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.

Halloween, Christians, and The Gospel

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I will never forget his sermons leading up to October 31st. Or the handouts, boldly decrying Halloween as “the devil’s day.” I will never forget how he hooped and hollered and ranted from the altar about how he would never dress his children up and let them trick-or-treat, because of the pagan roots of the holiday.

How he left his porch light off and refused to give out candy to the idol worshipers at his doorstep. How God deserves the glory, not Satan, ghosts, or ghouls. And I guess we should now include Elsa, Ninja Turtles, and Captain America.

About how Christians should vocalize our outrage at this wretched practice and snatch the souls of our children from their Satan worship, praying for every haunted house attraction to burn down.

And so on, and so forth.

It was my 11th grade year of high school and this was the first time in my life I’d ever heard such a boisterous condemnation of Halloween. In my informational pamphlet, it talked lots about the celtic origins of holiday, the belief that the dead could walk the earth on one night, Samhain and Wiccan practices, etc. It did mention the Christianization of the holiday and re-branding as All Saint’s Day, but the preacher quickly denounced that, saying that “If a holiday has pagan roots, it should not be celebrated by Christians.”

Well, I rebutted in my head, what about Christmas? In a few months, this sanctuary will be decked out in boughs of holly and Christmas trees and all sorts of things with pagan roots. Why do we condemn this occasion and not that one? Because we are afraid of people in masks? Because someone in Christian history coupled Christmas with Jesus’ birth, even though we don’t know his birthday, but assume it’s closer to August? What makes one day different than the other?

This preacher also went on several rants about Christian rock music and how it was “ungodly” and “If it ain’t the Gaithers or Mercyme, get it out!” So I was used to vehemently disagreeing with my preacher.

And I fear that when we become this reactionary, when we generalize people and refuse to understand culture on its level, this is the Christianity we’re left with: an angry, unfeeling Christianity that would rather condemn the lost than befriend them. That would hold to our illusions that the whole world is out to get us because people and their children are knocking at our doors wanting candy, rather than swing open our doors and meet our neighbors and build relationships that last over something as simple as a fun size Kit-Kat bar.

When we are so guarded against culture, we forget who we are, we forget whose we are, and we forget that the One who call us friend, also told us to go and make disciples. And we don’t do that by being an exclusive social club that stands away from those we are called to love.

I don’t believe that any day in particular is evil. I don’t believe that dressing up and playing make believe is of Satan. I don’t believe that even if you do believe that, it’s okay to shut people, who need the gospel lived out in front of them and modeled for them in your life, out.

What makes Christianity so beautiful is that it can thrive in any culture it is placed in. From the African bush to the crowded streets of New York City to house churches in China. It doesn’t forsake the culture around it but grows through it, infiltrating it with the presence and power of Jesus himself, showing people of all color, of all origin, of all walks of life that Jesus is not just for me, he’s for you, too.

How can we spread that message this Halloween? First off, it’s a beautiful time to get to know your neighbors. Become part of each other’s lives if you aren’t already. Be kind to their kids and, heck, give them candy. The Gospel isn’t just something people get if you toss a Bible at them and walk away. It’s something to be lived out, its something to be spoken about, it’s something that takes a long time to grow, but the reward is great.

Be part of the solution, not the problem.

(Author’s note: I was bitter against that preacher (for lots of other reasons) for a long time. I stopped going to his church, I became very frustrated with his brand of Christianity. It just didn’t line up with what I saw in scripture. His version of Jesus was so wrapped up in legalism that it was indistinguishable from the Pharisees. But I’m not angry anymore. I’ve matured a bit since then, and while I still won’t accept what he said, I forgive him.)

Have a happy and safe Halloween. Meet someone new, and share the Gospel always.

Here’s a picture of me dressed as Poseidon.

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An Empty House

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If these walls could speak, what stories would they tell?

Would they speak of love and comfort

or remind me of  the fires of hell?

Would we be afraid of the stories we never want to forget

Would we find comfort

Or would loneliness open its mouth and heave an empty sigh?

If walls could talk, would we be filled up by the stories they would tell?

