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Fearing God and Ferrets

Sitting on the banks of the Minnehaha Creek with my feet in the water, escaping the city within the city, a flash of movement along the opposite bank caught my eye. A ferret was running along the bank, not five yards from me, and then dove into the water.

A ferret? Dow we have wild ferrets in Minnesota? Had my eyes deceived me? It must’ve been a muskrat, to have gone underwater like that. But I knew what I had seen. Its long skinny body and arching back were unmistakable. How far could ferrets swim underwater?

Suddenly, I felt a surge of fear. What if it resurfaced by my feet and bit me? Aren’t ferrets feisty and mean? Do they carry diseases? Perhaps it was someone’s escaped pet turned wild and would want to crawl on me. I waited in fearful excitement, holding my breath to see what it would do. And then there it was, springing out of the water with a mouthful of mud and weeds. Running off down the bank it dropped its treasure and began patting it with its little hands, building a nest or den. A feeling of awe overtook me. I realized I know nothing about ferrets and I was overwhelmed by its “otherness” and intrigued by its mysterious life.

Maybe this is what the Scriptures mean when they say to “Fear God.” I’ve never liked that phrase. Why should I fear someone who loves me, who created all this beauty, who has my best interest at heart?

Growing up in a shame-based family system and religion gave me my fair share of fear. I was afraid of my father, my pastor, and at some deep level that I never admitted until much later, I was also afraid of God. God, who was distant and detached, judgemental and punishing. As a youth, fearing God meant always being on my best behavior because “he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” The consequence for naughtiness was eternal damnation. Terrifying indeed! Over time, after healing this destructive image and understanding of God, I dropped the idea altogether because it triggered old wounds.

But sitting on the banks of the Minnehaha, watching this ferret run back and forth, I felt a Holy fear. It was excitement, awe, mystery, respect, love. So too, large animals evoke these feelings in us naturally. If you’ve ever stood next to a horse, you know what I mean. They put you in your humble place, your pulse may quicken, but it’s out of the ecstatic joy and privilege of touching the beautiful other. Elephants, whales, bears, hippos, moose; they all stir in us a wild excitement. We slow down and hold our breath when they are near. What will they do next? Much of our fear is that they will run away and leave us, giving only a fleeting glimpse into their world, leaving us alone with ourselves. And so it is with God.

Animals show us that fearing God is quite natural and healthy. It is a wonder, a joy, and an overwhelming gratitude to have witnessed such untamed beauty this close up, right here in our hearts.

************************************************

And in contrast to the idea of fear, a poem about pure Love, because as a Lutheran, I can’t help but embrace paradox:

Amidst the confusion

I search for You.

Amidst death and dying and fear

I cry out to you

Amidst surprising joys

I sing to you

Amidst desert places

I drink from you.

***

Amidst the confusion

You search for me

Amidst death and dying and fear

You cry out to me

Amidst surprising joys

You sing to me

Amidst desert places

You drink from me

How can my mind fathom Your love??

Instead, I’ll let my heart smile

Knowing it is Your heart

Instead I’ll let my soul dance

Knowing it already holds the answers

Instead, I’ll let my belly laugh

Knowing it is safe

To be me.

By Chelsea Forbrook, October 2015

Loving Yourself in 4 Hard Steps (Part 2 of 2)

By Barry Thomas

In last week’s blog post I began talking about how to love yourself by focusing on the parts of yourself you hide and deny. I presented the first two steps in the process: AWARENESS and ACCEPTANCE. (If you didn’t see it, read last week’s post for an explanation of what I mean). So now I’m going to pick up from where I left off.

How is a person to respond when he becomes aware of a part of himself he has hidden or denied and accepts that that part is truly part of him? After all, that part was hidden for a reason. What do you do when you bring it out in to the light?

