To all those who are broken and fumbling: (and all those who think they are not.)

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” -Matthew 19:16-22

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When Jesus revealed the rich man’s need, he stood back, aghast at the request. How? How could he give up everything? What kind of benevolent Messiah would ask that of his followers? He worked hard for what he had and no loving God who would make that a prerequisite for entrance into his Kingdom. Surely it is the law that holds the power of salvation! Surely i’m a good person, surely…I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

Jesus looked at the disciples and claimed that “It is harder for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” As his disciples scratched their heads at this, wondering how their Master could endorse such a narrow way, Jesus said that those who would inherit eternal life would be those who left everything behind for him.

My quasi-Christian American civil religion doesn’t allow for this kind of cognitive dissonance. We want to take up our platforms and raise rabble over so much, but when Jesus’ words hit us squarely between the eyes and challenge and provoke us, we are more apt to close the Book and go on with the way we like, as we have done many times before.

I don’t believe that Jesus is slandering the rich or diminishing God’s goodness with his strong words. I believe he is illustrating the law apart from grace, he is decrying selfishness and raising rabble about our tricky penchant for idolatry.

I grew up in a loving supportive Christian family where my Mom and Dad were both present and loved God with reckless abandon and, in many ways, raised me to fall in love with Jesus and to truly believe what he says. I grew up in a youth group where for many kids, this was not the case. I have since ministered in youth groups where this was not the case. And you know what? I love those kids.

One of my favorite things about them is that they are abundantly aware of their need. They are well acquainted with their brokenness and their doubts. There’s so much that I want them to know about the Gospel and selflessness and truly taking hold of the life God is calling them to, and that can be very very difficult at times. But I don’t have to convince them that they are desperately in need of a savior. They are so aware of that. And there’s a lesson in that.

The rich man walked away from Jesus because he wanted the Kingdom of God as a sort of side item in a combo meal he paid for with his “good” works. I want my wealth, my security, my self-assuredeness of works righteousness and if that’s good enough for my perfect life, that is good enough for eternal life.

And Jesus stood in the face of that flimsy theology and spoke directly to his need that he would not admit he had. Our pride swells and our spirituality buckles under the weight of the brokenness we believe we are hiding.

It has been an unbelievably difficult week for me. My friend Max went to heaven on Friday. My mother found out that she has cancer in one of her kidneys. That mocking voice in the back of my mind has been whispering threats and doubts and insults and hurling me to the conclusion that I am powerless to stop the tides from pulling me under and filling my lungs with water, but you know what? God has revealed to me in all of this that I am powerless. I am irreconcilably broken and I have not arrived and I will not arrived until the day I embrace my Jesus in his Kingdom.

It is out of our abundant need that the seed of the gospel is watered and grows. It is in having the humility to admit that we are broken beyond any repairs we could complete ourselves and must look outside of ourselves for the truth of Jesus to hit us squarely between the eyes and cut us deep.

My friend Max was one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He lived his life without fear of failure because he knew who was holding him. Before he died, he wrote a note in the hospital about how he picked up his Bible and hugged it to himself. “The very Word of God is heavy on my chest,” he penned. Max, at any moment’s notice, would’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to be in the will of God. He spoke boldly to others about the love of Jesus. He figuratively had the very Word of God heavy on his chest at all times.

So in brokenness we find respite.

In loneliness, we are comforted by God’s very breath.

In adversity, we rise stronger than before we were knocked down.

In humility, considering others as better than ourselves.

In obedience, denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus, wherever he leads and laying whatever he says aside for the sake of the Gospel.

We are all in desperate need. We all have brokenness coursing through our veins and to say otherwise is to deny the fundamental realization that brings us to Jesus in the first place. We are beset, but our completeness is in Christ alone.

 

Words are a Weight (On Loving the Church When it Hurts.)

“The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

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Several years ago while I was in college, I wrote those words on my Facebook page under the “Religious Views” section. The quote is often attributed to Augustine, but is rumored to have been said by Martin Luther and a host of other church fathers. I was a frustrated young millennial, seeing the overwhelming hypocrisy of the body that nurtured me and raised me into the man I was. I saw political jargon shouted from pulpits, taken as Gospel by racists and adulterers, one and all. I saw small huddles of men in the parking lots, filling their bodies with smoke and decrying those who spent their weekends at the bar, claiming that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing we could do about it but curse the filthy sinners that filled it.  I heard the women gossiping in their Sunday School rooms about why so-and-so wasn’t here this week and did you hear that Pam was cheating on Jim with Ron Swanson?

