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Strongholds

The scripture teaches that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds”, or maybe more clearly, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds”. But I wonder to what degree we really understand what a “stronghold” is, or how to identify them in our lives.

 

The definition of a stronghold is a place that has been fortified so as to protect it against attack, a place where a particular cause, attitude or belief is strongly defended. In the context in which Paul was speaking it would be a cause, attitude or belief that is not from, or may even be counter to God, which we have accepted as truth.  Once established, it can become a conduit for the enemy of our souls to speak and work in our lives.

 

Though distorted mindsets can develop through faulty teaching (e.g. racism) or even just a bad example, strongholds are more often cultivated through first-hand experience; and generally speaking, the more traumatic the experience, the more powerful the potential for it to result in a stronghold.

 

While these experiences are a key element, it is actually the conclusions we draw from them that form the basis of the stronghold. For instance, a man abandons his wife and children with no warning or explanation.  The wife concludes that he must have been unhappy because she wasn’t as physically attractive as she’d been when they first married, and thus develops an obsession with losing weight, which ultimately leads to an eating disorder.  The enemy tells her that if she were just younger, or thinner, or prettier, then she’d be worthy of love.

 

Their daughter, who felt like she was daddy’s little princess, concludes that everyone who says they love you will eventually leave you, resulting in a jealous insecurity that poisons all of her future relationships, and compels her to be promiscuous. For her, the enemy becomes a type of translator, encouraging her to interpret every little action as the beginning of an inevitable abandonment or betrayal.

 

Their son, who deeply admired his father, concludes that men were never meant to be tied down to one person, and struggles to commit to anything. Whenever he starts to feel close to someone, the enemy reminds him not to fall into the trap his father did.

 

In truth, none of those conclusions are accurate, but through this deeply painful experience an emotional and spiritual stronghold is formed, which then becomes a channel for further damage. No doubt the Lord wants to tell the mother that she is the apple of His eye, and that physical beauty is a fleeting thing; and to assure the daughter that He will never leave her, nor forsake her; and to remind the son that a woman was created in response to what He saw missing in a man, and that there is a wholeness that can only be experienced through that union.  But if the stronghold is powerful enough, they may not have ears to hear any of those words.

 

Because these things are generally held in the most remote and protected regions of our being, we can be completely oblivious to their existence. Intellectually, the wife can vehemently defend that her former husband’s action was in no way her fault, but in the deepest part of her heart she doesn’t believe that’s true. Like her, we can all develop a blind spot, which allows the enemy unencumbered access to that area of our life.

 

While identifying the specific nature of a stronghold isn’t always easy, there are some readily identifiable patterns that seem to accompany their presence. Recognizing these patterns in our lives can become the first step toward our recovery.

 

One such pattern is the tendency to personalize situations and to perceive them as personal attacks, even when they are seemingly innocuous and involve total strangers. The person who cut you off on the highway didn’t just fail to see you, they did it purposely because they thought they were better than you, or because of the car you drive, or because of the bumper sticker you have, or…  Like little ones on the playground, you’ll swear that “they did that on purpose” even if there is no logical reason to believe they did.

 

Closely related to that pattern is the penchant for being easily “triggered”, which causes your reactions to be completely off base in relation to what is actually happened. The clearest example I can give of being “triggered” is something I witnessed while I was in the Navy.

 

During those years, guys routinely messed with each other and rough housed. One day, a big guy named Bo snuck up on a smaller guy named Jim, and grabbed from behind.  Jim let out a blood curdling scream, and rammed Bo into a piece of machinery, causing him to let him go.  When Bo released him, Jim turned and furiously began to pummel Bo with his fists.  Eventually, it took five guys to restrain Jim, and keep him from killing Bo.

 

At the time, Jim’s reaction didn’t make any sense to us, but we later learned that his step-father had molested him for years, and that what he was experiencing at that moment wasn’t his friend playing a practical joke on him, he was reliving the terror of a 5 year old being raped by his step-father. Sadly, this episode cost Jim his career.  Though it is an extreme example, it drives home the seriousness of this issue.  Our responses are often inappropriate because we’re emotionally reliving some other moment.

 

Not all patterns are that dramatic, it could be something as simple as the tendency to make the same mistake over and over again. Like a pothole in a street you travel on a daily basis, you promise yourself that you’re going to avoid it this time, and somehow you still manage to drive right into it.  You can rationalize that the city ought to fix the road, but you might also wonder at your own propensity for repeatedly finding that hole.