The next step in loving yourself is FORGIVENESS. When I think of forgiveness, I imagine forgiveness moving in three directions:

The first direction is forgiveness moving from God to us. If there was enough space in this post, we could walk through the Bible and see how forgiveness is a major theme throughout Scripture. In Exodus 34: 6 and 7, God describes Himself as compassionate, gracious and forgiving. And Hebrews 10:11-18 describes how Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice for our forgiveness.

The second direction of forgiveness is from us to others. In Matthew 6:14, Jesus teaches. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

The third direction of forgiveness is from us to…ourselves. For many people, this is the most difficult form of forgiveness. It is hard to believe that forgiveness is really free, so we punish ourselves. In his book, Gateways to God, Dmitri Bilgere writes about the “Mercy Exception.” The Mercy Exception is when you believe there is some part of you that is too terrible for God to love; and therefore, is an exception to God’s mercy. Here is what I have learned: we all have them. We all have mercy exceptions and they tend to be the parts or ourselves we don’t like.

So which comes first, being able to receive forgiveness from myself or forgiveness from God? I think it depends on the person, but my observation is that most people have a more difficult time forgiving themselves. The most transformational ministry I have ever been a part of is The Crucible Project (www.thecrucibleproject.org). A key part of this ministry is conducting men’s retreats. I help lead a few of these each year. Recently a pastor named Jim participated in one of these weekends. The very next Sunday after he went on a Crucible Project weekend he shared with his congregation about the forgiveness he was able to receive from himself on the retreat. He explained to the church how he and God were fine. He already received forgiveness from God, but he hadn’t received it from himself. He said, “I decided to let myself off of the mat. I am good enough. I do have what it takes. Does anyone else here need to let yourself off the mat?” Jim had been living with a Mercy Exception. He decided it was a horrible way to live and it was time live differently.

Why is forgiveness needed? When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, I believe a lie from Satan instead of a truth from God. When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, those parts are blocked off to God’s love. When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, I do not become the man God has created me to be.

The final step in loving yourself is… (surprise!)…LOVE. Once I’ve become aware of the parts of myself I don’t like and have accepted that they are truly part of me and have received forgiveness for keeping them hidden, then those parts can be open to be loved.

We, as humans, have a high propensity to adapt, cope and survive. One of the key ways we adapt, cope or survive is by hiding. In his book, Hiding From Love, Dr. John Townsend breaks down the different ways people hide internally and relationally. For most of us, these hiding mechanisms were put in place early on in our lives and most of the time, they were needed for protection. One of the problems is that we typically no longer need these ways of hiding as adults, yet we keep them in our lives because they had served us so well. Often times the hiding that served us so well is the very thing that keeps that part of ourselves from being loved.

For example, I have a friend who lost several loved ones in her life. Her mom, her aunt, her brother, her boyfriend – they all died through tragedy. She learned to hide (to protect herself) by keeping a relational distance to people she really liked. She was afraid they would literally die and she would experience the pain of losing them. This way of hiding may have allowed her to cope when she was younger; however, this hiding was getting in the way of her being able to have a close relationship and find a husband.

So when you bring the part of yourself that you don’t like out into the light, ask yourself this question, “What does that part of me really want?” Look past the behavior and underneath the hiding. What is that part longing for? There is a deep desire that is going unmet. Maybe that part never got the love and support it needed at a younger age.

Can you feel compassion for that part? What if the tables were turned and you saw someone else that needed love and support, how would you treat them? Now turn the tables back around. Can you bring love and support to that part of you in such a way that you can receive it?

Self-Facilitated Exercise

  1. Invite Jesus to join you in this exercise.
  2. Imagine yourself being the part that you don’t like about yourself.
  3. Take on the posture of that part. Now exaggerate that posture.
  4. Step out of that part by taking a couple of steps back as if to observe that part in that posture.
  5. As you observe the posture, look beyond the posture to the heart and ask yourself, “What does that part really want?”
  6. Imagine yourself going to that part to deliver the love and support he or she really needs.
    1. What are the words he or she need to hear?
    2. When you look into his/her heart, what do you see?
    3. Imagine yourself communicating the love and support physically (through a hug, or putting your arm around him or her, or through a simple touch).
  7. Now step back into the part you haven’t liked and imagine that love and support you gave now is pouring into you.
  8. Ask Jesus to reveal to you what He wants you to know about yourself and, in particular, this part of yourself you have kept hidden.

