Thursday, December 25, 2014

For Those Struggling on Christmas

For those of you who struggle on Christmas, for whom it's a reminder of loss or loneliness: this day doesn't have to be hopeless.

When we sing all those Christmas carols about joy, it can seem like those songs don't "get" you. Like they don't see the hardship that Christmas reminds you of, or in some cases, still annually brings. Like you're being left out of the spirit of things unless you force yourself to feel good.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The child who was born in a manger would go on to say something incredible as a man: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Note Jesus' deliberate arrangement of the two concepts, suffering and hope. The Savior always picks his words carefully. Hope is the latter of the two, the final word. There's a lot of significance in that.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplished far more than many of us realize. He can now offer his comfort and peace to the redeemed heart, and those things are far more than just a weak consolation prize. He can really make your heart light and full. He has mine.

The Scriptures also tell us that Jesus can mend broken lives - and change earthly circumstances. The king who was born in a stable would heal many in Israel who had every reason to resign themselves to lifelong desolation. He's in the business of restoration and triumph.

Some of us tend to be really cautious when we talk about that side of the kingdom, because we don't know how or when he will accomplish such things (and because other parts of the church go way too far with it). I don't want to offer false hope or make promises that aren't God's. We have a ways to go until every enemy is conquered.

But that doesn't mean you should rule miracles out, either. At least let it be a category for you. You wouldn't be the only person who's received one.

Whatever else God is doing in your life, this much is absolutely certain and can be taken to the bank: God cares. He sees. He has taken notice of your struggle, and he is not indifferent. He knows you have fought hard and that you have suffered much. This is more than just God having a "plan" for your life. It's about his heart for you.

A friend of mine just had a conversation about this last night, and we agreed on something vital: God is more than just a caretaker. A caretaker can watch out for you without really caring, without being close. But God is a Father. His heart for you is good. "Gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love" (Psalm 145:8).  He's not annoyed with you. He's not disappointed with you. It's impossible for him to love you more than he already does. Thanks to the child born of a virgin.

And if you want a plan, check this: whatever else God is planning for you, he has arranged for the ultimate triumph: eternal life. Where every tear is wiped away and suffering can no longer reach you.

The blood of Christ and the empty tomb have secured this for everyone who puts their faith in this Jesus whose birth we commemorate today. It's coming.

To find joy is sometimes a deliberate choice. In years past, I've found that I need to fix my eyes on this grace, and not my troubles, in order to find this lightness of heart. That doesn't mean pretending your troubles aren't there. Even God doesn't do that. A lot of folks read the words of Paul about contentment and joy and think that's what he means - denial. But that's not it. It's simply about not letting pain be everything. It's not even the major theme. Jesus has overcome it. And today is the day he finally kicked off the triumphant mission that made it all true.

Christmas is about fulfilled promises. It's about God finally breaking through the darkness that gripped the world and bringing his kingdom once and for all. There are big things going on, and you're part of it.

Whatever else is going on, I hope that will be the final word for you today.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, August 11, 2014

We Must Never Assume

Robin Williams died yesterday of apparent suicide, at the age of 63.

The first thought that went through my mind when I saw the news: "We really needed him." Laughter is a joy and a gift from God and a bulwark against darkness. Williams offered so much of that.

The second thought was, "I had no idea". Perhaps at some point I'd fleetingly read that Williams was in rehab from drugs and alcohol, but I hadn't known that his addictions were an attempt to fight off depression and anxiety.

Now I don't claim to be the world's greatest people-reader, and 99% of what I saw of Williams was, of course, a performance of some kind. But I have trouble hearing the manic, happy-at-all-the-wrong-times boom of the Genie in "Aladdin" and connecting it to a depressed soul. The man's calling was to cheer people up. He was so gifted at it. It was hard to guess what was under the surface the whole time, that the great well of humor and compassion from which he enriched others belied a different internal reality.

It's a reminder to me that we must never assume.

Ian McLaren said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." (No, the quote wasn't from Plato.) It's taken me very few years as a teacher and youth leader to learn a simple truth: appearances mean nothing. A smile can hide immense pain. Good grades, intelligence, and potential can come from a destructive home. That person sitting alone may not, in fact, want to be alone at all. Maybe s/he never learned how to ask for companionship, or how to keep it. 

Society is, at some level, a gallery of facades. Not that Williams was a facade. He seemed pretty honest. But you can rarely tell people's need just by looking at them.

But there is hope. Oh, so much hope. These struggles are the very things Jesus went after in his ministry. Isaiah 61:1 says he came to "bind up the brokenhearted". He forgave sins, healed the blind, touched lepers with his hands, lodged with the ostracized Zaccheus. He reached people whom others either didn't see or didn't believe they could help. He was so compassionate, so earthy, so giving in an intimate way.

I love this Jesus. Instead of using great and wondrous signs in the heavens and on the earth to confirm who he was (which he certainly could have), he identified himself by loving on people. He walked right into their brokenness and healed it. And then, he died and rose again to provide our greatest need - eternal life with him. Restored bodies and minds.

And the servant is not greater than his master. Everything Christ did, he commanded his followers to do. Just as we are God's hands and feet to the nations unreached by the gospel, I believe we are a crucial instrument of God in keeping each other afloat. The New Testament is chockablock with hints that he chooses to work largely through us, his church. (Don't be intimidated by the burden. In Christ, we are more than able.)

And we must never assume that people are hunky dory. Some of those who are most in need are the ones least able to address their need. Loving on people can be unrewarding. We fear that we'll get pulled in. But if we're going to be serious about this "loving people" business, we must allow for the fact that people are weird. (You are, too.) The key, of course, is remembering that we're not in it for reward. That's the point of love. It gives without thought of reward. The great thing about love is that you needn't wait to feel it. You just do it! Sometimes it's as simple as sitting next to someone in church.

I learn two great things from the life of Robin Williams. One, to be a giver. In the scramble to spread and defend our faith, let's never forget to be a source of joy. Two, we must never assume. Instead, we must pursue. Get to know people, build relationships with them, become part of their life.

Because wherever we go, we bring Jesus with us. When we go into people, we bring Jesus to them. That is seriously good news.






P.S. Robin Williams' two best movies were "Patch Adams" and the criminally underseen "Awakenings", both quieter movies about hope and about treating people with dignity and compassion. Those of you who only know Williams' "Mrs. Doubtfire" persona, take note.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Every year you grow, you will find me bigger

In Prince Caspian, the second of the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, the four Pevensie children are unexpectedly whisked back to Narnia for new adventures. Lucy, the youngest, faces isolation and fear as the children gain their bearings, faces a trial that she had not known during her previous journey. But all is forgotten when she is unexpectedly reunited with Aslan, the mighty lion, their protector and king of Narnia.
“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan," sobbed Lucy. “At last.” 
The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face. 
“Aslan," said Lucy, "you're bigger". 
"That is because you are older, little one," answered he. 
"Not because you are?" 
"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."
Eventually the day is saved, the kingdom restored. But Lucy's battles are not over. She will continue for a little while to be misunderstood by the others, to watch as Aslan tarries and gathers before finally completing the rescue. And she has yet another Narnian adventure ahead of her years later, the most difficult of them all, during which she sees Aslan only sparingly and has to live mostly by what she has learned of him, of what he would say or desire.

As most of us know, C.S. Lewis was a great Christian theologian and wrote his Narnia stories as parables, with Aslan as a stand-in for Jesus Christ. His heroes were children, because we are as children before God and before a world much bigger than us. Lucy, especially, is Lewis' main and favorite character because she wants to see Aslan. She wants to believe.

And Aslan's promise to us is God's promise - that as we grow, he will become bigger.

"And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." - Matthew 28:20

I used to believe that things would get easier as I grew in the faith. The opposite is true. Like a video game, the levels only get harder. High school, college, the military, career, people in general...each one has been steadily tougher, presented fresh challenges to my faith and my identity in Christ, strengthened the lies and the spiritual warfare. The enemy doesn't just go away, and he doesn't give up easily.

Yet God has stepped up to the plate each time. If you've ever read the Bible just once and assumed God's done revealing himself, you've missed out. He never fails to reveal more as you stay committed to the pursuit. As the enemy's lies and discouragements increase, God's power and truth increase at a greater rate. He has answers for every obstacle we face, every loss we experience, every question that arises.

The apostle Paul describes a progressive journey - that part of the reason for each trial we face is preparation for the next one.

"Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us" - 2 Corinthians 1:9-10

Don't be surprised as things get harder despite your spiritual growth. Expect it. See it as a kind of backwards honor that the enemy feels threatened by what God is doing in you. And as you grow in Christ, Christ may sometimes seem to step back into the shadows for a while, but that is not abandonment. He will show up. His victories will grow in proportion to your challenges. He will guide you to the world's end and to Aslan's Country.

Man, now I wish I could find that boxed Narnia set that Mom got me. To think that there was a time I didn't care for reading.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Will God Repeat?

Five months ago, my Seattle Seahawks marched onto the national stage and practically waltzed away with their first Super Bowl. It's a cathartic and dizzying event for a sports fan, having YOUR team be the champ. The Seahawks are a relatively young franchise, without the storied history of older teams like the Packers, and most of their years have been synonymous with futility. The 90s were most embarrassing. To a lifelong diehard like myself, our Super Bowl isn't just awesome. It's therapeutic.

Yet here were are, five months later, and what are a lot of Seahawks fans doing?

Taking to the internet forums and dissecting the draft, analyzing our player transactions, and worrying. Worrying about what?

Whether we can repeat as Super Bowl champions next year.

Are you kidding me? We fight for almost forty years to get here, finally prove our place amongst the NFL's big boys, finally shut everybody up for nine months, and what do the fans do? We dart on to next year. We start worrying.

You'd think that now, of all times, we'd be taking the time to simply bask in the moment. Swagger around, buy and wear our merchandise, plunk down our emptied mugs of...um, soda...as we proclaim loudly to the...um, establishment...that we're the champs. For at least nine months, we're the undisputed top dogs. Can't we just enjoy it?

Now, yes, part of this worry is the desire to get a Seahawks dynasty going, rather than just a one-off win. I walked up to a guy in church the other day wearing a Broncos hat, deliberately and pointedly adjusted my Seahawks hat with my best mischievous grin, and he just chuckled and went "Yeah, everyone gets lucky once in a while." And we don't want that to be the case. We want to prove that not only did we win, but it wasn't a fluke.

But part of it is...we just forget. The glow fades and it's back to prove-it territory. And I am not immune.

I have just been blessed royally by God. I've gotten a new job for next year and a sweet pad to stay, a treat from his good heart that I wasn't expecting. It was the last-minute culmination of two years of prayer and waiting during which I had to fiercely battle and overcome my doubts about God's heart and attentiveness. (Perhaps that's why God kept me in the game until the last minute?)

And yet now, here I am just four days later, and I catch myself worrying about other things. My car, missions fundraising, how the new job will actually go. You're kidding me. It hasn't been 100 hours and already I'm worrying about the next season? "Yeah, but that was then. What if next time is different?"

Heck, what about the part where I just enjoy what I've been given? God didn't give me a good gift so I'd let other anxieties still the joy away!

Woe is me. My capacity for unbelief rivals the playoff drought of the Cleveland Browns. (That's enormous.)

"My son, observe the commandment of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; bind them continually on your heart; tie them around your neck." - Proverbs 6:20-21

The Pharisees took this verse literally and bound pieces of Scripture around their necks. Whatever other evil they were up to in the Gospels, I actually think they were ahead of me on this one. It helped them remember.

My good friend tells me to build physical altars in my life to remember what God's done for me, touchstones of faith for the next season. I'll do it. It's a simple matter of learning styles, providing visual keys to important things. Could be as easy as taking bright red paint to the key to my new apartment. It'll be hard to miss it then. An excellent, dominant-color reminder of his faithfulness. (And a shortcut to that usual jingling and fumbling on the key ring that typically results in your desired key being the last to be found.)

Next time might be different, but God won't be. He gives us evidence of his power and his love so that we have confidence in him for the next season.

I don't know whether the Seahawks will repeat next year. But I know God will.

Monday, June 9, 2014

It's Not About You, Graduates

Graduation is upon you.

What a relief. To be freed from the hallways of the high school you've learned to hate, to be launched upon the world full of possibility...it's a great feeling. Heck, just to be celebrated is a great feeling. Goodness knows we don't get enough of that these days, of being delighted in and pumped up by others. It's your moment in the sun. You've earned it. Congratulations!

The graduation speeches are exciting. Live your dreams. Reach for the stars. Realize yourself and your potential. Don't let anyone tell you who you are or what you can't do. No doubt there is some truth in these, even stuff God would agree with.

Yet as the ceremonies and banquets conclude and the pictures flood Facebook, the life of Jesus intrudes upon this season and offers a word that, frankly, a lot of us aren't sure we want to hear.

It's not about you.

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." - John 12:23

As Jesus walked the earth, his eyes were fixed upon the cross as surely as your eyes have been fixed upon the cap and gown. That was his goal. He brought it up all the time. He kept his disciples thinking about it. He shushed up most of his miracles so that his "big moment" wouldn't be diminished. The cross was Jesus' graduation. He thought of nothing else, because it pleased his Father.

And what was the cross? Sacrifice. Pain. Shame. Jesus' ultimate emptying of himself. His identification with the lowest. Putting others first.

But he called it "glory".

Something in me just revolts at that, if I'm honest. Blood is glory? It doesn't match up with my system. And it doesn't match up with this graduation season, which, if we're honest, has a way of putting focus on ourselves.

But we know what we hold as believers. Jesus' whole focus, his great mission, was not an act of achievement but an act of sacrifice.

When we young folks (dare I say, we young Americans?) think of glory, we don't often equate it with emptying ourselves. We equate it with college degrees, prosperous jobs, families, success. I tend to, also. We talk of "making a difference", but I'll wager that half these valedictorians with their glowing speeches don't see themselves working at McDonald's. Will they end up there? I don't know. That's asking the wrong question. The question is, can Jesus use us there?

In case you haven't noticed, the world is a mess. Shootings. Starvation. Slavery. Everyday people riddled with shame, self-hatred, and shattered hearts. Christians are desperately, desperately needed, and not in a self-actualizing way. Contrary to popular belief, changing the world is not done by one person with an awesome scientific discovery or piece of legislation. It is done in a million small battles that will never make it into the history books. It's done on street corners, in shops, in classrooms, in counseling offices, on the manufacturing line and on the firing line, on the factory floor and the kitchen floor, in random acts of kindness and secret Santas and anonymous donors. That's where people's lives and hearts are healed. That's where they see Jesus.

I know. Hardly glory by our standards. Yet Jesus could hardly be worried about his image if he were climbing onto the cross. And he called that glory.

So many of these valedictorians' speeches seem to be envisioning some far-off moment, some pinnacle of achievement, that we should work towards. Maybe that will be true for some of us. But a lot of folks commit their entire lives to finding it and never do. For us, our shot at glory might lie before us everyday. Some of us might already have made an incredible impact and we won't even see it until heaven.

This is actually immensely good news, very freeing. We need no worldly position, no decades of work, to be Jesus to those around us. We need only a humble and willing spirit.

Graduates, this is not meant to diss your diploma. Congratulations. Really! Enjoy the parties and cards and loved ones and cake. You've earned it. Just guard your hearts against the hype of the season, because some of it is of the world, cleverly disguised. Don't lose sight of the One who showed us what graduation really is.

"For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God." - Hebrews 12:2

Monday, June 2, 2014

Living One Hour at a Time

I'm living one hour at a time right now, and not by choice.

I think God might be finally finished with me living life in the future and not the present, and is giving me live-fire training.

Yoda's words might be applicable here (just imagine God with the funny head-cold voice): "This one, a long time have I watched. All his life he has looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was...what he was doing."

Two Fridays ago was when it started. I'm driving back home for a retreat and, sitting in the Taco Johns' drive-thru (maybe that was my first bad move), I notice with a lurch that my engine temperature gauge has returned to its old pastures of red. Crud. Turns out the radiator's empty. This is a really bad time, radiator.

I park, walk inside, wait for the restroom to clear (the guy seriously took ten minutes), fill up a gallon of water, wait for twenty more minutes so I can safely open the radiator cap, and in the meantime I'm in position to help an old lady get up after she falls on the sidewalk. I fill the radiator with the water. Hard experience at work here. It lasts me just exactly long enough to get past Kalispell and then runs dry again, sending my engine back into overheat.

So there I am, stranded on Highway 2, forty-five miles short of my goal...and its 10pm.

Who to call?

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Fortunately, I realize I'm close to the residence of a good friend, who not only picks me up but actually drives me to the retreat (I'd given up on it)! I burst through the door of the cabin at 11:15pm and get a round of applause from my teammates. Great people.

