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Growth in the Spirit -- Fruitful by Michael Nichols

If you've got something good going on, you'll want to make more of it, right? Look at the very screen on which these words are "printed," and you will see a prime example of something good: technology. Digital, mechanical, whatever -- technology is one of the greatest things we have. It makes life simpler, faster, more efficient. We spend less time in the means and more time in the end -- well, I suppose this wouldn't be true for facebook junkies like myself... ANYWAYS.

The point is just that technology has been something that has grown since day one. We've always looked for an easier, more efficient way of doing things, and that's okay. In fact, it's great. Instead of setting aside weeks to travel on foot, the world can be cross in a day. Awesome? I think so. Less wasted time doing the intermediate stuff? Fantastic! Taking airplanes, cars, and bicycles to your destination has caught on with such force. Rarely in our corner of the world do you see horse and buggy travelling interstate distances. Why? Because it made sense to use new technology instead, so they rolled with it. They made more, the demand went up, and both the supply and demand have fed each other ever since.

So when you start growing in your life, what happens? Well, you see the benefit. A new way of life, some kind of change, may give you a new perspective, a different level of appreciation for what you have and what you don't, and whom. No longer are you a dormant seed, but you've sprouted into something different, bigger, changing, branching out, integrating into the world around you, and even shaping it. You provide shade from the sun, security for the ground, and food for wildlife... and you bear fruit.

What is fruit? It's seeds buried in nutrients. Think of an apple. It's meat and core right? And when the seeds finally hit the ground and become buried, once they've received warmth and nourishment, BAM! -- up springs new life where once there was none. Is it not a miracle?

The Bible has numerous passages about the "fruit of the Spirit," list off different things that indicate genuine spiritual growth. "Love, joy, peace, patience," are among these. One of the passages (Galatians 5) also lists "works of the flesh." Why? Because when we're trying to grow spiritually, we are also at war with the impulses of our flesh. One part of us only is sensitive to what we crave, and that's what we call the flesh. When we begin thinking spiritually, though, things start to change. You start to see what come from you rather than only what you want to consume. And why is this so? Because God doesn't want us to hurt ourselves, nor each other. He gave us life, and it wasn't meant to end.

We were made good, and we were commanded to be fruitful and multiply, and I have a feeling that purpose may have been in a spiritual sense, even though His immediate command was more literal. The Scriptures say that God "withholds no good thing from us," so He's not going to hold us back if we're trying to grow. He will be that "river of water" that David talks about in Psalm 1, that feeds us and makes us grow. Sure, along the way, weeds might grow up around us, we might run into rocks, and birds might circle to try to eat us up, all of which happens to ensure that we don't grow.

A lot of times, our growth is hindered. It can be by the environment around us, or the sin nature within us. Regardless of which is true, if stagnancy is propagating, don't be afraid to check your source. See where your water is coming from. Is it clean water, or is it polluted? In today's society, people tend to act as though social, psychological, and behavioral pollution does not exist, but they are just as dangerous and real as polluted water, and we're all victims of it. The question is: when we see it, how can we not do something about it, let alone deny the reality of it?

The great thing is that a lack of growth, nor a difficult circumstance, isn't powerful enough to altogether stop growth from happening, and it definitely cannot stop God from giving you strength to grow more! Remember the parable of the sower? I mentioned it in PROLOGUE. I've been wondering if it ties into another parable, about the wheat and the weeds (see Matthew 13.) In fact, these two parables are in the exact same passage. In short, weeds begin infesting a crop of wheat, and the harvesters want to uproot the weeds so that they don't hinder the growth of the weeds, but the master (hint, hint, Jesus) says not to uproot them so that the wheat is not uprooted with the weeds. The heart of this parable is: He's watching over you.

He's got a plan, and He's not going to let weeds win out over what He's sown in the end. They won't stop your growth, and they won't get in the way of the end result. They may wrap around you, and they may crowd you, and they may even sap strength from the soil that surrounds you, but they cannot stop you because the sower is watching over you, and He is faithful.

