Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Righteous

God often describes Himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," and these three men are mentioned fairly often in the Scriptures. It's easy for us to think maybe they are the standard of faith. And maybe they are. Maybe this is the example of what God is looking for in a man. And maybe it is. But it's not so easy as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Ezekiel 14, God tells us it's also Noah, Daniel, and Job. These men, He says, are a standard of righteousness. (v. 14)

Not really the three guys that come instantly to my mind. And not really three guys I would put together in any sort of category. (At least Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were father, son, and grandson. That makes sense.) Nevertheless, when God declares these are the righteous three, it's worth taking a closer look. 

Noah was a righteous man, and it's too easy for us to say his righteousness is in his obedience to an absurd request. (Build an ark, Noah.) That's the story that we tell about Noah, but it's not the fullness of his story in God. Because if you think back and recall this story out of Genesis, you'll remember that God said Noah was righteous before he'd driven a single nail into that boat. It was because of his righteousness that he was given the task at all. Which makes it harder for us, not knowing more of Noah's story than this, to determine at all what his righteousness was. We know where it brought him - into the cramped quarters of earth's only refuge, with the smell of animals and animal waste all around him, crowded in by two of every creature (this isn't an accurate number, but for the sake of not getting distracted, we'll go with it) - but we don't really know what his righteousness was.

Daniel was a righteous man, and here, too, we might be tempted to say it was his steadfastness of faith in the face of death that made him righteous. But here, too, we would be wrong, for Daniel was a righteous man before Darius got hold of him. It was because of his righteousness that he had such a position in the exile at all, as a man of divine knowledge and wisdom. God had rewarded his righteous spirit with these gifts, which served him well before the invading kings. Which makes it again, really hard to determine what his righteousness specifically was. We know where it brought him - into the lion's den, in the dark of night for the longest hours with the kings of the beasts breathing down his neck - but we don't really know what his righteousness was.

Job was a righteous man, and yet again our temptation is to say that he is righteous because of his response to trial and tribulation. Yet again, we would be wrong. Job was a righteous man before Satan took away his fortune; that's kind of why Satan picked him (and God put him out there to be picked). He was a righteous man before God restored his fortune. He was a righteous man before we pick up his story in the Bible and so, here we are again wondering what righteousness might be. We know where it brought him - to the very end of himself, to a desolate place, to a barren land with dust and ashes as his covering - but we can't really say what his righteousness was.

It's not really where I had intended to go with this story. I was going to take the easy way and share that righteousness must be building an ark, facing the lions, and trusting the Lord, but as I started to tell these stories, it's clear: that's only our view of things. The truth is that these men were picked to do these things on account of their righteousness, which means there was something about them before they did the big things.

And it doesn't sound much like a reward, does it? If righteousness brings me to a place where I breathe more waste than wind, where I smell clearly the blood of the last man on the breath of the lion, where I'm stripped of everything and sit covered in ashes, why would I want righteousness?

That's kind of the deception, isn't it? That righteousness leads us to all these big, really big things. But it's not really about the big moments; righteousness is all the little things we do that make us ready for the big ones. It's being faithful to God when it doesn't seem He's asking so much, so that when He asks more, it's natural for us to say yes. It's spending all the quiet moments you can with Him so that when the lions start to roar, you can still hear His voice. It's refusing to hold on too tightly to the things of this world so you're free to give and to receive with open hands. 

Then one day, yes, maybe righteousness is a smelly ark, a dark den, or a barren place. 

But it is also a rainbow, the dawn of morning, and a life restored. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

When God Whispers

There's something tenderly awesome about the way the book of Malachi begins. Malachi is the last of the Old Testament Prophets (at least in terms of our book order), and there's a lot to love in his few words. But the beginning strikes me simply for this:

I think it's the way God talks to most of us.

Most of the prophets begin their books by telling the reader who they are, and Malachi does the same. But when God starts to speak, what we usually get is, "Then God spoke His word to the prophet and said to him, 'This is My Word that I am speaking to you'...." Or something like that. A lot of these prophecies are very formalized. They are very...sterile. Malachi's is not. He tells us who he is - he's Malachi - and then the Lord speaks.

I loved you.

Those are the words the Lord speaks. Nothing formal around them. Nothing to distance Malachi or the people of God or the readers of the Word from what the Lord is saying. Nothing to give anyone any direction on how to interpret it. Just the tender word of God, whispered into an empty space. I loved you.

Which is a little heartbreaking, right? Given my druthers, I'd prefer if God's first words to me were something more...present-tense. I love you. What is this loved business?

But it's the empty space of it that gets me. Because that's how God works, at least in my experience. That's how He speaks, at least to my ears. There's this empty space, this silence, this vacancy and then, the whisper of God with a simple, yet powerful word. 

And maybe for you, it's not, I loved you. It doesn't have to be. Maybe it's I was there, and suddenly, you realize what you were thinking about without even consciously thinking about it and you know that word of God was given just for you. Or maybe you get the present-tense word of God. I am here. And all of sudden, the crushing loneliness of the empty space hits just as it is becomes filled with the presence of the God who speaks.

Maybe God doesn't make a declaration to you about Himself at all; maybe he speaks into your open spaces so that you will hear what He says about you. You are beautiful. You are blessed. You are beloved. You are treasured. You are amazing. You are Mine. 

I think these simple words, I loved you, are among the most meaningful of all words spoken to the prophets. Sure, there are the prophecies about the coming Messiah, which had more impact long-term, but have you really read the prophets? Most of the words God spoke to them were about their disobedience, His anger, His punishment, His judgment, what He was about to do to some nation or another. This is the word of the Lord...I will destroy this place. Which is really great if you're a people out for judgment on those who have stood against you and yes, it's really cool when God fights for you and defends you. It's encouraging when He disciplines you but promises to restore you. 

But there is nothing quite like hearing the God of the universe declare, I loved you, even if it's implied that maybe He doesn't love you right now. It's a personal word, an intimate word. It's got a lot of weight to it. It's powerful. 

And that's the way God speaks to most of us. There's this quiet moment, this empty space, and all of a sudden, it's filled with a profound, yet simple, intimate word of the Lord whispered just to break the moment, just to start the conversation, just to open our ears so that we are hearing. Then He continues to speak. 

So give yourself the quiet moments. Give yourself the empty spaces. Listen for the whisper. Because that's where God starts to speak. That's where He starts to say all these little words you need to hear. Words like I loved you....and I still do. I was there....and I'm still here. You are beautiful. You are blessed. You are beloved. You are treasured. You are amazing. You are mine.

I am yours.

Friday, September 26, 2014

In Spite of It All

I think there's a lot of misunderstanding out there about how we Christians are supposed to do life. About how we're supposed to believe in spite of whatever's going on around us. Or heaven forbid, whatever's going on inside us. No matter what life forces us to deal with, we're supposed to plaster on a smile, profess a firm faith, loudly believe and only quietly question, and keep "pressing on toward the goal." 

In spite of it all. 

And we praise each other for doing this. We praise people for battling cancer well, which we say when we mean that we don't have to see them battle cancer at all. Which we say when they don't ever talk about it. Which we say when they pretend it's not affecting them. We praise people when they quietly divorce and we don't hear them talking about how hard it is to suddenly be alone. We praise people when they quietly grieve, when we see them picking up and moving on with their lives after great loss and we don't have to sit through the stories of what that loss is really like. We praise each other when we "keep the faith" in spite of it all. 

That's sad. We were never meant to live this life in spite of anything. And in fact, doing so is not a Christian discipline.

When you live your life in spite of whatever's happening in it, you set yourself up for a fight. All of a sudden, you're at odds with your very existence. If you've ever tried to live in spite of anything, you know what I'm talking about. Every day is you against life. Every day is life against you. You feel like you're running up against a wall over and over and over again until you figure out how to walk around it. You're shuffling your feet, just trying to keep moving but the forces that come against you make it hard to go anywhere at all and one day, you find that you're actually just shuffling your feet. You haven't moved at all. 

