Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Broken System

You can't legislate the human heart” – Matt Chandler

It was the moment all college football fans had been waiting for. Who would get to be in the third annual college football playoff? Who would obtain the right to play for a national championship? The debate had raged for weeks on end, and one thing was very clear: there were more deserving teams than there were spots.

How do we determine the spots? Conference Championship? Record against top 25 teams? Overall record? Strength of schedule? The irony of it all was that, depending on who you rooted for, you could make a stellar case for your team, while poking holes in every other team's argument...except Alabama. As everything unfolded, I found myself realizing one of the struggles of all the arguments: they were too simplistic. You couldn't just argue for conference champions, because the system was designed to all ready leave one of them out. You couldn't just argue for overall record, because not everyone had a great schedule. And yet, most arguments included only pieces of the whole picture, which presented a problem because it was trying to bring simple objectivity to a system, and sport, that has been relegated to subjectivism. It's the only sport in which wins and losses aren't necessarily counted as simply wins and losses.

In some ways, it's a helpful picture of the laws we employ to reign in the human heart. A system is put in place to help us know what is the right thing to do. “Put the best four teams in!” Or, in the case of our laws, “Do what is right and good! Let people live in freedom!” And yet, we find ourselves often scrambling. In the case of the college football playoff, three years in and we still haven't escaped controversy. In the case of our government, we find ourselves constantly at war with one another about how to perfect the system. Why?

It's because legislating the human heart, while essential in our current world, is an ineffective way of changing it. And according to Jesus, we all need change. In fact, in Jesus' view, we need a complete overhaul.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

We often look to the law to see how not to be bad. And as we look at the world around us, it occurs to us that something isn't right. “People are breaking the rules! People are dying! People are hurting! Maybe we need new rules!” Jesus says, “Listen, the rules don't tell us what not to do, they expose that what's in us is an innate desire of what not to do!” In this passage, they are concerned about food making them unclean. But Jesus is saying, “Look, the problem is not what you put inside you, but what is all ready residing in you. When you look at the law and find that you are breaking it, it's not what you have done that shows your evil, the law is merely proving that we have been evil the whole time."

It's not to say that we should do away with the law, Jesus doesn't. Rather he helps us see why we need it. It shows us our need for a savior, not a need for a law to show how good we are. The law was never intended to be a proving ground, but a mirror. When we use it as such, we make the law into a broken system that it was never meant to be.

College football's playoff system may never be perfect. However, the human heart can be. But not by the law. The heart can be healed and transformed by the God who sent Himself to die for His people. May we not give into the broken system of a saving law, but rather give ourselves to the saving one, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Grace, Restoration, and Eggplant Parmigiana

Over the past couple months I have found cooking therapeutic.  In fact, one of the things I've enjoyed the most has been using my electric smoker.  Ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, and wings have all been fun experiments.  I've enjoyed making pancakes for my kids more than usual, and I've enjoyed having folks over for the meals I cook.  But there was one meal I dared not try to make.

Eggplant parmigiana.  It's one of my favorite meals.  But I didn't want to make it.  At least, not since the house fire.  After all, that's what I was making when our kitchen caught fire.  I didn't want to deal with any of the fears or flashbacks.  "What if it happens again?" I thought.

God, however, thought it was time to face the fear.  I shared at a church presentation, and made an off hand comment about how I haven't cooked eggplant since.  A kind woman came up to me after the service remarking that it was such a shame that I wasn't making eggplant, since she had just picked 16 eggplants from her garden.

It might be silly, but I knew this was from the Lord.  I took two eggplants, went and got the same brand of sauce and fresh mozzarella that I was going to use the last time, and I took the plunge.   The  waves of fear and anxiety weren't as crippling.  The flashbacks (yes, they still came) didn't knock me off my feet as they once had.

It's a small picture of the restoration that's guaranteed by the grace of Christ.  The fire, while destructive, could not take away my hope for all time, because God is bigger.  He is better.  And He has proven that He will make all things new in the person of Christ.  I may have fears.  I may have new things that come in and disrupt my life.  But God will ultimately use those things to grow me more into His likeness, helping me to overcome fear with Christ-focused faith.  Eggplant parm, believe it or not, once felt like a noose that would suck the life from me.  Now?  It's a sign of remembrance.  The Lord was faithful to me and my family, and has continued to do so, bringing us closer to the finished product He has promised to make us.

The fear that once consumed, the anxiety that once crippled, is slowly subsiding.  Grace not only comforted me.  It also restored me. 

This is a picture of the effect of grace in the life of a believer.  Grace gives us the hope of salvation and forgiveness through faith in Christ.  But could you imagine if it stopped there?  Could you imagine if I was destined to a life of vicious flashbacks and never-ending fears only to be covered by a veiled band-aid of "Jesus loves you" with no hope of transformation?  Ephesians talks about this change throughout the letter.

"I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called..." (4:1)

"you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds."  (4:17)

"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (5:1-2) 

The first three chapters of Ephesians are all about who we are because of Christ.  Chapter 4 starts a stirring call: Walk in the life God gave you.  Part of that is trusting that God does and will heal, as hard as it may be, as long as it takes.  I will not always be crippled by fear, weighed down by anxiety, or defeated by sin.  Instead, we as believers will be carried by grace to become the men and women that God had always intended us to be. 

It may be as simple, and silly, as getting to make eggplant parm once more.  It might be finally having the courage to share Christ rather than giving into fear.  It might be choosing to love someone, rather than let your insecurities get the better of you.  It might be, for right now, trusting that God will carry you through in the midst of grief and suffering that you just have no idea how to navigate.  Wherever you are, you can know for certain, God's grace will not just comfort you.  It will change and restore you, bringing us to our best state when we are with God in heaven. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Why would you cut off your hand?

Imagine you contracted a deadly infection.  It started at your hand, and you had mere seconds to cut it off before it spread to the rest of your body, hollowing you out, killing you.  In World War Z, the character Segen is bitten on her hand by a zombie.  Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) immediately cuts off her hand, saving her life.  She was desperate, so Gerry did the unthinkable.  And while she no longer had a hand, she retained her life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something that we often gloss over:  "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." (Matthew 5:29)

One sentence later, He utters another extreme statement: "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away." (Matthew 5:30)

His rationale?  "It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:30)

If you're just reading this, it's easy to gloss over the extreme measures that Jesus says we should go to to get rid of sin.  Get rid of your eye?  Your hand?  And for most, it probably would have been their dominant features.

Some of us might hear it and think, "Yes, I'm going to be more moral."  Others might think, "That's dumb."  Both sides miss the point.

Notice Jesus' rationale again.  It is better to lose one part of your body than to lose your whole body to hell.  He's using a metaphor here.  It begs the question, when would you cut off your hand?  When would you pluck out an eye?  Much like Gerry Lane helped with Segen, you would do it when it was the only way to save your life.

Jesus is comparing sin (particularly lust) to a disease or an infection similar to gangrene.  Gangrene infects one part of the body, and if you don't kill it before it spreads, it eventually kills you.  Sin does the same thing.  Sin is in our hearts.  And if we let it reign in our lives, it will eventually deaden our senses, deaden our morality, and will destroy our souls.  But if we kill it, our lives flourish, because we stop the infection.

But how can cutting off our dominant hand or our dominant eye, improve quality of life?  It improves it by saving it from sin and death, and the fires of hell.  It may be extreme, and it may hurt in the short-term.  But it proves profitable in the long run.

So what does it look like to kill sin?

First, look to the cross:  The way to a new heart is not changing your behavior.  It's by receiving a heart transplant.  The Gospel not only saves us from hell, but it transforms us because it replaces a heart of stone with a heart of flesh.