 

I knew a lady who married a man named Jim, who turned out to be a bit of a mean drunk and was often abusive toward her. Eventually she divorced him and married a man named Jeff, who also turned out to be a bit of a mean drunk, and who was also frequently abusive toward her.  Eventually she divorced him as well, only to marry a man named John, who also turned out to be a bit of a mean drunk, who…  Ultimately, she concluded that she just didn’t have any luck with men.  I would submit that “luck” had little to do with it, and that there was something deeply rooted within her which caused her to find this same type of man over and over again.

 

Another, more subtle pattern is a propensity for being “out of season”. Given that life unfolds in seasons, it is important to discern the season that you’re in, and to embrace it.  Thus, when the enemy of our souls has found a foot hold, he delights in having us show up to the pool party in a parka, or to the snow ball fight in a tank top.  We consistently find ourselves being “at the wrong place, at the wrong time”.  In fact, if you watch someone whose life is unraveling, one of the first signs of trouble is that they’re asleep when everyone else is awake, and they’re awake when everyone else is asleep.  I’ve often seen parents who want to be their kid’s “friends” when they’re young, and then try to parent them when they become adults.

 

As difficult as it may be to break out of these life patterns, our God offers us “divine power to demolish strongholds”. Tearing them down takes away places for our adversary to hide, and limits his ability to speak into our lives.  Like the psalmist beseeched, we need to ask the Lord to “search me”, to “know my anxious thoughts” and ultimately to “lead me in the way everlasting”.

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Scorekeeping

Last week my wife mentioned a sermon she’d heard about, “Scorekeeping”, which reminded me of something I’d written many years ago.  After scrounging around my notebook, I found it, and it seemed worth sharing.

Scorekeeping

 

Early in my walk with the Lord, I felt like He drew my attention to our very human tendency to keep score and/or to count the cost.  I believe that this trait is so naturally occurring in us, that most of us aren’t even conscious of the fact that we do it.

 

While we may not remember recording every little incident in our mental/emotional database, we can often recall them with amazing clarity when we feel like we’ve somehow been slighted.  These vivid recollections of what we’ve done for others, or what hasn’t been done for us, or what has been done to us, or what others got, or what we didn’t get… are all evidence that somewhere inside of us we’ve kept a pretty detailed ledger of these transactions.

 

We can often use the data from this internal record book as evidence to plead our case to others, or as a weapon against those we want to hurt, or as our excuse to withhold the love, support, and forgiveness God calls us to give.  It becomes the fuel for jealousy, covetousness, discouragement, slander and self-pity.  There is a natural tendency to want to keep these accounts balanced (e.g. I have given, therefore I am entitled to receive…) and to feel as though we’ve been victimized if they don’t, but as with so many other things in our human nature, this doesn’t really line up with God’s word.

 

If we were to be designated the scorekeeper for a football game, we’d first have to understand the point system.  We’d need to know that a field goal is worth 3 points, that a touchdown is worth 6 points, that a kicked point after touchdown is worth 1 point, that a conversion (i.e. a pass or run into the end zone) after a touchdown is worth 2 points…  Without that understanding, we couldn’t accurately understand or convey who was winning and who was losing.  It is the same in life; if we’re going to keep score, we better understand the point system, and as believers that understanding needs to come from our Creator.

 

As we look to His word, we can quickly see that our natural minds will likely score the game much different than our spiritual minds will.  The natural mind says that it is worth more if our good deeds are recognized and appreciated, while scripture says that it is more valuable if they’re not, because they then become an eternal treasure instead of a temporary one.  Our natural mind seeks to receive a blessing, while the spiritual mind understands that the blessing is in the giving.  The natural mind sees the cross as foolishness, while the spiritual mind sees it as the power of God.

 

Another way of expressing this dynamic is the metaphor of an account ledger.  Just like with a checkbook, every deposit and every withdrawal is recorded.  Once again our natural mind tends to want to make judgments about our state of being based on our account balance and again this comes in conflict with the ways of God.  The scripture is filled with passages that challenge this way of thinking.  We’re told not to return evil for the evil that is done to us; to bless those who persecute us and to love those who refuse to love us back.  Beyond telling us not to seek equality in these transactions, the Lord urges us not to even keep a record of them.