But I still have to get back to Kalispell the next day, then pick up my car and get back to school!

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

I choose to enjoy the retreat. A teammate winds up leaving early and drives me back. I jump in my car, try the water trick again, and it lasts me just as far as the school.

The following day, me and nine others jump on a plane for the senior trip to Las Vegas (Australia was too expensive), and wouldn't you know - the kids have no idea what they want to do once they get down there. All those fun activities we planned? They're not sure what to do or when. They're not used to the desert heat. They're already tired, already cranky, and everything's fluid.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

So everything starts falling into place, we split up and hit the water parks and malls and movies...everything's going fine. Then, Tuesday afternoon, I walk away from the hotel pool for ten minutes and someone in our party finds her way to a bottle. Comes back to the room tipsy. Great. The student owns up to it, and we agree to make it a "freebie" instead of sending her home, but now I've gotta wonder who it's going to be next time!

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

It doesn't happen again. We have an epic time. I even boldly volunteer for get coaxed onto my first roller coaster. (I'm pretty sure it was simultaneously my last roller coaster.)

Then, standing in the airport to head home after having passed security, we sit down to wait for everyone, and eventually I notice that two of our party are taking a while to get through. A male student and the other chaperone. Turns out he doesn't have adequate ID and won't be allowed on the plane! Great Falls TSA had been kind enough to wave him through, but Vegas won't have it. That makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.

So this student is stuck in Vegas. He's going to need a chaperone to escort him home by bus, from Vegas to Great Falls. And the only gender-chaperone? Yours truly.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Oh, and it's going to be a full day until the bus leaves. So we two skinny white dudes have fifteen hours of either sitting in a dodgy bus station or wandering the ghetto section of Las Vegas.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Oh, and I just remembered - the bag with all my good stuff is already checked and flying to Montana without me, and I may or may not have remembered to get my car keys into it. They're sure not on my person.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Oh, and the car to which those keys pertain? Still wonky and unreliable.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Sigh.

Okay.

So, we sleep. We eat. We wander the block for fifteen hours.We find out that the Greyhound station is actually pretty close to the "old strip" of Vegas, so we get to enjoy some sights that the rest of the team never got around to. Yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition in the most glaring manner possible. The student, appropriately grateful for my companionship (well, what was I gonna do, leave him there?), buys extra gifts for his girlfriend, gets a picture taken in front of that "Pawn Stars" place, and tells me I need a wardrobe and a girlfriend. I tell him he needs some tact.

Finally, we board the bus. More sleep. Not the restful kind, but sleep nonetheless. The Interstate 15 corridor is actually quite scenic. I have some interesting conversations (you meet some real philosophers on buses). Our principal keeps checking in by text, and arranges to have me picked up in Great Falls and driven back to school and my trailer. The student's mother thanks me profusely.

I made it.

I just know God has arranged these last two weeks for me. Little things like the car radiator lasting exactly as long as necessary, or me being in good position to help others or enjoy special things - you can't look at that and see anything but God. A divine stamp on otherwise inscrutable events. He's trying to break old habits in me. Live in the now. Go from Point A to Point B, and don't worry about Point C. I've got you.

And during all of these proceedings, I've been operating without a job (those interviews were a no-go) or living arrangements secured for the next three months. I have no idea what Point C is. I am literally having to live hour to hour.

But you know, it's almost better facing needs rather than desires. At least with needs, you know God's going to come through. Desires...maybe, maybe not. But a plate stacked high with needs is nothing but a challenge for a God who loves challenges. Pile it on, he loves to tackle this stuff.

He delights in taking care of his people.

Oh, and I still don't trust my car.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

Okay, God. I hear ya.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

God is Not a Magic 8-Ball

"Have you been asking God what He is going to do? He will never tell you. God does not tell you what He is going to do— He reveals to you who He is." - Oswald Chambers


So I'm sitting at my desk, slowly eroding a mountain of math papers and waiting for God to do something. You know the feeling. We know we're supposed to be faithful right where we are, but sometimes we're antsy. Urgh, God...what's next?

Especially if you have to change jobs in the next month and you've got applications out in the wind. The anxiety is a constant companion. A nervous, not entirely unpleasant pit in the stomach. I know God's moving. I just don't know where, or when. And I'd really like to know, rather than discouraging silence every day.

Finally, calls start coming in. My applications have been seen. "Are you available to interview next week?"

Sweetest words ever. Immediately, the pit is replaced by excitement.

It only lasts a couple days, but for a little while, I'm stoked. A great vacation from that up-in-the-air feeling. I'm happy just to see even a hint of movement.

And...is that right?

I mean, on one level, sure, I'm only human. This is natural. But on another level, I'm called to greater things.

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" - John 20:29

...were Jesus' words to the doubters. Thomas and I would get along. He was human. He'd been disappointed before. He wanted to believe, as his confession "My Lord and my God!" indicates. He just didn't want his hopes up. He thought he needed more.

I, too, want God to be my magic 8-ball.

You know how it is. We bring our next move to God - "Should I apply to this college? Should I date/marry her? Should I quit my job? Is this all going to work out?" And we sit back and pray in expectation of a response.

Hopefully it's one of the positive responses. "Yes, definitely." "Without a doubt." "You may rely on it." I'll even take the more reserved "Most likely."

Sometimes, a small part of us is content even to hear a negative. "Very doubtful." "Don't count on it." Because at least then we know.

Instead, my interviews are concluded, and I'm back to the waiting and the grading and getting "Ask again later." "Reply hazy, try again." "Better not tell you now."

WHY NOT, GOD??!?!

I mean, the waiting is easy. Heck, I'm an expert in waiting by now. I just want to know how long I'll be waiting, and where I'll be going after that. Then the wait will be easier. A piece of cake.

In other words...godless.

We ask God for a lot of things, and God is generous. But one thing he'll never give us is something that frees us from needing him in the here and now.

This is why God's will is tough to track down sometimes, even for the faithful. It's why he might often leave us hanging for a long time - perhaps until the last minute - for a direction or resolution. As Steven Furtick said, God sometimes makes it "a process of hide and seek - he hides the answer so we'll seek him." We want to know God's calendar and master plan, rather than his heart. There's a difference. Maybe we don't realize what we're doing, but surely we can all admit the relief we feel when God shows us the next step, right? I kinda just want that.

It's not that God doesn't care about my anxiety and uncertainty. In fact, he cares very much. And that's the point. He wants to deal with my anxiety himself, to salve it himself - not with answers or direction, but with himself. With his presence. By teaching me, through his word, that he's attentive and involved and powerful.

I don't say this lightly. God isn't a harsh teacher who plays mind games. We're not talking about Calvin's dad here, someone who makes his kid take the hardest way possible because it "builds character". Delayed directions can be excruciating, and our heart is understandably bound up in them. God knows that.

But, at the same time...I need character. I need to know God. And before the go/no-go arrives, he wants to show me just how wonderful his presence is.

Hopefully, my wait will be over today. Maybe even by the time you read this. I just hope that God has found me faithful during this time to hear well the one thing I know God wants me to hear: "Let me care about your heart. Don't rely on some circumstance to reassure it. Bring it to me."

That is always his line.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thanks, Mom!

I was at a Christian retreat in Colorado a few months back. There's a lot of teaching on identity, healing, restoration, and discipleship for men specifically. It's one of those functions that tends to have a tremendous spiritual and emotional impact on those who attend. Many men end up weeping. In front of other men. That ought to tell you something about how God moves there.

This time, the folks who host these retreats tried a new lesson they'd never tried  It was about mothers. It was a bit of a double-take for us, because a lot of these talks discuss the role and power of our fathers, and the profound way they shape us and build us up. But this time it was about moms, who possess a power and influence all their own that can't be ignored - for good or for ill.

Sure enough, God was there. Through the words of the gracious woman speaking to us, he got through to a lot of guys that night, spoke healing to difficult pasts with mothers, to abandonments and harsh words and broken hearts. Once again, we had a roomful of bowed heads, open sniffling, spectacles coming off and handkerchiefs coming out. Totally a God thing.

I believe God wants to speak to our pasts and offer restoration of our hearts.

But that's not what I want to talk about here. During that powerful talk on mothers, I was sitting back in my chair and just listening. Not weeping. Not even sniffling. Feeling pretty good about things. For that particular talk didn't really apply to me.

Because I have an awesome mom.

