Today, I don’t have anything original to share, but this quote by Brennan Manning made me deeply thankful for the overwhelming grace of God and I want to share it with you:

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

‘But how?’ we ask.

Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
― Brennan Manning

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


Capture

“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

Of Intentions and Idols (Let Us Run)

Chains

I sat with my class in a corner of the sanctuary, music played throughout the building, people sang and prayed and worshiped. I saw children running, only to be stopped by concerned parents and shushed by the present clergy. This was a sacred place, a holy place to encounter the divine.

And on the stage, one might’ve expected to see a pulpit rising above the crowd. But instead, there stood several monolithic statues, faces etched from stone, frozen in time forever, or at least until the years ate away at them, paint faded and crumbling. These were the gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith, impersonal sentinels with stony faces looking toward their devoted worshipers indifferently.

A lot of folks, especially those of my own religion, would compare this scene to that of an ancient city in an ancient world that bears no resemblance to our own. But that is not true. It is a world we live in, and a world we find ourselves entrenched in, even in the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to a Hindu temple in Charlotte. It was an interesting experience, one where I gained much respect for the people, but also came away with a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness.

This particular instance was a more vivid depiction of idolatry than I’d ever seen in my own American dream-ridden life or in the lives of the people around me. It’s a lot less subtle when you watch people literally bowing down to and offering food to statues who will never be able partake of it. But what I saw there was a reflection of my own heart and my own proclivities.

Tim Keller, hearkening back to John Calvin, says that our hearts are idol factories. This means that something about human nature points to the inescapable fact that we are wired for worship. And if God is not the center of our worship, we will surely find something to take his place. I saw people in that temple physically bowing down to idols, participating in what we would call idolatry, but hey! At least they are honest about it.

Myself and so many of those I love fill their lives with a plethora of distractions and luxuries that we like to pretend have no ultimate grip on our lives. And idolatry barely ever starts out as a bad thing…Idolatry, in its simplest form is making good things ultimate things. It is where admiration turns to obsession, where appreciating God’s good gifts becomes focusing more on the gift than on the Giver, where want becomes overwhelming need.

Here’s a good test for whether or not that thing you love is an idol to you: If it were to be taken away, could you go on living? Obviously, I’m not talking about enough food to live or water. But the point is that the problem doesn’t lie in the idols themselves, many of these things are innately good gifts from God. But the problem is somewhere deeper, the problem is inside of us, in our hearts. We are desperate to worship, but not so desperate to be obedient to the thing we worship. Which is why worshiping God seems so difficult, because of what that demands of us.

But the catch is that you cannot worship anything without obeying it, whether you realize it or not. All this makes me thing about that anti-smoking commercial that was floating around a while back. Here it is:

The thing is, whatever you devote all of your time, energy, and devotion to will stop being a good gift to be used and start making the rules for you. You build your life around the thing you idolize. We turn good gifts like sex into porn, prostitution, and nymphomania. We turn food into gluttony or anorexia and bulimia. We make something good sinful and let it reign over our lives. Instead of God.

I have a lot to learn about idolatry, but I see it in my everyday life. My prayer for myself as well as for those who are reading this is that we will return to Christ, worship him as he ought to be worshiped, and place our affections on him, and not on the idols that we hold dear. It is God’s desire for us to seek first the Kingdom, and it is my desire that that would be my desire as well.

“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”-Saint Augustine

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.

image

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.

True Love Weights (or, the one about sex)

“Are you married?”

That would always be the question from the time I was about 14. During any conversation with a person I just met, their eyes would casually drift over to my ring finger on my left hand and they would see the small silver ring that I wore with pride. This ring that symbolized purity. This ring that made the bold statement that I would be saving sex as a gift only to be experienced with my wife. This ring that symbolized everything that I would soon find out stood in stark contrast to the culture around me. This ring I wore not out of faithfulness to God’s standards, but as an ostentation. A show. A lie.

Because what is purity, and what does it involve? Is it simply abstaining from an act with someone else until marriage? Because if that’s all it is, I’m doing pretty good. But what if it’s more? What if it involves, like Job, making a covenant with your eyes to keep from looking at another lustfully? Have I succeeded? Can I succeed? Can any of us?

About four or five years later, as I watched that little silver ring fall out of the 3rd story window of my dorm room and into the grass below, I’d settled on an answer.

