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!

Recovering Love

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. — 1 John 3:14, NRSV

I’m always surprised at the lengths people will go to not have to love any more people than they would prefer. Even at seminary, there were proposed interpretations of Scripture that were geared toward narrowing the field of people we are responsible for loving… And they were put forward by future priests and pastors!

It’s true, though, that thanks to mainline denominations and pandering politicians, the word “love” has taken on a squishy, almost manipulative quality. Too many leaders and speakers use the term as a means of pushing their political or social agenda, guilt-tripping some into either falling in line or pushing others away to new levels of anger and spite. This, however, doesn’t mean that the teaching of Jesus doesn’t have any merit.

On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we recover the intent and actions of love that Christ intended for us. The love of Christ involves calculated and accepted risk, not merely a general pleasantness. Too many people confuse active love for “not pissing anyone off,” and that is not at all what the crucified Messiah has in mind. Truly loving others is a path that leaves us open to pain and being taken advantage of. It means setting ourselves aside for the good of each other, and looking to the crucifix as a reminder that even in moments of deep darkness that are bound to come, God is there, bringing us life.

In the First Epistle of John, chapter 3, we encounter a conversation about love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). The fundamental teaching of Christian living and belief is love, both of God for us and of us for each other. Further, this love is an indication of Eternal Life that abides within us here and now. As John says, “Whoever loves a brother or sister[c] lives in the light, and in such a person[d] there is no cause for stumbling” (2:10).

Conversely, when we lead self-serving lives, we turn our backs on Eternal Life, and we cease living in relationship not just with each other, but with God. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (3:14). Love is a way of life, and it is Life itself! It is living in a way that brings the eternal life of God into every situation and interaction. When we choose ourselves, and when we do all we can to narrow our field of affection and concern, we opt for the opposite.

I am aware of the concerns regarding the context of this passage. It is clear that John is talking about love as it exists between fellow Christians, but let me ask you a question. Does John’s emphasis of the Christian community mean that we are free to be un-loving toward those who are not “in the fold?”

I think you and I both know that this is not the teaching of John or Jesus.

So instead of narrowing our perception of who does and doesn’t deserve our love and consideration, I think it is time we take the calculated risk. We will be taken advantage of. We will be hurt. But that is love, putting ourselves out there that others may know the grace of God by our words and actions, even if it is not received the way we would like. We are not responsible for what others do in response to what we give. We are not responsible for whether or not certain others deserve what we offer. We are only responsible for whether or not we give.

It’s time to decide. Our world cannot sustain any more hatred or self-service. Make the choice today to keep your circle wide. How wide? As wide as the arms of Christ, stretched upon the wood of the cross in the hopes that we all might cease abiding in death, and choose Life.

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!

Notice The Blurs

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’…But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ — Luke 12:19-20, NRSV

I went for a walk this past Saturday as part of my new and improved self-care regimen. I recharge by being alone in nature, a church, or some other place or situation in which I can think, process, and just “be.” While on this walk, I looked up and saw an oncoming vehicle with an exceptionally excited dog hanging out of the window. His jowls were flapping away in the wind, and his eyes were squinted in that canine way that indicates extreme pleasure. Sadly, the car was moving too quickly for a picture, so the dandelions I saw in the park will have to do. Anyway, the sight caused laughter to burst from me in a genuine, joyful sort of way, and I realized that if I had been running, reading, or if I had decided to drive to the park, I would have missed it!

This made me think about life and how we miss so much. We trade away large portions of our lives to pursue wealth, stability, and progress. We push through more and more hours so we can get that house or car for a family we aren’t around very much. We blitz through vacations for the sake of “doing everything,” but we actually enjoy very little. We damage our relationships with God and others over opinions, practices, and institutions that are as finite as we are (which I discuss here).

Jesus addresses this non-stop pursuit of worldly things in a parable regarding “The Rich Fool.” This is a guy that spends his entire life building up more wealth and goods than he could possibly need. Hell, he had to tear down and rebuild his storage facilities just to give it all some place to sit (Luke 12:18)! Further, he appears to live by an idea that drives most of us: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:19). After all, if we just get to that mythical “next step,” we will have all we need and we can finally enjoy life, right?

Jesus says no, and I am inclined to believe that He is correct.

At the end of the parable, God tells the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Everything that you and I earn and possess over the course of our brief existence will go to others. The fights we “win,” the cars we drive, the houses we rent or own, the parties we vote for, even the nation in which we live will eventually all pass on in one way or another.

With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we stop going so fast. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse tells Guy, “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly… If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass!” Bradbury’s commentary is just as true now as it was then. In the pursuit of all the things we are told are of primary importance, we lose sight of what truly matters.

