Sunday, December 3, 2017

Happy Just to Be

Happy Just to Be

To Timmy for inspiring this story. Thank you for letting me learn about life with you! (And yes, you can be annoying like Jack sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade you for the world.)

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I swung my 1972 Chevy Malibu into the gravel beside the road. I skidded to a stop at an awkward angle, but I didn’t really care. This would be a quick stop, and a quick turnaround. I’d be homeward bound in a few. I jammed the shifter into park and hopped out. I soaked in the warm late-evening rays and stretched, and my weary body cracked and popped several times as I straightened my long frame. It had been another long day installing drywall—It had been another long week installing drywall.

 But now it was the weekend!

 I had been heading to spend the evening at the bowling alley with my friends. Rock-n-bowl, Friday nights, where everything is bathed in blacklight and the balls and pins are luminous, speckled colors, where the crash of the pins is only matched by the almost deafening party music. The atmosphere there makes it easy to forget the worries and trials of young adulthood, at least for a couple of mind-numbing hours. I had been heading for that when I got the phone call. Mom and dad had decided to go on an impromptu date, and I was put on little brother duty.

I had tried for a moment to plead my way out of it. I hemmed and hawed, and when I finally resigned my plans for the evening, it was with a long-suffering sigh and a goodbye bordering on hostile. I know I sound selfish—and I guess I am. But I had worked hard all week; didn’t I deserve to spend my Friday evening how I wanted?

 I consider my little brother Jack to be a certified pain. He is the literal definition of the baby of the family— the poster child of over-spoiled and annoying. What’s worse, I get the brunt of him. My older siblings, Glenn and Alexa, had long since acquired their wings and soared out of the nest, leaving me alone with my hatchling of a brother and his obnoxious, hungry chirpings. He is 12, 9 years younger than me. I suppose he’s not fresh out of the egg in that sense, but he’s still a content pubescent caught in the everyday pleasures of childhood. On my good days, I am decently amiable toward him, as long as he doesn’t intrude too much into my grown-up life. On my bad days, I would rather just ignore him, to put a force-field around my life’s sphere.

I think this might be one of my bad days.

That said, I had been put in charge of him for the evening, so I strode down the cracked sidewalk toward the Davis’s house in moody silence. Their small herd of kids are Jack’s best friends. Mom had let me know that this was where Jack had been spending his lazy summer afternoon, and shouts of joy and cheerful laughter directed me to the backyard, where I found him. He and four of the Davis’s were jumping on their trampoline. The youngest Davis boy—I never have learned any of their names—was hunched in the fetal position on the mat, knees clasped tightly to his chest, while the three other Davis kids and Jack jumped in a ring around him. From the looks of it, they were trying to bounce the young boy high enough to break him of his tight hold. It was a fun old game that I remembered playing such a seemingly long time ago. 

The children were laughing and calling out jokes to one another, completely oblivious to my intrusion. I watched them from the other side of the fence that ringed the Davis’s back yard. Their cheeks were flushed and dimpled in excited smiles. Their hair was standing up every which way from all the bouncing and the static electricity from the trampoline, and the evening sun’s slanting rays shone brightly through it all, giving the impression that they each had a hazy, golden halo. It was almost comical, but at the same time it looked . . . serene. They didn’t feel a pressure to be orderly and properly austere. They were expressing their friendship with enthusiastic abandon, not caring to put up an adult facade.

I watched as the little boy in the center came down from a particularly high bounce and splatted like an egg on the stretchy canvas—limbs flailing, his hold finally broken. The little boy rolled onto his back and giggled ridiculously. The other kids whooped with victory. I almost laughed with them; I even thought of joining them. I imagined myself jumping high and launching all five of the little ones sky high. That would get them giggling, that’s for sure!

Then a volleyball-sized bouncy ball slammed into my forehead. My head jerked, and I went reeling backwards a step. The kids burst out laughing again, and Jack called out in a sing song voice, “Hey, Mike the man!”

I frowned, my moment of reverie instantly gone, as if the ball had bounced it right from my brain. “Time to go, squirt,” I grumbled.