Thanks, Mom, for always telling me I could achieve whatever I wanted.

Thanks, Mom, for raising me to be honest.

Thanks, Mom, for getting me into martial arts and not letting me quit.

Thanks, Mom, for working your heart out to schedule my lessons, correct my papers, and force me to redo the tough parts (some of you have no idea how much work and sacrifice is involved in homeschooling).

Thanks, Mom, for letting me vent stupidly over the phone all these years.

Thanks, Mom, for showing me how to organize my important papers into a nice, neat portfolio.

Thanks, Mom, for postponing the final collapse of culture by teaching me to write in cursive.

Thanks, Mom, for birthing me in the first place.

Thanks, Mom, for supporting my enlistment in the Air Force even though it meant we'd be far apart.

Thanks, Mom, for the emergency loans. I swear on my mother's gra....um, on my personal honor that I'll finish paying them off soon.

Thanks, Mom, for the piano lessons. I may have fought you every step of the way, and I may have ended up on the guitar anyway, but music lessons are music lessons. Now I'm a worship leader.

Thanks, Mom, for always reminding me that my brother and I would end up needing each other. You were right.

Thanks, Mom, for not killing me.

Thanks, Mom, for buying us a pony when we were younger. I wish I'd been willing to learn to ride.

Thanks, Mom, for paying for my massive orthodontia, for letting me stay up late during those first few nights with headgear and buying me Star Trek: Deep Space Nine action figures.

Thanks, Mom, for getting me into youth group at the time when meeting new people was right up there with death by measles on my personal wish list.

Thanks, Mom, for not letting me get a Super Nintendo and devolve into a vidiot until I was old enough to handle it.

Thanks, Mom, for making me read constantly.

Thanks, Mom, for constantly telling me how proud you are.

Thanks, Mom, for the bandaids and the hugs and the fair visits and the iPods and the people advice and the teacher conferences and the birthday money and the good cooking and the Uno games and the millions of things neither of us remember anymore and only God remembers. I hope he puts them all down on a list when we finally join him in heaven. It'll take a significant chunk of eternity to go over them all.

Love you, Mom.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The flower God gave me yesterday

Yeah, I know. Between this and the kitten last Monday, I'm starting to question my masculinity in these blog posts. But I just had to share this.

I started (or tried to start) a little hashtag campaign last week called #stretchouteaster. The idea was to take the promises of Easter - resurrection and hope and life - beyond just the one calendar weekend. I want to remember them. I want to stay restored at all times. When Jesus spoke of "remaining in him" in John 15, he didn't seem to be referring to an occasional state. He meant all the time.

The hashtag wasn't repeated. I didn't mind. At this stage in my blogging career (i.e. the embryonic stage), I'm just kinda trying stuff. Who knows what will catch on. The real bugger was that, sure enough, I was already starting to lose my sense of the Resurrection. The grind and the normal were catching up. Back to business as usual.

Last night, I was taking a stroll behind the school sorting things out in prayer. I was anxious. I knew I shouldn't be. The sun had set but was still catching the wisps of cirrus over the plains, filling the sky with streaks of fierce gold in the west and sullen purple in the east.

I found a hillside I hadn't explored before, covered with smooth green grass like a carpet...and it was dotted with these ornate little flowers. Lavender sepals closing up for the evening, concealing bright golden heads, echoing the colors of the sky. A spot of beauty amongst the litter that covers portions of the town.

Immediately I thought of Solomon.

Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? - Matthew 6:28-29

I tried to kinda crowd out of my mind the real ending of that verse, "...you of little faith!", but it stuck. Okay. I'm worried. I need to let go. The point of prayer is to find the heart of God. I picked a flower and carried it around as I prayed, reminding myself out loud that he is a good and kind Father, and he knows my needs.

After the amen, I went inside and dived into Google to identify the flower.

Pulsatilla patens.

Commonly known as the Pasque flower or...the Easter flower.

A wink from God. I grinned.

God's stretching out Easter for me.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Choosing Joy, Joy, Joy

They say ministry is a two-way street. They aren't kidding.

Recently God got to me through a blog post from a student in my youth group. Excellent and winsome piece, about choosing joy - both for your own sanity and that of those around you. (You know what they say about love - it's not a feeling but a choice. Same with joy.)

Already feeling vaguely busted, I scroll down and see that she ended the post with a link to the Rend Collective song "Joy". Hmm...never heard that particular band before. A lot of you just fell out of your chairs. Yeah, and I don't really enjoy The Fray, Shane and Shane, or Dave Matthews either. I just alienated most of the planet in one fell swoop. Mwahahaha.

Anyway, I give the song a whirl - it's fast, catchy rhythm, its whimsical banjo notes, its raucous whoa-oa-oas (something I usually avoid whenever I pick out songs for church worship because, well, we're Baptists) and its refrain of "joy, joy, joy!"

And immediately, I'm of two minds.

Part of me goes "Wow...living in joy? All the time? As a choice? That...would be great!"

The other part of me goes, "Ugh. This song is positively too happy. This is for those free spirits who are always skipping around singing about kittens and stuff."

I've spent many years grappling with big questions. Why does a loving God allow suffering. Where is the beauty in the ashes. What is God teaching us in the difficult times. How do we handle hope. A part of me sometimes feels older than it should.

Not that these questions aren't worthwhile, even necessary in their time. But I'd allowed them to occupy a pretty big chunk of my life's thoughts. I just think deep. It's my bent. And my current mission - teaching at a reservation school - naturally does little to drive these questions away.

I'd kinda come to the feeling that the right posture towards life should be one of grim determination - to fight in Jesus' name, to trust him to do big things, to take up my cross. Always a cause to follow, always a sin to forsake. It sounds holy, at least, right? And realistic. Life in the kingdom is certainly not peaches and cream all the time.

So when I hear "joy, joy, joy", something unfiltered in me goes, "C'mon, God. Banjos? I'm not a kid. Reality is bigger than this. I need my heavy."

Well, God had a quick comeback for that.

"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." - Mark 10:15

And the thing about children - they tend to be happier. Less sobriety, more innocence, trust, and joy.

I'm reminded of another song - not a Christian one, but one whose refrain unexpectedly grabbed at me when I first heard it. Some of you younger folk might know this one.

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes
Sayin' hey-yo, gotta let go
I wanna celebrate and live my life


I know. Taio Cruz? Really, Brandon? Go back to K-LOVE. But when I heard the lyric, years ago, I swear God spoke through it. That it had been a long time since my life looked like celebrating and living my life.

And that's insane! I have every reason to celebrate, far more than the guy who wrote that song. Despite being a secular song, it's truer for Christians than anyone else. I have Christ! I have eternal life. When Jesus gave his disciples their final lesson before being crucified, he revealed the purpose of everything he was going to do: to make them one with him and the Father, through the forgiveness of their sins, and then he throws in this...

"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." - John 15:11

For Pete's sake, joy was part of the whole idea behind Jesus' work! This is not supposed to be some glum monastery where people groan over the difficult things and intentionally lie on bare ground when a mattress is available. Jesus wants us to remain in him, and remaining in him means joy.

So...I tried it. Let things go. Listened to that song over and over.

And I had a great weekend. God was so present. We talked about stuff. I surrendered stuff. Peace came. I lifted my head and sang freely during Sunday worship. It makes you want to build a habit out of it.

Let's be intentional about our joy. It's slippery enough as it is. And if you don't have any in your pursuit of Jesus, then something's missing. Find some upbeat music. Plan a night out (or in) with buddies. Watch a sunrise. Call an old friend you haven't heard from in a while. Run around with some little kids. Better yet, ask God what joy he might want to send your way. He wants you to have joy. He keeps bringing me back to it. Amazing how I keep forgetting this. He's a good Father.

Maybe an unbearably cute kitten would do me some good!




(P.S. I had literally just posted this when someone else on Facebook posted a video of Natalie Grant's "In the End", featuring...yep...banjos. God's here.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stretching Out Easter

No, no, no, no. Don't do that. Don't let Easter slip away. You're already doing it. Stop.

We have to remember.

Can it be Easter every Sunday, please? Such great victory remembered, such great promises recalled, such great hope renewed. Friday is a day of death and mourning, Saturday a day of longing and struggling to remember promises...then Sunday breaks on a new era of triumph and hope. Jesus Christ wins, and we with him. We get our jampacked Easter service with a full band and ham slices afterwards, and it helps drive home the extraordinary truths driving this day. Our spirits are lifted out of the grind. I don't want to forget all that.