It is important for you to know that some of the parts of yourself you have labeled as “shameful,” “bad” or “evil” may actually be good, pure and beautiful. They are simply parts that have needed ACCEPTANCE, FORGIVENESS and LOVE.

Loving Yourself in 4 Hard Steps (Part 1 of 2)

By Barry Thomas

Several years ago I was reading Janet Hagberg’s book, The Critical Journey, and came upon the infamous chapter about The Wall. I have told Janet a few different times over the years there is one page in the middle of that chapter I wish she would expound on. Each time she has responded by saying, “Maybe that is the book you should consider writing.” I have thought about this over the years and I finally set a goal to write it. I have preached some of the content in a sermon series and now I am writing some of the content in this blog – one step closer to putting it in book form. In last week’s blog post I said that the second greatest commandment is to love yourself. This week I want to begin breaking that down into some steps.

When you think of loving yourself, what comes to mind? What does it look like for a person to love herself or himself? Here are some beliefs I have about loving yourself:

  1. There is more than one right way to love yourself.
  2. Loving yourself can come in all shapes and sizes.
  3. It can be as simple as treating yourself in some way: eating ice cream, taking a nap, etc.; and it can be as difficult as setting a boundary or letting go of an unhealthy behavior.

A difficult, yet transformational, way to love yourself is to look at the shadow parts – the parts of yourself that you hide and repress. These parts are not necessarily bad. We all have parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see. Either we don’t like those parts ourselves or we believe they won’t be accepted by other people (or both). For example, a woman may have a difficult time trusting others. Perhaps there was time earlier in her life when she was betrayed or hurt by someone she trusted. She decides, maybe even unconsciously, to hide the part of herself that trusts people. Other examples of parts a person can put in to shadow are: insecurities, weaknesses, sin (lust, unforgiveness, malice), shyness, sadness, depression – anything about herself she wants to keep hidden. These parts go into shadow when we hide them or ignore them. When they are in shadow, they are not accessible to love, but the truth is: they are still parts of us. What I am suggesting is that loving these shadow parts is a way of truly loving yourself – all of yourself.

As the title of this post suggests, there are steps to this way of loving and the steps are not easy. So here we go.

The first step to loving yourself is AWARENESS – becoming aware of the parts of yourself you hide and deny. How can you become aware of things you are hiding and denying if they are hidden and being denied? There is a general rule of thumb you can use to identify these parts. You’re not going to like it, but here it is. The things you don’t like about yourself tend to be the things you don’t like in other people. When you see a speck of dust in someone’s eye, there is a good chance there is a plank in your eye made of the very same material. If you spot it you got it.

Think of a recent time somebody drove you crazy. It could be someone close to you who got on your nerves or it could be someone you’ve never met who did something to upset you. What are your judgements of that person? Is he inconsiderate? Is she selfish? Is he stupid? Is she mean? Is he bad? Is she weak? Pay attention to the judgements. Once you identify your judgements of him or her, ask yourself: “How are those judgements about me?” In other words, where in your life are you inconsiderate or selfish or believe that you’re stupid or weak?

When you can do this, you begin to identify the parts of you you do not like. You become aware.

Once you become aware, then what do you do? The second step to loving yourself is ACCEPTANCE – accepting that these parts of you you don’t like are truly part of you. Freedom can be experienced when a person can stop hiding these parts and actually begin to accept them. This is counter-intuitive to our culture. We live in a world of air brushed models, cropped out pictures and Facebook lives (posting only what I want you to see). We are taught at an early age to not let the flaws show.