Second, observe where you are tempted:  There are certain videos on youtube that I just can't watch.  They aren't explicit.  They aren't sinful in and of themselves.  But they contain language and images that sometimes are unhelpful and tempt me towards the road of sin, and influence my thoughts.  I need to observe these and other times where I might be tempted, so that I can do the next step.

Third, make a plan, and fight:  So think about when you're tempted.  Confess those to someone you trust (probably helpful if it's someone who is the same gender, if it has to do with sexual sin).  And get specific.  Download a filter, get rid of your app store, disable social media if you have too.  Refuse to watch movies with specific language or content (IMDB's parental guide is a great resource!).  Cut off anything that might lead to sin.

Fourth, see how God gives you life, and praise Him:  It's amazing, that when you stop lusting, you can start loving.  You can see people as souls, instead of objects.  You can praise Him for His design of life, and people, and attraction, and love.  Killing sin will be painful at first.  How could it not, if it's as extreme as cutting off a limb?  But it's so we might find more joy in God, and in His creation. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Maturity of those who Mourn

Back in high school, I was at a memorial service for the son of one of my former principals.  The officiant, I believe he was a rabbi, began to ask for good memories of the son, when the father's voice bellowed, "My son is dead, I don't need good memories." 

Pain and suffering often come, and our knee jerk reaction is to try and fix it.  As I've gone through the fire, people have given me the "silver lining" constantly. 

"At least your family wasn't hurt."

"At least you'll get a new kitchen."

"Be thankful for what you do have."

All of those things are true.  And I think, at times, those words were helpful.  But more often than not, I hated them.  It felt like an inconsequential, "look on the bright side," when all I could feel was sadness and frustration.  I wanted to weep, and I wanted to be wept with.

As I look at my own life, and how I've responded to those who suffer and are in pain, I wonder how frequently I've done the same to others.  It makes me wonder why I seek to fix the pain and cheer people up.  I can't begin to understand the hearts of others, but I can certainly discern my own.  And, if I'm honest with myself, I think I don't weep with others because it's too uncomfortable.  I want to escape the pain of weeping, so fixing it becomes the better option.  And if I fix the problem, not only do I not have to weep, I can pat myself on the back for being a good person! 

However, Jesus, the perfect and most mature man to ever walk the earth, knew that humans were more complex than that.  He would know after all, He was with God the Father in our original design.  In John 11 we see a captivating scene.  Jesus receives word that his friend Lazarus is sick.  Instead of going to him immediately, he stays an extra two days.  The text even says that Lazarus' illness was for the sake of God's glory, which means his delay was intentional so that God would be praised.

So, Lazarus dies.  Jesus then finally comes to raise him from the dead, four days after his death.   Martha meets him first, and Jesus tells her truth, that He is the resurrection and the life.  He shares what's true.  However, He doesn't do the same with Mary.  He gets to her and asks where Lazarus has been laid.  And when he goes to see the tomb, he weeps!  Jesus, the God of the universe, the one who knowingly let Lazarus die just so he could raise him from the dead so that he might be glorified, weeps!  Why? 

Tim Keller says it this way: "To show that He was a perfect man."  Keller added this afterwards, "In this we see that the most mature are those who weep, and those who weep with others."

This profoundly changes my understanding in how I love those who suffer.  While Jesus ultimately "fixes" the situation (which, He is the only one who really can when it comes to death), He doesn't neglect grief or mourning.  He enters into it.  He feels the anguish and agony.  Even when He knows the truth.  Even when He has the power to fix everything. 

May this be an example to those of us who don't have that power.

If I've learned anything through grief, it's that the most valuable and beautiful times are not when someone just tells me that good times are ahead, to be thankful for something, or anything else like that.  It's when someone has chosen to get into the pit with me, listen, and mourn.  It's then that I am far more open to truth and grace, because someone has manifested it in how they've approached me.

But, praise God, because even in our most imperfect attempts to love, there is a savior who embodied love to us.  He didn't just weep, but He went to the grave.  Even when we are loved imperfectly, we have a perfect lover who stands with us, and a perfect redeemer empowering us to become like Him to those who mourn.

Monday, September 26, 2016

How Guilt and Anger can Lead to Grace, Resurrection

Author's Note: Some of this is inspired by the sermon Tim Keller preached on John 11 after September 11th, 2001 entitled "Truth, Tears, Anger, and Grace."  It's on itunes, please please please listen to it.  It's phenomenal.  

I was only distracted for a moment.  But it was that moment that changed my world.  The smoke detector blared, I walked in to check what was going on, and the sight of consuming flame chased me outside.

Over four months later, we have a lot to be thankful for.

But I also have a lot to take ownership of.

The months that followed I've told myself (and been told by others) that this could have happened to anyone.  This is nobody's fault.  Don't blame yourself.  And while I've told myself these things, and others have reinforced it, it's done nothing but deepen my sadness.  Why?

Because it's rubbish.

It was MY responsibility to watch the stove.  It was MY responsibility to cook dinner for our family that night.  And when I took my eyes, my presence away from where it was supposed to be, catastrophe struck.

My irresponsibility caused my family to be displaced for three and half months.  My irresponsibility caused over $100,000 dollars worth of damage.  My irresponsibility caused countless hours of buying back different items and designing a new kitchen.  My irresponsibility caused our friend Sarah, who rented from us, to live in a hotel for four months, and lose her handcrafted possessions to the smoke.

 I was so afraid to admit it.  I dared not accept it.  And culturally, no one ever wants to put the blame on the hurting.  Why add to the burden?

But it was the presumption of innocence that added to the burden.  You see, I knew, deep down inside of me that there was something I could have done that day.  Yes, it's seen as an incidental fire, but there were a number of things I could have done to limit the incident.  (Since the fire, I now have three fire extinguishers... part of my responsibility kicking in!)

But here's the thing.  My wife has a right to be angry.  She has a right to be sad over the time we lost having to redesign our home and buy back new possessions.  She's been incredibly gracious to me, but there is a right to grieve loss over my irresponsibility.  My kids, as young as they are, have a right to be angry.  Angry that their home was taken away from them.  Sarah has a right to be angry, to grieve her losses, to grieve the suffering she endured.  And, honestly, they all have a right to be angered by my miscue.

Anger is such a funny thing.  For the longest time, I thought anger was a bad emotion.  But it's not.  We, as humans, just don't know how to use it well.  Much of anger turns toward sin.  But anger itself is a proper response to sin and suffering.  We should be angered when men and women abandon or abuse their responsibilities.

It was in this I realized the freedom of accepting my guilt.  As we all have realized our hidden anger, expressed in ways that weren't helpful, we realized that part of the reason why we didn't display it was of the fear of hurting me.  Not wanting to crush the man responsible.  And yet, when I admitted to myself all the things I had caused by my moment of distraction, a feeling of freedom rested in my soul.

The indwelling anger at myself, the anger of others over loss, it can turn three ways.  One can turn to despair and rage.  That's never good.  On the flip side, it can move inward and we suppress it, which turns to passive aggressive barbs.  Again, never good.  But there's a third way.  It leads to grace.

We see this in John 11, when Jesus revives Lazarus.  Jesus is deeply distressed, and He weeps.  But He also is angered.  Angered at death.  Angered by the brokenness of the world.  And then, we see His grace.  He revives Lazarus, defeating death.  But at what cost?  Well, it was Lazarus' resurrection that was the final straw, and the religious leaders began plotting Jesus' death.  The anger of Jesus led to grace, to the point of His own death.

Anger can be good.  It's what a loving God feels towards evil and brokenness.  It's one of the reasons why Jesus dies to undo it, to make all things new.  That's why guilt and anger towards both my distraction, and the circumstances are actually good.  It's good to be angry at a broken world with broken circumstances.  It's okay to be mad that your soul is stained.  But God's grace in the Gospel gives us the hope of resurrection.  