Then Monday comes and it threatens to slip away.

We roll out of bed, we grope for our coffee (I pride myself on my independence from coffee, but it's not like I feel any better for it), we stagger out the door on the way to our jobs, and our inner Garfield is already groaning. The grind is already trying to reassert itself. Heck, the candy-and-rabbits stuff is easier to remember because there's physical reminders of it lying all over the counter.

The good news can easily wind up on the back burner as we revert to "normal".

Think I exaggerate? It's said that the Sunday after Easter is the year's most thinly attended church service.

That's the funny thing about a holiday...we pick one day to celebrate something that should be celebrated for all three hundred sixty-five. And Easter is the greatest holiday. It tells of the hope that can get us through any day.

I want to see how long I can stretch out this Easter. I don't want this passion weekend to be one mountaintop experience that stands out amongst a bunch of mediocre months.

Jesus seems to want more than that for us. Even after news of his resurrection was out, he had to go after the disciples and practically pull them out of the fishing boats to which they'd returned. The grind had tried to reassert itself.

Jesus didn't want Monday to crowd out Sunday. And he's not talking about forcing ourselves to sustain high emotion. He's simply talking about remembering the truths that can sustain us.

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." - 1 Peter 3:15

We've also got Scriptures lying around, waiting to be studied and recalled, far longer-lasting than all those leftover malt eggs. Streteching out Easter is that simple. These truths are meant to be our constant companion every day, our source of hope, the things that get us out of bed. They're not just reserved for Easter Sunday. They're literally our daily bread.

I refuse to let Monday make me forget Sunday.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Hits We're Taking and the Heart We Must Take

I've been making a conscious effort NOT to let my life sound all tragic on this blog. Nobody wants to read that. More importantly, it's not true. Every month this year, I find greater joy every time I go looking.

But it has to be said this week: We've been taking rather a lot of hits lately.

My church specifically has seen a slew of illnesses. Lost homes. Lost jobs. Marriages in crisis. And just some really weird, out-of-left-field stuff.

My church isn't the only one, either. I was talking to a friend in another state whose church is experiencing an unusual wave of sickness and hospital visits. Others are seeing stepped-up criticism and accusation, others are closing, others are fighting the spread of sinful agendas.

It's been one of those months. And it seems to be happening everywhere.

I've read that much of this has to do with the nearness of Easter. Satan hates Easter. Of course he does - it's his Waterloo. He lost it all that day. And so every Easter, his hatred of the saints makes the rounds. Death, destruction, stealing, killing, and destroying. Kind of a seasonal thing in the spiritual realm.

And some of it simply comes from being God's children. Crisis comes with the territory. Satan will often inflict suffering upon us just to try and turn our hearts against God. Kill our fire. Discourage us. Blame him for what he allowed to happen.

So I have two responses to it.

I can either let this define me - yes, life is sorrow and just hard, let's settle in for more - or I can do what Jesus said.

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - John 16:33

Take heart. Take it. Implying that it won't come naturally, won't just show up because we want it to. Our joy and peace, part of our inheritance and amongst the brightest treasures that God offers, is opposed. It's something we must fight for.

But it can be won. Greater is he who is in us, than he who is in the world. I'm not supposed to feel buried by this stuff. And when we do choose the grace and comfort of Christ...it's such a great place to be. All else fades away.

Translations other than the NIV have Jesus saying "Take courage!". That implies resistance. No need for courage otherwise. But he wouldn't be telling me to do this if it were impossible. It involves my will; it involves my belief in God's ability to make beautiful things out of this dust. But he has overcome. I just have to make my stand in his overcoming.

The more hits we take, the more heart we must take. Remain in Jesus this week. Only there can we find that peace. It's a great place to be.

Greater is he who is in us, no matter the season. Greater is he who is in us.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How Jesus Came for Me on Wednesday

I've had a great week with God.

Last Tuesday night, I found myself praying for Jesus to just come. Not in any specific way, not with any specific answer to prayer. I just asked for more of him. However he might come.

I went about the next day. Classes went all right. I noticed that my sixth period Algebra II class was sharp and attentive for once. They latched onto the lesson quickly and with good readiness for the next one. It was pleasant to think that the school week would end early (no school Friday due to prom preparations). I looked forward to tackling the monolithic tower of papers on my desk, getting it finished early.

As I sat in my classroom after hours, I glanced outside for what felt the first time in months. It was 7:30. The sun hadn't set, and the snow had vanished from the hillside since that morning. I felt beckoned to walk outside for a tick, see how the world was doing.

I was bowled over.

Spring had arrived.

Those spotty rainstorms that announce the arrival of spring, turn the sky into a dense maze of clear azure and towering black? They they were, suspended and threaded across the azure sky. Wispy smears of gray and white hung towards the ground, as if they longed to scatter their rain on the brown plains as they drifted eastward, slowly but surely.

The air was cool and moist, with just the hint of a breeze. The scent of the miniature pines drifted down from the nearby hill. The crows were calling back and forth over the distant whisper of wind - the open sound of "outdoors", unmuffled by snow.

On the east horizon, billowing pink and orange thunderheads like ramparts. Which are they doing - hemming me in with their lofty walls, or inviting me to come under their dark, dramatic world? Can't decide.

The setting sun warmed me enough to stay outside without a coat - and at the same time, threw the world into shadow. Every little hill, every ridge, every house and structure and tree called out by its shadow, the dimming light fading just enough to bring all the rest of the world into sharp relief. Golden prairie against green swaths of tree, the color of the village, all so three-dimensional and deep and there like only twilight can reveal. I could almost reach out and touch it from the hillside.

I knew it was God. He knows this delights me.

To smell and feel and hear the world in its slow motion return to life in spring...to behold the rainstorms sprawling overhead as they tussle with the sky for dominance...to see the texture and coolness and enormous depth of Montana at twilight...nothing beats that for me. He knew that.

I felt humbled, too. There's a small part of me that gets tweaked when someone tells me to look for joy in "the little things", or advice like that. It's good advice, don't get me wrong. But sometimes I feel I'm being asked to pretend the big stuff doesn't matter. It's too big. I've got kids coming to school with one hoodie and I can tell they haven't been able to wash it in months, and you want me to stop and smell the roses?

But I asked Jesus to come, and you know what? He gets me. He knows what I love. He knows how to get around my burdens. He knows how to push my "joy buttons". The spring rainstorms hint at the rest to come, feeling so expectant.

Just what I needed.

The difficult things are there, but they're not oour reality. Get out of the dark classroom for a minute. God's outside. His good earth, his slow but sure motion, and his coming summer are our reality.

Just ask Jesus to come. Don't underestimate his ability to sustain you.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I'm Already Home

Enough of the "far away from home" life.

It's an easy trap to fall into, considering I am away from home in a way. I'm not currently living in the town I call home, not able to see my family or friends often. In fact, I live thirty miles from the nearest gas station. My life right now very much bears the stamp of an extended mission.

I've been on my knees frequently for the past month or so, praying for a handful of things that are close to my heart. There are a few friends I've been lifting up. I pray daily, multiple times a day, for the salvation of my students. I think often of my mom and brother on the coast, asking for blessings on them. Most relevant to today's rambling blog entry, I'm hankering hard for a job closer to where I do call home.

Now this isn't the only content of my prayers. I make sure to include loads of thankfulness, loads of truth from Scripture about who I am in Christ. That precedes everything. Balance. But my requests of God are still near to my heart and still very potent.

It's easy to wind up in a place where you see life as "over there", and not right here.

Once I get THERE, everything will be better.

Once God moves in THIS, things will look up.

Once he gives me THIS thing, I'll be content.

Rarely do we intend to wind up thinking like this. It just sorta happens. The things for which you're praying tend to gradually swell if you're not watching, make claims on your mind you hadn't planned. We tend to subtly shift the definition of what we're looking to as "home". The parameters of "what will bring my heart joy and peace" keep trying to shift sideways on us like a crab.

I have to constantly remind myself of where my home truly lies...and it's not far away at all.

"The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." - Psalm 18:2

My true home is God.

And God is right here through the indwelling Christ.

I'm not far away from home at all. I'm already there.

No gift, no achievement, no change in circumstances or calling, no blessing is the ultimate goal - but Jesus is already here with me. He's waiting for me when I go home at night. He's at work with me too. He's my counselor, my comforter, my strength, and my guide. He offers his ear, his peace, his wisdom, and his presence.