The kids were immediately crest fallen, and Jack opened his mouth to protest. A severe look by me cut him down before he could give voice to it, though. I watched the kids climb down from the trampoline and plod over toward the gate. I was glad that my authority was going unchallenged, but at the same time . . . it felt kind of lame to be the bad guy. At least for the Davis kids. I didn’t care a ton that I was ruining Jack’s fun, because he had already ruined mine.

Jack was first to file out of the backyard gate and pressed past me. He picked up the bouncy ball he had playfully flung at me and lobbed it back over the fence. The oldest Davis girl, who was about Jack’s age, smiled at me as she tried to press back her frazzled auburn hair with the palms of her hands. She was small, even for a twelve-year old, which made her even more cute. I made a mental note to tease Jack about her later.

“Was it a long day at work?” she asked. The tone of her voice was more questioning then it needed to be for a simple conversation-making question, as if she really wanted to ask, “Why is Jack’s brother so grumpy?”

I shrugged. “Kind of normal.”

“Did you get to enjoy the sun?”

I laughed a little at this. “No, not really. I do drywall.” I left it at that, as if she should know that duh, all drywall is indoors.

I walked around to the front of the house with the band of halflings thronged around me. Jack broke from the group and away from the straight shot to my car.

“Where you going, Jack?”

“Gotta get my bike.”

“Your bike?”

Jack looked at me like I had the brain of a clownfish. “Yeah, how else do you think I got here?”

“How do you think we’re going to fit it in my car, genius?” I shot back.

“It’s a hatchback. It’ll fit.”

Of course it would. That was the one thing about my mid-range muscle car, my beautiful Chevy Malibu. I had dumped all my savings into the station wagon model my late uncle had owned. I had loved the extra space in the back end at first. It was practical and convenient, was my thought, and I was a practical and convenient guy who also liked fast cars. However, it’s ridiculously wide rear end had become the butt end of many jokes from my coworkers—and that pun was definitely not intended.

Jack fetched his beat up, Wal-Mart brand bike from where it had been dumped in the front yard. He wheeled it toward me as I flipped open the hatch. My tool bag was dumped back there, along with several empty Monster cans, a Frisbee, and an old college textbook. It wasn’t exactly clean, but I was still reluctant to cram a dirty bike back there. I grumbled under my breath as I took the bike from Jack and lifted it in. When it was all said and done, the front tire left a smear of dirt on the seatback, and I nearly wrenched the handle bars off as I twisted them at an awkward angle to make the bike fit. I slammed the hatch shut with an exasperated sigh.

“Let’s go.”

Jack hugged his friends and said goodbye. I waved once to the kids out of a sense of obligation and hopped into the driver’s seat to check my notifications. Jack finally got in next to me, and I put my phone down and reached for the ignition. My engine roared to life, and I floored the gas for fun. I peeled out, and with a spray of gravel and a cloud’s worth of exhaust, we were off. The Davis kids laughed and clapped behind me. I smiled despite myself.

Neither of us spoke for a while.

“Fun day?” I asked when the silence became unbearable.

“Yeah, definitely!” Jack said with true enthusiasm. He didn’t reciprocate with a question of his own, so silence returned for a couple more awkward minutes. I decided to make use of that mental note to tease him.

“That Davis girl is cute.”

“Nicole?” Jack blushed a little even as he said it.

“Is that her name?” I asked. “Of the girl with the auburn hair, about your age but shorter?”

“Yeah, that’s Nicole.” Jack hesitated. “I like her. A lot.”

I glanced at him sharply. “You like her… like actually like like?”

Jack shrugged and stayed quiet.

I snorted and looked back out the windshield, straight ahead. “Aren’t you a little young. I mean, you’re twelve.”

“You mean you never had a crush on anyone when you were my age?” Jack retorted. He was being genuine, and there was this intense look on his face as if he was wondering if there was something wrong with him.

“No yeah—I mean yes, I guess I did,” I softened somewhat. “But of course, they never worked out or anything. You shouldn’t think about it too much.”

“Then why’d you bring it up?”

“I don’t know . . . I guess it was lame of me.” I paid a lot of attention to the stop sign I was rolling up to.

“I wish I was old like you,” Jack said wistfully. “Then it would work out.”

I laughed ruefully. “Being older doesn’t fix anything, kid. It doesn’t even work out when you are old enough for a relationship sometimes.”