You can't be a believer because you're too busy being a warrior. You can't trust in God because you're too busy relying on yourself. You can't cry out because your voice is consumed with the war cry. You can't fold your hands because your hands hold your weapons. Your entire existence is a fight.

It was never meant to be this way.

There's a certain curse to living this side of Eden, but it never was that life would be lesser; it was only that life would be harder. And it is. Right? Life is hard sometimes. Life is really hard sometimes. But it's never been our call to look past all that is and forsake this life for the next one. No, we are called to live this life for the next one. We are called to engage our day-to-day, not defeat it.

It's the difference between living in spite of life and living in the face of life. Living in the face of life is daring to stand toe-to-toe with whatever this world throws at you, look it right in the eye, engage this world face-to-face. As Christians, we don't avert our eyes. We don't look away. We don't try to go around. We take one faithful step forward and another faithful step forward and fix our eyes on the God beyond the circumstances, but the circumstances don't know that's what we're looking at; they think we're staring squarely at them.

It's being willing to be a part of what's going on in this life and to live it to the fullest extent. Even when that's hard. It's seeing the face of our circumstances, yes, but it's also letting our circumstances see our face. It's a willingness to look up and lock eyes and show who we are - a people full of faith, maybe, but tinged with fear and doubt and exhaustion and grief and trouble and worry and a healthy dose of reality. It's not a fight to live in the face of our circumstances; we aren't put at odds with ourselves. It's a grace; we get to see things as they really are, including ourselves. Including our God.

In spite of it all, this life becomes one more thing we have to do. One more fight we have to win. In the face of it all, this life is simply the thing that we do. One more day to live loving the Lord. We were made for this. 

So look up. Stop living your life in spite of yourself. Stop fighting the friend in the mirror. And start living in the face of it all, daring to see and be seen. Engage your life wherever it is. 

For when you dare to stand toe-to-toe with your life, you find yourself standing face-to-face with your God.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Prayer is another one of those Christian things that didn't mean a lot to me for the longest time. Weren't you just talking? To...no one? To....yourself? Prayer never really sounded like anything but words. 

Every time I tried, I'd start to think to myself, If I was going to say something to God...you know, if He was actually here and He could actually hear me and I actually talked in all this formal English....then it might sound something like this because these sound like good words. And I spent all my prayer time (I say that with a bit of a laugh because when you don't "get" prayer, you don't really have prayer time) trying to figure out what kind of words God uses. I spent my time trying to figure out how prayer is supposed to sound. I spent my time disconnected from my heart so my head could take over, and I wonder today how many words I wasted, not even knowing what they meant myself. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I wrote Unfolded Hands.)

Anyway, I spent most of my young Christian years feeling like the prayer was a shift of method or target in the prayer service and nothing more. We went from singing about God and talking about God to talking sort of to God. It changed our language. It changed our posture. Everything was different about us as people when we started talking like God was supposed to hear. When we started being intentional about addressing Him.

I could never pull it off. 

And then life happens. I mean, it happens to all of us. And you come to a place where you have a desperate need to pray. Not this contrived, contorted nonsense that you've come to associate prayer with in your head, but real words. From a real heart. To what you can only at this point hope is a real God. Life happens and you fall to your knees because you can't get up any more, and you cry out. You start talking to yourself, out loud, and slowly but surely you come to the place where you realize you aren't talking to yourself any more; you're talking to God. You're not using all this lofty language and you sort of wonder if you've offended Him but then you realize that you're offended. By your life. And you don't care any more what feels proper because nothing feels proper and you haven't got the time or the energy to make it that way.

Then the weirdest thing happens...God answers. 

It doesn't much matter what He says at this point or what He does or what He gives you or what He withholds or how He comes. The point is that He comes. He bursts through the wall of wondering about prayer and shows up in some way, shape, or form. He responds to you. He comes to your voice. He touches your heart. He infiltrates your head. He's there. He's heard you and He's there and He's answering. And He's real. 

It's here that you start to learn how to pray. Because all of a sudden, prayer does matter. It's not nothing any more; it's something. It's something very meaningful, even if you can't put your finger on it. Some days, it still feels silly. Some days, it's hard because you still pull back toward the formal when what you really want is the friendship. Some days, it's hard because you still don't know what to say but your heart cries out anyway and you can't help it. 

Something else interesting happens in all of this, but you have to be paying attention to really notice it. It's easy, you say, to come to prayer when you need it. To learn to pray when times are hard and you're at the end of your rope and all that awaits you is darkness. It feels kind of cheap, I know, but we're humans. We're fallen humans. This is when most of us learn to pray. 

But when we learn to pray in the hard times and when we recognize the presence of God showing up in our darkness, it's easier to see Him in the light. All of a sudden, you're not just praying because you need Him; you're praying also because you love Him. You're rejoicing with Him in your good days, thanking Him for His gifts. It's just natural. He's...your best friend. I know we say things like that as Christians and for a lot of people, it's hard to believe such a thing. But for those who have learned to pray...as a necessity...it's true. When you put your heart on the line and God shows up, in whatever big or small way, it's impossible not to give Him all of it. Not to give Him your whole heart.

Yesterday, I said that the Cross never meant anything to me...until I encountered Jesus there and realized He knew my deepest heart and that He understood and that He faced the same in Himself. Today's lesson is not much different. Prayer never meant anything to me either...until I encountered God there and realized He knows my deepest heart and that He cares and that He comes

Why does any of this matter? Why bother to put such a thing out there? Because there are a lot of Christians among us for whom God is not real enough. They haven't encountered the Cross, so it doesn't mean much to them. They haven't encountered the Presence, so it's hard to pray. And I want to say that that's okay. It's hard to grasp some of these things until you have to go there. (Or if you're really holy, you choose to go there, but that's not the truth for most of us.)

I didn't love God any less when I didn't know the Cross. I didn't love Him any less when I didn't know how to pray. I don't think that not having the Cross or meaningful prayer in my life made me any less of a Christian. Because my heart was still in it. It was just that my heart didn't know everything it thought it knew, or everything it needed to know. Encountering the Cross, engaging in prayer...these things don't change how much I love God. 

They only change how I love Him. More deeply. More fully. More raw-ly. More honestly. I say I don't think the absence of these things made me love God any less, but the presence of them makes me love more of Him. Do you see the difference?

So I offer these reflections as an encouragement to Christians who maybe aren't there yet, who are wondering if they love God enough when the Cross doesn't mean anything and prayer is so hard. To you, I say this: if you love God with all your heart, then you love Him enough. It doesn't matter whether that heart knows, today, a lot or a little. 

But it is my prayer that one day, it knows more. That you come face-to-face with the Savior as He faces your biggest fears, your hardest questions. That you cry out and hear the Father answer. That you come to know more of Him. Not so that you grow in how much you love Him, but so that you grow in how you love Him at all. 

Not so that you love Him more, but so that you love more of Him. Every day. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Cross

For all of my Christian life, I've had a lot of questions about the Cross. Questions about why we wear this Cross around our necks. If we claim to love Jesus, why do we celebrate His brutal death? Questions about why this has become our story, when the empty tomb was so much more of a miraculous thing. Questions about why, since I became a Christian, others have wanted to celebrate my Christianity by giving me emblems of the Cross. Like I'm supposed to collect Crosses because I'm a Christian. Like it's supposed to mean something to me. 

If we're being honest, the Cross, for the longest time, didn't mean anything to me. It was just a sign, just a symbol. It was the mark of a Christian, but I wasn't sure that I bought into it. I didn't want to be defined, as a Christian, by the Cross. And the more I tried to embrace the symbol-ology of it all, the less it meant.

