Welcome, Advent

We celebrate the four weeks of Advent with four themes: Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy. We have to remind ourselves of these themes because we live in a world filled with their opposites: despair, conflict, hate, and dissatisfaction. As we walk in the world these qualities can fill us up; we must displace them again with the qualities of Christ. When we do, we become like ships, sailing in the waters of the world yet dry and snug in Christ. The hope, peace, love and joy we find in Christ displace the qualities of sin, shame and darkness within us, and we are re-filled with the righteousness and life of Christ. We also become a refuge on the waters of the world; calling others to come and sail with us as we set our eyes on Christ and sail toward heaven.

May you be filled with the love, joy, peace & hope of Christ this Advent season.

Hope and the Diseases of Despair

We are living in a time of despair. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the life expectancy rate is declining in America due to what they are calling “diseases of despair.” Drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. If despair is, in fact, killing us, what does it look like to foster hope in dark times? There is no easy answer to this question, and each person’s journey is unique, but the thing that unites us all is a desperate need for hope.

When I was a kid we had a thick, illustrated copy of John Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress. I have nostalgic childhood memories of flipping through the pictures and reading the book with my parents. In the Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan introduces a character, Hopeful, who encourages the character named “Christian” on his pilgrimage. Both Hopeful and Christian are imprisoned by the Giant Despair in the course of their journey; Hopeful encourages Christian through this ordeal. Later, at the last stage of their journey, they must cross a deep river in order to reach the gates of heaven, and Christian begins to despair as he sinks. Hopeful provides the final encouragement that enables Christian to reach the other side: “Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

The bottom is Christ, who has gone before us all and suffered, humbled himself below us all, in order to fuel our journey toward God. (Philippians 2:5-13)

May you also feel the bottom and see that it is good.

When Good People Suffer

Jesus does not say we will not suffer; Jesus says we will not suffer alone. Jesus does not model a stiff upper lip in the face of suffering, rather Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the book of Job, we see that suffering is disproportionate and unjust, and innocent people suffer immensely in this world. Jesus himself did not deserve what he got. Yet suffering is never pointless. The scriptures say that “our momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Author Tim Keller points out a wonderful line in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  It comes right at the end of the story when Samwise Gamgee sees Gandalf, and he says, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Yes, it is.

It’s not just that suffering is going to end, although it will. Suffering will be healed, reversed, undone. Everything sad is going to come untrue. C.S. Lewis said heaven will work backward. It has already started. Heaven has already turned the cross, which was the ultimate symbol of violence, hate, and injustice, and turned it into the ultimate expression of sacrificial, triumphant love.  One day heaven will turn agony – every agony, your agony and mine – into glory, endless glory, unimaginable glory, an eternal weight of glory.

“Therefore we do not lose heart….though outwardly we are wasting away….yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day….for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all…so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.”   — 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

The #1 way to kill a relationship

A wise man I used to know named Virgil Staples would often say: The 10 most important words in marriage are: I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?

The scriptures say, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” — Philippians 2:3

The word pride can mean a lot of things – not all bad. We take pride in a job well done, or in our kids when they accomplish something good. But the type of pride that kills relationship – the type of pride the Bible speaks against is when we build ourselves up at the expense of others – when we think of ourselves as superior to others because of who we are or what we’ve done. The word Paul uses in verse 3 is translated “empty pride” or “conceit” – the word is kendoxia and it means empty-pride or groundless self-esteem.

God hates pride. Pride is a sin that is deeply offensive to God because God is the one who is truly above all others. Those who know him know we’re nothing in comparison to him. Proverbs 16:5 says, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord. Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”

For us to be proud would be like the strongest of all ants proclaiming himself the mightiest creature alive, only to look up and see the sole of a descending shoe; or a horse shouting at his fellow horses to proclaim himself the fastest of all creations just as a fighter jet screams by overhead.

You want to kill a relationship? Be proud.

You want to build a relationship? Humble yourself.

The end.

Your Story

I was born in 1975 into a family that was very far from God. My dad was an alcoholic at the time and my oldest sister was strung out on drugs and in and out of a treatment center. That was my situation, but then there is the story.* We all have a situation – a set of details we are living within, a context, a time, a place, a setting. Then there is the story. The story is much harder to see at first, it is the journey of your heart, it is the story of desire, it is the fulfilling of your souls deepest longings.

