Saturday, March 26, 2016

Space Between

From the moment of birth, time sweeps us along-- in spite of our protests-- on its unrelenting march to death.

And from our limited perspective, these days and years we're given are all-consuming... But in truth, they are a blink of an eye, when placed in the context of time.

If we could step outside time and observe what we do with the small space we are given between birth and death, would we then see the absurdity?


We divide ourselves-- in our hearts and homes, our communities, our nations, and our world-- as we fight for power and significance.

We kill and wage war.
We succumb to fear and hate.
We cultivate anger and pride.

We build our personal kingdoms while others-- whose hearts beat the same as ours-- suffer and die.

And we ignore that we are bound for the same.

It may come from within, our own body turning on itself. Blood, cells, and organs, failing to behave as they were designed.

It may come from nature itself, tearing down the kingdom we've built. Wind, water, fire, even a tiny insect.

It may come from another, as we're taken by the hands of our fellow man-- one whose time is as limited as our own-- through bullets, bombs, and brutality.

If we could step outside time, would we see how we claw and scratch our way to the top of this life, only to find there is no top-- only a hole dug deep in the dirt?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hope

I originally wrote this two years ago, but it has been on my mind again so I wanted to share it.

*****

I am driving down a winding back road, nearly home. The road twists and turns, cutting its way through the woods, and as always I look at the trees. For months they have been mostly brown and bare, their empty branches lonesome against the backdrop of the sky, the space between them revealing rocks and hills.

But today, I round a curve, and as my eyes take in the view, I notice a change.

Little bursts of color-- yellow, fuchsia, green, lavender, and white-- are beginning to appear throughout the branches. The buds are barely there, and many trees are still bare, but still there is the promise.

A promise of spring.
A promise of new life.
A promise of hope.

I had grown so accustomed to the emptiness over time that the change almost comes as a surprise.




The changes of the seasons are quite spiritual to me; they are profound reminders of the natural progression of life. And today, the colorful buds throughout the woods speak to me, reminding me that even when things appear barren, empty, or dead-- there is still, somewhere, hope and new life. The still-empty branches suddenly take on new meaning; they too will soon be bursting with color. It is so easy to become accustomed to that which is empty, rather than seeing the great potential for life that exists within.

So my encouragement to myself, and to those who might be reading, is simply this: do not give up hope. Even in the emptiest of circumstances, there is a promise of hope and new life. Look for the promise, even when it is hard to see. It's there.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Victorious

In church on Sunday morning, our associate pastor posed three questions: What are you struggling with in your life? Do you believe you can let go of your "baggage"? Can you trust God to help? These questions, along with a skit that involved my friend Dan describing his "baggage" and giving it to God, have stuck with me all week.

I have been thinking about what happens when I try to give all my stuff to God. After the skit ended at church, I kept waiting for the moment when Dan would come running back to try to pick up his baggage again. Because that's what I do. I give something to God, but after a while I go pick it up again. How can I release it completely?

Since I began asking that question, I feel that I have gotten some answers.

*****

First... while it's important that I put down my baggage, I realized it is also necessary to pick up something else to carry. I recall the story Jesus told in Matthew 12, in which an impure/unclean spirit comes out of a person, but later it returns and finds the house "unoccupied, swept clean and put in order." So it moves back in and brings along some of its buddies, and the person is worse off than they had been in the first place.

What this is saying to me is that I cannot expect to simply drop whatever my "baggage" or other issues are; there is more that must take place. If I release all these things and walk away with empty arms, it is far too easy to pick them back up. After all, I am accustomed to carrying them, so I find myself looking for something to fill my arms. Thankfully there is something else, something better, for me to carry. In Matthew 11, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." I can pick up his "yoke" instead. In other words, I can fill my empty arms with his freedom and love. 

*****

But even after coming to that answer, I still found myself wrestling with it. Sometimes I find myself drawn back to the very things I've tried to release. And yes, this is partially because I am accustomed to them, but it is also partially because I feel like I can't resist them; they are stronger than me.

In 2 Chronicles 20, when Israel was about to be invaded and attacked by a vast, powerful army, Jehoshaphat admitted that they did not have the power to face the army, and he prayed, "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you."

And God responded, "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s... You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you."




