Merry Christmas (with Tears)


We’re told that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness, a time for family and friends.  But over the years I’ve learned that while that may sometimes be true, Christmas is, for many people, a time of deep sorrow and sadness.

For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can often be difficult as we more blatantly notice their absence.  In fact, the first year after suffering from the loss of a loved one is regularly referred to as the “Year of Firsts” – first Christmas, first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first anniversary… and the list goes on.

Over the past two months we’ve suffered the stillbirth of our youngest daughter.  To add insult in injury, just a couple weeks after that we lost one of our family dogs when her cancerous cyst burst open in the middle of the night.  Then just this past week we lost a puppy.  Yes, a puppy – the puppy we had purchased as a Christmas gift for our girls in an attempt to bring some joy and happiness into the midst of grief and sorry.  That puppy.

So at this point we’re fairly acquainted with grief and sorrow; three times in the past month I’ve had to give my daughters bad news that led to many shed tears, and had to answer more “why” questions that I can count.

So it is with a little trepidation that I enter into Christmas.

And yet it is Christmas that I need – that we all need – for it is Christmas that brings the hope we’re longing for. It’s because of Christmas that I have a hope – an expectation – that one day I will see my daughter again.  It is because of Christmas I know that “these light and momentary trials are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17); it’s because of Christmas I do not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13).

On Christmas God came down to earth as a baby – as a babyand the invasion began.  And roughly 30 years after that first Christmas God died on a cross, then he got up from the dead and forever defeated death and sin and the grave, and for those who surrender to him, we have a hope that far outshines anything this world – or this world’s master – can throw at us.

So, yes, I rejoice this Christmas.  Not because of what has happened to us over the past two months, but in spite of it.  When our dog died I looked at her through tear-stained eyes as she was laying there on the floor of the vet’s office and I said, “One day he’s going to pay.  He’s going to pay.”  Death isn’t supposed to win – death isn’t even supposed to be here.  And the hope of Christmas is not that death will one day lose, it’s that death has already lost because Jesus has already won.

Am I sad?  Yes.  Do I grieve?  Absolutely – but I do so as one who has hope that Jesus is Lord, He is sovereign, and one day I will be with him in a new heaven and a new earth where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4).

So Merry Christmas – even if there are tears (as mine most certainly will have).  May the joy of Jesus fill your heart this season as you look back not only on when he came, but also look forward to his return when he will finally, once-and-for-all, set all things right.

Advertisements

In Memory of Caroline Grace


Caroline Grace Feller is our fourth daughter.  Just three days before her due date we had to go to the hospital and learned that Caroline had died.  My wife delivered her on October 19, 2015 at 6:50pm; she weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces and measured 20 1/2″ long.

Many people also asked how they can help, or what they can do.  In lieu of flowers, we’ve decided to designate a memorial fund that will be used to build a living memorial by creating a butterfly garden and be used to pay for Caroline’s headstone.  If anyone would like to contribute to that memorial you can do so by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/kg6w8ufw.

Caroline’s celebration of life service was on Saturday, October 25, 2015.  I actually spoke at the service, and several people requested copies of what I said.  I typically do not script when I speak, but for this particular service I had to script it to prepare it.  Below is a copy of what I said.

Normally I don’t speak from a script – as my friend Seth will tell you – but today, well, let’s just say I’m not in the best of places, so I need a little help…

I’m not even sure what to say. Death sucks – it really does. My heart is broken, so I hope you forgive a grieving father if my language seems a little raw for a reverent ceremony in a beautiful church – but one thing I learned a long time ago is that God is big enough to handle it.

I’m standing here before you today to try and share my heart and I feel like I’m supposed to talk, but I’m not even sure who I’m talking to – is it you out there or is it to myself up here? Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, and babies aren’t supposed to die before they are born. It’s that simple. And yet it happens. But the fact it happens doesn’t make it right.

I think maybe that’s why it hurts so much. Yes it hurts because we will miss those who are no longer here with us physically; but I think deep down inside, each of us hurts because we know it’s not supposed to be like this at all. I want to shake my fist and shout, “This is not fair!” At times like this we recognize the brokenness of our world.

Sixteen years ago I sat on the edge of my comatose sister’s bed; she was 20. I sat there and held her hand as she breathed her final breathes; I watched my parents and brothers cry over a situation that should have never happened – cancer isn’t right and it shouldn’t be here, but it was and is.

Death sucked then, and it sucks now.