Anger that turns to grace always involves a death of some kind.  For me, that death is the death of my ego.  The shattering of an illusion that I was merely a victim.  The destruction of the idea that I can be an ideal Father, the perfect husband, and a friend who never causes pain.  But when anger turns to grace, there is resurrection.

In accepting the guilt, I can move towards Jesus, remembering His love, and letting Him change me into the man He has called me to be.  I can grow as a Husband, Father, and friend, remembering all the while that it's Jesus Himself who is the best of all these roles.  It's the acceptance of guilt and anger that makes me free, and refreshes my soul.   

Monday, September 19, 2016

No, I'm Not over the Fire

It's been a month since we've moved back in to our home.  I have loved many of the benefits, especially as things have become more complete.  We have new countertops, a new sink, new appliances, a new kitchen table and new-ish chairs.  My kids are running around playing with their old toys, freshly and thoroughly cleaned by the hard-working group that renovated and restored the place.

I thought, after three months, I would come back to a place that I could call "home."  The place of peace and rest.

I quickly learned I was wrong.

Even as I write this, I remember back to May 2nd.  I don't mean to, I just do.  I was just finishing a blog post as I sat in my bed, thinking about all the work that had to be done.  I was excited, I was going to teach at our week-long conference.  A number of our students were coming, and the community seemed to really be growing.  Afterwards would be a time of rest, reflection, and retreat.  How I looked forward to it.

Merely a couple hours later, that was all dashed.

And now, after four months, I still remember.  The memories force their way in, whether I want them to or not.

When this whole thing first happened, I thought I would be fine.  My family was safe, our insurance was great, God had protected us.  Yet, a while back I started noticing things in myself.  I noticed elevated panic in bigger crowds.  I didn't feel safe, even in what I would consider my safest of places with the safest of people.  And I felt this need to show that I was mature, handling it all in a Godly way.

That came crashing down a few weeks ago.  Students returned, the question often asked, "How was your summer?"  I wanted to run each time.  Every time it was asked, I was faced with a choice.  Tell the truth, and see once again the awkward and uncomfortable look on their face because they didn't know what to say, or lie, and feel like I was wasting away inside.

Then, the unthinkable happened.  A call from my friend and pastor, telling me there was a fire at our church.  The building was spared (Praise God!), but I had to fight fears in the midst of a place where I should feel the most at home: the sanctuary, praising God with my fellow brothers and sisters. 

I've finally needed to confess this to myself: "I'm not over the fire.  And I'm not sure when I will be."  And that's ok.

I'm reminded of 2 Corinthians 12, when Paul speaks of boasting in his weakness.  Here's what he says:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Now, I have no idea what thorn Paul was speaking about.  Was it a sin struggle?  A physical ailment?  A person that persecuted him?  We don't know.  What we know is that it hindered him, that he attributed it to Satan, and that Paul didn't want it.  He didn't want it to the point of pleading with God three times.  

What was Jesus' response?  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

So, here I am.  I am weak.  I am weaker than I think I've ever been.  I feel at the end of my rope.  But I'm done.  I'm done trying to be strong in front of people.  I'm done trying to prove myself.  No, I'm not over the fire.  And I don't know when I will be.  I'm thankful for all that God has done to protect my family.  I'm thankful for how God worked out all the details with our insurance.  I'm thankful for my church family and friends and everyone else who has helped us in so many ways.  

But this isn't over.  I want it to be.  I trust that Christ can and will take these emotions and fears away.  Whether it's now, or when He's finished making all things new, is up to Him.  And I will trust Him.  



Monday, September 12, 2016

My Totally Explainable Absence

Hello everyone,

While I never officially mentioned it, I've done my best to put out one blog post every Monday, around 5 PM.  I'm not sure if any of you have been dying to read my latest post, waiting at its beckoned call only to see it not show up the past couple of weeks, but if you have, or you're just curious when the next post will show up, I'm here to tell you: this is my return to regularly scheduled blogging.

Here's the thing, I've had a lot happen over the past few weeks.  We moved back into our home (yay!), we started a new semester (yay!), I've seen an uptick in Post-Tramuatic Stress due to our earlier house fire (boo!), we've lived without counter tops and major kitchen appliances for three weeks (I never thought I would be excited to see new counter tops...), continued to buy back all the things we've lost, and, because I wasn't crazy enough (that's hyperbole), I decided to go ahead and refinance our home.  I don't care if we're getting a great interest rate, it was a dumb decision due to the fact that our lives have felt so incredibly busy.

That's why the blog took a back seat (more like it was riding on the roof of the van without a bungee cord strapped to it).  Something HAD to go.

But... as I find more time to breathe, it's giving me time to begin to reflect.  That's always been the heart of this blog.  To share reflections on God's Word, on struggles, and how the Gospel intersects in real life.  And so, over the next few weeks, maybe even months, I want to share some of the things I've experienced.  Because often, I find that I'm a funnel.  I get to live through life experiences which are often hard.  But that's not in a vacuum.  As I'm living in the midst of hardship, it's not uncommon to find someone wrestling with a similar issue.  I pass on what I've learned, how I've failed, and how Jesus has forced me to cling to Him.

So, all that's to say, I'm back.  At least, as long as the Lord allows me to have a voice.

Thanks for reading.  I hope this blog is an encouragement to you, and I'm confident that God will continue to use it.

In Him,

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Terrible Son is still a Son

I was expecting the feeling of euphoria.  Or at least the feeling of relief.  Instead, I felt more anxiety still.  More work had been done than expected, the lawn was mowed, trees trimmed, bushes pruned, weeds were pulled.  Boxes were unpacked, furniture assembled, clean toys were sprawled out on the floor and being played with.  One moment I was close to tears out of joy, and deep anxiety sprung forth the next.

There's so much left to do.

For every box we unpacked, it felt like there were ten more mocking me.  For every job that was done, the to-do list only seemed to grow.

Set up the TV?  Wait, that cable doesn't work?  We never activated the cable line?  We need to call the cable company?

Add that to the never-ending list.

At least I have the rest of the summer to catch up on all of my preparation for the fall...  Oh wait.  The fall starts next week.  Students have all ready started to show up.  And I feel exhausted.  I feel spiritually dry.  I feel distant from the Lord.  How can I possibly bear the weight of the new semester?

Remember your Son-ship

My Mom was up this past weekend to help.  At times, I wasn't exactly the most loving towards her.  In spite of this, she purchased some of our groceries to get us back on our feet, took us out to three meals, and helped set up some of the things in our home.  How did I repay her?  By getting frustrated at her, and by secluding myself because I was exhausted.  I was a terrible son.

But I'm still a Son

As she left, she told us to sit down, and she handed Heather and I each a $100 bill.  "Here's some money just to have fun with,"  She said.  Now, my Mom isn't rich, just generous with her children (which means she spoils her grandkids rotten!)  We were thankful, and she left, but it didn't hit me until the next day the magnitude of this.

As I look to the fall semester, to my walk with God, to my house, it's not up to me.  It's not up to my talents, efforts, or charisma.  It's up to the God who gives me life in Jesus Christ.  He doesn't need me.  But He delights in using a broken, exhausted, sinner like me, because He purchased me with His blood and called me His Son.  

Sometimes, I'm a terrible son.  But I'm a son.  And I'm His Son, who He deeply delights in.

If you are in Christ, that reality is true of you now!

If you aren't, it can be, through repentance and faith in Jesus.  Do you want to be a Son or Daughter of the King of the Universe?  Then run to God and trust that Jesus is enough to do it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

10 Reasons Why I Don't Pray

"Over the years, the main way I've lied to people, is when I said I definitely will pray for you.  That's been my main lie in my 40 years as a Christian." -- Tim Keller

The above quote is not meant to defame Tim Keller.  He shared it openly during one of his services at Redeemer Presbyterian, located in New York City.  It was one of the many things that I've heard this past week that has pricked my soul in regards to my prayer life.  In a world that has increasingly said, "stop praying and do something," I've often stopped praying and done nothing.  