 

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the Master chastened the workers who complained that those hired in the final hour of the day were paid the same as they were.  He reminded them that He’d paid them a full day’s wage, just as they had agreed upon, and essentially told them not to be concerned with what He paid anyone else.  Jesus voiced much the same sentiment at the end of the Gospel of John, when Peter thought that John was promised something better than what he was; the Lord scolded him saying, “What is it to you, you must follow Me”.  Proverbs tells us that a stingy man is always thinking about the cost, while the epistles tell us that not only does love cover a multitude of sins, but that it also keeps no record of wrongdoing.

 

If we are going to be the people God destined us to be, we need to stop looking to this imaginary account balance for our sense of justice. Instead, we must trust that the God we serve is just and that His sovereignty is sufficient to ensure that justice will ultimately be served.  We need to remember that whatever measure we choose to use with others, is the measure that will be used with us.

 

The enemy of our souls wants us to believe that if we could get this imaginary score high enough that we’d find peace, joy & fulfillment; but the truth is that these things can only be found in the person of Jesus.  Keeping score and/or counting the cost keeps us focused on ourselves, our situations, our wounds, our failures and other people.  When we succumb to this way of living, our prayers can be reduced to reciting our score card to God (and anyone else who will listen), and we’ll ultimately forfeit the healing and provision His death gained for us.

 

If we really believe that Jesus paid a price that we could never repay, than we should have no need to count the cost.  Any price that we pay is a bargain compared to what we have received.  If we can grasp that truth, our scorecards and/or balance sheets, will become our testimonies.

Empty Handed

I recently came across this entry in an old notebook. It comes from a different season of my life, and I’d would say that it is the sound of me working out my salvation with fear and trembling.  Even then I realized that God didn’t just want my best, He wanted my all, including the pain, the fear and the frustration.  I share this now for those who may be wrestling with some of those same things.

 

Empty Handed

Dearest Lord Jesus – I come this morning with empty hands and empty pockets

Like a beggar who’s wandered into Your courts

Because of who You are, there are no guards at the door

And despite my poor state, I know that I can come

My accuser has taunted me through the night to produce some evidence from my life

And though I know who is speaking, I have to wonder at his challenge

Shouldn’t there be some fruit to show him?

If I am really a “new man”,

why do I still look so much like the old one?

If I am supposed to be some sort of spiritual covering,

why do the people I love seem so uncovered?

If I really believe in Your Word,

why is so little of it manifest in my life?

If You are my Savior,

where is the joy You paid for?

If You are my Lord,

where is the peace You attained for me?

What is it in my heart that clutches the poisonous reed,

but fails to grasp the fragrant pedals

I can see the place that You’ve set for me at Your table,

why can’t I seem to sit in that chair?

Though I’ve not buried Your investment in the ground;

I wonder if You have ever gained any interest on the things You’ve placed in my hands

You deserve a better servant,

yet here I am

and You don’t cast me out

You don’t seem to be surprised or disappointed in me

Why should I be so disappointed in myself

and yet I am

I want so much to love You,

to serve You,

to be the person You made me to be,

to be like You

God help me;

do Your Holy work within me,

that I might bring an offering befitting of my gracious Lord

My Father’s Hands

This is something I wrote many years ago, as my father battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  At the time, we were about six months in to what turned out to be a two year battle.  He called that day to let me know that he’d lost use of his other arm, and was worried that my young children wouldn’t understand why he wouldn’t hug or hold them during our upcoming visit.  I held it together while we were on the phone, but afterward, as I sat in the dark, these words were the cry of my heart.  I realize that it’s not the most artful writing, but it is an honest portrait of what I was feeling.  I share it now in hopes that it might help those who are currently living through this kind of moment.  I encourage you not to let your grief turn into distance.  Run to them, even though it hurts.

