Okay, Then, I’ll Be Afraid

As an English major in college, I fell in love with contemporary American poetry, and authors such as William Stafford, who wrote, “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid.” In this poem, he penned the following words, as profound as they are confusing:
What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.
How is it possible that fear could “bless” and “keep” me? I’m not sure I understand or agree with that concept, but fear certainly dominates this world and we all must deal with it on a regular basis.
But what if I fear God and only God? If that’s the case, could fear be a good thing? As Michael Dye writes in his book, The Genesis Process, “Moving toward your fear is what the Bible calls a step of faith. Faith usually involves fear.” And the Bible also tells us that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Here’s the thing (also pointed out by Mr. Dye): whatever you fear, you give power to, and will control you. God wants us to fear Him because His control will be good and good for us. Life is full of uncertainty and insecurity, so we will have fear. What’s important is what we give control to.
That’s how my fear can “bless” and “keep” me. It’s the type of fear that can make me say, “Okay, then, I’ll be afraid.” It’s not the fear itself that matters; it’s the object of my fear and whether or not I’m giving control to the right thing. Since I’ve quoted a few different sources, I’ll share one more to finish things up. These words are from the song, “Control” by Tenth Avenue North, and they go like this:
God You don’t need me
But somehow You want me
Oh, how You love me
Somehow that frees me
To open my hands up
And give You control
Troy Burns

I Want to Leave My Church

I can’t remember the last time I simply sat and took in a church service, with no responsibility for any aspect of the service. Full disclosure: I work full-time as a minister, so of course I never just sit and take in a church service. But this did get me to thinking: should any of us ever simply walk in, take a seat, sing some songs, take communion, listen to a message, and then leave? Even if church wasn’t my “job,” should I ever take that kind of approach?
The most obvious problem is that every member is called to serve as a minister of Christ. Every person in the church—young and old alike—is essential to the proper functioning of the body of Christ. As we read in 1 Peter 4:10, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
Another problem with the “sit and watch” approach is that church becomes focused on my preferences and desires. If church is just the way I want it, how can I possibly meet the needs of others? And give? And sacrifice? How can I be a servant if I just want to be served?
If I demand that we sing certain songs (the ones I like best), what happens when we sing something else? I might feel like the church doesn’t care about me. What happens when we try to reach younger people because they are the future of the church and we need to develop new leaders? I might feel like the church finds me to be unnecessary. But remember that every person, young and old, and everywhere in between, is essential to the body. Instead of feeling left out, we can (and should) join in the mission of reaching people. Instead of complaining about music, we can (and should) celebrate the fact that other people are aided in their worship of God.
I want to leave my church. I don’t mean that I want to leave Sunrise; I mean I want to leave my church, you know, the one that has to be just the way I like it. Because I can’t serve if I just want to be served. And I can’t understand my real importance if it’s all about my personal preferences and desires. True joy means giving up my rights and serving everyone else. That’s not my church, but it’s the one I want to serve.
Troy Burns

I Give Up

I’m tired. And not just from going to bed too late and waking up too early (although I do that). But no, I’m tired way down in my soul, and I’m tired of being tired. That’s what happens when I do things in my own strength and worry about things I can’t control. That’s when it feels like work just to breathe, and my hopes are crushed because they were misguided in the first place, and I just need some rest.
The song “Worn” by Tenth Avenue North describes my feelings well: “I’m tired / I’m worn / My heart is heavy / From the work it takes to keep on breathing / I’ve made mistakes / I’ve let my hope fail / My soul feels crushed / By the weight of this world.”
Again, that’s my life when I do things my way, by my own strength, and worry about things I can’t do anything about. That’s my life when I need rest, but fail to go to the only One who really provides it.
The “Worn” song also reminds me of the solution to my pain and weariness: “And I know that you can give me rest / So I cry out with all that I have left / Let me see redemption win / Let me know the struggle ends / That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn / And all that’s dead inside can be reborn.”
Is there a place of rest for the “tired” down in my soul? Will my struggles ever go away? Can God fix my broken heart and bring me back to life? Will good ever triumph over evil? I know the answer to these questions, but I can only say “yes” if I get out of my own way and live like God’s in charge. With that in mind, I give up. And I mean that in the best possible way. I give up on me; I’m going instead to the One who will never give up on me.
Troy Burns

Do You Go By Your Name?

