Fit For The Challenge

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I can remember the day Guide Dogs for the Blind decided to no longer use German Shepherds in their program. I was a little bummed. They are beautiful creatures and I had hoped to one day raise one. But it was determined that it was no longer worthwhile to the school, the clients, and the puppy raisers to continue training German Shepherds as guides. The reason for their being dropped from our program was described to me in how they observe and take in the world around them. When walking down the street with a German Shepherd, one notices how much of their environment they soak in and react to. For instance, let us say that you notice police activity in the distance about two blocks ahead. Some German Shepherds would begin to show signs of stress and/or fear even though they are not yet close to the source of the issue. Labrador Retrievers on the other hand live in about a five foot diameter circle. If there is stress or fear within that sphere they are likely to react to it, but anything outside of that parameter is of no concern.

They live in the moment.

Shepherds (bless their little hearts) take it all in, what is behind, in front, and to the sides like a little sponge soaking in whatever emotion anyone else may be feeling or going through. This is not to say that all Shepherds are terrible guides, or that all Labrador Retrievers never struggle with stress. Some Shepherds love to guide and are not bothered by their surroundings and some Labradors cannot handle stress very well. However, a majority of Shepherds just didn’t make the cut, and it was no longer worthwhile to continue a program that wasn’t working as effectively as the program with the Labradors and Goldens.

I have often thought about this decision in regards to my own life, and the lives of those I care about. As the Shepherds were pulled from their service, I wondered if I too might be pulled from ministry, service, or the ability to make a difference in the community because of my anxiety level – because of how I reacted to the environment around me. I wondered why those I cared about would often balk at the face of adversity or trials, running the other way, instead of standing firm amidst the trial and coming through it on the other side.

This is a topic I have thought long and hard about. I have pulled resources to help me understand it better. I have prayed for exactly the right words to say to try and bring this reality to light, and encourage those to courageously press on amidst the difficulties in their life. I will admit, as I began to process this dilemma, my immediate response was anger and frustration towards those that would rather throw in the towel than stick it through. I have really tried to sympathize with your feelings and try to understand why you might resort to this course of action. I want this post to challenge you, not belittle you. Because on any given day, I am prone to the exact same response. So I hope the following words are encouraging. This is a topic I have come to find I am extremely passionate about. It is my prayer that it is a humble passion, igniting a fire of revival and bravery that I have not seen in many believers (including myself) for some time.

Take Up Your Cross

My first thought regarding this topic immediately wants to quench any thought of using “Christianity” as a shield against difficulties. To those who have tried to force themselves to believe this to be true, let me tell you, you have been grossly misinformed. If Jesus Christ – God in the flesh – had to endure much trial and suffering, how much more might we have to encounter and endure? He repeatedly told His followers, as well as those who desired to follow Him, that they needed to take up their cross and leave all behind in order to follow Him. Sadly, Scripture recounts that many could not meet that first requirement and left disheartened.

Here in America, we Christians really have no idea what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. There may come a time very soon where we will, and I don’t think we are ready. Sure, we may pray for and petition for the freedom of those enslaved or persecuted for their belief, but that is about as strong of a stance we take. The next morning when we wake up and purchase our Trenta-sized Starbucks coffee and find ourselves in a conversation with a fellow customer about the growing evil in our world, we hold our tongue for fear of retaliation instead of sharing the gospel message. Like Peter, we all too easily hold up our white flag of surrender and deny Christ before others. Whether it is an open denial in which we verbally agree with our societies view of the acceptance of sinful behavior, or the secret denial of quietly not speaking up when others make fun of our Lord and have misinterpreted why our society seems to be getting worse; it is still a denial of the commitment we have made before our Creator.

Heroism

We as humans have a natural desire to look up to heroes. To witness an act of heroism is not something seen everyday, so we’ve invented superheros who save the world from destruction and evil powers. Even the bible dedicates a whole chapter in the book of Hebrews to those who many would call heroes. We look up to and want to be like these individuals. Do we really understand though exactly what they go through to receive the honor of the title of “hero”? A hero is never born by laying on the beach getting a nice tan. A hero is born through overcoming a seemingly impossible circumstance that effects many others. You see, true heroism is the ability to stand amidst the struggle and overcome – not by standing beside it. Each of the individuals described in the “hall of faith” in the book of Hebrews went through much trial and suffering. Their faith was born not in the escape of pain, but in the enduring of it.

