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, " 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 " 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'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 behold the rainstorms sprawling overhead as they tussle with the sky for 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.