Possibilities with the Spirit

But the counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27

Real and fresh conversation
Me to child: Hey, go get your CD player, put in new batteries, bring it upstairs with your earphones and set them on the counter.
Child: CD player?
Me: The one in your bedroom?
Child: What? Why? It’s doesn’t need batteries. It has a plug. We can just plug it in.
Me: Maybe you aren’t going to be where there’s a plug.
Child: What? Where am I going?
Me: Hey. Go do what I asked you to do. (pause) Now.
Child: oooookay…
(time passes)
Child: I got the player but I can’t open it to get the batteries out.
Me: Try to do it again… as if your very life depended on it.
(time  passes)
Child: Okay. It’s all set. Now what am I going to listen to?
Me: Who said you were going to listen to something?
Child: You did.
Me: No, I didn’t. I asked you to go and get some things but I didn’t say you were going to listen to anything.
Child: Well, what am I going to do?
Me: Finish the job.
Child: How?
Me: Remembering what I asked you to do.
Child: But I can’t.
Me: Because…
Child: I don’t know…
Me: Well, do you know if you finished what I asked you to do?
Child: Uh, no. I don’t know…what did you say?
Me: Put the CD player and your earphones on the counter and back away. That is all.

Sometimes, I’ll tell my kids about something we’re going to do and even though it’s all planned, they’ll begin to re-plan the event or check on me to make sure that I’ve thought of everything. Or like in the real and fresh conversation above, they won’t even begin to listen because, I guess, I speak another language or maybe they just don’t want to buy into what I’m asking until they know and trust every detail. That could be it.

Other times, I get hurt because I’m trying to help one of them with something and they just don’t want to listen. I might remember the same sort of thing happening to me. I might wish that I had thought of or known what I did afterwards but the child sort of “oh’s” me aside.

Then there’s the feeling of frustration I often experience when there is a pattern of disobedience and willfulness that is disruptive and, possibly, destructive to others or our home. When I find myself repeating the same bit of direction over and over, that’s when I tend to lose my interest in peace and neutrality to the point that I’ll lose my cool. Everyone finds it easy to back away then.

These are real feelings and I’m becoming very glad for them. Not for the sake of indulgence though, or license. Having a number of children hanging around all the time, I can go through these different emotions and scenarios over and over in rapid succession in a short amount of time and what it’s doing is creating my own personal and private tipping point of reflection. When I get the chance to step back and think it all over again, I find myself coming up against the same blunt awareness. I am very much like them.

Last week I was reading in John 14 and read verse 27. I admit that often I have skipped the first part of the verse to get to the last part of the verse because I tend to hunger and long for peace. This time, though, I noticed the counselor-who-the-father-provided part. The following is from my journal.

While I am so thankful for the counsel of the Holy Spirit, I know I do not always listen. I don’t hear him at times, until it is too late. Sometimes, I’m aware but feel unsure how to make the change or do it differently, especially in the middle of something intense. 

The counsel is still there, though, and when I recognize it, so often it’s a balm, a salve and I feel relieved to sense it. I feel joined and strengthened in the Spirit’s direction and I know that it is good, the very best thing that’s ever touched my mind. Like a breeze that feels whole and welcome, I know that I am not alone and the fullest care is all about me. That is Presence and when I am aware, when I allow myself to acknowledge the Spirit is there and counseling me with effect, I want to laugh with joy, cry with gratefulness and never have it go away. 


And that’s the rub. I treat the Spirit as an ‘it’, a thing instead of the Holy, Pure Conscience that this One of the Trinity is. I pretend it comes at me, all disconnected, willfully against my needs or like a miser, doling out only the littlest of offerings, yet, the Spirit, like the Son and the Father are Always. Always Present. Ready. Available. Real. Full. Faithful. I am the one who leaves, who shuts out the succor, who wanders in circles, lonely. I have a weak sense of the utter wholeness of the Presence of God, and it’s my downfall.

