3 Ways to Possess What Jesus Came to Bring

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He came to endure the cup of suffering, so to us it could be the cup of life.

This morning I awoke 2 hours before the alarm sounded.  I began thinking about Jesus and the season of advent.  I started paging through my Bible and found a couple of verses that made me appreciate Jesus even more.  And it made me meditate on whether I am enjoying all He has done.

Check these out:

Philippians 2:7 ‘[Jesus]…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

and

Galatians 4:5 “[God sent Jesus]… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Note: Let me try to remove a stumbling block before I go forward.  “Adoption as sons” in that day meant that men and women were given the place and privilege of the son that would inherit all of Dad’s stuff.  So, instead of relegating women to an inferior status, the promise lifts all of us to equal footing in our relationship with Christ.

In reading these two verses together, we see the means and the meaning of Jesus’ coming.

THE SON BECAME A SERVANT, SO THE SERVANTS COULD BECOME SONS.

I love that line!  Sit on it for a bit.  What is the difference between a servant and a son (or child with full status)?  Servants are humiliated, their lives are sacrifices, their lot is suffering. Children belong, their hope is inheritance, and in the household they are free.

What a wonderful gift, that the Son of God would become the servant, so we could become real children in the household of God.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me wonder why I’m not aware of this gift more often?  How is it I feel more like a slave?  I feel like I don’t belong.  I often feel like I’m just trying to get it right so God will like me.  How do we move from the slave-life, to the life as His child?

  1. Don’t live at a distance from God.  Come to him.  Trust in what Christ did for me, for the world – everyday!  Turn, repent, confess, call, trust, pray, listen, follow.  In other words, reorient your thoughts and ways around Him.
  2. Be lifted by the hope he gives.  The kingdom is yours in Christ.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:5).  It IS! Not, it will be.  It belongs to you, if you belong to Christ.
  3. Don’t ensnare yourself again to the things that want to keep you enslaved.  Steer away, let go, run from the demands, and the expectations, and the empty promises of the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus came, humiliating himself.  He served our needs.  He opened the door.  He called us to follow.  Embrace Him and the life He gives.  The Son became a servant, so the servants (like you and me) can become sons.

As always, thanks for reading, liking, commenting and sharing!  And please take a moment and become a subscriber at the upper left.

5 Things That Make It Possible to Give Hard Thanks

DSC_0088Around the thanksgiving table, many people have the tradition of telling something we are thankful for.  It doesn’t take long to think of a few quick answers.  Family, the food on the table, sunshine, good health, are replies that usually show up around the table with a lot of frequency. But there are always things in our lives that we just don’t want to give thanks for.  These are the disrupters.  They are the things that have created chaos, questions, and discomfort.  This is the hard thanks to give, but give it, we can and should.

I received an email from a fellow follower of Jesus.  She had read my book, “Transformed Pain” and was struggling to accept how God was currently working in her life. As a young Mom, she is burdened with a severe, life-changing health condition.  She’s been praying and she hoped that God would have given her healing and this thing would be gone by now.  The doctors have given her little hope that this would happen.  She asked me what Scripture might help her find a renewed joy in the Lord.

My heart aches for her. I can’t imagine the pain of what she’s going through. After some reflection, this was my reply: “The Scriptural example that I thought of was God’s people Israel, in the wilderness.  And day after day, for 40 years, they gathered and ate manna.  It was a tasteless food.  Every meal was a reminder of what they had known (leeks and onions by the Nile).  I imagine, with every meal the idea of family dinners lost their attraction as their tastebuds were dying a slow death from lack of use.

They complained.  They longed.  They asked for relief.  They demanded relief. Except for one instance of judgment, God gave them no relief.  Until they reached their spiritual and physical destination.

They felt like the manna was killing them.  It wasn’t.  It was the thing God gave them to keep them alive.  It was sustaining them through the roughest journey anyone could have.  Manna wasn’t a curse, it was a blessing.  It just wasn’t the blessing they wanted.  The manna was a reminder that this wasn’t the promised land.  Our pain reminds us that this is a time of redemption, not a time of restoration.  Restoration is to come.  But until then, God is working His plan of redemption through us – even through our suffering.”

