Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We Can Persevere through Friendly Fire

Of all the posts I've written in regards to the six lessons I've learned (Find it here), this is probably both the hardest and easiest one to write. Hard, because I've learned that good intentions can often be the most painful, and easy because I know that it's something we've all wrestled through to some degree or another.

One of my early coping mechanisms (though I wouldn't have called it that at the time) after the fire was just really dark humor. I'd joke about how I would burn things down, I'd mention “at least you didn't burn your house down...” after a number of other comments, and other jokes that brought temporary relief. As I look back, they were probably more cries for help, saying, “I'm not ok, please engage.” Some did. Others joked back, and I quickly realized that I wasn't ok with that.

A similar experience was when I was overweight. I felt comfortable joking about being fat, but I never appreciated it when someone joined in the joke. Yet, people would see it as an invitation, not a cry for help.

When that happens, it's incredibly easy to villianize people.

“How could they do that? How could they say those hurtful things? They just don't get me. They don't understand. They don't want to understand.”

The problem is, when you're on the other side of the coin, it's hard to know where to start. It's a common issue this side of glory, and one that shouldn't be surprising. Ever since Genesis 11, where God confuses the speech of the peoples, there has been misunderstanding and language barriers, and the language barrier happens even when two people speak the same language. I tell a joke, the person who wants to genuinely help thinks, “Oh, he wants humor, that's what I will give him!” Suddenly, it falls flat, with both parties thinking, “What exactly went wrong here?”

Even Jesus, the greatest communicator, was easily misunderstood.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16: 21-23)

Jesus was telling them the truth; life-giving news that he had to suffer and die, so that He could be raised from the dead and defeat sin and death forever. But Peter responded poorly. He told God Himself that he was wrong. He fed Jesus one of the most deceptive temptations, one in which Jesus could win the world without suffering. It's so severe, that Jesus calls Peter “Satan”. This is friendly fire from one of the most influential men of human history. Peter, the rock of the church, and Jesus calls him Satan, because he wants to care for Jesus, yet he misunderstands Him and His purposes.

Now we don't know if Jesus was personally offended, but that doesn't matter. What matters is Jesus' posture towards Peter afterwards. He forgives and He entrusts. Peter's mistake doesn't alienate him, but Jesus calls out the mistake, and draws near. What a response of grace! And this is what Jesus does throughout his entire ministry. He's misunderstood, He endures fire both from foes and friends, and He willingly takes it on, and operates with a posture of forgiveness.

What does that teach us?

1. Believe that it's okay to be misunderstood – Many of us (myself included) can view the greatest sin is to not be understood. However, marriage has quickly dashed the illusion that I should be perfectly understood all the time. We must remember that, even when we are suffering, we will be misunderstood. More importantly, we must remember that we have a Savior who understands, because He has been misunderstood by everyone. Including you. (For reference, John 18, the trial of Jesus, is another great example of when Jesus is misunderstood, and it's to the point of his death.)

2. Keep short accounts – Recently, a friend had said a comment that he meant for good, but I took it as offensive. When I couldn't move past it, I brought it up to him. He was gracious, and responded kindly, and our friendship grew because of it.

One note, when you are in deep suffering, the temptation is to expect all people to know how to care for you. While we need to grow and be sensitive to where people are at, we must remember that all people are finite in their capacity and understanding.

3. Be honest – When you are hurting, you need to share and speak openly. First, we must do this with Christ. A good friend of mine reminded me that Psalm 88 is hopeful, not because of its content (it ends by saying “darkness is my closest friend”), but because the psalmist is crying out to the Lord. Second, find a friend or two who you can really trust, and you are willing to fight with. People who you can share deeply your most raw emotions and frustrations (including your struggles with how you've been treated), as well as people who you can fight with and forgive when they don't understand.

4. Tell people how they can help you – A friend of mine recently told me how a comment I made wasn't helpful, and they were longing to be affirmed instead. This completely changed how I thought to care for this person! Good friends want to know how to better care for you.

5. Remember, not everyone is meant to help you through this specific season – There are some people that I've stayed away from during this season. That's not because I don't love them, nor will I avoid them forever. But without humility and grace on both sides, sometimes space is what is needed. And that's ok. Not everyone needed to know how I was struggling with things. Jesus all ready knows. And He will provide exactly who you need to help walk alongside you.

Monday, June 26, 2017

We can find Joy in God Alone

All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...” – Jesus (Matthew 28:18a)

The above quote is the verse that our ministry's name comes from. We are DiscipleMakers because Jesus commanded us to make disciples. I'm passionate to see young men and women give up everything to follow Jesus, because that's what he calls every Christian to do. But what happens when you give that call, but distractions get in the way? Or a certain lesson isn't sinking in? Or someone really struggles with a particular passage of scripture?

For me, the answer was simple: “Work harder.”

I went to campus more, spent more time thinking about ways to help students grow, considered all sorts of different strategies. Even when I was spending time with family, I was checking my phone, thinking about how I could reach students differently. I would watch movies feeling guilty, thinking 'maybe I should be on campus right now.'

For the record, the guilt was produced on my own. It's easy in this day and age to blame others for how people make us feel. It's the cultural norm. But no one in DiscipleMakers told me to think and act this way. No one expected me to work 24/7 on campus. No one expected me to eat, breathe, and sleep campus ministry to the detriment of myself and my family. The problem was far more internal. I wanted people to think I was good at my 'job.' I wanted to be recognized as a good campus minister to my students, to my teammates, to my supporters.

God was gracious to me to give me a wake up call.

After we moved back into our home, I found myself unable to sleep. Part of it was I kept imagining the fire. But there was something else keeping me awake at night. It was the dread of a new semester coming. Dread, not of the students, or the preaching and teaching of the Word, but of failure.

What if it all falls apart?” I thought. “What if all I am is just some fraud, who was never really cut out for ministry? What if I'm just the black sheep who will always be a failure?'

It was that thinking that led me all the way to a panic attack the first day of classes. I was so underprepared for the beginning of the semester, that the normal fears and anxieties were amplified to the point where I couldn't push them to the side any longer. And I landed in the hospital.

I wondered for a while what had happened. How could I have let this happen?

For one, I failed to realize the first part of Jesus' call to make disciples. “All authority has been given to me...” Who has authority? Jesus. Who's mission is this? Jesus. Who calls me to this mission? Jesus. Exactly when did the mission become all about my personal success and failure? And when was my personal success defined by results? When was ministry defined by what I produced?