I want to both pray more and do more good, as God has promised that He has created me for good works (Ephesians 2:10).  So why do I often do neither?  Specifically, why don't I pray?  Why don't we pray?  Here are 10 reasons why:

1. I make it solely a discipline, rather than a discipline of desperation.

2. I believe the words of skeptics rather than the Word of God

3. I believe my words rather than the Word of God

4. I don't believe God is big enough to answer my prayers

5. I don't believe God is good enough to answer my prayers

6. I don't believe I'm weak and needy

7. I don't believe I'm worthy enough 

8. I don't believe it's more valuable than my hobbies, my sleep, or my time on facebook.

9. I don't believe time with God will give me the sweetest rest

10. I'm so overwhelmed that I don't know where to start

None of these are good reasons.  None of these are true reasons.  Maybe you can relate?  I don't have an answer of how to fight through all of these things, but I'll start with this: if you, like me, are so overwhelmed by all there is to pray for, start by saying to God that you don't know where to start, but that we trust that He knows all that's on our minds.

I often forget that God is not only powerful enough to answer and good enough to listen, but He's present enough to know the deepest parts of us.  Psalm 139 says "Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts!"  Granted, the context is about God searching the psalmist to find any offensive way, but I think the overall implication is staggering!  He is asking God to know everything about him, including the things he doesn't even know about yet!  

That's very encouraging to this struggler.  

So start praying.  Ask God to help you want to pray (Psalm 103).  Ask God for big things!  Ask God for small things!  Ask Him to intervene in world events, and ask Him to intervene in the most personal parts of your life.  And know that, in Christ, we are always worthy to approach the throne of grace. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Familiar Accusation

I was having a good week.  I just turned 30, I was showered with gifts, encouragement, and love.  My wife had her birthday just two days later, and we got to spend the whole day together without our kids, which was so awesome.  God was so good to us.  But that attitude turned in an instant. 

On Thursday, we went to talk with Lowes about the counter tops that we wanted to install.  We thought we had plenty of time to get the counter tops in by our move in date, August 12th.  So when they told us it would take a month or more, the news felt devastating.  I didn't take time to ask questions like whether we could still move in, or other rational, sane questions.  No, instead, when Heather told me the news, I displayed my wrath.  I angrily shouted I was going for a walk, slammed the door behind me, and went out on an angry vent against God. 

"Aren't you powerful enough to get us back into our house when we want?!"  I cried. 

"If you were really for MY good, then you'd get us back into our house now!"

As I said those words, Genesis 3 flashed into my mind.  I had been studying it as I was preparing a sermon for church.

Satan comes and tempts Adam and Eve, and one thing in particular stood out as I studied the passage.  "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5)

As a standalone verse, it seems innocent enough.  But in context, this is a damning accusation of God.  Satan is telling Adam and Eve about why God is wrong about them eating the fruit.  And in verse 5, he declares the worst accusation of God: He is keeping something good from them.  God doesn't want them to have that fruit, because He doesn't want to give them good things.  He's clearly not good. 

This is a devastating assault on God's character.  And to believe such a lie after all God had given them!  He had given them life, creation, dominion over all the earth!  And, He gave them one another in marriage! 

To eat the fruit was to believe that God wasn't good, even though He had proven His goodness by their very existence!  And my accusation was the exact same thing.  If we are honest, our sin is often a familiar accusation that God is holding out on us.  It's why we are greedy, why we lust after men or women that aren't our spouse, and why we complain and get angry when we don't get what we want.  We believe a dirty lie that God is holding out on us, and that if He were good, He would give us what we want.  Worse yet, we believe He is holding out on what we deserve. 

Here's where we see the goodness of God truly displayed.  You see, because we sinned, there is something that we deserve.  But it's not good.  We deserve God's wrath and judgment.  We deserve to die in our sin.  But God is holding that back.  He will hold it back FOREVER if we trust in Christ, because He, the perfect righteous one, the one who deserved all good things, died so that we wouldn't get what we deserve. 

God is gracious in not giving us what we deserve.  He is gracious in giving us good things.  And so when things look bleak in our lives, it might be tempting to believe the worst about God.  But refuse to do so.  Look instead to the cross, the truest symbol that God will never hold out on us, because He held out on His Son for our sake. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cost of a Great Gift

I love gifts.  It's fun both to give and receive good gifts.  It's one of the ways I feel loved, and it's definitely one of the ways I like to give love.

So when I found out I was getting tickets for the Ohio State/Michigan game for my 30th birthday, I was incredibly excited.

If you're unaware of why tickets to THIS game is so important, let me help you understand the significance.

First, there's the significance due to the game's magnitude.  It's (arguably) the greatest rivalry in all of sports.  Both teams are in the pre-season conversation to win both the conference and to make the playoff.  It's likely both teams will rank within the top 15 at the end of the season (maybe even top 10 or top 5).  It could essentially end up as its own playoff game on the way to a national championship appearance.   I was taught one thing as a buckeye fan: this game is everything.  You could lose every game, and if you won this one, the season was a success.  But if you lost?  It didn't matter how many games we won that season, it would feel like a failed season.

This game is huge.

Second, there's the personal significance.   It was my dream to go to this game one day.  But tickets to this game cost a lot of money.  So, going into ministry, I never thought I would get a chance to go.  I knew, at least in my own conscience, that I couldn't justify investing that much of God's money into a one game experience.  That's not a law, per se, I just knew that it wasn't something I could ever feel comfortable with.

But here I am, tickets in hand, for free.  My wife and I get to go to the best game, for free.  At least, it's free for me.

But it was a great cost for many others.

On Saturday, I found out that nearly forty people contributed to make this birthday gift happen.  FORTY!  That's incredible.  I'm not sure who gave what, but that's a lot of people to make something like this happen.   My wife Heather spent weeks, possibly months, organizing it so that I could feel loved and be able to do something that I've always wanted to do. 

Could you imagine if I turned around and said thanks for the gift, and then threw them in the trash?  For the people that gave to get me those tickets, they probably would be sad.  For my wife?  Devastated.  All that time, effort, and money, just so I could ignore it.

When we say the Gift of Christ is free, and don't act on it, we do the same thing to God.  We ignore that there was a deep cost to God's grace, and that we had great need of it.

You see, a relationship with God is the best thing any of us could have.  It's the reason why we were created, to have fellowship with our creator!  But we rebelled.  We sinned.  We hated him.  So God sent a gift.  The gift of His perfect Son.

The significance?  It's the matter between being reconciled to God and being separated from Him forever.  And the cost?  Invaluable.  Jesus gave everything.  If we do nothing with this gift, it demonstrates we don't actually understand what the Gospel is, or what it means.

The Gospel is so great a gift that it both saves us from God's wrath and makes us more into who we were supposed to be, comformed to the image of Christ.  If we just want it to save from wrath, but not change, we have missed both the significance of our condition AND the deep cost Jesus paid.  It's like saying, "Jesus, thanks for heaven, but I don't need anything else."

Have you missed the cost of the greatest gift ever given?  What would it look like for you to accept the gift with delight, allowing God to demand anything of you?  Because ultimately, the greatest gift we could have is to be able to rightly follow God and become more like Him due to pleasure we have in knowing Him.


Monday, July 18, 2016

The Nature of Hostility and Division

“Side? I am on nobody's side, because nobody is on my side, little orc.”  
Treebeard, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 

For many, July 4th is a day to celebrate in our country.  It reminds us that we are a country that is devoted to the freedom of all people.  However, Christian rapper Lecrae tweeted a picture of what his ancestors were probably doing on July 4th all those years ago: working as slave hands.  It was a sobering reminder that not everyone has had the same advantages or circumstances.  Even more so, it was a reminder that America's Independence Day is not going to be viewed in the same light by everyone.  

