Perception

“CAUTION: PRIMITIVE TRAIL – DIFFICULT HIKING” The signs placed along the Primitive Loop of the Devil’s Garden Trail at Arches National Park serve as a warning to inexperienced or unprepared tourists. But to my experienced and prepared, ready-for-adventure self, they might as well have said “You MUST go this way!”

After seeing the majority of our arches for the day on the main trail, my friend Sue and I made a right at the sign to go the long way and complete the loop. There was only one arch on this trail, but there would be way less people and way more fun!

As we approached the sign for the Private Arch spur trail, though, the fatigue was beginning to set in. It was hot out there in the desert and we still had a long way to go – was the extra mileage worth it to see another arch? We decided that since we had come this far, we might as well, and set off on the trail.

Just then, another hiker, who was returning from the arch, walked over to us and asked, “Are you going to Private Arch?”

“Yep,” we answered.

“Okay, well you need to be careful,” she said. “You’re definitely going to lose the trail, it’s not marked well at all!”

Sue and I looked at each other like with that “Yikes – maybe we shouldn’t do this!?” kind of look.

“Is it far?” we asked.

“Yeah, it’s pretty far,” she replied.

Knowing it may not have been the best choice – we embarked on the trail anyway, agreeing to be careful and make sure we were staying on the trail.

The trails in Arches, like many hiking trails, are marked with “cairns” – small rock towers that signify each turn or change in the trail. On this “primitive” and less-maintained trail, the cairns were fewer and further between and some of them were just a scattered pile of what-once-was-a-tower. Since the last thing you want to do in the middle of the desert, when there’s very few people around, is get lost, we took it nice and slow.

After just a couple minutes, though, we got to a point where there were no cairns. There was a sandy trail off to the left, but the footprints looked old – or were they just wind-blown? We decided this must have been what our friend was talking about, so we stopped and, for a solid few minutes, looked all around the area, making sure we weren’t missing anything.

Our search came to an end when we heard the voices of another group of hikers who were, of course, coming toward us along that sandy path. Duh. We then followed that path, thinking we still had a long way to go and just a few steps later almost walked into the sign saying we had reached Private Arch. The entire trail was about 1/10 of a mile and took just a few minutes to hike!

We still can’t figure it out – did we look that clueless? Or did she just get really lost and feel the need to warn us?

Regardless, here’s what happened. We let someone else’s perception of a situation determine our attitude – and therefore our action – in it. This was an obvious and short trail, but we almost got lost because we let her perception cause us to question our judgment. We stressed and worried about something that, if we hadn’t run into her, we would have had no reason to stress and worry about!

Perception (what we hear, see, or think we know about a situation) does not always equal reality (the whole truth or most likely outcome of a situation). Many times, our perception of a situation leads us to say, “I can’t because…”

“I can’t have that hard conversation because…”
“I can’t forgive that person because…”
“I can’t ask that person for help because…”
“I can’t talk about my faith around that person because…”
“I can’t reach out to that person because…”
“I can’t spend time alone with God on a regular basis because…”
“I can’t apply for that job because…”
“I can’t get out of this relationship because…”
“I can’t tell anyone what happened to me because…”

We let our perception (the “because”) determine our attitude and action (“I can’t”).

David was the youngest son in his family. During this time of fairly constant battle and war for the Israelites, some of David’s older brothers were sent to fight in the army. David, probably in his late teens at that point, was a part-time musician and part-time shepherd boy – and according to 1 Samuel 17:15, his dad’s part-time errand-boy. Since he wasn’t fighting in the battles himself, his dad sent him to check on his brothers and bring them some food.

When he arrived, though, David found the circumstances to be less than ideal. The opposing army, the Philistines, had issued a challenge: The winner of this battle would be decided by a one-on-one, to-the-death duel! Their chosen fighter was a man named Goliath. This approximately 9-foot-tall giant “had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.” (1 Samuel 17:5-7)

As he was talking with [his brothers], Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear. (17:23-24)

To David, what was happening in this last verse scared him more than the giant himself. Goliath was waiting for someone to step forward – but no one was volunteering. And not only were they not stepping up, they were running in the other direction! They were letting their collective perception of the situation determine their attitude and therefore their action in it.

Their perception was:
“If he’s that tall, he must be more powerful than me!”
“If he can carry all that weight (his coat alone weighed 125 pounds), he must be incredibly strong!”
“If they chose him, he must be an exceptionally successful warrior!”

But maybe David saw something else. Maybe instead he thought:
“Just because he’s tall, doesn’t mean he’s powerful. It just means he’s tall.
“He may be able to carry all that weight, but what if that weight will actually slow him down?”
“Just because they chose him to be the ‘big scary guy you guys don’t want to fight’ doesn’t mean he’s actually a skilled warrior.”
Maybe David looked at Goliath and compared Goliath’s size to God’s – instead of his own.
Maybe David realized that Goliath might not be as scary as they thought.

And guess what? He was right. One rock in a slingshot and he took him down. Goliath was expecting a hand-to-hand sword fight and this attack blindsided him. Maybe Goliath just underestimated David’s abilities, but if he really had been such a great and mighty warrior wouldn’t he have seen it coming or found a way to fight against it? Maybe he wasn’t so powerful after all.

And maybe our perception of the giants in our lives – those “I can’t because’s” is not always correct. Maybe they look big and scary. Maybe we’ve heard that they’re big and scary. But there’s a good chance our perception of their power is causing us unnecessary stress and anxiety. Our perception of the situation is determining our attitude and therefore our action in it.

A few days later, as Sue and I were reaching the turn-around point of our Hidden Canyon hike (see last week’s post), we ran into a pair of hikers who, again, offered their advice:

“Are you headed to Observation Point?”

“No, we weren’t planning on it,” we replied.

“Well, you should totally do it, it’s the best view in the whole park and you’re like a third of the way there already!” they said.

“Hmmm,” we thought. “This was supposed to be our easy day, but if we’re already a third of the way there, maybe we should do it. We wouldn’t want to miss out on the best view in the park!”

As we started up the trail, we could see this area that we were sure was the “top” of the trail and we thought, “Yeah, that doesn’t look too bad!”

Well… a solid few hours and almost 2000 feet of elevation gain later, sucking in our last drops of water, having NOT worn our hiking boots that day, we finally reached Observation Point.

Yes, the view was outstanding, but unfortunately, we had again let someone else’s perception of a situation determine our course of action. If we had done what we easily could have done and pulled out our handy-dandy park guide, we would have seen that this was not a good choice! We would have seen that the “⅓” we had already hiked was, in reality, more like “⅛”! We would have read that this was a “strenuous” 8-mile round-trip which we were not prepared for. We could have made the choice to pause and see the reality of the situation, but we didn’t.

The reason David was able to see the truth about Goliath was because of His close relationship with God and therefore His ability to see things from God’s perspective. David knew that – worst case scenario – even if Goliath was the “champion” they claimed him to be – that God was still greater. He knew that even if he died in this battle, it was still better than doing what the rest of the army was doing – living in defeat without even taking one step towards trying.

With every “giant” situation you have in front of you today – there’s going to be a worst-case scenario (or multiple almost-worst-case scenarios) that come to mind. You can let those perceptions determine your attitude and your course of action (“I can’t because…”) – or you can pause right now and ask God for His perspective.

Maybe He’ll show you that those giants aren’t so scary after all!

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Chains

Exciting. Unusual. Bold. Risky. Hazardous. Uncertain.

I’m a big-talker about my love for adventure. It began when I was a camp counselor in high school and I’m still a firm believer in the power of overcoming fears and pushing through obstacles while being surrounded by nature.

The problem is that when it comes down to it, I’m also a big scaredy-pants! Not only do I have a fear of heights, but I’m also afraid of spiders, bugs, snakes, and the dark. The only thing I have going for me is a fierce sense of perseverance and pride in being ‘adventurous’ – so I rarely let my fears stop me.

On one of our last days in Utah, my friend Sue and I set out to hike to Hidden Canyon, one of the “chain” hikes in Zion National Park. With every step up from the base of the mountain, I was getting more and more excited about this adventure – a cliff trail so narrow they need to give you chains to hold onto? This was right up my alley!

When we finally reached the cliff section, I took hold of the first chain and began making my way, hand over hand, up the trail. To my right was a slick, steep drop into the canyon below – and to my left, some nice, safe, strong metal links to ease my fears.

After a few minutes, though, I had a moment. One of those life-defining moments where you have to stop in your tracks because you hear the Holy Spirit speak so clearly: “Umm… really? You are a healthy, athletic, experienced hiker! Clinging to these chains is actually making this hike MORE dangerous for you. Be confident in who you are!”

As I stood there and thought about it, I realized how silly it all was. Yes, if a sudden gale-force wind appeared or some maniac came barreling down the path, I may have been in danger, but it was true – my dependence and focus on the chains was putting me at a higher risk to lose my balance or even trip over my own two feet!

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul, writing from prison, said this to his audience: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) Not wanting them to be discouraged by his chains, he instead encouraged them with his absolute confidence that God was at work and would continue to be at work in their lives.

Later on in the letter, he again reminded them that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (2:13) Not only was God doing His work in them, but it was for a purpose. Paul was thoroughly convinced that a constant shaping and molding process was happening in the lives of all believers in order that they might “do good works, which God prepared in advance” for them to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

Why did Paul say these things? Because he wanted them to have the same confidence. He wanted them to continue boldly in their mission – even if it was unusual, risky, hazardous, and uncertain. He wanted them to know that they were not on their own in this adventure of faith – God was not only at work in them, but He had uniquely prepared each of them for this purpose.

Being a follower of Jesus can’t be defined as anything less than an adventure – because when you have the God of the Universe working inside of you to fulfill His purpose, that means things like overcoming fears and pushing through obstacles become a part of your everyday life!

And I don’t know about you, but for some reason the chains of insecurity almost always feel safer than standing up and doing the things I know that God has already prepared me for me to do. I prefer to cling to the “Well, I’m not really sure if God wants me to talk to that person, so I should probably wait” or “If I don’t confront that situation, God will just work it out” or “I’ll probably just screw it up – surely He can find someone else to do it!” It may look like faith, but really I’m just putting myself at even greater risk – not of falling – but of missing out on the adventure.

The truth is that no matter how old you are and no matter what you’ve been through – God has used every one of your circumstances and experiences thus far to shape you for whatever is coming next. He’s developed in you strengths, skills, and gifts that will enable you to do whatever He’s asking you to do.

So today you and I have the chance to choose confidence – to let go of the chains and stand tall on the fact that that He has done good work! Of course we are constantly dependent on Him and His leading, but we must also learn to trust in the work He’s already done.

When I let go of the chains on the Hidden Canyon trail, I was surprised to find that my fear of falling actually lessened. Sure, the chains were there if I needed them, but guess what – I didn’t need them I walked confidently to the end of that section of the trail – enjoying it instead of holding my breath.

I can’t even tell you the number of times the Holy Spirit has brought this memory to mind over the past few weeks. He has given me opportunity after opportunity to be brave and just do that thing He has placed in front of me in that moment. Man, it’s scary, but it’s all about the adventure, right?

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Foundation

I love surprises. And I’m also not a planner – which means my life is full of them! For my recent trip to the National Parks of Utah you might think I would have done some sort of looking ahead to prepare for what I was about to see and do – but why do that when your travelling buddy has it all under control?

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As we drove away from the Las Vegas airport on our way to our first destination, Sue (who had been to this area before) was cracking up as my jaw permanently dropped for the next few hours. I couldn’t believe the massiveness of mountains and the vastness of the ridges. “You haven’t seen anything yet!” she kept telling me.

Eight days and six national parks later, I was still in awe. I think the thing that surprised me the most was that I kept being surprised – each park was so different! The diversity of formations, colors, and textures of rock was incredible. Sue and I were constantly asking each other, “How did this even happen?”

One of my absolute favorite sights was “Balanced Rock” in Arches National Park. As you drive up to this formation, you have to do a double-take. “What in the world?”

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Here’s a basic explanation: The ‘balanced’ rock, made of sandstone, is perched on a pedestal of mudstone. The pedestal, which weathers at a faster rate, is slowly shrinking and at some point, will no longer be able to support the boulder (which is about the size of three school buses and weighs 3,500 tons). Collapse is inevitable, but for now, it’s quite a sight to see!

One area of life I don’t look forward to surprises in is parenting. After working with teenagers for almost 20 years, I’m convinced that there will be plenty of “We didn’t see that coming!” moments in our future – but I’d love to keep them to a minimum. I know I can’t predict or control my girls’ future choices (no matter how much I’d like to), but as we’re learning in our Moms’ Bible Study – I can take intentional steps toward building a foundation of wisdom in their lives.

Proverbs 2:2-4 tells us that wisdom is something that must be sought after – it requires action on our part. We must ‘turn our ear,’ ‘incline our heart,’ and then be open and willing to ‘receive’ wisdom. We are to ‘raise our voice’ and ‘call out’ for it – ‘seeking’ after it like we would a treasure.

The thing is that after 10 years of parenting, I’ve found it much easier to live in “survival mode”. Life is crazy and busy and every kid and situation is different, so it seems natural to just ‘go with the flow,’ grabbing whatever bucket of sand I can find from things I hear (or happen across on Facebook) to keep things balanced. Or mostly I just do whatever I think is best in the moment.

But I’m learning that even though there’s lots of really good advice out there (and I might actually have some good ideas), none of it can replace the moment-by-moment activity of seeking after God’s wisdom. I have an entire Bible full of His wise words and the ability to ‘call out’ for help and then ‘turn my ear’ to the voice of His Spirit who can speak into my every situation.

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“The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.” (Proverbs 14:1)

Unlike these rocks, I’m not just sitting around waiting for an inevitable collapse – I don’t have to live in fear of the forces of nature (or adolescent development). I have the opportunity to build into my childrens’ foundation a solid layer of God’s wisdom. And as I seek His insight in the moment, I am not only more likely to make better parenting choices, but I’m also modeling for them how to seek God’s understanding for themselves.

Those teenage years (and beyond!) may seem scary, but the weathering forces of culture, false teaching, and even that ugly sinful nature don’t stand a chance against the solid rock of God’s wisdom. The surprises may keep coming, but maybe some of the collapses can be prevented!

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High

In the spring of 2001, Tim and I were faced with a very important decision – where to go on our honeymoon.

If you know us now, you knew us back then – there was absolutely no question that we were “mountain-bound”. We are outdoors people and whenever we’re not on some sort of outdoor adventure, we are wishing that we were on some sort of outdoor adventure. When we see a mountain, our immediate reaction is to look at each other and say, “How do we get up there?! Let’s go!”

So, when it came to our honeymoon, we were thinking Colorado, Grand Canyon, Canadian Rockies, or some other set of peaks we’d always wanted to climb.

But our plans changed when we were offered, by Tim’s extremely generous grandfather and step-grandmother, an all-expenses-paid two-week tour of Italy! To be completely honest, we were a little disappointed – but seriously, you don’t turn down Italy! Surely we’d find some mountains and outdoor adventure there, right?

Well, not so much. We had a blast and got some ‘cultural education’ as we rode around on our tour bus full of retired senior citizens (because who else has the time to take a TWO WEEK tour of Italy?) It was a wonderful experience, but the ‘adventure’ was very much lacking.

When we got to one of our last stops, the island of Capri in the southern part of Italy, there were two optional excursions. One of them was something called the “Grotta Azzurra” where you ride on a boat into a seaside cave where the water glows blue. The other option was a chairlift ride to the top of “Monte Solaro”, the highest peak on the island. Can you guess which one we chose?

We got off the bus that morning and within minutes, we were at the top, ready to experience a breathtaking view of the island and surrounding sea! However, all we saw was this:

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We were disappointed, but decided it was surely just a passing cloud and if we waited a few minutes it would clear.

But… it didn’t. We waited for almost an hour and there was no change at all. No view. We were on top of this epic mountain overlooking the island and surrounding sea and all we could see were each other’s NOT smiling faces.

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If you read through the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, you’ll learn about the many different kings who led them. In the books of 1 and 2 Kings, each king is remembered for his accomplishments (or lack thereof), and most importantly, whether or not they “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD”. (1 Kings 15:11) Each king either led the people to worship the Lord – or led them to worship the gods of the peoples around them (a great temptation, especially as the worship of these gods was more exciting, personally rewarding, and physically pleasurable.)

