One month.

It has been exactly a month since Jordan died. It’s hard to fathom even still. I think I’ve accepted it, but there is still this feeling of incompletion.

We had so many plans this summer. So many things we talked about. And then death comes and everything just kindof stops.

Or does it?

We had planned on going to Scream the Prayer and seeing Emery. Instead of making the drive to Georgia like we did last year, Thomas, Katelyn, Mindy, Devon, Scott, and I went to Charlotte. It was such an awesome day, got to eat good food, hear good music, and even moshed a little bit. This culminated in meeting Toby Morrell of Emery. I told him about what happened to Jordan and thanked him for all that his music had meant to him, and to me. He was very gracious and kind and heard me out. As much as I wish Jordan was with us, I wouldn’t trade our experiences for the world.

Because of Jordan’s death, Thomas has come back into our life. Scott, Thomas, and I had a Bible study together last night and went through the entire book of Galatians. It was awesome, and I know that God was in the middle 0f all of it. I feel like I’ve gained a brother back, and while I wish Jordan were here to share in that, I am at peace knowing that one of the things he always wanted is back in our lives. We will fight to maintain that friendship, to build eachother up. I feel like Jordan has passed the torch of discipleship to me and I will uphold that gladly as I grow closer to God and to my bros and we learn from each other.

And for the rest of the group, the times may be hard, but we have held onto eachother. I am so thankful for those people, Scott, Katelyn, Steph, Thomas, Cydney, Paul, Devon, Caitlin, Allison, Dustin. And countless others whose lives Jordan has touched. My heart is full of gratitude and, though it is difficult, the globe has continued to spin and life has kept moving and I thank God every day for those who have poured out love and friendship in my life. Death really changes so much, especially when that person was one who you could never see as not a part of your life, but I know one thing…God is faithful to the very end.

My heart goes out to the Slusher family: To Melissa, Randall, and Ashley. They are wonderful people and I am saddened by the toll Jordan’s death has taken on the family. Melissa texted me the other day with this verse, which has helped me immensely:

 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Romans 8:35-39

It is the love of God that sustains us, that holds us close, that brings us deeper and deeper into the reality that we are not alone in the universe. We are not alone because we have a Savior who loved us so much that he died to set us free from sin and death. He saved us from hell, he saved us from ourselves, but he also saved us TO something. The mission God has given to me is strengthened by the death of one I consider a brother. It is hard, still, but I have faith in a God who knew that this was going to happen.

My faith stands firm in the face of grief, in the face 0f a million things I don’t understand.

After all, to live is Christ, to die is gain. Jordan has gained a lot, and me? I have one of the strongest reasons ever to keep living.

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Dead Man.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1Kf0PDgj8E&feature=g-vrec

I didn’t have a whole lot of time today to write a blog post, but I do want to share this video. It’s lyrics really speak to the deepest parts of who I am.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of  your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation —if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”–Colossians 1:21-23

I was once a dead man

A stranger with no home

I stood opposed to God himself

And yet He pardoned me

With all my heart and the fiercest will

Desired not but to thieve and kill

I hadn’t a thought of peace, but war

Surrender was not what I’d endure

I was a murderer filled with lies and deceit

Faced with my list of crimes that I would always repeat

Deliver me! Wake me up from this damning sleep

I’m surrendering! Pull me out from this wickedness

In this thieving heart of stone

I realized all these sins I could not atone

I was a murderer filled with lies and deceit

Faced with my list of crimes that I would always repeat

I was once a dead man

A stranger with no home

I stood opposed to God himself

And yet He pardoned me

So just at the right time when we were dead in our sins

You took this heart of mine and gave me life again

You gave me life again

This is where I begin

So far apart and a debt to fulfill

This purchase bought on redemption’s hill

An ailing disease I couldn’t cure

Oh this grace! How rich and pure!

Abide in me, my God! I am found in You

Pardon me, my God! You know my deepest thoughts

Deliver me from sin! I am made anew

I’m surrendering this heart! For which your blood it bought

The mob they yelled and screamed for justice

That wrath was ours we are to blame

You made a spectacle of rulers

Denying You of a king’s fame

Having crushed the written cannon

That wrote of all our guilt and shame

Displayed upon the tree it was nailed

The saving power of Your name

For I was once a dead man

A stranger with no home

You saw this wretch

And You gave him life

Forever I’ll praise You!