You know the oft-used phrase about that apple and how far it falls from the tree? It applies here. Possibly, I am missing out on the peace part that comes at the end because I am too busy trying to check on God, or get him to give me all the details so I’m sure I should trust what he’s asking me to do? Possibly, for sure. What would happen if I listened completely the first time and didn’t think too hard and just followed through? What if?

Making Arrangements

“You must arrange to live with deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday experience of life with God.” – Dallas Willard

I’ve read this quote from Dallas Willard many times. Often I’ve read it, given a mental “Amen” and then immediately flushed it to make room for my next urgent task. Despite such nonchalance, God continues to keep this quote in front of me. So, I’ve been pondering and praying.

When confronted with the quote again this week, I wasn’t able to get past the word “arrange.” What does it mean to arrange my life? Even more, to arrange it so I’m content, joyful and appropriately confident?

There’s a part of me that wants to look Willard in the eye and say, “Go for it, buddy! Please do ‘arrange’ my life into a blissful, tea and crumpets existence. Good luck. Knock yourself out. Rescue me from children who self-sabotage. Bring peace to the gender wars raging in my home. Fix the broken, and find the lost toys. Shield me from manipulation. Keep me from passivity. Allow me more sleep while eliminating my mid-day sleepiness. Fill my cupboards with food and please stop the dog from barking. And while you’re at it, could you arrange for someone to get that sweaty sock smell out of our minivan? Please, Mr. Willard? If you could do these things, I’m sure I’d find the contentment, joy and confidence you command. Or would I have better odds with a lottery ticket?”

There, I feel better. And just for the record, I don’t believe in luck or play the lottery. I’m also not usually that cynical. But I can be – especially when I subscribe to the belief that life is about me. When I think I’m entitled to children who don’t fight, cars that never break-down, smart phones that are actually smart or a well-funded savings account. Such misguided beliefs open the door to disappointment and life slips into disarray. Joy becomes elusive and contentment is but a dream.

So what is Willard getting at when asks us to “arrange” for a good day with God? Well, it is true that only I control my attitude and disposition. I can be joyful or bitter. Covetous or content. When I swallow a worldview of entitlement, life’s frustrations will choke me. When personal peace and affluence are my goals, I’m left disturbed and needy. Perhaps Willard’s quote could be rephrased this way: what must I do to insure I find my joy, contentment and confidence in Jesus – no matter what?

Good question. The disgruntling things of life I ranted about earlier can’t be “arranged” away. That would be wonderful, but contrary to our calling as followers of Jesus. Besides, extinguishing all life’s troubles is not what Willard is instructing. What he is commanding is a properly arranged lifestyle of discipleship. An arrangement guided by the person and character of God. An arranging that puts God’s Kingdom first.

Arranging life that way starts with a conscious, moment-by-moment engagement of our story with God’s story. All of life is spiritual and we are servants to divine authority. Everything matters. Whether changing a diaper, filing a report, watching a child’s soccer game, meeting with a client or walking the dog there isn’t anything we think, say or do that doesn’t have spiritual significance. This means our activities influence the quality of our relationship with God, and others. What we do has a direct affect on the health of our soul.

Followers of Jesus are to shape and fill their souls with God’s Word, be guided and comforted by His Spirit, and participate in the community of His people. It is around these components of discipleship that we must make “arrangements.” We must arrange for times of meditation on Scripture. Our day should include listening to the Spirit through prayer. Our schedules must prioritize communing with other followers of Christ. Life arranged with God-first thinking will encourage a disposition characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Look at your life. How is it arranged? We are busy, and at times frustrated. But we must not allow such realities to cast a pall on our experience with the living God. We must fight for contented joy. We must place confidence in our God who is completely trustworthy.

Become infatuated with Jesus. Start, stop and adjust activities to get more of Him. Such intentionality is hard work. You will be opposed. But fight as you arrange to seek His Kingdom – first.

