetype is repeated throughout all the best heroic journeys like Star Wars and Harry Potter. It starts with a call into a new world or journey. As the hero progresses, they find a mentor to help guide them and they face challenges that increase in intensity until they face the greatest challenge of all. A unique part of this journey is the stage titled the abyss. Here the hero must face his or her greatest fear. It represents a testing unto death. It is here though that the true work of transformation occurs resulting in a rebirth. The final stage is the return home transformed.

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Bilbo’s greatest challenge (abyss) is surprisingly a moral battle instead of a physical battle–he has to choose what is right even though he knows he will be misunderstood. He goes home a changed hobbit–one no longer afraid of adventures and one more confident in himself.

The Believer’s Journey

We undergo a similar journey as believers. When we choose to follow God, we make a choice to leave our ordinary lives behind. We might, like Bilbo, be unwilling adventurers, afraid of giving up our creature comforts for the rigors of the road, but we too have been marked by one who knows us better than we know ourselves. We can trust that his choices are correct. We will struggle, but we shouldn’t be afraid. Joseph Campbell notes  “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Our points of greatest challenge are the places of greatest change and growth.

Our journey’s purpose isn’t to rescue a literal treasure from a dragon, but we metaphorically rescue the truth of who we are from the guardianship of the original serpent. Like Bilbo, we must find ourselves in the testing. Bilbo could not have been transformed unless he stepped up to each challenge. We too are invited to a similar battle though ours look quite different. We won’t fight giant arachnids, outwit elves and dragons, or rescue our friends from doom. Instead, we confront our own challenges, handpicked to slough off the extraneous and reveal the treasure within.

Choosing to Journey

If Bilbo had refused to go on the journey, the story would have been completely different. He himself would have remained unchanged, but the lives of those whom he saved would have suffered as a result of his absence. He had a part to play that no one else could play and one that ultimately led to the downfall of Sauron himself. All this depended on his being willing.

Those of us willing to let the journey do its work will have the adventure we were destined for. We must ignore the fear and choose to trust God who has planned it all.  If we do, we also will arrive in our true home, transformed and ready for eternity.

A Physical Redemption

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When I became a Christian, I wanted to make a clean break from the life I had lived before. Faith was a new thing for me, and it seemed that it should be radically different.  My idea was that a spiritual life should be, well, more spiritual–focused on things the eye couldn’t see.

However, no matter how much I wanted to stay focused on these spiritual things, I found it impossible to maintain a constant spiritual mindset. It was much easier to be influenced by the things I could touch, see, hear, and taste.

This push and pull of physical vs transcendent was exhausting. I was angry about my constant failure. This led me to dislike my very physical existence, seeing it as the cross I must bear.

Without realizing it, I had embodied the Platonic theory that physical was unimportant and spiritual was the true reality. I think it is precisely because of this philosophy that the church has struggled so very much with sin.

Sin is most often a physical act (we generally do not condemn people for thoughts though we recognize them as the source). It is when thought is given action that it gives birth to sin (James 1:15). There is a physicality to this–we steal, we lie, we cheat, we yell, we overeat, etc.

Perhaps there is a physicality to redemption also. We are physical beings, designed this way by God. Is it absurd to think that we can appropriate God’s grace and transforming work through physical acts?  

When Israel entered the promised land, they came to a land that still needed to be conquered. There was work for them to do.  No one would argue that God actually needed Israel’s help in this—Egypt proved that once and for all. For some reason though, Israel needed to participate in a physical way. Their actions infused with God’s power made a way that was only possible with Him coming alongside them. It wasn’t a matter of them being strong or cunning enough.  It was simply a matter of partnering with God and the work He was calling them to do. But they had to do it.

Perhaps in our own battle against sin, we can take hope in the physical acts of redemption. I don’t necessarily think this side of the cross that warfare is our mindset. He has already beaten the enemy that threatens us daily. Instead, we look to a new partnership of uncovering the redemptive work He’s already accomplished.

It makes me consider the sacraments in a new light—the taking of communion, the corporate prayers, the songs of praise, the reading of the Word. Not that salvation is accomplished through these tasks (the church has long settled these issues) but that there is still something beautiful and necessary occurring when we practice our faith together as believers. These physical acts help our bodies and spirit come into sync.

It’s not just corporate acts that have power to transform. The daily tasks of living that take up so much of our lives are no accident. It is His plan. These acts slow us down, give us time to think.

