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.

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

The Man that God Wants

I looked down at the note card filled with writing and then back up at him. I saw eyes full of pain, scarred from a life of bad decisions and suffering inflicted on him by others. I saw genuine repentance in his eyes. I saw a heart that seems irreparably broken into pieces by a lifetime of living a life that he was not made to live.

prison_0

It was a normal night with the prisoners, like the many I had experienced over the past four years. I spoke on Ezekiel 37, the same passage I preached from my last Sunday at Beulah. There are some things that God just sears into your head, never letting you forget. And from time to time, it becomes necessary to speak those same passages over others. As I talked about the grace of God, a God who does better than simply making us to be good people, but instead brings us from death to life and continually issues the charge for his people to prophesy to the ruah (breath, wind, spirit) and let the power of God bring the dead around us, the dead in us, to life again, I looked out, wondering if the words I believed were from the Holy Spirit held any weight or could hold meaning for anyone in the room.

And I caught one man’s eyes. He may have been in his mid thirties and had tattoos all over exposed skin. He looked lonely, quiet, and like he didn’t really feel comfortable. We broke up into groups and the man I locked eyes with came up to me and asked if he could speak to me away from the group. Hesitantly, as to not want to leave my partner alone, I went to the corner with him where he handed me a note card with prayer requests written all over it. In it, he talked about a lot of things that were going on in his life. The rest of the details were very personal and it’s not my place to share, but on it he wrote, “please pray for God to help me change into the man that he wants me to be.”

We talked for maybe 20 minutes and he began to cry. He kept saying it felt stupid to cry, and I encouraged him to do whatever he needed to do. The Spirit then prompted me to intercede for him out loud, so I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for Jesus to overcome him with need. Need for him, daily, purposefully, an ever consistent longing for the presence of God that will break the chains of addiction, depression, and the need to be self-sufficient.

We were not made to do life alone. And from the college campus on which I currently reside to a homely old prison chapel made of cinderblock walls and pews creak and groan when you sit on them, God has a funny way of placing people in our path that need his mercy.

I need his mercy, every day of my life.

And this man, who told me that he didn’t believe he could even construct a pure thought if he tried, was so overcome with his need for a Savior that I looked at him and smiled. From somewhere deep in my soul, I smiled and told him that maybe the purest thought we could ever have is in our need for God. We spoke about a lot of things last night, and he pretty much spilled his whole life story to me in the span of a few minutes and I was reminded of why Prison Fellowship has been such a huge learning experience for me.

I let him know that, though I’d never struggled with some of the things he has dealt with, I know what it feels like to feel so incredibly lost that the only words you can speak to God are “help me.” I understand that most days I value myself and my desires above my desire for Christ. I know what it feels like to be addicted, lonely, and afraid. But that he is not alone.

That Jesus Christ is the only desirable thing in me, and the sole objective of our lives is to make him the sole desire of our hearts.

He told me he missed feeling the Spirit on him, and I told him that I do too.

He told me he wanted to become the man God wants him to be, and I told him that I do too.

And as he spoke, I saw the spark of desire in his eyes and knew that he was so close to seeing what I strive (and many times fail) to see every single day.

God wants a broken heart, a contrite spirit, he wants us to be men and women that are primarily concerned with desiring him more fully. He is not content with half-hearted devotion, but instead wants everything from us.

A decision to follow Christ is not about the perks you can amass, it’s about finding your greatest treasure buried in a field and selling everything to buy the field so you can have the only thing that consumes your heart. It’s about coming to end of yourself in a jail cell and realizing your need to be saved. It’s about sitting across from a self-proclaimed loner/addict/criminal and seeing his desire for Christ and reminding yourself that he and you aren’t so different. It’s about growing up in a Christian home with loving parents and being so consumed with doing the right thing that you lose your way and become a slave to legalism and secret sins that rip your soul to shreds and coming to the end of yourself in a college dorm room your freshman year and realizing your need for Christ and knowing that you are nothing without him.

If those guys at prison and I have anything in common, it’s that we are united in our inability to save ourselves.

Humanity’s common denominator is its collective brokenness.

May Christ raise us up to be men and women who seek him, who desire him above every worthless thing and every worthless lie we have believed.

I pray that for me, that I could be the man that God wants me to be.

And I pray that for my brothers who have lived a life they weren’t meant for, that God would call each and every one of them to repentance and into a relationship with Jesus.

I’ve heard so many people talk about “jailhouse religion” and it frustrates me to no end. That may be true for some, but to doubt that God meets us at the end of ourselves and brings the dead to life in Jesus is to doubt that he is who he says he is. And, like I told my new friend, I don’t presume to know your life, to understand the depths of who you are, and I in no way mean to belittle the struggle that is this life, but God loves you. He loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you so you would be set free. Acceptance of this doesn’t make life easier, but it makes it better. It bends it toward purpose and makes you into the man or woman God desires for you to be as you desire him more and more every day.

I will keep my new friend’s note card. And I will pray for him daily, that God would undo the shackles he has placed on himself, and that at the end of the day, the desperation he feels would point him to Jesus, and if the only cry he can muster is “help” that God would honor that and draw him to himself. That his desire for Christ would overwhelm every vain thing that tries to take its place in his heart.

“O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, so that I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, ‘Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.’ Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.”-A.W. Tozer