Change! *Hiss*

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. — Romans 7:21, NRSV

Some of Paul’s most “real” comments come from this section of his letter to the Romans. For those of us who have had to make major changes in their lives, we know exactly what the apostle means when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). For those who have tried to change anything for the better, whether internally or externally, they know that evil is close by when we start to try for righteousness.

Our world is theoretically supportive of redemption, but in practice, I have found that many people would rather write you off as whatever they perceive you to be. When you try to have a positive effect on your surroundings, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the naysayers are quick to protect the negative environment from which they draw energy. For every harmful system, hierarchy, habit, or practice we might try to extricate ourselves and others from, there will be forces of major resistance.

So what is the appropriate response?

Often, we hit this resistance and despair. Even Paul heaves a dramatic sigh in Romans 7:24, exclaiming, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” When we are faced with a world that is too comfortable, and that benefits too much from all the hurt that surrounds us, it can be difficult to stay the course, and many of us don’t. We fall back into our comfy, negative patterns of behavior, uttering inane phrases like, “That’s just how I am,” or “I’m just set in my ways.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work.

Luckily, Paul doesn’t end with his despair. He goes on to say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25). In Christ, we have the premier example of how we ought to respond when met with resistance in our quest for positive change. With every negative comment or attempt to undermine His ministry, Jesus reached out all the more, healing, teaching, and loving people, even up to His “final” moments.

Our first response to resistance, whether internal or external, should be compassion. Change is scary. When we are resistant to ourselves, we should understand the fact that altering our patterns of thought and behavior is not an easy task. It takes undoing years of programming, and change means uncertainty, which is something humans fear.

By the same token, resistance from others comes from the exact same fear. When a person looks at me and sees a screw up, it gives them an outlet that allows them to feel better about (or even avoid) their own unhealthiness. If I start trying to change, if I start to make note of those darker aspects of the world that connect to my own pain, and if I start to try to change those things, those who would rather use me as a distraction, projection, or scapegoat start to lose their foothold. Their negative response is fear. After all if others can change…

The next step beyond compassion, however, is to simply continue. Now, to be clear, “simple” does not mean “easy.” After all, Holy Week is coming, and we will see the level of resistance Jesus had to overcome. It can be costly. However, we know that Good Friday is not the end of the story, and God will see us through as we seek to grow closer to Him in a world that grows increasingly hostile to the idea.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of all of this being put into practice is my dear friend, Jonathan Allen. Over the course of his life, he has face powerful resistance as a result of his race, his beginnings, his relationships, and his seemingly radical dreams for what this world could look like. However, despite it all, he remains one of the most positive, determined, and beautiful people I have had the privilege to know.

The latest instance of his perseverance comes in the form of the non-profit he and his partner have started, called The Leadership Brainery. This non-profit is designed to identify, support, and train first-generation scholars from all fifty states and Puerto Rico. It’s a powerful testament to Jonathan’s desire to follow Christ, and I pray you’ll check them out and offer your support here.

Now, I’m not saying you need to start a major non-profit in order to affect change. What I am saying is that your perseverance through the resistance of the world can result in powerful differences being made. If even one person a day is positively affected by your growing relationship with God, you’ve done something incredible.

Further, resistance means you’re on the right track. When you find yourself desperately wanting to crawl back to your place of comfortable darkness, when others try to remind you of “your place” or of “what you are,” or when the world itself seems to be against you, you know you’re on a path to powerful transformation, and I encourage you to keep moving forward toward the cross of Christ.

I pray for you and all that you hope to heal and change, dear reader. I hope you will do the same for me.

Peace be with you!

“Not of This World,” But We Do Try

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. — John 17:16, NRSV

I hear the phrase “In the world, but not of it” quite frequently when it comes to the Christian faith and its adherents. This idea comes from John 17, in which Jesus is praying for His disciples before entering into His Passion. It’s true that the image of the Cross depicts a King and a Kingdom unlike any we have ever experienced on this earth, but how do we, His people, match up with this vision?