Some appreciated it.  It provided clarity to the cries of the black community about white privilege.  Others, however, claimed it was disunifying, un-american, and even racist.  

Unfortunately, things have dissolved further since then.  Two killings that went viral.  A sniper murdering five policemen.  And now, it feels like the battle lines are drawn.  

#Blacklivesmatter.  #Bluelivesmatter.  #AllLivesMatter.  "If you are silent, you are part of the problem!"  "BLM and these complainers are part of the problem!"   

The anger, frustration, and hatred has led many to wonder, "What has happened to our once great nation?"  Others are crying out, "It has never been great!"  It begs this question: why is this happening?  Thankfully, while we don't necessarily know why, God knows exactly why, and we can be sure it will bring Him the most glory.  

What we can be sure of is why divisions like this happen.  Many point to racism and privilege.  These are very real things that are happening.  But the scriptures point to an even deeper issue.  Paul speaks to it when he addresses the churches in Ephesus.  In that time period, and in that location, Jews and Gentiles were in serious conflict.

In Acts 19, there were riots in the city.  One of Paul's companions, Alexander, tried to speak to the Ephesian rioters (Gentiles), but as soon as they saw he was a Jew, the crowd increased their rioting!  Tensions were high.  

In Ephesians 2, we see even more evidence of hard relations: "You were once called uncircumcision."  This was a derogatory term for the Gentiles.  Not unlike the use of the n-word for black men or women.  

These were issues that took place 2000 years ago, halfway around the world!  What does Paul say in response to it?  

He says three things:

Remember the nature of hostility --> Paul, a Jew, wants the Gentiles to remember they were once called "uncircumcision."  This was a risky thing for a former Jewish religious leader to say to them.  So why does he say it?  So they would remember that they were alienated not just socially, but spiritually.  Gentiles couldn't enter the temple, so they could not worship God.  It was a literal "dividing wall" of hostility with the Lord.  Vertical hostility with God causes horizontal hostility with people. 

Be Reconciled --> But, Jesus came and preached peace to those who were near (the Jews), and those who were far (the Gentiles).  Jesus preaches peace to the privileged, and to the oppressed.  The first step then is not to be socially reconciled, but to be spiritually reconciled.  It's counter-intuitive.  First we must look at our own hearts and confess the sin within, so we might be reconciled to the God who drew near to us first. 

Be Rooted --> How does society change?  By clinging to Jesus for his transforming power.  Through Him, and only through Him, can a person lay down his comfort to draw near to a person who is radically different from them.  Why?  Because that's what Jesus did for us.  He drew near by becoming a perfect man, and dwelt among imperfect rebels.

It's why the quote at the top is helpful.  God is not on anyone's "side."  Why?  Because He's on His own side.  He's not on the side of conservatives, and He's not on the side of progressives.  He's on His side.  And His agenda is to win sinful men and women back to Himself, and then to make them more into the likeness of His Son. 

So church, the call is to repent of our sin.  If we find racism in the recesses of our hearts, it's time to come clean.  If we find hatred and bigotry and stubbornness, we can come clean.  Because it's evidence of your bigger problem, your hatred of God.  And He took care of that on the cross.

It's only through Gospel transformation that hostility will be vanquished.

It's only through the Gospel that true unity will be established. 

It's only through the Gospel that the church will continue to reform, seeking to draw near to other sin-sick rebels in hopes of winning them to the God who has reconciled us.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Forgiveness Drives Devotion

Have you ever felt like you are drying up?  You're reading your bible, praying, in fellowship, engaged at church, and yet you struggle to make it through?

If you're like me, you've had seasons where that has lasted a long time, and moments where it's been merely half a day.  But neither are fun.  And it's hard in those moments to love Jesus and be faithful.  It's in these moments where I'd rather not follow Jesus, give in to whatever my passions are telling me, and blame it on my tiredness or dryness.  

What's worse?  It comes off going to two weeks of "Focus," DiscipleMakers week-long retreat, and of course, we left the week wanting to change the world for Christ!  Merely days later it's hard to even get out of bed and skim a few pages and form a few words.  Save the World?  Hah!  

We dream and imagine being part of God's plan and yet how often after we gain a boost of clarity from retreats, conferences, and spiritual highs, that we crash back down to reality?  The fire inside dried up.  My desire to be more generous is sucked away by my greed.  My desire to reach neighbors for Christ is sucked away by my want of comfort.  

Thank God I don't have to be mastered by my emotions.  

As I've planted in God's Word (even when it's been hard), one of the things I was struck by was a passage in Luke 7, where a woman "of the city" (that's code for prostitute) encounters Jesus.  She goes into a religious leader's house, which would have super scandalous.  She weeps over Jesus' feet and kisses them (That's weird... and gross).  And she breaks an alabaster flask, filled with her ointment (which would have meant everything to her, due to her line of work), and anoints Jesus' feet with it.  


The religious leader scoffs at this.  Jesus, however, does not.  He speaks.  And this is what he says: 

"Do you see this woman? I entered your (religious leader's) house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:44b-47)

The religious leader does nothing, because he does not see his need for forgiveness.  The woman, however, is deeply moved because she knows her both her need, and the one who fulfills that need.  Her reputation is awful, her line of work is shameful, and she herself is most likely in a very broken state.  She's been used by men.  And here is a man who welcomes her not for her body, but because He chooses to love her.  And she gives up everything.  Presumably, she even gives up her occupation because the ointment she would have used to make herself more attractive has been poured out on a man who has no intention of sleeping with her.   

She realizes how much she has been forgiven.  And in turn, she responds with deep devotion.  

When you are in a dry season, do you run back to the cross to remember your need for forgiveness?  Might that be why you are dry in the first place?  Maybe, like me, as we grow we revert to thinking like the religious leader.  We start to get our acts together, our reputation grows a bit, we do more good deeds.  But who got us to that point?  

Jesus did.  He rescued us from eternal hell and shame, and brought us to Himself.  We must remember how much we have been forgiven, often, if our devotion to Christ is to grow.  

Have you looked recently at the depths of your sin that Jesus has forgiven?

Have you looked freshly upon the Cross of Christ? 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Longing for More

 Author's Note: This post was originally written a few months ago, but thought it was appropriate since I am currently on vacation.  It's a good reminder that Jesus is the one who will give me the sweetest rest, which will help me enjoy our vacation even more!
If you looked at my browsing history recently, you would quickly see a repeated pattern.,,, the list goes on. “When can I get away?” We all dream for some sort of escape, and my guess is, if we all are honest, many of us often wander down the trail of the deep desire for a vacation. And not just any vacation. But the one that tops all other vacations.

At the end of 2014, Heather and I went on a cruise that I looked forward to for a long time. I was especially excited because it was on the largest cruise ship ever built, Royal Caribbean's “Allure of the Seas.” And it was amazing. The food was excellent, the entertainment was top-notch, and the ship itself was mesmorizing. I was amazed that a massive ship could hold so much. It was so impressive that it had it's own take on New York's Central Park, with live plant life and butterflies buzzing in the open center of the ship! With trees planted in front of you and store-fronts on either side, it was easy to forget that you were sailing on a vessel in the middle of the ocean!

Since then, I've gone through waves of wanting to go back on that boat, or another just like it. And not a casual, “it'd be fun to do that again.” Rather, a deep, gripping desire to drop everything and go. I want to experience the wonder again. The freedom to just explore. And the freedom to not have to worry about anything, sit on a lounge chair, and read and think and soak in the sun. I just want to escape.