“Like with Megan?”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. Megan had been my girlfriend for almost nine months before a painful breakup late in the spring. I had thought she would be the one. We had been a great couple, even. But now there was only that lingering, hollow ache that only the freshly single know so well. I tried to gulp down the lump in my throat and blinked rapidly at the late evening sunlight, as if it were the slanted rays that caused the tears in the corner of my eyes.

Jack watched me carefully. “I still wish I was older,” he said.

“What do you know? You should just be happy to be you!” I retorted, and I was surprised by the force of anger in my voice. “Being ‘grown-up’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” I almost added more. I almost unloaded on him all my secret thoughts about how I wished I could be his age again, how I wished I could be free of the many pressures and hurts of my newfound adult life. But I managed to bite my tongue and turn my angry thoughts inward. It wouldn’t do to crush all of Jack’s wistful idealism about being “old”, a darkly sarcastic part of me reasoned.

It was almost tragically ironic. Here we were, two brothers, both with idealisms and dreams. The only difference was one of us wished for the future while the other longed for the past.

We rolled through our small town. Well, comparatively small. It had more than just the standard post office, hardware store, grocery store, and gas station. We had a small strip mall that fostered a revolving door of failed startup businesses, a couple of banks, a movie theater, several restaurants of both the mom and pop and chain variety, the bowling alley, Wal-Mart, and several other stores. It took about 5 minutes to get from the Davis’s side of town to the north to ours on the south.

Even though I rolled through it almost without thought, our town was nice. The filtered rays of the golden sunset bathed it in a comfortable glow, and friendly town folk waved occasionally from the sidewalk or from the front porches of the houses interspaced between the businesses. I had often had big dreams of leaving this town as soon as possible when I was younger, but those big dreams had slowly but surely been corroded by this—this small-town charm I rolled through every evening.

Jack grew especially quiet when we approached our one ice cream shop in town, a Baskin Robbins. An intensely thoughtful look worked itself onto his face. I could see the gears turning in his mind. He was wondering if there was any conceivable chance his big brother would have a drastic swing in mood and buy him an ice cream.  

I snorted.

“What?” Jack asked
.
“Oh nothing,” I said, and there was a pause.

“Sure was a hot day,” Jack offered a moment later.

“Yeah, almost hot enough to make me want an ice cream cone.”

“Yeah?" Jack perked up hopefully.

“Almost,” I repeated.

Jack hung his shoulders. He looked kind of like a birthday balloon that had lost its helium. He couldn’t see that his little scheme hadn’t completely failed, because he couldn’t see my thoughts. It had been a hot day, and it was the weekend. Plus, the money I had planned to spend for bowling would more than cover a triple-scoop waffle cone. On a sudden whim I jammed the brakes and turned into Baskin Robbin’s parking lot. Spontaneity—Maybe that’s something adulthood had taken from me. And maybe that was a good thing. But maybe, just maybe, it was okay to enjoy life a little sometimes.

Jack looked at me, his eyes as big as baseballs, and all but squealed with surprise and ecstasy. “Oh yeah, ice cream! Thanks, Mike!”

Where I might have had a warm feeling of good will, a twinge of indignation gripped me instead. I had this urge to teach Jack a lesson on responsibility and its correlation to privileges. What right did he have to just assume I’d buy him ice cream? I brooded on that thought for a bit.

“Have you ever heard the expression, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch?’” I asked as I held the door to Baskin Robbins open for him.

Jack slowly pulled himself out of ice cream euphoria and blinked up at me. “No . . .” he said dubiously.

“It means that we have to buy what we want, or else if something is free, it’s only because the person who gave it to us expects something from us. Like taxes. Or our dependence and eventual slave labor.”

The politics of it clearly flew over Jack’s head. “What does that have to do with ice cream?” he asked.

“It means I’m buying mine, and you’re old enough to start paying for your own.”

Jack protested. I pointed out that he had money from mowing Mrs. Carrol’s lawn across the street.

“Yeah for like $5 a mow,” Jack countered. “You make way more money!”

“Since when did you become a communist?” I retorted. “And anyway, last I checked, five bucks can buy you plenty of ice cream.”