I will praise You!

Insecurity.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” -Romans 8:1-4

When I think of myself, usually the description that Paul gives the Church at Rome here is not the first thing I go to. Those who are in Christ are “free from the law of sin and death,” they are not condemned, they live according to the Spirit. No, when I think of myself, redeemed as I am, I see someone who is enslaved to fear. I do not believe this is a biblical view of myself and reading Paul’s words to the Romans reminds me not subtly, but with the force of a tornado driving a nail straight through a wooden stake, that something in my life needs to change.

One of the biggest things I struggle with is insecurity. Much of this comes from a misplaced sense of self that I acquired in middle school. Maybe it’s a cop out, blaming the phase that probably 90% of people might consider their worst years in life, but it’s true. If I could point to one time in my entire history that I was the most far removed from God, most ignorant of the freedom I had in Christ, I would have to peg it somewhere in between grades 6-8. In middle school, I pretty much had two friends. They were good friends, and I thank God for them, but they were not believers and I felt this was the only place I could fit in…or at least the only place where I didn’t totally feel isolated. I led the Bible club at school and walked around with that Christian pretense that marked so much of my life, but I was absolutely empty. And if I learned one thing from my non-Christian friends, it was to depend on other people for my joy. And that, my friends, is emptiness.

In later years, I have learned just how dependent on others I am. I have also learned that God put a desire for community deep within us and we are supposed to be dependent on others. But what I learned at about grade 7 was an unhealthy dependence. It had me trying to impress people, writing lengthy tirades all over Myspace (I know, right? Myspace…heehee) that begged for attention. I would tell dirty jokes and bask in my own deviance publicly without care, pretending my sin didn’t actually affect other people, just so people would notice me. This began a rift in my Christian identity and my secular identity. Now, at 21 years old with a little bit, but not so much more experience under my belt, I am convinced that this is not healthy and it is not pleasing to God. The dependence on people that reduces you to a circus elephant, begging for peanuts.

I am a beggar,

with unholy fire burning in my bones.

Please just give me a handout,

Please just give me a glance,

Your opinions are worth more to me than any truth.

The value you give to me is what propels me forward.

My life, riddled with insurgency, provoking the armies of heaven with my blatant disregard for the only One whose opinions should give me true, lasting value. I learned false, sterilized Christianity as a result. After living a double life, I saw the problems in it,  my act as an abandonment of God, so I reacted.

My reaction was quick, I withdrew, I became judgmental and cold. I retreated from those friends, and moving to a high school that most of those people didn’t go to gave me the perfect way out. What once was the darkest time in my life spiraled into an all consuming self sufficiency that led me away from reflecting God’s heart for the lost. There are the Christians who assimilate into society and those who retreat. I was the latter, and running to the other extreme was no better for me than my life in middle school. I became highly political, highly legalistic, highly everything that makes me cringe at this point in my life. I had no more of a heart for Christ then than I did when I was in middle school. My attitude may have changed, but really the only thing I did was move from one kind of insecurity to another. I still cared what people thought of me, but I moved from trying to impress to trying to offend. Either way, my concern was for myself and not for them. But God has taught me so many things since.

My freshman year of college, my dear friend Adam Barnes and I started working in a ministry called Prison Fellowship, where a group of Gardner-Webb students goes down to Spartanburg once a month to join in a worship service at a local minimum security prison there. One night, I gave a short message, and afterwards, Miss Faith, the spunky lady who was our chaperone from Prison Fellowship came up to me.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I grew up very, very Southern Baptist and was not used to people walking up to me and saying that God had a word for me. I always thought that was for the crazy Pentacostals that saw demons around every corner. But I was wrong. Faith came up to me and said “God wants me to tell you that he is pleased with you. That you are doing his will, but you are living in the wrong shadow. You care too much about what other people think about you. You don’t need to impress anyone but God. It’s the shadow of HIS wings that you need to live in, not anybody else’s.”

I was floored, and a little offended at first, but to see God move so boldly through someone I barely knew at least let me know that God was up to something new in my life. As the years have given me a deeper understanding of myself and my relationship with Jesus, Faith’s words give me hope, they fill me with an expectant hope that Christ has bigger plans for the world than what I can conjure up in my own head. His shadow is wide, and it is inviting. I am not here to live for myself or anybody else, but to him.