Not long ago, a senior official representing the United States implied that God sent President Trump to save the nation that calls itself Israel, and this merely echoes what many voices in the president’s base have been saying since he initially ran for office.

Churches often base success on “the numbers.” If there are a lot of people buying in, tithing, and attending, we must be onto something.

We individuals, when life is going well, use words phrases like, “I’m blessed,” and “God is good.” When things take a turn for the tragic, such phrases tend to fall to the background and we begin to question the goodness of God. We avoid images and descriptions of Christ that “fall short” of His triumphant resurrection and ascension, believing the crucifixion was just a moment of temporary embarrassment before His intended glory.

So what’s the problem?

All of these circumstances align prosperity, ease of life, and power with the Gospel’s main character. As humans, we naturally find these things desirable and positive, yet that’s not exactly the message of the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted” and those who are reviled  and persecuted because they believe in Christ (Matthew 5:1-12).

It’s perfectly natural for us to crave security and pleasure in life, but too much of this can lead us to portray God as a character in our own story rather than understanding that we are a part of His. When that happens, we are able to justify a lot… even if it actually takes us away from the Good News Jesus imparts to us. The Gospel urges us to look at our darkest and most painful moments with the knowledge that God is there.

This is why the cross is the primary symbol of the faith. It has nothing to do with guilt, shame, or depression. Rather, it is a reminder that we don’t need to “look high” for the presence of God. He is here, with us when it hurts and when following in the footsteps of Christ ends up costing us all the power, prestige, security, and comfort we seek so desperately.

Because it will.

Yet this is not something to resent or fear. It’s a joyful connection to our King, who Himself gave all that He had that we might know what it is to love and to fully, intimately know God. We will not always act in accordance with this truth, but the power of transformation is revealed in our efforts and our openness to regular reminders, often the most accessible of which being communal worship and the Eucharist.

When the disciples were concerned about power and greatness as the world sees it, with the “great ones” who “are tyrants over them,” to which Jesus responds “But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). The Church, the people of God, are not meant to live as though Jesus were just another king with just another kingdom, with all of the power-hungry politics of this world. Rather, we are meant to realize that all of these things, the institutions, the powers that be, will all eventually fall away and be no more. The Kingdom we are a part of, the One we serve, is something… other.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t written to lay a burden. It’s written as a reminder, first of all to myself. We are not required to live perfectly, only to consistently make efforts toward following the path Jesus sets before us. He will walk with us and though we stumble, He will not let us fall headlong (Psalm 37:24). God is not our tyrant, nor is He the sanctifying force by which we may do whatever want. God is the One who walks with us, guides us, corrects us, redeems us, and forgives us. Above all, He is the One who loves us instructs us to imitate and share that love. If we follow His lead, we will truly be a part of something “not of this world.”

Peace be with you!

 

 

For Good

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28, RSV

The challenge coin in the image above is a small(ish) thing that I carry with me every single day. A lot of people get these tokens for far more important reasons, and, if we’re being honest, you can even purchase them. So why is it so important to me?

This coin is a daily reminder for me that I may never know the full scope of my life. Further, it’s a testament to God’s ability to take our worst moments and turn them into something beautiful and edifying. This isn’t some cheesy “lemons and lemonade” theology. I am actually arguing that no moment, good or bad, determines our future indefinitely. What’s more, no moment in our lives should be taken for granted, for it could become a means by which we become characters that advance the story of God’s salvation.

If you read my post about my attempted suicide at age 11, you know that such a moment produces lasting effects. I still deal with depression and suicidal ideation, albeit in far healthier ways than when I was a child. It’s still “there” in my relationships with loved ones, and long ago, I accepted that would be the case.

What I did not foresee, however, was how such a dark experience would enrich my life.