We all have things God has brought into our lives that we would rather not have. Instead of giving thanks, we would rather just ignore it, put up with it, or even fight against it. How can we experience gratitude for the hard things?  Here are a few things that might help us give hard thanks.

  1. Keep the big story in mind.  Like everyday fits into a season of the year, your life fits into the movements of history. We should expect hot days in summer and cold days in winter. We should also expect hard times in this part of God’s story. This is a wilderness world. We are traveling toward a promised land. In the wilderness, we learn, struggle, hope, and follow. We find joy in the God who is leading us toward His future.
  2. Embrace Christ as the Author of your story. Every good story has twists, turns, tensions, movement and meaning. The wilderness was filled with this and it’s a great story for the annuls of history. This is what Jesus, as the author and finisher of your faith, is writing in you.  Yours is a story that people will read for eternity.  It won’t be boring because of what God has done in and through you.
  3. See grace everywhere. Think of grace and gift as synonyms. I hate taking pills, I take 9 per day.  I hate kale, I eat it with my breakfast each morning. With my health challenges, these things are my manna. They are gifts of God’s grace. Even our challenges are gifts of God’s grace because they are the avenues by which we experience God and his transforming love.
  4. Long for Presence over circumstance. We were created to live in the presence of God.  Christ makes it possible. In the wilderness God came in a cloud and pillar of fire.  It was his presence with the people. If the choice is manna and God’s presence, or culinary delicacies and distance from God, choose manna! Prefer God’s presence over easier times.
  5. Say it aloud. Tell God, tell others your thanks.  It is true that our hearts shape our actions. But it is also true that our actions shape and reinforce our beliefs and thoughts. Think of a hard thing in your life. Reflect and recount how you’ve seen God working in that. How has it taught you about life, forgiveness, redemption, endurance, faith, people, yourself, God’s ways? Say “thank you.” Use the comment section of this blog!

In no way do I minimize the pain of hard times. But without thanksgiving, we can easily slide into resentment, bitterness and anger. We drift from the One who is with us. We let go of the One who loves us in the wilderness. There is nothing wrong with giving God easy thanks. But let’s not neglect the hard thanks.

In the comments, I’d be encouraged to read your “hard thanks.”

As always, thank you for being a reader of my Onward and Upward blog.  Feel free to comment, share and subscribe by email above.

It Might Be Time to Stop Learning Lessons

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Have you ever experienced some difficulty in your life and one of your first thoughts is, there must be a lesson I’m supposed to learn?  Often we think that God brings calamity, or allows it – depending on your theology – for the purpose of teaching us something.  The hope is that once we learn it, everything will find resolution.  The problem will be conquered and we will walk away as better people for it.  Once this all happens, we will celebrate and say, “Thank you God, for bringing something good out of all this hard stuff.”  If all goes well, we will have a story to tell others, we may write blogs, or even craft books about the lesson we learned and how it changed our life.

But what if there is no resolution? What if the pain is persistent? We are left alone questioning the justice and mercy of God, or at the least questioning our connection to Him.  There must be something wrong with God, or us. Either the lesson can’t be learned, or I am just not getting it.

Look at this passage a bit with me.  This is one of my favorite passages to hate.  Hate may be too strong a word…  let’s read.  “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)

Paul seems to be talking about some physical burden he endured.  It played a significant role in his life.  It kept him humbled before God.  We see that he asked God three times to remove it.  Then Jesus spoke those famous words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This sounds like a lesson Paul needed to learn.  It sounds like a lesson we all need to learn.  At least that’s how I’ve preached it before.

And he learned it.  All was well, we assume.  But wait.  All was not well.  There is no relief!  There is no indication in this passage, or any other that God removed this from him.  God doesn’t say, “Now that you’ve learned your lesson, I’ll make you whole again.”  The thorn, pain, limitation didn’t go away.  God didn’t give healing.  What did happen is that Paul stopped asking.  And it seems the hardships kept coming. He lists them: weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities.  Why?  Because Christ wasn’t inviting Paul to learn a lesson!  He invited Paul to a life!