Accepting these parts is not an exercise in self-pity; nor is it meant to be used as an excuse for bad behavior and poor choices. When I begin to accept the parts of me that have not previously been accepted,

  • I can learn more about myself. These parts have something to offer me. What can I learn from them?
  • I start to get in touch with my brokenness. I learn that it’s okay to have flaws and for people to see them. As a result, I am aware of my need for Jesus.
  • I grow less dependent on the approval of others in order to feel good about myself.
  • I become a more authentic person.

For me, one of the parts that I denied about myself was the part that got angry. I learned early on in life that people get hurt by anger and believed all anger was bad. So when I would get angry I would stuff it. On the inside I could be angry with someone and on the outside be smiling and saying everything was fine. I denied anger so well that I didn’t even know I was angry. Through some personal work, I started giving myself permission to get angry – to feel it – not deny it. I started paying attention to my anger. I began noticing it. Then I realized people would get hurt when I didn’t express my anger. There were times when it needed to be out in front of me in order for me to stand up for me or my family. By accepting my anger I was able to feel and access my God-given power in anger.

Awareness and acceptance are the first two steps in this process of loving yourself. Next week we will look at the last 2 steps. In the meantime, read the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

  • What are some parts of yourself you wish you could change?
  • What are some parts of yourself you don’t think other people would like if they knew those parts of you?
  • Ask God to make you aware of what you hide and deny about yourself.
  • What parts of yourself are difficult for you to accept?
  • What is at risk for you to accept those parts?

The Second Greatest Commandment

by Barry Thomas

 

What is the second greatest commandment?

 

In Matthew 22, one of the experts of the Law asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Right before that in Matthew 21, Jesus was in the Temple courts and had a series of interactions with religious leaders: Pharisees, Sadducees, law experts and Herodians. It is easy for us sit in our armchairs some 2,000 years later and criticize these men. I think we owe a lot to the guys – really. These men kept trying to catch Jesus in a religious trap. In doing so, they asked Jesus some great questions. As a result, we get a lot of Jesus’ teachings where Jesus reveals His mission and His way of thinking. For example, we get questions like, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” (21:23); “Is it right to pay taxes?” (21:17); and we get teachings like the Parable of the Talents (21:33); The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:1) and the teaching that we will be angels in heaven (22:23). We may not have known these things without the religious leaders trying to trap Jesus. Like a chess match, they would make a move and Jesus would make a counter move. Finally they quit trying (23:46).

 

However, in this chess match we get this great passage of Scripture (Matthew 22:34-40). I think it’s humorous. In verse 34, the Sadducees get stumped. I can just imagine that when they all huddled up to try and figure out their next move, someone got the bright idea: “We’ve been trying to trap Jesus on the miniscule points of the law, let’s try the big picture approach.” They broke the huddle and the spokesperson stepped forward. “OK Jesus, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”

I’m not sure how the Sadducees expected this question to test Jesus. Maybe they were simply testing Jesus’ knowledge of the Scriptures, but I don’t think so because Jesus’ knowledge of the Scriptures was well known. Perhaps they expected Jesus to pick one of the Mosaic Laws and the law expert would give a rebuttal to whichever law Jesus picked. If Jesus picked “honor your father and mother” the rebuttal would have been “What about keeping the Sabbath?”. There were over 600 Jewish laws with over 1,000 applications of those laws. This expert was probably ready to pick apart Jesus’ answer regardless of what it was.

 

Which law did Jesus select? The Shemah. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” Jesus gave the one answer that could not be refuted. They were all in agreement for perhaps the only time in Jesus’ ministry. And Jesus continued, “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

So what can we learn from this encounter?