“And when did you become a stingy old miser,” I heard Jack say under his breath as he turned away to exam the closest fridge of ice cream flavors.

“Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” a ditsy teenager said from behind the counter. “What can I get started for you?”

 I acknowledged her with a nod. I tried a few samples like I always did before going with my tried and true favorites: strawberry, sea salt caramel, and chocolate. All the while I stewed over Jack’s last comment. He didn’t understand the adult world of money! He didn’t understand how hard we worked for it and how important it was to save and not just spend frivolously!

“Believe me, man,” I added as almost an afterthought as I watched Jack struggle to pick what flavors he wanted. “I wish I could be like you again and spend my money as quickly as I earned it. But adults have responsibilities.”

Jack shrugged by way of giving me the cold shoulder and didn’t even respond. He was taking forever to order his ice cream. Finally, he settled on two flavors.

“Gross, dude, seriously? Of all the 31 flavors, you chose sherbet and cotton candy?” I said.

“Are you guys paying together or separately?” Ditsy Girl said from behind the cash register. She looked at me expectantly.

I looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Separately.”

“Oh.” Her tone was somewhere between shocked and condescending. I looked down at the register. The display read $9.43. She began to mess with the keyboard, trying to cancel the order and re-enter each ice cream separately.

I guess she was probably a communist too.

Meanwhile, Jack dug into the pockets of his cargo shorts. He produced two crumpled dollar bills and started counting out nickels and dimes. And a few pennies. I sighed and decided to drop the morality lesson.

“Forget about it,” I said. “I got both of them.” I handed the girl my debit card. Jack returned his dollars and coins to his pocket with a relieved look on his face.

Back in my Malibu, the only sound was the smacking of our lips as we enjoyed the ice cream. I slowly eased back onto the road, driving one handed. As far as I knew, driving and eating ice cream wasn’t illegal yet. I kept glancing over at Jack . . . at the pleasure in his dirty, sweat-stained face that was soon to be joined by sticky sherbet smears. The way his lips were puckered from the cold of his ice cream. The way his chubby cheeks were drawn back and dimpled as he ate the top off his ice cream cone. The slurping and smacking noises he made as he sucked the sweet cream down his throat.

I was waiting for some kind of acknowledgment, some kind of thank you. Deep down I knew I didn’t really deserve a thank you. I had been a pill all evening, and I started to think this chip on my shoulder was more like an anchor dragging me down. A part of me started to wish I could just reboot the evening.

But it still would have been nice for him to say it.

As if he knew I was expecting something, Jack turned to me and said, “I’ll start earning more money soon.”

I shrugged, caught off guard. His words slipped under the armor of manufactured grudges I had been holding against him, but they didn’t really hit a soft spot. “Yeah, it’s nice to have,” was all I managed.

“It’s not everything, though,” Jack confided.

“It’s what we need to live.”

Jack nodded. “But I’d rather live for other things.”

I was about to correct Jack that I had not meant that I lived for money, but the air I sucked into my lungs to protest never turned to words. I licked my ice cream thoughtfully instead. Maybe, in this season where money meant the difference between a boy and a man—where all I needed was money to pursue my dreams—maybe it had become what I lived for. What else had more control of me? God? I rarely found time to open His Word between Sundays. My parents? Their authoritative role had diminished ever since I had gotten a car and a boss, though they still let me live in their house for rent. Maybe Megan a few months ago, but not anymore. Was I a slave to earning and saving? I looked at Jack again, not with a grudge, but with . . . something close to envy.

“Maybe money isn’t so freeing after all,” I mumbled.

Jack shrugged. “Yeah, I guess . . .” He was thinking too, but his crinkled forehead and the thoughtful look in his eyes passed quickly like a cloud on a summer day.  “It bought ice cream, though.”

I smiled a little bit. “Close enough to happiness, right?”

The joke slowly dawned on Jack, and he burst out laughing.

“What?” I said. “It’s not that funny.”

And I was right. The joke wasn’t really that funny, but Jack was still laughing. I felt like I was on the other side of a fence again, watching a world I had grown too old for but somehow still wanted. Maybe I could join it, just for a moment.

“You’re going to snort ice cream up your nose,” I said, and I grinned impulsively.