Growth in the Spirit -- Roots and Shoots by Michael Nichols

When a seed finally receives enough warmth and water, it can finally start growing, but when it does, it always grows in two directions. It grows shoots and roots. The little stem pops out from the ground, beneath a surface that appears only one-sided.

While we admire the outward beauty and fragility, the leaves absorbing the sunlight and the carbon dioxide in the air, beneath the surface, a whole different world is springing -- or maybe digging would be a better word -- to life. Beneath the surface, from the same seed, have sprouted roots, and even though they remain unseen by the surface world, they serve a purpose much... hehehe... deeper than we know.

Roots are dirty and damp, taking in nutrients from dead plants and wildlife, all through the medium of water. Aside from that water, roots, essentially are mingled in death. Depth and darkness are it's home. You're probably thinking, "Wow, this is getting gloomy." Well, it kind of is. Turn back now if you don't like gloom, but I promise you that something good will come of it.

Roots can be fibrous, branching out every which way beneath the ground. They can be fibrous, one massive root burrowing directly downward to find the best possible source of water. They can be bulbous or tuborous, like a potato or an onion, with tiny roots feeding one massive root-ish thing. How does that relate to spiritual growth? Well, do you learn things by tapping into one main source of wisdom, or do you have a diverse, complex social system from which you attain life? From where do you gain your depth, and what is that depth feeding? Are you a potato, whose depth fosters a centralized depth? Are you taproot that looks for one super deep source of knowledge? Are you fibrous, finding wisdom in the little things, the diverse things, a little bit closer to the surface yet not foreign to the concept of depth?

Taking things a little further, how does this depth show? What do people see? How do you breathe? How do you let the byproducts of your growth out? Eventually, growth will force old things out. Eventually, nutrients and old, damaged, decayed parts go away to be broken down, recycled into the dirt, back into their primary building blocks, yet again to be used as nutrients for new, growing beings. The same goes for us. As our minds expand, old ideas are expelled from our minds, ideas we now see didn't work as well as we initially thought, ideas that weren't built to last, behaviors that could not be maintained.

It's okay if you aren't the most outgoing person, or if the span of your growth doesn't always breach the surface like an oak tree. Maybe you show up more like grass, something small, but nonetheless valuable. People will recognize that, and people who know what growth looks like will be able to see if your growth is being hindered by some external force. Maybe the dirt is eroding beneath you, or maybe you're not seeing enough sunlight. Maybe the brighter side of life hasn't met your eyes as often as would be condusive to your growth, to your thriving in life, and that isn't always up to you. Not always can the plant be blamed for the ground in which it was sown.

In the very end the reason for all of this interaction between different parts of this social-spiritual biosphere we're in is this: grow up, and make more -- or it might be appropriate to say this: "Be fruitful, and multiply." I'm taking that phrase way out of context, but think about it! Jesus compared our spiritual lives so many times to something agricultural, in one specific instance, seeds. Not only He, but David the king, made mention of someone following the paths of righteousness being "like a tree planted by the rivers of water, which brings forth his fruit in his season." So what is this "fruit," and how do we bring it forth?

NEXT: "FRUITFUL"

Growth in the Spirit -- The Sower by Michael Nichols

It always starts somewhere. Every single one of us who have heard the Gospel of Christ and responded to it have a back story, a dark place we came from. We can try to deny it, but we have all to some extent been involved in sin and to varying extents escaped from its clutches by the continued work of the cross. In other words, we were all once children, immature, dormant, not yet planted.

Jesus said about Himself that "Unless a seed dies and falls into the ground, it cannot bring forth fruit." Not only this, but in another parable, He compares the Gospel to seed being sewn onto different kinds of soil, some bad, some good. Interesting connection, right?

So the Gospel, "... That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures," is the seed. If you're reading this, and you have come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ is Lord, that seed has hit the soil, and it is starting to take root. That outer shell protecting the meat of the seed has begun to dissolve away, and you have begun reaching in two directions, grappling with your environment to hold on for dear life.

Wait just a minute, though! Two directions? That's right. Don't misunderstand -- I'm not talking about hypocrisy or contradiction, though that happens. No, I'm talking about growing up and growing deep -- growing out and growing in.