A month or so later, we went back to prison and I spoke again. This time, I was not met by Faith after the message, but by a guy named Ray. He was a prisoner in Spartanburg who told me, yet again, that God had a message for me. I wondered why God chose this prison to be a post office for me to get mail from him. But Ray told me that I was going to be a youth minister, something I’d been praying about ferverently but had never told anyone at the prison. I knew that this was God’s calling on my life then. As dramatic and unbelievable as it had all been, I knew that I had to believe this was true. Anybody would be crazy not to.

And I’ve been pursuing that ever since, because my insecurity and weak attempts to impress others gave them the power over me, not God. My life is not about me becoming greater in the world’s eyes, but about Christ. That is the point. And I will spend the rest of my life preaching this gospel that Christ is to be exalted, not me. My insecurities will buckle in the wake of the overwhelming truth that my heart isn’t owned by fear. I am not condemned! I am free in Christ! The subject here is Christ and what he has done, and the only reason it has anything to do with me is because God in his goodness saw fit for that to happen.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.  He who comes from above  is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and  speaks in an earthly way.  He who comes from heaven  is above all.  He bears witness to what he has seen and heard,  yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony  sets his seal to this,  that God is true. For he whom  God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit  without measure. The Father loves the Son and  has given all things into his hand.  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;  whoever does not obey the Son shall not  see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” –John 3:30-36

Patriotism.

Image

Growing up, I understood only a few things. 1.) God is good. 2.) America is also good. and 3.) The two are mutally exclusive.

It’s difficult, really, being 21 years old on the cusp of adulthood. God has taught me so much about himself, and I can’t help but stand in awe of his glory. Growing up, every 4th of July and Memorial Day I remember hearing the patriotic hymns sung in church, resonating deep within the hearts of all the believers. I made no distinction between those hymns and the ones that sang praises to God. America and Jesus, to me, were one in the same.

For many years, I gave my allegiance unabashedly to the land of the free and the home of the brave! But once I hit high school, I began to question this great nation. I began to wonder if  maybe singing to America in the same way we sang to God was wrong. And I as I searched and prayed, I began to believe that not only was it wrong, it was idolatry of the worst kind. The new belief I embraced was this: God is not America, and America is not God. The truth cut through all the years of tradition and changed the way I view the world.

My Dad always said that it was “God and Country,” all the way. I believe now that it was a lie, albeit well intended, but a lie just the same. For years after that I began to hold a pessimistic attitude towards the country and considered myself unpatriotic. There was a preacher who used to come guest speak at my church named Bud. He got up and vomited passionate rants about America as God’s great nation! He was an ornery southern man if ever there were one. He spit out hatred and cruelty, branding it with the name of God and pretending that his rally cries for patriotism looked at all like the gospel of Jesus. I still stand by the belief that his tirades were NOT at all even close to the life, salvation, and beauty of Jesus. Once, he stood up and screamed “They want me to love muslims! LOVE A MUSLIM? OVER MY DEAD BODY!” This is not the Gospel. It misses the mark so badly and trumpets the misguided, nationalistic fervor of a blind religious majority.

Don’t get me wrong. I do NOT hate America. In the years to follow my first understanding of Americanism as a blind religion of the patriots, God has shown me that America is not all bad. It is certainly not the “best” nation on earth (if there ever were such a thing), and it is not equivalent to God. I still do not pay much attention to the slogan of “God and Country” but I am not as bitter, cynical, or pessimistic as I once was. My home is not on this earth, which means it does not belong to ANY country. My soul does not belong to a government, and the freedom I experience is better than anything a brigade of soldiers can win for me. My religious experience does not hinge on stars and stripes, but on the scars of Christ that bear the weight of MY sin, YOUR sin, and the sin of all who call Jesus Lord! I am not consumed with nationalistic zeal, but thank God I am not consumed with passionate hatred anymore either. I can see America for all of it’s flaws, all of its strengths, and all of the things that make us free on paper. It does not possess my heart, but I will honor it for what it is.

This may not be a Christian nation, but it is my nation, and I am thankful for the (temporary) freedoms I have here, knowing that the freedom given to me by the death and resurrection of Jesus is greater than anything else can give.