Jack laughed even harder and snorted in-between breaths. “Ow, ow, you’re right!” he gasped between breaths.

Now I laughed. He looked so comical, his face contorted in a laugh and grimace at the same time. And the thing was, with each laugh I felt the chip on my shoulder growing lighter, as if it was being shaken off. And it actually felt good—like I could just be free.

A sudden thought struck me as I laughed: maybe the way to enter that old world on the other side of the fence was to let Jack into mine. I had bought hook, line and sinker the culture’s idea that little siblings were nuisances to be avoided at all costs . . . but perhaps that was all wrong. I thought of a verse from the Bible just then, something Jesus had said: “Let the little children come to me.” Maybe the example of the wisest man on earth was worth following.

Our ice cream was consumed, but we were still snickering when I turned into our gravel drive. It was a long driveway, about a mile long, but I actually felt a twinge of regret that we only had a mile of our drive left. So much for bowling. This was starting to feel like it could be more fun somehow. More real. I stopped the car abruptly and turned to Jack.

“Hey, you wanna drive?”

Jack’s eyes turned to baseballs again. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, sure. Don’t you want to?”

Jack nodded excitedly. “Like, on your lap, or trade places?”

I slid my chair back all it could go, which was about two notches further then I already had it set for my long legs. “Lap,” I said. “For your first time, anyway.”

Jack clambered over onto my lap awkwardly. His face pressed into my shoulder for a solid 15 seconds as he tried to get his feet under the dash and near the pedals. I laughed again, not caring that he was getting sweat-caked dirt and leftover sherbet on my t-shirt. It was a work shirt anyway. Finally Jack got himself situated. His tummy was an inch or less from the wheel, and the back of his head stuck in my face. I craned my neck to get a view out the windshield and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

Jack took a deep breath as he put the car in drive. A sort of gravity fell over him. Risk and reward, I realized. Responsibility. He eased onto the gas and started puttering down the road at about 7 miles an hour.

“Come on, bro, let’s hit it!” I knocked his foot off the gas with my own and stomped on the pedal.

We spun out and swerved precariously, and Jack squealed with ecstasy and terror. I added a holler of my own as Jack got us straightened out, and we flew down the road. The sun was down, and the first few stars appearing in the dusky sky winked at us as we sped below. The neighbors to our left had horses fenced next to the road, and the startled beasts took to flight and ran along the fence line ahead of us. I rolled down the window and whooped at them as we caught up and passed them. Jack added a whoop of his own.

“This is amazing!” he shouted, giving each word emphasis.

“Yeah buddy!” I yelled back.

And in that one moment, that one glorious moment, our worlds collided and shattered in a kaleidoscope of shared emotions. I forgot about whatever season of life it was I was supposed to be living in—or rather, I lost all feelings of disappointment and longing to be someone I could not be. In that second with Jack, I breathed deeply and added one last joyful yell.

And I was happy just to be.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Third Down: What a busted transmission, an accident with a chainsaw, and a two week virus are teaching me about God's grace

October just wasn't my month.

It all started in the middle of a precarious curve in the road. Steam filtered up either side of my truck, and I could go neither forward nor backward. Luckily, my good friend Abe was helping me at work that day, and between the two of us we were able to clear truck, trailer, and everything inside my trailer off the road one step at a time, without getting run over.

The diagnosis was a toasted transmission. That's how October started.

Still, I wasn't particularly depressed. I knew my truck was going to have some big thing like that eventually, and early October wasn't the worst time in the world for it to happen. So I borrowed another truck and got back to work.

My second down came in a moment of shock and disbelief. One second I'm standing over a log I was finishing cutting up for a customer, and the next moment I am staring at my left foot, at a gash my chainsaw left when it suddenly kicked back off the log. My thoughts in the following three seconds went as follows: That didn't just happen. That DID just happen. Shouldn't it hurt more? Maybe it didn't hit flesh. Nope, I see red. OH. NO.

 A handful of stitches later, I was seated back at the house, effectively grounded on the sunniest week of the fall. Things were starting to not be so upbeat.

Then the third down hit me. There's this virus that has been going around in our household. It's been characterized by body aches, chills, fevers and sweats, lots and lots of coughing, and loss of appetite. Oh, and it lasts an average of two weeks. And it found me, like a lineman hitting a rookie quarterback who couldn't find his way out of a collapsing pocket.

