August 21st was one of those rare days where people cheered darkness. In Seattle, where the eclipse only reached 92% of total, it was still dark enough, cold enough, awesome enough, to elicit cheers. It was the same everywhere along the path of darkness forged by the moon – eruptions of joy as people embraced the darkness.
The rest of our lives, it’s a different story, especially if we’ve been taught to love Jesus. We’ve often learned that darkness is unequivocally bad. Every verse mentioning it says so, linking darkness with Satan, and all else worth avoiding in the world.
As a result, we’ve managed to find ways of banishing darkness. We’ve caste it out of the natural world by lighting up the night so that we don’t need to deal with it at all until we close our eyes for sleep (though our extension of light beyond what nature intended means we’re paying a price). We’ve cast it out of our faith too, by creating what one favorite author calls “the full solar version of Christianity”, a faith which intensely seeks to keep the lights on perpetually. “All good, all the time – that’s Jesus!” they say, with a big grin and powerful handshake. In its worst forms, it claims to “pray the darkness away” whether the darkness is cancer, infidelity, abuse, job loss, or a shocking accident that leaves a husband and father suddenly staring into a future of loneliness, his family having been killed in the car. All good all the time? Wishing it were so, yea even praying it, doesn’t make it so. Ugh.
Darkness is real. But don’t despair. God lives there too.
When Abraham doubted God, where did God send him? Out into the dark to count the stars. When Jacob was running for his life as a self perceived failure and dropped down to sleep in desert, God met him there in a dream, in the dark. Later God met him again in the dark for a wrestling match. The shepherds? The dark. Jesus birth? The dark. Jesus final triumph over evil that caused him to cry “it is finished” and graves to break open? The dark yet again. It turns out some good things happen in the dark after all. But there’s more.
The reality is that darkness has been with us since the beginning, before sin. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day…” From the beginning, it was our lot in life to deal with the darkness, about half the time actually – at least physically. Ecclesiastes tells me that the same’s true in the real of spirit and emotion, at least in this present age. “There’s a time for everything” is how the wise old preacher put it: birth and death, war and peace, seeking and losing, laughter and tears – a time for everything; including darkness.
The reason this looms large as an issue is because we live in a world were all manner of bad things happen, plunging us into the darkness of uncertainty. She walks out of the oncologists office with a 40% chance of living a year. He weeps at the graveside of his spouse, wondering what’s next for he and his three children. They weep as the ultrasound reveals an abnormality.
What are we supposed to do? Celebrate? Resort to hollow praise in hopes that if we sing loud enough all will be fixed? Claim our healing and prosperity? Nope. There is one thing only:
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize that these seasons of uncertainty, loss, betrayal, and even death, go with the territory of the world in which we live. I sometimes thing that some of us Christians like the light so much that, ironically, we stick our heads in the sands to live in denial of the darkness all around us. But hear this: the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that, though the darkness is real – God meets us there, and walks with us there. Our fear of the dark has the affect of shuttering our lives, so that joy dries up, risk dries up, faith and hope dry up. Our single paradigm becomes avoiding the dark – hardly a decent way to live ever, but especially if you’re called to courageous faith, as all disciples are.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” writes about one grown woman who was terrified by the dark: her fear was the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is cdangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence si to stay inside after dark, with the doors locked and sleep with lights on.”
Not Abraham or Jacob, as they pondered infinity under the starry sky. Not Jonah in the darkness of a fish’s belly. Not Job in the darkness of mysterious and massive loss. Not Jesus in the Garden, or even on the cross when the whole world turned dark. Not Paul and Silas in the darkness of dungeon prison.
Why? Because the light of the world is with us, even in the dark. “Even the darkness is light to you….” is how the Psalmist says it. This is why I say, “Welcome autumn – with your shorter colder days. Thank you for the chance to learn how to walk with you through the dark seasons.”
If you’d care to comment on how God has met you in the dark, I and perhaps other readers too, would be grateful.
Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created. At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope. Here’s help:
If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul. Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….
“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance. When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand… (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders: porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble. The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…” (Alpinist. Vol. 58)
The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place. It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war. We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship. Sharin learned this in the mountains. For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.
“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God: “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views. You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy. Love, God.”
I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans. Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.
If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty. Knowing how this happens will help us fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.
Hope is stolen through misdirection. “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.” “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.” “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”. “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.” “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.