My post on suicide found its way to a Lieutenant Colonel at Goodfellow Air Force Base. For those of you that don’t know, our armed services have a horrific suicide rate. The pressures of training and the things these people have to see take a hefty toll that we still don’t properly acknowledge as a nation. As it turns out, the Lt. Col.’s squadron was going to take part in suicide prevention training two weeks after I posted the article.

A few emails and a phone call later, I was set to travel to Goodfellow AFB and share my experience out loud, in full detail, for the first time ever, in front of 40 or so Airmen. No pressure. I drove down feeling relatively calm, but once I arrived, it became a different story. I realized Dad and I had never talked about this. We never discussed this topic after it happened. I was glad he was there to support me, and to hear that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t know how that was going to impact him. On top of that, right before I was to speak, I went to the restroom, where I saw a handicap rail.

Normally, I ignore handicap rails. I am glad restrooms have them. But not this day. This day, I wanted to tear off the wall the very thing I had tried to hang myself from as a boy. Somehow, though, after a lot of shaking and praying, I found myself talking and baring my darker side to a lobby full of total strangers. And Dad.

When it was over, there was applause I couldn’t really hear from people I couldn’t really see regarding an experience I couldn’t really process. I took some questions, bowed out gracefully, and then the Lt. Col. shook my hand. It was in this handshake that he passed me the challenge coin as a token of gratitude. In the moment, I was unable to truly appreciate such a gift from a service member, but now my heart is humbled by it. I am also grateful for the physical reminder that an experience that was so ugly for me had become a means by which I could bless others.

The Scripture verse at the start of this post is used to justify all kinds of theology regarding the will of God and the problem of evil, but I am honestly not interested in that today. Rather, I want to affirm the truth that God honors our trust in Him by taking our moments of pain or weakness and making them into a blessing by which His will may be accomplished.

If had not been the one to attempt suicide at age 11, this particular talk and this particular service to this particular group of service men and women would not have happened. Several in this group had been touched by the problems of mental health and suicide in the armed services. My connection to this base and my experience as a boy led to a moment in which those feelings could be validated and addressed.

Further, if I had not gone through the painful process of being fired from a ministry job, and if I had not chosen to leave my long-beloved denomination, I would not have started this blog. I would have remained in a job that actually discouraged me from sharing this very story of my life. While my life would have been smoother and more comfortable, my purpose would have actually been cut short. My firing led to my leaving. My leaving led to this blog. This blog led to that post, and that post led to a moment of service to those who serve.

In John 6, Jesus ducks a crowd for fear of being placed in a position of power. In verse 15, we see that, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” If Jesus had allowed himself to be made king, he would have been powerful in a way to which we humans could relate. He would have been like every other person exacting judgment and promoting power from the top down. Instead, he withdrew, in order that he would become the Christ we all needed to see.

Likewise, moments of humiliation or pain in life seem to be causes for shame and disgrace. For God, however, they are fertile ground for our humble participation in His kingdom. If we remain open to His love and Spirit, even in the darkest moments of life, we can rest assured that opportunities will arise in which we can draw on that experience in order to heal and edify others. In doing so, we are also edified and healed.

All of this is why I carry this coin every day. It’s not a trophy or statement of how awesome or brave I am. Instead, it serves as a humbling reminder of God’s undeserved activity in my life. Even when I stumble or fall, God is always working for good, and the same can also be true for you. .

Peace be with you!

What Waterfowl Taught Me About Suicide

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. — Wisdom 11:24, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, I tried to hang myself in the bathroom of my elementary school gym before basketball practice. Luckily, it didn’t work, and as I lay there, cursing myself, jacket sleeve still tied around my neck, my Dad came in looking for me. I will never get the quiver of his voice out of my head, as he cried my name and moved like lightning to my side.

I am not sharing this for shock value or pity, though I am sure some of my readers are surprised. The reason I tell this story in detail is because suicide is a major issue that many speak of and experience, yet the loudest voices seem to come from those who have never felt that depth of darkness. I am telling my story because I want you to know, dear reader, that I have looked this monster in the eye. It left its mark on me, and if there is one person out there who sees that it doesn’t have to be the end for them, then this post will have done its work.