I’d seen the faces of disgruntled youth, trying to fit into the world of religion like a kid’s piece into an adult’s special edition Thomas Kinkade puzzle, larger than life and filled with loud primary colors clashing with the tiny diminished hues of a portrait where they didn’t belong. Begrudgingly nodding, but not convinced that the Gospel could be summed up in these words: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

My understanding of the mercy and goodness of God was skewered by the inconsistencies I saw all around me, and I was pissed. So, when my mother called me in my dorm room and said we needed to talk, my heart momentarily stopped. Had someone died? Had I been caught in some elaborate lie? All of my sins were called up before my swirling head. What could it be?

“The preacher and one of the deacons showed up at our house today to talk about you.”

Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to be excommunicated. Can Baptists even excommunicate people?

Apparently, someone had seen that section of my Facebook. They went so far as to print it out and hand deliver it to the pastor with feigned concern. The concern, you ask? That i’d used the word whore.

Not that they wondered if I was losing my faith.

Not that I came across as angry or missed the point.

That I had used a word.

I saw red.

My blood boiled at the thought of all that work done to expose me as a pottymouth. Forget context, forget the state of the thing I loved with all of my heart. But I said a dirty word.

And far be it from them, adults, to come to me, an adult, to talk about this indiscretion. They brought it to my parents, because obviously I wasn’t old enough to answer their fears or questions. Maybe my mind had been polluted by the big, bad Christian university I was attending.

For the first time in my life, whether real or perceived, I felt like an apostate.


I sat across from a room full of students, all of them looking to me for answers. What did I know? I was just a volunteer chaperone at summer camp.

The church gives us no respect, they don’t see us as people.

How can we carry on the work of the church when we are adults if we’re never allowed to have a say now? Where do we fit in?

Why do they treat us like we’re little kids?

I listened to their fears and their desire to be part of the Body, to really take part and contribute. To some, it would no doubt sound like blind idealism of youth. But as they spoke, I felt that weight pressing on me as well. The adults may have many excuses: they are too broken, too sinful, too young, they don’t understand doctrine or the Baptist Faith and Message. They don’t get it.

But did they themselves even understand the particulars?

Do I? Do any of us really have what it takes to live beyond reproach and advance the Gospel? (How glorious a gift God gave us, entrusting us with a task for which he makes us able to carry out!)

I encouraged those students. I prayed with them. I cried with them. And I held out hope that someday, things would change. Someday, they would feel valued. And maybe so would I.


Apostasy.

The word rang in my ears. As the quiet hum grew deafening, I pondered the implications. What would happen if I just left it all behind? Is it worth it? If there is no place for me in the community in which I was raised, is there any place for me at all?

I spoke to my pastor later that day over the phone. It was a strange conversation, full of awkward silences and unruly dissonance. I tried to explain to him the manner in which I used the quote, tried to outline my frustrations, but overall hope that I held. The church is a whore in every sense of the word. She has sold herself to politicians and to the world. She has shouted in outrage at the sins of a broken world while waiting for night to fall, so she can join the debauchery. She has traded gossip for prayer, and has been the Pharisee, blind to the log bursting from her eye while trying to excise the splinter from another’s.

But she is my mother. She birthed me, raised me, loved me, taught me who Jesus is and baptized me in his name. I am grateful for her witness, stained though it may be. I love her with all of my heart though she vexes me so.

The conversation stalled, but picked back up as he continually brought up that word. I had committed what seemed to be an unpardonable sin. These were the dregs of legalism if I’d ever saw them. To dismiss the words of a church father because you don’t understand them? In my soul, my frustration raged. I tried to remain calm, but as a college freshman, I was full of knowledge but wisdom and a healthy temperament had yet to show up on my course list.

We ended our conversation, still on opposing sides. This man was my pastor. I felt bad because I felt I owed him respect, but didn’t feel like the best way to show it was to give in and apologize. At that point in my life, I didn’t understand the value in picking your battles and if my time in the religion department had taught me anything, it’s that any topic could be a hill to die on.


In hindsight, I forgave those who didn’t understand and learned to be a little more discerning in the words I choose to say. I realized that in choosing love over bitterness, the quote I had been so adamant about was playing itself out in my life.