And yet, while being on the seas can be a good thing (barring running into any icebergs!), this deep desire within me is actually a cry for help. There is something in me that feels this need to escape whatever I don't want to be in at this moment. And while God calls us to be in certain places in certain seasons, I'm struggling to be content. A few of these are:

I don't like being confined to a specific time: I love my job. I love ministry. But I often want to do it on my time-table and my terms. But school is in session at specific times, and God has called me to minister at college campuses. In my right mind, I wouldn't trade it for the world. But my sinful desire longs to trade eternal impact in for a lowly week at sea.

I believe the lie that my kids are a hinderance: I love my kids. I love getting to parent them. But they place restrictions on Heather and I. We can't just leave at the drop of a hat, and if we do want to leave just the two of us, we need to go through a lot of hoops to make sure they will be taken care of. It's not just whether we can find someone to watch them, it's also when they can watch them. Not only that, but in the season of having a newborn, it's nearly impossible to go anywhere without our little JJ for more than a few hours for the next few months. This is frustrating to me sometimes, because it's easy for me to believe that a vacation away from them would be better than spending time with them. I'm not believing that “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3)

I dislike increased responsibility: As I'm getting older, there are more things I'm responsible for, which means less and less “me” time. This can feel like a curse. But the scriptures say differently. In Matthew 25, when Jesus tells the parable of the talents, the reward for the faithful servants is MORE responsibility. I should rejoice in gaining more responsibility, not run away from it.

I fear I'm missing out: This is probably the biggest inward struggle, and is linked to the other three lies from above. “What if I'm missing out on the best thing!” Psalm 16 says, “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” This is a helpful reminder that God is my true treasure. And if He has called me to be here and now, then this is what's best. And, through the cross of Christ, I will have a far better paradise to call home than any boat. Because of Christ, I will never miss out on the best thing.

So, I don't need the “perfect” vacation. I don't need to hope that I get to sail once more, and it doesn't need to be now. I can feel free to spend money on a different family vacation and enjoy my children, even if it feels like more work. I can find great joy in the different seasons of life, even when it's a season of hard work, or a season of rest.

Can you relate? Remember, the lines have fallen in pleasant places. And our greatest treasure is Christ. Even if you get time away from the kids. Even if you can take that ideal vacation. Even if you can have a reprieve from all your responsibilities. Jesus will always provide the sweetest rest, and when we trust in Him, He can make even our most fun activities that much more enjoyable, because we've made Jesus the ultimate person who brings ultimate joy.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Captivity of Anger

As I got home the other night, I found my wife watching "How to Make a Murderer" on Netflix.  I asked her what it was about, and the short-version, at least up to this point in the show, it seems that the local police department was so focused on this one potential perpetrator, they mishandled evidence and testimony so that it all pointed to him, despite the fact that all of it pointed elsewhere.

I was struck by the inaccuracy of their observation, and how they quickly misinterpreted facts.  And yet, when confronted by their mistakes, they refused to acknowledge them, believing they were in the right.

"How could that happen?"  I wondered.

It didn't take long for me to realize how.  I suffered from the same sinful pattern the next night.  I perceived that someone had did something against me.  And within a minute I had a very long, detailed rap sheet scrolling in my head of how this person had wronged me over the past number of years.  And my anger was exacerbated.  I couldn't stop scrolling.  I couldn't stop thinking.  It was so severe that I could not sleep.

As Heather, my wife, asked me questions I raised my voice, accused this person of a number of wrongs, and even wondered, "should I even be friends with this person anymore?"

How could I come to that conclusion in my heart within a matter of minutes?  Easy.  I told myself one story, followed by another, followed by another, until my slight annoyance became a blinding rage.  A friend became a bully.  A fellow believer became a self-centered jerk.  I made myself into a victim.  And I was ready for justice.

Now, there are a number of things that were wrong with this that we could address.  But what struck me was how easy it was to neglect all the good of this person because of my anger.  I knew I wasn't thinking clearly.  I knew I was being unfair.  And for a while, I didn't care.  I wanted to believe my stories, my made-up resume, and give into my rage.  I wanted to be angry.

It was blinding, and I was captive to it.  Forgive?  Why should I?  Love?  Why should I?

"They don't deserve it!"  I would think to myself.

The scriptures argued back, "neither did you."  Checkmate.

How can we be freed from the captivity of anger?  By looking at the King who had every right to be angry, and yet poured His wrath out on the Son for our sake.

Jesus tells a parable that helps us.  In Matthew 18, a man is indebted to his king.  His debt?  10,000 talents.  In modern day American dollars, that's roughly 7 billion dollars!  There's no way that he, a day laborer, could pay that back!  But the king forgives the debt.  Afterwards, the forgiven servant goes and finds someone who owes him 100 denarii, which was roughly one-third of a year's wages.  Think somewhere in the ball park of $10,000-$15,000.  Now, this man could not pay back the forgiven servant, so he had him sent to prison until he could pay it back.

Certainly, this was a large debt.  In some ways, it's understandable that he would be upset.  But how absurd is it that he wouldn't forgive it, knowing how much he had been forgiven?

Jesus tells this parable as a response to a question Peter asks.  "“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times"" (Matthew 18:21-22)

Do you notice where Peter is going with this?  Peter is saying, "I'm pretty good if I forgive someone seven times, and then I stop loving him, right?"  Jesus responds by saying it's not enough.  He's essentially saying your position and direction are always to forgive.  Why?  Because it's a response to how you've been forgiven!

The Gospel is what can free us from the captivity of anger.  I can forgive someone for a while if I really love them, but sometimes I find myself having the "last straw."  But if I look at how Jesus loved me in spite of my sinfulness, then I really lose any power to be consumed by rage and anger.  I can make the choice to forgive, even when my emotions say otherwise.

It's not easy.  It's not rewarding in the short-term.  But it's life-giving rather than life-taking.  It's freedom, not slavery to the whims of our anger.  It's the freedom that Jesus promised us, and in turn He helps us to engage those who wronged us, spoke ill of us, or persecuted us with love and mercy.  Just as He did with us.

Monday, June 20, 2016

God Doesn't Abandon His Children

I often wonder why God chose me. I don't have much to offer in terms of success or fame, and my track record hasn't been stellar. I probably wrecked our fellowship more than helped it when I was in college. I often struggle to run to God for help. I'm a slow learner and mover. And I often question why God would even want me, with all my faults, mistakes, and quirks.

There's been a history of people walking out of my life, and of all living beings, the God of the Universe should have every right to walk out the door with them. In my self-depricating, pessimistic view, what do I have that would compel God to stay?

But that's the wrong question.

What did God do to ransom sin-sick orphans to Himself? He gave everything.

In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ...” (Ephesians 1:4b-5a) We were orphans, but God adopted us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This is why I wept this past Thursday.

In DiscipleMakers, as we promote our staff, we encourage and honor them in front of the whole team. It's an incredible honor. I found out two weeks ago that I was to be promoted. Now, promotions in our ministry aren't like that of the secular workforce. But it does mean I will be entrusted with more responsibility, the reward of faithful stewards.

However, when I found out, after my initial excitement, I was subdued. One of my deep fears was I would get up there, and everyone else would look at me and say, “Why is he there? He's not supposed to be there, what were you thinking!?”

After I and a few others were recognized, we prayed. And the men who prayed for us were men who had invested deeply in me, even when it probably seemed like I was a lost cause. Every reason to walk out on me. And they didn't. They didn't give up when I gave them every reason to. And as we prayed, I realized something else: I gave Jesus every reason to walk out on me...and He refused.

Instead, He began the slow, painful, glorifying process of sanctification, not only affirming my sonship, but making me more and more into the man I am supposed to be, which will culminate in Glory. I'm not the wayward orphan I was in the summer of 2005. I am a valuable son of God.