For example, in 1 Kings 15:11-14 we read about Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done. He expelled the male shrine prostitutes from the land and got rid of all the idols his ancestors had made. He even deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down and burned it in the Kidron Valley. Although he did not remove the high places, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life.”

So at first, you’re like “Go Asa!”, right? But wait – what’s this about the “high places”?

The land God’s people lived in at that time had previously been inhabited by other nations who worshipped other gods. Many times, their places of worship were located high up in the mountains – because maybe if they could get up closer to the gods and closer to the forces of nature, their worship would be more ‘productive’.

When Israel came in and began living in this “Promised Land” they also began worshiping in these “high places”. In some instances they may have been worshiping the God there (or at least it started out that way), but regardless, He was not pleased with this.

Why not? Because He had already given them a place to worship – the tabernacle or temple, which is where His presence rested: “There I will meet you and speak to you; there also I will meet with the Israelites… I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.” (Exodus 29:42-43, 45) God had already come down to them – they didn’t need to get up “high” to be close to Him or to get something from Him!

As you read through the lists of kings, you find many who, like Asa, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, BUT… they did not remove the high places.

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I think if there was a list of some of us who are followers of Jesus today, our biographies might say something similar. Our “high places” may not be physical locations, but they show up in our dependence on feeling certain emotions in order to experience the presence of God.

So many of us have what we call “mountaintop” experiences with God – times where you knew for sure He was with you. Maybe you were singing a worship song and you suddenly couldn’t hold back the tears. Maybe you were listening to a message and your heart was racing because it was like the speaker was speaking directly to you. Maybe you were with a group of people and as you shared your lives and prayed together, you felt a bond with them like you’ve never felt before.

But over time, the emotion has faded. You try to worship – but it’s just not the same. You search for something equally powerful in the sermons you hear, but nothing’s really doing it for you. And that perfect chemistry you had with that group seems to not exist anywhere else.

And you wonder if God is even with you anymore.

Feelings are powerful, but they’re not everything. Emotions are our brains’ reactions to what is going on in and around us. They very often cause physical sensations – and if those sensations are good, we naturally desire to repeat those circumstances so we can experience those sensations again.

But the presence of God in our lives is not dependent on a chemical sensations. Can God can use feelings to show us His presence? Of course – He created emotion and often makes use of it to show us His power! But they can easily become “high places” for us when we think we need them in order to be sure that He’s with us.

The Israelites didn’t need the “high places” because God’s presence already dwelled among them – and it’s the same for us. God Himself came down as a human being to make the ultimate sacrifice – so that we ourselves could become the temple of His Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). We don’t have to climb the ladder of doing the all the right things to be accepted by God and we certainly don’t have to depend on certain “high” feelings to know He’s with us. If you’ve placed your faith in Jesus, His Presence is with you in ALL places!

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When we finally gave up on waiting for a view from the top of “Monte Solaro”, we begrudingly headed down the mountain. Since we had missed out on the view, we decided we might as well do that ‘Blue Grotto’ thing, so we went to buy our tickets – but it was too late. We had missed the cutoff time and there were no more boats going out.

When we got on the bus that evening, we talked to all of our senior citizen bus tour friends and they were like, “You didn’t do the Blue Grotto? How did you not do the Blue Grotto? It was AMAZING!”

And we were like “You actually saw a view from the top of the mountain?”
And they were like, “Of course! It was AMAZING!”

Because by the time they got back from the boat trip and went up the mountain, the fog had completely cleared. It turns out we were in such a rush going to a high place we thought would amaze us that we missed out on something in a low place that would have really amazed us.

When you worship, are you looking to feel something – or are you simply singing a song to God, praising Him for how great He is? I think sometimes we mentally switch “Bless the Lord, oh my soul” to “Bless my soul, Oh the Lord”.

When you listen to a message are you waiting for a #truthbomb that will make you say “Wow!” – or are you simply sitting under the teaching of your pastor, ready to take in and apply all of the truth?

When you’re in a group experience, are you looking to ‘feel the love’ – or are you ready to pour out the love on whoever God has placed around that table or in that living room?

It’s not about dismissing our emotions or trying not to have them – it’s just about not depending on them. Faith is so much less about making a “high” feeling last than it is about continually and intentionally remembering that God is with you always – no matter what you feel.

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