Sometimes the Church will choose legalism, even if you know better.

Sometimes the Church will misunderstand, even if you have the best intentions.

Sometimes she will harbor secret (or not so secret) sins and run after idols that vie for her affections, even as you call for her to repent.

But we do not exist as islands, we are not some distant relative of the beaten and beraggled Bride of Christ. We are her. We exist as one Church to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. We exist as deeply flawed, inexcusable sinners who do so much damage to the name of Jesus with our various failures and broken intentions.

But we choose to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ forgave the inexcusable in us, as Lewis says.

Because though the Bride sometimes feels like she is barely hanging on, torn apart and stitched together again and again, she is loved by a Groom who will do anything, who paid everything to buy her back from the idols that have wrapped their tendrils around her heart. And as she gasps for breath amid the broken reality she chose, she finally sighs in freedom because her lover has rescued her and made her whole.

I love the Church, I am the Church.

And if you claim the name and mission of Jesus, so are you.

Rhema (or, Idol Hands Sit Idly.)

Emboldened by words left unspoken,
Crumbling beneath all that I have broken.

As I scramble to rearrange the jagged pieces,

To complete a puzzle named resentment.


Wordless, I have no thoughts left to pen,
I have no utterance to be uttered,

No rhymes left to usher in.

I have held all my cards close to my chest,

And I wish I could say I tried my best.
So I guess the letter I would’ve written would sound like

This:
Dear Future Me,

You’ve got so many stories left to be told, A blank canvas soon to be dripping with red and blue and gold. Do not give in, do not give up.But stand.

Stalwart and proud of the man you have become.

A man who knows what is past and what is to come. One who weighs his legacy like his idol hands weigh on his conscience, and idol words sit enshrined on tongues of fire racing around and around as if chariots set ablaze.
I speak because there is an inferno resting inside my bones, as I wrestle against flesh and blood and deny the calling which I have received.
To be simultaneously saint and sinner, to wage war on these rebellious legs that carry me to places I know better than to be.
Oh God, may my futile words be few.
May my lips tremble when I speak your truth, and may my heart be laid upon a blazing altar for you.

You are my past, present, and future. It’s always been You. So forgive my idol thoughts and my idol ears and my idle soul sitting idly by, waiting on You to move.
Jesus, rid me of deceit, of anger, and of my broken heart. Let me embrace the calling you have poured out upon me as you envelop all the idols that strive to gain a foothold in my life in refining fire.
“I love you Lord, and I lift my voice. To worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice! Take joy my King in what you hear. May it be a sweet sound in your ear.”

I Know

It was cold. That’s all I remember. I felt barely anything as I was in the throes of grief and trying to make sense of God, a task bigger than the groaning emptiness packed tightly beneath my skull. I tried to explain this to my friend who was in the car with me, but he didn’t understand. No one did. Folks could listen, and try to assuage my feelings of guilt and incompletion but none of them had lost a friend. None of them understood their own mortality the way Jordan’s death had thrust it in my face.

Dying at 21 wasn’t supposed to be possible. Not for us.

And all of my friends still understood the world as one of bright hope, optimism, and opportunity. But no matter how hard I tried, or how much I prayed, I couldn’t see it. Back then, I always said something along the lines of “God won’t let me sleep.” While insomnia was the least of my worries, it was the ever-punishing constant that defined my nights and made me question everything I’d once held sacred.

Greif is like an emptiness, like an absence that’s felt so strongly, your brain won’t shut off. A few months after the accident, and I was still picking up the phone to text him, still getting messages weekly from his Mom and never knowing what to say in response.

The word “bleak” used to mean very little to me, but at that point in my life, it was the only thing I knew. And expressing these thoughts to another person? Thinking back, spending time with me during those months was probably a real drag. But all I wanted was someone who understood, someone who really understood and didn’t have to pretend. I wanted to be able to share with someone who knew what I was feeling to the point where we didn’t even need to use words. I didn’t need a speech, I needed someone to look at me and boldly say, “I know.”

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ. I got that. More than that, I got to be that for others on so many occasions. Because if dealing with grief taught me anything, it’s that I never want anyone to feel damaged or stupid or different for having such heavy emotions that they don’t always have words for.

As a believer, I can choose to see tragedy as proof that God doesn’t care or as proof that he does. Let me unpack that:

My hope is in Christ. My peace is in Christ. When waves of doubt come over me, or life’s trouble makes me feel like I am drowning, he is my only constant.