One of the characteristics of physical activity is that it is impossible to rush, at least not without consequences. Anyone who has ever made a pie or worked on a car can attest to this. The physical way is the long slow way of careful movement. It’s also the way of the incarnation.

Jesus didn’t show up a fully grown man. He earned his humanity one day, one breath, one action at a time. He disdained no part of the process.  We have no record of Jesus saying with frustration, “Can I get to the real reason I’m here already?” In contrast, we see Jesus patiently waiting for God’s timing, even rebuking His mother when she asks Him to act prematurely (John 2:4).

I find it mind-boggling to consider that the creator of the universe participated in the daily routines of life—eating, cleaning, sleeping, working. He took no shortcuts, had no exemption from the processes of a physical life.  And, most telling, his sacrifice was intensely corporeal. He was not a figurative offering but laid his very lifeblood on the altar.

For us, who are no better than our master, we must be patient with the work he is doing in our lives in the way he chooses. This act of living our physical lives is part of the process needed to transform us. There is no speedy or easy way to get to the end.

Solomon confronts the pointlessness of life in Ecclesiastes. Though he cannot find meaning in the activities of life themselves, connected with God and His purpose, he found hope. Hannah Anderson explains in All That’s Good that

What Solomon realizes is that our life on earth, all the things we experience, all the work we do, all the good things we enjoy, aren’t simply hurdles to the next life. They are designed by God to lead us to the next life. They are designed to lead us to Him. Like the grooves on a record, God’s good gifts are designed to draw us closer and closer to the center, to draw us closer and closer to eternity and to Him.

The purpose of our redemption is to bring us near to Him. Our lives, as they are now, are the means by which we cast off the old man and put on the new man, making us into a new creation able to enjoy the presence of God.

So, today, be mindful of the physical act of living. Don’t be so quick to rush to virtual worlds to escape. Instead, as you participate in life through spiritual disciplines or daily tasks, consider the work God is doing within you, transforming you from glory to glory.

More Than A Party Line: A Love That’s Real

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“Do you love soccer?” she asked leaning towards me. “The only way you will be good at soccer is if you love it!” She looked at me waiting for an answer.

I mumbled, “Yeah. I love it.” Obviously disappointed with my lackluster response, she got up and repeated her spiel to more enthusiastic members of our soccer team. To be fair to myself, I had only been on the girls college soccer team for a few days, and I had only played intramural soccer before this. I really hadn’t played soccer long enough, or well enough, to say I loved it.

However, this isn’t the whole story with me. If I’m honest with myself, I struggle to “love” things like others do. I don’t care much for sports, or stores, or celebrities, or specific groups of thought. Whenever I’m interested in something, I will always try to learn what I can. But a few steps before I enter the inner circle of devotees, something inside of me asks, “Does this really even matter?”

That is the question that ends it all for me. Do sports have very valuable and helpful attributes for individuals and society? Yes, I completely agree. Does it really matter though in the overall picture of the world and time and meaning? Well, no.

This same line of reasoning applies to just about everything I’ve ever been interested in from English literature to essential oils.  I can only go in so far before I have to admit to myself that what I’m doing is only valuable in a superficial way. This is a real buzz killer. 

The closest I’ve ever been to accepting the party line is with my faith in Christ. To me, the question of “does this even matter” is answered with a resounding yes!  However, when I became a believer in college, I had no idea that in the Christian world, there are many party lines. There is the Calvinist party line, the retreat from the world party line, the inclusive party line, the theologically accurate at all costs party line, the charismatic party line, the environmentally friendly party line and the list goes on. I’ve tried various hats on along the way–wildly enthusiastic for a while until a door is cracked open into another Christian paradigm and then I question everything.

This plethora of viewpoints, within the greater vision of faith, is overwhelming and oftentimes discouraging because each group believes unequivocally that they are correct. There is no room for error. Much like the polarizing debates of politics unfolding in our country, the arguments over needle-fine points of theology are weaponized.

My own experience within the various Christian groups is that sometimes underneath the veneer of righteous indignation one can find a cesspit of pride and self-worship.  A perusal of a Twitter feed should prove that point. Since pride and self-worship are anathemas to the true worship of God, we must ask ourselves what we love more–our opinion or our God?

This has led me to crazy conclusion that it’s ok if I am wrong about lots of stuff. My political leanings could be wrong. My understanding of the trinity is most likely weak. My belief about the best kinds of worship music is tainted by my own desires. It isn’t until I admit that I could be wrong or, at least, acting on my thinking in a wrong way, that I can be teachable.