They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have. We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control. The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control. It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed. The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly. These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair. These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes. These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out. The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.
Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple. Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” Perhaps. But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain. Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.
The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives. Real hope is solid. The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.
God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future: joy! I believe history is headed in that direction. This is my confident expectation, my hope. “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?
Two things, at least. First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope. It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.
Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it. It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.” It was the place of wild horses. It was beauty. It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.
But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism. In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers. It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world. Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.
Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’. Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken . Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace. We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship. This is as it should be.
If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.
All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen. Why not take it back right now?
O Lord Christ –
We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer. We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.
Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts. May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation. And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.
I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler? If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling. In fact, they’re confident they will fall. They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again. This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too. I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down. Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so. He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis. It looked serious. I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes. No fear of falling there!
Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else. We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness. Don’t stand out. Don’t make waves. Conform. And above all – don’t fall! It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.
This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly: the Pharisees. They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:
1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers. This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more. In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.
2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.
3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality. In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with. That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.
4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small. “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was. We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.
The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge. There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.
Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.
David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.
Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.
Paul? Courageous and argumentative. Humble and proud. Content and coveting.
Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.
Solomon? Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)
Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls. Every. Person. But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling. This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job. This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it. This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”
All right then. We’ve fallen. We’ve named it. We’ve seen it. We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on. That’s the way it should work. That’s why Martin Luther said, Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”
These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure. Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.
I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites. Rubbish. If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all. You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world. Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement. Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality. The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.
Why don’t we set out to live this way?
Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly. We’d rather deify and vilify. We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.
Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.
Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home. Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.
Infants get this. So do most children. And climbers too. Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?
When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented. It happened years ago with Avatar. Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.
Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow), it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”. My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie. I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes: the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.
New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse. Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.
The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy. The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger. Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults. Sound familiar?
In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own. This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.
Nothing’s changed, of course. The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator. Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.
The curse is broken in the movie, of course. It’s broken in real life too. The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.
The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken. Why is this?
The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.
For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.
We’d be wise to take a cue from him. After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism. Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!
Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement. So there you go. You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong. You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters. You’ve built a wall.
Congratulations. But make no mistake. You’ll pay for your own wall.
The better way? Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine. Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
You wake up in the morning and scan the news on your phone. Two text messages into your day you already know you’ll be working late. Then you discover you’re out of coffee and realize that you’d stopped at the store on your way home last night for only one reason: to buy the beans. As you entered though, you saw the oranges and thought you should pick a few up since it’s the end of citrus season, and that led you down a different aisle where you picked up a few malted peanut butter balls as comfort food and some oatmeal to counter the effects of the balls. You decided on fish for supper and found a wine to pair with it, and left satisfied. Only now, just when you need the most, you’re lacking the beans so you curse yourself for being so flighty. The presidential debate debrief in the news tells you that every single candidate on stage last night lied numerous times except the guy that will soon need to quit because he has only 3% of the vote. You slam your fist on the table, wondering what’s to become of our country when clowns and mad men are the ones America is clamoring to elect.
While you drink your tea (TEA!!! ugh), you scan your schedule and realize you have three difficult meetings today and then a notification hits your phone for a fourth, slated for that time you were planning a stress relieving run. The traffic getting in is ridiculous, and by the time you arrive at work, you can only think of one thing: the weekend. You grit your teeth and prepare to endure another day in the trenches, just hanging on until you can breathe again.
Let’s hone in on that one phrase: “endure another day” because I’m increasingly convinced that, while there’s a place for endurance in our world, we endure we more than we should. Endurance is what we often choose when we’re facing circumstances that are different than our expectations. When we encounter them, we hang on, pushing through until it’s over. Hard meetings. Company. Meetings. The dentist. Eating our broccoli. There are lots of things we ‘endure’.
I’d argue that everything in life is either OE or OE. Either we have Obligations to be Endured, or Opportunities to be Enjoyed. As I grow older I’m learning that things I once thought of as obligations can just as easily be thought of as opportunities, and when considered in the light of opportunities, they become easier, lighter, and more joy filled, even if they’re things I would never have chosen. Notice I said, “easier” rather than “easy” because let’s face it, not everything is easy. Still, I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have watched people go through unemployment, business failure, cancer, the loss of a parent or child, and relationship implosion. Nobody would choose any of these things, but in this fallen world, these are realities that come our way.