I mentioned in my previous post that I went for a walk in a local park this past Saturday. Besides the super happy dog and lovely dandelions that I got to see, I saw some ducks and other assorted waterfowl in the pond that the park is centered upon. Watching them churn their feet and “swim for their lives” as I approached the shore, I noticed something I had never given much thought to before.

As the ducks swam, they cut through the water, leaving behind a triangular trail that expanded as they went, leaving an enduring mark that was much larger than the duck herself. I had considered writing this post for a long time, but it had retreated to the back of my mind until I noticed this seemingly minor detail. As it turns out, nature has much to say on the topic.

You see, we all leave trails behind us. Like the duck, we cannot see the trail, as we are continuing to move on through life, but it is still there, always expanding until it becomes a part of the greater body of water. In the same way, our lives (all of them) leave a trail that moves from our immediate vicinity into the greater narrative of human history. We cannot always see it, but it is there.

I often hear that “life can’t be that bad” for the suicidal person, and I get what those people are trying to say. Keep things “sunny side up” and such. But in that place of deepest darkness, there is no sun. There is no “bright side.” We cannot see the positives of our existence.

I had no idea of my parents’ love for me at that time when I was 11 years old, and many years after. There was no seeing the friends I had made and the lives I had touched in my short time. But now that I have the chance to look back and reflect, I am so glad that my plan failed that night.

I would never have met my little brother, who I now can’t imagine life without. I would not have the amazing wife I have now, nor would my relationship with my parents have had the chance to heal so that I could enjoy the closeness and mutual love we now share. Mission trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, and all across the U.S. would not have happened for me, and that would be one less positive relationship for me and for many people. I never would have preached the Gospel and worked with an amazing group of youth for over four years, never would have had the chance to be there for my dearest friends, and never would have come to the understanding of God’s transformative grace that I have now.

I also wouldn’t be writing this message that I feel many of us need to hear.

If you are reading this and struggling with suicidal thoughts, whether they are ideational or actually being planned, please talk to someone. Say it to somebody, because right now you do not know the impact your life (and death) has had and will have on the world around you. You are not broken. You are not worthless. There is a point and a purpose for you.

I have often quoted the verse that started this post, that God loves “all things that exist,” and He detests “none of the things” He has made. But the passage continues to say that God’s “immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1). God’s immortal Spirit rests in you. It rests in all of us, and that means that none of us are here on accident. We are here because God desired us to exist. God wanted you here because He loves and believes in you and your ability to make a difference.

Now I am not promising you that everything will always be good. This is not an appeal to “keep on the sunny side of life.” I still struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These things are a part of me. However, they are now tools with which I can empathize and love others as I feel I have been called to do. No matter what darkness you face in your life, the power of God can turn it into a blessing that will ultimately serve Him and help to heal you and others.

But that cannot happen if you are not here. If your life ends, your story ends at its darkest moment, and nothing can ever be made better. That is something worth remembering.

My prayer for you is that you remember that we all leave trails behind us. Our stories are a part of the greater “pond” that is human history, whether we know it or not. There are people who are a part of our story we have yet to meet. There are people (and a God) who love and care for us, who would notice our empty seat or cold side of the bed.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are planning to go through with it, call 911. Your story does not have to end. You matter to us all, and this world would not be the same without you.

Even if you do not struggle in this way, remember your trail. What are we leaving behind? Are we leaving examples of love, compassion, and just action in our wake, or are we leaving… something else? Let us go forward remembering that God’s purposes for us are to live life fully and for the glory of His name, and let us leave our mark on this world, following in the example of Christ, who has won the victory over death and darkness, and who passes that victory on to us.

Peace be with you!