I am currently closing out day 10 of the sickness. It has been, in a word, exhausting. Finally, I am at rock bottom here. My truck is still not back, the stitches are still in my foot, and this cough is still racking my body. The start of this month should be a time of anticipation and joy as we quadruplets celebrate our 21 birthdays and look forward to Victoria's wedding on the 11th. Instead, I have barely enough drive to eat a bit of dinner.

The amazing thing is, though, that God is here in this mess. He's more apparent in this tangle of trials then when I was flying high with no problems to mention. He's giving me grace, enough grace to keep on being productive (schoolwork) without loosing hope and wallowing in self pity. No, it's not some ethereal feeling of complete happiness . . . The battle between my darker moods and my confidence in God's plan feels like fierce guerrilla warfare at times. But I am catching glimpses of God's grand design, and oh how good it is!

I was recently challenged to give back my time to God, and here God has knocked me off my feet long enough to reevaluate if I am taking that challenge to heart. To stick with the football analogy, I know God is like the coach who takes a player out of a game in which he keeps getting clobbered. I'm currently a bench-warmer with a chance to recover spiritually and get my head back in the game. And it's been good, so good, here on the bench this week. My personal devotions have been vibrant and real again. I can feel God cleaning out another nasty corner of my heart where I was holding on to my independence from Him.

I can see clearly again the joy of living for Jesus alone, and I can't wait to get back in the game when He sees fit! Until then, my goal will be on spiritual refreshment and strengthening. It's a muddy, messy, maddening field of life out there, but I want to be ready to enter and deliver some hits for God's kingdom when my time on the bench is over with!

Maybe you're like me and are on the bench right now. Maybe you've had a rough set of downs, or maybe you've just not had your head in the game. But the good news is God is right there with you. He's got an arm around you, and he's got a playbook for you to read. Study up and let him coach you back into the game! These trials we're hit with are designed to make us stronger, after all!

God is good, and His grace is amazing. He knows just what I needed, and He gave it to me. And I will have a little scar the rest of my life on earth to remind me of that. I give Him the glory, and I recommit to living EVERY second of the game clock for Him!


You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
2 Timothy 2:1-7

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Eye of the Storm

The devastation of Harvey is almost unprecedented. The rainfall--43 inches in Houston, TX over only five days--completely shattered previously held records. The death toll is now at 70. It is close to, if not is, the most costly storm in our nation's history.

And yet, Harvey may have a challenger to some of those records already.

Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Florida. A category 5 storm, It's already decimated the Caribbeans, leaving at least 22 dead. It is expected to hit landfall late tonight in the USA, possibly still as a category 5 storm. Or, "at best", it will be a category 4 storm. By comparison, Hurricane Sandy was a category 2 storm as it approached New Jersey. By the time it hit the cold Northern air just before landfall, it wasn't even classified as a hurricane.

Hurricane Irma is poised to be very, very fierce. It will be deadly and destructive. It will make history.

As a reporter from ABC news puts it: "Whenever man and mother nature meet, it's a mismatch."

But that's the point, do we want to face this storm alone? We are hopelessly outmatched. We can't stop the storm. All we can do is predict Irma's destruction, flee from it, and come back to clean up the devastation when it's run its course. Without a hope of some higher force than the forces of nature--without hope of the supernatural--we are left to pick up the pieces, despondent and despairing.

But there is hope! Hope in a God who is mightier than any storm, hope in the God who created the universe with nothing but the breath of his mouth. As Psalm 93:4 reassures us:

More than the sounds of many waters, than the mighty breakers of the sea, The Lord on high is mighty.

With God, we can face any trial or storm with confidence, trusting that He has a grander plan than ours, even in the storm. Yes, He could protect us from all storms, but in the end, do you think that would be best for us? We are fickle, wandering people. So often we turn from God in seasons of comfort and pleasure to our own desires and our own gods. Maybe God is orchestrating natural disasters in our nation to catch our attention again. Maybe He loves us enough to give us some hard discipline so that we might fall on our knees, repent of our self-serving, self-sufficient ways, and humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God. Can these trials strengthen our faith? Will our faith not only endure, but grow stronger through these storms?