What I’ve seen is that there are people who, though they wouldn’t have chosen their circumstance, manage to be fully present in it, and find enough beauty and joy in the moment to be express gratitude. I know one man who, shortly before he died, said to me, “Richard I am so grateful for all the things I’ve learned through my cancer, and how it’s shaped me to be a better husband, father, and Christ follower.” Then, with tears, he said, “I don’t know if I’d have learned these things without the cancer” Wow!
He reminds me of Paul who, in writing his letter to the Philippians, says, “I want you to know that my circumstances (of being imprisoned) have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel…and in this I rejoice.” The capacity to find opportunity and enjoyment in circumstances we’d never have chosen is, I’m learning, a sign of wisdom.
In contrast, I’ve known people for whom the couple is always half empty. Anger over their employment situation; bitterness over health challenges; staleness in their marriage; there are people who are, when they wake in the morning, already looking forward to the end of the day. This is sad to me, because their days are piling up as Obligations to be Endured. Joyless. Lifeless. Stressful. It’s ironic that Paul, in prison, sees an Opportunity to be Enjoyed, and I can’t even handle my commute.
It’s my commute, by the way, that showed me the power of this lesson. I received a fitbit watch for Christmas so that I can now see my pulse whenever I want just by looking at my wrist. The southbound traffic from North Seattle to downtown is almost always bad when I’m heading home, and since I’m new to commuting the time quickly became a source of frustration, an obligation to be endured. I’d fume about the poor planning of our city officials, fume about the endless growth of our city, fume about the tunnel project that I voted against twice! The whole time, I was also thinking, “as soon as I get past Issaquah, I’ll be happy again” thus making my commute through the city an obligation to be endured.
Then I started looking at my pulse while I was sitting in traffic and realized it was way too high, and I’d fume about my pulse, and my anxiety levels, which only made me more anxious, and then my pulse would go up some more. You get the picture. Type A; more than I care to admit.
Then I repented. I begin to see my commute as an opportunity to be enjoyed. The first day with this new perspective, I started paying attention to the views: our glorious space needle; queen Rainier; Lake Union. I’d pray little prayers of gratitude for the privilege of serving the city I love more than any other in the world. I’d thank God for the beauty. I’d pray for shalom for our city, pray for the churches.
After doing this once or twice, I looked at my pulse watch and didn’t believe it. My pulse was 25 beats lower per minute! This has been happening consistently now for a couple of months, so I know it’s not a mistake. It is, rather, a change of perspective. It’s a matter of looking forward to the commute as a time to pray, enjoy the beauty, maybe listen to a staff member’s sermon online to help give feedback. Enjoyment leads to peace, and peace leads to joy, or something like that.
I’ve begun expanding this little trick, applying it to other things. Social engagements I wouldn’t have chosen? The fourth sermon of the day? A report that needs to be written? A salad?
It’s crazy, but when I seek to follow the example of Joseph in Genesis, and Paul in Philippians and the later chapters of Acts, I begin to view most of life as an opportunity to be enjoyed, and the results are an increased sense of joy and gratitude, not to mention better health! If the only thing on your “opportunity to be enjoyed” list, is your hobby and your free time, you’ve got a problem. You’re cheating yourself out of joy most of your waking moments. Repent. Enjoy.
An Austrian monk explains this perspective better than anyone I know. Take a few minutes now and watch this, and then go out and finish your day with the perspective that most of it, as much as possible, is a gift from God, an opportunity to be enjoyed!
Cheers friends, and may the Peace of Christ be yours in full measure as you seek Him.
When my wife and I arrived home Monday night after a 5 day delay in getting there due to “snow on snow” (12 feet, or 4 meters for my Europe friends) as the Christmas carol says, the house was dark because the power had gone out. As a result there’s darkness, and lots of it. This far north on the earth, with this many clouds, our world is dark most of December by nature; without intervention we’re in the dark about 17 hours a day!!
Inside, a few candles dispel the total darkness that would otherwise be ours. Now, into our fourth day of power outage, I’m musing on the powers of darkness and light – and perhaps there’s no better day to muse on this than Christmas Eve…
“The Light Shines in the Darkness” is how the great mystic disciple of Jesus named John put it, “and the darkness did not overpower it…”
That’s the way of it of course. Monday night, near midnight, the power had returned and my wife and I were startled awake by the hum of various motors and the return of lights. I turned the all off and returned to bed, but the relief was short lived; another moment awake in the middle of the night was when I realized we were in the dark again. In this total darkness it’s in you to freeze up, afraid of hitting a wall or running your foot into the edge of something. Every step’s tentative, and this is visceral. It’s deeply embedded in our ancient brains to move tentatively, if at all, when darkness shrouds our world.