Maybe that sounds all corny and religious to you. Trust me, it's not. Peace is amazing. Confidence in his nearness is a treasure.

It's not that my desires are unimportant to God. They may come. But reaching those things is not "arriving". When I find blessing and victory, he'll be the true joy of it. And when I'm waiting, or when I experience loss, he'll be the rock that steadies me.

Still, I have a lot further to go. Paul says "as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord." So I have an even homier home waiting for me, towards which the pilgrimage of my life reaches. But Scripture has made clear that my life in God has already begun, even now on this earth. Even now, I have access to the throne. Even though I still see through a mirror dimly, what Christ offers through that mirror is still longer-lasting and more sure than anything else. That's how powerful his grace is.

I don't have to feel like a stranded malcontent while I wait and see about those other things. Jesus is right here. I'm already home.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

He's Noticed Your Deeds

I dig my church. I get love, teaching from the Bible, and no-punches-pulled exhortation to live my life well for Christ. I wouldn't have it any other way.

But I've found the enemy has a strategy for a lot of things and a lot of situations. He likes to put his spin on things. What he pulls with me (disclaimer: this is not the church's fault) when I listen to sermons at my church is this:

You're not doing good enough. There's always something else for you to work on. God's never satisfied with anything you do.

It's not exactly words, just like a vague feeling. The bugger is that it's true that there's always something for me to work on. Pursuit of Christ is a constant striving. The apostle Paul keeps calling it a race. We're never perfect.

But the strongest lies always have a grain of truth in them. We work, we serve, we fight, and it gets exhausting. Maybe we grew up in critical homes or we're just the self-critical kind of person - sometimes that vague accusation creeps up. God never notices what I do. It doesn't matter, certainly doesn't stack up next to my failures. Isn't it more spiritual to just zero in solely on my shortcomings?

Some people get sick of this feeling and leave good churches. Others just wind up mired in inadequacy before a God who made us more than adequate through his Son, Jesus.

Then you read Revelation.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." - Revelation 2:1-3

Those are some pretty big compliments, and they come from God himself.

I read this and something in me sighs with relief. God notices!

God looks down on the Ephesians, sees the hard battles they've fought, sees how they've clung to the truth in the face of hardship, and lets them know he's pleased. He treasures their deeds enough to record them for all time in the Bible.

And it's not like he's calling them perfect. He spends the next three verses handing down a dire warning about their diminishing passion.

But read through Revelation chapters 2 and 3 some time. God speaks through letters to six other churches besides Ephesus, and most of the time he opens with praise. It's a pattern. He wants his people to know that he's seen their deeds.

And he's seen yours. Nothing good you've done goes unnoticed. When we arrive before the throne, he'll remember a lot more than we have.

You. Yeah, you. You're doing great. If you're hanging in there and living well for Christ, he's noticed and he's going to reward you for it. I hope that gets your Monday off to a good start.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

These are the Tunes of the Kingdom

I don't have anything terribly original today.

About a year ago, I was driving through the mountain passes at 11pm, and my mood was as black as the sky. Things were not going well at work, and I was discouraged. The radio was set to KLOVE, and the comforting and encouraging songs were what I was after. But at one point, some song came on (I don't remember which one) that was just straight-up joyful and happy. A little too happy. It wasn't sympathetic and low-key like I was looking for.

I spun the knob and turned the radio off for that song. That doesn't match my mood, I harrumphed at God. Can't you see I'm frustrated here?

Unexpectedly, I heard God respond: These are the tunes of my kingdom.

I turned the song back on. It lifted me out of the dumps a bit, reminded me of what I'm really a part of. I'm part of a kingdom that isn't about...whatever I'm about at the moment. It's about victory and redemption. It's much bigger than me and my challenges.

God wasn't dismissing my emotional state. Not at all. He knew I was struggling, and he was meeting me there. It's just that when you spend long enough focusing on your troubles, sometimes you slip into self-pity. You rarely see when you cross that border; you just look around and realize you're there. We end up expecting God to attend our pity party and forget that we have an invite to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." - Romans 8:18

Sometimes we need our struggles to be acknowledged and addressed by God, and then sometimes we just need to punch it in the mouth with perspective. I love how disruptive God is sometimes. It's just what I need.

So this morning, if you're annoyed with things and expecting God to just keep hanging out with you there, here's a song perfectly calculated to get on your nerves. I personally haven't been able to get it out of my head for a month. Try it out this morning. It's a tune of the kingdom.



Sunday, March 9, 2014

I Hate Winter

I hate winter.

Sorry, winter fans. I'm finished with it. I was finished with it three months ago. Forget the frozen pipes and the hairy roads. My style is so cramped by the perpetual cold hands and the stiffness of the muscles. I don't enjoy the brownness of the earth, the gray skies, or my inability to smell anything. Some people feel more alive in the crispness of winter air, but for me it's the opposite. Winter is a season of dead. Give me one month to go snowboarding and make Christmas look right, and then we can be done. (Coming up at eleven: What my car thinks of winter - uncensored!)

What a relief that daylight savings time is here. Once the echoing void of galactic darkness starting at 4:30pm is behind us, it feels like planet Earth again. It feels like spring. A good friend once said, "it feels hopeful." I can say with confidence that I'm not made for winter. I'm a warm weather guy. Living...in...umm...Montana. Because that makes perfect sense.

And yet...it's a good thing winter comes.

The two previous winters have been pretty friendly to me - relatively warm, dry, and short, without too many cold snaps or treacherous roads. (That went spectacularly out the window this year.) And both times I've gone through such winters, I've felt a sneaky kind of glee. Glee because the winter doesn't get in the way too much, doesn't inconvenience me as much, doesn't last as long as it could.

And sneaky because I feel...kinda guilty, I guess? Because I know that every snowstorm could be a good thing. Necessary, even. It might melt and drench the high country, prevent future forest fires. It might raise the water levels in our lakes and rivers for the summer, benefit wildlife. It might insulate winter wheat from the lethal cold.

I want this blasted season to end, but I know full well there's a good reason for it.

"Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." - James 1:4

A season must accomplish its purpose.

Something in the childish part of me sinks and goes "Ehhh, great." I wish I had an easier time appreciating God's offer of growth. I have to force myself to do so. We've all got our winters. Unanswered prayer, waiting, sometimes from God's hand, sometimes now. And when I'm bare-white-knuckling my steering wheel just to keep from skidding off the straight and narrow - well, hang the rules, I just want spring to come.

But what if that maturity and completion could be a really good thing? 

What if it watered and preserved life for me later down the road? God's looking out for me. He wants me to be able to enjoy blessings and pass trials coming later on. I'm gonna need maturity to do either. I remember the fall of 2007, when the fires were so numerous and the smoke was so thick that hiking in Jewel Basin was a raspy chore and you couldn't see more than three blocks downtown. 

I don't want that in my life. It's back to the ol' "pay now or pay later" decision. God offers to irrigate my character and preserve me for great things later. 

I may be sitting here and eagerly watching the snow line creep back up the mountains every single day, and I know God doesn't begrudge me my eagerness. But he's got a spiritual water cycle that I'm really going to be grateful for later on.

So I'll persevere.

I just hope God helps me fix my windshield wipers. I think I yanked one of them out of alignment trying to thaw it the other day, stupid thing.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Difficult Week Ahead

I've lost something dear to me this season.

The loss is yet very close to me, so I will keep the details to myself. But it now looks thoroughly, irrevocably gone. It was something about which I'd prayed long and hard, had others rooting and praying, really felt God was moving. Now I don't know. I may never know the mysteries of all that now. I won't try to sort it out; that just gets you tied up in knots.

But the disappointment is real. It's not the worst that one could imagine - I know many folks whose trials make this pale in comparison. But it's real for me. (And it does not help that it's twenty below outside and my pipes are frozen.)

I want to do something a respected mentor and friend of mine did recently in a loss of her own: she asked others to "be sad with her". Seems like a small detail, but I admired her for asking. Many of us are fearful to ask that much of others. I sure am. But God's grace should be sought in every corner it can be found - including his church.

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." - Romans 12:15

So...I'm just gonna say it. I need love this week. (Heck, we need it every week.) I need friendship. I need a little hope and encouragement. Save your strongest prayers for those undergoing true trials unto death, of course...but even so, pray for me a little this week, if you'd be so kind.

I didn't get what I hoped for. But you want to know the miracle I DID get?