And because of the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve lost, the addictions that once had me crushed beneath their weight, I have been given a gift, the gift of relating to others. I can choose to dwell on suffering or I can choose to let it shape me into a person with greater compassion and patience for others.

As one of my favorites, Oswald Chambers, said:

“You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you. But if a person has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, having no respect or time for you, only turning you away. If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people.”

Those words give me life. They remind me to use the pain I’ve experienced to give others life, or at least point them to the One who can. I’ve learned, more than anything, to stop talking and look at them and boldly say, “I know.”

And that may be one of God’s greatest gifts.

Pouring From An Empty Glass


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“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
(Isaiah 40:30-31)

My heart is so heavy tonight.

Somewhere in the world, someone is suffering. It might be two cities over, it might be next door. It may be happening in your head.

All around me, I feel the shockwaves racing from the epicenter of a crumbling world. An earth that groans for reconciliation, a kingdom that has, for so long, run from its king but is desperate for Him. And maybe they don’t even know that he is what they really desire.

I write in flowery, pretentious prose because the groaning is too close to home, and I am tired. On days like today the purpose behind my calling to be minister of the Gospel of Jesus is so very clear, and the need so evident, but even still, so very hard to grasp in my hand.

I feel like an empty glass, striving to continue pouring out, even when nothing is left. If I were smarter, or older and wiser, I might just put the cup back under the faucet and allow myself to be filled again before I try to continue giving. But my go to is always to stress about it and demand answers to questions I’ve not been brave enough to ask.

Seasons of transition and turmoil often feel like seasons of silence, and I’ve not figured out why. To be separate from others is one thing, but to feel like your prayers are going unanswered or that God has left are the most terrifying times one can experience.

To ask God where he’s gone but then remembering: I have pastoral aspirations and responsibilities, I’m not allowed to ask those questions.

But then. Maybe sometimes it takes talking to an impartial audience. Oh, that’s it, I’ll write a blog. I’ll be transparent about my struggles and questions and folks will be sure to solicit some help, or at least someone will congratulate me for being open and honest (because thats the fashionable thing to do), that or it’ll bring out the “I told you so’s” from the atheist crowd.

Maybe writing these thoughts will un-knot my mind long enough to let me hear God speak. Maybe if I quiet myself just enough…

…They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…

Weariness. It’s probably the most poetic word to ascribe to that poured out glass feeling. It’s such a beautiful way to say “beaten down, washed up, beyond tired.”

When I look back on the past ten years of my life, I’m met with a reminder from God. It was always during the times I’d described myself as weary that God spoke most powerfully into my situation. It was always when I was at my wit’s end that he either gave me the answers I so feared or used me, by words and actions, to speak the truth of the Gospel into the lives of others.

Suffering doesn’t always hit you over the head and grind you into the dust. Sometimes it’s that dull ache in your chest that won’t go away. The anticipation that comes from the fear that something bad is about to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

And then, though we don’t always have the answers to life’s burning questions, we press on. We wait on God to speak or to propel us into the very action that our souls crave without knowing it.

I’ll say from experience that God has used me most effectively when I was in transition. When I stopped moping and accepted that things aren’t always going to be easy or feel good. But God. He saw the needs in my life and in the lives of those around me and he finally spoke. Or maybe I finally listened.

To be filled, we have to put ourselves in a position to receive from God that which restores us and mends our brokenness so that others, seeing the healing of God within us, will be drawn to repentance and salvation and receive what God wants to give them.

At the end of my life, I want to look back and say with resolve that I have poured out all that which was given to me, and to know with confidence that God’s wells never run dry. What you might think is silence could be preparing you for something better.

I preach this not just to you, but to myself. AΩ

Fight For Joy (grief after three years)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I feel like I’ve written endlessly about the topic of grief. As if it is the only constant in life, where all relationships, in one way or another, end up. As if it not only holds all the cards, but stacks them neatly into a house that could crumble at the slightest breeze. As if death has the final say, and we are always haunted by its specter.
But for me, writing about what I feel is catharsis. So, it’s probably telling that I haven’t written anything in a while. That sometimes you move into that stage of grief where feeling anything is an outright challenge.  This blog began for me as a desperate attempt to come to grips with the goodness of God in a world that sometimes indicates anything but.