Faith in Christ is not a list of lessons to learn.  Faith in Christ is an invitation to life with Him.  Paul, in his weakness wasn’t being taught about the power of Christ in weakness.  He was being encouraged to live in the power of Christ in His weakness.  When we understand this is the invitation we are given, the permanence of our weakness becomes irrelevant.  Real resolution is found when we live the life Christ provides to us through His presence, grace and strength.  Faith is not a problem-solution formula that allows us to live our best life now.  Faith is a response to an invitation by the God of Creation, the Savior of the World, the Lord of God’s Kingdom; to truly live with Him and in Him.

Next time you are tempted to try and figure out the lesson God wants you to learn, instead ask Him to give you a clearer understanding of the life He’s inviting you to live with Him.  When we do that, our pains and difficulties stop feeling like punishments and they instead become invitations to know what life with Christ means.

As always, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

NOTE:  And don’t forget to subscribe!  I’ve begun working on a new book about the journey with Christ through hard times and how that forms us.  I want to involve all those who subscribe to my blog through email.  So, don’t be left out!  Subscribe and let’s do this together! – Blessings, Jim

 

You are God’s Beautiful Boys and Girls

beautiful-boy-film-chalamet-carell.pngLast Saturday, my son and I went to see the movie “Beautiful Boy.”  I wasn’t sure what I would experience, though I was pretty sure it was going to be a heavy movie.  It was.  When the movie ended, the place was silent except for a few sniffles here and there.  It is a story of addiction.  And it doesn’t end in a fake, movie-like, happily every after way.  It is based on a true story, written by David Sheff.  It shows the pain and process of loving a kid with addictions.  As I sat there, I found myself feeling pain for those I know who have had children and siblings struggling with the horrors of addiction.

There was one line that stuck out to me.  It was said during a scene at an Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group session.  When the kid said his addiction was a disease, he was corrected by the group as they recited together something like, “Addiction isn’t the disease, but my way of treating the disease.”  In essence they were saying that the path to addiction begins because there is something else wrong on the inside.  This is profound.  As long as we treat the symptom without dealing with the issue, we will miss the cure.

This week I was visiting with a parent who said his 16 year old announced to him that she thinks she is transexual. Like most of us parents would be, he was floored.  His little girl, who he thought he knew was having doubts about the very essence of her identity.  And he didn’t know how to respond, or what to do next.  Is this another case where culture has pointed our kids to a solution that misses the problem altogether?  Is it another way of treating what is the real issue and do we run the danger of missing the cure?

These issues aren’t just for the young.  I’ve spoken to adults that have jumped from one spouse to another, to another.  They repeat the pattern all the while trying to treat their unhappiness, their frustrations, their anger. And they end up taking their unchanged self into the next relationship hoping this time they’ve found the answer.  But again, they’ve been misdiagnosed and the real cure eludes them.

Some of us do this with pills.  Some of us do this with career moves.  Some of us do it with porn.  Some of us do it with sexuality. Some of us do this with out-of-contol emotions.  Some of us do this with a new commitment to a new morality.  This is so engrained in us that pastors can even do this with ministry. It is the common human approach to finding the cure to our ache, our loneliness, our identity questions, our search for belonging and meaning.  We keep buying into the misdiagnosis and the next fake cure.

What is our disease?  Our disease is that we have left the only One (or keep leaving the One) who knows us to our core and loves us.  Our disease is that we keep trying to fabricate lives with things that can’t bear the weight of eternity.  Our disease is a pride that says, “We’ve got this.” when our lives tell a different story.  Our disease is living in independence from the One who made us with the potential of eternity and deep fellowship with the Divine.

