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Fear Not

“You should be afraid.”

My neighbor’s words took me aback and I didn’t know quite how to respond. I was just being lighthearted, trying to infuse the coronavirus pandemic with a little “social distancing” humor. Apparently, she didn’t find my joke comical. I would have tried to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk, but I was too stunned to think that clearly. Her violent reaction to my harmless banter left me completely speechless.

When I finally found words, they were lame. “Are you seriously telling me I should be afraid?” She confirmed that she was indeed dead serious and then expounded, making it very clear that I was not only a fool – I was offensive, too.

I walked away from that exchange feeling like both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime.

The mix of emotions was unsettling and, in the hours that followed, I struggled to shake them. While replaying the scene over and over again in my mind, I felt like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, as she lamented her inability to come up with zingers on the spot. But it wasn’t a “gottcha zinger” that I wished I would have produced in that moment. It was a “God’s got this witness” I kicked myself for missing. I wanted to rewind time and go back to the sidewalk so I could tell this neighbor that I’m not afraid because I trust God and His perfect providence. I joke, banter and laugh because I am at peace knowing that God is in total control. There is no need to fear the past, present or future because Jesus has already won the ultimate war – the war for the sinner’s soul.

Had my facial muscles and brain been firing on all cylinders, I would have gone on to tell this woman that I learned not to be afraid of death, sickness and uncertainty in the fires of disease. Then I would have undoubtedly expounded, explaining how, two years ago, I was sixty-eight pounds, living with a “comatose” blood pressure reading that caused many a nurse to go ghostly white. I would have told this woman that, against all human logic, God carried my body throughout that storm, making it possible for me to stand before here today as a living testimony to His sustaining and overcoming power. If only I had confidently and joyfully told her that I don’t need to be afraid of a virus because I know the Great Physician!

But, more than a physical story, I would have told her about Jesus’ story that makes it possible for anyone to live free of fear – regardless of what storms they’ve faced in the past.

When Jesus hanged on the cross of Calvary, He bore all of our sins, shame and burdens. He took eternal death to the grave and, when He rose again three days later, He left it there. When Jesus resurrected, He opened the door to Heaven so that every man, woman and child can join Him there forever. And all He asks is that we accept Him and turn our lives over to Him. Pretty good trade off, don’t you think? We surrender our earthly life – fears and all – and, in return, He gives us eternal, abundant, overcoming life. Jesus graciously takes our heavy load upon Himself and gives us abounding hope and unshakable assurance instead.

Followers of Jesus can endure every earthly problem and pandemic with peace and confidence, knowing that their Savior has already overcome this world. They can smile, laugh and experience joy in the midst of suffering and uncertainty because their greatest fear – the fear of eternal separation from God – has been put to rest.

Unfortunately, I didn’t speak any of those glorious truths to my angry neighbor and since I have a feeling she’ll be social distancing herself from me in the future, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to share what I so wish I would have said in the moment. Fortunately, God’s ability to save my neighbor (or any of our fearful neighbors) is not limited to my ability to recite a spellbinding testimony on the sidewalk. He does not need my words to do His work. And although I hope to witness to His majesty with more power, joy and love in the future, I know that He has already forgiven me for the past. The moment I sought His mercy, He extended it without delay, graciously assuring me that there is nothing added to my record of wrong that can’t be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. Nor is there anything I said or left unsaid that His Holy Spirit cannot overcome.

The more I’ve pondered the scene on my humor fail, the more I’ve been compelled to pray for my neighbor. I cannot undo what was or was not said but I can take the situation, my regret and my hopes for this woman to God. He knows my heart and He knows her. And, what’s more, He can restore, heal and deliver us both.

So, that’s my prayer for her. May God restore her soul, heal her heart and deliver her from all her fears.

 

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

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What are you collecting?

My coffee mug collection began innocently. A whimsical, ice-skating snowman inspired mug here. An Easter bunny and carrot themed mug there. “A mug for every season” – that was my motto.

Over the years, as my coffee cup collection has steadily grown, so has the chaos in my kitchen cabinet. There are now so many mugs crammed into that little space it’s a wonder the door even closes.

Recognizing the excessiveness of my drinkware situation, I have, for years, resolved to cut off all coffee cup purchasing and pare down my current collection. My intentions have been good but my follow through has been quite poor. I’ve tried picking just my favorites and donating the rest, but I find that they are all my favorites for one sentimental reason or another. I’ve even tried the Kon Mari technique, asking myself “does this bring you joy?” To which the answer is always, “Yes. This llama mug most certainly does bring me joy.”

But coffee mugs aren’t my only collection. I have a second, not so visible and far less joyous collection that I’ve had trouble parting ways with, too: a collection of fears.