Audacious Prayer

The Sears Catalog. I don’t know if they still print them, but those catalogs are enshrined in my childhood hall of fame. I spent hours each November and December pouring over the toy section. Paper and pencil on my right, catalog on my left. I flipped the pages back and forth, first scanning then scrawling product codes and page numbers as I crafted my Christmas wish list. Cheered-on by colorful images that screamed “buy me!” my list expressed my deepest desires to my parents and the mysterious Santa.

Those catalog memories came back to me this week. That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about my desires, and God’s desires. Over the past few months there’s been a steady tightening of tension between God and me. A tension over what I want versus God’s plan. The awful realities of life have hit me fresh and taunted my faith. Sickness. Disease. Disappointment. Frustration. All cursed guests that squeeze from me either a humble brokenness or prideful bitterness.

So I’ve been talking to God, and He to me, about this convergence of human and divine desire. What I’ve been hearing from Him has upset my prayer life. More truthfully, it has upturned everything and knocked me backward.

God made it clear I was to stop the lip service prayers. Put an end to the shallowness. Be done with compulsion and manipulation. Don’t pray from a position of guilt or qualify successful by result. Pray expectantly. Fervently. Hopefully. Express to Me the cries of your heart. Give wide berth to the trap of fatalism – the “come what may” attitude. Tell me what you really want; what you really feel.

I had no rebuttal.

Richard Sibbes said, “It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope.” Ashamedly, I’m sometimes guilty of slipping into dutiful but empty prayers. Joyless, task-list praying. Prayers offered because I have to, not because I get to. Such praying reflects unbelief in God’s character and capability. A disrespect of His holiness. A subtle form of atheism. God knows it, and He called me out.

A bit rattled by my holy reprimand, I went through some introspection: how do I express my desires with expectancy? How do I rally my hopes beyond reason? What if my desires are unreasonable, unrealistic or unlikely: should I still express them? If God has already determined the outcome, is it still worth the effort to express the yearnings of my soul? To lay my heart bare and vulnerable? To ask for the miracle?

Then I heard, “Absolutely!”

Victor Frankl suggests, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment instead.” When I think about the desire expressed in my childhood Christmas lists, and now the lists crafted by my children, there is little cleverness. Wish lists are pure bewilderment. Great expectations and audacious requests. Requests made even when fulfillment is unlikely. Hope and desire live through such requests. And in the requesting are expressions of the heart that give opportunity for relationship to grow and ripen.

I believe that’s what God wants from my prayers: big, bold, audacious requests. Prayer laden with my greatest hopes and craziest dreams shot straight from the pain of life’s brokenness. A conversation where my desires mingle with His. There’s still tension, but it’s a healthy tension blanketed by joy between the Creator and his child as they delight in their open and honest relating.

So with the Spirit’s help I’m working toward a bolder humility to express my desires. To “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:16). A confidence heavily coated with hope-filled bewilderment to petition for mercies that might be unreasonable, ridiculous or miraculous. Audacious at times. But I know God can handle it.

Infatuation

Valentine’s Day. Seven days. Men, order flowers – now!

In that spirit, a question: What was your dating experience was like? One word describes mine: lame. The ladies man, I was not. I’d like to say I kept them guessing. Trouble is they weren’t wondering in the first place. Thankfully, God brought rescue to my bachelorhood in the form of absolute wonderfulness (cue the sighs, or gags).

Fond memories surround my courting of Katrina. A true romantic, I took her to Terminator 2 on our second date. I then pulled-out all the stops. We spent night after night at my parent’s house watching mindless TV shows. Oh, yeah! Together. Sitting close. It was terrific…at least for me. For her, a little pizzazz in our shared experiences would have been nice. You now see why my dating life was lame.

Our relationship transitioned to the long distance type. Katrina lived in a mediocre apartment in Grand Rapids. I roomed with four other guys in a dumpy, spider-infested, un-insulated, turn-of-the-century excuse for a house at Michigan Tech. I was love-struck. I lost days – maybe weeks – of productive work. Daydreaming was my primary activity. Engineering studies ran a distant second. When I wasn’t solving differential equations I wrote letters to Katrina. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading her letters. And re-reading. And talking on the phone. Laughing, crying, and pining for each other. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder. No matter the circumstance, my thoughts boomeranged back to Katrina. In the words of Pink Floyd, I was “comfortably numb” in my affection for her. I was, and am, infatuated.