It's through this whole thing that I re-learned an important lesson. Ministry is an outflow of the one who has all authority. The more I am in awe and wonder of Christ, the more I'm compelled to do ministry. The more I love God, the more joy I have regardless of the state of our ministry. And the more I love God, the more I want to see Him move in the lives of others, and the more I trust Him to move in the lives of others.

This past Fall was a great example. I was more limited than I had ever been. I was on campus less, recovering more, and wondering, “what is going to happen?” What happened was student leaders had more ownership, more young students were excited, and disciples were made. We had our largest first-year class ever, more investment in the bible, and more and more people clamoring for discipleship.

And as I got back on my feet, I realized how much I wanted these people to find joy in God. Not in their progress. Not in their discipling. Not in their bible study skills. In God. His character. His majesty. His holiness. His power. His mercy and grace.

If God is our joy, the pressure of results seems to fade away. We trust God when He says to take sabbath rest. We trust Him in our rest, knowing that He is working in our waiting. And when it's time to work, we work by faith, believing that He is Lord of the Harvest.

Have you believed Jesus' words, “It is finished?” (John 19:30). Have you believed that Jesus' “yoke is easy, and his burden is light?” (Matthew 11:30) Have you believed when God says,I am the Lord. I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 37:14). Have you believed “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold?” (Psalm 18:2) Have you believed that He, “has put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound?” (Psalm 4:7)

We can rejoice when we have positive results. But it is greater still to find joy in our great God, who can be our joy even when our results are lackluster. He will always allow us to find joy in Him, if we seek it. Despite our circumstances, our results, and our condition.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

We Can Find Rest in God's Scriptures

We all sat in the dining room, primed for a weekend of fun. To confirm our geekdom, me and six other men travelled to Bethany Beach for a board game trip. That's right. We went to the beach, so we could play board games. One of my friends suggested we do a short devotion each day, and I was up to lead first. And I was nervous. “We're here to play board games,” I thought to myself. “Are the rest of the guys really going to want to be in the Word?”

This was a dumb question. Yet, it's a question we ask ourselves all the time, whether it's in private or public.

What astounded me, however, was how these short devotion times became hour-long bible studies that deeply rocked us to the core. After our trip, there was no denying that there was one highlight for each of us during the trip: exploring the riches of God's Word, and growing more in awe of Him and His character.

Though I was surprised, I really shouldn't have been. God had been confirming both the beauty of His Word and the therapy it brings throughout one of the most difficult seasons of my life. Yet, how often do we forget this? God's Word routinely speaks to how it is the source of life, and how it confirms God's authority and reputation:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2)

I Am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:36b, 37:14b)

And not only is it the source of life, but all of it trains us in righteousness:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The scriptures bring rest because they make promises that are kept. They reveal to us a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and all-just. They reveal to us a God who is big enough to hope in, and a God who is big enough to deliver on His promises. They help us discover a God who is so complex that we could never fully understand Him, yet a God who is willing to reveal Himself enough to know Him personally, enjoying that we can discover Him for all eternity. They help us live in tune with God's desires, they give us wisdom when we feel lost, and they give hope when it seems like the world is burning down around us.

The scriptures are not just wise writings, they are the words of God, and they reveal who God is. And that God is the one we hope in. We hope in Him when things are bleak. We hope in Him when life is good. How do we know this? Because God's Word shows us how people praise Him in those seasons, and in every season in between!

On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.” (Psalm 138:3)

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary, praise him in his mighty heavens!” (Psalm 150:1)

O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.” (Psalm 88:1)

Whether we have full happiness, we see answered prayer, or when we see our hearts mired in sin or when it seems all hope is lost, we see the scriptures dictate that our minds, our hearts, our prayers, our hope should be pointed towards God. And the only way that we can even do that, is because the scriptures reveal to us Jesus.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

Why can we rest deeply in God's Word? Because His Word is what points us to God Himself. He is the object of our faith, and our hope. Whether you're on vacation, or at work. In peace time, or during war. During deep trauma, or times of refreshment. Rest deeply in God's Scriptures.

Monday, June 5, 2017

We can Flourish in God's Church

Marry the church.” – Brian Seay (DiscipleMakers Staff)

My heart sank as I looked over my lawn. It had grown for nearly three months without much maintenance, and resembled more of a wild field than a lawn of a homeowner. It was one of what seemed like an endless list of things I had to get done, without an end in sight. Yet, the day we moved back into our home, a number of people rushed to our home to help. In fact, with the yard alone, we had three people who took shifts to mow it. After numerous hours, we finished, and it, along with nearly every other task, was done.

“It's amazing how belonging to the church brings much help, I can't imagine what it's like for someone who isn't in it,” one of the people remarked. It was a staggering comment, and one I haven't forgotten. It reminded me that there are benefits to being an active member of the local church, and it's this: you're a part of a family. And healthy families involve each member seeking to love each other.

That's not to say that church members shouldn't love non-church members, rather, there is a different love that can only exist within the church, and that's for many reasons. One, we are unified by the Holy Spirit which dwells within us. Two, our love for Jesus trumps all other objects of worship. That includes people, possessions, and more. That's why Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The church is a family. And not just any family, it's the family of God. And the family of God loves one another.

Now, you might be asking, “why don't I feel the love?”

It's a good question, and one I've asked often. As I've gone through the past year, let me give five reasons why you may not feel the love of the church.

1. You expect more from the church than Christ himself: I often expect that people should know how to care for me, and when they don't, I distance myself. I too often believe that I should be perfectly understood, and if I'm not, they don't care. This is not only untrue, it's not fair. The church, while meant to care for one another, is not meant to be Jesus. Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus cares perfectly. And Jesus is sufficient in his care. Part of that care is him working through the church. The church, however, is not Jesus. We must not put our hope that people will care for us perfectly, because people are both sinners and limited in their abilities.

2. Your local church is struggling in the areas that you need to flourish: Speaking of limitations, it's very possible the local church you are a part of struggles in areas that you need care in. That's hard. The temptation is to blame, to grow bitter, or to abandon. Depending on the care you need, it might mean leaving that local body to go to another that can better fit your needs. Or, it might mean stepping up to help it flourish in its areas of weakness. If it's a matter of care where you are in deep depression or anxiety, it might be good to find help in a place that might be better suited to help at that current time.

3. You're fearful to let people walk with you based on past experience: I'll speak more on this in a future post, but people make mistakes in caring for people. This cultivates fear and bitterness if it goes unaddressed and, for many of us, leads to isolation. Don't fall into that trap. Isolation is a great way for the flesh, the world, and Satan to bring more destruction. Open up to one or two people, and then more over time. And have grace for people when they make mistakes in caring for you.