Then I light a match, there at 2AM, and then a candle. That’s all it takes to dispel the freeze of tentativeness, instilling in me a confidence to move, to live, to take action. Light dispels more than darkness. It dispels fear, uncertainty, and the kind of disengagement that shrinks our lives.
It’s literal of course, but it’s metaphor too, because John is saying that the meaning of Christmas is that light, in the form of Christ. “In Him was life and the life was the light of humans” which means that in a world of darkness, there’s a light to dispel the kind of fear, disengagement, and uncertainty that leads to the racism, tribalism, and violence that so saturates our world.
When the young man who shot and killed people in a South Carolina prayer meeting appeared in court, he was met by family members of the victims declaring their forgiveness. Light shines in the darkness.
A young man, at cost of his life, shelters three young girls in a different shooting. Light shines in the darkness.
Light doesn’t just show in martyrdom though. It shows up in generosity, words of encouragement, crossing social and racial divides, opening your home, visiting prisoners, and o so much more. Light shows up in powerful beacon-like ways, and tiny acts with no more lumens than a single match. It matters not: light is always light. It always wins.
In a world punctuated by the darkness of violence, war, betrayal, and loss, 2015 has been especially dark on a global scale. I don’t need to pour out details of mass shootings, insane dictators, blatant racism, millions of refugees, and the scourge of human trafficking that courses through the veins of our tired earth like a cancer. You know it all already. This is the face of darkness.
I find it poignant that it’s always at the sites of mass shooting or other great losses that there’s a gathering of candles. It’s almost instinctive in us to light a candle at those spaces such as Paris and San Bernadino where darkness has sought to overtake us. It’s a small way of saying “NO! In the name of God, we won’t let darkness prevail. Light wins!”
For years I’ve had a little poster in my office that says, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” and o how we need to hear this word as we enter 2016, when most of what I hear is how bad the world is, and how stupid politicians are, and how stupid people are for voting for politicians. Blah. Blah. Blah. Enough already.
How about being light instead?
We need this word because it’s not a platitude, it’s a powerful reality. Jesus said it this way when he spoke to his followers: “You are the light of the world…let your light shine…!” There’s much more to the text but the essence for this moment of darkness is to realize that you and I have a calling. Having been granted the eternal light that is Christ as our indwelling source of hope, it’s incumbent on us to let that light shine, so that all the hope, mercy, generosity, service, wisdom, grace, and reconciling power that is found in Christ alone will find expression in your life and mine.
Every action that looks like the love, generosity, service, sacrifice, wisdom, forgiveness, and joy that is Jesus, is light! And the thing about light is that it always wins; always dispels the darkness as a hint that, when history’s fully written, we won’t all have been sucked into a black hole. Rather, “there will no longer by any ight; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them…”
One little light, born in a manger, is spreading still, and will overcome all darkness in the end.
So tonight when you light your candle (or join us online if you can’t make it to ours or your own), remember that all the light which fills the dark room comes from one source. We receive it gladly and pass it only until the darkness disappears. This isn’t some cute little service. This is the hope of the world.
Go. Be the light, even as you celebrate the source. Merry Christmas!
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden. I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive. I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids. He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone. All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house. The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.
Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed. Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.
Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95. There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps. I can say that because I was the officiant. The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
“I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:
Oscar Stokes – February 1972
Lillian Stokes – April 1973
Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973
Esther Dahlstrom – 1975
Dorothy Stokes – April 1976
I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school. The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me. At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure. The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.
So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.
Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.
And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.
Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad. Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.
Then it happened. At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God. The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing. Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!
I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life. I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found. But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray. I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.
I was wrong. Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry. What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort. This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me. I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t. At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.
As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class. I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future. The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade. By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.
The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life. It was the convergence of these two spots on the planet—Sugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.
And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering. Far from it. The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain. It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt. We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.
But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives. Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding. Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married. Even more, I wish they’d known him. But no. It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55. The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of made—all of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss. Wow. That’s a story a worth telling.
My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone. I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonder—if she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle? Ever met my wife? Would Holly have ever been born? And that’s when it hits me—the glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Romans 11