I'm reminded of our ultimate example, Jesus, and how He stood up to the intense personal storm He faced right before His death. Jesus's last hours were a non-stop hurricane of intense drama and tragedy.An angry mob encircled Him; His disciples betrayed, denied, and abandoned Him; mock courts condemned Him; blindfolded, they beat Him; A spineless leader didn't have the guts to release Him; Romans whipped and degraded Him; crowds taunted Him even as He hung on the cross! And yet, through it all, Jesus remained utterly calm. You see, He trusted the Father's will and had completely submitted Himself to it. Jesus was the calm eye of the storm while the powerful forces of bitter rage and injustice swirled around him--and ultimately destroyed him, for three days at least.

Let me be clear, Jesus could have at any time stopped the storm. In fact, we catch a glimpse of this in John 18 where Jesus merely utters "I AM" and the mob sent to arrest Him are blown back to the ground. Tens of thousands of angels waited for the Lord to but utter the command, and they would have completely obliterated the opposition! But yet Jesus walked through the storm, knowing that the Father had a better plan, and look at what amazing good is in the world because of it!

We may be called to walk through these storms, but there is a way to walk through them with calm confidence. Hurricane Irma is still coming. We can't override God's will and stop it, but what we can do is put our trust in God. Let's humble ourselves, confessing all our anxious thoughts to Him. Let's repent and make Him the Lord of our lives! And please, join me in prayer for everyone in the path of the storm. Let us pray that these storms will turn our nation back to the only God who can save us, so that we can again be a nation who says fullheartedly, "In God We Trust."

Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, for my soul takes refuge in You, and in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge. Until destruction passes by. I will cry to God most High, to God who accomplishes all things for me.
Psalm 57:1-2

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Putrid Pride

What is the most disgusting thing you have ever had to deal with? Something that made you gag involuntarily, perhaps. Something you swerved into the other lane on a double yellow to avoid getting on your tires, maybe. Something you walked in on in a bathroom stall, possibly.

For me, it would definitely be when I had to clean the staff bathrooms at my first job at Mayfield Lake Youth Camp. They hadn't been cleaned, or even flushed, all year. And I had only a sponge to work with.

Makes me want to go wash my hands just thinking about it.

While we're on the topic of disgusting things, have any of you stumbled upon Acts 12:21-23 recently?

On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. The people kept crying out, "The voice of a god and not of a man!" And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Ewww, yuck. Reminds me of a very similar story in Daniel 4:30-33:

The king reflected and said, "Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?" While the word was in the king's mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, "King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes. Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws.

Man, talk about dreadlocks. These two disgusting stories have a very central theme running through them: a man exhibiting an extraordinary amount of pride and receiving an immediate,  immensely-humbling judgement from God as a result. It makes me think, what is the most disgusting thing God has to deal with? Given the severity and nature of His judgement on pride in these two passages, could it be pride?

Indeed, we find pride at the top of the list of things that are an abomination to God in Proverbs 6:16-17A:

There are six things which the Lord hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes . . ."

Even as flawed image-bearers of God, we have a knee-jerk negative reaction to pride. That know-it-all who bends our ear with his apparent wisdom; that self-obsessed jock on the sports field with the bat flip or the chest thumping; the glamourous girl with the upturned nose and squinted eyes. We wish someone would cut them down a notch or two, often because our own pride is offended. Imagine, then, the righteous disgust the perfect God of the Universe, who deserves all the praise and glory, feels when we little blobs of dirt start thinking highly of ourselves.

It is despicable--putrid. Pride is putrid.

It's no wonder then that both James (James 4:6) and Peter (1 Peter 5:5) quote Proverbs 3:34:

God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

If you're like me, at this point it's getting personal. My heart sinks. My stomach twists. I know what a young man of pride I am. It creeps into many of my thoughts. It daily taints my Christian walk. I so wish I could be rid of it!!

I can only trust my amazing Father to keep giving me the strength to change. I know from that same passage in 1 Peter 5:5 that He understands the struggle we go through with our pride, especially us young men, as right before verse five we are called out to "be subject to your elders, and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another." We're given the practical solution in how to carry out this transformation in verses 6-7:

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your care on Him, because He cares for you.