My prayer for you is that you will take time to slow down and realign with God’s will for your life, and that is that you will actually live it. God’s not concerned about our paycheck or possessions. God doesn’t care if we vote blue or red. It doesn’t bring God joy when we insist on your own way, convinced of our own rightness. God’s desires are that we connect with Him and with each other in ways that honor the gift of life.

If we decide to embrace the path of God, our priorities can realign. We can be free to love and be present with the people God has placed in our lives. We can fight for justice and peace without the pesky allegiances that cause more harm than good. We can pursue our careers and livelihoods without becoming enslaved to them. Life can be lived without always obsessing over the next step, because the current step is all we have. And with God and each other, it’s all we really need.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

Knowing Your End

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1-2, NRSV

We as humans fight a lot. Love, hate, war, greed, fear, politics, and difference are all instances that tend to bring out our worst. The saddest part is that all the things we usually fight over are only temporary realities. In fact, the same could be said of you and I.

We are temporary.

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 39, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” He had an excellent point. The life you and I have at this very moment is fleeting. It is short. It will not last forever.

The nations, symbols, practices, and issues we bicker over incessantly are also just temporary. There will be a day when the United States no longer exists. There will be a day when you and I, as we are, will no longer be present on this planet. Our breath will depart, our bodies will stop, and as Jesus says, “All will be thrown down.”

So what do we do with that info? Should we keep selfishly fighting, hoarding our resources, and sacrificing ourselves and each other for what is, at best, temporary? I don’t think so.

Instead, what if we took a page from Jesus’ book and lived with an eternal mindset? We may be temporary, but the deeds of love and mercy we decide to enact (or not) will ripple out from our lives for much longer than we could ever hope to last. We will leave an impression on this earth for generations to come, and it is an impression for which God will hold us accountable.

My suggestion is that we take a step back from whatever war we are currently being told we need to wage. Let’s look at our lives in terms of how we have loved and shown compassion. Have we shown the grace of God to our enemies, or have we just bickered with them? Have we been generous to those in need, or have we just talked and fought about them?

I feel it would benefit us to remember that our days are but a breath, and the Christ-like impressions we leave matter more than being right in a conflict that won’t matter one hundred years from now. The measure of our days is short. We only have but a few in the grand landscape of eternity. How shall we now spend them?

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!

“The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.John 13:34, NRSV

There’s nothing like a quote from the famous Robert Earl Keen song to set the tone for a post, and you can’t lose when reinforcing it with the beloved New Commandment. So what do these two very different snippets have to do with one another? Follow me!

After Epiphany closed the Christmas season this past Sunday, I have been reflecting on the major Christian holy days and how celebrating them should impact us today. These days honor various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, so it would make sense for there to be some application for his disciples beyond just remembering what happened 2,000 years ago. So far, I’ve discerned one major reason for keeping these holy days (all of them) sacred in our lives.

They are all happening, all the time.

I know that sounds like some “new age” stuff, but it’s true. The Exodus, the mystery of the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all realities here and now, in this life, in this moment. And they should be, otherwise we run the risk of denying the true power of these events for the sake of some mere, lame commemoration.

Each of us knows the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, of growing in relationship with God and moving from sin to life (Exodus). We know what it is to marvel at, question, or even deny the idea of a God that would take on flesh for us (Incarnation), even if it it shows indirectly as a questioning of our own value. All people know the reality of suffering and death (Crucifixion), and the importance of hope and restoration in the midst of it, ultimately leading to victory (Resurrection and Ascension). We know what it is to be inspired, and to be filled with the drive to use our gifts for the betterment of the world (Pentecost).

The problem comes when we fail to see the life of Christ in our own and vice versa. We get too caught up in the “Crucifixion” moments to remember what hope feels like. We are too consumed with our victories and comfort to remember that suffering is still a reality for many that we have a responsibility to ease.

We lose compassion for one another when we forget that all of us are sinners on the road to the promised land. Perhaps most tragically, when we lose sight of the Incarnation, we fail to recognize all others as brothers and sisters for whom God took on human flesh and died. When we limit these realities to seasons and days, we lose sight of the fact that they indeed are realities.

Christ lived with eternity in mind. He loved with eternity in mind. In eternity, everything echoes at once, without regard for day, year, or time. If we are to love as he does, we also must keep eternity in mind, letting these holy realities shape our daily lives.

It is my prayer that you will join me in living this new year in light of the reality of Christ’s life. May we all remember who we are, who God is, and what responsibilities come with that identity. Above all, whatever situation rings true for you right now, I pray that you will know how loved and valued you really are.

Peace be with you!