4. You're there to be fed, not to serve: Too often, I think of the church as an institution to meet all my needs. But that's not what the church is. The church is a family, not an institution. And families serve one another. Ask yourself, “am I here to be solely a consumer?If the answer is yes, then there's an opportunity to repent, and move towards your spiritual family with the heart of a servant. (As an aside, sometimes there are seasons where you might need more care, and you're not in much of a position to serve. That's ok. You can serve by helping people know how to better care for you, which in turn will strengthen you for future service.)

5. You're there to serve, not to be fed: On the other side, it's easy to become the savior. I'll do all the ministry, and all the work, and I'll meet with all these people. But we forget that this family has one savior, and it's not me, nor is it you. Remember that as we serve, we also must allow Christ to serve us through the church. If you are in need of love and care, it's not bad or wrong to ask. In fact, it's good and right for us to share our weakness, so that we can bear one another's burdens.

As the quote above states, we should be compelled to “marry the church.” To marry means that we enter into a covenant. It's not a contractual agreement, but rather a commitment. We commit to being part of the body of Christ, both in it's joys and sorrows, in its strengths and its weaknesses. We are to be a part of it, to serve in it, and to rejoice in it's building through the work and power of the Gospel. And as we do that, not only do we see its beauty, but we, and the church, will flourish. We see that God is wise to bring unique people, with unique gifts, with unique passions, together to band as one family serving one another in hopes that we might bring more in the fold, and bring God glory. Do you see it? Do you see its beauty? Are you in awe of what God is building?

Before you critique or distance yourself from the church, ask yourself this question: am I missing out on how God is establishing and building his church because I'm over-focused on its faults?

Don't miss the messy flourishing of God's church.  Don't miss the opportunity to flourish within it. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

We can Trust God's Faithfulness

On August 22nd, I sat in a hospital bed wondering what was happening to me.  I woke up at 3:30 AM with chest pains, panicked that I might be suffering a heart attack, and drove myself to the hospital (in hind sight... if I were actually suffering a heart attack, this was probably a bad idea.).  The ten days prior I couldn't sleep, flashbacks continued to invade my mind as we moved back in to our home.  While our house, and our once-torched kitchen, looked like new, it couldn't erase the memories.     Details continued to pile up, between getting the house organized, starting a new semester, connecting with our team, I felt trapped.  And as I sat in that hospital bed, even though the doctors reassured me that I was ok, I knew something was wrong.  I felt like I was in real danger.

When we think of God's faithfulness, we tend to think of how He has helped us.  He brings resolution.  For three months, I saw God's faithfulness.  I saw it in four families offering their homes to our family.  I saw it in my mom and dad, grandparents, friends, and even the Red Cross offering us financial gifts.  I saw it in our premium insurance coverage which, when first purchased, I had to be talked into buying.  We were brought meals, we got all new furniture and our kitchen looks better than ever.  We traded in amateur paint jobs for professional ones, new carpeting and appliances that we didn't have to pay for to upgrade. 

It was clear through all the blessing, God was faithful to us. 

But what about when things don't resolve?  What do you do when everything seems covered, but your soul is downcast?  What about when it's fractured? 

Before our first large group meeting (when we lead students in a time of worship and preaching of God's Word) I was printing outlines for the students, and the printer wouldn't work, and something in me snapped, and I wept for nearly 15 minutes straight.  This was after my episode in the ER.

"What is wrong with me?" I thought.  "God... where are you?" 

Was God unfaithful by leaving me in a spiritual desert?  Or was He faithful to bring me there?

"And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'  The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan..."  (Mark 1:11-13a)

This passage is about Jesus.  Jesus, who was confirmed to be God's beloved Son, is propelled into the wilderness one verse later.  He's there for forty days, tempted by Satan.  Now, in other gospel accounts, we know that part of the reason He's there is to be the better Israel.   

But there's still a reaction to how these verses go.  On one hand, he's called beloved and Son.  The other, He's propelled out.  What?  If God is faithful, how could He do that to His own Son?  How is that faithfulness?  Isn't faithfulness about protection and safety?

Later in Mark we see that's not the case, as Jesus is unjustly tried, and then crucified.  How was God faithful there?

The obvious answer is the resurrection.  The salvation of humanity from sin and eternal damnation by grace through faith in Christ.  And God is glorified through it. 

How is God faithful in bringing us in the desert?  By making us see Him as more beautiful.  More precious than gold, greater than any treasure we think we have. 

Consider Job.  He lost his wealth, health, possessions, and children.  His wife told him to abandon God, his friends falsely told him that his calamity was his fault.  And as Job demands an answer from God, God responds not by answering his plea, but reminding him who He is.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
(Job 38:4-7)

Now, before we forget, God loved Job.  Job was a righteous man in God's sight.  And He let Satan take everything from him to prove he wouldn't renounce God!  In other words, Job was a faithful, righteous man.  And God knew that!  That's why he was selected for torment.  And as Job cries out for 37 chapters, God comes and responds, and He doesn't say, "wow, Satan put you through a lot.  Maybe that was harsh."  No!  He challenges Job.  He asks him, "where were you...?"  The point obviously being "Job, you weren't there when I created the world, when I created its very foundation, when I put the stars in the sky, but I most assuredly was, because I was the one who did it."

The miracle of Job is not that Job's fortunes are restored.  It's that Job's sight is elevated to see the grace and mercy of God in that He would take away everything so that He might hold fast to the greatest treasure, God Himself.

"Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 
 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 
 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you; 
 therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.” 
(Job 42:1-6)

Look at Job's response.  It's one of awe, awe of God's character, His wisdom, and His holiness.  And in v. 6, we see the beauty of what God does.  If you have a bible, there's a footnote over the word repent.  And the word could be also translated as "am comforted."  While he despises himself, he is comforted.  Why?  It's because he has seen God, convicted of his narrow-sighted view, and now sees God more appropriately.  He's no longer concerned with what he's lost, but with his view of the God of the universe.  

This is why God was so faithful to put me through this journey.

"God, what about my home?"  

"God, what about my reputation?"

"God, what about my ministry?"  

"God, what about my friends that I seem to be losing?"

"God, what about my family, are they disappointed?"

"God, what about my emotions, my sleep, my comfort?"  

"God, why won't you answer me and deliver me?!"  