And I'm going to say this, and maybe it sounds really bad coming from a Christian, but I don't think you can love Jesus without the Cross. You can like Him. You can appreciate His ministry. You can, to an extent, embrace His example. But I don't think you can love Him. Because without the Cross, He's just a guy. He's just a dude doing some really cool, incredibly powerful things. He's a Man of faith, enviable faith, but He's lacking that certain something that makes Him a Man of God. You might as well be one of the blind men on the side of the road whose story isn't told. A man who cried out but wasn't answered. Or at least, wasn't important enough to be remembered. You might as well be one of the extras in Simon's house at the dinner, one of those standing off in the corner watching the woman pour out her perfume, watching the Pharisee condemn her for it, watching the disciple squirm at the wasted money, watching Jesus tenderly love her. Wishing He loved you. 

You just can't connect with Him without the Cross. 

But with the Cross....with the Cross, suddenly, there's something about this Man. It doesn't matter what you cry out at the Cross; it's right there. God is right there answering that very thing. He's speaking straight into your story the way you always dreamed He would. Are you struggling with shame? The bloody, beaten, naked Jesus hanging before you knows a thing or two about shame. Is your battle against anger? He's angry. Do you fight against fear, grief, resentment, uncertainty, doubt? So does He. Right there on the Cross, you can't help but see it. There's an interesting story about the grief of Jesus on the Cross, and you can only catch it in the Greek but it changes the way I think about the Man on the Tree. You know when He says, "Father, forgive them..."? He doesn't just say it. He continues to say it. He says it over and over again. Now, it doesn't feel like a command of God, like a measure of grace; it feels like a grief. Doesn't it? If He says it again and again and again, can't you just see Him shaking His head in fragile sadness, trying to grasp, as so many of us do, what's even going on here?

On the Cross, He answers your blindness because He's beginning to show you more than your eyes could ever see. He opens your ears to hear the sounds of grace poured out. Every word He speaks - for the thief, for the centurion, for the disciple, for his mother, for the crowds, for the Father, for Himself - is a word spoken for you. You get to hear what love sounds like, which is this hauntingly beautiful mixture of grace-filled truth and tearing flesh. The Cross puts words on your tongue, even when it feels like it has taken them all away. We don't know what to say in response to the Cross; we have no words. And yet, it is because of the Cross that we dare speak at all. 

And the Cross is the place where you become more than a bit character in God's cosmic drama. No longer are you the blind man whose story is not told; your story is wrapped up in the Cross and preserved for all time. No longer are you the guest in the corner, watching the scenes unfold before you; you are center stage. God is answering your questions, accepting your gift, disciplining your pride, embracing your heart, opening your eyes, rebuking your spirit, loving you. That's all on the Cross. That's where the two of you come together. That's where you meet. That's where God starts to mean something. 

The Cross means something to me these days, although I find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. In essence, it means everything because I understand that it is the crucified Christ who has the answers for most of my questions, the comforts for my hard times. And it's not because I have been given the Cross. That's too easy. It's like all of the emblems I've been given by people who have wanted to celebrate that I am a Christian. It's nice, and it means something, but it's not that powerful a meaning. 

It's because I choose the Cross. It's because I go to Calvary to encounter my Lord. It's because I dare look up at His bruised and broken body. It's because I dare not turn away. It's because I believe in the story He's telling, which is more than His story; it's my story, too. And it only makes sense here. It only matters here. There's only one way to live it, and that's in the shadow of death. 

As a matter of theology, let me also say this: the empty tomb may have its own grand celebration, but eternal life is nothing without reconciliation. Easter Sunday is nothing without Good Friday. Forever is nothing without the Cross.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Your Cross

The prayer in the Garden feels like betrayal. On the one hand, we betray our flesh if we do not admit what we are truly feeling. On the other, we betray our God if we do not recognize that He is speaking a truth into our empty hearts. In the end, we can only make one betrayal.

And it is crucial that we decide what that betrayal will be.

Because here's what happens when we don't: we come to the courts, where a decision must be made, and we take up our cross because a cross must be taken up, and we walk around aimlessly until we figure out what to do with it. So many of us are walking around burdened, carrying our crosses because we're supposed to carry them, but not really knowing where we go from here.

We carry our cross because this feels like our burden. It feels like the thing we are supposed to do. And we have not decided to betray our God, so we cannot simply lay them down. We sort of want what God is calling us to; we're not ready to give up on the idea that God might be doing something bigger than we can imagine. Yet we have not decided to betray our flesh, so we aren't even looking toward Calvary. We're not headed to the place where we die; we're not ready to give up on the idea that we're doing a pretty big thing, too. So we carry our crosses faithfully, not really going anywhere, not really doing anything, and hoping one day, we'll get our lives back.

Hoping one day, life will look like something we can recognize again. Maybe a little better. It would have to be, right? Otherwise, what are we carrying our cross for? For the most part, we're content to lug around our burdens for a sufficient amount of time until maybe they don't even feel like burdens any more and then we can just get on to living the way we sort of already were. We can get back to life as we know it. We can go back to doing the things that matter to us. These burdens, this cross...this doesn't matter a whole lot to us. It's a distraction. It's a diversion. This way of the cross? It's a detour.

And if we ever decide we are ready to die, it is not for the cause of Calvary; it is exhaustion. It is defeat. It is giving up, not giving in. It is our weary bodies deciding they cannot take even one more step, our tired lungs refusing to draw another breath. It's our spirit giving up on our flesh, though neither has given up its claim on our cross.

It's one of the great tragedies, really, of our faith. We've made nothing more than a spectacle of the cross. We've made nothing more than a show of it. Pay attention to Christian circles and you'll see it - you'll see the way we applaud one another for how we carry our crosses. The admiration we have for someone who can face cancer and not bat an eye, although we're all just waiting for the day the cancer cross no longer bears any weight. The day cancer, and not the cross, is defeated. The day life gets back to normal. 

We applaud those who can rejoice in the face of grief, though we see the heavy burden they carry around as the living. And we're just waiting on the grief to pass so life can once again be as it was intended to be. So things can get on as normal. We look up to those who don't even limp when they carry their cross, who you can look at and never know they're fighting a battle at all. Like it's some amazing glory to be able to carry a cross and not even flinch. Until such a day as you're relieved of that cross and get to get back to living.

Sorry - it doesn't mean anything. Do you understand how pointless it is? Do you understand how ridiculous it is to watch a bunch of Christians carry a cross when they're not in the slightest interested in Calvary? When they aren't even looking toward death? When they haven't even recognized the chance this is to die?

I want to look around and see in Christians the same face Jerusalem must have seen in Jesus - this broken-hearted determinism, this trembling discipline, this haunting hope. I want to see eyes dance between hesitation and surrender. I want to see knees buckle but press on. I want to see us taking one faithful step after another toward Golgotha, the invitation to die a burden on our shoulders. I want to see us make a choice to betray our flesh and go after the bigger thing. Or if we can't, to betray our God and lay it down. One way or the other, to figure out what we're doing with our crosses. One way or the other, to make them matter. One way or the other, to embrace the burden for what it is - an invitation to make a choice.

God doesn't say simply to deny yourself and take up your cross; He says to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him. It's not about learning to live burdened; it's about learning to believe. It's not about being weighed down; it's about being lifted up. 

It's okay to feel the tension between hesitation and surrender. It's only natural. We're pulled first in the direction of trusting ourselves and struggling with God and then being confidently assured of God and questioning ourselves. It's okay to pray in the Garden and speak both, to be unsure of which way you're going, to not know whether you have the strength to do it. It's okay to be torn. It's okay to want both, even to want both desperately. Jesus dripped beads of bloody sweat because He was so torn between what His flesh said and what His Father said. It's okay. 

But know this: the cross is coming, too. And at some point, you have to make a choice. You have to decide whether you're going to Calvary or you're going home. You have to decide whether you're trusting God or you're relying on self. You have to decide whether you lay yourself down or lay your cross down. You have to decide whether you believe more in life as you know it or God as you hope for Him. And you have to decide whether you betray flesh or Father. 