 

My father’s hands always seemed big to me

In the first moments of my life, I just fit in them

Throughout my life, they have been a source of strength, guidance and love

Even as I’ve become a man, my father’s hands seem big

 

A year ago, my dad still had the strength to carry me

Today he doesn’t have the strength to grip my hand

My heart struggles to contain this thought

It somehow makes me feel like a little boy again

 

The hands are but an extension of the heart

And my father’s heart is still strong

When we speak of the heart, we’re really speaking of the spirit

The spirit of my father still towers over me

 

It is just like my father not to consider himself

It is just like him to be concerned with everyone else

It is just like him to spend the time he has left getting things ready for when he’s gone

My dad’s body is failing him, but his spirit is not

 

But my own heart falters at the thought of losing him

It is tempting to be angry about what he’s facing, but with whom could I be angry

Certainly not the God who gave me such a wonderful father

This would not be such a hard thing, had God not made him to be the treasure he is

 

So what shall I do with all these overwhelming feelings

What shall I do with the days that God grants me with my father

I will put my hurt in the hands of my Heavenly Father

I will thank Him every day for the gift of my earthly father

 

While my father’s hands have lost the strength to grip me, his heart has not

He is still guiding me, teaching me, protecting me and loving me

He is still a source of strength for my life

He is still a living testimony of God’s love for me

 

In the days that we have left on this earth together, I want to celebrate my father

As his body fails, I want to see him handled with the dignity & tenderness that he deserves

I want my hands to be a source of strength & love to him, as his have always been to me

I want to grip his hand and walk with him for as long as I can

 

Someday, sooner than I’ll be ready, I will have to let his hand go

On that day, he will be in the hands of “Our Father”

It will be both a glorious and a terrible day, but that isn’t today

Today, I thank Our Father for another day with my father

 

Children carry the burden of their parents weakness.

“That is so awesome”, he heard his teenaged daughter exclaim under her breath.

 

“What’s so awesome?” he inquired.

 

Pulling the earbud from her ear, she asked, “What did you say?”

 

Smiling at her, he repeated, “What’s so awesome?”

 

“Mr. Dawson” she said, as she got up from the couch and moved towards him.

 

Pulling her phone out in front of them, she scrolled through pictures of the Dawson’s anniversary celebration. “Check out what Mr. Dawson did for their anniversary.  Look, that’s the limo; and this is the hotel they stayed at; and look at all the flowers he had in the room.  This is the restaurant they ate at.  It’s like a fairytale.”

 

Her father nodded his head, and replied, “that is nice”.

 

Furrowing her brow she added, “You and mom have a way better relationship than the Dawson’s, so why don’t you ever do anything like that for her?”

 

Taking an extra breath, he pushed past the urge to be offended at the implication that his anniversary traditions lacked an element of lavishness, and he asked, “What makes you think that our marriage is ‘way better’ than the Dawson’s?”

 

“Well, you treat mom way better than Mr. Dawson treats his wife,” she said.

 

“Give me some examples?’ he pressed.

 

“Well, you and mom talk all the time, and Mr. Dawson pretty much ignores Mrs. Dawson; and you never snap at mom or get hateful, but Mr. Dawson does that a lot; and you guys are always hanging out together, and Mr. Dawson almost always seems to be with his friends.”

 

“So, you’re saying that I do the everyday sorts of the things well, while Mr. Dawson really knows how to do a special occasion?” he queried.

 

“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” she answered.

 

“So let me ask you a question. When you get married, which would you rather have?”

 

Smiling slyly, she said, “I would actually like to have both, but if I could only have one, I would definitely take the everyday stuff.”

 

Grinning at her, he said, “I hope you get both, but if your husband doesn’t make you feel loved on a daily basis, it’s doubtful that the special occasion will mean much to you.”

 

She nodded in agreement, and as she turned he added, “I think God feels that way too”.

 

Turning back, she said, “what?”

 

“I’m just saying that I think God feels the same way. We can dress up for church and make a big production with our prayers and worship, and feel like we’ve really made a statement about our relationship with Him, but if we then ignore Him for the rest of the week, I doubt it means that much.”

 

Wincing, she said, “Ouch!”

 

Again, nodding, he said, “me too”. “But ultimately that’s why He gives us daily bread; so that we’ll come back every day.  If you really think about it, the most extravagant way to love someone, is to love them every day.”

A popularly held idea is that protests draw attention to an issue and create dialogue; but I’ve noticed that depending on the nature of the protest, it more often distracts us from the real issue and creates rhetoric. Dialogue is talking to each other, presumably with the intent of reaching some new level of agreement, while rhetoric is talking at each other, generally used to establish the superiority of our position.  One has the potential to move us forward together, while the other can become the basis for civil war.