Ah, memories. Looking back reminds me of this quote: “I couldn’t get Him (Jesus) out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” (Life of Pi, 57) Sounds a bit like dating. Thoughts always churning, speculating, dreaming and hoping. Near obsession at times. What we think informs our attitudes, actions, beliefs and desires. As Katrina and I pondered and prayed about our relationship, we were moved into conversations – conversations that steadily brought us to the realization that we would form a household together.

John Owen said, “How can we say we love Christ and spiritual things if we do not spend much time thinking about them? That which you set your heart on is that which you will think about most.” (Spiritual Mindedness, 238) It’s easy to think a lot about my wife. My kids. My finances. My project list. My worries. My career. The next vacation. What people think about me.

But I am a Christ-follower: a Christian. My thoughts should reflect that. That’s challenging. How often is Jesus part of my self talk? Is He part of my scheming and planning; my hopes and dreams? Do I trust Him fully with my triumphs and failures? Or do I think of Him only when I need something? Is He my lucky rabbit’s foot or the Lord of my life?

I want Jesus to get stuck in my head. To rule my thoughts. To bother me. To distract me from myself. To draw me into His story. I want to learn things about my Savior that create an ever increasing desire for Him and His Kingdom. An infatuation, of sorts. How about you?

Love, Truth and the No Man’s Land Between

I bought the world’s tiniest but most ah-mazing dot-to-dot book for our kids. They are handing that thing around like a pan of gold. Since I am a giver, I don’t want anyone feeling left out. Here’s a dot-to-dot of quotes about compassion and truth and what has nothing to do with either. Get out your favorite pen and have-at-it.

From  R.C. Sproul Jr. via Dec 2010 Tabletalk: “Compassion, rightly understood, means entering into the passion, or suffering, of others. It means setting aside our own concerns, our own fears, our own needs, and not just supplying but feeling the needs of those around us. This, ironically, happens not when we have all that we need. It happens instead when we come to understand that we have nothing and that we need nothing. Compassion flows not out of the well-satisfied but from those who have not. There is, in turn, only on way to do this—die to self. When my aspirations, my hopes and dreams, my wants are crucified, I enter into liberty. I am free to take up the concerns of others. A dead man has no need to protect his comfort. He has no need to protect his wealth. He has no need at all to protect his reputation. Perhaps Janis Joplin had it right: freedom may just be another word for “nothing left to lose.””

From Louie Konopka’s (my pastor) messages on Ephesians: “If you are like Christ, you move toward people.”

From Epicetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher: “This is our predicament. Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t.”

From C.S. Lewis: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

From Flannery O’Connor: “The fact is that if the [person’s] attention is on producing…a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess…He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses.  They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.” *

From Federico Garcia Lorea, a Spanish poet, dramatist and theatre director: “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.”

From Louie on Revelation 2:1-7: “We cannot grow beyond love. We must grow into it. Truth is the platform to get us there. When you do this you recognize each person as an image, give them their rightful place in life, do what is right to/for them.”

*I’m only going to editorialize this one thing. The Flannery O’Connor quote is about writers, but I’ve included it because I think a great danger and misuse of compassion is found from sentimentality. Sentimentality is dangerous like judgmentalism or pornography. When you are motivated by sentimentality, the image of God is distorted in men and therefore, truth is marred and then the balance is lost and you begin to abuse relationships.

Affection Revolution

I’m a recovering perfectionist. My recovery began several years ago with a “slap.” A slap of truth that woke me from dreams of a perfectly controlled life. A slap that caused me, for the first time, to ponder my affections.

I have affection for many things. Among them my wife, kids, old books, strong coffee, quiet mornings and bacon. My affections govern my thoughts, words and actions. My love for strong coffee results in frequent visits to Starbucks. I can’t resist a used bookstore. I hug and kiss Katrina and the kids. I like my bacon a bit soft. Affections are the energy – the voltage – that pushes us along the path of life (I’m also a recovering electrical engineer).

