1/27/10

Pruning Is the Pits

I finally cut back our rose trees last week, right before the rains came. My hands were full of thorn pricks—I can hear you saying, “Why didn’t you wear gloves?”—but in Southern California, pruning is a necessary event in January if I want the trees to thrive in early spring. Pruning encourages new growth and beautiful blooms, and the plant is healthier. Pruning shapes the plant rather than allowing it to grow rampant.

If I’m honest, I think spiritual pruning is the pits. I don’t like God’s pruning, even though I understand why He takes the task in hand. It’s necessary. It’s valuable. It’s an act of love.

When I prune the roses, I make some good cuts and some not-so-good cuts; but when God prunes me, He knows exactly what He’s doing and there are no mistakes. He prunes me so I will reflect the beauty of His design—the purposes of His heart. He prunes fruit-bearing “branches” so I will bear more fruit (become spiritually mature, John 15:2b-3. He purges (disciplines or chastens) me so I will partake of His holiness (Hebrews 12:7, 10).

God’s pruning knife—the Holy Spirit’s application of the Word of God to my heart as I go through the circumstances of life—may hurt, but the end result makes the process worthwhile. Theologian Charles Spurgeon said, “affliction is the handle of the knife.” Sometimes the pruning does indeed include suffering, but just as I know the frailty of my rose trees, God understands my frailty (Psalm 103:14). Just as I know to prune my roses in January, God knows the perfect time to prune me. He does so skillfully and with great love.

God prunes me for my good and His glory. My choice is simply to submit to the knife with confidence in His tender, loving care.

1/20/10

Choice at the Crossroads

I hiked to a waterfall in Keflavik, Iceland, when I lived there during high school. I took a wrong turn at a crossroad, hiked up a hill, and ended up lost until a kind shepherd told me to go back down the road to the crossroads. There was no shortcut, he said, to my destination.

This sounds something like Jeremiah 6:16. Jeremiah told God’s people to go back to the crossroad and look around and then ask for directions back to the old road… the ancient path. This was the tried-and-true road—the good way of God—and if the Israelites returned and “walked” in His truth, they would find rest for their souls. But God’s people said, “Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.” It was their “no way, Jose” of heart rebellion—a desperately foolish choice. The result? There was no peace in their souls (Jeremiah 6:14) and God was not pleased (Jeremiah 6:20).

Crossroad after crossroad, the Israelites chose their own ways. Whenever they rejected God’s blueprint for rest, they lost many other blessings (Isaiah 30:15). They wanted a calf or Baal instead of the God of their forefathers. After each rebellious choice, God warned His people to repent, but then brought judgment to lovingly draw His people back to Himself.

God's path is always best. Though the road may lead through trials, tribulations, and suffering, it will ultimately lead to peace and rest in the Lord. We’re not wise when we refuse His way and chart out our own agenda. It’s smart to stand back and look carefully for the signposts of the ancient paths in God's Word, still relevant for today. It’s not always easy to recognize the side roads and detours that lead to destruction (Psalm 1:6), so Jeremiah says, “Look carefully." Just as all roads do not lead to God (in spite of what liberal theologians tell us), all lifestyle paths do not please Him. We need to think, consider the choices before us, and follow the eternal road of Truth.

Then, we must “walk" in the ways of God's Truth. We must choose and act according to His Word, will, and ways. It may require repentance for walks down other paths.

The ancient path is the road this generation may not want to follow, but we must challenge our youth to find it. Each of us needs to be sure the worldview we embrace is truly Christian. We need to make genuinely biblical choices, not just in our theology, but in the ways we function in our culture. In the words of Chuck Colson, “Every choice, every action, either expresses a false worldview and thus contributes to a disordered and broken world, or expresses God’s truth and helps build a world that reflects His created order” (The Christian in Today’s Culture, p. 19).

Until the day when Jesus returns in His glorious reign of peace (Isaiah 11:10), following God’s ways in faith and obedience will lead us to seasons of rest in the here and now (Matthew 11:28-29).