This is why I wept. My life experience has been that I need to prove myself to find love. And here I was again, feeling this deep inadequacy that I had no right to be honored like this. But God didn't give up on me, doing much to change me over the past ten and a half years. And slowly, surely, I'm reflecting just a bit more of the image of Jesus. And He's not leaving me, ever. He committed to me to the point of death.

God doesn't abandon His children. He's committed to working deeply in our hearts. And even when we don't measure up, God reminds us that our status in the family had nothing to do with our efforts. It has everything to do with what He has done.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Loving Sufferers Well

Author's Note: This post was written before the Orlando nightclub attack, and is mainly from my perspective as a Christian going through suffering.  However, I hope and pray that this might help the body of Christ care for those who have been deeply affected by this, and all, tragic sufferings. 

Community.  It's something we must have as humans.  We were created to build one another up and point one another to God.  To interact with one another, to help us see more of who God is, and help us to know His love.

Other people are not just helpful, they are essential to our lives.  We are dependent on one another, regardless of how independent we want to be.

This rings true as we experience so much love, encouragement, mercy, and relief from our house fire.  Neighbors, friends, and church family have housed us.  We received gifts from family and others to help us with immediate needs.  People have prayed for us, sent encouraging notes, and reminded us of God's love, care, and control in the midst of a hard season.

It is amazing how God uses people to showcase His love!

And sometimes, people can be a reminder of our broken world.  At times, people have not listened well to what is hard.  They have joked at my most raw moments.  They say things that have nothing to do with the emotions that I feel.

It would be tempting to do one of two things as a reader.  One would be to say to me, "Get over yourself."  Another would be to over-empathize and villainize these people.  But neither response is appropriate.  What's more helpful is to recognize the difficulty of loving the one who mourns.

We've all been there, right?  Someone goes through a tragedy, and we are often left at a loss as to what we should say, do, or feel.  Yet we are led to do something, because we were innately created to love one another.  As Christians, that's even more pronounced as we are compelled by God's love through the Gospel to love one another.  However, while the bible shows us everything we need to love, it's more complicated than a chapter in the New Testament about a ten-step process to perfect love for the sufferer. 

We are created uniquely by God, and one of the parts of our uniqueness is how we feel cared for, what we see as needs, and what helps. Two things that have cared for me most are gifts and understanding my struggles.  So when people ask me questions, let me verbally process, and share in my pain, I have felt extremely cared for.  And of course, when someone offers to buy my family and I food or supplies, it has been a very real evidence of God's grace to us.  But when people have spoken too quickly, or have listened but then misunderstood why I'm sad, it's tempting to get angry and lose trust.

But not everyone is like me!  So the application here isn't "don't speak, just listen," or, "just buy supplies."  On the contrary, I think we need to think more broadly before we can appropriately apply how to love the sufferer:

1.  Ask questions of what would help them:  Some people need to verbally process.  Some people need to think and be alone.  Some people want helpful perspectives shared with them.  Some people want you to cry with them, some just want you be near and be silent.  Whether it's your preferred method of helping or not, help in the way they ask you too/not to.

2.  Be patient:  A month in, a lot of my sadness, guilt, and other things have faded.  But just the other day the memories rushed back anew, and I was a mess.  And that's ok.  I processed it later and figured it out, but you and I, when we suffer, don't need to be put back together immediately.  God is making all things new, but on His timing.  Please be patient with those who are suffering.

3.  Speak Tentatively:  It's most likely unhelpful to command or rebuke a sufferer, but don't withhold the scriptures from us either.  "And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." (I Thessalonians 5:14) We need encouragement, help, patience, AND truth.  We need Godly perspective.  We need the Scriptures to guide us.  And we don't want to be mastered by our suffering, but by Jesus Christ.   (Note: for non-believers who are suffering, as well as those who are just in very deep pain, keep listening.  Ask if it would be helpful for you to share.  If they say no, don't get frustrated, keep listening and ask again what you can do to help.

Quickly, if you are suffering, let me give a couple of quick thoughts on how to be gracious when people don't love you well.

1.  Remember how Jesus was misunderstood:  He was misunderstood on the cross, by the government, by the religious leaders, by his family, and by his disciples and best friends.  And He still died for their sake.  It's a not only a beautiful example, but He gives us the power to be gracious when people fail us.

2.  Get your eyes on others:  Don't let your suffering push you inward.  Instead, let it sober you to realize that while many don't know what you are going through, you don't know what others are going through either.

3.  Overlook what you can, speak up when necessary:  There are a lot of things I've let go because after a few minutes I realize it's not a big deal, and I don't remember it.  Hurts that I dwell on, however, I need to share with the person.  And it's for two reasons; for our own souls, and to help the person learn how to better care for people.

I hope these things are helpful as we seek to care for one another more effectively.  We are God's gifts to one another, and day by day, God will help us to be the community He created us to be. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Escape to the Weeping Savior

The incident happened at the gym.  I was lifting for the first time in about a month, and as I went to bench press, the bench gave way.  Luckily, it didn't drop very far, and I wasn't lifting much weight (I was using dumbbells, not a bar), so there wasn't much consequence to it.  I quickly finished my lift (using a different bench) and went to run, when I noticed a very small cut on my finger.  And when I brushed it, I cringed in pain.  The dumbbell must have rubbed so hard on it when I fell, that it ripped the skin away.

So I went to wash it out, and of course, more pain.  My immediate thought was, "How can I get this to hurt the least."

We hate pain.  I hate the slight headaches (or migraines) that cause distraction and annoyance.  I hate the emotional pain attached to a rude comment.  And I hate the pain of loss, of trauma, and of sorrow.

And yet, so often life throws painfully sad moments our way.  The fire has been no exception of painful, sad moments.  And I often respond by wanting to escape the pain.  I drown my sorrows in escapism.  I plug into my music and slip into daydreaming, wanting to stop reliving the horrors in my mind.  I eat my sorrows away trying to avoid thinking about it again.  I long for people to love me, only to often see them not know how to care for me.

I hate pain.  I hate being sad.  I hate feeling hopeless and helpless.

That's when I try to apply a band-aid: be happy by remembering God's Word!  It's good to remember God's Word, and the Gospel.  But even in the midst of trying to look at something good, I do it only because I don't want to feel sad.  I don't want the pain.  I don't want to believe I'm living in a fallen world, one that offers brokenness and sorrow.  I don't want to believe that my house, MY House could be so insecure.  Just give me a psalm to make me feel better.

It's why John 11 is so helpful.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling to see Lazarus.  He had been dead for four days, and Jesus knew He was going to raise him back to life.  He was confident in His power and His authority.  He was going to have his friend back, and make his other friends, Martha and Mary, very happy to see their brother alive again.

That's what makes verses 33-35 so compelling:

"When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept."

 What?  Jesus knows that everything is going to be better, so why is He greatly troubled?  Why is His Spirit deeply moved?  Why does He weep?  

I think it's because while He knows that He will make all things new, the pain of brokenness, sin, and death is so severe.  In a world, and even a Christian Culture, that says get over your suffering, Jesus the Redeemer weeps and approves our weeping through His own.  When we are tempted to bristle at our pain, to escape it through sin, or put a band-aid on it with happy verses, Jesus says, "don't you dare... I want your tears, your sorrows, and your heartbreak.  I want to hear from you.  I am with you in it."

My friend Jason has constantly reminded me that it's okay to be sad over losing stuff.  It's okay to be sad about being displaced.  It's okay to not be completely on my feet and getting everything done and having things fall through the cracks.  It's okay to show emotion.  In fact, it's not just okay, it's expected.  Experiencing the effects of a broken world is hard and sad, Jesus' weeping confirms that.  So run to the weeping savior, who expects your tears, your heart, and your grief. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

When Suffering Brings Clarity

A couple of years ago I noticed that I strained to see.  It was certainly true when I didn't have my glasses, but even my low-prescription glasses weren't helping all that much.  When I went to the optometrist, I was shocked to find out that my eyesight had gone from 20/35 to 20/100!  Over time, my eyesight subtly got worse, and I didn't even know it.  But when I got my new prescription, I could see far more clearly.