The transition to a new year offers a distinct opportunity for starts, stops and changes. This year I’m pondering, again, what I love. To who or what do I give my affection? My review is upwelling more regret than celebration. I’m finding that I still love things I shouldn’t, don’t love what I should, and am making my story the only story. I’ve found hints of perfectionism I thought were dead. Such discoveries bring disappointment, frustration and flashes of anger.

But amidst my unwelcomed discoveries glows a warm and steady hope. Hope fueled by the Great Affection. An affection for me that offers a chance to start, stop and change – not just at the transition to a new year, but every day. “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23 NIV) What great truth that is for this recovering perfectionist! Despite my failings, God’s compassions – His affections – never fail. Oh God, why do you extend to me your patient love? Why are you faithful when I prostitute my heart? When I love me more than You? When I give you leftovers instead of the first and best? When I refuse to be quiet, rest, listen and submit? Father, I don’t understand your Great Affection for me, but thank you.

In response to God’s love, I’m declaring 2011 a year of revolution: an “Affection Revolution.” This revolt is against my misplaced affections. Affections that want to love Chris more than Christ. Affections for the temporal with hope of gaining significance and security. I want to live more fully the greatest commands: to love God and love people. I want to grow in grateful giving. Jesus said we give our heart to what we love (Matthew 6:21). In perfectionism, I love myself – first. Such misplaced affection brings a lonely self-worship. I’m revolting against such selfishness. I pray that 2011 brings a more intimate walk with God that starves my affections for lesser things while fostering a greater affection – a first-place affection for Jesus Christ and His Church.

In addition to the verse from Lamentations above, the following quote from J.C. Ryle turns-up the voltage on my Affection Revolution. Perhaps you’d like to join my revolution and grow our love for Jesus Christ in 2011 – together?
 
“The man whose soul is “growing” takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently, and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways, and fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation, appear of ever-increasing value to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste.” (J.C. Ryle – Holiness, p. 107)

My Inner Scrooge

Christmas gift-giving in our home means each person receives three gifts. The wise men established this pattern for us. It has simplified gift buying and paid dividends of sanity while purchasing online or otherwise.

Each October, in preparation for the buying, Katrina and I open our version of the Middle East Peace Talks. I’m to blame for them being “peace” talks. You see, deep inside me lives a hint of Ebenezer Scrooge. Like Scrooge, I can be grumpy, edgy, easily annoyed and sometimes overly “careful” with money (yes, I’m a tightwad). That’s hard to admit. I do enjoy giving gifts, but my inner Scrooge lives to rob that joy. And it troubles me – greatly.

As I continue, you need to know two things. First, I always pray while driving to work. Second, we had our first snow this week. I’ll start with the snow.

A by-product of earning an engineering degree from Michigan Tech is you also earn a minor in extreme winter weather driving. Thus, I tend to be over-confident, even cocky when it comes to winter driving where we live in West Michigan. My confidence expressed itself this week while traversing an “S” curve at a rate of speed that was a bit – how shall I say it – “aggressive” for the conditions. Frankly, it may have been aggressive at any time (particularly in a minivan).

True to my routine, I was also praying while negotiating the aforementioned “S” curve (no, my eyes weren’t closed). Specifically, I was thanking God for His sovereign care and watchful eye on everything – a baby going through chemo, my father with health complications, my wife, my kids. A normal morning, normal prayers. So I thought. Cue the black ice.

I’ll spare you the details of my slipping and sliding through the curve. Each telling is more harrowing and my recovery more remarkable. Let’s just say there was lots of grabbing and turning of the steering wheel. Frantic brake pumping was accompanied by the “growl” of the antilock brakes. But, I’m happy to report that my winter driving prowess was again confirmed. I’m also proud to say there were no unmanly screams or colorful language. I was cool, calm and victorious. I scoffed at the car-hungry ditch and drove on (a bit more slowly) with thoughts of changing my middle name to “Mario.”

