Monday, December 31, 2012

Perfect Timing

Before we've even pulled this year's calendar off the wall, so many of us are thinking about how next year is going to be different.  It's going to be better.  We're going to be different.  We're going to be better.  Then we stay awake to watch a new light fall onto the earth as we wash away one year and usher in the new one with the greatest intentions and fresh promise.

It's the charisma of our fairy tale: we're waiting on the clock to strike midnight for our chance to get out of this mess and into something real.

It's not worth the hype.  I mean, what are you really waiting for?

We plan and wait and promise until our resolution is something so much grander than ourselves.  It's this big, momentous occasion that the whole world is celebrating and while we're raising our glasses in a toast, we're harboring in our hearts our grand hopes for what is to come and then all of a sudden, we're overwhelmed by the fireworks and the wide open spaces and the empty pages and we shrink beneath the overarching grandness of all the stock we've put into something so simple as midnight.  A single magic moment that, if we're honest, never lives up to its hype.

Because it's just not that big.  It's fun.  It's communal.  It's tradition.  It's a lot of things...but it's not as big a chance as we make it out to be.  For no other reason than that we've made it too big.

At 12:01, we look around and realize that nothing has changed except that we want to.  In that one minute, we start to question whether we still want to.  Whether we even can.  And whether it matters. Life is as we know it, and does it make much of a difference if we weigh a little less or earn a little more or upgrade or downgrade or whatever it is we've promised ourselves will make the difference?

It doesn't.  At midnight tonight, it just doesn't.  As perfect as it seems, as right a time to start anew, there's something missing.  It just seems to me, from personal experience, that by midnight tonight, our hopes are still in it but our hearts are long gone.

It's overwhelming.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't look to better ourselves.  It doesn't mean we don't build new hopes, embrace new promises, engage in new disciplines.  It doesn't mean we don't lose that weight or seek that promotion or upgrade or downgrade or whatever.  It just means we stop waiting on the "right" time to go for it.

We stop waiting on this big, grand, ginormous moment that is so much bigger than ourselves...and start engaging this quiet, simple, right-now moment to bigger ourselves, to better ourselves...

While our hearts are still in it.

While our promise is fresh on our minds.  While our hope is almost tangible, we can feel it so powerfully.  While we're ready to make a new choice, to make a change, to go after our heart's desire.

That time is now.  That time is the first moment you think it might be a good idea.  It's not after you've planned and after you've debated and after you've waited and after midnight.  It's now.  While you're hungry.  While you're thirsty.  While you're inspired by the mere thought of it.

There are no perfect moments.  There is no written time when we get that fairy tale experience.  No split second where it's just going to happen and everything changes at once and our hopes are realized and our promises are present and our lives are changed.  This isn't Disney.

But do you want to know a secret?  If you take this moment, this hungry, thirsty, hopeful moment, to embrace what it is in your heart that you want to change - whether that moment is today or tomorrow or April 3rd or June 24th or September 13th or whenever it is - then that moment...becomes this moment.  It becomes that big moment you were waiting for.  It becomes that grand experience where this is it.

The weight lifts.  A burden released.  A promise embraced.  A discipline begun.  A real change.

It's not in perfect timing.  It's imperfect timing.  It's whenever it happens.  It's today.  It's tomorrow.  It's two a.m.  It's just not necessarily midnight.

If at midnight tonight, like so many others among us, your hope fades.  If the clock strikes twelve and your grand fantasy is over and like Cinderella, you find yourself surrounded by your rags...don't fret.  That's the fairy tale; that's how the story goes.

It wasn't your moment.

But now might be.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Seeking God

If you were to map out God's involvement in your life, I bet the path would have a lot of twists and turns.  A lot of nooks and crannies.  A lot of hidden trails and small offshoots where once upon a time, you struggled through the underbrush of your own existence in search of God and somewhere found Him.  I talked a little about that yesterday, how we are a people actively seeking God and it seems we most find Him when we have something to do to get there.

I love what that says about us as a people.  As God's people.  That we are so thirsty for Him, so hungry for the holy, that we are willing to blaze new trails in our lives, cut through any thicket, climb over (or under) any rock in search of our Creator.  For the chance to find Him.  To know Him.  To touch Him.  To believe in Him.

That says incredible things about who we are and how beautifully important God is to us.

It says quite a bit less about who God is, and that's where I get concerned.

Those among us who don't know God, those among us who are starting to question and starting to seek...they see the thicket and they turn back.  They don't have the energies to fight through anything else to get to something they're not sure if they even believe in yet.  They don't have the interest in putting in the effort to find this God that sure, in your stories, He's great, but it seems like it took you a lot of work to get there.  I mean, how are they supposed to know the work is worth it?

I'm not saying there's not a place for God through our eyes.  There is absolutely a place for our stories.  It's just that I wish we were telling more of God's story up front and putting our details in later.

God is not in the thicket.  He is, but He's not.  He's beyond that.  He's above that.  I feel like so often, I spend so much of my time weaving my way through my world in search of what seems to be the elusive God and if I'd just step back out of the weeds for a minute, I'd see how incredible encompassing He is.  How He's not in some remote crevice somewhere but how He expands over everything, even over the very woods I'm walking through.  It's this big, great, incredible, encompassing God that I wish we were talking more of.

It's hard, I know.  It's hard to put that God into words.  It's hard to explain who that God is when it's so much easier to pull Him into the details of our own experience.  When it seems so rational to us to show someone God through human eyes, our eyes.  And to an extent, that seems to mean taking them on our journey.

But let's not forget that it has never been God who hides from His people.  It is we, His people, who hide from God.  Adam and Eve in the garden, for example.  They buried themselves in the bushes and here was God wide out in the open, but the only glimpse they saw of Him was through scattered leaves.  The only way they could get back to Him was to unburden themselves of the bushes.

Jonah tried to high tail it out of there on a boat, which found him in the sea, which found him in the whale.  And where was God?  Still talking to Jonah, but in order for Jonah to get to God, he had to find a way out of the belly of the whale.  God was faithful to provide one, but it was no pleasant journey for Jonah.

We spend our time hiding from God in one way or another, then digging through our own mess in an attempt to rediscover Him.  When we do, we're enthralled.  We found God!

God was never missing.  We never have to find Him.  He's always standing in the open, watching and waiting.  Talking to us all the way.  Coaxing us to find our way out, too.  To come to Him.

Our stories about God are much more complicated than they ever need to be.  We tell stories like, 'I prayed every night for three months and finally, there it was!  God.  And the answer I was looking for.'  Or 'Nothing was going right, and I needed something different and when I was able to figure out what exactly that might be, I just felt this clarity and all of a sudden, there was God and I didn't even know how I got there.'

That's all great.

It's just that the greater story is God.  The greater story - the story I wish we would tell a little more (even though our seeking adventures sound fun and exciting, promising even) - is that there is this good and gracious God who simply is.

And when we've needed Him, it's not about the thicket or the underbrush or twists and turns or this grand adventure or blazing new paths or cutting new trails or weaving our way through.  Every time we've needed - at least in my own experience - this God who simply is, we find Him simply to be.

It's not about the God we've found.  It's about the God who is.

It doesn't say so much about how thirsty we are as a people.  It doesn't make us sound as noble as our search for God.

But it says a whole lot about who God is, and that's the story I'd rather be telling.  How about you?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

In Good Faith

We are people programmed for innovation and improvisation.  We're built, it seems, to respond to whatever's around us and somehow find a way to make that work.  Or at least to make sense of it.  Or in it, to make sense of ourselves and our God.

It's how we relate to the world: by creating our way through it and pulling the pieces together to meaning.  To purpose.

It's how we discover God.  At least, I know that's true so often for me.  I find God most frequently, most powerfully, and most deeply when I'm somehow able to weave my way through weirdness and encounter something wholly and holy beyond myself that seems to have brought me through or at least showed me how and then I'm standing face-to-face with this good and gracious God.  And I get Him.