If this is our disease, what is our cure?  Hear and embrace this…

  1. We are created in the image of God.  This doesn’t mean that everything in our life, personality, or desires are given or approved by God.  But it means that our existence has an eternal intention to it.  We are no accident.  And we are created with the potential of eternity and deep fellowship with the Divine.
  2. God invites us back to him.  God, like the Dad we all long for, looks past our crap and failed attempts a self-cure to wait for us with eagerness to embrace us and heal us.
  3. His Son, Jesus is the way to healing. He came to carry our pain and show us life.  He restores our call, our purpose, our hope of being changed and having the life we were made for.
  4. Once we’ve recognized our disease, separation from our God; and the cure, God’s rescuing love; we are freed to discover the joy of living in His presence and being changed by His love.

This sounds simple, but it is life-altering.  If accepted, it reshapes everything within us.  It reorients the core of our being around the Being of the seen and unseen universe.

The questions, the pain, the process may remain for a while, or a lifetime, but we find that God walks in the way with us.  Life is still a place a learning.  It’s a path of growth.  It’s not easy.  But Christ’s presence keeps us rooted, sure, secure and hopeful in the middle of it all. And he has provided others who are walking the journey, so we need not do it alone.

I have found that God and His Son, Jesus believe we are beautiful boys and girls.  Accepting that, in the middle of mixed emotions, is the beginning of the cure.  The rest of the cure is to let Him restore us to the lives He made us for.

Comments, Hopes, Needs, Questions??  Thanks for your time in reading, commenting and sharing.

A Pastor’s Heavy Heart: 7 Things Your Pastor Carries

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I have a unique role.  I get to be a pastor to pastors.  One of the primary responsibilities in ministry is to care about and care for 42 different pastors.  This is a joy – usually.  Like any pastoral call, there are things that weigh on my heart. There are times when I want to step in but I’ve not been invited. There are times when I lay in bed and wonder how a particular pastor and his wife are doing. There are times when I see a wounded pastor and wish I could carry his pain away.   I feel what they feel deeply because I served as a local church pastor for 29 years before I stepped into this role.

During October, when many in the church are expressing appreciation for their pastors, I thought I might share some of the things that weigh heavy on your pastor.  Most of these burdens are unique to the pastoral role.  While you can’t take most of them away, you can understand and pray.  Your pastor will just be happy that you care enough to consider these things that are his to carry and what you might be able to do to lighten the load.

1. A pastor carries the weight of what his family feels about the church. The church isn’t just his job. It is his family’s church. He wants his kids and his wife to love their church. That can be tough during stressful seasons. I know of pastor’s wives who have sat on certain committees in the church and heard people on the team criticize the pastor’s leadership with her in the room.  The same has happened to pastor’s kids in the hallway of the church.  He wants his kids to some day choose to be involved in church and serve faithfully.

What you can do: If you’re frustrated, first think about who’s in the room. Love the pastor’s family whether or not you like the pastor.  Be tender with them.  Include them in your life if you can. Do what you can do to make them fall in love with the church!

2. A pastor carries the weight of his own failures. I don’t know a pastor who can’t quickly list his latest failures.  Unlike many jobs, a pastor’s job is tied to his spiritual life. If you blow it in your ministry, you know you’ve blown it with God.  You know how it feels when you know you’re not praying enough? Or, you’re struggling with giving?  Now make it your job and it adds another layer of responsibility.  Failure adds another layer of guilt.  It’s personal, and it’s professional.

What you can do: Communicate appreciation for what he’s doing well. Give patience and understanding when he doesn’t seem to get it quite right. In subtle ways let him know you understand his human frailty and you’re okay with it.

3. A pastor carries the weight of the church’s apparent success, or failure. Even when a pastor tries to measure ministry by Jesus’ standards of life transformation and discipleship, he knows that many in his church are measuring him by the budget and bottoms in the seats. Most ministries have seasons of ebb and flow.  There are a lot of reasons for these things. Even if the pastor doesn’t own it all, he still knows that many lay it on him.

What you can do: Remind him often that we are all in this together.  Find ways to celebrate the new life that is happening around your pastor and his ministry.

4. A pastor carries the weight of his own responsibility toward Christ. Have you ever walked away from a conversation with a neighbor and thought with regret, “I should have said…”, or “I shouldn’t have said…”  A pastor feels that nearly every day.  I know I have times I’ve thought about standing in front of Jesus while he goes through my sermons and measures what I said against the truth.  It isn’t a comforting thought.