So here I am again, experiencing firsthand the broken reality we live in – only this time it’s my own daughter who’s died, and this time I have to lead my own family through the pain and grief. No one should have to do this.

This world – this life is not as it is supposed to be.

Somehow on days like today that truth becomes so obvious one wonders how we could have missed it at all. We live in a fallen, broken, and sick world. Car accidents happen, people get sick, crime happens, and children die. This world is broken… Floods rise, fires burn, hurricanes and tornadoes come, droughts destroy corps – and parents bury their kids. Somehow, deep inside, we recognize the unfairness of the situation – the injustice of it all. But regardless of our technology and our money, we can’t fix it.

“Why do these things happen?” we ask. We want to know – we think we need to know – we feel we deserve to know.

But the fact is, too often we never will.

It’s easy at moments like this, when we see a baby in a casket, to recognize the brokenness around us (the Bible calls that sin); sometimes we even try to justify that brokenness with statistics (like the fact that 1 out every 160 children die of umbilical accidents), as if that makes it okay. But just because something might be happening about ½% of the time doesn’t make it right.

And the bigger lie we’ve come to believe is that sin and brokenness is just “out there” – too often we forget that it’s also “in here”. We know we’re not perfect mind you – none of us is foolish enough to think that (or if we are, we’re certainly not going to admit it to anyone). But our imperfection? It’s not sin, we reason, we’re just a little rough around the edges – nothing more, nothing less. We’re pretty good, and, for the most part, our motives are in the right place. We try to do the right thing (whatever that means), and we try to help others (but only when it’s convenient). And we live our lives.

My favorite verse and promise in all of scripture is found in Revelation 21: “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:[a]

Look! God’s dwelling[b] is with humanity,
and He will live with them.
They will be His people,
and God Himself will be with them
and be their God.[c]
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will no longer exist;
grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer,
because the previous things[d] have passed away.

Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.”

I look forward to that day – the day when death will no longer exist, when grief, crying, and pain will be gone – the day when everything will be new.

But as I read this promise in scripture I realize that while it is available to everyone, it is only applicable to some; and that’s a scary thought, if you’re not in that “some”. That’s not a popular thing to say in society right now – it seems exclusive. But, here’s the deal – the gospel of Jesus is exclusive. Jesus said that He is the way – not that others are the way, or that he is one of many ways. He said it’s all about Him. So if you want to be included in that some, you’ve got to walk through the door he wants you to walk through. Now you can dismiss that and decide you don’t agree with it, but you and he can’t both be right. Either He’s it, or you are. And as for me, I’m siding with the guy who got up from dead – unless you’ve got a better “trick” up your sleeve…

So the first question one asks is, “Will this promise apply to me?” – just like Jason’s question earlier about each of us being with the Father. And the only way to be sure of that is to trust him completely. We already know we live in a fallen, broken world – today is evidence of that – and the Bible says the reason for that is sin, and we all are guilty of sin and deserve punishment by a Holy God.

So let me share two words… But God…

Yeah. “But God” We’ve heard it before, but I’m going to repeat what has been said countless times before because some of you in here may not get it. “But God” is huge – in fact, it’s the big deal. We live in a fallen world where we are separated from God, But God sent His son Jesus so that we can be restored into right relationship with Him. That verse I read a few minutes ago – it’s all about But God.

We live in a fallen, broken, sinful world – but God chose to come to earth as a man, he paid for our sin with his blood when he died on a cross, and then he rose again from the dead and defeated sin, death and the grave. And he told us that if we want to participate in that defeat with him, if we want to be restored to him, then we need to trust him with our lives – both here and now. Jesus promised eternal life to those who followed him – and he also defined when eternal life starts, and it may not be when you think…

Eternal life isn’t something that happens “someday”; it doesn’t start when you die. Eternal life, Jesus says, is to know God the Father; it starts right now. We’re told elsewhere in scripture that when we become Christians – when we accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and surrender ourselves to him – that we literally become new people. Christianity isn’t about behavior modification; Christianity is identity transformation. It’s not about what I do or don’t do; it’s about who I am. And who I am is determined by the fact that God now lives inside me, that he transforms my heart and my mind so that they confirm to his. And when that happens I begin to see things in a whole new light….