Back to praying. Where was I…oh yes, God’s watchful eye.


Hmmm. Watchful eye…sovereign care…over everything.


What’s that? Yes, I hear you, Lord. Forgive me. Thank you for watching – and caring – back there. For protecting me from hurt or at least a frustrating morning.


Yes? No, Scrooge is not in the car with me. No, really, he’s not. And what’s he got to do…


I’ll stop talking. Yes, I’m listening.


Hmmm. You’re right. Oh, boy. Go on…

The rest of the conversation was personal, revealing and humbling. My early morning ice dance was prologue to a word God needed to speak to me and my inner Scrooge. That word exposed my scrooginess for what it is – pride. Over inflated thoughts of self. Thoughts that, over time, yield dissatisfaction, selfishness, indulgence, moodiness and neediness.

Since that morning of slip-sliding, the Spirit has brought spiritual “medicine” to wither my Scrooge. The first dose came from Scripture. The context is King David making preparation for his son Solomon to build a temple for the Lord. Here are some words from David: “But who am I…for all things come from you… O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.”  (from 1 Chronicles 29:14-17)

My Scrooge thrives on the lie that who I am, what I have or what I do is because of me (like my winter driving skills). David’s words wake me from that foolish wish dream. There is nothing I call “mine” that was not first God’s. He gives me everything. No room for pride there. Take that, Scrooge.

A second dose of help arrived via this quote from G.K. Chesterson: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” That’s convicting. How often are my thoughts wrapped with thankfulness? Do I wonder at the gift of my mysterious union with Jesus Christ? Am I happier about my driving abilities, or the daily grace that is given to me freely, willingly and joyfully?

In the story, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge makes a redemptive comeback. I want the same for me. This blog post is a personal Ebenezer, a reminder that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17) Christmas is about giving – giving because we have been given to. Giving because we are loved, and because we love. I am humbled. Grateful. Thankful. Joyful.

Goodbye, Scrooge.

Revelation in Praise

Before church I read an article about Joni Erickson Tada and how after 43 years of being paralyzed she’s living with “chronic, ‘jaw splitting’ pain.” Her words. Just as she began to “enjoy more good days than bad,” she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her thoughts on that turn of events?  “I do not want to be one of those who shrink back. I don’t want to tarnish [God’s] name.” (World Magazine, October 23, 2010, p. 65)

Two hours later, I was sitting at Louie’s Café and happened to be talking with a local funeral director about his week. He’d been busy and one family, getting ready to bury someone young, was hanging around in his thoughts. He said this, “It’s hard to make arrangements when everyone in the family has their head in their hands. It’s a long afternoon of working through what they’re gonna do.” 

A few minutes later, I managed to figure out where Chris and son #1 had saved me a seat. For some reason, we didn’t get our usual row and chairs choice—how rude, eh?—and I found myself sitting behind people I normally don’t sit behind. An older couple, the man recently diagnosed with cancer.  He’s facing surgery this week.  I should have known I was in for it.

We began to sing.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!
….And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.

I stood there taking in the worship team, the words and this couple in front of me and realized that this was a moment to make agreement about what I believe. Is my God a healer? Is He awesome in power? Is He my God? Sure, He is right now when I’m in this environment where my whole focus is worship but what about in every moment—the mundane, the stricken, the rude or disappointing? 

You think you have that answered and then ‘those’ days happen—and I’m not just talking medical diagnosis kind of days. I’m talking the cupboards are empty and you have that 2-hour shopping trip ahead of you days. Or the days the kids aren’t quite staying with the program and they’re either too silly or too disobedient or maybe it’s both.

Thing is, the next two songs continued to beg the question. Is God great? When I think of God His son not sparing, can I scarcely take in His death no matter the moment I’m in, no matter the deep pain or confusion or minor frustrations that I am surrounded with?