Suffering can be like a visit to the optometrist.  If we keep it in the lens of God, His Kingdom, and His Gospel, suffering brings sharper clarity to life.  The house fire has been one such act of clarity.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,  for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."  (James 1:2-3)

James, and the rest of the early church, knew trials.  Whether it was the poor being neglected, or the apostles and others beaten or killed for their faith in Christ; Christians knew trials of various kinds.  And James calls them to count it all joy.  Why?  Because it produces steadfastness in faith.  

I've learned a lot through the fire.  I learned how fragile life and time is, how quickly things can turn to disaster, and how possessions can be so quickly lost.  I have learned to be grateful for having a roof over my head, food to eat, and a pillow to rest my head.  The last one is especially sweet to me, because Jesus famously told someone that He did not have a pillow to lay his head (Luke 9:58).  I've also learned that I'm not the only one that has either deep sorrows, or deep joys.  

Around the same time of our fire, others that I know have had deep suffering.  The death of a loved one.  Excruciating pain that has no end in sight.  A cancer diagnosis.  A premature baby recovering in the NICU.  The rejection of employers.  And yet, at the same time, there are deep joys as well. 

The adoption of a foster child.  New marriages on the horizon (including one where I get to stand with one of my best friends!).  New relationships, including one that has a beautiful, decade-long redemption story.  New brothers and sisters in Christ.  

And this is only what I know about.  

God is wise to let us suffer for so many reasons, but one is to push us to see things from His perspective.  It's how we find better joy.  

It allows us to move past our own lives to see a broader view.

It allows us to enjoy more of what we have, including our relationship with God.  

It helps us to mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice.  

It produces thankfulness in even the smallest things... a reminder that we are forever dependent on the God who breathed life into us.

And it produces thankfulness that one day suffering will be gone.  What a beautiful hope.  What shocking clarity suffering provides.  That we would see and rejoice in the wisdom and majesty of the God who deeply loves us, and proved it once and for all in Christ.   

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stained with smoke, Stained with Sin

Many of you saw my earlier post about our house fire.  A number of things have caused me to think deeply recently, and most of my thoughts can be attributed to the fire that took place three weeks ago.  As I have played back all the details in my head, there was one in particular that lingered.  Not just in my mind, but in its effect.

The smoke.  The fire itself was destructive, but it was the smoke that is causing us to be out of our house for multiple months.  The fire was the most threatening, but the smoke was ever-reaching into all the crevices of our home.  The smoke blinded my eyes and stained my skin the day I fought the fire, and three weeks later it still resides in the air, bringing me back to the moment of where it all began.

It was the smoke that destroyed our food, clogged the electrical motors, and stained clothes and filled our books.  It was the smoke that infested our couches and mattresses, that covered Shane and JJ's toys and ruined our painted walls.  Who knew that smoke could carry so much power?

On the surface, you wouldn't think it did anything.  Everything (aside from the kitchen) looked normal.  But it was tainted, stained, and infested with smoke.  It will take months to restore everything back to normal.

It's a modern parable of the "private sins" we hold close.  When we take one extra lustful glance, excuse a little slander or gossip, or cling a bit more to our anxiety, we often think it won't hurt us.  We think justifying our fear of men or our anger is ok because it has no lasting effect.  But it's like the smoke of a raging fire.  It stains, infests, and destroys our lives, but we often don't see it until it's too late.  Just like smoke is evidence of fire, our "private" or "small" sins reveal that our hearts are on fire with sin.  And our sinful hearts leave smoke damage everywhere.

It's why temptation increases as you train your mind every time you glance where you shouldn't.

It's why we become more easily angered and agitated as we age.

It's why our relationships deteriorate each time as we normalize gossip.

It's why we are often on the fast track towards depression as we make it a routine to sin in our thoughts.

The Apostle Paul captures this in his letter to the Romans:  "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

The wages of sin is DEATH!  We must take sin seriously!  And not just "big" sins, not just "public" sins, but all sin!  We must see that the "smoke" of our sin is slowly killing us.  And we must see how we are restored, which is the Gospel:  Jesus Christ died so that we might live forever in heaven with Him!

Life is found in Christ, death is found in sin.  It's why the author of Hebrews says:  "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Sin clings closely, so we must throw it off to run the race set before us.  And as we do it, we look to Jesus Christ and run towards Him.  

We have a restoration agent and he has guaranteed me that there will be no remnants of smoke left in our home.  As we look to Jesus, He promises to cleanse us to the point where there will be no remnant of sin left in our hearts.  Are you running towards Jesus so that He might cleanse you of all your sin and wickedness? 

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Better Shelter

This isn't a normal post.  I don't even know if it will be coherent.  It's essentially the beginning of what I've been processing over the past 72 hours.

Most of you know what my family and I, as well as Sarah (our friend and renter), have been going through.  Around 4:30 PM, Monday evening, we had a grease fire.  I had placed a skillet filled with oil on the burner and went to ask Heather a question.  I got distracted, only to hear the smoke alarm a few moments later.  I ran in to turn the burner off, but when I got into the kitchen, the smoke I expected to see was not there.  Instead, it was a wall of flame engulfing our home.

Where the "wall of flame" did the most damage.
There are a lot of other things that I remember from that day.  Running out of the house telling people to call 911, asking neighbors to give us their fire extinguishers.  I remember the heat on my bare feet as I tried to put out the fire with said extinguisher, the smoke that filled my lungs and that stained my skin and clothes, the fear that I would lose my home, the joy of having neighbors and the fire department coming to our rescue (and knowing that Jesus orchestrated every detail for His Glory).

But it's the trauma that has stuck with me.  The trauma of walking in to see my house going up in flames.  The trauma of trying to fight a fire.  The trauma of knowing that, with all my grit, will, and determination, I still didn't have a chance to win.

In the words of Nick Fury in the Avengers, "I was hilariously outgunned."

I knew I would feel certain things in the aftermath; the guilt of letting the fire happen, feeling the shame of irresponsibility, the sense of loss, even grappling with despair.  But I've wrestled with all of those emotions to some capacity before.  The shock and awe of discovering a fire and then attempting to fight it?  Wrestling with trauma is something I've never had to deal with before.

The first night I attempted to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I would see walls of flames.  I can't explain it, but I could even 'feel' the heat.  Then I would see the horror of what could have been: my children, my wife lost in the flames.  I feel it when I hear the crackle of oil on the stove top at our neighbor's house.  I sense it when I hear the word 'fire.'  Even the smell and taste of smoke has moved me to fear.

Yet I will praise God.  One day, God will heal me.  I won't fear the flame, the smoke, or the stove.  I can all ready see it happening.  The guilt that I'm tempted to wrack myself with is dissipating.  The shame is fading.  And when I step back, even in the moments when I rebel in my mind and am clouded in emotion, there is amazing joy.

"I have a shelter in the storm
When troubles pour upon me
Though fears are rising like a flood
My soul can rest securely
O Jesus, I will hide in You
My place of peace and solace
No trial is deeper than Your love
That comforts all my sorrows."
-- I Have a Shelter, Sovereign Grace Music  

The psalms constantly describe God as a refuge, a shelter, and a place to hide.  My earthly dwelling will fail me, but God will not.  "Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!" (34:8b).  

I'm sure I will have more reflections on this as I continue to process.  I hope they are helpful for you.  I know they are helpful for me.  Thanks for joining me on my processing journey.