Before I continue to tell you my story, let me back up a bit more and write about when I first got that little silver ring. If you aren’t familiar with certain strains of evangelical Christian culture, you may not know about True Love Waits. It’s an organization that is built on the premise that  complete abstinence until marriage is integral to God’s design for human sexuality. After taking a class on the matter, there was a big ceremony where all the participants would get a small silver ring to wear as a symbol of purity, of their intent to abide by God’s way with regard to sex.

So don’t get me wrong, I fully support and agree with that message and, as both a Christian and a youth minister, I advise others in the same way. But my experience in this “class,” left a lot to be desired. For one, we heard the message in its simplest form, stripped of all context “don’t have sex  because Leviticus says so.” And further on, “don’t have sex because you’ll get an STD.”

I have very little respect for the husband-wife duo who were tasked with teaching us what scripture says about sexual relationships. Rather than hear and understand why one’s sexuality is so important, why waiting until marriage is a good thing, we simply heard, “NO!”

Everything built on the premise that sex is dirty, ugly, taboo.

Everything built on the lie that sex is not a good thing.

I now believe that sex, in the confines of marriage between a loving husband and wife, is good and holy, and reflects the Father in more ways than we can name. I believe it is important to speak about it, and not pretend it doesn’t happen. I believe that sex is good, and if it should be talked about anywhere, it is most definitely the Church’s responsibility to reclaim sexuality in the way it was intended, rather than treat it as an unmentionable obscenity.

If I listened to those teachers from my church, I wouldn’t have believed any of that. I would be afraid of sex, or just as bad, like a child told not to eat the cookies from the cookie jar, or our first mother told not to eat of the tree, I would’ve run headfirst into a lifestyle I wasn’t at all prepared for.

So my experience with “the sex talk” was an unpleasant one, at best. But I wore the ring anyway.

Maybe it made me feel holier than I was. Maybe it gave me a sense of security in that, hey maybe I had raging hormones and looked at every girl I saw with lust in my heart and my mind wasn’t nearly has pure as my left hand ring finger was, but at least I wasn’t lying like my friends who still wore their rings, even though I knew for sure that they’d been anything but pure.

And what about pornography?

The place I never wanted to go, but went anyway.

It wasn’t enough for me to just imagine it, like any good millennial, I was a very visually immersive teenager. What I desired in my heart, I needed to see with my eyes. And when those images met my retinas, they never left. And though I wore a ring around my finger, I didn’t wear it around my heart.

So flash forward back to the year I threw the ring out the window. I was majorly conflicted. See,my freshman year of college, I joined a group called “Dude Church” which acted as an accountability group where a bunch of guys got together and talked about sexual temptation, porn, and lust and prayed for one another. What becomes problematic about a group like that is, no one likes to let loose their dirty little secret, and rather than become supportive, it can easily become another avenue to heap shame and condemnation on yourself in the prison of your own mind. Honesty is freeing, yes, but it is also the scariest thing you can do.

So, keeping my confessions to a bare minimum, selectively choosing what to say and what to leave out, I’d trapped myself in my guilt. Rather than believing that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, I defaulted to the shame I’d learned to embrace in my True Love Waits class.

And the “wait” became more of a “weight” on my chest, a noose I’d tightened around my own throat. And with all my emotions pulling me higher and higher, I could not longer breathe.

So that moment on the top floor of my dorm was pivotal for me. It was the turning point between the version of me that I wanted the world to see and the one that actually existed. It was when I began to finally understand that when I leave this world, I want to leave it as a man with no secrets, as a man who finally understands the grace of God as a transformative force, rather than an empty, ostentatious formality.

So, thinking about whatever I believed purity was, I’d decided that I was not. And I took off the ring and watched it as if fell. And I didn’t go look for it later. For me, symbols are powerful. A ring was more than a ring. It was a false impression. It was a source of pride I’d put in myself and my ability to stay away from that dirty thing called sex. And as long as I didn’t cross the line, I was fine.

But that’s simply not true. Wasn’t it Jesus who said that lust and adultery are one in the same? That the intentions and motives of the heart make you just as culpable as if you’d committed the act itself?

And now, years removed from shedding the ring, I don’t believe that God’s impression of me is tied to how I squandered the gift of purity I’d mistakenly made into an idol. I believe that God’s view of me is tied to the sacrifice of Jesus that we celebrated last weekend at Easter. That the grace of God in Jesus covers all my sins past, present, and future.