“Some folks may be really bummed to find that “God bless America” does not appear in the Bible.  So often we do things that make sense to us and ask God to bless our actions and come alongside our plans, rather than looking at the things God promises to bless and acting alongside of them.  For we know that God’s blessing will inevitably follow if we are with the poor, the merciful, the hungry, the persecuted, the peacemakers.  But sometimes we’d rather have a God who conforms to our logic than conform our logic to the God whose wisdom is a stumbling block to the world of smart bombs and military intelligence.”  ―    Shane Claiborne,    Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

Here’s to a Beginning (of something)

I am going to try to be at least somewhat consistent with this whole “blogging” thing. I’ve never really been good at keeping it going. I’ll start, and a few days in, get distracted with something and move forward to the next time consuming thing and, by the end of a few months I’ve forgotten completely about it. But, since summer is running out quickly, I am going to use this blog as a means to occupy the time I’d be spending on less mentally stimulating pursuits.

So first things first.

I’m Stephen, a Senior at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC. I’d like to tell you that I have an extremely high IQ, know 23 different ways to tie a knot, and once hiked to the top of Mt. Everest without a coat. But all of those things are lies. What is true about me is this: I want to be passionately in love with the Creator of the universe and am blessed beyond reason in the fact that He feels the same way about me. May my life be my testimony and the words I write here only be a shadow of what is (hopefully) already evident, testifying to the true vitality pulsing beneath my veins. Jesus Christ is real, living, and active in our world and I have been radically changed by the mercy he showed me by dying on the cross to save me from my sin, death, and Hell. He is the standard, the truth, the only one worthy of honor and praise. I am compelled by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work, and the best expression of that for me is in Youth Ministry. My heart aches for teenagers, and my goal is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel that it might save those who are lost without a way in life. My prayer is that wherever God calls me to do ministry, His power will  enable me to bring that truth in a way that is seasoned with discernment and love. His wisdom is the only thing I can depend on.

The people in my life keep me sane, and I am so blessed to have each of them. At school, I have met so many people that will be in my heart forever, whose company I enjoy and whose devotion to God propels me to pour all the passion I have into mine. My friends at home never cease to make me laugh. All of them bring me so much joy. Just last month, I lost one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Jordan Slusher died a few weeks ago on a hiking trip at Stone Mountain. Hearing this, my heart ripped in two. I didn’t believe it at first (and sometimes I still don’t) but God is slowly healing me. Though, if I’m completely honest, I am not quite there yet and its so hard because I feel like I need to be strong for everyone else.  Jordan was one of those people that continually strengthened and encouraged me in my walk with Christ and helped me push the boundaries of everything I thought real friendship was. He loved me and I loved him, and I know that he is in the arms of his Savior, Jesus. That comforts me.

My family—Mom, Dad, and Shelley–are always there for me and I love them so much. My sister and I are finally starting to work on a relationship that I always thought had long been fractured. To some measure, it still is, but God is doing awesome things and I am continually praying for the strength and intentionality to keep on building that bond with her.  My parents are some of the most understanding and loving people I have ever known. Sure, they drive me insane sometimes, but they are my parents, and I have no doubts that they love me unconditionally.

I have also been blessed to have an awesome girlfriend. We haven’t been dating for long, but I am excited to see where this goes and am praying for God’s direction and guidance on this, because, if I can be honest again, I really suck at relationships. But Heather is different, and I want to learn to show her how much I care. I will learn, I am learning. Becuase she is super cool and is an amazing woman of God and I appreciate that more than she’ll ever know.

I am by no means perfect, in fact, I am so far away from it that it makes me sick! Sometimes I am full of anger, greed, lust, laziness, and a host of other things. But I am learning a lot about honesty lately. I want to be forthcoming about my sins because the dark can’t survive when it’s brought into the light…and I might as well bring it out myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not gonna unload everything on everyone I meet, but I want to be transparent with my life because when people look at me, I don’t want them to see me, for all the good or bad I have done, but I want them to see Christ and his work in my life. That is the most important goal I have: that people would see Christ. And if unleashing all of my inadquacies on an unsuspecting public can do that, then so be it.

There’s an introduction to me. I’m not very interesting, but there it is.

See ya next time…if there is a next time.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are —yet he did not sin.Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.–Hebrews 4:14-16