I was born in 1975 into a family that was very far from God – that is the situation. I was born with a longing to be known, to be loved, to belong, to be one with something bigger than myself – that is the story. My life, your life, and everyone who’s ever lived have a situation and a story. Usually, our focus, our time, our conversations, our energy is spent on the situation. That is right and good for a time because our situations are important. We wonder if we’re in the right place, should we live in this place or that? Do I take this job or the other? Marry this person or wait?

However, at some point in life, we realize that all of the attention of our lives has gone to the externals – to the situation. Out of habit we continue frantically re-arranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic as our inner lives begin to sink into despair. This moment of desperation, of existential questioning – these mid-life moments – are an invitation to an inward journey. This new journey will be focused more on the story than the situation. It requires a shift of focus that makes no sense to anyone watching, requires more courage than we imagined, and is often riddled with self-doubt and a wandering progress that looks more like two steps forward and three steps back. Everything within me wants to remain focused on the situation, because historically when I have “solved” the externals, then everything was good. This journey isn’t about that though, this is an inward journey, focused on the story of desire rather than the situation of our lives.

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” — John 12:24

May you have eyes to see beyond your situation and into the story God is inviting you to live within.

*For more on the idea of situation and story, check out Vivian Gomick’s book here.

When you’re full of fear

I never considered myself a fearful person, and then I had children. I used to feel my posture towards life was one of risk, adventure, and confidence, and then I had children. After giving birth to my first child, I found myself unable to leave the hospital without passing a 15-point safety check on the baby’s car seat. I started buying all manner of outlet covers, and drawer locks and childproof this and that. Apparently we all have different fears though because as I was busy safety proofing my life, I noticed that Tim was in the garage with our newborn showing him how to use an axe.

How does an apprentice of Jesus deal with fear? Fear is real and there is no value in ignoring it, excusing it or minimizing it. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and notice the fear by saying, “oh hello fear, I see you there” and then ask Jesus, what do you want to say to this fear?

One time Jesus was teaching and he said…

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

— Matthew 6:25-27

We all have a choice when we are faced with fear. The truth is, whenever I am afraid there is a lack of love somewhere. It may be overstated, but it is still true, “perfect love casts out all fear.” Will you decide that your love outweighs your fear? Our world is full of things to fear. Life is full of danger but we also know that we are never alone and that love will make a path even if love makes us terrified at times. We cannot be courageous unless we are afraid. May our fears lead us deeper into the unshakable kingdom of God.

Great In-reach is Our Strategy for Outreach

Milton Hershey had a simple idea. He wanted to make the world’s best-tasting chocolate. Something interesting about his story is that Milton Hershey didn’t believe in “advertising.” In fact, until the early 1970s, the Hershey Corporation did not put a dime into advertising. The philosophy of the founder was simply this: if you make the world’s best chocolate, word will get out. No need to advertise if you really are producing something that everyone craves. 

Author Dallas Willard makes a compelling case that authentic transformation (Christian spiritual formation) should be the primary mission of every local church. The best way to do outreach is to do an outstanding job of inreach. After all, who isn’t craving a little more peace, joy, love, and freedom from shame these days?

But following Jesus has often been reduced to what some call easy believism. Being a Christian is often understood to be the minimum requirement for salvation: just say that you believe these few things, check a box, pray this prayer, bada bing bada boom, #saved. This has produced a “nominal” form of Christianity—where we settle for an “experience” of God instead of learning to live our lives with God, we settle for an “experience” of Jesus, rather than being apprenticed by Jesus.

Jesus never said, “pray this prayer so that you can go to heaven when you die.” Jesus did talk an awful lot about the kingdom of God. A kingdom is where the will of the king and the will of the subject are one. The kingdom of God is different than the kingdom of Susie. The kingdom of Susie is where my will is done. The kingdom of God is wherever God is king – and this is the good news that Jesus taught – that there is a kingdom, and you can live in it now. It is not an add on to your life, it is not an “experience” you seek, it is a completely new platform – a total exchanged life – an interactive apprenticeship – where you die and are raised to new life. Being apprenticed by Jesus is learning how to live in light of the fact that we will never stop living. Apprenticeship to Christ is not learning “facts about” or reciting a magic phrase or even the forgiveness of sins. It is a total transfusion, it is the process of allowing Jesus’ thoughts, emotions, will, behavior, and relationship skills to become our own. 

That is what we are up to when we follow God in the way of Jesus.