"Because I am the Lord, and I don't answer to anyone.  Your hope is in earthly things, I'll strip them away.  Your hope is in how great your ministry is, I'll make you see the crushing weight of it.  Your hope is in sleep, I won't let you.  Your hope is in what people think, I'll show you how futile it is.  Why?  Because I am the Lord, and I am what you need."  

Obviously, that isn't from the bible.  It's not a prophetic word that I received from God.  It's my application from the hard season.  God has been deeply faithful to me.  Why?  Because my joy has become far more rooted in knowing Him.  Knowing His wisdom, His glory, His beauty.  
It's why we can trust God's Faithfulness.  Even when our circumstances are in the tank.  Because God is always moving us to see Him as our greatest need.  Our greatest desire.  Our greatest hope.   And He's willing to do whatever it takes to get us there, even if it means putting us in the desert.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Six Lessons from a Hard Year

May 2nd, 2016, the day that sparked a whole slew of difficulty and hardship. The fire uncovered deeper issues of pride, anxiety, and shame, and moved me through really painful conflict with dear friends. Now, a full year later, there is much to rejoice over. Our home has been restored to us. We have a new perspective on a number of different areas of life and ministry. And our love for Christ is higher.

There were a number of lessons I learned, each one I will expound upon in future blog posts. This is more an overview of those lessons.

Here are six lessons I learned from a difficult season:

1. God is faithful, in both small and big parts of life: When the fire first hit, my neighbors were outside to bring fire extinguishers. Hours later, the red cross showed up with disposable toiletries, a $500 pre-loaded visa gift card, and two mickey mouse stuffed animals for my boys. My parents, grandparents, and friends gave us money, gift cards, and so many other things to care for us. Our insurance company was absurdly generous with us, giving us a dining stipend, paid for the replacement value of the house, and kept us in the loop the entire way. A number of families let us stay with them for the duration of the time we were out of the house, never leaving us without a bed, shelter, or food.

When I suffered from the anxiety and depression caused both by the trauma and underlying things that had gone unaddressed in my heart, God provided wise, compassionate, Christ-loving men and women to walk alongside our family.

2. The church is amazing: I don't mean this in terms of our local church (though, Winfield Baptist is pretty great). I was astounded to see the church universal surround us with love, mercy, and generosity. When we moved back into our home, so many people came to help. It was great.

What was greater was how, as I invested more in the church, my soul continued to stir with praise and joy. There were many times I didn't want to get out of bed and lead my family to go to church. I saw it as drudgery. A chore. An extension of work. As I immersed myself more into the community, God was faithful to remind me that I was there not only to be a blessing, but to be blessed by my eternal family, as we all worshipped the eternal God.

3. The scriptures are both our greatest counselor and our greatest comforter: I can't tell you how often the scriptures have come alive to me in this season more than any other. I read about feeling shame, and I was encouraged how Jesus has cared for MY shame. I saw how the psalmists cried out for relief, and I found myself crying out to God for my relief soon after. I routinely found myself weeping or finding joy and encouragement in ways I had not enjoyed before or as frequently.

4. God, not ministry, must be my primary joy: One of my reasons for anxiety this past year was the feeling of having to do everything. It crushed me. But, as I placed my hope and joy in Christ, the weight of my own expectations, and the perceived expectations of others, faded and gave way to the compelling pleasure of my Heavenly Father.

5. We must have grace for those who fail to love us well: This is so hard. But it's necessary. While the church was so great, I was often hurt by friendly fire. At times I was admonished when I needed encouragement. At times I needed a listening ear rather than an instructive tongue. At times, I needed someone who mourned with me, rather than a casual joke to artificially lift my spirits. Those were hard moments as I tried to move past deep pain and trauma. But, there needs to be grace. And as I loved, forgave, and believed the best, those hard moments became teaching moments for me and others, as well as an opportunity to remember that God is growing all of us to become more and more like Him.

6. Hobbies are necessary: It's so hard to believe that hobbies are ok, because of all the commands in scripture to be deliberate and intentional. Yet, I believe the scriptures hold those commands in line with our need to rest from work, and part of that rest is enjoying the creation that God has made! I still haven't found all of my restful hobbies, but I know that most Saturdays, my soul was rejuvenated by faithfully choosing to use my smoker to make pulled pork and watch football. My soul was rejuvenated as I traveled, and my soul has been rejuvenated as I have made time to spend with family and friends.

God uses hard seasons to draw us closer to Himself. And in the midst of this season, He has not only taught me to love Him more, but also that joy is to be found, even in the midst of hardship and chaos.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Greatest Treasure

I was in Minneapolis for a pastor's conference in January, and one of my favorite preachers and authors, John Piper, was set to preach. I was very excited. His influence through his writing and preaching has impacted me ever since coming to Christ, and I was going to have the opportunity to hear him preach live.

He came to the podium for the first main session, began to speak, and for the next 45 minutes, I heard a very forgettable sermon. In fact, it was so forgettable, I don't remember the text he preached from, nor do I remember the main point. I don't even remember sub-points.

I was surprised. As a growing preacher, the key things I always make sure to do is go back to the text, have a clear main point, have a clear flow of thought, clear sub-points, etc. And here was a preaching veteran, and I couldn't remember any of them.

Now, the point of this isn't to tear John Piper down. In fact, the most memorable moment of the conference came from that very talk. It was John Piper's joy itself. He spoke about God and His Glory, His Gospel, His Godness, His Holiness, and Piper was awestruck. He loved God. He treasured God. So much so that I could hear it in how his voice changed, how his eyes watered, and how his face brightened when he spoke about Him.

He wasn't here solely to tell pastors how to do their job. He wanted them to be refreshed by the most beautiful and woundrous entity, the one who is everlasting hope and joy.

I shouldn't have been surprised. His book “Desiring God” is devoted to the idea that the chief end of man is to love God and ENJOY Him forever. But it was a sight to see Piper genuinely reflecting his true treasure. It made me wonder, how often do I stop at theology and doctrine without allowing it to impact my soul?

How often do I read my bible, pray, or do evangelism and discipleship because I treasure Christ?

How often is my goal to get people believing the right things, without pointing them to the pleasure of knowing the right person?

The great thing about Piper is that he loves good doctrine. He loves the bible. He loves the mission that God has given us. But that's all driven by his passion to love Christ more than all other things. It drives his study, his preaching, his prayer life.

To be clear, his passion is not driven solely be emotion. I believe it's driven by priority. The priority of spending time with God, of learning about God, communing with God, giving things up for God, because He is worth it.

Where is our treasure? Is it in God? Or in what we can get from Him? Do we treasure being right? Do we treasure possessions? Or do we treasure our creator, savior, and redeemer?