The main character in the movie Lady Bird goes to a New York school and attends her first college party. She asks a young man there, “Do you believe in God?” and he bluntly replies, “No.” When she asks why not, he answers that it’s ridiculous. To his response, Lady Bird shoots back with: “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.” This statement resonated with me. I know my parents brought me into this world and gave me a name; why would my belief in the existence of God be “ridiculous?”
Compared to my confidence that God is real, it feels like blind faith to simply accept the name my parents gave me. And yet I never question that my mom is my mom and my dad is my dad. They exist, and because of them, I exist. When it comes to the immensely vast universe in which we live, however, many people struggle to believe that it all came from somewhere.
If you share this struggle, think about the following:
  • Earth is the only known planet with an atmosphere of the right mixture of gases to sustain plant, animal and human life.
  • Earth is located the right distance from the sun. If the Earth were any further from the sun, we would all freeze; if it were any closer, we would burn up.
  • The human brain processes more than a million messages a second.
  • The human eye can distinguish among seven million colors. The eye has automatic focusing and handles 1.5 million messages simultaneously.
  • Scientists are convinced that our universe began with one enormous explosion of energy and light. The universe has not always existed; it had a beginning. What caused that?
  • DNA is a three-billion-lettered program, a full instruction manual, telling the cell to act in a certain way. How do you find precise, programmed information without someone intentionally constructing it?
  • The universe operates by uniform laws of nature. Why does it?
These are just a few reasons why it’s far from “ridiculous” to believe in God. Perhaps something else is at work when it comes to believing, or not believing. And it has to do with whether or not we want to find, accept, and live in the truth.
People have sufficient evidence for God, but they push the truth aside and no amount of evidence will convince them. As we read in Romans 1:18-19, 18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”
On the other hand, for people who really want to know if God is there, Jeremiah 29:13 tells us, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
I go by the name my parents gave me, and I believe in God. How about you? What is your name?
Troy Burns

We Will Never Pass This Way Again

In the 27th chapter of Acts, we find Paul sailing on a ship with a group of prisoners, on their way to stand trial in Rome. The other prisoners were thieves and political rebels, but Paul was different. And while most prisoners would dread standing before Caesar, Paul actually relished the opportunity. As a Roman citizen, he had the right to be heard. Paul wanted to plead his case, of course, but he especially wanted a chance to share the the good news of Jesus with the world’s most powerful man at the time.
As the ship set out to sea, sailing had already become dangerous and “Paul warned them, ‘Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.’ But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship” (Acts 27:9-11). I imagine Paul looking one last time at the safety of the harbor, knowing he was sailing on a ship that would never return.
Our lives on this earth are similar to Paul’s journey. We travel from one place to another and our lives never pass the same place at the same time ever again. Each moment happens exactly once. We can’t afford to waste a single minute. The specific opportunities of today come only today.
Like the ship on which Paul sailed, our lives face raging storms and shipwrecks. But to paraphrase Glenn Procopio, storms are part of the process and shipwrecks reveal the miracle of God’s sustaining power. The storms do the work of unsettling us until we realize that the hand of God has never left us.
Notice what Paul said after everyone on the ship had gone a long time without food: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you’” (Acts 27:21-24).
Could it be that every time we face a storm, someone is ready to help, to give us a message of hope and encouragement? (Or perhaps we’re the ones helping others?) Even if your ship breaks apart, isn’t there a plank with your name on it, ready to carry you to safety? And since we’re sailing on ships that will never return, could it be that the ones you help rescue today—by sharing the good news of Jesus—will be the very ones pulling survivors from the sea tomorrow?
Troy Burns