So let me share with you how that looks for us right now, where we are at… Even in the midst of tragedy and loss – in the middle of deep pain, sorrow, and grief – Melissa and I have seen God’s grace and his mercy. From the doctor who shared scripture with us and prayed with us at the hospital and then came back after delivery to find Melissa in the cafeteria, to the nurses and other staff who came in and prayed with and over Melissa during the labor and delivery process… The Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer who stayed at the hospital until 1:30am taking pictures – some of which you saw today – to help us remember Caroline. The friends and family who came and held us when we cried, who sat and listened as we talked without trying to fix the unfixable… The family support people at the hospital who reached out to us… The doctors and nurses who went above and beyond to comfort us, gave us permission to grieve, and created some of the mementos you saw in the back to help us remember… The friends and family who came over to our house to help us pack up baby stuff, who watched the kids while Melissa and I were in the hospital, who gave so much without asking for anything – anything – in return – even though they were grieving as well. To those who sent us private Facebook messages and prayers, to those who prayed on Monday night at the prayer meeting, to those who have provided meals, to friends who brought shakes to the house or went out for a simple walk around the neighborhood or just sent text messages to say “I’m praying for you and love you” and then understood they may not get a response, but then the next day send another bible verse or prayer. God truly has shown up in ways we never expected.

I would not wish this pain or experience on my worst enemy – and I’m learning that there are many, many more people out there who have experienced similar situations – many worse than this. But I’m experiencing – even in light of tragic and deep loss – that God is present and He is here and He is good. If you’ve ever wondered about Christianity and wanted to know what it is, here it is on display for you – it’s walking with those who hurt and suffer together, with the hope that both in the present God is here and in the future He will finally defeat death and the grave (and this isn’t the type of “hope” as in “I hope the Cubs win the world series next year. It’s the hope that provides confidence and assurance that what has been said will be.) And we can have that confidence that he will defeat death and the grave because he already has. A man named Jesus got up from the dead – and that changes EVERYTHING.

People ask us what we need, so here are two things:

First, we need to know that every person here is without an excuse to know about the deep, deep love and grace of God offered through Jesus – and that you have had an opportunity to respond to and accept it. We can’t make you accept it, but we can ensure you are offered the opportunity. If you know us at all you know we aren’t perfect – we mess up plenty of times (and if you really think I’m perfect, just sit and talk with my wife or coworkers for about 30 seconds and they can cure you of that delusion). What I can tell you, though, is that without the very real presence of God in my life because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I would not have any hope, I would not have any peace, I would not have any joy or love or grace. Because those things aren’t in me – they are from Him. If Jesus can get up from the dead, he can get us through this…

Jason spoke a few minutes ago much more eloquently than I am as I muddle through this (and I’m going to blame it on my current emotional state). But here’s what we need to do – you need an opportunity to respond to what Jason and I have. And we’re going to respond in prayer.   If you recognize your own inadequacy to fix your sin and pain and suffering, and you’ve not asked God to do it for you, I hope you’ll pray with me in a minute. And if you have confessed your inadequacy already, I’m going to ask you to say these words so that those around you that might want to pray them don’t feel alone. And it’s not about saying magic words to a geanie in the sky – it’s about a humble heart condition that says to a Holy God “I need you.”

So let’s pray (which is just a fancy way to say we’re going to talk to God).. If everyone could close their eyes and repeat after me.

Heavenly Father

This world is broken, and I’m broken, too.

And I know that I can’t fix it or me without you.

Forgive my pride in thinking I could.

I believe you died and rose again to pay what I could never pay.

Change me – inside and out; forgive my sin.

And make me your child.

Amen.

Before you open your eyes and before anyone is looking around, if you prayed that prayer and really meant it, would you just raise your hand? The only person looking around the room is me …

If you prayed that prayer – really prayed it and didn’t just say words – then the promise I read earlier now applies to you.

I said we had two needs we’re aware of, and that was the first, so let me just share the second. We need to be pursued. Please, continue to pursue us, to reach out to us, to love us and pray for us. And if you reach out and don’t get a response immediately, please do not be offended… We just physically and emotionally can’t do it right now. But we need to hear from you, and we will eventually respond. And don’t just pursue today or this week… We need you for the long haul…. Ask us for walks, invite us out to coffee (or, in my case tea) – offer to watch our kids so Melissa and I can take time to be together. We need time – both alone and also with those who are close to us, and are willing to help us carry this burden. So please, pursue us.

God is a good, good father, and it is my prayer that even in the midst of tragedy – no, especially in the midst of tragedy – that both you and I realize how true that is. He is here today; don’t let the opportunity to respond to him pass you by yet again.