Start with what you truly believe. Do you believe God is your greatest source of joy? Are you cultivating that joy with reading God's Word and prayer? Are you serving Him by sharing the Gospel with others and making disciples? Are you giving faithfully and cheerfully to God's Mission?

Treasure Christ. Treasure Him above all else. Treasure Him with your mind. Treasure Him with your heart. Treasure Him with your actions.

He is our great joy, our greatest reward. Are you missing out?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Do We Hate Grief?

Twelve percent. That was the Rotten Tomatoes score that the movie “Collateral Beauty” received. Of course, I found that out after I spent my $1.59 to rent the movie so my wife and I could watch it. “How on earth could a movie with Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly, Kate Winslet, and Edward Norton score that low?” I pondered. Those aren't just good actors, they are the best of the best!

After we watched it, I could some of the reasoning behind its low score. The story and dialogue weren't great. It was clogged with too many characters, each with their own deep struggles, and yet it was a fairly sappy and predictable. And, while the actors are GREAT actors, the writing doesn't aid Winslet or Norton in their performances. In fact, a good majority of the film feels pretty forced. Despite this, I still don't understand how this movie received one-fourth of the positive rating that Power Rangers got (I say that both as a Power Rangers fan, and as someone who LOVED the movie).

Then, I wondered if part of the struggle was not solely in its cinematic elements, but the content itself. The plot follows Howard (Will Smith), who was a charismatic advertising executive that lost all zeal for life after his six-year-old daughter died. His friends and co-workers (Norton, Winslet, and Michael Pena) are concerned that they may lose their jobs, and on the surface, seem selfishly motivated to get Howard to lose his voting share. They then hire an “acting group” (there's a not so subtle twist) to help him process and hopefully be back in his right mind to lead their company. They pose as Love, Time, and Death, three characters that Howard wrote to in the beginning of the film, and as they come to Howard, they help chink away at the deep suffering he had held within himself for three years.

Part of the story, however, comes when each of these “actors” engage the three friends, revealing that they all are also wrestling with forms of suffering. A father doesn't know how to engage his estranged daughter. An older, single woman feels like she's running out of time to have children. And a family man with a newborn finds out he has terminal cancer. Love. Time. Death. Predictably, they are changed by their encounters with each actor's portrayal of those three things. Unpredictably, I was moved by all three to the point of tears. More on them later.

While the movie could easily be accused of being too simplistic in how it handles grief, I considered a counter-point. Grief is so complex and hard, that we often don't know how to handle it. So we don't. We pour ourselves into other things. We say all the right things. We ignore the pain by numbing ourselves with sin and escapes, we hide our weakness and seek to cover it with insufficient coverings. I might even suggest that we avoid or criticize movies and stories that deal with grief, so we don't have to actually grapple with it.

Will Smith and Helen Mirren, who portrayed 'Death,' illustrate this with one interaction. As she speaks to the grieved character, he fires back, using the simple statements that were said to him as ammunition. One by one he fired, each from a broad spectrum of religions and worldviews, including Christianity. He ends by reeming her out for stealing his daughter, and not trading his life for hers.

Grief is raw. It's hard. And, as a Christian, it's easy to logically reason through his anger and why Christians say what they say. And yet, there's something about his grief that deeply resonated. Grief is not solely about getting the right truth. It's moving towards that truth in the midst of the deep mess, pain, and sorrow. It takes one step towards the right person, and sometimes it's hard to find what that first step is. At times, it's reminding yourself of what's true. In others, it's learning to share your deep, raw emotions with God. That's what we see in the Psalms. Psalm 88 ends with an amazing accusation against God. “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me.” How could he say that against God? Yet, it's in the bible. There's no resolution. Why?

Because grief is a hard journey to wade through, and God wants to meet you in the mess. Unfortunately, the best way to miss God is to not be honest with ourselves about how much pain and sorrow we are actually grappling with. We're too fearful of sharing our deepest scars with God and with others. And sometimes, we really just don't want to do the hard work of walking alongside someone who is deeply grieved, because it's messy, unexpected, and takes time. And, if we're honest with ourselves, we don't want to confront the darkest things within us, and sometimes, we don't want to see the darkest parts of other people.

Thankfully, Jesus not only helps us see it; He endured it too. Because of His endurance, it gives us access to the God who is the greatest refuge for our pain. I love the song “Sovereign Over Us” by Aaron Keyes. Here's what it says:

“There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You're sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You're teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You're with us in the fire and the flood
You're faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us

Even what the enemy means for evil
You turn it for our good
You turn it for our good and for Your glory
Even in the valley, You are faithful
You're working for our good
You're working for our good and for Your glory.”

We hate grief. We hate being in it. We hate seeing people in it. But we should expect it. And we should run to God with it.

Will Smith's last interaction is with Keira Knightly's "Love."  At the end of their conversation, after Will Smith accuses her of betraying him, she responds by saying, “No. I was there in her eyes (his daughter's), and I'm with you now in your pain.”

What's greater about our hope is that we aren't waiting on a cosmic emotion. We are waiting on the God who embodied love, and demonstrated His devotion to the point of greater grief. He stands with us, and is with us both in our joys, and our sorrows. He helps us re-interpret it. He reminds us He is with us in the midst of it. And He encourages us with a hope that won't fade; Himself.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Escape to the Suffering Savior

“I can't take much more of this,” I uttered after Heather and I checked out of the emergency room a week ago. I was in the hospital more times than I could count. A dear friend of mine had to have surgery after a part of his body once again failed him. After that, plus multiple visits to the ER and urgent care with my own family members, I was exhausted.

I desired relief. I desired peace. But hard moments continued to come. These ER trips added to a season of significant hardship. The exhaustion gave way to a rushing wave of anger and shame as I was reminded again of the all that I have been wading through. Trauma, broken relationships, unmet expectations, a surrounding culture that seems to hate anything Christian day by day. Add to the indwelling sin that so easily entangles, it feels like each day is another tidal wave coming to sweep me off my feet. I plead to God, pleading that He would at least let me catch my breath.

“Why would you do this to me!? Don't I deserve a reprieve!”

It was about that time that I read this in the book “Experiencing the Trinity,” by Joe Thorn:

As a Christian you can not only expect affliction, but you can also expect a kind that is unique to the people of God. You will suffer for your faith and face many obstacles in following Jesus. And in all of your suffering you are called to look to Jesus in His suffering not only for how it saves you, but also how it guides you.”

How did Jesus suffer? He was mocked and scorned. He was falsely accused, corruptly tried, and unfairly judged. The immortal, everlasting God, was subject to human frailty. And then He underwent His Father's wrath for the sins of all mankind...none of which He committed.

And how did Jesus respond to that suffering? He did not seek retribution against His enemies. He didn't repay an eye for an eye. And He didn't curse God. He trusted Him to the point of death. Why? Because He knew that God's plan to defeat evil, sin, and ultimate suffering would win out.

This challenges my soul. I had a rough week or two. It's been compounded by a rough 10 months. Jesus gave up heaven. He gave up eternal comfort. He paid every cost imaginable. He suffered in every way.

He was tired. He was weary. His friends betrayed him. His enemies slandered and imprisoned Him. His body failed him. His Father judged Him. And He responded in sinless perfection, so we would not have to suffer the same wrath that Jesus took on. He is the one we look to in the midst of suffering.

This doesn't mean we minimize our pain. Far from it. Rather, we ask Jesus to carry our burdens for us. We rest in His loving arms knowing that He is our refuge, our shelter in the midst of pain and hardship. And when things get harder, we plead all the more for help. All the more for relief. And we press in, finding joy in knowing the Savior in the midst of deep trials.

I hope I don't have to visit someone in the hospital again very soon. I hope I can catch up on lost sleep. I hope my relationships will be restored. I plead for God to transform the hearts of those who hate Christianity from dead hearts to ones that live vibrantly. But even if those things don't happen now, I can rest assured knowing God has won. The victory is assured. My suffering is temporary. Because of this, we can move forward in faith. Call out to Jesus, and give Him the burdens and suffering you are carrying.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lessons from a Homeless Man

His name was C.W. It stood for Car Wash, which I'm not sure if he meant as a joke or if that was his actual name. I met him while serving with The Philadelphia Project, a ministry devoted to sharing the Gospel through mercy and meeting the needs of the community. Our ministry has partnered with them over the past couple years for Spring Break, and this year we had the opportunity to make sandwiches and hand them out to the homeless, hoping we could talk with them, feed them, and minister both to their hungry bodies and their even hungrier souls.

Something that stood out to me as I, and a number of students, engaged with C.W. was what he didn't do. He never complained. He wasn't angry at his lot in life. No, he was, at least on the surface, very joyful. It surprised me, that he seemingly had so little, yet in an hour and fifteen minutes of conversation, when I prayed over him, I didn't know what requests he had for me to pray for him. He never told me what I could pray for, other than what he was thankful for.

The second thing that stood out to me was how much he knew. He had a ribbon around his neck; he had won a dance competition when he was younger. As I asked him about it, he started rattling off all kinds of stories, and then shared not only that he could dance, but he could play music too! He knew all sorts of instruments, including a number of woodwinds as well as the drums. He told me about the bands he played with, the dancing he did, and everything in between.

When we went to pray with him, he shared a number of spiritual things with me. Some were good, some not so much. I'm not sure he was a believer. But I was amazed by how much he knew, and how much he had taken in. And as I prayed with him, the Lord worked in me, because I started to consider some things about myself that I hadn't previously.

One was my prejudice towards the “marginalized.” I'm not sure anyone would look at me and call me a man who pre-judges. But as I think about all the times I have walked past a homeless person, very rarely have I considered them an actual person. To me, their identity is homeless. They have always been homeless, and it's probably their fault that they are homeless. But that's not true. While it may be their fault of why they are in the predicamint they are in (partially or fully), it's not everything about them. They may have suffered tragedy or have suffered the sins of others that landed them in their situation. They have stories not just of how they landed where they are, but they have stories about who they are and what they love. They have joys, memories, and dreams.

Second, and what's more, these people are human souls. They are made in the image of God. They are worthy of dignity. And it's our privilege and duty to love our neighbor, whether they live in the rich mansion or are walking the streets. We are called to not show partiality. A soul is a soul.

Third, this man, just like anyone else, needs a savior. And I am not him. Sometimes it's easy for us as privileged people to think it's about us reaching down and rescuing the weak and hopeless. I realized quickly that wasn't the case. In fact, I learned more about myself, and my need for a savior, than anything else in the midst of my interaction with CW. He didn't need my pity. He didn't need my generosity. He and I need the same thing, a savior who can save from both the penalty of sin and the dominion of it.

Consider how you look at people. Who are the people you look at and consider nameless? The ones who you identify only with a word, like 'homeless'? Have you considered lately that they are men and women made in the image of God? That these are the people, much like the bleeding woman in Luke 8 and the Samaritan Woman in John 4, who we often disregard yet Jesus moves towards?

How can you image Christ and move towards the marginalized? How can you think like Jesus and remember that they have the same dignity and value to God that you do?

Lastly, how can we remind ourselves that Jesus became homeless and a wanderer for the very sake of giving us an eternal home and hope? That truth should motivate us to engage all people not only with physical food, but the spiritual food of the Gospel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How to Love a Sports Fan (Or anyone who Loves something you don't)

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law...
(I Corinthians 9:19-20)

The Gospel is the most important message to communicate to people. It is the message that, while we have broken God's heart and are deserving of God's perfect justice and wrath, He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins so we might be reconciled to Him and declared righteous in His sight. It's important to communicate that to our friends who are lost, and it's important to communicate that to one another, because we are never beyond our need for the overwhelming grace of Jesus Christ.

Just don't start sharing about the Gospel on 4th and 1 on what could be a game-altering play. At least not with a passionate fan of the team playing.

Of course, I'm somewhat joking (emphasis on somewhat). We never want to shy away from opportunities to walk through open doors to minister the gospel and point one another to Christ. And sometimes, for those of us who follow Jesus, the call of sports idolatry is a real thing. Sometimes I need to shut off the TV and love my wife, play with my kids, and put their needs before my wants. But sometimes I think we try to force doors open rather than seek to help open those doors through how we relate to people.

I was recently watching a football game that I really was excited about, and invited friends over to watch it with me. And here we were, sitting on the couch, and play after play was another deep, provocative question that had nothing to do with football.

In seeking to serve him, I missed a number of pivotal moments in the game, and rather than including these friends into something I enjoy, it became less of an opportunity to welcome these people into my life, and more of an opportunity to entertain questions that I didn't really want to think about until after the game.

Now, I need to constantly lay down my life. But it gave me a thought. When we are seeking to minister the Gospel, sometimes we put ourselves in this mode of, “I need to ask this person questions all the time, because this will love them.” That may be what you want to do, or it may be what you feel pressured to do. However, sometimes the best way to love a sports fan is not to ask a bunch of questions, even about the game. Instead, it's a great opportunity to enjoy something that is loved by that person.