I think each of us can name one person in our lives who embodies these characteristics. They are not just another Christian. They are an extraordinary Christian! They are the ones who cry out “Bring it on!” when the trial begins and are willingly crushed for the sake of the gospel of Christ. They are not rich according to the standards of the world – in fact many of them are unknown – and yet secretly we want to be like them, because they are so different from anyone else we have ever met! They are the ones who come out of their trials rejoicing that they were so crushed in body and spirit that nothing could possibly crush them more – because they overcame! They fight not for the immediate release of pain, but for the prize awaiting them on the other side of the trial.

Our world may laugh and mock them just like they did our Lord many years ago. But deep down, the world is looking – no, longing – for someone like this. Longing for someone who is fit for the challenge to overcome trials. Ultimately, they long for the void to be filled where only Christ can fill, but I believe that sometimes He allows that longing to first be recognized by witnessing first-hand one who has endured a trial and has made it to the other side. There is no denying the one that has overcome is bruised and battered; that there are scars they will carry for the rest of their lives as a result of the trial; but if we’re all honest, we’d recognize that none of us leave this world unscarred. I recently read a blog that stated, “Where there is intensity, there is history.” This is so true, and we all know it. Only the struggles and events of overcoming obstacles make it into the new editions of our history books.

Fit For The Challenge

I used to feel relief knowing that my life is thankfully not as structured as a guide dog. The idea of having a one track option in life that I could possibly fail is pretty stressful. But the more I thought about it, the Christian life is a lot like that. Not that I could fail somehow and “fall out of grace” so to speak, but there is a sense of a limited number of people that get to enter into the joy of the Master. It is not a wide gate into eternity, but a narrow one – like threading a camel into an eye of a needle. Scripture talks about how few will actually get to enter into eternal life. What we do here during the limited time we have on earth really does make an impact for eternity. So it begs the question of what exactly are we doing here on earth that will have an impact for all eternity?

The whole idea of being “fit for a challenge” does not suggest a way around the challenge. To be fit for it, one must be practicing to go through it – subjugating one’s mind and body to be ready to face whatever may be ahead. I hope I am driving this point home. This means: submitting yourself, denying yourself, and pushing through the pain, all to be prepared for whatever the challenge may bring. We eagerly drive ourselves to the gym and limit our diets so we can have the toned body we’ve always wanted, but the moment our Lord brings us a trial, we run for the hills, begging Him to please remove the suffering we find ourselves faced with. We pray that the Lord may remove our trial instead of asking Him to give us a stronger will to endure it!

The Tenderness of our Heavenly Father

At this point you may be grateful you did not sign up for this Christianity thing, because obviously it sounds way more challenging than you expected. It is just further proof that the Christian life consists of psychotic self-mutilation and worship of an angry God who pours wrath on people that don’t even deserve it. I honestly think this is one of the biggest misconceptions of the Christian life. It is difficult to explain spiritual things to those whose hearts are hardened, but I will try. The beauty and ability to endure trials is only possible through the power of our God who has promised to never leave or forsake us. Even in those moments when we don’t feel Him at work, we know He is still there – like knowing the light switch is in the room even if we can’t see it because of the darkness surrounding us. The trials we all face don’t just grow us or to show us how strong we really are. They are also an opportunity to realize just how much our Heavenly Father cares for us. If we were able to limit God to our finite understanding, I think we would see Him as a small business owner working in the industry of brokenness. He loves to take the shameful, broken, and outcast of this world, and turn them into something beautiful. Remember, our Creator made the sun and the rain. He didn’t say “Oopsie!” when the rain suddenly poured out on the earth. He called it just as good as the sun that brightens our days. If our days were all sunshine, we would never grow in the downpour of the rain that nourishes, nor would we understand the meaning of the word “comfort” during difficulty. We would never feel the warmth of being wrapped up in His love like we get to experience on a cold and rainy day wrapped up in our warm homes and blankets, safe from the elements. No, Non-Christians are really the ones to be pitied. Their life is the shallow one, purely based on the impulse of the moment, versus the profound that looks beyond all circumstances and does not rest until the dawn of a new day has appeared, bringing rest and victory.