Changing the Story

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” — Matthew 2:13, NRSV

We live in a world that needs a change in story. Repeating cycles of violence, physical and ideological, seem to indicate that we have made very little real progress in the ways we deal with each other. The dangers of forcefully keeping “peace,” drawing lines in the sand, and demonizing each other based on our differences have all been made known throughout history. Somehow, though, we just keep barreling toward whatever next great “fall” comes next.

Even as individual people, things seldom look better. We continue painful and self-destructive cycles believing “that’s just how I am.” We dismiss ourselves and one another based on the worst information we can obtain. Both us and the people around us suffer for our unwillingness to put down the burdens we carry.

So why is that? Why do we seem to always fall back into dangerous patters of behavior, both collectively and as individuals? Well… Change sucks.

Change is something humans resist. It scares us. If the rules, standards, and patterns are allowed to shift, there is less for us to cling to for support and stability. Unfortunately, the fear of instability and change causes us to resist, often to our hurt and that of others.

When we look at the story of Jesus, Herod violently opposes the idea of a new king, one that would, in the end, deliver the people from the oppressive reign of Rome. He seeks to destroy Jesus, and in the process, countless innocents are slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). The moral of the story? Change is not a neat process, and while it is absolutely necessary, resistance is to be expected.

I can’t prescribe much for changing the entire world, except that we as individuals need to start choosing different paths. If enough of us do that, taking a page out of Jesus’ story, perhaps things can start to look different. Rest assured, though the path of improvement is necessary, it is bound to meet resistance.

Others will try to keep us from changing. Mantras like “once a cheater, always a cheater” serve as examples of how we tend to write people off. When we start embracing the love of Christ in our lives, the resulting change will scare others. After all, if we hold ourselves accountable and begin the process of transformation, that means they can. The resistance we meet in others could come in the form of ridicule, cruelty, or rejection, and that is horrible.

But it pales in comparison to the resistance we will meet internally.

There will be tears, doubt, and a surge in the negative feelings and habits that we are trying to eradicate. Our ego will violently revolt, leading to some crappy days… weeks… months. We will want to quit and flee back to “safety.” But that is not the end of the story.

You see, as the life of Christ teaches us, the love of God cannot be stopped once it is welcomed into the world. Jesus met a horrific amount of resistance, and it ended up costing him his life. Yet the victory is ultimately his, and that promise is extended to you and I.

If we take one step at a time, we will eventually look up and see that we have traveled a great distance with the love of God lighting our way. We will meet the Herods, the Pharisees, the Pilates (not the exercise), the cross, and the grave, sometimes in others and sometimes within ourselves. However, if we keep in mind the victory God has already given us and the responsibility we have to keep walking in the Way, the story will continue, culminating in a moment when we look back and see the momentous changes God has brought to completion in us. What’s more, we may even see the many people who were positively touched by our journey all along the way.

It is my prayer that you will join me in trying to change the story. If we change ours, we also stand to change the world’s. This is going to take loads of patience, prayer, and self-love, and it will often be a painful road. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the blessing that will follow.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

The Art of Watching One’s Mouth

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. — James 3:10, NRSV

This will by no means come as a shock to anyone that knows me, but one of my biggest problems is my mouth. I am sarcastic by nature, and a childhood of being soft-spoken and easily flustered led to a seemingly necessary development of quick, cutting remarks offered up at the drop of a hat. But while my sharp humor has been the source of many laughs and good times over the years, it’s also gotten me into trouble. I’ve hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and completely disrespected the God I claim to love and worship.

I’m not saying you can’t have your quick comments here and there, and God loves a sense of humor, but there is a serious problem with the overlap between “faithful” people and those who fail to mind their words and the effects they can have. We live in a world that emphasizes shock value, and it has become fashionable to actually TRY to insult people and hurt feelings because we are technically free to do so. After all, look at how many people voted for the current president because he “tells it like it is.” What they mean is they like that he doesn’t care how his words might affect others, and that’s how they prefer to operate. Not to be outdone, even those who scream on behalf of political correctness do so in a manner that serves to demonize their fellow human beings. It’s a true testimony to the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)!