This is true with anyone we want to love. There is a time for deeper questions. Sometimes it does present itself while a person is sharing their loves with you. Sometimes, we force the issue, and we actually miss an opportunity to actually help open a door to deeper conversation.

With that being said, here are a few ways to love a sports fan:

1. Don't expect a lot of initial conversationThe person wants to watch the game WITH you. They don't want it to be background noise to conversation. To us, it's the main event, much like a long-anticipated movie. It doesn't mean you can't have the occasional thought or question, but also be sensitive to different moments within a game. Timeouts and commercial breaks are good to figure out how serious the fan is, and what they want or don't want to talk about.

2. Don't rely on the other person to explain every aspect of the game In general, I love explaining things about football. So asking questions is good. But answering the same question about why there is a holding call gets hard, or why the uniforms are that color, or... you get the picture. Take five minutes to get a little handle on some of the rules, the teams that are playing, and who the star players are. If someone who knows nothing about football comes to me and says, “I hear that JT Barrett is a pretty good QB,” my excitement to share something that means a lot to me goes through the roof, and trust is instantly built.

3. Let them share their excitement about specific plays, players, or moments that they remember -  Sometimes, we have very specific memories, because we love our team. We can feel like we are part of the team (for good and for bad). Letting us share our memories is not meaningless, you're actually getting to know a part of our soul. It's something the Lord has allowed us to love. Sometimes we love it too much, and there's a conversation for that later. But letting us share about these seemingly meaningless memories actually gives you a picture of some of the great joys and sorrows of being a fan.

4. Marvel when God opens doors to deeper conversation – As trust is built, and as you become a 'sports fan' to another sports fan, it really builds trust to deeper conversation. When Heather waits to talk to me about my frustration until after the game, I'm much more apt to share and confess that I may have been hoping too much in my team. When others take the time to enjoy a pasttime that I've enjoyed for the entirety of my life, it deepens trust to talk about spiritual realities. That's a work of God, and we should marvel when God uses something as trivial as a football game to minister to the soul.

This is true of every passion out there. If someone loves art and music, invest in what they love. If someone loves to cook, be willing to be their assistant for a day. If someone loves coffee houses, go with them to their favorite and try their favorite thing on the menu.

And consider your loves. What are the things that people can do with you that will deepen trust?

Monday, February 27, 2017

God's Gift of the Scale

I had just gotten to the gym locker room when I realized I hadn't weighed myself in a while. The last time I weighed myself, I was at 165, which is around the top end of how much I want to weigh. I had been tracking calories somewhat faithfully, though I knew I had thrown in a couple (ok... maybe more than a couple) of cheat days. But overall, I felt like I was eating at least somewhat healthy, I was exercising, and my fitbit kept telling me I was under my calorie goal nearly every day.

So, consider my shock when, only four weeks after weighing 165, I tipped the scales at 171. How in the world did I gain six pounds in only a month?

What came next was an uncovering of different fears and anxieties.

“What will people think of me if I keep gaining weight?”

“What if I end up back to when I weighed over 200 lbs?”

“Am I not changing at all in my struggle with gluttony? Is God even working in my heart? Am I even a Christian?”

“Am I going to have a heart attack and die?”

I wish I could say I was joking about these fears and anxieties. I wish I could say that I logically pulled out scripture and knocked each one of these down with the timeless truths of God's Word. But that's not true. Instead I went inward, and tip-toed the line of self-loathing and despair.

What was interesting, however, was when I shared this struggle with a few people, the response was corrective.

“Zack, you're not fat, you don't need to worry.”

I appreciate the sentiment. However, they missed the point of why I was struggling with my weight. They missed the fears and anxieties. I think, honestly, we miss the greater beauty of God's use of the scale, at least in my life.

The scale has served often like the dashboard lights of a car.  It tells you if something might be wrong. However, it doesn't tell you what is actually wrong.  A check engine light could mean a whole host of problems. But to determine the problem, you need to go to an actual mechanic.

The scale can indicate a number of things. But it can't tell you what's wrong, and in fact, it can't even tell you if something is right! But if you look deep enough, it helps you perform a heart diagnostic. And if you're like me, and your emotions come easy to the surface, the scale can help identify different fears and struggles that reside in the deep recesses of our hearts.

One weight measurement, and I can identify a few things as I thought through all of the emotions.

1. I have been running to food a bit more as I've been sad, and I need to continue to remember Christ in the midst of sadness.

2. I need to repent of my worry over my life, and trust that God, in His infinite wisdom, will do me good all the days of my life, and the lives of my wife and children.

3. It reminds me that my identity is not in the number on the scale, nor the image I see in the mirror. I am made in the image of God, and I was made a son of God through the blood of Jesus. Because of this, I am of infinite value to Christ, regardless of my weight and body image.

4. I can rejoice that God has made a tool that can help me manage my health, as well as one that helps expose my fears

5. There is grace for today, so today, I can examine how I can honor God with my body in how I eat and exercise.

Maybe you're like me, and you are easily consumed by a number. Maybe that number rattles in your head all the time, and you believe it defines you.

It doesn't. Especially, not if you were bought by the precious blood of Christ. So, instead of fearing the number on the scale, praise God for a tool that helps us manage our health, expose our fears and anxieties, and may we cling to Christ as we understand more about what we fear.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Return of an Old Friend

Author's Note: I wrote this back at the end of August.  My hope is that, if anyone out there is wrestling with depression, PTSD, anxiety, or anything like that, that this would be an encouragement to your soul.  This is my fairly raw processing, so while I firmly believe that the Gospel is our greatest hope against depression, I am not endorsing that solely belief will make the feelings go away, only that they ground our hope in a firm foundation. 

There are so many lies I've believed in my lifetime.  You see all those shows where something catastrophic happens, they rebuild, transform whatever was wrong, and then they are all smiles at the end.  They ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.  That's what I thought would happen for us.  We moved back in nearly 2 weeks ago.  I felt I hand handled this whole thing rather well, the fire that is.  I was sad, sure, but I had faith in Christ.  I had hope.  I was secure.

Now?  I've never been more terrified in my life.

I have my office in my bedroom now.  As I work in it, the scene flashes before me frequently; running into the same room to grab what I could before the fire potentially claimed everything.  The same bedroom that now taunts me with the reminder that I was foolish with my life that day, and could have cost my wife her husband and my children their father.