My baggage may feel bigger and stronger than me, but the battle against it is not mine, it is God's. The things that tempt me, weigh me down, or hold me back... these things are actually not stronger than me-- because God is in me. The one who fashioned my heart (Psalm 33:15) and empathizes with my weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15)... he is in me, and he has defeated them all. They may feel incredibly weighty and overwhelming to me, but they do not have power over me unless I give them that power.

Can I trust God to help me let go of my baggage? Yes, because he is the one who can be trusted to emerge victorious. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Confession

Earlier this week, I read through the books of James, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter. I started reading and I just couldn't stop. The words I read confronted me with the truth of who I am in comparison to who God wants me to be. They paint a clear picture of the type of person a committed follower of Jesus will be... and I still have such a long way to go. They also paint a clear picture of the weight of Jesus' sacrifice. I can't get over the tragedy and beauty of innocent blood spilled-- God's blood spilled-- for me and the lousy things I have done and still do. Willingly, lovingly, purposefully, he did this for me.

And I take it for granted! I think when you've spent your lifetime in church, it can be far too easy for these ideas of sin, sacrifice, forgiveness, and grace to become... routine. I am guilty of becoming so accustomed to hearing about these things that I barely think about what they really mean. And at the same time, I become so comfortable with forgiveness and grace that sometimes I fail to take my own sin seriously.

Here is my truth: I am all too often enticed by desires that are not reflective of Christ. I say and do things I shouldn't, and I don't do things I know I should. I can be selfish, proud, and judgmental. A hypocrite. I can speak beautiful words of faith, but too often my actions don't reflect my words. And many times I don't take my own propensity for sin very seriously. I can too easily dismiss or rationalize my own sin. When I examine myself I find that sometimes I cling tightly to things I should not, and am more grieved by the thought of letting them go than I am by the depths of my own brokenness.

I am assured that I do not need to feel shame or fear, and that I can embrace God's forgiveness and grace. But at the same time, I am reminded not to take my propensity for sin lightly, and not to take God's grace for granted. I must take my brokenness seriously, just as Christ's death and resurrection are serious.

So far my journey through Lent has led me to a place of confession and repentance. I have come face to face with my brokenness and I no longer want to attempt to ignore it, justify it, or cover it up. Neither do I want to beat myself up emotionally over it. So I have spent a lot of time in prayer, telling God that I recognize my brokenness, and I want him to take it and turn it into something better. Something beautiful. Something I cannot create on my own.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Over the past few days, I have been thinking about what to give up for Lent. I knew I didn't want to give up something that had no spiritual significance for me, just to check off the "fasted for Lent" box on my Good Christian card. Nor did I want to sacrifice something that was merely outward. I could give up chocolate or stay off Facebook (well... maybe), but for me, that would be more about fasting for appearance. And I seem to recall that Jesus had something to say about that.

No, I knew that God was asking for something else from me... something beyond the surface, something heart-deep. And so I began to look beneath the outward actions and instead considered what's within. What attitudes do I hold that are holding me back from living like Christ? Every day there are desires within that pull me away from where my heart and focus should be. I have my pet sins that are so familiar they are almost like muscle memory-- I do them automatically, it seems, without even thinking. And if I'm being really honest, sometimes I don't want to let go of these things because they are comfortable or even enjoyable. But they are not reflective of Christ.

At our Ash Wednesday service, our pastor's words reminded me that God desires a full commitment from me every day. Or as another pastor I follow on Twitter (Eugene Cho) put it, God is saying, "I didn't ask you to give up coffee or candy. I asked you to surrender your life."

One of the readings at church was from Joel 2:13, which says, "Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love."

I think that is one of the most thrilling things about God. He sees all the ways I fall short, the attitudes and desires I harbor, and the pet sins. He knows it all, and it ain't pretty. But he is not angry. He is gracious and compassionate. His love, mercy, and forgiveness draw me in and compel me to follow. As the final hymn tonight said, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." I am not being called to sacrifice something on a surface level, I am being called to give my heart. All of it, even the messy and broken parts. Especially the messy and broken parts.

So I am beginning Lent with a desire to seek God, to sacrifice whatever keeps me from following him wholeheartedly, and to continue being transformed into someone who reflects the love and grace of Christ.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Letting Go

Recently my 6 year old wanted to play Words With Friends on my phone. I had started a Solo Play game, so I let him take it over.