And, as I believe life is a journey and we never stop learning, I don’t have any neat and tidy answers for you. I can’t tell you with absolute sincerity that I never have doubts or fears. I can’t tell you that I don’t find myself crying with little provocation. I can’t say that I don’t get a knot in my chest when I think about the people in my life who are gone way too soon. I can’t tell you that injustice doesn’t make me question why.

I think about absence, which hurts a ton more than outright rejection, and my mind is drawn back to the good times, which overwhelm me in the way that simultaneously feeling joy and pain does. How two opposing ideals–joy and pain–can be so irrevocably intertwined and cause me to understand myself even less.

Three years ago from last Tuesday, one of my dearest friends was involved in a hiking accident and fell from a hundred feet and died. 

I’ve written it so matter-of-factly so many times because I need to understand it as reality. Sometimes, even three years later, it’s so hard to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The unfortunate thing about trying to wrap your head around something so much is that it leaves you with a terrible migraine.

Tuesday, I came back to my hometown and spent the day with some of my closest friends. We all went to the park we used to hang out in and then the cemetery. Sitting around Jordan’s grave was different this time. Before, I’d almost always go alone. But surrounded by the friends he helped knit together, we laughed, we talked, we cracked jokes and reminisced. It is times like those that give me hope, that show me, no matter what, that I am not alone. That the God of the universe who I so love to question, knows exactly what I need and pours it out lavishly. That he is not content to leave me in my grief that feels so like fear, as Lewis says, but instead shows me perfect love to cast out fear.

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Out of His Love, he replaces that feeble house of cards with stone and mortar, and refuses to give some immovable fate the victory. He is a God who loves his children so much that even in their pain, he gives them good gifts, relationships that do not end with this side of eternity, reasons to rejoice though the pain is sometimes so intense.

Leo Tolstoy said that “only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” And I do not always believe that is true. But on days like today, I do.

I do because on this week three years ago my world was shattered. I was like a flattened house of cards, but I know a carpenter who was also called the great physician and binds up all my wounds and floods my weakest moments with his insurmountable strength.

I’ve learned after these 3 years to fight for joy. And you will fight. Because it is by no means easy to be joyful, but on days like today I believe it is not only necessary, but possible.

Random Thoughts (on contentment, goals, and how I’m feeling about life)

I’ve always wondered when it is, that moment when you look out at all that you’ve done, all the stories you’ve told, and are finally content. Or when you get to a place of real intimacy with the people you care most about in the world and finally believe that authentic relationships can last, or even begin. Or can finally have the courage to speak boldly about what you’ve been given without fear of criticism.

I know that once you feel like you’ve arrived, you’re probably more blinded and arrogant than you’ve ever been, but I’d for once like to be sure enough of myself to believe I’ve done some good in this world.

In all my questions, I’m confident of this: to know God is the greatest joy in this life. Jesus is everything, his peace makes even the dark times bright. We don’t always overcome our nagging questions with abundant joy, but we are blessed with joy for the small moments that keep us running the race. As a dear friend once said, “God is my alpha and omega, my beginning and my end.”

He is constant grace, for the moment and for the long haul. Know tonight  that you are more loved than you ever thought was possible.  that in Christ, there is no condemnation, no fear of inadequacy, no comparing yourself to another person. Because in relationship with Christ, when God looks at you, he sees Jesus. When he looks at me, he sees Jesus. We are all the same at the foot of the Cross.

No matter what relationships you value most in your life, they will always fail you. People will always fail you, but the omnipotent God of the universe who saw you first, who, while we were still sinners, sent Christ to die for us, that God knows you and He loves you and he will never fail you.  We are so worried  that the people we love most in this world will not love us back. We pine for their affections, yet we ignore the One who loves us with a love that never ends.

We bury our boldness underneath layers and layers of low self esteem, terrified to testify about the only one who can save us from ourselves. And if we have experienced Christ’s overwhelming mercy? Well then, we have no excuse to keep silent. How dare we keep to ourselves what has the power to save!

It is my prayer for you that knowing God would be your most deeply cherished treasure. That nothing would come between you and a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not fear, depression, not anxiety, not other people, not complacency, not bitterness, not dissatisfaction with your life. Because the goal and aim of our lives is to know Christ and to make Him known.

This God knows your hurt. He knows your pain. And he wants to be your joy. I pray that you would let him be your joy, your peace, and your salvation.