Nah, That’s Too Easy

People who remain positive in the face of terrible circumstances impress me. A former coworker of mine grew up in the housing projects of a big city, lived in constant fear, and was chased and beaten up nearly everyday after school. And I’ve never worked with a more positive, upbeat person in my life. How can that be? Maybe the alternative was just too easy.
My best friend in high school was continually optimistic, to the point of annoying me; I wanted to whine and gripe and focus on the negative aspects of life. I asked him one day, “How come you never get down and complain about the bad things that happen to you and other people in the world?” He just shook his head and said, “Nah, that’s too easy.” Boy, did I admire him for that answer. I had always assumed he was oblivious to the pain and suffering in the world, but his response revealed something different. He knew very well why he should feel down and discouraged, but he wouldn’t allow it. He remained upbeat even when life gave him little reason to smile and treat people kindly.
Although my outlook is now more positive, I still struggle to come anywhere close to the optimism of my friend and former coworker. This truth causes me a little pain and shame since I belong to Jesus and should feel happy and hopeful all the time. Right? Well, David was a man after God’s heart and he said things like this: “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:3, 6). To struggle and deal with a sense of despair is normal. But I don’t want it to shape my life, and I suspect you don’t either.
Maybe God’s Word can help us focus on the positive, and even experience His peace: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
If that sounds like a tall order, do it anyway. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. And if people ask you why you never get down and complain about the bad things that happen to you and other people in the world, just shake your head and say, “Nah, that’s too easy.”
Troy Burns

The Meaning of a Meaningless Life

In Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth, the title character speaks in response to the news that his wife has died:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
“Meaningless” might be a one-word summary of Macbeth’s soliloquy. And it’s quite understandable from a worldly perspective, but what about the thoughts of a real-life, mature Christian man who loses his spouse? When the wife of C.S. Lewis died from cancer, he wrote this in his journal:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.
If I were to lose my wife, I suspect I would respond in much the same way. But that’s life in this world. Even the Bible shares hopeless words when it comes to our life on earth. Solomon, the likely author of Ecclesiastes, was incredibly wise and wealthy and enjoyed all of the physical pleasures and comforts that anyone could possibly desire, and then some. He even said, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). Despite all of this, he said, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:10). With this realization in mind, by the end of Ecclesiastes, he says, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13).
I need God. Perhaps the most important reason I need Him is that He provides me with the only meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Without God, death would be the end and life would signify nothing. Without God, anything and everything I do would amount to exactly zero. But for all that seems meaningless and hopeless, I’m learning to rest and trust in the fact that God will always be there and He wants me to join Him forever. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the difficulties of this life, but I believe that someday it will all be worth it, just like it was for Jesus, who “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” (Hebrews 12:2).
Troy Burns

Are You There, God?

I was maybe a second grader when it was released, but I’m aware of an Elton John song with the following lyrics: “If there’s a God in heaven / What’s he waiting for?” It seems like many people ask the question, in one form or another, “Where’s God?” Of course spiritual skeptics ask this, but even longtime believers wonder about the same thing. As preacher and author Brian Jones writes, based on many years of experience dealing with hurting people, “I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t have a good reason for being one.”
I have to agree with these words. There are plenty of reasons to doubt God or even deny His existence. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but I must admit honestly that I don’t fully understand things like earthquakes claiming thousands of lives, criminals hurting and killing other people, drunk drivers destroying families through a terrible decision, babies being abandoned, and children dealing with cancer, just to name a few. I truly believe that God exists and that He is good, but sometimes I struggle to make much sense out of life in this world.
Some people have better “spiritual eyes” than I do; they know personally the power of prayer and they see what’s really going on in the face of unbelievably difficult times. As one example, my son’s friend is a 19-year-old young man who suffered through cancer a couple of years ago, who fought it and beat it at that time, only to have it return. This young man’s mother wrote an update on the situation:
“Micah is sleeping through his last day of high dose chemo. His counts are down so we are being very careful (masks, sanitizing everything, etc). Next comes two days of “rest” then stem cells on Tuesday. He still has a great attitude but there are not as many smiles right now as he doesn’t feel good. We are waiting for increased side effects but have not seen the bad ones yet (thanks to God for answering prayers on that).”
Now read this next part of what Micah’s mom wrote, and remember that she’s a mother who is watching her son endure this horrible, exhausting, painful experience of battling a scary, life-threatening disease: “It’s something else to be on this side of receiving prayer support. I know we will not fully understand the spiritual realm that happens here on earth until we enter the presence of our Father, but there is something unexplainable about feeling peace while walking this path. We all have our own journey that we experience alone (and for believers, experience with Christ), but to actually feel your prayers makes us able to step into another day with confidence that He has a plan that is greater than ours. All to say, thank you for praying for Micah and our family…we feel it and we are grateful.”
I want to be like Micah’s mom when I grow up (I’m 50 years old, but I have a lot of maturing to do). I want that kind of perspective to get me through the things I just don’t understand in this life. And I want to live with the sincere trust that something much better is still to come.
As God reminds us in His Word: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I find comfort in these words from God, not because my troubles seem at all “light” or “momentary,” but because the eternal glory will make my troubles seem minor and insignificant by comparison.
As I navigate my days on this earth in the meantime, I need to hold on to the thoughts that Thomas Merton put into words better than I can myself: “You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Troy Burns