 

What God Has Taught Me


Today our church service included the testimonies of several of our members regarding what the Lord has taught them over the past year.  Below is a transcript (as best I can provide) of what I shared with our congregation.

testimonies

Looking Back

I wish I could stand before you this morning and tell you that I’ve spent the last 363 days of the year faithfully studying God’s word, desperately pursing him prayer, and passionately worshipping him 24/7; I wish I could rattle off a list of people I’ve personally led to the Lord, that I could say, “Hey – see that table there?  All of them are here today because when I told them about Jesus they listened and responded.”

But I can’t.  And that’s okay.  See, that’s what God has taught me this year.

One Word Summary

If I had to sum the year’s lessons up in one word, it would “grace” – the grace God shares through Jesus every day of the year as he deals with and talks to me.  Jason asked us a couple of weeks ago to talk about how God has moved in our lives this past year so that we could share it.  I wanted to be able to say, “I was sick – now look at me!  I’m healed!” or “One day, out of the blue, God sent a check that paid off my mortgage!” or some other miraculous story.  Instead, I stand before you and tell you that we spent the better part of a year recovering from the consequences of a car accident that totaled our van, delayed our trying to have another child, and put a complete stop on selling our house and moving into another one – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than tell you about the mortgage being paid off, I will stand here and tell you that the promised raise was voted down, sometimes there was more month than money, and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to paying for the new van.

stone of graceYup, that’s our year.  A pretty normal year, a year mixed with both victories and struggles, great memories and pain I think I’d rather forget.  A year that started with good intentions – intentions to read scripture daily, to pray faithfully with and for my wife, to disciple my children – but as I look back I realize that while there were months I did read daily, pray faithfully, and invest in my kids, there are also weeks I’m not sure I even cracked the bible open except on Sunday morning, months that went by where prayers were little more than “Bless this day, God” or “Help feel better”, and plenty of nights where not only did I neglect to do devotions with the girls but where during the day I actually lost my temper and yelled at them.  Yup.  That’s my life – my imperfect, human, raw life.

And in the midst of it, He is here.  God is.  Jesus – he’s in the midst of all the turmoil, all the pain, all the disappointment.  He’s right here. That’s what God taught me this year.  To focus on the increasingly intimate, on-going, day-by-day and moment-by-moment relationship I have with Him, to remember that he speaks to me about and through the “mundane,” he works through me, and he fills in the gaps when I step aside and let him.

The Grant

I look back at the year and realize that when I was one of two people tasked with writing a 300 page grant application in just two weeks, that when the words were flowing through my fingers onto the screen, when the ideas in my mind were literally changing the way we structure support for schools in our district, that they weren’t my ideas at all – they were His. I recognize now that the whole process – a process that didn’t result in receiving the grant – was about growing me in Him.  Through that process he was shared both verbally and non-verbally with my co-workers; he grew my faith and honed my listening skills.  We walked side-by-side through that project.  And we grew closer.

Statistics

I look back at the statistics class I had to take this semester, or the two-nights-out-a-week for school that robbed me of time with family.  And I recognize that he was with me on every drive to Chapel Hill, that those times in the car where I would sing, talk with him out loud, listen to sermons, and listen to him speak to me were times of growth and intimacy with my Savior – times I have come to treasure and even look forward to.  I understand they were times I have to invest in out-of-town friends and family via late night phone calls that serve to help keep me awake as I traveled but minister to them in other ways than I could ever imagine.  He’s worked in and through me even while I drive.

Driving Around Town

I look back on the day I was driving from a school in Winterville out to a school in Farmville.  I was sitting at the intersection of Davenport Farms Rd and Old US264 waiting to turn left.  There was a semi truck coming from the right and two cars coming from the left.  Even though there was more than enough space for me to safely pull out and make my turn, I heard a voice say, “Tom, just be patient – don’t be in such a rush.”  So, for once in my life while behind the wheel, I actually just decided to sit there and let everyone pass – to listen to and not just hear Jesus’ voice.  After the truck passed I turned to wait for the first of the two cars to pass, and after it passed I waited for the second car to pass.  It was then that I saw a third car that had been invisible to me just seconds before – a third car who was executing an illegal pass of the second car, so he was in the lane I would have turned into.  Literally, had I not listened when Jesus told me to wait I would have had a head-on collision with a car that was easily traveling 60+ mph.  And it took me longer to tell you this story than it actually happened in life – it was that quick.

The Missing Dog

I look back at the morning I woke up and the dog had escaped the back yard; of spending 30 minutes driving and walking the neighborhood in the rain when it was still dark outside, only to return home praying, “Lord, just bring her back – or help someone to find her and call us.”  Then I turned onto my street and who was standing in the middle of the road, one door down from our house, looking around all confused?  My Cosette.  And Jesus said, “See – I even care about the dog.  If I care about something so insignificant as that, don’t you think I care about the big stuff, too?”  Sure, it could have ended differently – she could have been lost forever, but I think God was saving me from have the country-music-song year (you know, no raise, car accident, totaled car, hurt wife, dead dog).

The Year to HearThe Lesson: Just Listen

So here’s what I’ve learned this year more than ever before – a year that, while it hasn’t been the most difficult of my life has certainly had its challenges.  I’ve learned that God is faithful in the little things, and he’s faithful in the big ones, too.  I’ve learned that God’s grace overpowers everything the devil can throw at us.  I’ve learned that the best part of life is walking hand-in-hand with my Dad – my Heavenly Dad – and hanging out with him.  I’ve learned that listening to Jesus and hearing him are two different things.  I used to teach my students that the while hearing was a function of the ear, listening was a function of the brain.  Hearing is simply when sound waves hit the ear drum, but listening requires actually processing and paying attention to those sounds.  It’s why we can sit in a restaurant and, even though we hear conversations of other people around us, we only listen to the person we’re having dinner with.  Jesus reminded me of that truth this year, so I want to share a couple of very specific examples when he spoke and I did more than hear, I listened.

Lance Armstrong

To do that I went back and reviewed some of my blog posts for the past year.  Two stuck out…  Two that were turning points in my year when Jesus spoke deeply to me.  The first one I want to share was from last January. To provide a little context, I used to be an avid cyclist, and Lance Armstrong was one of my favorite racers.  Last January was when he finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in each of his seven Tour de France victors.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

There is something about Lance Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian.  I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much cannot believe in God at all.  It’s not that he knowingly serves another spiritual presence, it’s that he doesn’t even believe God exists.  To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.

He writes in his book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain.  Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored.  He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass.  It’s stunning.”

I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture.  Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).

Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe.  Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him!  He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him.  Church is not a building, or a history lesson.  Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus.  That’s what Armstrong fails to understand.

This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular.  I didn’t watch his confession, but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable – how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?

For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself.  He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names.  In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with oneself.  Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike.  It was about him and only him, at all costs.

And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced.  We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.

This afternoon I got kinda upset about that.  I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live.  It just didn’t seem fair.  Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong.  How come she had to die and he got to live?  If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process?  Isn’t that the one who should have died?

And then God reminded about his grace.  It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed.  Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God.  Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity.  But Armstrong?  He’s headed straight to hell.  Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else.  Perhaps worse than some but better than others.  Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.

And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another.  Should Armstrong have died?  Who am I to judge that…  What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and continues to give) to come to know Him.  2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact.  It’s what I’m praying for, anyway

Grey’s Anatomy

The second one I wrote the following month, in February, and I think you’ll see how they are related:

I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy.  One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs.  The conflict in the show revolved around how the doctors should respond to someone whose religious beliefs prevented them from treating a sickness that was curable.  At one point a friend of the dying patient comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend “never once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness.  He never talked about it.  I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion).  The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret?  Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”

And that’s when God slapped me upside the head and asked me the question, “Would your friends even know you’re a follower of Jesus?  Have you ever told them?  Would they know what you’re living for?  Would they know what you’re willing to die for?”  See, when God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know that he lived and died for them?  Paul tells me that I’m the letter – I’m the ambassador.  So what message are they hearing?  Or am I keeping him a secret?

What about Sunday?

Both of those stories provide the “front book-end” examples, so to speak, of what Jesus was telling and teaching me this year.  So let me use one final quote before I tie this all together to provide the “back book-end”… Just this past week I finished reading a book in which the following question was asked:

“If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus? The reason I pose the question is because most people conclude someone is a Christian or not based on that person’s Sunday religious activities and behaviors. You may not even be inclined to advertise your faith, but inevitably if you attend church often enough, it will come out in conversation. So if Sunday didn’t exist, you would no longer have a building to point to as being the place you attend church…If Sunday didn’t exist, we would no longer be able to use our Sunday activities as evidence that we are followers of Jesus. So back to my question…If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus?”

The Missing Formula

I wish I could give you a formula that said, “This is how you grow closer to the Lord.  You read 4 chapters a day at 6:00am, then make sure you pray for 35 minutes every morning about these 5 topics.  Oh, don’t forget to fast once a week (Tuesdays would be best) so that you can spend extra time with the Lord in prayer.  Always listen to Christian radio, in the car make sure you play sermon podcasts rather than turn on political talk, answer at least 3 out of 5 questions at small group, and….”  Well, you get the idea.  But there isn’t a formula – it’s a relationship between two beings.  And that’s what Jesus has been teaching me.  There’s an ebb and flow to life, and an ebb and flow to relationships.  Hearing Jesus’ voice in every moment of every day isn’t something that happens just because you do X-Y-and-Z.  Hearing is a result of listening, and listening is a result of focus and paying attention – perhaps it sounds like I’m arguing semantics here, but hearing is a physiological process whereas listening adds both the cognitive dimension and the spiritual act of discernment so that physiology, cognition, and spirit all work together.

listen-and-learnNow don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting there’s nothing we can do to hear God’s voice or that regardless of what we do nothing will inhibit us from hearing him.  Sin is very real and it sets a wall up in our hearts to make it difficult to hear his voice.  We have to spend time with him regularly – if I never talked with Melissa or spent time with her or listened to her you’d all wonder what type of marriage we had.  But at certain times of our lives those shared times may look different.  When we first got married we had regular date nights every week – but once you have kids and you realize between dinner, a movie, and a babysitter that date nights take the entire month’s entertainment budget, they start to look different than they used to.  I can’t give a formula for the marriage relationship.  Are there certain things we do and don’t do?  Absolutely.  But we don’t get a marriage because we do those things, we do those things because we are married.

Similarly, I’m not so certain that we get a growing relationship with God just because we read the Bible, pray, fast, or engage in any of the other spiritual disciplines.  Reading the bible and prayer no more make you a Christian than babysitting makes you a parent.  Does this mean you shouldn’t babysit my kids for me?  Absolutely not! But remember that we aren’t parents until we’ve had a kid – whether you have them naturally or you adopt them.  Just because you are a teacher who works with kids, or a family therapist who studies child development and know what all the “experts” say about them, a pediatrician who diagnoses their sickness or a L&D nurse who delivers newborns every day – if you’ve never had the sole responsibility to care for a child you aren’t a parent.  That’s not meant to discourage or dismiss people, it’s simply stating a neutral fact.  In the same way, just because you attend church, read the bible, pray, fast, give money, and/or serve in the community it doesn’t mean you are a follower of Jesus.  Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things?  Absolutely not – but don’t overemphasize the vehicle when what is important is the relationship.

rooted

Abiding leads to doing

Because of our growing relationship with God we engage in those disciplines – just like when we get married we do things couples do, or when we have children we take responsibility for our kids in raising them.  But when it all gets dry?  Well, sometimes relationships don’t always “feel” vibrant.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in relationship.  Sometimes our sprititual walk with our Dad doesn’t necessarily “feel” great, but it doesn’t mean he’s not there or that he doesn’t care.  The thing that Jesus has taught me more this year than any year in the past is that a deep relationship with him is exactly that – a relationship that isn’t ruled by rules and regulations about what I do or say or think.  In fact, it’s not ruled by anything but His Grace.  To use our Covenant and Kingdom language, I’ve learned that as I abide with and in Him, the doing happens automatically and naturally and I don’t even need to think about it.  Just this past week I read John 3:21, “anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”  When I abide in Him, he works through me and others see it for what it is.

Don’t take these words to mean that when you walk with God that what you consider to be “good things” only happen to you or you always get what you want.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t come home, sometimes your sister dies, sometimes you spend more than you make, sometimes the car accident happens or the tire blows out or you fall out of the tree and break your arm.  I have friends who are Christians who walk faithfully with the Lord and still experience great, great pain – the pain of divorce, untimely death, the sickness of a child, lost jobs, or even the loss of a home – so I’m not naïve enough to think that by walking with and listening to Jesus we are free of the effects of sin in a fallen world.  Walking with God doesn’t guarantee bad things won’t happen to you.  It DOES mean you don’t have to go through them alone.

abiding

Heart & Tongue


For the month of November the leadership team at my church (of which I’m a member) is reading through the book of Proverbs – one chapter a day, and the date of the month corresponds to the chapter we read (so since today is the 11th we are reading the 11th chapter).  Reading a Proverb a day is actually something I learned a long time ago from my dad, who has consistently read through the book every month for years (literally) – I remember as a kid seeing him reading every morning, and it was typically in the book of Proverbs.  It was a discipline I had through my college years, but it’s not something I’ve continued with great faithfulness like he has (to my shame).  So the exercise this month with some other guys at my church has been both a return to the familiar and also a journey into the new revelations God has in store for me (and us).

While I certainly will not post about my readings every day (obviously – since I’m 1/3 of the way into the month and haven’t posted a single thing yet!), there’s been a common theme over the last several days that I wanted to reflect on.  And it has to do with the words we speak.  For anyone who’s even glimpsed the book of Proverbs, the amount of space dedicated to the words we speak is obvious and difficult to miss.  In addition to Proverbs, many Christians are familiar with James’ teaching on the tongue (see James 3:3-12), as well as Paul’s (see Eph 4:29) command to not let unwholesome talk come from our lips.

heart-and-tongue

But I guess I’ve missed a key connection on many of these verses before.  Proverbs 10:20 reads, “The tongue of the righteous is pure silver; the heart of the wicked is of little value.”  Many times proverbs are set up as two contrasting ideas – working vs. laziness, purity vs. wickedness, etc.  So when I read this verse and it contrasted the tongue and the heart it peaked my interest – and it was as if God told me to go back and meditate on it and read it again.  So I did, and I was reminded of this verse: “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” (Luke 6:45)  (emphasis mine).  And I realized that this proverb, like many others, is actually creating a contrast – a contrast of the heart.  Jesus said that what we speak comes from our heart; if you’re not a follower of Jesus, here’s an extra-biblical quote that is similar:

heart2.6

So Solomon (the author of Proverbs) is telling us what Jesus also told us: the words we speak are a reflection of our heart – the words of the righteous reflect a righteous heart while the words of the wicked reflect a wicked heart. Connected with all of this was the Ephesians passage listed above, which we discussed at some length this past week in our small group.  One of the things that convicts me when I read Paul’s words is that it says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth.”  It doesn’t list exceptions (ie, when you’re angry or venting or sad).  None.  That’s how much we’re “allowed”.  And I think the reason is that our words reflect (and often betray) our heart to those around us.  My colleagues at work think I never curse – and every time they curse around me they typically apologize (not sure why they feel the need to do this, because I’ve certainly never said anything about it – they just have never heard me curse and I guess they figure I’m greatly offended by it).  My wife once told me that her grandmother told her cursing revealed a weak mind – it was what we said when we were too ignorant to use a better word.  Now I certainly won’t tell you that my words have always been (or always are) free of four letter words, because on occasion (typically when I’m alone and angry), one slips out – especially on the road.  Not something I’m proud of, simply stating a fact.  But it’s also something I’ve worked hard to overcome over the years – and, if my work colleagues are any judge, God has certainly been gracious to me.

heart-and-mouth-connection

Don’t take this post as an anti-cursing post, because that’s certainly not it.  The purpose of this reflection is to ask the question, “If my words overflow from my heart, what do they say about the condition of my heart?”

If I say I love Jesus, do people hear me talking about Him?  If I say I’ve surrendered to Him and I strive to serve my family and faithfully lead my wife and kids to be more like Jesus, is it apparent in my speech?  If I value the covenant and commitment I made to my wife on our wedding day do I participate in “wife” jokes when I’m out with the guys to get a laugh?  How about when my kids want to play a game – do I speak harsh words to them?  Am I dishonest when asked a question, or manipulative, or un-trustworthy?  How about when someone comes to me with a problem they need advice on or someone to help them process – does it stay between us or do I turn around and use it as gossip with the next person I see?

Now I know the old saying that, “Talk is cheap”, and I’m not suggesting that just because we say something we do something.  I’m simply suggesting that often times our words (or lack thereof) say something different than what we want them to say – and is that because of an inconsistency in our actions (we don’t practice what we preach) or is it because the words themselves reflect a problem in our hearts?  God promised us in Ezekiel that he would give us a “new heart”, and Paul certainly preaches that we are “new creations” (see Ezekiel 36:26 and 2 Corinthians 5:17).  Yet how does this play out in our words?  If we’re to take Solomon (and Jesus) at his word, then we need to recognize there really is a connection between our words and heart.  The words we speak and the tone we use to say them reveal a wealth of information about the state of our heart.  What do your words say about you?

Deeply Loved


Over the past month I’ve done I’ve done four posts reflecting on Keri Wyatt Kent’s book Deeply Loved; this post marks my final post on the book and my review of it.

Deeply Loved Cover

The book is described on the back by saying “Jesus Loves You.  That profound fact has been changing lives around the world for centuries.  Yet, there are days when you don’t experience this completely in your own life.  So how do you get to the very core of that statement on a deep personal level?…Using the gospel stories of Jesus, reflection, and personal stories, Kent will guide you through forty days of how to create space in your life for Jesus to show up and love you.  Deeply.”  Over the course of 40 days she then guides you through 40 different disciplines meant to draw you closer to Jesus, or, perhaps more accurately, allow you to open up so he can draw you closer to himself.  Either way you look at it, I have to say that having gone through the book I can testify that the disciplines Keri shares did help me re-focus my thoughts, attitudes, and even actions on Jesus.

Though I read the book over Lent (which happens to be 40 days), and I did so with others from around the country as part of a blog tour, I can also reassure you that it would be appropriate to read any time during the year.  Each entry is only 4-5 pages long, meaning you can read it in just a few minutes a day.  But as you close the book each day you’re left with profound thoughts and reflections you’ll spend days meditating on (literally!).  This truly is one of the few books I’ve read that I will go back and re-read multiple times simply because it’s had an impact on my life that can’t be easily put into words; it’s by far the best devotional book I’ve read in a long time.

I’ll give this book 5/5 stars, meaning you need to add it to your “must read” list, especially if you want to read a book to draw closer to Him.

It’s All About Grace


It’s Holy Week; more specifically, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (also known as Spy Wednesday or Holy Wednesday).  Over the past several weeks I’ve been reading through the book Deeply Loved by Kerry Wyatt Kent as part of a Lent devotional, and today I want to take a few minutes to reflect on the importance of Holy Week.

Deeply Loved Cover

Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday), which is the Sunday before Easter, and continues through until Easter morning.  In traditional and liturgical circles there are generally a bunch of services this week and, for the first time in a decade I won’t get to participate in all of them (for the record, I have class on Thursday night and so I won’t be attending the Maundy Thursday service and on Good Friday we’ll be traveling so I’ll visit a church for their evening service).

As an arts person with a background in both music and theatre part of me just loves the drama and pageantry of Holy Week – from celebrating the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday (complete with waving of palms and processing into the sanctuary) to experiencing communion (the night of the Last Supper) and leaving a darkened and stripped sanctuary on Thursday to the quiet reflection of Good Friday to the sunrise service on Easter morning, there’s just something about going through the process that helps remind me of what Jesus did, particularly that last week of his life on Earth.

Perhaps more than anything, though, I’m reminded of the awesome grace of God that is demonstrated this week.  I’m reminded that regardless of how many times I fail – whether I say things I shouldn’t at work or fail to do my daily quiet time or whatever – regardless of what I do or don’t do God has paid the price for my sin and I’m clean before him through Jesus.  For me, Holy Week is the reminder of grace – free grace; it’s a reminder that there is nothing – nothing – I can do to earn God’s love or favor.  He did it all.  He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the praises of people who would later betray him; he washed the feet of the disciples who would just hours later abandon him; he suffered the betrayal of one of his closest friends who turned him over to the authorities; he suffered through an unjust and illegal trial, endured flogging at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers, was literally nailed to a cross, and then he died.  All for me (and you, too!).  There’s nothing I can do to earn that type of love or deserve that type of love – God gave freely to me.  The drama and pageantry of Holy Week reminds me of that grace.

And after all that, Easter is when everything changes.  Jesus “done got up” from the grave – “he is not here”, but he is risen!  Grace wins!  Not only does God punish Jesus for my sins and failings (instead of punishing me), he provides a rescue by defeating death and granting me victory over death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  “Grace, grace, God’s grace” is truly “amazing grace”.

What’s Holy Week mean to me?  It means that “because of Jesus I’m alive”; it reminds me of grace.  Deeply Loved has proven a wonderful tool over the past several weeks to remind me of that love as I’ve encountered and practiced different ways to interact with and experience the presence of Jesus in my life.  I’m not perfect (at least not yet – but just wait until I get to Heaven!); I mess up every day.  But I know that because of Holy Week – because of grace – God forgives, accepts, loves, and is working to change me into the image of his son.