When I turn on the panini maker, or the oven, or even the keurig for coffee, I wonder if it's going to be okay.  One sizzle, one crackle of oil, or the sound of burning liquid ignites my senses.  "Am I going to do it again?"

I thought campus would be an escape.  What a mistake.  Every person asks, "how was your summer?"  My answer?  About as good as it can be for a guy who lit their kitchen on fire.  No one really knows how to respond to that one.  I know they try.  I really want to be gracious.  Jesus has grace for me.

At the same time, I want to scream.  I want to cry.  I want to punch through a wall, anger running through my veins.  And then the apathy, lack of emotion paralyzing me to the point that every detail feels like a 100 lb weight that I've been asked to move from one end of town to the next.  This all seems new, yet vaguely familiar.

Oh... I remember you.  I remember you, Old Friend.

I remember the first time I met you.  I didn't want to believe you were there, but you were.  I was fundraising full-time, trying to finish so I could get on campus and provide for my soon-to-be wife.  For a season, it felt like I would never get there.  I turned to familiar vices, food being the predominant one, leading to weight gain that only left me with more apathy.  I thought I was just being sinful and foolish.  While both of those were true, I didn't realize you were there with me.

I met you again a couple years later.  I was a punk.  Young in ministry, seeking to prove to everyone I could hack it.  God was gracious to remind me that those efforts were fruitless.  Nothing I did worked.  I didn't want to do anything, didn't want to fail, didn't want anyone to think I was a nobody.  You walked alongside me, trying to scream out to me, to point me to my need.  As I reached out to Jesus, slowly but surely you let go, like a mother who was training her child to slowly gain independence.  I thought the pain you brought was far, far away.

But you came and went.  Moments in time that reminded me that I was in need of Christ.  It was as if you were dropping by for a short visit.  I wish your visit were brief now.

It's the busiest season of our ministry.  We have to get our home ready.  There are tons of decisions to make.  Conflicts to resolve.  And you came in unannounced, like you always do.

Sometimes, Depression, you feel like a horrible friend.  Why would you come now?  Why not in the middle of the summer, when I had time to feel like I can't move?  Why now, when I need to be at my best, when I need to be rested, not sitting in a hospital bed wondering if I'm having a heart attack?  Why now, when I'm supposed to be the example of holiness and Godliness to my students, my family, my church?  And how long will you stay?  I'm begging you to leave.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why have you allowed this awful friend to stay by my side?  Why won't you take this thorn in the flesh!  Why won't you stop my tears from flowing so freely!?  Please, Lord, I'm begging for relief!  Don't you realize that this friend is hurting me?!  Don't you realize what he's doing?

I can't feel safe in my own home, I can't feel safe in crowds, is there anywhere that I can feel safe!?

"My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling." (Psalm 46:1-3)

Maybe not.  But I can rest securely in the arms of Jesus, holding me as everything falls apart around me, and even within me.  If there's anything that I can know about this old friend, it's that he drives me to cling to the one who can carry me through the storm, as painful as it may be.

You drive me to my knees, and you force me to rely on Jesus better than any other.  You force me to keep moving even against my lack of will, and, even more so, you force me to lie down and rest, that I might reflect on the glorious truth that there is nothing about me that God would have chosen, yet did so anyway.  He loves me, and I know because He proved it with His dying breath on the cross.

"Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior."  
-- Hillsong United "Oceans"


Monday, January 30, 2017

When Pain Screams

When there's pain, it screams.” At best, it was a summary statement. Something to help make a point of a strategic discussion we were having about our ministry. Yet, I paused to ponder it. “When there's pain, it screams.” Now... to be honest, I probably didn't remember it correctly word for word. But it resonated deep within my soul.

In our culture it is easy to overlook deep pain. We see it clearly in the response to the protests. Rather than ask, “why are they so upset that they would devote time, energy, and emotion to this?” We say, "stop protesting" and "do it our way". When people are grieving, we can overlook their grief and give sharp rebuke for how they are missing things. We misdiagnose, misapply, and, I think if we are honest with ourselves, we are hasty to fix the “problems” so we don't have to deal with them anymore.

That's not to say that we should ignore sin or bad behaviors, but rather, recognize that when there is screaming, it's because there is often legitimate pain. And when there is legitimate pain, the initial need is not a correction in behavior. The need is to walk alongside, to empathize, and then fix our eyes on the God who is big enough to heal.

There are three things from the scriptures that have helped me as I think through dealing with pain:

1. It's ok to not have immediate “progress” → This is not to say that we shouldn't move through pain to deeper faith. Rather, it's ok if it's not on our timetable. Psalm 88 ends like this, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” Why would the psalmist end there? Why isn't there any resolution? It just ends hopelessly.

I think it's because the psalmist understands that it's ok to be in a season of struggle, doubt, and sadness. It's not an ending of faithlessness, rather one that says, “I know that the Lord is with me even when I feel like all hope is lost.” The fact that's a song meant for praise and worship in the temple says so, because it's a communion with the Lord.

2. Know that Jesus cares about our circumstances → In Luke 8, we see Jesus heal a woman who was bleeding for 12 years. The implications are overwhelming. She's an outcast, would be outside the temple, and would have numerous societal disadvantages. Jesus allows her to come up from behind, hidden, for her to have healing. While Jesus exposes her later (to restore her hope further, by having true faith in Christ, not just her healing), He knows that this woman had little to no contact for 12 years, and the way He heals her is to let her touch Him. He begins to restore her circumstances, healing her, letting her touch Him, and even concealing her until the time was right. He cared not just about her salvation, but also her deeply traumatic circumstances.

3. Know that contentment comes by coming to God and seeing His Glory → The story of Job is a case study in misunderstanding suffering. Job loses everything and his friends blame his sin for the calamity that has befallen him. When God shows up (in chapter 38!), He doesn't rebuke Job's friends (yet), nor does He apologize for what has happened to him. He reminds Job of who HE is.

Where were you when I lad the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? (Job 38:4-5)

Job's response to the Lord is shocking. While his pain hadn't subsided, he finds an odd contentment in 42:6, saying he repents in dust and ashes. The note about his repentance is that it could also mean he is comforted. What comfort? It's the comfort of knowing more of the fullness of God, that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. And that even in the midst of the hardest storms, He is in control.

Pain is hard. Sometimes it feels uncontrollable. And that's ok. Be honest about your pain. And, if you're listening to someone in pain, don't judge. Ask. Understand. Care. Then look to Jesus, the one who went through the deepest pain. In Him, you will find the one who can perfectly understand, and in Him, you will find the God who will rock you to the core, leaving you comforted in the midst of any pain.