You have to decide because, if you don't, you're going to bide your time, not bind your wounds. You're going to burden yourself, maybe even break yourself. You're going to carry around a cross for no good reason at all until you just can't do it any more, and you're going to crash. You're going to come to a place where you just can't stand any more. Where your feet fail you and your hands fall limp. And there's nothing holy in that. There's nothing meaningful in that. The cross is a pretty good show, but it doesn't matter much in the streets of Jerusalem. It only matters on Calvary.

So let me ask you this: where are you going?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Prayer in the Garden

One of the moments I struggle with perhaps the most, or maybe it's because I seem to be having more of these moments lately, is what can easily be called the Garden of Gethsemane moment. God is finally about to do that really big thing, and here I am questioning whether I've got it in me to be a part of it. 

Which is weird to say because these are usually the things He's created me for. Well....sort of.

I don't think, in a perfect world, we would face 90% of the stuff we have to go through. I think it's easy to say that God is doing this thing or that thing, but at the same time, it's easy to see that if it weren't for the fallen world, He wouldn't have to. And so we...I..find ourselves torn between this God-ordained moment and a very real grief that it's necessary at all. In these moments, it's hard to know what to pray.

We want to talk to God. We want to tell Him how we're feeling about all this. We want to share what's on our hearts. But it's very clear that there are conflicting ideas within us. Conflicting hearts in one spirit. On the one hand, we're thankful. Whatever is about to happen is a beautiful thing. We're ready for this. We can't wait to be a part of the big thing that God's got going on.

On the other hand, it's about to change everything. And perhaps most importantly, it's about to change us. And we're not sure how keen we are on really being changed. We're not sure that whatever it is God thinks is in us is actually in us. 

We pray both surrender and hesitation. And both feel like a betrayal.

That's the hardest part for me. On the one hand, if I pray in surrender to the work God is unfolding in my life, I declare my trust for God and my willingness to give up everything to have Him. This sounds noble, and it's certainly the way I want my life of faith to look...I think. But it also feels dishonest. Because the coming Cross is never easy. It's not so simple as to trust God and believe in the bigger thing. It's not even so simple as to want that bigger thing. There's that piece of humanity inside every one of us that in the very moment of surrender, holds back just a little because we know...this is about to suck. It's going to be hard. It's going to be painful. It's going to take discipline and courage and so many other things it doesn't feel like we have enough of. And even if we have enough of them, even that doesn't feel like enough because it doesn't make it hurt any less. It doesn't make it any easier. 

And isn't that kind of crazy? I would like my faith to say that having everything I need of God makes this life easier. But it doesn't. It gives me hope. It gives me courage. It gives me strength. It gives me the kinds of things I need to start standing up and facing it, but it doesn't make it easier. 

I think that's one of the things Jesus was struggling with in the Garden. He knew how things were going to go down. He knew what was about to happen. He knew, without a doubt, that He had it in Him. Yet in this very powerful, brief moment, He realizes all the strength of His Spirit is not necessarily enough for His flesh. It's somehow haunting that the Son of Man could recognize this; how much more can we know it. 

On the other side of this, however, is that hesitation. And that's not really an answer, either. To give into that part of you that says you maybe can't do this, that maybe everything you have is not enough to make it through...is to discount the God who has given you everything you need. He who calls you to a good work will provide for you to complete it; He already has. And so sometimes, to pray about how troubling this all is feels like betrayal, too. It feels dishonest. Because a heart of faith knows this trouble is temporary. A heart of faith knows it has enough. A heart of faith believes in the God who has called us to these moments. 

So whichever way we turn in the Garden, it feels like betrayal. Of one thing or another. Neither of which can stand to be betrayed.

Jesus addresses this problem, although He does not begin to solve it, by praying both. He admits hesitation even as He prays surrender. He surrenders, but not without hesitation. He hops back and forth between trusting in God and questioning His sufficiency. Between questioning and trusting the Spirit. Between one thing and another. Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me. But if it is not, give me strength

These sentiments speak to the issue of the torn heart, but they don't really answer the question. How can you live in two different realities? How do you bridge the gap between flesh and spirit? How do you trust in both God and heart at the same time? How do you respect the difficult life you have to live in the same breath as you honor the God who has called you to live it?

I don't know in a fallen world that there's a good answer to these questions. I don't know that there's a way to do it. I think it has to be a back and forth. It has to be a give and take. It has to be a willingness to wrestle with the space between hesitation and surrender. I don't feel good about that. Not at all. It feels like a series of betrayals. It's agonizing. 

But it's not enough to be agonized, either. We must, at some point, in some way, by some process, make a choice. We must choose one or the other. Trust or timidity. Hesitation or surrender. We must betray one or the other. The spirit or the flesh. This life or our God. And we must do so decisively. Otherwise...

(stay tuned)

Friday, September 19, 2014

What God Requires

When God sets this grand adventure before you, even with the promised end in mind, it's easy to take more responsibility for it than we need to. Certainly, we need to embrace what God has asked of us. We need to envision the day that is coming. We need to hold on with hope and move with discipline. But ultimately, how things work out is not our responsibility. 

It's easy to see where we get the idea that it is. God comes to us and tells us this beautiful thing, this glorious promise. I'm going to ______, He says. And we consider that and find out it is good and decide even that we want that. Then we go about trying to get that and figure if we do, it is good; if we don't, we have failed. But that's not the truth.

The truth is the victory is never up to us; victory has always been God's. What's up to us is not where we're going, but how we get there. And what does God require? 

To live justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) That's what we're responsible for.

To live justly. To do the right, good, and honest things. To embrace integrity, oneness, wholeness of purpose. To balance purpose and pursuit so we're not causing undue harm along the way. There are many directions in which we can be just in our journey. We can be just toward the promised end, with every act of justness measured against the coming day. We can be just toward others who either stand in our way or walk alongside us, refusing to do wrong by them on our way toward what is right. Refusing to see the journey, or anyone in it, as a means to an end. We can be just toward ourselves, refusing to injure or compromise who we are - as broken as that sometimes may be. It's being right with ourselves, our neighbors, our journey, and our God. 

To love mercy. To be aware of how often we do not get what we deserve. To be thankful that this is so frequently the case. To cut ourselves some slack and not feel guilty about it, but breathe a little easier because mercy is a gift. It frees us from being tied to who we ought to be and lets us get wrapped up in the journey itself. The broken, beautiful mess of the journey. It's cutting other people the same slack. Because in a world in which we have been given so much mercy, how could we not be merciful in return? Mercy is even greater than grace. Grace is a gift, but mercy is freedom. It's the chance to be more than your chains could ever tie you to. It's a chance to step forward unencumbered by the past. It's a chance to journey at all. Without mercy, we could not move.

To walk humbly with your God. To take quiet steps forward because this is not a war you're fighting (the fight is already won); this is an adventure you're embracing. To make ripples, not waves. To have a certain stillness of spirit that understands it's not your job to win. It's your job to take small, courageous, faithful steps in a godly direction every new moment. To remember that you're not blazing a trail; you're walking a path. To remember that you're not leading the way; you're following. Even if others would come after you, you're still following God more than you are ever leading them. It's remembering your place in all of this, putting yourself there again and again until it's just so natural, and submitting every day to the grand adventure before you...and the God who has ordained that path.

See? You have plenty to do already without even worrying about the win. And that's where we so often get it wrong. We're focused on what's coming. We're focused on the end game. We hold on to the promise when we ought to set ourselves free for the journey.

Whatever it is that awaits you at the end of the road God has called you to walk, it pales in comparison to the blessings of the beaten path. If God has given you the victory, you will have the victory; no need to concern yourself with that. Your job, and your joy, is to journey. And this is what God requires of you. Not to win, but to live justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Precious Mettle

Life is hard sometimes. And sometimes, I'm guilty of asking too much of myself. This particularly season of my life sometimes feels that way.

Because, ok, sometimes God gives you the opportunity to do something incredible, something beyond your wildest imagination, something you couldn't have let yourself dream of even if you could dream because it has just seemed that impossible. And then it becomes possible but you have to fight to get there. You have to want it, and you have to go after it. And somewhere in the course of all that, you forget entirely that God has created this adventure, that He has made possible this opportunity, and you find yourself just going after it....and failing.

You can't do it. You don't know why you ever thought you could do it. It's hard. You don't want to do it. You vaguely remember when you wanted it, but now, you can't even remember why. What used to be doesn't seem so bad any more and you wonder why you ever decided to fight for something better. Because it's very clear it's not in you to get it. It's not in you to get there. You just...can't fight any more. The battle is too big.

You can't win.

By this point, you've likely forgotten that this wasn't your thing to begin with. You didn't ask for this battle; you were invited into it. You weren't told to win; you were called to fight. It wasn't you at all; it was Him. He set this journey before you, but you got to the end of the page and decided to choose your own adventure.

You heard what your options were, the options this world has for winning. The best that science has to offer. The stories of warriors who have fought before you and won. The dream that's started to take shape within your own eyes of what this must look like. All these other factors came in and started shaping the outcome God has already promised and now, you feel like it's up to you to get there. It's up to you to keep walking toward the vision.

Wrong. It's up to you to keep walking toward God. 

It doesn't take knowledge to win your battle. It doesn't take a cunning scheme. You don't have to plan out every step you're going to take; your steps have been planned for you. You just have to keep working yourself forward in faith. You have to decide, every morning when you wake up, to keep fighting. Because you've been called to fight. You have to decide, every day, to keep believing, because He's given you something to believe in. You have to decide, every moment, to take one more bold step forward because God stands before you and calls your name.

You have to choose, one speck of courage at a time, to keep putting yourself through it. Even when it feels like too much. Even when it seems too hard. Even when it seems impossible. Even when you forget why. Even when you don't want to. You keep putting yourself through it because you know how this ends. You know Who has spoken the final word. You know Who has given the victory. Your adventure isn't about victory; it's about faith. It's about courage. It's about integrity and discipline and stamina and focus and strength of character, strength of spirit.

It's about mettle. 

God is shaping you. Refining you in the fire, the way all metals are purified. Gold is purified, silver refined, iron shaped by fire; so, too, is character. You are being purified, refined, shaped. You are being made more and more into the man, or woman, God has created in you. 

If that day comes and you get there, and you get to lay your heart on the thing God has promised you, that's all the better. If you take enough bold, courageous, strong steps forward to get to the place to which He has called you, congratulations. It's an incredible moment. But if you don't...if that day doesn't come, if you don't win, if you don't get there, if your faith fails you and your steps falter and you find that you really just can't do it any more, you're not left empty. You still have mettle. It doesn't sound like much, not for as hard as the journey has been.

But it's precious.

Mettle: noun. Vigor and strength of spirit. Staying quality. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Story Books

Here's a general rule, and I think it's a good one: don't read any book where the author claims that God told him/her to write a book. I've read many of these books and they all have one thing in common: they suck.

There's kind of been a movement of late where people really want to be writers. They want to be authors. They want to write books. And the self-publishing world makes it all too easy to put something out there. And many of these first-time, young authors think it adds credibility to their book if they say that God told them to write it. It's usually tucked somewhere around 2/3 of the way through or near the end in an About this Author or About this Book section, although some will tell you right up front in the introduction and save you the trouble of finding out later. The truth is: this doesn't add credibility to your book. It just makes it all the more disappointing. 

Because the truth is if God told you to write a book, you'd do it to His glory and not yours. You'd put in the extra work to proofread it a dozen times until it's perfect. You'd actually read every word of your own book to make sure it makes sense, that all the words you thought were there are actually there, that there aren't any extra words thrown in. You'd read it for content and understand where your tangents are, where your personal opinion overshadows the word of God you so proudly claim to profess. In short, you'd take more pride in it if you were doing it for Him.

But the truth is that God's not going to ask you to write a book. Ever. There's too much distance here between the product and the people for God to make this a thing. At least, to make this a simple thing.

There are times, particularly in the Old Testament, where God does, indeed, tell His prophets to write this down. But it's more than writing it down; it's also proclaiming it. It's making a copy, then speaking to the people. It's making a script and going by it. It's putting words to paper and tucking them away in the Temple, in just the right spot that the future priest is going to find them, take them to the king, and bring a nation back to Him. It's making a word, yes, but it's also connecting that word to the people.

Most authors today are content to wait for people to connect to them. 

They're waiting for people to find their book and read it. They're giving away copies so that people will see their words. They're even talking, in their books, about directing people to their books instead of engaging people as actual people when they show up! It's all a matter of marketing and a little bit of chance. It's a mess, really.

God's not ever gonna give you a book. He's not. He doesn't work that way. What God gives you is a story. And sometimes, yes, you write that story and you put it in a place where the people can find it. But what's absolutely key is that you proclaim that story, too. That you go out and live it. That you stop bringing it back to your book and instead, bring your book back to the story again and again and again. Whatever book is out there, it's not the end of the story; it's the beginning. It's the place where you start to proclaim God's truth by living it. Not by writing it. By putting it on your person, not putting it on your shelf. 

The best books I read, and the ones by authors with real deal books out there, are the ones these writers are living. It's Shauna Niequist and her recipes around the table. It's Bob Goff's love that does things. It's Josh Graves' feast. It's Brennan Mannings ragamuffins. It's Henri Nouwen's inner voice of love. It's all these stories people are living that they've decided to share with those of us they're not going to meet on the street....but they're still meeting people on the street. And not directing those people back to their books.

To say it another way, it's this: the best books are the ones with stories behind them. Not stories about the books and the ways these books came to be, but stories about the storied. Stories of the Storyteller. Stories of the storytellers. Stories. 

As a general rule, don't read any book that God told someone to write. Read the books with stories that the authors couldn't get away from. That's your best bet. Those are the words that are worth your time.

In case you're looking for a couple of those good books, there's a link at the top of this page....kidding. Kidding. ...Kinda. 

Recess with Jesus and Unfolded Hands are both available on Amazon.com for a reasonable fee. If you can't afford them, contact me. I have Kindle versions I can email you. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Unfinished Story

Jonah is not my favorite book in the Bible. It's one of the most common stories, one of the first we teach our children, one of the easiest to visualize and understand, and yet, in my opinion, one of the most unfinished. 

It took me a long time to figure out what it is that I don't like about the story of Jonah. After many years of reading this book in one sitting, over and over and over again, I realize it is this: the story of Jonah just...stops. Mid-sentence, it seems like. We see the redemption of a wicked town called Nineveh, but what we don't see really is the redemption of Jonah, the prophet. We don't see resolution in his life. 

Jonah runs away from God, gets thrown off a ship, is eaten by a fish, washes up in a mix of fish guts and water, goes to Nineveh like he was originally asked, preaches God's mercy and compassion, is upset to see a bunch of unworthy people saved, then pouts under a dead plant with a worm on it. Please don't tell me this is the full evolution of the character of Jonah. 

What it more feels like to me is that Jonah either got scared or discouraged in telling his story and for whichever reason, he just stopped.

If he was scared, it was because he was telling too much about himself (in his own eyes). He was revealing more of his heart and his character than he really wanted to. It was scary either because it was too true or because it was too simplified. Maybe he was evolving as a man and didn't want to continue to show his broken side, lest people come to read about the mess he was and believe that was all there was to him. Or maybe the mess is all there was to him and the writing of his story saddened him.

If he was discouraged, it was because he didn't see the value in himself or in his story. Once Nineveh is redeemed, he feels like it's over. That's the thing, after all, that God asked him to do so if he's telling God's story, doesn't it naturally stop there? The prophecy is over; all that's left is the prophet. And who wants to read about the prophet? 

I do.

I kind of want to know what happens to Jonah. This can't simply be all there is. God gets the last word in this story and while normally, I'm happy to let God have the last word, I'm kind of disappointed. It leaves me hanging on what really happened to the man involved and if we're being honest, I am the man involved. I'm reading this book like I'm the prophet, not the God and not even the Ninevites. I am the man, and when it just sort of ends, I wonder where I go from here. I wonder if God speaks the last word into my story and it just sort of ends and it's nothing.

Jonah was a richer character than his namesake book tells us. He had to be, to have heard the voice of God as a prophet at all. To have been asked to go at all. To have run away from God at all. And every time I read this book, I feel like I'm being robbed of the rest of the story. I want to know what happened to the man.

But it's the same with most of us, right? We're wrapped up in our own stories. We kind of hit the highlights, touch on the big things, tell the bigger stories and when it starts to boil down to who we are, we just sort of stop. Either we're scared that our story is bigger than us, scared that it's smaller than us, scared that we're not living up to who we ought to be in our narrative....or we're discouraged because we can't help but wonder who cares about our story anyway. We're discouraged because we look in the mirror every day and know what kind of man we're not and so what does it matter if we keep telling our stories or not? 

That's a shame. I need your story. I need my story. I need our stories. I need to see the finished stories of the ways God works in His people's lives. I need to see the evolution of a man, the way he wrestles with himself and wrestles with his God and wonders about the bigger questions. I need to see him facing his fears, owning his insecurities, growing through his brokenness. I need to see him believing in something bigger than himself, encouraged by his smallness, confident in his creation. I need to see him interacting with himself, engaging his God, living his life. I need to play out what happens to a man. I need to see what happens to you. I need to see what happens to me.

It's not enough to me to see what God is doing with you. I need to see what God is doing in you, whether it's a big thing or a little thing. Because He's doing something in me, too, and I need to believe that matters.

So please, tell the story of you. Tell the story of God in you. Tell the story of you in God. Tell the big things and the little things. Tell the hard things and the raw things and the beautiful things. Don't be afraid; we're all fallen men. Don't be discouraged; it matters. It matters. 

Because a withered plant and a fat worm just cannot be the end of the story.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tenderness for Tamar

Everybody kind of wants to fight right now, and if you're watching the news, you know this. Stories like the domestic abuse of Janay Rice and the switching of Adrian Peterson's kid...and all of a sudden, everyone's up in arms. But it doesn't really do any good. 

There's a story sort of like this in the Bible. It's the story of Tamar, a daughter of King David who was raped by her half-brother and then subsequently dismissed and avenged by her full brother. It's a complicated story, but there's a very important something missing from it that, when you see what it is, is heartbreaking.

When the rape occurs, Amnon (the half-brother) becomes angry with Tamar and furiously sends her away from him. She tells her brother, Absalom, what happens and he tells her not to worry about it, then sets to work plotting to kill his half-brother in revenge. Which is kind of the response most of us have. We're prone to tell the victim not to worry about it, to to let it affect him or her, and then we set out to fight battles that really aren't ours.

Which means we've just dismissed Tamar again.

The message we think we're sending is, You are worth fighting for, but unless we take the time to talk to Tamar as a woman, as a beautiful, wounded woman, what we're really saying is, This is wrong, and it doesn't matter if it was you or someone else. The act was wrong, and we will correct this act. Which is all well and good, except there's a shamed, broken, aching woman who 1) still feels it was entirely about her and now, 2) understands that she really does cause fights. 

What Tamar needs is not a knight in shining armor. What she needs is not a brother to take revenge. What she needs is someone who will still look her in the eye, someone who will still see her, someone who sees more than what was done to her. She needs someone to speak tenderness into her life. 

She needs someone not to avenge her, but to redeem her.

Because Tamar, when she sees her reflection in the water of the river, sees a broken woman. She sees a woman who can be violated. Can be because she has been. She sees a woman that no one has looked at the same way since, and neither can she look at herself the same way. She's filled with hatred, too. Not at her half-brother, but at her half-self. And for all this fighting that's going on because of Tamar, no one is actually fighting for her. So she's left to deal with her brokenness on her own.

And she can't do it. It is not possible that one can heal the intimate wounding of the spirit without the presence and the grace of a loving community. I don't care who you are. I don't care what's happened. When the inmost being of your person is wounded, you can't bind the wounds by yourself. You need people. You need people to come around you. You need people to speak truth. You need people who will expose not your shame, but your beauty. You need people who will continue to look you in the eye because there's nothing there that they find dissatisfying. There's not supposed to be anything unsettling about you. 

It's hard because it feels like someone's supposed to fight. Like someone ought to be doing something about all of this. And maybe they are. I mean, of course they are. We all want justice. But in all our justice-seeking, in all our fighting, we forget that the greatest thing we can do for someone is to love them. To truly love them. To offer them tenderness. So that they can offer tenderness to themselves. 

I don't know, given the circumstances, that Tamar ever knew who she was again. There was no one there to help her begin to ask the questions, let alone answer them. I don't know if 80-year-old Tamar still looked at her reflection in the water and saw someone only worth fighting over, and no one worthy to love, but I suspect that might be the case. Her brother Absalom killed Amnon; he took revenge. But he never took her in his arms, never whispered in her ear, never told her that she was worth fighting for. He never gave her back to herself. Which means in terms of Tamar, he has still done nothing. 

Everybody wants to fight right now. We want to say that domestic violence is wrong, and it is. And we've exacted our revenge on a young man's career. We want to say that child abuse is wrong, and it is. And we're starting to see that play out with another young man. But for all our fighting, we haven't done anything for the woman or the child. We aren't speaking tenderness into their hearts. We aren't daring to look them in the eye and remind them of their beauty. We're just making more of a fight.

There are Tamars all around us - men, women, children who have been used and abused and broken by this world - and the more we fight over them, the more we risk losing them. What we need is not revenge; it's redemption. We need to dare to look these persons in the eye, to love them, to remind them who they are, to tell them their worth. We need to offer them tenderness...

...So that one day, they can offer tenderness to themselves. 

Friday, September 12, 2014


Not that long ago, I was reading a book and the author started talking about some historical figure of the faith. Recent historic, like a guy who has since become a saint or something of that nature. And one of the evidences they had of this man's powerful spiritual experience was that he at one point in his life became marked with the stigmata.

Stigmata is what it's called when the scars of Christ appear on someone else's body. Now, whether you believe in that phenomenon or not, just go with me on this. Because the story of this man got me, naturally, looking down at my own hands. It got me wondering about my spiritual experience. It got me thinking about just how it is that God has marked me. 

It didn't take long for me to reach the understanding that I wouldn't want this. I don't think there's a place within me in which I could embrace even the spiritual phenomenon of the stigmata. No matter what the spirit of God is on my life at any given time, I couldn't accept such a mark if it were ever to happen. Primarily because...I've never saved anyone. 

These marks...these are the marks of a Savior, and I am the least of these. But all of this led me to think about this Savior's hands, and what I see beyond the marks of the Cross...I think I wouldn't mind having that. What I see beneath the blood stains on the nail-pierced hands...I think that's more what Jesus looks like through us. Not a spiritual experience, but a human one. 

Not a wound but a callus. 

Jesus was a carpenter. His hands were strong. But they were always set to His work, too, and because of that, this world kept rubbing against them. It kept taking His tender flesh and making it stronger, marking it with the work of His hands and the work of love He did among the people. Marking Him as a man who worked hard, a man who served well.

The callus is this perfect balance between strength and tenderness. It takes a measure of strength to do the work in the first place, whether the work is carpentry or something else. It takes a willingness and an ableness of the hands to work. And the calluses, these, too, look like strength. They look hardened, abrasive, firmed. But this is not truly so. A callus forms from the tenderness of the flesh. It's the softness of a place that invites the firming of it.

See, that's the kind of holy life I want to live. I want to live a ministry that marks me not with the Son of God, but with the Son of Man - with the measure of strength and tenderness required to work hard, to serve graciously, and to love well. I think that's the kind of holy life God wants from me.

The stigmata might be cool. I don't know. Maybe it's a phenomenon and maybe it's interesting and maybe it means something. But I don't think we were meant to identify with the Savior; I think we were called to be one with the Servant. I think our lives are marked not by spiritual experiences but by the simpler things. The kinds of things one experiences by walking through this world, by engaging persons as they come, by telling a story through love. 

Which is what the Cross...and the callus...are all about anyway.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Colton Dixon has a popular new song out which begins, I've made my castle tall. I've built up every wall. (The rest of the song, called More of You, is good, too. I recommend it.) 

But the point is that we all have our castles, we all have our walls. Some of our walls are taller and stronger than others. Some of us have moats around our walls, and alligators in our moats. We truly live in fortresses, shielding ourselves from the world or perhaps, shielding the world from ourselves.

And there comes a point in each of our lives when these fortresses come under attack. Someone, or something, lays siege to them and threatens the very security we rely on to make it day-to-day. It's scary. Here you are surrounded by the best protection your wounded spirit can come up with, and all of a sudden, something's shaking. The noise outside is thunderous. Arrows start flying fast overhead, each one coming closer to piercing your heart. You can feel it; something's going to break.

It might be you.

Everything you are, everything you've have, everything you've worked so hard to protect is about to be exposed. Stripped bare. Laid open before the world. 

You retreat into the deepest reaches of your soul, climb into your tallest tower, curl into the corner as the structure all around you starts to shake more and more violently. The arrows have found you; they know you're in there, and they're coming. You can't figure out what this world wants from you, why it can't just leave you alone.

It's not the world, child. It's your God coming after you.

You can tell because this world is methodical when it lays siege. It slowly builds up ramps to takes it armies over the walls. It comes after you in stealth and finds you, then takes you prisoner and parades you through your own walls to expose you to the world.

God isn't so cunning; He's passionate. He doesn't just sneak in; He's coming after you. With purpose. And He's not to be deterred by any foolish walls you might have made.

His name is the Lord. He destroys strongholds and ruins fortresses. (Amos 5:8-9) He knocks down walls to get to you. He reduces them to rubble so they don't stand in His way....or yours. He breaks straight through, not worried about ramps or sieges; He's coming after you. Not to take you prisoner, but to set you free.

And like any good knight in shining armor, like any good Prince of Peace, He knows where to find you. How do you think the arrows got so close? Look again. These are not the arrows of a warrior; they are the spears of a lover, sent to pierce you heart. He climbs to the highest room in the tallest tower and finds you there. He wraps you up in His loving arms and starts to carry you to the place where you can set your feet. To a place where you can stand. Where the dust is settling and the world is wide open.

It's hard to believe all that. It's hard to trust that that's the case. Because right now, all you know is that something's shaking. The noise outside is thunderous. Something, for sure, is about to break.

It might be you. 

And that's scary. But it's also okay.

That's just the noise of your God coming after you. Coming to set you free.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Eyes Wide Shut

Fear is a funny thing.

Most people are afraid of something. Rationally or irrationally, mildly or deathly, we all have our fears. For some, it's heights. For others, depths. Some are afraid of snakes or spiders; some of dogs or cats. Some have more philosophical fears, like meaninglessness or emptiness. Some, social fears like relationships or public speaking. It might be safe to say that for every possible thing or concept there is on earth, there is probably someone, somewhere, who is afraid of it.

And fear can sometimes be a helpful thing. There are certainly situations in which fear is wisdom's response to a certain stimulus. But have you ever stopped to consider what your fear is making you miss?

It's weird to think about. Because fear is generally a hypersensitivity. It makes us feel like we're looking wide-eyed at our world, always alert, always on guard, always ready in case we should encounter the very thing we're afraid of. In one sense, that is true. In another sense, not so much. Fear keeps our eyes wide open, certainly, but only to see the things we're afraid of.

Think about this. Let's say you're afraid of bees. And with good reason - perhaps you're allergic to them. Obviously, you're going to have a heightened sense of awareness any time you're outside, making sure you stay out of the path of any potential stingers. If you're scared of bees, you're more likely to notice everything that flies, which makes you feel like you're noticing a lot. But what you're actually noticing is only two things: bee or not bee. Your mind can only classify the flying object as dangerous or not dangerous. Which means you just missed that butterfly that flittered by. Because it wasn't a bee. You saw it, but you did not delight in it. Your mind only had one classification for it.

Or maybe, with your fear of bees, you notice everything that is sort of round and dark. Like a bee on a flower. Or...a seed on a flower. You notice this certain-shaped dark thing on the flower, classify it as bee or not bee, threat or not threat, and look away having not seen the flower at all. You could not see the beauty of the flower for your fear of the bee.

The same is true, let's say, of a fear of snakes. (Sorry. These nature illustrations are highly visual, so they work great.) If you're afraid of snakes and decide to go on a hike anyway, someone might ask you when you get back what you saw. And your answer is likely to be primarily centered around the number of snakes you encountered, even if that number is 0. Then they ask you about the waterfall and you realize you missed it entirely. You can't even recreate a mental picture of any waterfall, although you can sort of remember the snake-less ground in that general area.

Fear convinces you you're living with eyes wide open, but you're really living with eyes wide shut. Fear makes you miss the trees for the forest. You see the overarching theme of life, but you miss all the details. Because all you've got is bee or not bee, snake or not snake, threat or not threat. Your eyes aren't open to life through fear; they are only ever open to fear through fear.

Dealing with fear, then, is about opening your eyes. It's about seeing all of the things you've missed. Maybe you're afraid of bees. Maybe you're even afraid of bees with good reason. But take a look at a butterfly sometime. Let yourself see it. Truth is, I'd rather see one butterfly than a thousand bees. Take a look at the flower. They're rarely ever alone. You see one flower, deliberately see one flower, and it opens up your eyes to the whole bush of them. Suddenly, your sight is overwhelmed with beauty...and not one bee. And if there is a bee, so what? Would you un-see the flowers to see the bee? Really?

It's always like this, by the way. Nature's an easy place to see it, but all fears share this feature. On the other side of fear, there's always beauty. Always something breathtaking that you cannot see. Put it to the test. Go ahead. Pick a fear, any fear. Then ask yourself what that fear keeps you from seeing. Search your mind's eye for all the things you've noticed but only classified as not my fear. Isn't it beautiful? Doesn't it make life...richer, somehow?

There are bees in the world. That's a given. But if you spend your life looking for them, that's all you're ever going to see. And you're going to start thinking that's all this world is. But this world is more than bees. It's butterflies and flowers and praying mantises (manti?) and clouds and sunshine and rain and rainbows. It's footprints through the fresh-cut grass, moss growing up the side of the tree, birds flying all about. It's a million little things you never noticed before. And if you can get yourself to see them, you won't miss them again.

Not for all the bees in the world. ...Or even for one of them.

Open your eyes. For real. And see what you're missing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Contrary to what you may have heard, life isn't getting harder.

This is something I've been thinking about for a few weeks, since I started seminary. You see, I was looking through the various syllabi provided by my professors when I noticed that in seminary, an "A" is anything above a 95. This is strikingly different than undergraduate work, or at least my undergraduate work, and even though I had already committed myself to being more interested in learning during seminary than achieving, it hit me a little hard. This revised grading scale made achieving, or seeming to achieve, all the more unlikely. 

Now, it's important to note that I have committed myself more to the learning. I've committed to engaging the material instead of engaging in the work, and I have come to a point within myself that it doesn't matter what the grade is (within reason), so long as the lesson is meaningful. I've spent too much of my life performing well and growing little, and I really want to walk away from seminary with more than a diploma. 

So I dove into the work and discovered - you know what? It's not harder. Even with the grading scale, the work is not harder. The seminary has set me up for the very thing that I had set myself up for - to engage the material. That's what the school is asking of me. Not that I "do better," as an "A" so much requires a higher standard, but that I engage more. 

The more I thought about it, the more I realize that's all life ever asks of us, too.

It seems like life gets harder the older we get. Like there's more to do, the standards keep getting raised, the amount of time it takes just to live well eats a bigger chunk out of our day-to-day. But that's not really it. The older you get, the more life is asking you to engage deeper with it. So it's not getting harder; it's becoming intimate.

The pressures of adult life are no different than a child's pressures; the meanings are different. A lot of us worry about money, particularly the money we don't have. You didn't have any money as a child, did you? Maybe your parents did (or maybe they didn't) but you certainly didn't. How could you? The $2 you got for doing your chores all week seemed like a fortune, but it didn't buy anything. And that's okay because it wasn't expected to. Now, you don't have money and it's a problem because life has asked you to up your engagement and to be an independent and contributing member of society. So now, you need money. And that $2 fortune you once had? You realize it's not enough. It's not any harder to make $2, but at an increased level of engagement, it takes more. 

Social situations are tough as an adult. There's a lot to remember about etiquette and rules that didn't apply when you were a kid. Silly things like having to keep your shoes tied or bigger things like how to set a formal dinner party, how to operate in the workplace, how to raise a family. Again, these were in some limited way the same social structures you had to navigate as a child - being polite, being productive at school, making friends, forming relationships - only now, you're being asked to engage at a deeper level. 

Life is not asking harder things of you; it's asking more from you every day in the things you already do. It's what keeps you growing. It's what keeps you engaged.

And that's what tension is. It's failing to meet life at the same level it's inviting you. It's failing to engage with the depth necessary to meet the demands of a deepening existence. If life keeps pushing you deeper but you haven't kept clear air above you, it feels like you're suffocating. If you meet the challenge and keep making space in and around your life, it's a beautiful growth and development process. 

Which doesn't mean life isn't hard. It is. Some days, it's harder than others. But that's not because it's getting harder. 

It's because it's asking more. 

Monday, September 8, 2014


Here's what I think rubs me the wrong way about the whole Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego story: it's when three guys walk out of the fire, and they don't even smell like smoke.

Don't get me wrong. God can do that. Obviously. And I think it's really cool that God can do that. But it's kind of set up this false precedent for those of us who believe that makes us think that God has to do that. We have forgotten those few little words, But even if He does not....

Because here's the truth: I've faced a lot of fires in my life. I've been around people who have faced a lot of fires in their lives. I'm talking to people right now who are walking through the fire. Every one of us believes in God. 

...And every one of us smells like smoke.

Most of us know you don't just walk away from anything in life without being changed by it. You walk away with smoke all over you and every once in awhile, you're just sitting around not doing much of anything and you smell the smoke again anyway. Like it's right there in the room with you.

People walk up to you and so casually, yet curiously, ask, "Hey man...uh...what's up with your hair?" And you run your fingers through what's left of it before you even remember what they might be talking about, and then you just shrug your shoulders and say, "Man...that's from the fire." Because it's still a little singed. There may even still be a few bald places.

Others can't stop staring at your grotesque features, and you can't think for the life of you what they're staring at and then you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and remember how scarred and disfigured you are. It's all from the fire. 

It changes you. 

That's what I don't like about this story of three Hebrew children. It makes us think it's not supposed to be like this. It makes us believe that if our God were any God at all, or if we were in any way righteous, it wouldn't be like this. We wouldn't smell the smoke. We wouldn't lose our hair. We wouldn't have our scars. But the truth from everything I know about the fire is that I think my life is richer because of these very three things. My relationship with God is deeper, not because I don't smell like smoke but because I smell the smoke nearly every day. It's more than scented my flesh; it's soaked into my spirit.

And you know? I think that's okay. 

Because I smell the smoke and it makes me remember there was another man in the fire. I dare raise my eyes, and I see His form all over again. He was right there with me; He still is. In the words of Nebuchadnezzar, what other God is like this? I run my fingers through my thinning hair and I remember the way the fire ate away at me. I remember what it was like to be there. I pass by a mirror and see my disfigured flesh, the scars that mark my fallen body and I am able even to see something beautiful in that. 

And it's easy to kind of get hung up on all of these things, especially if you buy the Daniel narrative as the ultimate manifestation of God. But in those rare moments when you're able to look deeper, you notice something else, too. Something that takes you by surprise because in the haze, it doesn't seem possible, but...

You're okay. 

You're not untouched. You're not unchanged. You're not unblemished. But you're okay anyway. 

Maybe it hasn't been as miraculous as that moment in Babylon, but the story is the same. God brought you through the fire. And you're okay.

What other God is like this?

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Fire (Part 2)

We call three men out of the fire, and they don't even smell like smoke. All of a sudden, we're talking about a God who saves His servants. We're talking about a God who protects every single hair on their heads. We're talking about a God who lets His people walk out of the fire.

And somehow, we're not talking about a God who walks into it.

Everybody seemed to miss this. The story in Daniel 3 continues:

Nebuchadnezzar said, 'Praise the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He sent his angel and saved his servants, who trusted him. They disobeyed the king and risked their lives so that they would not have to honor or worship any god except their own God. ...No other god can rescue like this. (v. 28-29)

No other God can rescue like this, but that's not the story. The story is that no other God is stepping into the fire like this. 

We all have some measure of fire in our story. We all have trials and troubles. We're all thrown into things we'd rather not be involved in, forced into battles we don't want to fight. And we, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, often find ourselves saying, My God can save me from this trouble...

What we forget is what follows, ...But if He doesn't....

Because we read stories about the God who saves, and we start to think that if He doesn't save us, He must not be God any more. Or we must not be worth it. Or He must not like us. Or He must not be strong enough. Or maybe we're not strong enough. Or...

None of that is necessarily the case. We can't judge our God by wins and losses. We can't believe in Him based on saving graces. What God has always told us is the most true about Him is His presence. We have to put our faith in God based on whether He shows up or not. Whether He's here or whether He's not. What He does when He gets here is irrelevant (kind of); it's whether He's here at all that tells us who He is.

And I am with you always, until the very end of the age.

That's real. That's the truest thing God ever says about Himself. I am here. I am with you. Look around you in the fire.

Here He is. There are four men in the fire.

Does it matter if they walked out smelling like smoke or not? Not really. I'm kind of disappointed that they didn't. Does it matter if they walk out at all? No. Is that hard to believe? Maybe.

But let's say they didn't walk out of the fire. Let's say Nebuchadnezzar throws three men in the fire, looks into the furnace and sees four walking around, those four burn to a crisp, and the king has done what he set out to do. Is God less of a God? No. Because everyone has seen the fourth man. They know that this is a God who, even when He does not save, comes into the presence of His people. Even into the fire.

Don't you think that's going to make an impression?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have prefaced this entire fiery journey with the words quoted above: We know our God can save us...but even if He doesn't.... As soon as the king sees the fourth man at all, he knows that they were right. This, indeed, is not merely a god; this is their God. And what other God does this for His faithful?

There's not one.

Call out to God in the fire. He is able to save you. But even if He does not...He'll be there. He'll come to you when you cry out. He'll walk into the fire just to be in your presence, just so you can be in His. He'll stand there with you with flames all around. And whether you walk out without a hint of smoke or the hairs on your head are still smoldering or you don't walk out at all, know this:

I am with you...in trial, in trouble, in fire, in fear, in hope, in joy, in doubt, in faith...always.