1/13/10

Is It Stress ... or Burnout?

Everyone experiences stress; it’s inescapable, whether it’s “eustress”—good stress that keeps us motivated and alive—or “distress” (John 16:33a). But at some point, stress crosses over into something else.

Prolonged or excessive stress can lead to burnout. There are some key differences between stress and burnout. Stress is characterized by over-engagement; burnout is characterized by disengagement. With stress, emotions are over-reactive; with burnout, they are blunted, dull. Stress usually indicates there is “too much” going on—too many pressures and everything is getting out of control. Burnout means there is not enough to keep a person going ... a person feels empty and beyond caring. Stress produces urgency and hyperactivity; burnout produces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness—a person feels overwhelmed. There is loss of energy with stress; but with burnout there is loss of motivation, ideals, and hope, and a person may become cynical and resentful. Stress leads to anxiety disorders, while burnout leads to detachment and even depression. The primary damage caused by stress is physical, but burnout’s primary damage is emotional. Stress may kill you prematurely. With burnout, you probably won’t die, but you may feel like it—life just may not seem worth living. The person in burnout feels he or she simply has nothing more to give, or nothing makes a difference. (“Stress and Burnout in Ministry” by Rowland Croucher.)

Burnout can develop because of lifestyle choices (working too much, relaxing too little, not getting enough sleep, lacking supportive relationships); or from personality tendencies (perfectionism, pessimism, control issues, etc.). Burnout can also have work- or ministry-related causes. It is particularly common in those who serve without saying “no,” or stretch themselves too thin.

With stress, simple stress management can help, but once the stress gets out of hand—once it becomes burnout—other coping strategies are needed.

Bouncing Back from Burnout

Recognize the symptoms of burnout (basically, listed above).
Re-evaluate your priorities. Do they match up with God’s priorities for you? What changes in your schedule might help you live in line with God’s design for your life?
Renew your mind with the truth of scripture (Rom. 12:2). Address problems biblically. Clarify responsibilities with God’s wisdom. Learn to catch the burnout process earlier so you can make proactive choices to prevent it.
Reflect on the causes of emotional burnout. Set boundaries. Learn how to say “no” to requests that don’t fit in with your priorities. Be careful not to “overspend” your time.
Reverse the damage to your body as you replenish your body. Eat right, exercise, and plan for sufficient sleep to build your resilience and recharge your “batteries” (energy).
Relax throughout your day. Slow down. Take breaks to meditate on scripture, write in a journal, stretch tightened muscles, sing praises, etc. Be still and rest (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 11:28).
Reach out for encouragement and support from friends and family. Don’t isolate yourself. Instead, share your thoughts and needs, and pray together (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16).
Rediscover your dreams. What makes you happiest serving God? What are your highest hopes? Are you operating in your spiritual gifts? What great adventure lies ahead?

Perhaps you’re not dealing with burnout, but simple stress. If so, read: “Smooth Out the Knots of Stress.”

1/6/10

Kathi Macias: Choices of Obedience

Choices change us and design our lives. From time to time, I want to interview some of my writer and speaker friends concerning the choices in their lives.

My first guest is Kathi Macias, a multi-award winning writer of nearly 30 books, including My Son, John; Mothers of the Bible Speak to Mothers of Today; and How Can I Run a Tight Ship When I’m Surrounded by Loose Cannons? You may be surprised by some of her answers. I love her heart of obedience to God.

Dawn: First, because it is the most important choice we can discuss, Kathi, when did you decide that you needed Christ in your life, and what led up to that life-changing choice?
Kathi: I was not raised in a Christian home, though I believed I was a Christian simply because I was born in America and somehow thought everyone who lived here was a Christian. Also, I had visited enough churches with friends that I knew and accepted the basic tenets of Christianity, but I had no personal knowledge or relationship with Jesus.