NEXT: "ROOTS AND SHOOTS"

Growth in the Spirit -- Prologue by Michael Nichols

A few days ago, I was out with a friend of mine. We have been friends since elementary school, and even though he moved away by the time my middle school years were upon me, somehow, we kept in touch. We really reconnected about a year or so ago, when he moved back to Kentucky for a while.

We caught up. Not much about this guy had changed, but he is a different sort of dude. I suppose I expected more change than I saw, but my expectations are of no consequence. Everyone progresses at a different rate. Sometimes, it is more difficult for some to grow in their life.

One way that I noticed his growth was in a spiritual sense. It wasn't something that I noticed his expressing interest before then, not that the subject of angels, heaven, and the typical, hadn't come up in the past. After all, we were in elementary school back then. But this time, things were a bit different. He had struggled with life issues that made him think a little bit more about the deeper side of things. It was great to see this, especially given how much of a revolution God raised up within me during our time of separation.

Anyways, back to the story from a few days ago -- somehow, the subject of his faith journey had come up in conversation. Within this conversation, he mentioned how much he enjoyed camping, and how relaxing it is. There is something about nature that is, well, naturally stimulating yet simultaneously calming, and in a way much different from how we do it within our busy twenty-first centuries lifestyles.

This has prompted me to remember that the writers of the Bible often used agriculture as a way of expressing the growth of an individual. David, in fact, kicked off the fake-book of the Bible (the Psalms, that is -- a music book, not a fraudulent one, in case anyone isn't familiar with the terminology,) with a comparison of "the righteous" to "a tree planted by the rivers of water, which brings for its fruit in its season" (Psalm 1.) In this way, like when we go camping, David takes us right back into the wild, into the way the world was built before we layered things atop it. Does he detail the internal functions of a tree? Psht, no! but by showing how the tree drinks up the water, causing it to flourish and "be fruitful," he definitely gets his point across.

Is this far from the truth? Hardly! I think it's dead on. I'll talk about this more this week -- nothing formal, but just a few thoughts about how we can see this lived out.

Wood Chips of Faith -- Part 3: The Corinthians by Michael Nichols

The church at Corinth, spoken of in the writings of the new covenant, was a church undergoing a transformation. They, like myself, experienced an intersection of what they were told to trust and what they came to trust. A city of idols, when they were greeted by the apostle Paul, he recognised that the position they were in was foreign to the place from which he came. They had an established system of doing things, completely based upon the idols they worshiped. In order to reach them, he met them where they were, spoke to the place they were in.

In the beginning of his first letter, he talks about how the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. That's a tough pill to swallow. Even the most basic of God's concepts defy the most complicated of man's. People tend to do what makes them feel good for the moment, but God tends to do things that do good for us and others.

This ancient church was one living by the will of the flesh. People involved in numerous sexual sins (including incest) were popping up. People were dealing with the collision of their old beliefs with their new beliefs. Some were abusing the rite of the Lord's Table (or Communion), while others still were merely confused about how spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, and the like) were to be used. All of these things are important, yes, but his lead in is what caught my attention...

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

... He wasn't sent to complicate things. They just became that way, unfortunately. For Paul, yes, but mainly for the church at Corinth. Paul wasn't the one experiencing confusion but rather the one trying to help them through it.

Paul expounds upon his opening statement in the verses to come (click the indented text to see the rest) by explaining that the power of the gospel isn't in man's wisdom, but it is really found in the crucifixion, and after fifteen chapters of working through issues of internal division, issues about which they wrote to him first, Paul finally brings it all home. For the sake of saving space, click this passage: I Corinthians 15.

The key here, which you will notice in verse 12, is that they were divided over the most fundamental part of our faith: the Gospel itself. The Gospel centers around the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, everyone dies. Some are burned, but some are buried, which Jesus was. They killed Him, put Him in the ground, like any other bloke... then He got out three days later, which other blokes didn't do. This proved that He is who He says: the perfect Son of God, the only sacrifice that could take our place and quell death for us... but the heart of it isn't as mechanical as that.