And what about this: can I gladly and fully sing, “Soon and very soon, we are going to meet the king, Alleluia, alleluia, we’re going to meet the king” and not hold on just a little bit to the plans I’m excited about? There are still good books to read. That orphanage fundraiser is coming up. We’re going to Spain! (I wish…) Can I plan my life and still be okay with the Soon of not on earth hanging around, too?

The couple in front of me? They threw their arms around each other, that soon and very soon, feeling very, very soon. A man confronted with the weakness of his body. His wife confronted with her inability to do anything but wait and think about maybe being alone. Still they stood, arms around each other in a liberal embrace and they sang that soon they would be with the king and yes, praise God that He Is the I Am. They are ready, their embrace a testimony to their marriage, to each other and to God.

Forty minutes later, I’m listening to Louie wrap up his message on Revelation. With the combination of those songs we sang, the testimony of the couple in front of me and the reminder in the teaching that God is guiding history to a final goal already revealed—Jesus Christ, the King, in all his Glory, I was so excited, so satisfied to trust in this outcome, to look for it and live it, that it was all I could do to keep in the seat. Then Louie took the air out of the room with this, “All theology ends in doxology”. 

I had to write that down in very large letters.

Thing is, I know this is true too. The more I trust God and obey, the more I’m willing to walk with Him in and through all things, the greater my joy in life. Life becomes an opportunity—to let go and become new and not because of personal will but because of design and purpose.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow can only happen when you know that God is greater than what you’re up against. Praise Him all creatures here below sings different when we search the depths of Christ’s death and don’t find a bottom. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts will get larger when we face the soon and very soon and lift our chins and let the plans fall to the ground.

So I’ve made a deeper agreement. My God can heal. He is greater and I don’t have to fear what stands against me. He is the great I Am and has finished it all even now. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Meet My Companion

I don’t like him. I want him to leave. I want to say “Bye!”, “Don’t come back!”, “Get out of here!” More strongly, “I hate you!”, “You’re hurting me, and my friends, and I wish we’d never met!”

Harsh words. Words that I’ve spoken, at least in my thoughts. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue with my companion. His name is Suffering. I think you know him too. He gets around despite being rude, unwelcomed, difficult and intrusive.

Lately I’ve been having some pretty frank conversation with God about Suffering. Suffering has been visiting with friends of mine and their 3-month old daughter. They aren’t especially fond of him either. He showed-up unexpectedly – shockingly – in the midst of a joyous celebration. His arrival brought a suffocating heaviness that continues to loom and strangle. The reality of Suffering’s stay has brought sadness, tears, questions, confusion, anguish and anger. As Suffering mingles with my friends and their family, I am repulsed by the shadow he casts. He’s dark. Despicable. He infuriates me. I want to scream “How dare you!”, “Who do you think you are?”, “You’re audacious!” I want to kick and claw and punch and beat this invisible plague. I want to run. And cry. I’ve been pleading to God for peace and wholeness for my friends and for a life so fragile. I want things the way they are supposed to be – or at least the way I expect them to be.

In my pleading I was finally able to quiet my spirit enough to step to the edge of my faith. There, with Suffering beside me, I petitioned God. I begged for understanding and help with receiving the struggles of life against the backdrop of His goodness and sovereignty.

Help arrived a few days ago as the Spirit reminded me of a difficult truth: “To this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Called is an interesting word choice. It means invited, beckoned, summoned, commanded, asked. I like being called to dinner, but called to suffer? Invited to suffer? Commanded to suffer? No room for the prosperity gospel here.

As I wrestled with this summons to suffer, God brought me these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Thanks, God, but this is disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the grace. It’s the part about being weak that doesn’t set so well. I like competence. I like control. I like predictable, steady and routine. I don’t like surprises, even on my birthday. I could do without the weakness of unanswerable “why?” questions: Why a brain tumor? Why a father crippled by cancer? Why another lost job? Why can’t things just work out the way I want? Why, why, why?