We Christians are afraid of being teachable. We are so scared of falling off the theological train to heaven that we forget that theology doesn’t save us. In fact, theology’s only purpose is to introduce us to the Savior, whose job it is to do the work of salvation. Great doctrine will not save us–only Jesus can. I take comfort in this.

In addition, learning from people who are different from us doesn’t put us in danger of compromising our faith. It may cause us to question some things and even reject points, but we shouldn’t fear different viewpoints. I am friends with believers who hold wildly varying beliefs: those who oppose female leadership, those who are female pastors, those sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, those in opposition to immigrants, those who are angry at the LGBTQ agenda, and those who embrace them. 

I do know though that the Jesus I see in the Gospels is often surprising. He values things that are different. Rather than preferring theological astuteness, he encourages persistent, unabashed, humble faith. He turned conventional teachings on their heads–focusing on the inward gauge of spirituality rather than the outward discipline. He tells stories of surprising heroes, a God zealous for reconnection, and a cost of discipleship that goes deeper than religious acts.

In my Christian faith, I do not need to follow a party line. I need to follow Jesus. This is exciting because he is exciting. He shows up in random places, reveals things I never would have seen if I stayed safe in my theological bubble. He challenges me, never letting me get away with the Sunday school answer.  He digs, however painfully, until we get to the marrow and then He does his amazing, transforming work of changing my heart and not just my mind.

Now this is something, someone, I can follow.  I can throw my whole lot in and answer without reservation–I love Jesus. He truly is worthy of our love and worship. Let’s rediscover him, not in books written about Him but from his own words. Open up the gospels, observe this strange man who seemed to move to a different cadence than the rest. Listen to his words, sit as His feet, and see what He has to say to you too. You may find then that the clamorings of opinions that before seemed so convincing and right, no longer mean as much as they used to. Instead, maybe we can be so trained to the shepherd’s voice that His will be the one that matters most.

Not So Toxic Masculinity–Men, We Need Your Strength

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I explained it to my husband like this: when I am walking down a narrow street and a man calls out to me, I am instantly afraid. He may have no ulterior motives except to compliment me, but I don’t know him. I only know that we are alone, and he is stronger than me, making me vulnerable. I don’t intend to judge every man I meet as a possible attacker, but I am foolish not to think there is a possibility. Every woman can attest to that undercurrent of fear.

That being said, I also believe that most men coming upon a woman being attacked would use that same strength to protect her from harm. I have seen it happen many times. My own husband has stepped up many times to protect those who are weaker and, for that, I am very grateful.

Using Strength to Help

I remember one strange scenario where he was driving down the road and a woman fell out of a car as it turned the corner. My husband got out of the car to see what was happening. The woman lay unconscious on the ground. The male driver got out and started dragging her back to the vehicle. Many times he dropped her, so that her head hit the ground. My husband was furious and got between the man and the woman, keeping the man from reaching her again. He warned the man that he would hurt him if he tried to touch her again. He then waited until the police showed up.

I am proud of him for doing that. I am proud of every man who uses his strength to protect another from harm. This is the kind of masculinity that we appreciate. While we might want our men to curb any acts of aggression believing it leads to toxic masculinity, I disagree. I want my husband to aggressively defend me and my three children.  I need him too.

Faith Moore in an interesting article called “The Prince Is a Letdown: Why Women Love Monsters (And What that Says About Masculinity)” explains that women are drawn to the monsters in stories–the beast in Beauty and the Beast, Edward Cullen in Twilight, and the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera.

But, of course, men who behaved in real life like the way these monsters do in their stories would not be the kind of men we’d want to associate with…But the stories deal with that too. The moment that Belle begins to fall in love with the Beast is the moment in which he uses that brute force and rage to protect her. Edward’s appeal lies largely in his struggle to keep his monstrous urges at bay for the sake of his love for Bella. When the Phantom murders Piangi we know, in our hearts, that Christine can never be with him because he’s shown he can’t channel his urges for good….It’s the way the monsters channel and control their overwhelming urges in response to the love they feel for their partners that really seals the deal for us.

Whether most women would admit it or not, there is an attraction to strength. However, it isn’t the presence of it that is so appealing–it’s the control of it. Why is the image of a strong, muscled man holding a baby so beautiful? It is the perfect image of strength under control–for the sake of love.

Read the rest here.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Worshipping with Ordinary Lives

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As a college student, I wanted to emulate the great heroes of faith whose stories I treasured–Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Amy Carmichael, Keith Green, D.L. Moody. In honor of them and seeking my own story of faith, I took opportunities to serve in China, Papua New Guinea, and Bolivia. In each location, however, I was surprised to find, not a life of adventure and purpose, but a life of mundane tasks made more difficult.