The heart of the resurrection is that it was the result of His love, and the result of the fact that He is worthy of our praise, our love, our hope, and most fundamentally our faith. What Paul said so many centuries ago, I reiterate now: If our hope in Christ does not surpass the bounds of death, we are to be pitied above all men. I admit freely that if there were no resurrection, our faith would be in shambles, and it would all be for nothing.

The truth remains that after the greatest act of love on earth was committed, miracles, voices of change, new and renewed lives, and a sense of community within and without adversity, sprang up, and despite fragmentation through generations, despite hypocrites, despite deviation, despite devastation, throughout history that same core has been carried down, and none of it has stopped... but it's not about the good things that you see being done, nor about the talents being used or who uses them, or any sort of mechanical movement of the God's chosen people: it is about the love that Jesus gave to us, and its about the love and the new life that is awakened and still awakening within us when we come to terms with the acceptance of Jesus.

Back to that story from two posts ago, the story about the friend at that youth conference, back in 2009 -- she saw the truth because she had this hope, this faith in the love of Jesus and the truth of it. It was her identity, and had it not been so, had she not been a friend to me in such a miniscule yet massive way, I probably would not be in the place I am today.

As we returned to the facility used for the conference, everything that was said before and after the break suddenly took on a new context. Now, I knew I was missing the point of faith, and I didn't really know what it was. Sure, I knew the concept like the back of my hand, but I didn't know how to trust. I don't know if my faith saved me before that day, but I do know that I walked away a completely different person with a completely different outlook, because I saw God's love in action, given to me through someone else He loved, to show me He loves me too, and that was enough to show me I didn't have to live in fear, and I've been getting over it ever since. Things haven't become easier, but I've definitely become stronger because now I have something lasting to live for.

The title of this blog, "Our Light Affliction," is a quote from II Corinthians 4:17-18 KJV, Paul's second letter to this same church. I adopted this because it hails back to the first letter, chapter 15. You can click the reference if you want to see, but it simply says that the pain we're dealing with now hides greater joy on the other side of it because the things we see here are fading away, but the things we don't see last forever. Love, hope, faith -- none of these can be tangibly seen, but they can be felt, and these things can be more real than the instruments through which we live them out.

The ultimate fulfillment of our faith is found in heaven, at the resurrection, when those who have given their lives to hope rather than to despair are given the blankest of slates and the freshest of starts, and no longer will anyone have to run from pain, push through adversity. That, my friends, is a hope worth living and dying for. Jesus thought so, and He lived it out.

Our faith in people and in God can go just as equally through the wood chipper because this world has grown so dark... but this world is not our home. I still have so many questions without answers but I don't need them all. I just need Jesus. I don't mean to go church mode, but if you're looking for something, whether or not you know what you're looking for, this Gospel is definitely a good place to start. Try it, and see whether or not it's worth believing.

Even if you do have faith, don't be afraid to get back to the basics every now and again. Remember where you came from, and don't lose heart when your doubts and faith collide. You're just experiencing life in a fallen world. It isn't the end of the world if you don't please every single person who claims to believe what you believe, nor are you a hypocrite for having questions or not having it all together. It's not a free pass to live recklessly, but we're all human, agnosto-Christian or otherwise. Life doesn't end here, so even when your faith goes through a wood chipper, it still comes out as your faith.

This is a letter to people of all faiths, Christian or not. This isn't a religious story but a testimony of what has been done for us all, and how that love sought me and found me. Who am I to stand in His way? I am dust, and I will return to the dust. Jesus, however, is love, and He lasts forever. That, my friends, is worth it. :)

Wood Chips of Faith -- Part 2: The Cry for Help by Michael Nichols

It was such a contradictory experience. I grew up knowing the stories, accepting the stories, but not believing the manI won't say I gained nothing from experience, but I gained a lot. Two of those things are the ability to admit skepticism and the ability to admit when I'm wrong.

Despite the solidarity of teachings as absolute and fundamental as those of Christianity, any sense of that was mixed with a sense of "but really?" When I was young, I understood the difference between rudimentary constructs of "good and bad." I knew I wasn't supposed to lie, steal, say mean things, or be violent towards people. That was the extent of it, and when you're young, it is good to not be burdened with the gravity of, well, the grave. I mean, how is a child supposed to deal with death or rationalise its purpose?