I know exactly how this would have felt just two years ago. Honestly, it would have been dark. I was in a difficult place. I'd felt abandoned and unheard by God for a long time. The disappointments and challenges of life were feeling like rejections on his part. Back then, something like this would have been an enormous weight, an intense despondency. It would really, truly have challenged my faith.

Now...lightness. Stillness. Tears within a calmed soul.

The hurt is still present, mind you. But something inside just knows God is here. It knows. It's not worried. The tears come and go, and I'll probably remain tender for a little while. But no despair has taken root. No discouragement has clamped on.

I know what this is. Something deep down has been healed.

"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." - Psalm 147:3

For months now, I've been forcing myself to confess what I know to be true of God, out loud, when I pray and meditate. To challenge those unspoken lies that accumulate in the soul like mildew. It changes you. It shifts you deep down, carries power with it, renews your mind. There's zero power in praying to a Jehovah that doesn't exist...a distant one, an uncaring one, a powerless one, however the lies of loss, of religion, and of the world have painted him for you.

And now I'm seeing the work that truth has accomplished. It's night and day.

I still have questions. Where is God in this? What can be learned here? What does this mean for the future? But...they're just questions. There's no fear or grimness in them anymore.

God puts us back together. He binds up our wounds. And, like any wound requires, he then strengthens those parts of us so that they bear a load. What an incredible promise, even more than his perfect comfort. This is the life he offers.

Mourn with those who mourn this week. But there is something for which to rejoice as well.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus Courtside


Our girls' basketball team just had a pretty brutal ending to the season.

After nailing their first playoff game, sloppy play caught up to our girls in the second. The star player fouled out by the third quarter; two others would follow. You could tell the moment they started playing panicky: their shots became wild, turning the ball over, losing discipline and making more fouls. A downward spiral.

By the fourth quarter, we were putting in eighth graders (this is a rural district, so not a deep roster) as we staggered to a 73-34 loss and the end of our tournament hopes.

As defeats go, this kind is the worst to take, especially for our senior playing her last high school game. There were a lot of tears on our bench. I wanted to run over there and comfort them, but exhausted athletes in the midst of loss are tough to console.

But that wasn't what bugged me the most. What really got to me was that the other teachers left the stands and went home before the fourth quarter even started.

I understand wanting to get an early start heading home (we could see the loss coming, and it was an hour's drive back to our community). But earlier on in the season, I'd walked out of a home game when our girls got behind in overtime, and they came back to win. I had to face those girls in my geometry class the next Monday. And today their bench was facing the stands where I sat, so if I left, they'd see me. I wasn't about to repeat the same mistake.

That evening, a lot of that sloppy play reared its head again, and a few folks in our crowd didn't handle it well. They booed and mocked the refs openly. I honestly don't know enough about basketball to tell whether the calls were legit, but others in the crowd sure didn't think so.

That night, one of the teachers said this: "I left because I didn't want to be seen as part of that crowd."

I was reminded of how a couple of teachers had made a point of skipping boys' games last season because of the way a couple of them played - really ugly technical fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct. And the teachers had told the students exactly why: "Right now I'm embarrassed to be associated with this school."

That night, as our girls' team started losing their nerve on the court and the teachers got up to leave, I stayed in my seat. I'd been hit with a thought that kept me riveted there until time ran out.

"I'm glad Jesus doesn't leave when I start sucking."

I've been out there on the court of life for thirty years, playing for God's team, and I don't have the stat line I wish I did. I've made some bad errors. I've screwed up all kinds of plays. I've had missed opportunities, meltdowns, fights with my teammates, you name it. (And don't think that God is "more pleased" with mine just because they're not the "big ones" of the Ten Commandments - that's not how it works.) So many points left on the court, so many plays I've taken off. I think I've done better in the last few years under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but I've had those moments that make people wonder, "This is the church?"

But Jesus has never left the arena.

"For the joy set before him he (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." - Hebrews 12:2

Jesus wasn't worried about his image when he came to rescue us. He wasn't stopped by the humiliation of the flogging, the cross, or the ridiculous ways we would twist and ignore his teachings. He got right in there and took it on the chin for us. He was willing to be seen with us. In fact, he insists on it.

"Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters." - Hebrews 2:11

Wow - God makes us family.

Goodness knows that we, God's people, have tanked it over and over. But God isn't leaving. He has fiercely fought for our souls and our hearts. He has made a commitment to sticking it out until the fourth quarter, right up until time on the clock runs out. And in our sin and our errors, instead of walking out, he walks right up to us on the bench, comforts us, and encourages us for the next game. He will never leave, for he has already taken our shame away.

God is not embarrassed to root for you. He is not ashamed to call you his own, as long as you have called him your savior. You can never sin badly enough to drive him from the arena shaking his head, because Jesus has already paid for it.

So hold your head up and start prepping for the next game. He'll be there.

And if you keep playing your heart out for him, you're gonna start winning games.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hope, the Seahawks, and the Son of God

Two weeks ago, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks. MY TEAM. It still hasn't quite sunk in. For two whole weeks, "whatever, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl" has been my answer for everything that goes wrong. It's surreal!

But if I'd predicted four years ago that the Seattle Seahawks would be winning the Super Bowl, even the most rabid fan would have cast me a skeptical look.

You have to know the Seahawks of the last few years to understand how it feels. I'm no fairweather fan. I complimented a guy for his Seahawks jersey the other day and heard someone else mutter "bandwagoner". I turned straight to the guy with a big smile and said "Hey dude...I stuck it out through 2009." I've earned my status as a faithful fan, trust me.

For the uninitiated now going "Ohh great, he's about to start talking football", I'll keep it simple. By the end of the 2008 season, the Seahawks were in bad shape. They'd finished with a 4-12 record, the league's fourth worst team. This was a relatively young team, a baby of the seventies and not one of the classic teams from the baby boom era, and one that had suffered many years of indignity and loss (aka the nineties). Our only Super Bowl appearance in 2005 - well, just ask any fan about that one. For the Seattle faithful, defeat and artful cynicism were a way of life.

"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and your sins." (Ephesians 2:1)

But optimistic fans looked at the previous five seasons, all of which saw Seattle reaching the playoffs and even the Super Bowl, and hoped that 2008 was just an aberration. An off year. They blamed it on the spate of injuries (there were quite a few) and a coach who was retiring. They believed that with a couple good strong players from the draft, and a good performance from the new coach - who had been groomed under the same administration that got us to the Super Bowl - we could regain our playoff form.

Football fans. We're a hopeless gaggle of blind hope.

2009 was an even greater disaster. Despite finishing with five wins instead of four, the Seahawks were awful. It was apparent that our problems ran deeper than injuries. That team that almost won it all in 2005 had simply gotten old. The quarterback needed replacing. The star linebacker we'd drafted didn't last two years with the team. The defense turned out to be worse than we'd thought, exposed by a tougher schedule. So much for reclaiming glory.

"With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last." (Mark 15:37)

It was bad. The team was left with a mix of over-the-hill veterans and mediocre rookies. It was all a shambles, without direction and with an inscrutable future. Years of rebuilding appeared to be in order, and judging from the Cleveland Browns and their perpetual state of rebuilding, that's no ray of hope.

If there was a championship ahead any time soon, Seattle fans at the end of 2009 couldn't see it.

"And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow." (Luke 23:48 NLT)

But then a new coach and GM got a hold of the team, and things started happening. We fans didn't understand at first. Roster moves started happening at a lightning pace. Fan favorites and roster bright spots were traded. Criticism started up immediately. I was among them. I didn't see how cutting our few standout players would help. Oddly enough, they didn't seem to care. They just kept working, doing their thing.

And within three years, the team was utterly transformed. New quarterback, legendary defense, a reputation for physicality and winning the toughest games. In just a few short seasons, far sooner than anyone expected, the Seahawks went from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap. We won the Super Bowl. We DOMINATED the Super Bowl. Despite all the pop stars and movie actors who said we they wouldn't.

"...you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said." (Matthew 28:5-6)

Now we're the envy of the league. Our defense (the "Legion of Boom") is spoken of in the same breath as the legendary NFL defenses of the seventies. Other teams are starting to mimic our drafting strategy. Our roster cuts land starting jobs elsewhere. Not only did we win the big game, we're on top of the league in almost every conceivable category. It's dizzying.

"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins...he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities (of evil), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." (Colossians 2:13-15)

Championship.

Okay, so the Seahawks really aren't that big a matter. I know some of us almost make football a religion, but honestly, who knows if the Seahawks will even repeat. Their coaches are not God and Peyton Manning is not an authority of evil. It's a metaphor, and a loose one at that.