What you can do: Pray for him to honor Christ and let him know when you think he is.

5. A pastor carries the weight of serving in a confusing time. The same way you see the world changing, the pastor sees the world changing.  For most, the ministry we were trained to do isn’t the same ministry which exists today. It is hard enough for all of us to understand the huge shifts.  Your pastor has to try to help you navigate them with hope and joy of Jesus. He wants to lead people to Jesus when fewer and fewer want to be led.

What you can do: Help him by joining in the mission of Christ in your own neighborhood, workplace and family.  Let him see you engaging your world and discover with your pastor, where God is moving and how we should join him.

6. A pastor carries the weight of caring for Jesus’ flock. Jesus has given your pastor a love for God’s people. He may be tired. He may be worn. But he still cares. It isn’t his job, it’s his vocation, his calling. And most do it 24/7 even when people would rather he not care. When one leaves because they are hurt and angry, it hurts. When people won’t make godly decisions, but are being choked by the world, it crushes his spirit. When people drift away, he still watches for their return, hoping it’s today.

What you can do:  Show up.  Ask how you can pray for him.  Commit yourself and encourage others in the church to seek the path of peace before heading out the door.

7. A pastor carries the weight of other pastor’s failures.  In our society, pastoral failure seems to be everywhere.  Your pastor carries that.  25 years ago, I sat in front of a bank manager, applying for a mortgage. I thought being a pastor would be an asset, because the bank would know that I was a person of integrity and a good risk. The bank manager said it was a liability because many pastors walk out on their loans and just leave town.  I was horrified when I realized I was carrying that reputation with me.  Today we know the clergy stories are even worse.

What you can do: Affirm your pastor’s love for Christ which is lived in integrity. Let him know when his lifestyle is a positive influence in your life.  And pray for him that he doesn’t become one of those statistics.

I am not asking you to shower him with “atta-boys.” But by your presence, prayer and involvement show you understand and appreciate his unique challenges. Most pastors I know gladly carry this weight and wouldn’t trade their calling for anything. But we should remember that the burdens our leaders carry are our burdens to carry together.  That is the nature of community.  And you are your pastor’s community!  You are his church family.

I would love to hear of your pastor who’s doing it well, or any other comments you may  have!

Note: I use the male pronoun because I come from a complementary tradition. If your pastor is female, I am sure she has many of the same struggles.

Do you believe God is good? But, what about when… ?

Its an interesting point to note that when Jesus was addressed as “Good Teacher,” he said, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone (Lk. 18:19).”  Jesus was reminding his hearers that “goodness” is an essential characteristic of God.

When things are tough, one of the great questions we have is, “how can a good God allow all this?”  It’s a fair question.  But it presupposes that what we think is good, is actually good.  We have a perspective that is admittedly limited.  Many of us think cheeseburgers are good.  But they are not, if you want to actually nourish your body with your food.  Our definition of good has a lot to do with our value system and our over-arching purpose.

If our value system is wrapped up in the here and now, then suffering and struggling is a horrible violation of how we want to experience life now.  But if we value the eternal, growth, maturity, transformation, etc., our ideas of what is good, will be drastically changed.  Because it is in the hard times that we are formed into something new, especially when we grow through it under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

Author and theologian, Peter Kreeft, wrote in his book, “Making Sense Out of Suffering”, these words, “If we love God, we will understand that everything is grace, that Job’s sores were grace, that Job’s abandonment was grace, that even Jesus’ abandonment (‘My god, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’) was grace.  Even the delay of grace is grace.  Suffering is grace.  The cross is grace.  The grave is grace.  Even hell is made of God’s love and grace, experienced as pain by those who hate it.  There is nothing but God’s love. ‘Everything is grace.’”

When you read the word grace in the paragraph above, replace it with the words “a good gift.”  This can be a tough exercise because it confronts our idea of what is good.  But doing this teaches us that all things God gives to us are good gifts, given to accomplish His good purposes.  He can only give what is good because He is good.