When I was in my early twenties, my brother Bob became a believer through the influence of his boss. Bob then led my mother, who was fifty at the time, to the Lord, and then my other brother, Jerry, was saved soon after. My dad and I were the “holdouts.” At the age of twenty-six, on July 5, 1974, with my life going downhill fast, I decided maybe my mother and brothers were right that I “needed Jesus,” which was what they were always telling me. I knelt beside my bed and prayed to receive the Lord, and my life has never been the same since. Oh, things haven’t been perfect, by any means, but I’ve never doubted that I made the very best choice of my life that hot Friday afternoon in Colorado Springs when I chose to turn over my heart and life to my beloved Savior. He truly has never left me or forsaken me, and I have such joy in knowing that He never will!

Dawn: What was your most difficult spiritual choice after becoming a believer?
Kathi: I suppose it was turning my back on all that went with my previous life. I became a Christian toward the end of the “Jesus Freak” movement, when praise-ins at the park and baptisms at the beach were the big things. I loved that, but with it went burning our old R&R albums and jettisoning anything in our lives that didn’t honor or glorify God. It was a radical time, but I’ve never regretted it, though many/most of my friends from my “B.C.” (Before Christ) days didn’t want anything to do with me after that. Only a handful of them have come to the Lord, as far as I know, but I still pray for them.

Dawn: What has been your most rewarding choice?
Kathi: The most rewarding choice (and undoubtedly one of the wisest) was deciding to go to Bible college. With children still in school, I was already too busy, but making the commitment to study God’s Word and make it through—however many years it took—was not only rewarding but a great lesson in self-discipline. I was in my early forties when I graduated, but by that time my kids were all old enough that I felt comfortable going back to work full time. When I was offered a staff position at a large church, I was thrilled to accept. I was already doing some writing by that time, and the education I received during my years of study benefited both my church staff position and my writing and speaking.

Dawn: What is the hardest decision you’ve ever made concerning your ministry?
Kathi: It broke my heart to leave my position at the church after serving there for several years, but I knew God was telling me that season was over. I always find it difficult to move from one season to another, but when you know God is speaking to you about doing so, obedience must take precedence over sentimentality.

Dawn: Why is it so difficult for people to choose to serve others?
Kathi: This is a topic I address in earnest in my book Beyond Me: Living a You-First Life in a Me-First World. Our true spiritual depth is not measured by letters after our name or a long list of accomplishments, but rather by how humbly and selflessly we live. Do we daily place God and others ahead of self? If so, it is only because we have taken the time to cultivate an ongoing and vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ, because we absolutely do not have the ability to live that sort of life in our own strength. Everything in our fleshly nature wants to serve self; it is only Christ in us, the hope of glory, who enables us to live as He did—as God calls all His children to do.

Dawn: If you knew that the results would be positive, what adventurous "no fear" choice would you make in the days ahead?
Kathi: LOL! Oh, now you’re going to get a peek into the deepest recesses of my heart, but here goes! I’d sell it all—everything—and move to a Messianic kibbutz in Israel! Seriously. I’m a Gentile by birth, but I have a Jewish heart. My passion is to preach or minister first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. Studying anything Jewish is my passion! For a time, my husband and I attended a Messianic congregation (Kehilat Ariel—the Congregation of the Lion) in San Diego (Messianic Rabbi Barney Kasdan). I probably learned more during the short time we were involved there than in all my other studies combined.

Dawn: Is there anything else you would like readers to understand about how your choices have shaped your life?
Kathi: Looking back on my sixty-plus years of life, nearly forty of which have been lived as a believer, I have learned that the choices I made that were motivated by obedience to God were the ones that brought me the most joy and fulfillment. Walking in daily obedience to the nudging of God’s Spirit and the direction of His Word can only produce positive results.

Dawn: Thank you, Kathi, for your valuable insights concerning the choices we all make every day—choices that change our lives!
Kathi: I am honored that you "chose" me. Thank you!

Readers, I encourage you to visit Kathi's website or her Easy Writer blog.