 

First of all, it’s all about love. A spiritual mentor of mine was known for saying this. Not only did she say it, she believed it and she lived it. She was able to show me what it looks like for nothing else to really matter. When she said “it”, she meant everything – relationships, religion, life, creation…everything. It’s NOT about being good, not being bad, Bible knowledge, pleasing God, happiness or obedience. When I began to believe this myself, everything changed. It especially changed my ministry. As a minister on staff at a church, my job was to provide opportunities and create environments for people to experience God’s love. PERIOD! All of the Bible classes, Bible studies, worship, preaching, fellowship, prayer, etc. should lead to experiencing God’s love. If it doesn’t lead to experiencing God’s love, then don’t do it!

 

Second, love is the greatest. Jesus said this is the greatest commandment. The apostle Paul reinforced Jesus’ teaching. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes about showing the most excellent way and then describes the importance of love and ends up declaring that love is even greater than faith and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). Scripture goes on to tell us that love is greater than my circumstances (Romans 8:35, 38-39); love is greater than my fear (1 John 4:18); and love is greater than my sin (Romans 5:8).

 

Finally, did you notice what the second greatest commandment is? Most people say that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. They read “as yourself” as the fine print. Here is what I believe to be true: The extent to which I learn to love myself is the extent to which I am capable of loving others. In other words, the more I learn to love myself, the more I am able to truly love others. Therefore, I believe that the second greatest commandment is to love yourself.

 

As a perfectionist, I don’t like to make mistakes. It’s not the mistake itself that’s the issue. It’s the exposure I feel when I “get caught” – when my mistakes are noticeable to other people. I used to beat myself up when this happened. The self-contempt was malicious: “You are stupid! You should know better than that!” The messages would play in my head and I would want to hide.

 

Over time I have learned to give myself grace. I have learned to drop the unrealistic expectations I have of myself and love myself for who I am. In doing so, I have learned to be less critical of and more compassionate towards others.

 

 

  • Why is loving yourself important?
  • When is loving yourself selfish? Dangerous?
  • What characteristics in other people drive you crazy?
  • What parts of yourself do find difficult to love?
  • What can you do this week to love those parts of you?

 

Barry Thomas Bio

 

God’s calling on Barry’s life is two-fold: to develop Godly leaders and to help people grow spiritually. He currently works as a Senior Operations Engineer for Concho Oil and Gas in Midland, Texas. He spent a 13-year career in full-time ministry working at churches in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Midland. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Petroleum Engineering from Colorado School of Mines and a Master of Divinity degree from Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the director of Transformation Ministries and is President of the Board of Directors for The Crucible Project (www.thecrucibleproject.org).

 

He has been married to his beautiful wife, Lori since 1989. They have two fabulous kids: Caleb and Hannah, who are both students at Colorado School of Mines. He enjoys spending time with his family and playing sports including basketball, softball, golf and rugby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Subscribers,

I am so grateful that you continue to stay with me on this inner journey. It is quite a worthwhile, risky, and adventurous journey. Breathe slowly and let’s go!

I have some exciting news and a prayer request. The news is that I have two new guest bloggers who will give you their take on the world for several months, interspersed with my essays. They are Barry Thomas and Chelsea Forbrook. Barry is today’s blogger. His bio is at the end of his piece, but just to let you know, he has an interesting life and work and his deepest volunteer commitment is working with men who are keen on healing their inner wounds.

And Chelsea Forbrook is my other guest blogger. She’s an amazing young woman who has had more life experience than most people twice her age. She will share her views on life from the millennial view point. Hold on to your seats.

The prayer request is for one of my recent guest bloggers, Michael Bischoff, who is a dear friend and “adopted” son of mine. At the tender age of 45 he was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was successfully removed. However it was malignant so the rounds of chemo and radiation are next. Please keep him and his family (wife Jenny, son Isaiah, daughter Grace) in your daily prayers. Send love and light his way. He is feeling very close to God and is navigating this journey with grace and resolve. And he’s on Caring Bridge if you care to follow his story.

I am grateful beyond measure for all three of these vital people. So absorb their gifts to you.

Janet

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