But sometimes, I wonder about God...and about faith...when there's not a lot for me to do.  Not when things are bigger than me.  No.  When things are bigger than me, I can't seem to help but lean on a greater God I can almost sort of fathom maybe.  Faith isn't so hard for me in the hard times.  Because that's when I need Him.  That's when I'm seeking.  That's when I'm searching...and He is gracious to let me find Him.

Faith for me is hardest on the good days.  When everything is just going well.  When things are running smoothly.  When there's not really anything to create my way through, nothing standing in my way.  An invitation to relax, to enjoy for a little bit.  A good graciousness that envelops me.  And I do kind of find myself looking for God but I'm keenly aware that it's harder to find Him because there's just not some specific path to take.  Not some obstacle to plow through or climb over or create around.  Not an active adventure for me to bond my strength to His and work it all out.

It's all Him.

In those times, I don't really know what to do with myself.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining that sometimes, life is simply good.  That there isn't always something to fight.  I love the God of the goodness, too.  It's just that the Good God is a different sort of God.  He's the God who's there when you're not really thirsty for Him.  Not water in the desert.  Not food in the famine.  Just this quiet, still comfort.  This little unignorable presence.

And I guess maybe it's because we are a people so focused on "do."  We have to have something to do.  We have to be doing something.  And if everything is good, if everything is so perfectly good that you couldn't possibly improve upon it....or at least good enough that you wouldn't take the bait of a bad second at the cost of the overwhelming good...then what are we doing?

What are we doing and what is God doing?  Is He just...being....good?  Is that...ok?  Is that...awkward for anybody else?

I'm of the mind that we are people who are constantly figuring out our faith.  Figuring out where God is, what He's doing, who He is, whether we trust Him, how much we trust Him, and so on and so forth.  It's easy to do that when life is life.  When today is today and there are questions for tomorrow and your heart is thirsty and you're so hungry for Him that you're going after Him with everything in you, working your way through, creating a way to get to your Creator and discover Him, living in that intuition of all He's created you to be, and coming and finding and knowing and believing.  And having faith.  

That's the easy God.

Our toughest God is the one that has us asking, in moments of stillness, in times of simple good....uhm, God, what's up with this?  Can we just believe in that God?  Can we just love Him and hold Him and honor Him when there's nothing really up?  When this is just...this...and it's just...good?

In there a way to keep faith?

There is.  We just have to settle into that a little more and change the way we think about God.  Change the way we hunger and thirst for Him.  Change our expectations of the way we find Him.  Change our attitude toward good to make room for more faith.

Settle into it and humble ourselves that there is a good God - and there is a faith - that we don't "do."  There is a God who simply is.

So let your faith simply be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In the Blink

I hope you had a happy, healthy, merry Christmas with those you love.  As for my part...

I think I missed it.

I feel this way every year when Christmas is over and the time has passed.  I guess it has something to do with the way we build up to this holiday.  We start when the sun is high in the summer sky, scouting out deals and picking out presents for our family and friends.  We haul out the decorations way too early to make everything look as festive and seasonal as possible.  The day after Thanksgiving brings Santa to the malls and non-stop Christmas music on the radio.  There's wrapping and baking and cooking and eating and if you're like me and you're hosting the big family event, cleaning and more cleaning and then some  And it seems like once the Christmas "season" starts (if you can even call it that in August), you don't get one single moment to stop until the first bit of family comes blazing through the front door, wondering why in the world you're so sweaty.  Even then, you don't feel like you really stop.

And then we fill this time with more events, things we should do.  Things that sound fun to do.  Like live nativities, Christmas plays, caroling, lighting ceremonies, cruisin' for lights, white elephant exchanges, parties here, parties there, and yes....oh, my God....yes, even Christmas Eve services at church.  Midnight masses.  Christmas morning worship.  Whatever it is.

The day comes and then it's gone.  After all of this build-up, all this planning, all this everything that goes into making the holiday the kind of thing you think it's supposed to be, it's all of a sudden over.  I feel like I blinked and I missed it.

You, too?

What I discovered this year, however, is that I think Christmas is in the blink.  In the blink of that eye. In that almost-unnoticeable, instantaneous bit of darkness that just kind of shuts the world away for a second and gives you that stillness, that peace.  That sense of quiet.  

That's all I wanted this Christmas.  Don't get me wrong; I love the holiday.  I love the festiveness.  I even received an invitation this year for "festive merriment."  I love working up to it, giving good gifts, inviting family into the moment and into my home.  

But I want some Christmas, too.  This year, I found myself craving the quiet.  Craving the stillness.  Crawling into bed at night and realizing that I hadn't done anything to give myself Christmas this year.  That the time was drawing near at the same time it was passing by, and I seemed to be missing all of it.

So I took a few nights just for myself.  A few chances to soak it all in.  A few moments to let myself rest.  To quiet myself.  To still myself in this season and just be overwhelmed by it all - instead of being overwhelmed by all of it.

I let myself linger in the blink.  I let myself close my eyes for just a bit longer than I needed to.  To let the snapshot of the moment linger behind my eyelids so that there wasn't all this distraction; I could see, and I could feel, Christmas.

It still feels today like I blinked and I missed it, but I'm grateful this year that that's not entirely the case.  Because today, when I close my eyes again, I've still got those few moments.  Those little times I was able for just a second to linger in the blink.  Maybe I blinked and I missed it, but today, I blink and remember this Christmas.  

It was somewhere in the blink.

Monday, December 24, 2012


It's nice sometimes to remember what it is that we have to offer God, particularly in this season of giving when we are kind of overwhelmed by the greater story.

But let's not forget the greater story.  Because the single greatest gift this Christmas, as it has been for the past 2012 years, is Mary's little boy child, God's only begotten Son, the baby in the manger, the Messiah manifest.

Jesus is the reason for this season.  As we give good gifts to each other and give good gifts to God, let us not forget the very good gift God gave us one morning in Bethlehem.

Some people say that of course we couldn't forget it.  Jesus was our sacrifice; it is because of Him we have life at all.  I object; that is not this holiday.  Not a one of us was saved because Jesus was born this Christmas day.

The Christmas message is that God loves you so much that He came here.  That He put on your wardrobe of flesh that He might have the chance to walk beside you.  To touch you.  To speak with you.  To love you immensely in a way you could understand.  In your own skin and bones.  His skin and bones.

I was honored a couple of weeks ago to share a few thoughts about Advent with my congregation.  Before I was asked to tailor my words in that direction, I have to admit...I didn't know a whole lot about Advent.  Actually, I didn't know anything.  It's not something my tribe of Christians has been known to much recognize and for the first 15 years of my life, I wasn't a Christian anyway, so Christmas was about Santa and reindeer and presents under the tree.

As I dove into Advent to try to figure out what I would say, I concluded that I believe it is odd, unexpected, and amusingly wise how this season unfolds.  Nobody in Jerusalem was looking for a baby.  I'm pretty sure Mary wasn't looking for a baby.  Not a real baby.  Luke records Gabriel's first message to her - that she will be pregnant and bear God's Son - but we don't know if she got any follow-up instructions on that or not.  Was she expecting an actual child?  A real baby who would be cut from her body by the cord, laid on her chest, and nestled into her bosom for the first year or two of His life?  A real boy she would have to teach to walk and talk and cook and eat and work and play and...potty?  A real infant whose diaper she would have to change?

What does a holy diaper look like?  (Don't answer that.  I'm an aunt of three; I've seen a few.)

Nobody was looking for a baby.  They just weren't.  They'd heard the rumors of the promised Messiah.  They'd studied the Scriptures.  They had their own thoughts and ideas about what He was supposed to look like, what He would be like when He got here.  They were all whispering about the pregnant "virgin" Mary and her crazy to-be, Joseph, who was sticking by her side in this story.  They were waiting to see whether any of the rumors were real, whether there was a Christ child on the way.