Conclusion

Romans 8:37 says, “…in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” I just love this verse. At the end of our race and battle against the flesh, when our Heavenly Father tells us “Well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master” we will be more than just conquerors. The word “conquer” is a conjunction of two words: con – meaning “with” and quaerer – meaning “to seek, strive, endeavor, ask, require, demand”.  This verse tells us we are more than just a conqueror. How cool to know that heaven will not be divided between those who conquered and those who barely made it in. We will all be conquerors, but as if that wasn’t enough, we will all be more than conquerors because of the incredible work and sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for our behalf – because He loves us so much!! I think this is important to consider in light of this topic. Everyone’s cross to bear on this earth will be uniquely different. For one person to bear their cross will mean only having to sacrifice one thing for the sake of the gospel; for another, it will mean having to sacrifice their whole life for the same reason. This does not lessen or increase the “worthiness” of either person’s life – but just shows how we are all grown and tested in uniquely sovereign ways that our Heavenly Father has pre-ordained for us to endure before the foundations of the world were even laid. This means that both the “ordinary life” and the “extraordinary life” according to our world’s standards are both equally precious to our Father, as well as how well of a steward we were in those circumstances.

The picture at the top of this blog beautifully describes this struggle to live fit for the challenge despite our fleshly weakness to actually put that desire into action. The studly dog in the picture is the first puppy I raised with Guide Dogs for the Blind. He is now retired from guiding and my forever pet. His personality can be summed up in one word: lazy. One day my brother thought it would be funny to outfit him in full workout attire and place a dumbbell at his feet like he was about to work out. I think his expression says it all. Mr. Tweed would never be caught working out. Tweed is anything but fit for the challenge, even if his attire screams otherwise. Are we Christians like that? We may very well look the part, but our expressions and actions just may very well scream the exact opposite.

I feel like I have said more than enough to last for years regarding this topic. I applaud you if you have made it this far, lol! You get a gold star!

I will just leave you with some profound words from others who I think have said the same thing, in a much more condensed form, and so much more eloquently than I have. I hope they impact you as much as they have me.

“…let me tell you, dear ones, the things that cause us to be sanctified (to be set apart, to be made holy) aren’t typically the fun, easy, or exciting things. More often than not, they are the hard, painful, grievous things.” – Heidi “Do You REALLY Want God’s Will?” fast.pray blog article

“Above all let us pray that our own Christianity may at any rate be genuine, real, sincere, and true. Our faith may be feeble, our hope dim, our knowledge small, our failures frequent, our faults many. But at all events let it be real and true. Le us be able to say with the poor, weak, and erring Peter, ‘Thou Lord who knows all things, knows that I love Thee'” – J.C. Ryle

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Freedom In Restriction

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Talk to anyone who is not a Christian, and they would probably say that we are crazy. The bible tells us that the world thinks we are fools, but I’m not even sure that that is a strong enough word. We are probably more like psychopaths to them. No wonder, because everything that we think, say, and do, is SO contrary to the world. It’s like we’re from different planets, and yet somehow both stuck in the present on this planet together for an undisclosed period of time.

How are we so different? Well, let’s just look at one minor example of what are views are on “freedom”. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of this word? I don’t know about you, but for me the United States of America comes to mind. We are a country, a people, a culture, that screams, lives, eats, breathes, gives our lives for, and fights for freedom like no other people I have ever learned about in history. If it weren’t enough to declare a land of freedom for its citizens, we also fight around the globe for others to experience the reality of the ideal of a life of freedom. You can expect persecution, the loss of a job, restricted rights, and a whole list of other punishments should you choose to impose on the freedom of another, or restrict their right to do whatever they like. Freedom tells me I can drive however fast I want on the freeway, and can sue whoever dares to cut me off and causes my speed to go below 75 mph. In contrast, a Christian understands the concept of laying down our rights for the benefit of another, and the glorification of our Father in heaven. A Christian desires to drive within the safe speeding limits set forth on our freeways, willingly lets others merge in front of them, and is not bothered by the fact that they are now driving very slowly behind a car just cruising along. The bible is filled with such commands for us like: submit to leaders, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and lay down your life. The battle Americans wage everyday for the fight for the right to freedom for themselves and others is vastly different from the battle Christians wage everyday with their flesh to give up their rights and count another as better, and greater than themselves. These two lifestyles could not butt heads any harder.

I used to think that it would be impossible to explain to someone why I choose to wage a battle with my flesh every day to lay down my rights. But the Lord was gracious to give me a little glimpse of what that is like. Where did I find this example? I had to look no further than the piercing glances from a four-legged creature eagerly waiting for me to finish this post with a wagging tail so I could focus on her. That’s right; my guide dog puppies have shown me how to exhibit such joy in the midst of a restricted lifestyle.