I'm glad, for this reason, that I had the Bible stories so that I would at least grow in the knowledge of bigger things to worry about than how much I hated my bedtime, washing dishes, and being away from a computer. I grew in the understanding that it isn't the end of the world if you can't play with your favorite toy til His kingdom comes, that if other people won't share it's their problem and not yours, that people's meanness isn't always your fault, that the soul is deeper than flesh and bone, and that the purpose of life is not to satisfy your every whim.

I didn't realise all these things at once, but over time, bit by bit, these truths began to set in. I can't say that seeing the collision of Christianity with agnosticism ruined my childhood, but it definitely acted as a barrier between me and learning to see the world through my own eyes. I didn't really deal with issues of faith much, but when I did, it wasn't really pretty. You know the traditional pre-invitational question at the end of the traditional church service: "If you were to die today, do you know where you would spend eternity?" I didn't know. For a long time, I didn't know.

Several times, I responded to invitations fully intending to walk away knowing, but it was never that simple. Maybe it's just me, but I've never been one to accept a set formula for doing things because people have experienced different things in different ways and must work through them on their own terms, not necessarily on the premise that if you walk away, you will never know. That, readers, is a concept I like to emotional-to-spiritual leverage, and even though it's great to offer answers and a helping hand to work through things, it doesn't always work for everyone because everyone is not always ready, and I am a prime example, so pay attention.

I don't fully blame everything in my life on agnostics, or the fact that one of my parents is agnostic, or anything like that, so don't misunderstand me when I say that growing up in that environment wasn't the best thing for me. The two worldviews conflict on a fundamental level. The Gospel of Jesus says that you can definitely know who God is and have a personal relationship because He is the very definition of love, which is a verb used to describe interaction in a relationship in which two or more parties value the other. Agnosticism (at large -- I do not generalise this) says that you don't know, and it sometimes says that you can't know. This one simple difference can create cracks in a family smaller than visible and larger than life. What one holds as a standard, the other may not, and that can create conflict miniscule to monumental. It can even change the dynamic of the relationship itself. One may treat the relationship one way, whereas the other treats it differently. What I really mean is that they treat each other differently.

Ultimately, though, what does that do to the kid? Well, it leaves his mind split, trying to figure out which part is right and which part is wrong... and when you have a split mind, that means that you're left with your heart, what you feel, and that is not always a good thing because that means that you are building yourself from the ground up. I had been to counsellors since I was 8-9 years old, off and on, and none of them helped me deal with what I experienced due to the behavioral schism at home, nor did they help me deal with any other part of my life. I already didn't trust anyone, so why should I go to a place to which people I didn't trust sent me?

It was all extremely confusing, and I'm still working through many trust issue. Thanks to an awesome few close friends, I can say that the sense of solidarity, which I mentioned at the beginning, has become more and more real daily, and the more I choose to trust, the more readily I do trust.

One great clump of those friends is my church family, the ConneXion. I've been to numerous churches in numerous denominations, but I've not found the same depth of friendship, capacity for understanding, and willingness to work with me as I have here. Even the people I've met through the ConneXion have been fantastic in the same ways. The great thing about them is that they don't try to make me into something I'm not. It's not that they don't have beliefs or require some level of respect. Everyone has beliefs, and everyone requires some level of respect. I'm not saying this place is somehow perfect or above any other church; I'm just saying that I saw a difference in the way they treat me, and that makes all the difference in me.

I came to them during a time in my life when I was trying to get away from it all. I was still dealing with emotional fallout from my first breakup, and I had just moved in with my grandparents because life at home was becoming too negatively charged for me to handle in the immature state I was in. Like I said last time, my faith hadn't yet grown past my doubts, and I was crying out for someone to save me. This extended family I had found, though, gave me so much to believe in -- themselves to begin with, but that wasn't their goal ultimately, nor was it their job to save me. They had so much love because of the one who is love, and in showing me the love they had, I began to see how much love He has, and that was when my doubts started to drop like Jericho's walls.