For the Christian, political correctness is no reason to guard the tongue. There may be overlap, but we can’t base our speech and actions based off of what the world finds acceptable. What has changed my approach in recent days is understanding my words as a form of worship.

I know when we think of worship, we think of set aside times and spaces, separate from the rest of our lives, but the life of faith is not that way. Living out The Way of Jesus is a ’round-the-clock effort, and our treatment of others, whether they are around us or not, is a testimony to how highly our relationship with God is ranked. This is why James issues his correction in 3:8-12 saying, “but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” All people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), whether or not we like or approve of them. As such, our treatment of one another is an act of worship… or blasphemy.

It’s hard to tame the tongue. We are surrounded by bad examples being exalted as funny or bold, and sometimes the people in our own lives just suck.. It is vitally important, however, that we learn to honor God by taking a different road in order that our worship may be complete. Perhaps it’s changing what we decide to share on social media. Maybe it’s diverting or not engaging at the dinner table when the conversation takes a turn for the worse. What if we meditated, prayed, and took time to journal, processing our feelings in a way that won’t inject more negativity into a world already choking on its own malice? I think these are options worth exploring, and I hope you will join me on this new, challenging, and transformative road.

Peace be with you!

“You’re Worth Everything to Me”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. — John 3:16, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but there are many times that I don’t feel like I am worth much. Whether I’m struggling to feel deserving of love or the inability to forgive myself, there are just times when I can’t seem to see much good in who I am. This is a common affliction for many people, especially those of us who deal with depression, and that’s why I thought this story needed to be told.

Over the past year or so, I have been more or less stuck in a constant state of low self-worth. The loss of my career, calling, and spirituality all in one fell swoop left me reeling, and while the resulting personal growth has been tremendous, it’s come at the cost of my sense of identity. About two weeks ago, things had been particularly rough in that regard… But then I went to Mass at our Episcopal Church.

Now this isn’t a story about church or prayer fixing everything. I know things aren’t typically that simple, so don’t check out just yet. But as I was sitting in prayerful reflection before service, kneeling in the pew, my crucifix in my hands, I had an experience that I’ve never had before.

In the midst of pouring my heart out, pleading for guidance and consolation, words came into my mind. I didn’t hear a voice, but they were just… there. As I knelt there agonizing over my life and whether or not I was doing or being anything worthwhile, the words, “You’re worth everything to me” came to mind. The thought was so out-of-place, and it caused me to look down at my beloved talisman with new eyes.

Paul teaches us in Romans 5 that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In that moment, I realized the truth that before I even existed, before I ever did anything considered good or bad, God, in Christ, gave His very life that I may know the extent of His love. He did this not just for me, but for you as well. Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are to serve as reminders that God’s love for all of us is powerful enough to overcome every doubt and fear.

Since that moment, I have known far more peace than I ever remember having. I still have my depression and self-doubts, but I also have this experience from which to draw strength, and I wanted to share it with you in the hopes that it might remind you how loved you really are. The symbol of faith that I have always loved, the crucifix, used to be a reminder to me that sin costs life. Now, it is a reminder that the love of God is limitless, and that God saw us as worth dying for before we ever set foot on this planet.

I’ve become painfully aware in recent days that we are more and more obsessed with measuring each other’s worth in terms of whose side we are on. What do we accomplish? Did they get the right education? Did he vote for the right candidate? Does she agree with me? All of these questions and more seem to be the new standard by which we determine whether or not someone is deserving of our love and respect. It seems to me that such harsh judgment is an indication of how hard we actually are on ourselves, projected onto others.

Your worth does not consist of what you do or don’t do. Your value is not based on how you look, what you possess, or what mistakes you do or don’t make. God decided long before we were here that we are to be called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and that we are to bear His divine image for the benefit of the world.

It is my prayer that this brief testimony serves you in whatever way you need. I hope you come away reminded of the insurmountable love God has for you, and that you always remember that you, as you are, are more than enough.

Peace be with you!