As I sat with him and watched him play, it took every ounce of self-control I could summon to not jump in, offer advice, suggest higher-point words, and show him better places on the board to play his words. You see, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, and I wanted so badly to jump in and take over.

But I held back and observed as he made the game his own. He looked at the letters he'd been given and formed his own words with them-- not always the words I would have chosen myself, but he was pleased with them. He asked for help occasionally, and I gave him guidance but tried to give him space to decide what he would play, so he could learn as he went. In the end he did not win the game, but he was excited and proud nonetheless, and he was ready to try again.


And it hit me-- isn't this the essence of parenting as children grow older?

To let go of that desire to control, to take over, and to make decisions for your child that seem "right" to you...

To instead allow them to use what they have-- their personality, character, resources, strengths, and interests-- in the way that seems best to them...

To give them guidance as needed, but not take over the process...

To give them the space to decide for themselves and experience the results of those choices...

To allow them to learn as they go, so in the end they can feel empowered and motivated to continue growing and improving...

And as silly as it may sound, it starts with things as simple as a word game. It begins even when they are still young, by allowing children the space to make age-appropriate choices, and empowering them to do things on their own.

It's even harder to do in real life than it is to do during a game of Words With Friends, but I believe it's worth it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Pain and the Promise

On the morning of the winter solstice, I awoke thinking about life, death, birth, grief, and the changing of the seasons. If you're thinking these are somewhat intense topics to wake up thinking about, well, what can I say? That's me.

I thought of the pain we each bear in our lifetimes-- suffering, grief, despair-- and how desperately many of us want to avoid this pain (me too). We resist it, we brace ourselves against it, we try various means of numbing it. But still it comes, and we cannot stop it from happening.
_______

My second and third sons were each born naturally at home with a midwife. I, of course, took preparation for labor and birth very seriously. A big part of these preparations was relaxation; I learned to intentionally breathe deeply and relax every muscle in my body as much as I possibly could. 

You see, during the birth pains of labor, the inclination can often be to resist, to brace yourself, to tighten your muscles and tense up in response to the pain-- which, ironically, makes it all the more intense.

But when the pain comes, you can choose to instead relax and breathe and allow it to move through you. Rather than fighting against it, you work with it. 

I often visualized the pain as ocean waves, with me floating atop them-- carried by the waves of pain, but not overcome by them. 
_______

Often in the face of emotional pain, we (yes, me too) resist it, fight against it, attempt to numb it, or powerlessly succumb to it. But perhaps when circumstances come that cause feelings of grief and despair-- and they will certainly come!-- we can figuratively relax, breathe, and let the feelings wash through us. 

Maybe we can allow ourselves to work with the pain, rather than against it.

Maybe we can allow ourselves to be carried by it, but not overcome by it. 
_______

The pains of birth can be quite intense-- but during labor I found such peace in simply choosing to let go and allow myself to feel it, to be moved and changed by it, without resistance. There was peace in the visualization of floating atop it, knowing that it was carrying me but it soon would pass. After all, the pain is not the end of the story.


Emotional pain can be overwhelming, and when you're in the midst of it, it's impossible to imagine that it will ever pass. But in this way, pain reminds me of the seasons-- of time's unrelenting march through birth, life, death, and rebirth. Over and over, the stories of human suffering and renewal are told continually through nature itself. 

We are entering into winter. The trees are bare, and the wind is biting and cold. And yet, there is the promise of hope and renewal ahead. It is inherent in the solstice, that even as we embark into this season, the days will now become longer. A bit more light will peek in each day. The hope is there, perhaps barely noticeable, but it is there, walking alongside us through the winter months.
_______

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest, 
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love...
_______

We know just as sure as the seasons will unfold, so will life: a continual cycle of birth, love, joy, loss, suffering, grief, and renewal.

And so perhaps we can respond by allowing ourselves to be carried by it all, allowing ourselves to experience it and be moved and changed by it, without being overcome. Perhaps we can look to the promise built into the fabric of nature itself, a promise of hope and peace that goes beyond the circumstances and emotions of the moment. The hope is there, walking alongside us through the pain.