This idea dawned on me one day after I called one of my pups back inside the house from exploring and romping around loose in my backyard. In that moment, they are about as free as they ever could be. Sure I am monitoring their behavior to make sure they don’t inhale every stick and stone, plant and flower in my backyard. But they are off leash, running sometimes at 100 mph like a race car on a track, as free as a bird. As much as my pups enjoy spending time being “dogs” in my backyard, the moment I bring out the leash, call them back to me, and we head back inside to get ready to run some errands, they run even faster back into my arms then they did roaming free on their own. Their tail wags even faster when I clip my leash on their collar, restricting their freedom to do what they wanted. In that moment I realized, my guide dog puppies in training would rather spend a day of “restriction” with me, then spend the whole day running around loose and free in the backyard on their own. This trait is a mark of a guide dog. Some pups could care less and run away when the leash comes out to restrain them, but those dogs usually don’t end up with a lifelong career as a guide.

The rest of that day, I spent contemplating how I react to the restriction of my freedom and my rights. Am I ecstatic like my pup when the leash of restraint comes out, or do I run the other direction dreading the loss of my freedom? Would I rather relinquish all my freedom and my dreams to God and spend time by His side, or run around on my own doing my own thing?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we will realize that the freedom we fight for can never be attained. You see, we are all slaves to something. Despite what you might think, even in the United States, slavery has not been eradicated. Whether someone is forcefully enslaved by human trafficking, an alcohol addiction, or a slave of righteousness, no one is free. We may be striving for freedom, but none of us have it. In the bible, the apostle Paul spoke to such individuals in Rome who though they understood they were great sinners; that Christ is a great Savior; and that their freedom in Christ and His unending grace was all-sufficient for them; they assumed they could then live a life completely free from all restriction. The apostle Paul’s response to them is classic. In Romans chapter 6 beginning in verse 15, I can just imagine Paul yelling with force at the top of his lungs as he exclaims, “May it never be!”. The remainder of that chapter is an explanation of why Paul felt so strongly about this topic.

I can remember when I competed in debate tournaments in high school, there was always that one debater whose value to support his or her idea in their case was the word “freedom”. Those rounds never went well for either the debaters or the judges. They usually resulted in a confusing topic of anarchy vs. freedom with restriction. I even fell into that trap once, but repented of my sin, and vowed never to have the value of freedom again in any of my cases. Syndrome in the Disney/Pixar animated film “The Incredibles” has a line in the movie that has stuck with me since I first watched it. He states, “When everyone is super, no one will be.” Since hearing that line, I have often replaced the word “super” with other words, and they fit just as well. The word freedom fits in their nicely too. Because when everyone is free, no one will be. I believe we are getting more glimpses as to exactly what this looks like in our society.

No one can be free, because everyone is a slave to something. When people think they have attained freedom, they are actually putting a restraint on something else in order to feel that way. Freedom is a tug-of-war reality that constantly gives and takes in order to attain.

I don’t expect everyone to believe the things I have written here. If you are not a slave to Christ, what I have just written will sound psychotic to you, because the Lord has not allowed you to see the foolish things the Christian culture believes and acts upon, with eyes born again in Him. I just felt a strong urge to share another beautiful example of the impact these precious pups have had on my life. They have not only made me a better person, they have left deep spiritual examples to me about different things that relate to my submission to my Lord Jesus Christ.

Stay!!

Over the past seven years since I joined a local Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy raising group, I have had the incredible opportunity to learn so many things from how to train a dog, to the more intricate life lessons that come my way teaching me anything from patience, contentment, and everything in-between. I am really excited about starting up this series of blogs on the impact being a puppy raiser has been in my life through learning important life lessons. I thought it fitting to post my first blog in this series this week as I celebrate the first birthday of my fifth puppy I am currently training. I am sure there will be many more lessons I learn throughout the coming months and years, and I look forward to sharing those experiences with you all too!

Anybody who has spent any amount of time with me knows that I am a go-getter. If a task needs to get done, I will be the first to raise my hand and offer to complete the task, or even take the initiative and just do it without a prompt. I am also the oldest of three siblings, so naturally I was taught (and learned from experience) that I need to lead by example in front of my siblings, as well as be the leader of our little Three Musketeers pack. I am sure I owe a lot of this trait to the diligent training of my parents who taught us from a very young age to joyfully and completely finish tasks that need to get done, and take the initiative to also start and complete tasks on our own. Saying the phrase “I’m bored” in our home was practically the equivalent to using foul language, and I learned very quickly that there is never a time to be bored, and that if I didn’t keep myself busy with either work or play, mom was sure to always find something productive for me to do.