Cue the Apostle James. James has amazing practical theology, but his counsel on suffering only confounds my thinking. In fact, he seems to be taking God’s side (go figure). James says followers of Jesus are to be joyous in suffering. (James 1:2) Really, James? Called to suffer with joy? You’re stretching me here, God. I’ve asked you to stretch me gently. I thought we had a deal.

Then a whisper: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) Ah! There it is. How could I miss it?

God knows Suffering. Suffering’s most heinous work was visited upon His Son, Jesus. God the Father and Jesus the Son understand Suffering’s schemes. The pain, anguish and loneliness. The desperate cries for relief from the Son to the Father. In His death for sin, our Pioneer, our model for living the human life – Jesus Christ – showed us that suffering is ultimately about obedience and glorifying the Father. That’s why God calls us to suffer. The Cross displayed the beauty of joyous suffering. (Heb. 12:2) As Christ followers it is reasonable that we should also suffer.

But we don’t suffer alone. God is active in our suffering. He allows it – not because he can’t stop it or because he isn’t good. God is loving, not vindictive. Sovereign, not reactive. Suffering is God’s catalyst to deepen our understanding that without Jesus Christ, nothing else matters. Our personal suffering unites us with Christ and His suffering. In this union a doorway opens to intrusions of divine grace. These intrusions are gifts given with perfect power, received best in moments of weakness. Such grace bolsters our hope and grows us toward suffering with joy. 

So, Suffering is here to stay. He is with my friends, and my father. He is with me. He will visit each of us. Be encouraged by the following words from an old saint who welcomed whatever God planned for his life – even visits from Suffering. Give Suffering room as you give God glory.

“Lord, You know what is better for me; let this be done or that be done as You please. Grant what You will, as much as You will, when You will. Do with me as You know best, as will most please You, and will be for Your greater honor. Place me where You will and deal with me freely in all things. I am in Your hand, turn me about whichever way You will. Behold, I am Your servant, ready to obey in all things. Not for myself do I desire to live, but for You – would that I could do this worthily and perfectly!”
 – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Fruit Tree

Psalm 1:1a,3a – A blessed man…is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season… (my paraphrase)

I’ve been called many things. Chris. Christopher. Dad. “Hey you!” Mister. Husband. Scrub. Son. Sweetie. Kid. Boy. Punk. Friend. Jerk. Stupid. There are other special monikers I will not reveal, and some crude ones I’d like to forget.

Of all the things I’ve been called, there’s one I haven’t – but want to be. It’s a good name, but uncommon. Perhaps even weird. And to be honest, if you were to call me this name I’d be more than a little surprised and a tad bit embarrassed. But I’m OK with that.

You’ve read this far, so I’ll end the suspense. A name I would like to be called – a name I’m striving to grow into – is “fruit tree.” Yes, really.

My longing for this arboreal handle comes from Psalm 1. This Psalm touches the soul of my manhood in delicately invasive ways. Its imagery is vivid. It draws me outside myself and into a grander view. The metaphor of a tree is especially intriguing to me. Why a tree?
 
Well, my thoughts pour out like this: all trees start from seeds but grow with time, care and nourishment. Trees are strong, tall, majestic, stately, reliable. They withstand wind and storms. Trees offer shade, comfort, rest, and protection. They provide a place for gathering, talking, pondering, laughing, crying and loving. A place for remembering and making memories. Trees are useful – even in death.

The psalmist expands his metaphor beyond just any old tree. The blessed man is like a fruit tree. Fruit is tangible evidence of health and vitality. A sign of life. Something to be enjoyed. Fruit nourishes, replenishes, sustains and assists growth. It’s pleasant, tasty and desirable. Fruit is a seasonal offering packed with the energies of patience and persistence. It’s valuable and life-giving. Fruit bears the seeds of reproduction.

I treasure scriptural metaphors like the tree. They are deep oceans that invite exploration over and over again. Many times have I pondered this Psalm and the quality of my tree-likeness. I’m humbled and challenged when considering the quality of my fruit.

Call me what you will. My prayer and desire is that by God’s grace I will be called “fruit tree.”