Every day I still had to eat, and, over there, this process was often complicated by non-potable water and unusual cooking appliances. I had to share space with others who made messes that I was used to having cleaned by a gracious father. My story of faith was more a battle of my flesh. Also, opportunities to be a witness were not as often or meaningful as I hoped.  The pressure to do something amazing for God sat like a mocking parrot, reminding me that time was running out.

A Change of Plans

When I got married to a man also passionate about missions, I imagined a future of serving amongst tribal people. However, though he loved traveling and sharing the gospel with those of different cultures, he did not feel called to be a missionary–at least not yet. I was content to bide my time. We went to seminary, and I got pregnant. For several years, children were my passion and my sole mission. Initially, I did not begrudge the daily, menial tasks included in taking care of them. However, years have gone by, and now I feel time is slipping away, yet I am still doing the tasks of life.

I pack school lunches.

I prepare meals and wash dishes.

I do the daily maintenance of my body–brushing teeth, bathing, etc.

I grade assignments and talk and encourage students.

I make beds and tidy things a million times.

I pick kids up from school, manage their technology time, and help them with homework.

Every day, I do these tasks and more.  And still looming over my head is this condemning voice--what is your life about? What great things will you do for God?

I am no longer sure that this is the point anymore. Maybe God is more interested in who I am than what I do for Him. Because of this, He humbles me with routine and physical activities knowing my pride disdains them. Instead of a ministry adventure of tribal missions, I am a mother, a teacher, and a writer with no more acclaim than the millions of believers before me who lived with quiet faithfulness.  

I cannot do great things for God, but He is doing something great in me. He is transforming me in quiet, small ways that no one else can observe but that I feel so deeply. My job is just to cooperate.

The Words I Wished I Said

I used to teach at a wonderful Christian school.  One day, we had a chapel service where students were encouraged to come up and share from their hearts. One student bravely shared his struggles which started a string of students confessing sins.  They wanted to be changed people–those who sought God with all their hearts and did great things for Him. Many were thrilled as they listened to these kids make promises of life change, but the longer I sat there the more weight I felt upon me. I knew I should stand and say something, but I felt odd as the teacher. I regret to this day that I did not speak.  If I did, I would have said this:

Our goal as believers is to be like Jesus. What did Jesus do? He simply did God’s will. In John 5, Jesus tells us that He only does what He sees the Father doing. Sometimes, Jesus did some weird stuff. He slept during storms. He made mud to heal one man but with others spoke a word. He offended the religious leaders with his apparent lack of deference to God’s law. If we want to be like Jesus, we must not try to fix ourselves. We must not make great plans. Instead, we need to watch Jesus. We need to know Him and the evidence of His presence, so we can follow.

I wish I had said these words to these young men and women. I wish I had said them to myself.

We want big, showy lives, but maybe we can find our simple lives amazing. Instead of thinking that only tasks that are spiritual are pleasing to him, we can worship him as we live these physical lives filled with physical tasks. I can honor him as I work and clean and sit quietly before Him. We can let him shape us and form us and use us as He plans, not as we dream.

Tish Harrison Warren notes in her article “Courage in the Ordinary” a similar idea:

But I’ve come to the point where I’m not sure anymore just what God counts as radical. And I suspect that for me, getting up and doing the dishes when I’m short on sleep and patience is far more costly and necessitates more of a revolution in my heart than some of the more outwardly risky ways I’ve lived in the past. And so this is what I need now: the courage to face an ordinary day — an afternoon with a colicky baby where I’m probably going to snap at my two-year old and get annoyed with my noisy neighbor — without despair, the bravery it takes to believe that a small life is still a meaningful life, and the grace to know that even when I’ve done nothing that is powerful or bold or even interesting that the Lord notices me and is fond of me and that that is enough.

A Deeper Fire

The flame of my youthful faith was bright and showy, but it was not that effective. Instead, the slow, hot burn of my faith over the years—through the drudgery and difficulties—is the kind of faith that resists the dampening effect of rain and stormy winds. This faith keeps on smoldering no matter how impossible it may seem. It does not look impressive, but this kind of fire transforms from the inside out.

There is freedom in allowing God to shape our destinies, to wait and see what He is doing. We can worship Him with our ordinary lives trusting that something beautiful, outside of our vision and understanding, is occurring within in us and around us.

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash