When It’s Good to be Scared

Many years ago, I heard Jerry Seinfeld talk about studies showing that people’s number one fear is public speaking, and number two is death. Death is number two. He then said that to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. Well, that described me until my junior year of high school, preferring the casket to the stage, but then I made one wild decision and found myself in the middle of a frightening group activity.
It was some version of the memory game, “I’m Going on a Trip,” where you formed a circle and the first participant said those words (I’m Going on a Trip), followed by an item of her choosing that began with the letter “A.” The next player came up with something he would bring that began with the letter “B,” but first he had to repeat the letter “A” item. This continued through nearly the entire alphabet, with the final participant attempting to name well over 20 items from memory, before adding an item of her own.
What I remember, more than the game itself, was the fact that I had never been so terrified in my life, simply because I had to speak in front of a group of people who were all staring at me. That sounds impossible now, since I went on to pursue a degree in Education, which as you might know, involves a great deal of speaking in front of groups of people. I then worked as a substitute teacher, coached student-athletes for over 10 years, and served in youth ministry for more than 13 years. Then I took on my current role in which I’ve presented messages to groups nearly every Sunday morning for the past five years. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve delivered over 1,000 public speaking presentations, led numerous small group discussions, and spoken frequently to hundreds of team members in various sports.
I mention all of this not to brag, but to point out the result of one scary decision. None of what I shared would ever have happened unless I survived the “Going on a Trip” game, a game I would have never played unless I did the most frightening thing first, which was to sign up for the introductory-level Drama class in my high school. The aforementioned game was the first activity on the first day. Of course, the class went on to require many on-stage performances (including, yes, public speaking), and also led to auditions and roles in our school plays that were performed before audiences with hundreds of people.
At the time I signed up for Drama as a 16-year old, I had absolutely no idea why I would do such a thing. Looking back more than 30 years later, I understand completely. God was at work and I just didn’t know it. My entire adult life has centered around things that would not have happened, had I not stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up for that acting class as a teenager.
If you’re reading this, I wonder about you and your life. Have you made a scary decision that ended up taking you in a whole new, exciting direction? Or did you walk away from the choice because it was just too uncomfortable? I’ve gone both ways, myself. But in any case, maybe another opportunity is just around the corner. Are you somehow drawn to an activity that shakes you to your core, but you believe you should try it anyway? Go for it! God may very well be up to something with you, and it’s always worth following wherever He leads you.
Troy Burns

Not Right Now

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Emily in Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
I’m not sure how much time I spend living where I am, or stated more awkwardly, when I am. It seems I mostly live in my yesterdays and tomorrows, instead of my todays. I feel overwhelmed by past mistakes and failures; I feel worried, or at least unprepared, for whatever the future holds. I replay past conversations over and over, while rehearsing potential ones that may or may not happen. I live anywhere and everywhere but in the moment. I completely understand the words of Mark Batterson when he writes, “We’re paralyzed by things we cannot change—the past. We’re crippled by things we cannot control—the future.
My tendency to live primarily in the past and the future is not surprising to me; I do it almost all the time. What is surprising is that until recently when someone reminded me, I had forgotten that living in the moment and making each day count is actually something that God tells us to do:
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)
Give us today our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11).
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34).
We know from the creation account in Genesis that God has divided time into days. A little later, when He miraculously provided manna to feed His people, He included an expiration date of one day. When He taught us about anger, He gave us the deadline of sundown. When He told us to take up our crosses, He said to do it daily. When He told us to rejoice and be glad, He said to do it today.
And those are just a few examples of what God says about living in the present moment, one day at a time. What God has not told me to do is to live in the past or in the future; in fact, He’s told me quite the opposite. He said that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation and the old has passed away. He told us to forget what lies behind and that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us. And as we already saw, He said not to worry about tomorrow.
I need to listen to God and follow what the words of Sir William Osler, the Father of Modern Medicine, advise us to do: “Let go of dead yesterdays and unborn tomorrows.” Can I really do that? Can I live each day like it’s the first day and the last day of my life? Not right now. That’s been my answer, all too often. But maybe I can change that, right now. This is the day that the Lord has made. I’m here…
Troy Burns

Tripping and Falling on Shoelaces and Sin

I really enjoy running, as long as I’m upright, which until recently was always the case, except for a couple of treacherous trail runs and maybe a winter run or two when the streets were icy and this Troy went a-tumbling. But never had I fallen down on a perfectly dry and smooth road, not until this past Saturday, that is.
Smart people double-knot their shoelaces when running, to prevent them from coming untied and potentially causing them to trip and fall. Attempting to be one of those smart people, I did just that on Saturday, but, ironically, the loops of the laces were still very long and I ended up tripping on them and falling, not once, but twice, early in my seven-mile run. (Interesting side note: After the fact, my wife explained to me how she always thought my shoelaces were too long. That was a great point, if not shared soon enough to keep me on my feet.)
It’s a terrible, almost frightening feeling to fall and know that you can’t prevent yourself from hitting the ground. Thankfully, I was not seriously injured. I scraped my knee and would have ripped up the palm of my hand, had my glove not taken on said ripping. The worst of it was the extreme muscle soreness that resulted from catching myself when I landed on the street. It’s been several days since I fell, and it would still be difficult to manage even one pushup. This whole experience reminds me of the first couple of verses in Hebrews chapter 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
What happened when I stepped on one of my own shoelaces? I fell down and hurt myself. What happens when I “step on” the sin in my life that I allow to remain and trip me up? I fall down and hurt myself spiritually. In those verses, the “sin that so easily entangles” carries the idea of a loosely fitting garment by which a runner becomes entangled and tripped up. Of course, in my case, it was a shoelace, but the idea is the same. In fact, a more paraphrased version of the Hebrews verse reads, “the sin that so easily trips us up.”
As you might imagine, I’m now being much more careful about tying my laces in a way that keeps them well above the ground and prevents me from tripping on them. However, I need to be even more careful when it comes to “the sin that so easily entangles,” because tripping and falling on my walk with Jesus has far worse consequences than even the most intense physical wounds caused by falling down on a run. I’m back on my feet and God willing, I’ll stay there.
Troy Burns

The Perfect Hiding Spot

Almost every night during the summers of my early high school years, we played “Hide-And-Seek” with some neighborhood friends. There were no perfect hiding spots, so truth be told, I made it to “Home Base” not by stealth, but by simply outrunning the person who was “It.” Then I got older and was dragged into adulthood, kicking and screaming.
One of the many reasons I loved my previous role of Youth Minister was that I never really grew up completely. It was actually an important part of my job to play games with the students who were much younger than me (in years, if not in maturity). During our “Overnighter” events, for example, one of our most popular games was called “Seekers,” a version of “Capture the Flag” played in utter darkness. Each team owned and tried to protect a floor of our church building while working to capture the other team’s flag. The main “hiding” part of the game was in the effort to sneak close enough to the flag to grab it and run back to home base without being tagged. Our congregation was kind and generous enough to pay me for such efforts. Having fun was in my job description.
But hiding in real life is no fun at all, nothing like it was with my childhood friends or my youth group students. I practically enjoyed being afraid when the worst possible outcome was the tap of a finger, signifying I had been caught and had to go to “prison.” As an adult in the real world, the fears can overwhelm me. The outcomes can be horrific, at least as I perceive the possibilities and allow myself to be gripped with anxiety. And being trapped in the prison of fear leads me to hide in a different, less fun, and much less healthy way.
But there is one hiding place, one secret place that’s worth finding and spending time in, away from the cares of this life and the worries of the world. It’s a place marked by intimacy and fellowship with God, where fears are overcome and hearts are encouraged. A place where peace, comfort, and rest are found. A place where safety and security are discovered, not through the absence of danger, but in the presence of Jesus, regardless of the danger. I have the perfect hiding spot…
You are my hiding place;
You will protect me from trouble
And surround me with songs of deliverance. Psalm 32:7 (NIV)
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.” Psalm 91:1-2 (NKJV)
Troy Burns

A Better Way to Look at Things (Though I Hate to Admit It)

In a post attributed to youth pastor and father Alex Cravens, some thoughts were shared that helped me, as a dad, in my struggle with the current state of life in America. I mean this especially in relation to all of the virus-related challenges and restrictions we’ve faced over the past 10 months or so. Honestly, the most difficult part (by far) has been the negative impact of the pandemic on my children. They, like countless others, have lost too many important things and my heart has broken for them over and over again. Graduating from college and getting married (my son) and graduating from high school and middle school (my two daughters) were events that looked much different—not in a good way—than they should have, simply because they happened in the year 2020. And those momentous life events are just a few examples of the losses that overwhelmed me with sadness for my kids. It even reached the point, at least in my darker moments, where I actually felt guilty for bringing them into this world with all of its pain and troubles and disappointments.
And then I read the aforementioned words from that other dad, Mr. Cravens. I felt a little irritated at first because, frankly, I don’t always want to look at the bright side and remain optimistic when life hurts my kids. I’d rather be bitter and wallow in the misery of feeling terrible for my favorite young people on the planet. But the author’s words grabbed me, nonetheless, and reminded me that there is, in fact, a better way to look at things, as much as I hate to admit it. Grr… He wrote, “Don’t feel sorry for or fear for your kids because the world they are going to grow up in is not what it used to be. God created them and called them for the exact moment in time that they’re in. Their life wasn’t a coincidence or an accident.”
The post goes on to encourage us as parents to empower our kids to know they can change the world, which inspires them to live hopefully instead of fearfully. We’re also challenged not to let our fear steal the greatness that God has placed in our children.
As has often been the case, God used my kids (and another parent) to teach me a valuable lesson. I’ll save the details for another time, but I even believe that God worked through my future children to reach me and my wife before they were born. Right now, God is teaching me it’s no accident that my kids are where they are, because He has uniquely prepared them to accomplish goals only they can achieve. He has indeed placed greatness in them and they are equipped to handle the present challenges in ways I can scarcely imagine. God has my kids in this time and place for a reason, and I can’t wait to see what it is.
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Troy Burns

Been There and Done That

It’s my birthday today; I only mention that because I really want a lot of people to call me, and to text me, and perhaps even to send a little gift my way. I’m joking, of course (well, mostly)! The real reason I bring up this day is that Christmas is around the corner (it’s December, after all), so my thoughts are shifting toward the fact that I entered this world at a specific time, in a specific place. At 2:43 a.m., on December 1, in the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, WA, I made my physical entry onto this planet.
Why do Christmas and December influence my thoughts like this? Because God Himself also entered this world at a specific time, in a specific place, but with a much greater purpose than anything I could accomplish. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:1, 14a).
God became flesh; He lived a perfect life; He suffered all of the trials and temptations that all people face; He died on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins; and He rose from the dead to make possible our salvation and the hope of eternity in heaven. One specific benefit to our day-to-day lives is that God Himself experienced every type of trial and temptation we might face. No matter what we’ve gone through—or are going through—Jesus has “been there and done that.”
Our wonderful elder, Bud, was kind enough to jump in and preach for me this past Sunday, due to a virus exposure in my family. One story I was planning to share lines up with our discussion here. Just about five weeks after our first child, our son, Nolan, was born, he became very ill and lethargic and developed a high fever, so my wife, Kelly called me at work to tell me she was taking him in to see the doctor. About 45 minutes later, she called me again and said I needed to come to the doctor’s office right away, and that they were extremely concerned about his symptoms. A few minutes after I arrived, the doctor informed us that our little guy needed to go to the hospital, and that the safest way to get him there was by ambulance, since he already had a few tubes and wires connected to him, and they needed to closely monitor him while he was being transported. Kelly rode in the ambulance with him and I followed them in our car. Kelly would talk for years about the sad, scared, defeated look I had on my face, which was flushed of any color, as I drove behind them to get to the hospital. They admitted Nolan to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and he had even more tubes and wires connected to him. That was surreal and shocking and frightening to see my first and only son, just a five-week-old baby, lying in a hospital bed, attached to all of that medical equipment, with doctors and nurses checking on him and poking and prodding on a regular basis. For two to three days, the doctors could not figure out what was going on, and they could not tell us if he was going to get better or not.
Needless to say, that was an incredibly difficult experience to go through and we were beside ourselves with worry. I’m not sure I’ve ever prayed as intensely as I did during those 48-72 hours. He survived and recovered; they never did quite figure it out other than to give their best guess that some type of virus hit him really hard. Here’s why I share all of that: As time went on, I actually went back to the Pediatric ICU and also to the Neonatal ICU (for very sick and premature newborn infants), but in those cases I went to visit someone else whose children had been admitted there. It was quite an experience trying to help and comfort others who were going through what I had gone through myself. The nurses and other staff members in those units were the closest thing to angels that I’ve seen in my life, and as one person said it, that’s the part of the hospital where God hangs out.
My own suffering allowed me to speak with credibility to other people in pain because I had been in their shoes. I had “been there and done that.” I had walked the road they were now having to walk. When I would talk, other broken people would listen because what I said, and what I did, carried weight, not because I’m anything special, but because I had been through the same type of experience they were now dealing with.
When it comes to Jesus, He can do this very thing for us in any and every situation we might face in this life. Once again, He’s “been there and done that.” For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Troy Burns

On Bike Rides and Listening to God

It’s easy to live with the mindset that I’d better obey God, or else. I don’t want to go to hell, so I need to do what God says is right, and avoid what He says is wrong. This works for a while, until my desire to live my own way overwhelms my efforts to go along with God’s instructions. At some point, I’m not as motivated by fear or the negative outcomes of living life my way. But what if there’s a different mindset that allows me to rise above all of that? What if there are positive consequences of my obedience, as though God might actually want the best for me? What if there’s an incredible reward for seeking and following my Creator?
During my early grade school years, my mother would not allow me to ride my bike in the street. I really wanted to ride in the street, what with its smooth surface and open space to ride fast and far, but I (almost) always stayed out of the street because mom said, “No.” Riding in the street would have given me incredible, though temporary, pleasure. It would also have put me in danger and caused my mom to take away my bike for a very, very long time. It came down to my way or mom’s way, what I wanted versus what she wanted. I avoided the street because I feared the negative consequences, but more important than the fear that motivated me less and less, I trusted that my mom loved me, and cared about me, and wanted what was best for me.
As an adult and a dad who’s raised his own kids, I see more clearly the importance of kids listening to their parents. As a child of God, I’m learning everyday about the immense value of listening to my Father in Heaven. God tells me to do something (or not to do something), and I often want to disobey, but I (almost) always follow God because He has told me what to do (or not to do). Taking my own path would provide me with incredible, though temporary, pleasure. It would also put my soul in danger and cause me to experience some very negative results. It comes down to my way or God’s way, what I want versus what He wants. I strive to listen to God because I fear the negative consequences, but more important than the fear that motivates me less and less, I trust that God loves me, and cares about me, and wants what’s best for me.
Having a genuine faith in God is to believe Him in every area of my life. While I still fail more often than I’d like to admit, I do my best to obey because I trust Him, even though I might not completely understand what He’s doing in my life. On a deeper level, I have a genuine faith because that’s the only way I can please Him, and because He rewards me when I trust Him and seek Him.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
– Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NASB)
Troy Burns

Yes, I Want That, But…

One Sunday in early August, I presented a message discussing the phrase, “Let go and let God,” with a focus on how we typically take those words to mean that if we turn our troubles over to God, He will take care of things. The hard part, at least for me, is that I try to pass the baton to Him and it falls to the ground with a big clunk. Knowing that I tend to fail in this way, I also shared from an article whose author suggested a new way to understand the idea of letting go and letting God: “Let go (of the outcome you desire), and let God (bring about His will).”
I wonder how this approach might improve my prayer life. I’ve come to realize that it’s okay for me to be honest with God about what I want, but that I also need to leave the outcome of my prayers to Him, even (or especially) if that outcome is different from what I would prefer. I guess it boils down to this: Do I want my life to align with God’s will more than I want to fulfill my own desires? Isn’t that the essence of faith when the rubber meets the road? Don’t I need to trust that God’s ways are better than mine?
Never was this type of genuine, albeit difficult faith lived out so successfully as when Jesus was about to be arrested, mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross to die an unthinkable, excruciating death. At that moment, He prayed to God, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He essentially asked God if there was any other way to pay the penalty for people’s sins, if there was somehow a different path that would keep Him from facing what He was about to suffer. Jesus was honest with God about what He wanted; it was not His desire or preference to experience infinite pain and suffering, at least not on a human level. However, Jesus decided to leave the outcome of His prayers to God. He chose to put God’s will ahead of His own, no matter what. None of us will ever go through anything close to what Jesus endured, yet He still said He wanted to do it God’s way, not His own.
One definition of prayer is the alignment of our souls with God. This means that in prayer, our desires can become more like God’s desires, and we can align our wills with the will of God. It also means that prayer is not about making the things we selfishly want happen; it’s about making us want what God wants. Then our spiritual lives become really exciting as our desires are more and more in line with God’s. When Jesus aligned His will with God’s, He went through something absolutely horrific, and He saved the world.
Troy Burns

Goodbye for Now

And so it begins… My emotions and dramatic behavior are beginning to spin out of control. Well, I take that back. It actually began on March 2, 2002, when my first daughter entered this world and stole my heart. My most recent emotional breakdown, however, stems from her moving to Arizona this coming weekend as she embarks on her college adventure.
It’s hitting me that I will no longer do so many little things for her that I’ve always done. I often make her iced coffees with vanilla almond milk and French vanilla creamer. Last weekend, I bought a container of almond milk, so she would have enough for this week, but then it occurred to me that it was the last almond milk I will buy for a long time. The same is true of the multigrain bread and avocados I bought so she can make her favorite breakfast meal for one more week.
My wife is making it worse, although she’s as sad as I am (almost). Last night, she said, “Aw, this is our last Monday evening dinner with her.” Tonight, I expect her to say the same thing about our Tuesday meal. When our daughter was young, we enjoyed celebrating so many “firsts” with her; now, we must deal with the “lasts.”
I walk through her room and it’s getting emptier. Many pieces of clothing are no longer on hangers. More and more luggage is packed and sitting on her floor, waiting to leave with her. Bins full of dorm room supplies are gathered and waiting in similar fashion. I just asked my younger daughter if she’s going to take care of me, since she’s soon to be our only child remaining at home.
What will help me (hopefully) get through this is the same thing that helped me three years ago, when our son, our firstborn child, left home and moved far away to attend college. What allows me to hang on is related to some wise thoughts from a blogger and author named Kami Gilmour, who wrote a book entitled, Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent’s Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly. In her book, she shares a prayer in which she asked God to keep her from expressing too much extreme emotion, because she wanted her child to know that she was more proud than sad, and that she was more excited than afraid about what was next.
I think that’s the secret to surviving our kids leaving the nest. In what to me is the most helpful statement from her book, she writes this: “Be fully present to support them and look forward to the future through the lens of their life, not backward through the lens of my life.” I need to avoid being so preoccupied by mourning what I’m “losing” that I neglect to focus on how exciting this new phase of life will be for my daughter. This is especially true when she already lost so many things as a graduating senior in the year of COVID. This season is about her, not about me.
I’m in awe of God, who gave me the honor and the privilege of raising this young lady. And I know that while life is changing drastically, she won’t be gone forever. It’s a new phase of parenthood, with lots of coming and going, of saying “goodbye for now” and “welcome home” again and again. Nothing will separate her from my love or God’s love. To quote Gilmour once more, “He still holds her in the palm of His hand even though she’s let go of mine.”
Troy Burns

It Just So Happens…

Serendipity: The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way; an unplanned fortunate discovery.
“I’m so glad I just happened to run into you at the store! I was having a terrible day and you gave me exactly the encouragement I needed. Or did I just happen to run into you?
“That was a horrific accident; if I would have left your house when I was planning to leave, I would have driven into that intersection right at the time of the accident, but I just happened to miss it.” Or did I just happen to miss it?
“30 years ago, I was visiting my mom in the hospital and just happened to meet a young lady she befriended who, over the course of various events, would become my wife two years later.” Or did I just happen to meet that young lady?
In Luke chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus a question that He answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer’s question was, “Who is my neighbor?” As part of the parable, Jesus shares the following: 31 “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31). In that verse, the word happened (also translated chance or coincidence), comes from the Greek word synkyrian, which is a combination of two words: sun and kurios. Sun means “together with,” and kurios means “supreme in authority.” So biblically, the word happened (or chance or coincidence) can be understood as, “what occurs together by God’s providential arrangement of circumstances.”
Did I just happen to run into an old friend? Did I just happen to miss that horrible accident? Did I just happen to meet my future wife because she knew my mom in the hospital? What appears to be random chance could actually point to the oversight of God, who tells us, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). What I used to think of as serendipity could very well be the handiwork of God, who makes it clear that He’s in charge of everything:
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ 11 From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do. (Isaiah 46:9-11)
When I experience unexpected events or I run into someone completely by surprise, my first reaction might be, “What a coincidence.” But just because I am surprised does not mean that God is. In fact, He promised that, “in all things [He] works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). In ways known only to God, He takes those things that “just happened”—those chance meetings and coincidences, those surprise circumstances, and even my mistakes and unplanned events—and brings them together to fulfill His purposes.
Troy Burns