It Will Get Better (I Hope)

I recently read about self-made millionaire Eugene Lang, who significantly impacted the lives of some sixth-grade students in East Harlem. Lang was invited to speak to a class of 59 students and he wondered what he could say to inspire these young people, most of whom were likely to drop out of school. He wasn’t even sure how to get these underprivileged children to look at him, let alone listen to him. Instead of using his notes, he spoke from his heart and said, “Stay in school, and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” The lives of these students were changed in an instant because, for the first time, they had hope. One of the students remarked, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” As it turned out nearly 90 percent of that class went on to graduate from high school.
As I look around the world, even in my own city, I’m discouraged by the way things are going. It seems like everything is getting worse and nothing will ever get better. But hope is powerful. And I don’t mean wishful, unlikely dreams such as, “I hope I win the lottery,” or “I hope I don’t owe any money with my tax return this year.” No, the powerful, meaningful type of hope is for something we know will happen, but it’s still in the future. This is the hope of those sixth graders in East Harlem: they didn’t just wish they could go to college someday; they knew their tuition was paid if they graduated from high school. They knew things would get better.
In a similar, but even more important way, we have a hope in Jesus that is not wishful thinking or dreaming. It’s a hope of something we know is true, but it’s still in the future. We know things will get better, in this life and especially in the life to come. Our genuine faith gives us this knowledge. As we read in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” On a foundational level, God’s Word, the Bible, provides this hope. Romans 15:4 tells us, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” I hope things get better; I know things will get better.
Troy Burns

Real Life Show and Tell

A Facebook friend posted an article summarizing what non-Christians really think about Christians. Based on numerous interviews with unchurched individuals, here are the most common types of responses received:
  • Christians are against more things than they are for.
  • I would like to develop a friendship with a Christian.
  • I would like to learn about the Bible from a Christian.
  • I don’t see much difference in the way Christians live compared to others.
  • I wish I could learn to be a better husband (or wife or dad or mom) from a Christian.
  • Some Christians try to act like they have no problems.
  • I wish a Christian would take me to his or her church.

My two big “takeaways” from these comments: 1) Unchurched people actually want to have a relationship with me; and 2) They want me to be real (I need to live what I believe). Should I be surprised by this?

Isn’t this the message from Jesus in Matthew 5:14-16? 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
And isn’t this what we’re taught in 1 Peter 3:15? “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
If I’m a real Christian who actually lives out his beliefs, people will be drawn to God, the true source of light in this dark world. And once people know that I’m for real, and that I love them and care about them no matter what (even if they never decide to follow God), I’ll earn the right to be heard and share the reason for the hope that I have. It’s sort of a grown-up, real-life “Show and Tell” where I have to demonstrate something through my life before I can talk about it. People are watching; what will my life show them?
Troy Burns