But if you've seen the bewildered delight of a Seahawks fan lately, you might be able to understand the joy of a Christian. Or at least a tenth of it. Maybe.

You see, in the same way that the Seahawks made a startling turnaround in almost no time at all (in NFL terms), God pulled a 180 in the story of the world. No one quite knows how. The method was completely unexpected for everyone standing there watching the crucifixion. But it worked. Where darkness had reigned, now there was light. Where sin had obscured God from mankind, there was now freedom and reconciliation. Where it looked for three days like Jesus Christ would be killed and thwarted from his goal, he would instead defy death in both himself and in us.

He rose again to offer us life. It's the sweetest 'W' I've ever experienced.

To those I'm welcoming here who used to follow my Seahawks blog (what a waste of time, guys), I want to say this in the instant I have your attention:

Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is my Savior, my redeemer, and the friend of anyone who will welcome him. He is a healer, a rescuer, a teacher, an advocate, a comforter, a counselor, and a guide. He mends broken lives. He brings justice to the oppressed. He has concern for the poor. He is a companion to the rejected. And he offers hope - the only hope possible - for all mankind.

And if you have never seen him in this way - well, coming from one who has known him, he is better than you think. I can testify to that. I invite you to follow along on this blog as I do my best to relay who he really is. I'll even challenge you to suspend some of the things you might have heard about him secondhand from the world, or about the Bible that tells us of him. All I ask is that we be courteous and open-minded here. I'm convinced you won't regret it.

For those of you who do know Jesus, live it up! We have the victory. We have reason to celebrate.

And although the Seahawks may or may not repeat next year, you know Jesus has an even greater victory on the way. No fluke championships here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

For You, but Not for Me?

My Bible study friends and I were sitting down and doing a spiritual gifts survey last Thursday. It involved a self-grading (and long) series of questions that asked us to answer on a scale of 1 ("almost never true") to 5 ("almost always true") for how well a statement applied to us.

An example: "1. When I hear evangelistic messages, I pray for people who don't know Christ", with that question and several others intended to evaluate whether you might possess the gift of evangelism. In case you're wondering, I put down a 4 here.

So we were running through the list of questions, occasionally dropping wry comments about how we were not good at certain gifts. Don't ask me to administrate anything; I jotted down a 1 every time I saw the word "organize". We had a great and encouraging time - "oh, yeah, it makes sense that you might have that gift!" "Wow, my results sure changed from the last time I took this."

But as I progressed through the list, I felt ambushed by the Holy Spirit on something that the survey might or might not have intended to point out. I read these questions in quick succession:
9. "For me, it's easy to trust God for the impossible."

10. "I frequently find myself encouraging the troubled, comforting the distressed, and reassuring the wavering."
For question ten, I put down a five. But for the one for before it, after thinking long and honestly for about a minute, I put down a three.

On the next page, it happened again:
41. "I commit difficulties obstacles to God in prayer and am not anxious about His answering those prayers."

57. "I regularly attempt to motivate others to believe God in difficult or impossible situations."
For question fifty-seven, I again put down a five without needing to think. But question forty-one, this time I could only manage a two.

When it's other people's faith we're talking about, it's a slam dunk. I find it so easy to believe in God's goodness, his power, and his ability to come through - as long as it's in others' lives and the challenges they're facing there. I could go on all day about how God is the perfect object of faith for them. I've got awesome confidence in that.

But when I find myself asking whether I believe the same things for my own life? Pretty shaky. I'm lucky to get a three.

Sure enough, when I reached the self-grading end of the survey, the spiritual gift of exhortation - encouraging others' faith and spirit - was tied for my highest. But on faith, which I interpreted as God carrying out his promises in my own life? I'm sad to say that with the exception of administration, I scored second lowest on faith.


What an eye-opener.

And I know I'm not alone in this. Why is it always simpler to believe in God's presence and faithfulness towards others than for our own? It's a condition that can so easily sneak into our consciousness.

I could just say "Well, I need to cultivate that spiritual gift more" and that's probably true. It's only a survey. And it's easier to believe the truth when you don't have as much at stake, as is the case when you're trying to help your friends. Can't see the forest for the trees and all that.

But I can't ignore the truth of those particular contrasting questions. Maybe it's also because I know my story. I've seen a lot of moments where, for whatever reason, I have failed or fallen short or lost out. I know of a lot more such moments in my life than in others', whose story I've seen only a glimpse. We know our landscape of faith, countless little moments, better than anyone else could.

I don't know where God was in those times, but I know how the enemy wants to spin it. "You can't trust him. He's not going to come through, just like last time." It seems so much more real and immediate when it's my life on the line.

Thanks to a spiritual gift survey last Thursday, I'm reminded yet again of this lie in my life.
"He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" - Romans 8:32
If it applies to others, it applies in equal measure to me. All the enthusiasm that you hold for God's power in the lives of those around you? That's for you as well. Jesus died and was resurrected to give you the same life he gave others, the same status as favored children in his kingdom that he gave to others. It's a fact.




Imagine if we could have the same confidence for ourselves that we have for others.

Thank you, Jesus, for your love and your faithfulness. Help me with my unbelief. I long to have the same confidence in you for my own life that I have for others. Calm my troubled waters. Give me your peace. I confess and accept your life, your resurrection, and your riches for me. In Jesus' name, amen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Captive Audience

I recently had an after-school tutoring arrangement with an older gentleman. He's going back to school at a local community college, and once a week he would drop by my classroom to refresh algebra skills he hasn't used since high school.

He's a very willing and engaged student. After our first meeting, I was struck by a thought: that was the best class I've had since I became a high school teacher!

Well, of course. No offense to my own awesome students, but this guy was eager to learn. He wanted to understand, had invested money in a course he had to pass. He was willing to put in the hard work of paying attention, focusing, practicing, note-taking, and learning from mistakes. He knew how to focus. He just gets it.

That made him so EASY to teach. What teacher doesn't dream of a captive audience? We progressed quickly through the material, and my thoughts rolled through my mind elegantly and simply, letting me make relevant connections, getting me fired up. It reminded me of how good I can be in a classroom when I'm not stopping to refocus somebody every thirty seconds. (This might be true of your own teachers, too.)

I remember turning to God afterwards and telling him honestly, "I wish more of my students were like that."

I was caught off guard by what God said in return:

"So do I."

He didn't say it with annoyance or judgment - more like gentle humor. But I felt busted.

I'm enrolled in God's school of life and righteousness. My enrollment fee has been paid for by Christ, and I've put my own time and reputation into living as a Christian. People are watching to see how I live, and souls are on the line.

Am I a willing, determined student?

There's a science to being a good scholar. Many of us perform it daily without thinking. Honoring the financial deposit that we've made (or that someone else made on our behalf) is a lifestyle. We come to class. We listen to the teacher. We take notes, ask questions, do the assigned reading. We study and prepare for tests, work with classmates, examine and challenge our beliefs. We rearrange our life outside school to assist our studies and eliminate distractions. And if we don't get it at first, we go to the instructor and ask more questions, spend extra time with him.

Do I take this kind of initiative with God? Not often enough. Sometimes I'm just that slacker sitting in the back row, playing Angry Birds and thinking I can turn everything in at the last minute.

Here's the thing - when it comes to God's school, we're ALL behind. Theologically speaking, there is no curve - just one global remedial class. Our flesh and the enemy are set against us. The world mocks. And life itself is hard. None of us can afford to dally around here. We all have to be taking notes, doing the reading, spending time with the instructor. He is the best qualified to renew our minds. No self-teaching here.

A bad grade in this class doesn't mean going to hell, of course. Our destiny is secure. But it could mean that our fruits in this life get stunted. Our witness can suffer; others won't see Christ in us effectively. I don't want to squander any of God's investment.

Our own joy and peace is at risk, too. God is so much more than just an instructor, a title that can sound distant and detached. He is our Father, our Rescuer, and our very Life. But it's not just going to come on a silver platter, anymore than good grades in math class will. The enemy opposes. Our own flesh tries to trip us up, keep us ignorant, distract us.
"The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I come that they may have life, and have it to the full." - John 10:10
The offer is there. God is willing and eager to teach.

I want to be a good spiritual student. Take initiative, listen, work, learn, shut out distractions, be the kind of student that every teacher longs to have in his classroom. I owe my savior nothing less. And I have everything to gain.