Rather than judging the goodness of God by our circumstances, let’s define our circumstances by the goodness of God.  No matter what we are going through, God is good and He is bringing about His good work in our lives.  To believe this is the beginning of experiencing the goodness of God in every area and every experience of our lives.

 

Thank you for reading, for your comments, your shares and your likes.

5 Things I Experienced in 3045 Motorcycle Miles

Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, SouthDakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois…  6 days… 3045 miles!  One of life’s little adventures.  Why?

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I really enjoy long motorcycle rides.  And I don’t typically mind going by myself.  But why?  I could tell you about the sights I’ve seen and the fun of zig zagging a 900 lb. bike through mountain passes.  Or, I could tell you stories about the interesting characters I’ve met because a lot of people like to talk to motorcycle riders.  Here are some even better reasons.

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Physical Challenge – It is a challenge to keep your head in the game after 10 hours in the saddle.  It is physically draining.  The heat, or sometimes the cold is a challenge.  When I’ve ridden 500 + miles, I feel like I’ve done something.  My 56 year old body aches, but in a good way.  At the end of the day I sleep well.  Believe it or not, the next morning, I am usually ready to do do it again!

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Life in the Moment – I usually have a goal, or a general route planned.  But there are no guarantees.  Weather always plays a role.  You either wait, ride around it, or ride through it.  I’ve done all three.  I always have a destination, but most of the time can’t worry about it.  When riding a bike, you have to be where you are.  One has to watch the road and surroundings.  Every curve in the road demands your attention.  Every car, deer, shredded truck tire and “tar-snake” is a potential problem (tar-snakes are the squiggly patches of tar they use for filling cracks in the road.  They are very slippery especially in turns).  The point is the end-goal for the day doesn’t matter if you don’t pay attention to now!

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Time for Reflection – With all this going on, there is still a lot of time to think.  I think about God, the gospel, the church and Scripture.  I refine my theology.  I argue with people I’ve read on Twitter or Facebook that morning.  I think about my family, my love for them and their love for me.  I think about the world and what God is doing in it and for it.  I look at creation and I wonder about God.  Sometimes I pray – especially when I see familiar names that make me think about people in my life.  I’ve seen each of my sons’ names on street signs, or billboards.  Last week I prayed for the Christian leader Alan Hirsch because I saw Hirsch Road and he was the only Hirsch I could think of.  With this Coke bottle, it was my brother, Scott.

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Spiritual Presence – This one is hard to describe, but I’ll try.  I usually wake up at 5 am.  I call my wife to greet her for the day.  I get dressed, load the bike and  hit the road.  After a few hours, I stop for breakfast.  I ride more, usually skipping lunch.  At the end of the day, I find a place to stay, if I haven’t arranged something at one of my gas stops.  At the end of the day I find a place for dinner.  Then I get back to my room and call my wife and tell her goodnight.  I fall asleep – hard.  Through all of this, I am constantly aware of God’s presence with me.  Sometimes we talk.  Sometimes we just sit with each other.  But I know I am not alone.  And actually, my aloneness makes His presence more of a reality.  That may sound strange.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt lonely while on one of my rides.  Oh, I’ve missed home and missed my Bride but that’s different than feeling lonely.

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Dependence – This may be one of the biggest challenges for me.  It may seem like going by myself on these trips is a statement of my independence.  It is just the opposite.  These trips force me to be dependent.  I am forced to look for help!  People have rescued me from dangerous weather.  Someone helped me pick up my bike when I dropped it in a parking lot.  I’ve received helpful road suggestions and corrections.  Strangers have pointed me to sights I just couldn’t miss.  One guy summoned a tow truck for me, while another just sat on the side of the road with me while I waited.  Others just give me a little chat while waiting for the restroom.  Most of all, I am dependent on the Lord for providing whatever I will need along the way.  I need His protection every time I straddle that thing.  And I know this.

I thank my wife for her encouragement in taking these journeys.  I hope I come home a little better person for taking the journey.

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