And you know they were disappointed when He came wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Just a baby.

But so much more.  God of our God, flesh of our flesh.  It's weird to hear those words backward, isn't it?  That God would not only create the flesh of Himself but would inhabit it for the chance to connect with His creation.  To walk among us once more as He had in the Garden.  To be here, to be right here.  Beside us.  With us.  For us.  All Him.

I think so many years later, we look differently on this time because we know more about who Jesus is.  We know how the story plays out.  We know that He came into this world wrapped in swaddling clothes and that the world tried to send Him out the same way - wrapped again in tender cloth - but He laid those clothes aside.

Let's not forget, though, that this season is to celebrate the first thing Jesus ever did for you: He left the comfort of Heaven and the Father's embrace for the bosom of a virgin, the shelter of a stable, and the redemption of creation.

That is the gift.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Friday, December 21, 2012


If gold or myrrh isn't your offering, I'm fairly certain we've all got a little frankincense lying around to bring to the manger this Christmas.

Frankincense is another one of those "precious" oils that was probably fairly common around Jerusalem.  Its primary use was as an incense.  Specifically, the incense that was offered at the altar as a sacrifice to God.  An aroma pleasing to the Lord.  Something to cover up the smell of all that burning fat and hide and hair.

Is it any wonder, then, that a man we call a wise man carried frankincense to Bethlehem?

From the moment that brightest star rose over the stable, the wise man knew he wouldn't need this any more.  He no longer had to concoct an offering to the Lord.  He no longer had to mix the potent oils to blend an aroma pleasing to the Lord.  Whatever he had been required under the old law to bring to the temple, he had no more use for with a Messiah lying in a manger.

He took his frankincense and laid it at the baby's feet.  In essence, he said, "Whatever I've tried to do, it hasn't work.  Nothing has made me right with God.  Not for any good measure of time and not with any large measure of incense.  Its aroma may be pleasing, but it scatters in the wind and I find myself always trying to catch up, always trying to make more amends, always trying to be enough and get this ritual just right.  And tonight, I know that it's not about the ritual any more.  There's something greater here, and all of this that I've done to try to get right with God, all my frankincense...I just don't need it any more.  So I give it to You, baby Jesus."

In the same way, it is upon us to give God the same.  To give Him whatever we've thought we had that might make us right with Him.  To give Him our vain attempts to bridge the gap ourselves when nothing crosses the chasm but His one and only Son.  To give Him our offerings, the things we've brought to Him here and there to try to establish our righteousness.  To give Him the muddled mess and the mixed aroma of our attempts at our own justification.

We are to take Him our frankincense because the aroma pleasing to the Lord cannot be drawn from a tree; it can only be drawn from the heart.  We lay down at His feet what might have covered our sacrifice....

...because our sacrifice lay before us in swaddling clothes.  And we just don't need this frankincense any more.

The power of the Christmas story is overwhelming.  A beautiful starry night.  A pregnant virgin.  A semi-sheltered, but somehow cozy stable.  A promise fulfilled.  A child given.  A baby born.

And it's easy to get lost sometimes in how incredible it is that God would send His Son in such a tender, vulnerable, humble moment to somehow sanctify a people who continue to turn their backs on Him.  It's hard to swallow the enormity of His gift.  It's hard to sit here and know how completely hollow we are to offer anything in return.

What do you give the God who has everything?

We come to the manger in the beat of our own drum and play for Christ in the rhythm He's created in us.

We give Him our gold, turning our worth over to the God who defines it.  We give Him our myrrh, admitting our inability to cleanse or to heal our own broken flesh, and embrace the touch of our Healing Lord.  We give Him our frankincense, humbling ourselves before the only sacrifice able to bridge the gap for us and make us holy.

The greatest gift any of us can give in return for this child is to lay down our everything and open our arms to cradle this baby.

Embrace Christ this Christmas season.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Maybe your gift isn't so much gold.  If that is the case, consider myrrh.

Myrrh is a sap or a resin drawn from a specific tree that would have been potentially plentiful in the area around Jerusalem, but the value of myrrh cannot be overstated.  It had two primary purposes: to cleanse and to heal.

This treasure of the earth was valuable as a perfume.  We're talking before running water and before the invention of soap here, people.  We're talking about the kind of substance that makes a man clean - and when the Bible says perfume, it's not necessarily gender-oriented as we would say perfume today. That is, it wouldn't have had to aromafy a woman; men would have used myrrh, too.  (Otherwise, the wise man would have given the myrrh to the Christ child and said, "My wife sends her best.")

This precious resin was also beneficial as a salve.  It was used to dress wounds.  Something in the chemical makeup of myrrh healed a broken flesh and soothed whatever pain might have been associated with it.

People needed myrrh.  It was this fantastical, wonderful magical thing that both cleansed them and healed them.

How fitting that a wise man took myrrh to the manger.

In laying it down, he in essence said, "Lord, I have trusted in the things of this world to make me clean and to heal me.  I have taken what I can to make myself whole.  But it's nothing.  I am an odorous man whose flesh has been torn by this place, and this myrrh is not enough.  I lay it at Your feet in recognition that You are the only healing, cleansing salve I need."

We are a people who turn to this world to cleanse us and make us whole.  We use what we know of this place to justify what we've done wrong, to justify the wrongs done to us, to overlook the sinful, broken things and to somehow manage to make it through.  We are a people who have bought the lie that there must be something here that will make us whole, and we've spent our lives going after it.  Taking whatever we can get.

What's interesting about myrrh is that harvesting it does permanent damage to the tree.  In the same way, whatever we take from the world in order to cleanse or heal ourselves is something we so often cannot give back.  It's something that makes a permanent mark on some aspect of our reality, some measure of our world.  And truth be told, it doesn't do a whole lot of healing or cleansing in the process.

We still feel like dirty, broken people.  For good reason....we are precisely that!

But we don't have to be.  In a small stable in Bethlehem, God sent our Savior to bind up our wounds and to wash us clean.  All we have to do is take our myrrh to Him.  Take what this world is selling that sells us too short and lay it at His feet and confess, "Lord, I am but a broken, dirty man and my flesh is torn.  I give You my myrrh because it isn't enough; I cannot take from this world any more.  And I cannot heal nor cleanse myself.  So I'm going to stop trying and instead give it to You.  You are the perfume and the healing salve I seek."

And God is faithful to mend.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


In this Christmas series, "The Gift," we're asking:

What do you give the God who has everything?

Yesterday, we looked at the gift of the Little Drummer Boy.  But perhaps you consider yourself more of a wise man.  (Or a wise guy.  There is no judgment here.)  If such is the case, consider the gift of gold.

Gold has long been a measure of a man's worth, but it was by no means the common currency.  If you look back through the monetary exchanges, the transactions for goods and services in Scripture, what you find is that most dealings were in silver.  Eleven brothers sold Joseph for eight ounces of silver.  Thirty shekels of silver was the price for Judas to betray the Lord.  Even gifts, often brought from the leader of one people to the leader of another, included a great deal of silver yet very little gold.

So valuable, so precious, and maybe even so scarce was gold that in the Solomon's building of the temple, most items were first cast in bronze and then plated in gold.  It simply would have been that ridiculous and that prohibitively impossible to garner enough gold to actually carve out even the holiest of holies.  It was, instead, a simple covering.  The illusion of grandeur over the solidity of common material.

Is it any wonder, then, that the wise man brought gold to the stable?

He brought this precious metal, this unaffordable luxury, this richness of richness that was a symbol of status.  A symbol of beauty.  A symbol of wealth.  But that so often merely covered something of much less, something so common and relatively simple as bronze or some other soft material.  Gold was both an unspeakable wealth and a tremendous farce.

He brought this gift of gold and laid it at the Christ child's feet.  I have this, the wise man said, but it is of such little value.  It looks worthy and it makes me look worthy, but there is nothing in this world made of solid gold.  Not even me.  It is a facade, a false front for a man who of soft mettle, at best, and it is worth nothing next to You.

This Christmas, as we ponder what we give to the God who has everything, let us consider giving the gift of our gold.

Let us take whatever it is we have that makes us seem worthy.  That makes us seem beautiful.  That makes us seem ornate and grand and breathtaking.  Let us take Him this measure of the world that so longs to define who or what we are and lay our gold at His feet.

Let us lay down whatever impressions we might have had of worth as we gaze into the eyes of a newborn Messiah who knows the truth.  Who knows that underneath it, we are much more common and relatively simple.  That underneath our gold, under our facade, under our false faces and fake impressions, we are men of mere mettle and soft clay.

Let us give Him that covering we're hiding behind that seems to make us worthy.  He has come to redefine worth by the measure of God, not the standard of man.  When we lay down our gold, we acknowledge that.

And we expose ourselves clay in His hand, ready to be molded and shaped and yes, even cast, in our place in His story.  Once we are cast, it is He who covers us in something greater and gives us worth.

More precious, more rich, more beautiful, and more lavish than gold.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Gift

With Christmas a week away, now is as good a time as any to start my shopping.  Just kidding.  Gift-wise, I'm ready.  (Sort of.)

But I did want to take these next few days to share some thoughts I've been having this Christmas.  And I need to preface what's coming by asking this very important question:

Just what do you give the guy who has everything?

It's a question I must answer anew every year, as I have a niece and two nephews who are already buried past their heads in toys.  It makes Christmas a more diligent time for me, as I try to strike that middle ground between something they will enjoy but forget...and something they will remember but not enjoy.  It's a tough place to hit just right.

I'm not the only one who has had this problem.  I'm not the only one who has it this year.  I'm not the only one who will have it next year.  I get that.  It just seems monumental when you're the one stuck in the conundrum, the one who makes it a point to give good gifts and who agonizes over getting it just right.

Then I heard a song a week or so ago, one of my favorite Christmas songs, that took on new meaning this year as some of those words just broke through a moment of breath and hit me in an new way.  It's a song about another small player, another bit role, who found himself Christmas morning wondering what to get the guy who has everything.

He laments something like this:

"I am a poor boy, too....I have no gift to bring...that's fit to give our King..."

Yes, I'm speaking of the Little Drummer Boy, who at this time of year so captures our feelings of smallness and unworthiness to even fathom the baby in the manger.  To know what to do with Him.  To know what to give to Him.

This time of year, it's more than Christians waiting to celebrate the baby Jesus.  It's seekers, too.  It's people who maybe go to church once or twice a year (this being "once" of those occasions).  It's people who maybe never go to church.  It's people who are swept up in the holiday spirit, surrounded by reminders of what this coming holiday means, have been blessed to push through the presents and the paper and the pomp and see the quiet, still meaning those of us who know this Christ are celebrating, and who take a bold step into our churches.

One little step, hoping quietly, timidly, nervously, to find something of Jesus this Christmas.  The way I'd hope we all would.

And we do a fantastic job of celebrating Jesus this time of year.  We are awesome at telling His story.  We are terrific at talking about a pregnant virgin, a baby in a manger, a messiah materialized, a promise proven, a gift given.  But I think for many of our seekers, it's not quite enough.

Faced with all that Jesus would bring us, it's hard not to fidget in the pew thinking about what in the world we might have to offer Him.  What could we ever give to this Christ child?  What could we present that would be worthy of Him?

What do you give the God who has everything?

I think the Little Drummer Boy is onto something.  I think he got it just right.  You bring to God whatever you've got.  You bring to Him your own rhythm, a measure of you (music joke.  Laugh if you got it).  This Little Drummer Boy looked around and concluded, I just don't have a lot.  I am a poor boy, just like you, baby Jesus.  I don't have riches or finery or treasure to bring You.  I've got nothing worthy of who You are.

But I've got all of me, and You can have every bit of it.  This gift I give to You, I give it of myself.  I give it out of everything created in me to celebrate You.  I hope that's enough.


It's enough.  It is entirely enough.  It is everything Jesus wanted of you, Little Drummer Boy.  And it is all that He wants from us.

I don't think I could get away with drumming for my niece and nephews.  But I bet Jesus would love it.

It's intimidating to hear this child's story, to hear the birth of the Savior, and know how empty and hollow you are.  It's tough to embrace a God who came to give you everything when it seems so obvious you have nothing to give Him in return.  

What do you give the God who has everything?

You give Him you.  It's all you've got to give.  It's all He wants.

Without you, He's not that God.  He doesn't have everything.  He doesn't have you.

You are His everything.

Monday, December 17, 2012


It's the end of the world!  ...Ok, not until Friday.  Or Saturday?  I can't keep track of these sorts of things.

It's a difficult thing to imagine.  The end of the world, that is.  It's hard to think about what it will be like when all we have is suddenly nothing and then our nothing is suddenly everything as a new Heaven and a new Earth are formed.  We can't fathom "nothing."  It's unimaginable.  That everything could just...disappear in the blink of an eye and in another blink, be transformed and become whole.  

But this isn't that.  The end of the world this Friday (or Saturday?  Seriously...somebody help me out here) cannot and should not be confused with the Christ's return, which we are confident will be the end of the world as we know it.  Do I know for sure that this isn't that?  No.  That's kind of the point. Christ said that no one will know the day, so I'm pretty certain that if we're all sitting around circling it on our calendars, it's probably not the day.  No one will know.  Not you.  Not me.  And not the Mayans, who started this whole nonsense when they ran out of calendar tablets over a thousand years ago and by the way, did not worship Christ or the Father and thus would not have based the end of their world on the returning Christ.

So that's that.

It's insane because people are losing friendships over this sort of thing.  People, chill.  This is not that.

What strikes me as even more insane, however, is our infatuation with getting ready.  Preparing for the end of the world.  There's a reality show about it (so I hear).  Doomsday Preppers, these people are called.  Rushes on bottled water and flashlights and batteries and emergency chargers and stockpiles of food and this and that and the other.  People sitting down with their families, talking about what they will do when this moment comes.  Preparing each other for the minutes after the moment, for the wake, for the aftermath, for waking in a new world that doesn't exist.

Yeah, I'm confused.  One thing I absolutely, positively, one hundred percent know for certain is that if the world ends - if the world truly, actually, fully ends - I'm going with it and so are you.  Post-apocalyptic scenarios make great movies and television, but if it's the end of the world, we're outta here, too.  There's no surviving it.  And all of your bottled water and flashlights and batteries won't do you one bit of good if you're not here to use them.

This, I think, is one of the biggest lies that we've bought, as a culture.  That there is this world and that somehow, we're in it but we're not a part of it.  Like a fish in a tank, surrounded by authentic-looking coral and sand and that little treasure chest that spits out bubbles; it's an environment, but the fish moves freely through its matter and I don't know that the fish considers itself part of the water.  From the outside looking in, though, we see the fish as a part of its bigger place.  As a part of the aquarium.  

We move about in this world, cutting through and creating a way and I think we so rarely stop to consider that while this seems to be our world, it is a world of which we are a part, too.  A world which any outsider looking in on would see not as fit for humans, but human itself.

Maybe that's why it's so messed up around here.  A few years ago when smartphones and mobile media and all this connectivity started taking over our culture, I kind of shook my head.  I remarked that we're living increasingly with the world at our fingertips, but we're taking greater and greater care never to touch it.  I still believe that.  We're so busy considering ourselves apart from the world that we forget that we are, in fact, a part of the world.

We'd be better off engaging here.  Engaging each other and engaging this place.  Understanding our role in this world instead of on this world.  Taking care to watch over one another and to watch over this earth.  To come together.  To build together.  To live together.  To love together.

This place will not last forever.  Of that, we are certain.  Of that, we have been promised.  But that doesn't mean it's going to end tomorrow.  (Or Friday.  Or is it Saturday?  Did we settle this?)  We need to stop spending our days stocking up for no tomorrow because not a one of us is going to make it there.  We need, instead, to put our stock in today.  Sit down and talk with our families about what we can do here.  Prepare each other for the moment after this one, for the aftermath of now, for waking in a world that we can make new while we have this opportunity.

Until one day, which none of us will know, this place is truly made new.  And we are, too.  And all the bottled water under Heaven will pale in comparison to the Living Water that will flow out of it.


Tomorrow, I will begin a 5-day blog series on the Christmas Gift to conclude next Monday, Christmas Eve.  You will not want to miss this.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

At a Time Like This

I chose not to write yesterday out of respect for what has happened in our world.  While we'd never get anything done if we slowed down every time something like this happened, I felt very heavily yesterday that for a bit, we all just needed a bit of stillness.  Not necessarily stoppage, but at the very least stillness.

But time presses on, and people who - like me - cannot fathom what possesses a yesterday are looking for the answer for today and tomorrow.  And there are a lot of complicated issues floating around out there, but it doesn't have to be so hard.

It's not about gun control, or lack thereof.  It's not about making more laws about weapons (it's already illegal to open fire in an elementary school...that did not stop this man, just as the law doesn't seem to stop anyone else bent on doing such things) and it's not about more guns or arming our teachers or anything so dramatic.

It's not about locking down our schools or tightening security in our public places.  You know what?  I remember the days when our schools and churches weren't locked and didn't have to be.  When most homes weren't locked and didn't have to be.  I already lament living on lock down so far as we have to; locking down more is not the answer.

And it's not about believing in God.  I had to admit that the God-talk is more hurtful and disrespectful most times than the politics.  I'd rather hear you talking about gun control or security measures than trying to wrap faith around it with platitudes like "God has a plan for this" and "God has a plan for those children."  You know what?  God's plans were wrecked yesterday, too.  Now, He's actively reworking what He had in store for those children and those educators and yes, even that gunman.  Whatever He comes up with will be good.  He's promised us that.  But yesterday was not good.  It was not God.  It was not His plan.  Saying it was is not the healing balm you think it will be; saying it was God's plan and we just don't understand God...only means that you don't understand God.  It wasn't Him.

Then where is the answer and what do we do?

We may never have an answer, but we know what to do.  It's what millions of parents around the country and the world did last night: we hug our children a little tighter.  Then we hug our families a little tighter.  Then we hug our friends a little tighter.  Then we hug our neighbors a little tighter.  Then we hug our communities a little tighter.  We hold each other close and let love live.

Did you know that a man who knows - who honestly, truly, fully knows - unrestricted, unconditional, unbridled, abiding love is incapable of this sort of act?  Did you know that a man who understands his intrinsic value, his created worth, and is able to see that in the lives of others, as well, is incapable of this sort of thing?  Did you know that the man who pulled that trigger, and many other men and women just like him around the world, was asking questions for which this world seemed to have no answer?

Who am I?  Do I matter?  Is there anything good in me?  Is there a place for me?  Where am I?  Where am I going?  Does it matter if I get there?  Is anyone watching me?  Does anyone see me?  And on and on and on....

Love has the answer to these questions.  Love has the answer to a heart that's on the hinges, that's on the fence trying to figure out on which side of worth it comes down.  Trying to figure out on which solid ground it lands.  Without love, there is no solid ground.  There is no place to stand.  And as men, we can't float around forever.  We weren't given wings to soar; we were given feet to stand.  Every man needs a place to stand.  Every man needs to know where he stands.

The answer to yesterday is that every man know he stands on love.  

That doesn't mean preaching.  That doesn't mean door-knocking.  That doesn't mean passing out tracts.  That doesn't mean warning of the dangers of Hell.  That doesn't mean condemning.  That doesn't mean Bible-beating.

It means loving.  Just loving.  We know how to do that.  We did that last night in our own homes.  Now, let's keep love going outside our walls.

It's not going to solve the whole problem.  There will still be mental illness, which obscures love so that love doesn't seem like the answer.  (It still is, even if it doesn't seem like it.)  There will still be evil.  Even God has no mercy for evil.

But the vast majority of ills in our world are simply this: broken love.  Broken love leads to broken lives leads to broken people who break our hearts.  Pure, simple, quiet, Godly love goes a long way to healing what is aching in us today.  Pure, simple, quiet, Godly love does more for our tomorrow than anything else we could think to do.

My heart aches for the families in Connecticut who spent the night staring into the darkness and wondering what happened.  I mourn with the families who tangibly feel the void that just two days ago felt so unimaginable.  I offer them my prayers and my heart.

I cry with the children who in just a few weeks, will be going back to school.  I hope that maybe they don't go back to Sandy Hook right away but maybe take some time to adjust.  I hope that someone will step in and renovate as much of the school as is necessary for those children to learn better things in those classrooms.  For those kids to be comfortable there again.  School is magical; I long for these children to remember that.

And I wonder with my world.  I wonder what yesterday speaks for our tomorrow.  I wonder what we're going to do with these increasing headlines of our broken world.  I wonder when we are going to step up and stop all of this.  Not through politics or lockdowns or fear or whatever else seems so rational right now.

But in love. In loving hard and loving well and building a solid foundation of love where every man has a place to stand.  In holding our children, our families, our neighbors, and our communities a little closer.  In holding love high.  In living so that love, not loss, defines us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Comfort And Fear

Around this time of year, we hear of the tidings of comfort and joy.  But what about the interplay of comfort and fear?

Acts 9:31 reminds readers to "Live in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit."  Together.  At the same time.

It's easy to confuse fear of the Lord with fear of snakes or fear of heights.  That completely disorienting kind of fear that kind of sets your head spinning and your heart sinking.  The kind that kicks your fight or flight instinct into overdrive.  But we know that's not the kind of fear we're talking about when we're talking about the fear of the Lord.

The command is never to be afraid of God; it is always, always simply to fear Him.

To fear God is to remember that He's that much bigger than you.  It is to recognize that He's that much greater than you.  It is to look around in awe and marvel that one good and gracious God created all this - from the thunderstorm to the rose petal, from the rainforest to the butterfly's wings.  The big and incredible, the small and indescribable, the everything and the all, was created by one Creator who saw fit to weave such wonders into the world.  And who then saw fit - and saw need and promise and goodness - to create you.

The fear of the Lord is the speechlessness of knowing that He was both willing and able to do something for you that you could never do for yourself - He paved an access road to Heaven with the blood of His own sacrifice. something to give due respect to and to posture yourself in fear.  Not afraidness, but awestruck recognition of the glory of God.

It's enough to make you think maybe you'd better just thank God and back away.  That maybe you ought to keep a respectful distance and not fathom a relationship with such a God, even if you've heard that a relationship is precisely what this God wants.  That's where the comfort of the Holy Spirit comes in.

If the fear of the Lord reminds you that God is this bigger, greater, good, and gracious being that is so far beyond what you could ever imagine, the comfort of the Holy Spirit is knowing that He's standing right next to you.  That He, too, understands how intimidating it might be to consider the possibility of God, so He took it upon Himself to bridge the gap.  To enter into your space so that you might know Him better.  So that you might understand both the infinite and the intimate.

You remember when Elmer Fudd would be staring down the rabbit hole, gun cocked and ready to shoot?  Then Bugs would walk up behind him with a carrot in his mouth, crunch one big bite and say, "Eh....what's up, doc?"  That's the comfort of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We're a people - God's people - standing around, waiting and watching for God to show up.  We're anticipating what it will be like when we see Him face-to-face.  We're staring up at the Heavens thinking about this God who is so incredible we can't even imagine Him and we're more than a little nervous about what that moment's going to be like.  I mean, this is God!  And all of a sudden, there's this loud crunch behind us.  We turn around and the Holy Spirit is standing there, saying, "What's up, doc?"

God is here.  He's standing right next to us.  He's walking right beside us.  He is with us, no matter where we are.  Because He has found it fit to be here.  He longs to be with His people.  By the comfort of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded that although we live in the fear of the Lord, God is nothing to be afraid of.  He is infinite and intimate and what an honor it is that He has blessed us with both.

The fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  Together.  At the same time.  Right now.  Forever.  For you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


You've often heard it said that you should quit while you're ahead.  Ever notice how people only say that right after you've taken your first step backward?

Nobody quits when they feel like life is working for them.  Nobody quits when they're racking up points.  Nobody quits when they're ahead.

You quit...when you're a stupid head.  Guilty.

Not as much these days, though still more often than I like, I am a person who is prone to discouragement.  It's easy to look at this or that thing that you've tried to do, and it doesn't come together like it did in your head.  Or the words you thought you had suddenly fall away from you while you're trying to write with the same power with which those words overcame you.  Or you're looking back at something you know you used to be proud of, and it's not really your best work and it's not really anything.  Maybe you know how it could be better, but suddenly, whatever fire you had behind it is doused and you don't want to make it better.  You don't even trust that you could.

I've been a little in that place again lately, particularly with my book-in-progress, Prayse.  The last chapter, while it worked so well in my head, did not translate to paper and screen as well as I had anticipated.  I went with it anyway and pushed it into the draft pile because, well, I followed my rule of best, better, good and after weeks of wrestling with it, it was the best I could do without driving myself crazy.  Then for weeks, I didn't write another word.

It's easy to make excuses, to say that life wrapped me up and there just wasn't time.  I've had company and Christmas and church and a myriad of things that needed to be done, and it was easy to push my writing work aside for awhile.  But the truth is that I've just been discouraged.  I've been thinking about that last chapter, about how it fell short, about how it failed to live up to the quality I feel like I found in the other eleven chapters in my draft pile.

Thinking about those broken words made me question everything.  Question why I was writing at all, since I didn't seem to be any good at it, nobody was going to read it, somebody had probably already said it, and it would just disappear in the Barnes & Noble (if it ever happened to make it that far) behind a stack of misplaced Fifty Shades of Greys.  Writing is not paying the bills, and if I'm not going to be any good at it, if my gift is gone, then why drudge through one more word?

I also mentioned, however, that I've been reading Paul.  And one of the things Paul insists is that people "Do not be discouraged."  Don't let things get you down; there are greater things afoot, and if you spend your life ruing what isn't, you're going to ruin what is.  There are a lot of contexts we could put this in, but it's those primary words - Do Not Be Discouraged - that matter.

Worldly wisdom says even when you think you can't, do it anyway.  Fake it until you make it.  That's not, however, what I think Paul is saying.  Paul's admonition is bigger than that.  Paul's advice is to take a moment, take a breath, and remember.  Remember what it is that is in you, that makes you you, that is created in you.  Remember what God is doing with that.  And through that.  And yes, in that.  Remember what it is to touch that, and get back into it.

I always imagine this sort of thing as a ball in a halfpipe, rocking back and forth until it finds this place to settle.  That's what Paul says when he says don't be discouraged.  He says, ok.  Maybe you're rocking around or even freefalling and you don't know where that niche is, but you know.  You know what God has put in you.  Let yourself nestle in that.  Let yourself settle into that.  It doesn't matter if you think you're good right now or if you're happy with the way it's going, get back into it and settle down.  You know that is where you were meant to be.

And when you find that place, you know what?  It feeds you.  It reminds you of what you've tried to remember, that this is what God is doing in you.  That you have something that was created for this, that this place has something for you, and that you have something to offer through this place.  It's energizing.

Earlier this week, I stayed up late into the night writing Prayse.  The newest chapter is coming along swell, and I can't wait for you to read it. (Later this week?) I'm excited about this work again.  I'm humbled by the gracious God who gifted me to do it.  I'm amazed at the way He finds these words to put in me and I somehow find a way to dig them back out to give them back.  I'm just incredibly blown away by all that this is shaping up to be.

I may even one day be able to fix that last chapter to my liking.

But it's awesome to be in this place of renewal, this place of fresh energy.  This place of settlement and trust and humility.  It is one of the many blessings I am enjoying and have enjoyed in my twenty-seven years, one of the absolutely incredible, indescribable God-ordained moments I am honored to experience.  The greatest breakthroughs, the best times happen right after you decide not to give up.

When you turn to Paul instead of the wisdom of this world and refuse to quit while you're a (stupid) head.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mirror Mirror

James says that a man who does hears God's word but does not follow it is like a man who studies his face in the mirror, then turns away and can't remember what he looks like.

Have you ever forgotten what you looked like?

Yes and no.  I don't think James literally means what a man looks like; I think he's speaking more about how a man sees himself.  For a lot of us, if we've not focused our eyes on the truth of who we are, we fall into one of two categories of self-memory.

Either we see only our flaws...or none of them.

We turn away and think about the growing zit on the side of our nose, the place where we over-plucked an eyebrow, the place where we haven't plucked at all, the scar on our left temple, the birthmark on our cheek, the dimple that is so cute if we smile quite right but we suddenly remember it's been awhile.  We think of the things that we're sure others are staring at, things that set us apart and make us somehow different, somehow lesser than those around us.  Unless we're looking right at them and seeing these cosmetic differences in the bigger picture, they often seem like the big picture themselves.

On the other hand, there are those among us who turn away and are absolutely convinced they're Fabio.  They are runway-ready and cover photo-worthy, and you'd be hard-pressed to convince them otherwise.  (You see how I went from "we" in the last paragraph to "they" in this one?  This has never been my particular problem.  So if this is yours, I'm sorry.  I find you absolutely bewildering and thus, a part of "they.")  These people see right past their flaws and embrace what's perfect about them, which without an honest sight, kind of seems like "everything."

Of course, James wasn't really talking about appearances.  He was talking about a broader understanding of ourselves.  He was talking about people who don't see the beautiful mingling of created and broken, perfected and flawed, good and bad, right and wrong, right and left in their own reflection.  He was talking about people who don't have an honest view of themselves because they are not intent on seeing fully who they are.

Fully...who God has created them to be, with all of their holes and hiccups and hopes and wholeness.

He was talking about people who forget to treat others with grace because they've turned and no longer see their own need for the same.  He was talking about people who turn away from grace because they are disgusted by themselves and see only their unworthiness.  He was talking about people who only see themselves as purely "good" or wholly "bad" and whose sight cannot remember the holy mix of both that is in them, that makes them who they are.

Our inability to remember that we are wholly this holy mixture of created and broken challenges the way we relate to others, to ourselves, and to God, which only further blinds us to the interplay of our good and bad qualities.  The more we see ourselves as flawed, the more we wonder how God could ever love us, and the more we question this God of love and what His intentions are.  Our faith wavers, our joy fades, and pretty soon, we're looking in the mirror and can't even see the truth anymore.  All we see is what we always see when we close our eyes or turn away, except now it is staring right back at us and we don't blame God for being far away.

Or we see ourselves as perfect, and we wonder what need we have for this God.  We think any venture we make into the realm of faith will draw us away from our harmony and into some tumultuous scene of God's plan, and who has room for that when things are already going so well?  We pull further away until we find no future in faith.  We turn, and we walk right out of God's arms.  Then when the day comes that maybe we could really use a God, we wonder where this one was all our lives, and we're bitter at a God we think abandoned us...when it was we who abandoned Him.

We have to learn to look in the mirror and embrace all that we are, whatever looks good and whatever looks bad.  We have to remember that what we're seeing reflected is God's glory in a fallen world; we were created in His image, and regardless of our battle scars, we still reflect that.  When we find that, we find a greater depth in ourselves and an ability to love beyond what we remember when it seems we can't see.

And we can't help but love the God who created this, who created us.  The God whose glory we see reflected somehow in us...that the world is watching in us, as if in a mirror, that they might see Him reflected, too.  That they might see God...

Let us never forget that God is what we look like.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wingin' It

We all know that the best made plans....  Yeah.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be making any.

As a freshman in high school, the band director approached me and asked if I'd be willing to change out my percussion/piano/trombone for a trumpet.  There weren't any coming in with my class, he said, and he needed a stronger high brass section.  I agreed and spent months honing the craft of the trumpeteer.

Background note: I started playing the piano at age 3, as soon as I could read, and have always had a gift in music.  Swapping one instrument for another has generally been a fairly simple task for me, with the noted exception of the guitar family.  My fingers just won't do it.  

Within a few months, I'd moved up the ranks in concert seating and was playing a high-ranked trumpet.  The director invited me to expand my skill set and join the jazz band, too.  As "Second Trumpet."  For those of you unaware of what this means, it's this: In most jazz ensembles, it is the second trumpet (and for some reason, not the first) that plays the solos.

I would have to learn to improv.

Improvisation is a challenge.  When you're listening to jazz, you're thinking these guys are totally cool and you wish you could be even half the artist they are.  When you're watching them, they make it seem effortless.  In many cases, they play "off the cuff," if you will, and throw together these incredible strings of notes that make jazz precisely the art form that it is.  I seriously doubted my abilities to improvise anything of note.  Pun intended.

There was one big song for our upcoming showcase, one pronounced second trumpet feature.  Most of the solo was written out, but there was a broad section in the middle of the piece that would require improvisation.  For months, we rehearsed that piece in the classroom.  Every time we came to the wide open space marked "Trumpet Improv," I lowered my horn to my side, flashed an embarrassed grin to the rest of the group, and loudly declared, "Something goes here!"  I never played a single note for that space in rehearsal.  Not a one.

And why would I?  I had a keen awareness that I had no idea what I was doing, and the last thing I wanted was to embarrass myself.  The last thing I wanted to hear about any work-in-progress improvisation I might be trying out was that it wasn't any good.  The last thing I wanted to see was disappointment or regret on the band director's part.  So I never played a note.

What I did do, however, was take to pen and paper and practice.  I sketched out the chord progressions of the piece, played the melodies and harmonies over and over in my mind, tried a few notes here and a few notes there, and did what I could to get something down on paper.  Something...that fit the piece but wasn't bound by theory.  I had to leave room for expression and for keeping with the tone of the piece.

When performance night came, I took the stage.  Trumpet in hand, I stood off to the side as directed, in front of an auditorium full of people (which I find less intimidating than a smaller group of just a handful).  The band director was standing just off-stage.  By the way, the second trumpet?  Also directs the jazz ensemble.  It was my cue; it was up to me.

We played through the written piece and came upon the open section, and I closed my eyes...and started playing.  The notes I'd painstakingly penned for months leading up to this.  The notes no one had ever heard.  The notes I had practiced but which, in this scenario, took on an entirely new emotion as I felt the vibe of the band behind me harmonizing with my notes.

By all accounts, I nailed it.

You see, the key to good improvisation is both understanding and discipline.  You have to have a framework for music and theory.  You have to understand the intricacies of both the piece you're performing and the broader genre of jazz in general.  You have to know music if you ever want to break out in song.  Otherwise, you will only make noise.  At the same time, you have to devote yourself to studying the piece.  You have to discipline yourself into the particular music.  You have to work within the key signature, the measure, the beat, the time, the overall vibe of the piece.  If you know music but haven't given yourself over to making music within the measure, again, you're just making noise.

There's a wide open space out there that is inviting you to do your thing.  It's up to you what you're going to do with it.

You could be so paralyzed by the idea, so worried about getting it wrong, so worried about not doing it right, that you never play a note.

Or you could decide to just wing it, to take yourself and take your chances, and you end up just making noise.

But invest yourself in understanding who you are, who God created you to be and invest in the discipline of living fully that - invest yourself in doing it right, devote yourself to the details, commit yourself to the framework and to honoring the tone - and you make beautiful music.

Friday, December 7, 2012


I've been reading a lot of New Testament Paul, as I mentioned yesterday, but sometimes, it's really hard to read past the martyr motif.

Because I'm living in a culture that has taken the martyr thing way out of context and to an absurd extreme, and I have to admit - I've never met a martyr I liked.

We all know them.  The martyrs around us are the people who never neglect to remind you of everything they've been through, everything they've given up, and everything they don't have.  Martyrs today really have one of three reasons for this constant oversharing.

A) They want to impress you.  They want you to look at their suffering of a life and marvel at the way they've seemed to pull through, at the way they're living now, at the things they are making of themselves and their situation.  They usually follow this up with some faux humility, some shrugging of the shoulders and some resigned declaration that "It is what it is" and this is life and this is just how it that it sounds like they're telling you that you shouldn't be impressed while they are obviously trying to impress you.

If they're not trying to impress you, then...

B) They want you to feel bad about some aspect of your life.  What they are attempting to do, without saying so much, is to offer you a healthy dose of what they might call perspective.  They want to one-up whatever you're going through so that you feel better about your life, by feeling worse about (and more impressed by) theirs or they want to inspire you to quit something you're doing and make a different choice precisely because there are suffering people like them out there and what you're about to do is stupid.  You often walk away from these encounters looking at things differently, but you don't  have a great deal of respect for the martyr.

If they're not trying to impress you or shame you, they are trying to...

C) Get out of something.  There are martyrs who will tell you exactly everything they've been through so that you feel so guilty asking them to do anything else in their entire lives that they end up not doing anything else.  Ever.  There are people who will tell you that the lazy, bad, or ridiculous choices they are making today are firmly their right, and their earned privilege because they have suffered so tremendously already.  

I'm just not impressed with martyrs.  The few, very few, true martyrs we have in our day are people who would never take the chance to remind you what they've been through.  They're just moving on.  They're swallowing their circumstance and pushing forward because better things define them.

Then what are we to make of Paul, who seems to somehow sneak a reference to his arrest, mockery, fines, beatings, and imprisonment into every one of his letters?  Who uses his martyrdom to make some point to the churches across the continent?

Paul is a mixed bag, for me.  Because I know he can tend to be passive-aggressive.  I quoted him as such last week via social media.  In the book of Philemon, Paul writes that, "I won't even remind you that you owe me your life."  Which, of course, is the very reminder he says he's not writing.  It would be easy to read Paul's martyr references with the same grain and think of him as a little passive-aggressive in that, as in having to fall in one of the above three categories.

I don't think that has to be the case.  I don't think it is the case.

The way we get past Paul's passive-aggressive tendencies and martyr reminders is to ascribe some nobler intentions to his words, and it's fairly simple to read better things.  He doesn't want anyone to be impressed with him.  He says as much, and unlike the martyrs of faux humility mentioned before, you kind of sense that he means it.  There's authenticity to his words when he says it's not about him.

He doesn't use his martyrdom to get out of anything.  I mean, he did write that he'd love to visit, but he's currently in prison.  I don't think it was a cop-out; I think he was really in prison and thus, it was a statement of fact more than an excuse.  We know he visited churches as frequently as he was able.

There are a few times I feel like it would be hard for the churches not to get a new taste of perspective from Paul's circumstances, times when I feel like he's using his situation to light a fire under them.  "I'm in prison, and you've got immoral people in your congregation that you're not doing anything about?  Then what is this worth?"

But it boils down to one general concept, and that's why I have to swallow my pride and read Paul's martyr tales with grace.  What Paul says, more often than anything (and sometimes you have to read deeper for this) is:

This - this Gospel, this grace, this story of Jesus - is absolutely, 100-percent worth every bit of this.  And don't you ever forget it.

He uses everything he's been through and everything he's going through to point to something bigger.  (This, too, can be overdone, but I think Paul does it masterfully.)  He uses his story to redirect to a greater story.  Yes, there is a fine line because he is, in fact, reminding everyone....constantly....of what he's been through, but he's also demonstrating how to move on.  He's demonstrating courage.  He's swallowing his circumstances in order to declare the bigger thing.  The thing that defines him.

The thing that is worth all of this.

Not so you would think of Paul, but so that you would think of Jesus, who martyred Himself for the greatest story.  For us.  And who also takes every chance to remind us it was absolutely, 100-percent worth every bit of it.  Don't you ever forget it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I've been reading a lot of New Testament Paul lately, and one of the things that strikes me is the way he seamlessly bounces back and forth between referring to Jesus as Jesus Christ and referring to the same man as Christ Jesus.

It left me with the lingering question of a big ol' "HUH?"  I mean, c'mon, Paul.  Pick a Lord, already.

Throughout Paul's many letters, this seeming discrepancy continued to gnaw at me.  It had to have meant something to the first-century crowd, to those early Christians.  They must have seen a difference between this Jesus Christ and this Christ Jesus, but for the life of me, I wasn't finding it.

Maybe I was overthinking the whole verbage.  Because after weeks of rolling this annoying little thought around in my head, I think I've got it.  And I think it's beautiful.  And I think it's absolutely necessary.  And I can't believe it took me this long to come to this conclusion.  After all, it's just English, and I'm fairly fluent (sometimes) in this language.

It is basic English.  In each of these references, one word is the object; the other, the modifier.  He refers to the Man, Jesus (object) who is the Christ (modifier) and also to the Christ (object) who happens to be the Man, Jesus (modifier).

When Paul says Jesus Christ, he's referring to the tangible experience of the presence of Jesus in the flesh.  He's referring to the stories and the testimonies and the eyewitness accounts of what it meant to have this Man walking these lands.  To have Him here.  To have Him in this same body that we're all trapped in.  To have Him experiencing the same world that we're reckoning with.  To have Him knowing our struggles, our trials, our pains, and our griefs.  To have Him knowing our joys, our glories, our celebrations.  The emphasis is on the Man and all that we can relate to in Him through that body.

The Man is modified by the sacrifice, the Christ, to remind us of the greater meaning and mission of God in the Flesh, which was more than simply to identify with us; He came to save us.

But lest we forget, there is also Christ Jesus.  In Christ Jesus, Paul is referring to the sacrifice.  He is referring to the promise, to the Messiah, to the saving work of the God who loves us so greatly as to send His Son to atone for our sins.  He is referring to the redemption found in the Crucifix.  He is playing to the reader's need for a saving God, for a powerful God, for a God who is so much bigger than the troubles here and whose love is beyond imagination.  He's speaking to people who are looking for a God.

Christ is modified by the Man, Jesus, to remind us how intimately God is created with His creation, how personally He knows what man endures.  To remind us that we, man, were created in His image and lest we forget, there was a God-Man to help us remember.

Confusing at first, but I think it's brilliant.  There are times in my life when I need a God and times in my life when I need to know He gets it.  Times in my life when I'm longing for someone to walk beside me and times when I'm searching for someone bigger.  I desperately need both Jesus Christ and Christ Jesus.

While the difference may seem simple, maybe even trite, it's radically powerful.  This Man, Jesus, modified by the mission of the Christ....and this sacrifice, Christ, modified by the meaning of the Man,'s incredible.

And I am modified by both.  Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ.  One embodiment.  The Modifier.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Heaven Square

We've just wrapped up a series on Heaven at church, and I have to admit, it's kind of fun to think about.  A few weeks ago, we talked about the City of Heaven.  How big it will be.  The extravagance of it.  What it might be like to live there.

As I sat in my purple church chair, I couldn't help but think about my own little town, the way it gathers around its center.  The way I think about Heaven having fun things like Fourth Friday down on the square.

Then I stopped.  It couldn't be quite like that.

Because I live in a small town that also happens to be the county seat.  I've traveled around these parts, as we call them, to other small towns that are also the county seat.  The way all these little towns are laid out, town square is that area just surrounding the courthouse.  When I first thought of Heaven, I kind of thought of this.  Gathering in that common area with everyone else, running into people you know.  But I realized my vision was slightly way off.

Heaven Square isn't built around a courthouse.

And why would it be?  The predominating promise of Heaven is not justice.

My mind started to wander sitting there, half-listening to the sermon (sorry, Guy) while fully engaged in the imaginative process of what Heaven Square might hold.

Some might say it must be the Judgment Seat of God.  That from the center of everything, God will sit and judge the world.  I think that seems like kind of a waste, don't you?  When Heaven becomes our "here," God comes in judgment one time.  A final judgment.  One that has less to do with justice than justification, I might add.  Then what?  Then Heaven is built around this place that once upon a time, God sat and in an instant, judged the world, and then abandoned that seat for eternity because the work of judgment was done?  I don't see God doing that.

You might say then that it must be the Throne of God.  The City of Heaven is built around the Throne of God.  Seems plausible, as we always imagine this place where we fully understand God and therefore cannot stop exalting Him.  Where we're constantly praising Him for His goodness and grace, for His sacrifice and salvation.  This seems inconsistent with God's character to me.  If our faith is based on a God who wants nothing more than a relationship with His people, why would He work so hard to interact with us in this life, even to send His Son to walk in our flesh here, only to distance Himself in Heaven by retreating to His throne?  That doesn't seem like the God who created this world. It doesn't seem like the God who created me.  It doesn't seem like the God who created Love.  (Nor does it seem like the God whom I love.)

The Trees, then.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.  Those must be in Heaven Square.  Maybe.  Although I'm fairly certain that when that day comes, I won't need a piece of fruit to tell me what's Good and what's Evil, and neither will you.  Having trudged through this life and upon seeing the fullness of His glory, I'm confident that question will be firmly answered.  Forever.  The Tree of Life is more plausible, in it the gift of eternal living.  But that might not be necessary, either.  For when I am recreated in Heaven and given my new body, one that is not prone to death or disease or decay, my body will already be eternal by its perfect, intended creation.  Once we reach Heaven, an apple a day...just doesn't make a difference.

Maybe Heaven doesn't have a Square at all.  In a place where we use our town square for everything - festivals, feasts, parades, parties - it's hard to imagine that Heaven wouldn't have a place like that.

Heaven, however, is a place like that.  Heaven is a festival.  It is a feast.  It is a parade and a party and a  pow-wow.  It is a celebration.  It is worship.  It is community.  Heaven is Heaven Square.

If that thought is offensive, if (like me) you're wishing Heaven is built around something, if you think there has to be some center to this place that is our eternal home, don't worry.  It is, and there is.  Heaven is built around God.  It is centered around Love.  It doesn't need a courthouse or a judgment seat or a throne or a tree; this City of Heaven is established around the relationship of Creator and created.

I think that's pretty awesome.  That Heaven isn't going to be this place you go to, this place you congregate, this place you commute across to get to whatever's going on.  Heaven is this place where you're just going to be.  And God is just going to be.  And Love is just going to be.  Like original creation in the Garden of Eden, Heaven is this place where you're just walking around and there's no place in particular any more important than any other because God is walking with you and there's just all this open space so that, even though it's numerically crowded, you don't feel Heaven pressing in on you.  You feel yourself expanding into Heaven.  And all this space and all this promise and all this eternity with all of our God simply is.

It simply is Heaven.