NEXT -- PART 3: THE CORINTHIANS

Wood Chips of Faith -- Part 1: The Crisis by Michael Nichols

I grew up in the home of a Christ follower and an agnostic, so my relationship with faith has been interesting to say the least. I have a very agnostic way of approaching life, but I also have decided to follow Christ. That may seem contradictory to you Christian readers, but let me clarify what I mean.

Living without certainty can be liberating when you're talking about not relying on earthly things to fulfill my eternal desires. Do I always succeed? No, but I do understand that not everything in life is certain, and that God's specific plan for us isn't always clear. Just because we don't know what details of our lives will be like doesn't mean we automatically have to dismiss the thought of truly knowing who God is, nor of knowing Him like a friend. That's not to say our understanding is perfect. We are, after all, human, limited. Limitation, though, is not the end of faith, but the beginning.

I've said this before: The decision to believe ends where living in faith begins. You make a choice, then you live it out; that's how it works, and it cannot be circumvented. I don't really know why I try to do so, but I do.

I knew this atheist once. He asked me a lot of questions, challenged my beliefs on things. I'd never encountered that much... adversity before then. I'd never really had the reason I believe what I believe challenged like that before, and it hurt quite a bit. You know that scripture from the letter to the Romans, in which Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ"? Well, it wasn't really that I was ashamed of it, but I was ashamed that I didn't have better answers for the guy. I'd like to be able to have a deeper conversation with a person than what I had, but I was unprepared, and I was embarrassed for that reason.

I tell this story to say that eventually you will have your belief system challenged -- and yes, you do have a belief system even if you don't think you do, because you live your life a certain way and according to a certain code, and you value certain things and therefore treat them a certain way...  and you don't quite value your faith until you've been through the wood chipper. You don't really know what it's made of, or rather, what you are made of, unless you've had what you believe picked apart by someone.

I dare say you don't even know that you truly believe it until someone else tries to take it apart. Afterward, because of my lack of answers, I began to doubt whether or not I believed what I said, if I practiced what I preached. Over time, the reality of my angosto-Christian state really began to set in. Did that mean I was agnostic? No. Did that make me not a Christian? Uh, no! It simply meant my faith hadn't grown past my doubts, and believe me when I tell you that I had many.

When I found the congregation with which I currently associate (and this bit came before my encounter with the atheist,) I became friends with this one particular person. Well, she was more my friend than I was hers. Given how standoffish I was toward people in general, being a friend to others wasn't an active ability of mine. One day, we went to this youth conference -- Rebelution it was called. We had a break for lunch, and she started asking me how I was, and I remember responding to her with much negativity towards my life. I didn't see any light within it, but she did somehow.

Living through that story made me realise how worthless my faith had been until then. It was a name, a nice idea, a good set of ethics and stories, (and I didn't actually realise this was my condition at the time...) but I didn't really believe it until that day. It didn't really become worth it to me to trust fully in Jesus rather than to integrate a collection of stories into the back of my head. Sure, I thought I was a Christian because I believed that the stories were true... but they meant little to my heart, and until then, I didn't acknowledge them as being relevant to my heart. Once I saw the love of God lived out by my friend, toward me, then I got it. I had been seeking answers, but answers didn't change me, nor did they love me, nor did they save me. Jesus did.

That is one of the beauties of dismantling your own faith. Despite the agony of the process, you get to know yourself inside faith rather than outside it. Throughout the scriptures of the new covenant, you will find the apostles advising people and churches about working through their faith, their conscience, and settling it in their own minds, and how much their prior faith (or lack thereof) affects their new faith. They knew that the people they were called to guide in the path of a disciple would be thrown in the wood chipper, their faith being split into splinters. Certainly they, especially Paul, experienced this! Did they invent theological seminaries, though? Nah. They showed love during times of doubt and distress.