Or better yet, would they lie

and leave us emptier still? 

I remember this one time last summer. It was the night before Mother’s Day, and my friends and I were hanging out around Gastonia. That night, I had my first experience with Sweet Frog, and let me tell you, it was an experience never to forget.

(I really, really like the idea of frozen yogurt a lot more than I like the frozen treat itself. I probably would’ve enjoyed it more had I not spent the next day in the hospital with severe dehydration due to some pretty gnarly food poisoning. Scott and I always joke about Sweet Frog, as it is a Christian owned company and the “F.R.O.G” is the ever quoted and clichéd acronym meaning “Fully Rely On God.” We would always say “Fully Rely On God? You’ll have to if you go to Sweet Frog!” )

Anyway, after our lovely experience with the Jesus Yogurt, we traveled back to Belmont for some mischief. Personally, I didn’t want to do anything remotely illegal, as cops have always terrified me and my conscience is perhaps, in times like these, my biggest weakness. We ended up going to this old abandoned house and walking through the inside. The door was pretty much just sitting open. Now, not only was I afraid of parking my car behind this place and getting caught by the police, but now I was shaking in fear of getting jumped in a dark house late at night where I didn’t belong.

I’m not superstitious and I could care less about ghost stories and spooks, but if I’m to be completely honest, that night, I was paralyzed with fear and could not shake the feeling that someone was following us. We walked through an old, but not so dilapidated kitchen into an empty living room. In the dim glow of the light of my cell phone, colors and textures were indiscernible. But propped up against the wall, there was a mattress. Someone must’ve been sleeping here! Were we in the house alone? Was there someone else here? As I voiced my concerns, Jordan, Katelyn, Scott, and Stephanie hushed me and told me to turn my cell light off as we walked up the stairs near the big window.

I couldn’t help but wonder what a car driving by, or a neighborhood kid across the street would’ve thought to look up at this old, abandoned house and see a face staring back at them. Is that how urban legends are started, as rumors reflecting a shadow of the truth?

We made our way up the stairs to more empty rooms, one complete with a boarded up fireplace. It was then that I patted my pockets and realized what I’d done. “Guys,” I said, teeth chattering. “I think I locked my keys in my car!” We made our way back to my car and, sure enough, I left them in there, right in the ignition. After almost 30 minutes of trying to pry open my door with various items from the back of Katelyn’s car, she drove me back to my house, where I grabbed the spare key and ran out before my parents could ask me what I was doing.

When we got back, our friends were nowhere to be seen. I looked up at the house and assumed that they were in there. Prepared to go back in and find them, I got out of Katelyn’s car, unlocked mine and retrieved the keys, and faced towards the house, then looked back at the creepy field behind the house. There was tall grass springing up, covering the entire field back to the woods, and the wispy blades of grass were overwhelmed by dense, white fog. Stephanie, Scott, and Jordan rose from the fog, yelling and running towards Katelyn and I and I almost jumped out of my skin.

I remember nights like that with an overwhelming amount of joy, and I also look back on that and feel a nostalgic sense of grief. I will continue to say it with much frequency, I miss Jordan. I miss my buddy who I would always go on adventures with. I miss the random times, kicking back and doing nothing. I miss the deep, passionate conversations, I miss it all.

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m as empty as that house. Like my heart is that empty fire place, that once filled all the rooms with warmth, boarded up for no one to see unless they’re looking for trouble. But in those moments, I am reminded that loss cannot take the passion God has given me, it cannot take away the warmth of those memories that I so cherish. It cannot siphon the sense of camaraderie I have found with my dear friends that are still here and close to my heart. God has not given me a spirit of fear.

I hurt. I ache. My soul is sick, and sometimes that sickness can overwhelm me, but I will hold fast to the promises that I am given in scripture. I will cling tightly to Jesus, a man who was well acquainted with suffering, no stranger to grief. He made himself like me to save me and set me free from myself. And that is reason to rejoice. Because no matter how often it feels like it, I am not alone.

 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. –Hebrews 10:19-25 (ESV)