This character trait engrained in me from a young age has also been hard to juggle as I have gotten older. As someone who always takes the initiative, I have learned that I also usually gets stuck doing a majority of the projects that need to get done because I am either the first to sign up for them, or others have learned to not speak up and take on the task because they know I will offer to complete it myself. There is also an increased stress level of taking on too many things (even if they are good and godly!) that stretch me too thin. Learning to let go, to say “no”, and to let others handle things differently than I could have has been a huge learning process that I won’t pretend I’ve mastered yet *wink*

Because of my go-getter personality, my worst nightmare is getting a cold that knocks me out from doing work for upwards of a week or more. I go from spending the day at work and coming home to help with chores and running errands and working on projects for church, etc., to barely having the strength to move around in my bed. I am literally good for nothing when I am sick, and it drives me crazy!! I have had to learn that sometimes it is okay to be knocked out of production so we can rest, because God initiated a day of rest after the sixth day of creation and blessed it.

One of the most important commands I teach each of my puppies I train with Guide Dogs, is the “stay” command. This command is different from the “wait” command. “Wait” is an in-between command that requires the dog to pause momentarily and listen for what I am about to ask next. It is also used before a release such as during meal time, play time, and getting out of the car. When I ask my puppy to “wait” I am always next to them. “Stay” on the other hand requires much more self-control on the puppy’s part because it requires me as the raiser to physically leave the presence of the puppy for a short amount of time. This as I mentioned not only teaches the puppy self-control, but patience, and trust in my return as well. This training almost always requires another person to help enforce, and is reinforced through a game of “hide-and-seek” to make it fun for the dog. Out of the five puppies I have personally raised, and the many others I have “puppysat”, each puppy progressed through this command at different rates – but all struggled with it. One of my pups in particular, a beautiful white labrador retriever named Valisa, really struggled in this area for a while. She would literally cry when I left the room, even if it was just to grab something from another room really quickly. She loved shadowing me everywhere, and the moment I told her to stay I might as well have told her I had died.

It was during one of these training exercises that I had what you might call a “lightbulb moment”, although I believe in “lightbulb moments” about as much as I believe in luck. What really happened was the Holy Spirit gently and quietly began telling me some observations about myself. Any follower of Jesus Christ can testify to a time in their life where the Lord was either silent on a matter, or His answer was for them to be still and wait on Him. How often do I cry out to the Lord begging Him to show me what to do next when I know all along that His answer is for me to stay exactly where I am? Why can I not trust that when He says “stay”, it is the best for me and He always returns, just like I do with my dogs!

I read a devotional one time that I thought not only perfectly described my dilemma when the Lord asked me to stay, but also clearly explained why staying was His best not only for me, but the best way for His glory to be displayed. The poem in the devotional written by an unknown author states,

I’ll stay where You’ve put me; I will, dear Lord,

Though I wanted so badly to go;

I was eager to march with the “rank and file,”

Yes, I wanted to lead them, You know.

I planned to keep step to the music loud,

To cheer when the banner unfurled,

To stand in the midst of the fight straight and proud,

But I’ll stay where You’ve put me.

I’ll stay where You’ve put me, I will, dear Lord;

I’ll bear the day’s burden and heat,

Always trusting Thee fully…

And then, when my earth work is ended and done,

In the light of eternity’s glow,

Life’s record all closed, I surely shall find

It was better to stay then to go;

I’ll stay where You’ve put me.

Sometimes, I even correlate movement as getting closer to God, but unless the Lord decides to carry me through a difficult time, or if His response is not to “go”, then I am to “stay”. Oh that I could learn to trust my Savior in matters of coming and going, like my pups learn to trust and obey me when I have them stay and they patiently wait for my return!

As a go-getter, it has been a struggle re-training myself that sometimes my greatest work and my greatest exhibition of strength and bravery is actually in the joyful and patient stillness in waiting for my Savior to show me what’s next. My prayer is that others see that strength in my patience while I wait on the Lord to work. Not a strength by any means of my own power, but a power given by the help of the Holy Spirit that leads others to see Him in all His glory.