During those times, it is always helpful to have friends like that, who care enough to listen. Alone, the process can rob one of his sanity. Friends let you know you're understood, that your crisis of faith wasn't intentional but rather something that everyone goes through in the maturing of the mind, the calming of the heart. That's why I believe it was so necessary for that friend I told you about to have been there with me at the conference so that I would have someone to talk to, someone to show me things weren't as bleak as I thought, and whether she knew it or not, to show me how hollow my faith really was.

It isn't wrong to grapple with your faith. It just sucks that we must. Whether you struggle with faith on a fundamental level or just one aspect of it or not at all, you're not doing something wrong, and you're not being a hypocrite. You are experiencing life, and your faith is being tested by the world around you, to see whether or not it really holds up.

That's the awesome thing about the Gospel of Jesus: it does!

NEXT -- PART 2: THE CRY FOR HELP

Excuses -- Part 3: Laying Down the Crutches by Michael Nichols

By the time the night was in full swing, I didn't even want to leave the floor. Now, I wanted to make every excuse I could to stay there, to keep dancing. I didn't want to stop. Why would I want to stop? At first, I was so uncomfortable, but it didn't bother me so much.

People usually associate being uncomfortable with a bad ending. Change, however, isn't always bad -- oops! I forgot to ask: did you know that when you encounter something uncomfortable, you are bracing yourself for change? It's true, I promise. You are bracing yourself for change. Does that always mean things are going to change? No. If something does change, is it always bad? Not even! I know how to dance now -- well, a little, at least -- and I made a friend!

By the way, after that night, I started pushing the envelope more. I started taking more risks, but good risks -- the kind that you know will be worth it in the end... and I didn't want it to end. I mean that. I didn't really want that night to end, and I didn't want to lose the new vitality I had found. At the time, I didn't even consider it as an option. The unfortunate truth is that it is an option, but on the flip side, that means that I choose whether or not to give it up, and guess what! WHY SHOULD I?

We are tossed into life like groomsmen and bridesmaids on a massive, fast-paced dance floor, and why for a second should we not dance? Why shouldn't we show them all what we're made of? Why shouldn't we say what's on our minds, love without remorse, fight without despair? Why shouldn't we get out of our beds, glance but once at the crutches we've collected, then RISE AND WALK? I can guarantee you that nothing worth chasing will be found sitting down but rather running rampant, enjoying life, living and breathing the promise of God, speaking hope to the hopeless, heart to the heartless, and that if anything is sitting down, making excuses for their misery and the misery of others, that a part of them is teeming with life, ready to burst...

... so give them an excuse. :)

Excuses -- Part 2: The Loss of Feeling by Michael Nichols

Sometimes, following a trauma that strips one of the use of his legs, he can regain that ability. Other times, it is gone forever, and that is beyond our control, in which case we are not to blame, but what if you were to simply give up and not even try to restore the use of your legs? What then?

Making excuses works the same way. It always starts somewhere, with some reason, be it within or without your control. But then comes the time to decide to recover, be it possible.

Let's go back to the night I learned to dance. It was fantastic! It was fun! It was phenomenal! But what if I had made up some excuse to not dance with her? What then? Well, for the record, I did. I told her I didn't know how, but my untaught feet weren't going to stand in the way. I was nervous. If I remember it right, I told her as much. (The way I see it, when you expose your weaknesses and fears, you take ownership of them, and that's the first step in overcoming them.) So did I make excuses? Absolutely yes, but she wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and that was the best part.

Where I had let fear become a crutch, she taught me how to walk, and in a way unlike I'd ever walked before. The end was worth burning through the fear.

In the end, I had no good excuse not to dance with her, and she basically, in a roundabout way, called me out on that (and it restored my faith in people a little, but that part wasn't really the point.) Had she not done that, I wouldn't have the awesome experience and memories that I do now, and I would still have a lot of barriers up when it comes to doing things I've always wanted to do was had been too afraid of ridicule to step out on a limb and do them. I would have been subject to atrophy, and I would have missed so many things between then and now, good things.

It all came down to a choice. She chose persistence, and I chose to go along with it. Every time you make an excuse or don't, you make a choice, whether that choice is part of a habit, an addiction, a lifestyle, or just whether or not you know how to sing or dance or draw or paint or write and anything. That is the beauty of it. You can choose to change your life, to live unafraid, to see your scenes in a different light. That is the beautiful part.