And the lust, pride, anger, and idolatry I’ve so willingly ran headfirst into, that was washed away at Calvary and I am free.

Purity isn’t something that, once you’ve ruined, you can never get back. Purity is a process. One where you fall down on your face and rise again. Because if the Gospel has taught me anything, it’s that God’s approval of me is not contingent on a list of rules I keep, it is contingent only on Jesus Christ.

For clarity’s sake, I absolutely believe in God’s design for sex. I believe that abstinence until marriage is a key to joy. I believe that sin is serious, so serious that Christ had to die and defeat death for it to be erased. But I believe in a God who saves, who redeems the unredeemable, who sets us free from destructive patterns.

If your purity becomes an idol, you are sinning.

If what people think of you is more important to you than what truly is, please reevaluate your addiction to self. Because before God, all of our sins are out in the open, and we cannot hide.

Be honest. Be forgiven. Be free.

Pursuit and Faithlessness (or, Holy Week and where I find myself.)

“Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.” (John 19:15-16)

easter-cross-daybreak

Since I was a child, I was always as fascinated as I was terrified by the events of what those in my tradition of faith have come to call “Holy Week.”

How could people who revered Jesus at the beginning of the week, even so far as to throw palm branches and their coats on the ground to make way for him and call him Rescuer, their Hosanna, join the chorus for his demise by Friday? And what is so good about Friday, anyway? How could the disciples, who dedicated everything and vowed allegiance to him and walked and talked and lived with him for three years just abandon him in his darkest hour? What kind of disciple would do that?

These were the thoughts that crossed by mind as I was a boy. But as I grew up, those questions gave way to more powerful questions, questions that came from experience and from the fear that comes from having your faith tested. Questions like, if I were in their position would I do the same? Surely I would. Surely I have.

How many times have I abandoned Christ for something much less fulfilling? How many times have I praised him in one breath only to curse him in the next? How many times have I accepted the title of disciple in the light but abandoned it in the dark, or when it demanded too much of me?

What is loyalty to Christ, and do I myself have it?  Do you? Do any of us, for that matter?

As we reflect on Easter, on the glorious resurrection of Jesus, who paid for all of our sin and shame on the cross, it is my prayer that we would not lose sight of the fact that it was our transgressions that put him there.

The story isn’t simply one we read of characters in a book. No, the story of Scripture is more revealing and powerful than that. We are invited into the story, recalling that though our sins and betrayal are great, a debt we can never pay, what held Jesus on the cross was his love for all of us.

Though our sins are as scarlet, he has washed them white as snow.

And though we are forgiven, we can’t forget what it cost. We cannot withold forgiveness from those who don’t deserve it, because that isn’t what our Hosanna did.

We cannot cling to past sins that try to chain us to shame.

We can’t cling to present sins that keep our world shrouded in dark.

We can’t forget that our identities are tethered not to who we have been, or who we have been believed to be, but to whom we belong.

That the Cross is as relevant today as it ever was.

As a kid, I always wanted to blame people trapped in a book, because Jesus was the hero, and the people who betrayed him, who denied him, whipped him, and killed him were the bad guys and I was angry at them for what they did.

But that was before I realized that their story is my story, I am just as capable for that treachery and just as culpable for it.

When asked by Pilate if Jesus was their king, the chief priests answered that they had no king but Caesar, but maybe even that was a lie.

In my own experience, I have lived as king of my own heart and life, and I suspect the same was true of them.

I have lived in pursuit of holiness, grasping and rules and regulations to handcuff my heart to something that slightly resembled God, but left me wanting.

I have lived in pursuit of everything but holiness, indulging in everything I could to fill the emptiness inside me, but all it did was leave me broken and handcuffed to pain.

And I have, in those elusive moments of honest clarity, pursued Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior. He rescues me time and time again. And I deny him like Peter. And I sell him like Judas. And I just run away like the others.
Abandoment. In the face of such a wondrous love, I spat.

What God is this who loves me still?
Who seeks my heart and my devotion,
even when I am blithe to his pursuit, going about my merry way and pretending the lover of my soul doesn’t exist?

Friends, as we think about Easter, I pray we remember what it cost. I pray we share the life giving Gospel again and again. I pray we never turn it into a self help manual, but as a key to unlock doors and let the light pour in.

God is faithful, even when we are faithless.

Happy Easter week.
Honor Christ.
Keep it holy.

ΑΩ