Over the past decade I’ve collected more fears than coffee mugs. I have a fear that I’ll wind up being a lifelong single and a fear that I’ll never regain my full health. Then there’s that pesky fear that I’ll fail at every career I try. And who can forget the niggling fear that I’ll end up moving back into my parent’s basement (again). For every setback, failure or struggle, I’ve added another fear to my collection, creating an internal space that is so chock-full of anxiety, worries and concerns it makes my kitchen cabinet look sparse.

Like I do every January 1st, I made a resolution on this New Year’s Day. “This year,” I thought, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to cut ties with this excessive coffee mug collection and bring order back to this chaotic cabinet!” Nowhere in my mind was I thinking about my fear collection – that’s a collection I didn’t want to admit even existed. I wanted to keep that door securely shut. I wanted to keep my fears, anxieties and worries a secret.

But that wasn’t meant to be.

As soon as I opened the kitchen cabinet to attack the out of control coffee mug collection, a revelation dawned on me like a lightbulb illuminating above a cartoon character’s head: Why are you so fixated on this coffee mug conundrum? Don’t you see that you have a far more pressing situation to address – all those paralyzing fears you’ve let take up residence in your mind? Can’t you see that you’ve become like this cabinet – so crammed full of fear you have no room left for faith.

As I surveyed the plethora of coffee cups all stacked and squished behind the cabinet’s glass door, I realized that, just like that cabinet, my mind has limited space and I must be intentional about what – and Who – I let fill it. If I relinquish control to the enemy, he will cram me full of anxious thoughts and fearful emotions, destroying my joy and robbing me of peace in the process. But, if I allow God to fill my sacred internal space, He will strengthen my faith by enriching my mental collection with wisdom and truth. When I invite God into my mind and ask Him to control my collection of thoughts, He defeats the enemy’s lies, exposes every destructive fear, and fills me with His overcoming peace and abundant joy.

It was this new revelation that revived my resolve – but not my resolve to part ways with my llama mug, that mug is here to stay. This time, I determined to get rid of my collection of fears.

But how?

If I couldn’t part ways with a few coffee mugs, how could I part ways with an entire mind full of fears and dooms day thoughts? To successfully accomplish this resolution, I knew I needed help clearing away the anxious clutter I’d let accumulate inside. So, I did what anyone who wants to declutter their life should do. And, no, I didn’t turn to Kon Mari to refresh my memory on her Tidying Up technique. I turned to the only One who has the power to break every chain – including every chain of fear. I turned to Jesus, relinquished control of my collection and asked Him to take over cleaning my internal house.

In no time at all, a verse came to mind. “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2) Or, in coffee mug speak, when the enemy is trying to sell you an earthly fear mug, leave the store, run to God and stock up on the eternal treasures revealed in His word.

You see, Jesus claimed victory over fear when He conquered the grave. When our Savior defeated death, He made it possible for you and I to enjoy freedom from all fear. But, in order to experience that freedom, we have to be choosy about what we allow into our mental, emotional and spiritual collection. We must stop buying the fear lies and quit even giving the enemy’s sales pitch the time of day! Instead, we must fix our eyes, ears and heart on Jesus and invest in a faith-filled collection packed with God’s promises and busting at the seams with His extravagant love.

And, if you must buy something, just go buy a whimsical coffee mug. I suggest shopping at Home Goods, TJ Maxx or Marshalls. They always have the very best selection. Tell them Stephanie sent you.

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What’s Your Greatest Fear?

What’s your greatest fear?

Mine is ending up alone.

For some people, the thought of ending up alone isn’t the least bit scary. But I’m not some people. I’m some person who spent her growing up years daydreaming about meeting and marrying a Brad Pitt look-alike, moving into a movie-set worthy house and raising a family complete with two boys, two girls and a dog (or two). That was my fantasy, my hope and my dream. That was my plan A and I didn’t have a plan B.

Unlike some of my female peers, I never had my sights set on a career path or any path apart from matrimony, family planning and happily ever after. But God’s sights were set on an entirely alternate route and, eight years ago, right around my twenty-first birthday, He started taking me down a path marked with chronic sickness and just as chronic singleness.

By now, one would think I’d be used to the solitary life and over my fear of ending up alone. But one would think incorrectly. Instead of my fear diminishing, it’s been increasing. With each day that brings me closer to the big 3-0, my fear intensifies.

Now I know, thirty isn’t “old” but, in Christian circles, it practically makes me a spinster. In the past eight years while I’ve been alone, the field of male prospects has been dramatically reduced (see the wedding announcements for proof). Every time I turn around, someone is getting married and every time I glance down, someone is wearing a wedding band on their left hand.

All of this holy matrimony has caused me to wonder (and, if I’m honest, fret), “is there anyone left for me?” While I’ve been battling illness and fighting for my life, did I completely miss the marriage train? And, if I did indeed miss it, will there be a later one I can catch or am I doomed to stand at this single’s station indefinitely?

It’s when I allow these questions to fester in my mind that fear starts to seize me, followed by a crippling cascade of depression and hopelessness. It’s just plain crushing to imagine a future without love, companion and a family of my own.

But when I turn my questions over to God, He always stills my fears, relieves my depression and restores my hope. He does all of that with one verse from His Holy Word. Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to give you hope and a future.”

If I take God at His Word, then I have no reason to fear the future because, come singleness or come marriage, I know that God’s ways are always and will always be good. Even when those ways are challenging and different than my own, I can take comfort in the promises of God and rest in the assurance that His way is leading to an eternal holy ever after. 

What’s more is that God’s future plans are not limited by age or what I perceive as potential “prospects.” God is able to bring me a mate at any time and any age because nothing is impossible for Him! And because nothing is impossible for Him, I have every reason to never give up hope. God has the power to change the circumstances of my status in a second – He can work that fast!

But, even if God doesn’t change my status in a second or ever, His goodness will not be diminished. Even if I do end up alone, God will still be good and His Word will still be true.

Because, you see, God doesn’t need to send me a spouse to bless me with an abundant life. When God sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross, He gave me everything and every ONE I will ever need for a truly wonderful life. In Jesus, I have the perfect companion, friend and Savior who makes me whole.  In Jesus, I have the Lord who upholds me and the love that completes me.

Every single time I come back to the foot of the cross, bearing my lonely burden, I find that Jesus was there all along with arms wide open, ready and willing to take away all my fear and replace it with the overcoming, reassuring peace that I have never been and never will be alone.  

 

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11

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Faith > Fear

Fear is a deceptive and paralyzing force that takes root in the most innocent and natural of human concerns such as failure, loneliness and rejection, just to name a few.

But fear never stops where it starts.

Fear and worry multiply like rabbits and if they aren’t put to death in a New York minute, they can easily wind up trapping their victim in a box called “common sense” that’s roughly the size of a comfort zone.

From afar, the common sense box looks safe and logical but, up close, the box is actually a stuffy tomb devoid of real peace and joy. Although the box itself isn’t necessarily a bad box, it can become a bad box if Jesus is standing on the outside of it, calling His follower to step out in faith and join him.

When it comes to heeding the call and following Jesus in the face of fear there are only two options.

The first is to say, “Thanks but no thanks, Jesus. I’m just going to stay here in my box.”

Although Jesus will never force us to relent or drag us out of the box, we miss out on the fulness of God’s plan if we decide to stay inside our comfort zone. When we deny the Sprit’s call, we reap the joyless, restless consequences of that decision.

Just take Jonah for example.

God called Jonah to Nineveh and gave him the task of proclaiming righteousness and holiness to the lost. It was a great responsibility that fulfilled a real need but there was a big problem. Jonah was afraid. The people of Nineveh were a rough crowd and Jonah had his concerns about what fate would befall him in that hostile place. So, instead of heeding the call, he ran.

Jonah’s next move was to escape by boat. He thought he could flee the call of God and be free of fear but stormy consequences followed him. Soon waves buffeted the boat and threatened the lives of everyone on board. After questioning the passengers, everyone agreed that Jonah was to blame for their misfortune. Because Jonah had denied God, they had all become cursed.

What happened next must have made Jonah wish he’d gone to Nineveh in the first place. In the middle of the storm, the passengers on the boat lifted Jonah up and overboard. He landed in the ocean where he was swallowed by a gigantic whale. Still alive inside the whale’s belly, Jonah had a “come to Jesus moment.” He prayed, “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7)

As soon as Jonah asked God for forgiveness and recommitted his life to salvation’s cause, God responded by ordering the whale to spit Jonah up. Once back on dry land, God gave His fearful follower, Jonah, a second chance to heed the call.

What happened next in Jonah’s story is our second option when confronted with the call of God: choose faith over fear and bravely obey.

That’s what Jonah did and the results were incredible. When Jonah told the Ninevites about God they repented of their sins, ceased worshipping false idols and returned to the Lord. Their response to God’s mercy was miraculous.

From Jonah’s life story we learn that fear is debilitating but faith is empowering. Fear weakens but faith strengthens. Fear creates a coward but faith cultivates bravery. Fear gets in the way but faith will always make a way.

When confronted with fear, brave faith is needed to ignite courageous obedience. To overcome fear the follower of Jesus must consistently, constantly and confidently chose to walk by faith and not by fear. As children of the Most-High King we must determine to heed the call of Jesus on the basis of who He is and not the conditions of His command.

So next time fear comes knocking at your door, don’t answer it. Instead, return to faith and recommit to following Jesus. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, take the next obedient step of faith and heed the call.