NEXT -- PART 3: LAYING DOWN THE CRUTCHES

Excuses -- Part 1: The Invisible Crutch by Michael Nichols

Last time, I talked about my introductory crash course in the art of dancing and how I might have taken any excuse I could fabricate to escape such an uncomfortable experience. Before we dive too deep into the topic, though, let's establish definitions...

Think about the last time you went to the doctor's office -- I actually went to my orthodontist today -- and they printed a work excuse for you to give to your supervisor to prove that you actually went to the doctor for your health and hadn't simply skipped work to sleep in or some other sign of lax work ethic. What if the converse were true? What if you were the one who avoided doing what you knew you were supposed to do?

Everyone, like it or not, has a reason to do whatever it is they do be that reason within their intent or without. Maybe you didn't show up at work because you thought sleeping in was more important. Maybe you didn't study for your final exam because you really wanted to rank up in Halo 4 (guilty as charged.)

The odd thing about reason is simply that reasons aren't required to hold together for them to be real. That's how we're going to define "excuse:" a system of reasoning that doesn't stay in one piece when tried by fire. People get drunk, get high, commit adultery, bully, steal, brawl, among other things, and they all have some reason for doing so, even if that reason would not hold its own as a defensible excuse in court. For example, if you were a supervisor in a company and one of your subordinates came to work intoxicated, how receptive would you be to anything he had to say, especially about his continued work for your establishment? Obviously, someone who is intoxicated isn't the best at making decisions. The odds of accidents skyrocket. Depending upon what kind of drunk he is, he might be irate, slanderous, violent, or he might just be dead weight for the other workers to carry.

Now, he could have several different reasons for being drunk. In centuries past, alcohol was used by surgeons needing to subdue their patients. Then, of course, some people simply want to drown out their thoughts because they don't want to deal with them because it hurts, sometimes horrifically. Others just think it's fun. One time, I unintentionally had too much to drink because I didn't know the alcohol content. When I started to feel it, I was a little bit confused, but I couldn't react because I was subdued by the substance. After my system purged it (thank God for my liver), I felt... um... well, frankly, a little odd. I didn't enjoy not having full control of my body... Anyway, others, like myself, just like the taste of a good glass of wine or a mixed drink, very occasionally. (Issue with the Christian morality of alcohol consumption? Feel free to email or tweet at me, and we can talk about our different views of that.)

Regardless of why this person arrived at work plastered -- also, why was he driving? -- he wasn't conditioned to work, plainly and simply. It doesn't necessarily matter why, but for the purposed of remaining employed, his decision was, at best, not thought through. (I wonder why that might have been. Hmm.) What I'm saying is that he put in jeopardy something that by his very involvement implied that it matter to him. Something had to be more important to him than respecting his job. Of course, sometimes things come up, and you have to deal with them, at which time, hopefully your supervisor will be understanding, but by deliberately infringing upon the interests of the company, you decrease your chances of staying.

It's just an example, but I say all that to say this: he let his professional muscles atrophy. I dare say that because as a person continues in behavior that jeopardizes his career, that behavior becomes a habit, a lifestyle. It isn't only true for the workplace. It's true for relationships, appointments, and every gram of reality to which we're exposed. Intentionally or not, we give those people reason to ask questions, and if we let that go for too long, that might even prompt them to question our loyalty and maybe even let us go.

When we let our social, spiritual, mental, physical, or any other muscles atrophy, in order to stand, we start to need crutches. Did you know that sadness, grief, anger, are all crutches? These things help us to stand when we don't understand. These things can be beneficial to ourselves and others, but it is only for a short time. We work it out. God helps us, and our friends help us. We all get through it together, but what happens when we're not together? Getting through things becomes more difficult.

It's okay to be sad or angry. It's okay to not understand things. It's okay to hurt, but is it okay to give in? And what happens when we give in? What happens when our feelings begin to surpass their statuses as adjectives and become our identity?

NEXT -- PART 2: THE LOSS OF FEELING