We will only conquer our pride by submitting ourselves to God. We have to stop thinking we can do anything on our own--including, ironically, fighting our own pride. Jesus shouldn't be our crutch; he should be our stretcher, our ambulance, our medical team, and our AED. We are nothing but a dead corpse without God! Realizing this, let us bring all our anxieties to Him. It will humble us, realizing we can't handle anything on our own, and God will give us the grace we need to keep growing in true humility! It's a central theme of the Bible: the way to victory is surrender.

I'm done with the putridness of pride. I want to stop stinking, and smell more and more like the sweet aroma of Christ! Who's with me? May we all be like Nebuchadnezzar, who had his reason restored when he turned his eyes to heaven and blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever. May we not become like Herod, a man who built his own crumbling little sand castle of a kingdom while God's eternal Word and rock-solid Kingdom was spreading like wildfire. May we refuse to be a dead corpse eaten up by pride, but instead take the first step to true humility by humbling ourselves and drawing near to God. Will you insert your name for Nebuchadnezzar's in this verse? Will you confidently say:

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.
Daniel 4:37 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When Will You Bear Your Cross?


What is the cross?
So often in Christianity, truths become phrases, phrases become sayings, and sayings become clich├ęs.  We’ve formed a whole set of “Christianese” thanks to the process. Just imagine how foreign it sounds to someone outside the church to hear about “being born again” or “being washed in the blood”. And yet, we Christians are so used to our Christianese that I wonder if we really stop to think about what we’re saying. This might be true of the cross.
Sayings about the cross are pervasive in our church culture. How often we sing about it in our worship songs and reference it in sayings like “That’s just my cross to bear”. Jesus himself mentioned the cross a few times. The first time we see him do so in the Gospels is Mathew 10:38:
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
It’s so clear that a cross, then, is central to our relationship with Christ! A cross is at the very center of our Christianity. Taking it up and following Christ is what it means to be a Christian!
So again, what is the cross?
It’s not the cute little ornament that dangles from our tiny chain necklaces. Nor is it the pinnacle atop every church steeple. It’s more than a symbol. In the disciples’ day, it was the reality of the most brutal execution imaginable. There was nothing cute about it; it was hell on earth. As John Macarthur notes about the cross:
“To [the disciples] it would have evoked a picture of a violent, degrading death. [Jesus] was demanding total commitment from them—even unto death.”
The same is true for us. Jesus perfectly demonstrated this violent, degrading death when he submitted to the Father’s will in bearing his own cross. His flesh was torn to shreds. He was beaten beyond recognition. He collapsed under the weight of the cross as he bore it to the very place where he would be stretched out and crucified on it. His own blood stained the cross where his hands and feet were nailed to it. This is what he suffered as he denied himself and was terribly persecuted by the world for his perfect righteousness.
And this is our calling as well.
Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of those “health and wealth” prosperity preachers, doesn’t it?
It would seem at first blush with this understanding of the cross in mind that true converts to Christianity would be few and far between. Who in the world would ever want an ending to their lives like Christ? Who in their right minds would even want a taste of the tortures of crucifixion?
But here’s an even more troubling thought. What if this cross—this terrible torture, this degrading death—cannot be escaped by anyone, believer or non-believer alike? You see, what else do we know about the cross? It’s the just punishment for sin. It was the death Christ bore for us when he became sin and was forsaken by God so that we in exchange could be righteous. The cross is a microcosm of hell.
It is a sample of the eternity unbelievers will spend apart from God.
If that is true, then the cross is something each and every soul on earth will have an individual encounter with, one way or another. So now, from a completely logical view, which version of the cross would we rather bear? Would we rather take it up and follow Christ in this world, or take it up and bear it in eternity apart from Christ? This is where the good news starts, because as we compare the two, bearing our cross now far outweighs putting it off till after death. Believe it or not, it can actually be a joy!
You see this theme of the benefit of suffering now for Christ as opposed to suffering for living in sin throughout First Peter. There’s almost too many verses on the topic in that book alone to list, but the highlights include:
“For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” 1 Peter 2:20
“But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” 1 Peter 3:14.
“For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” 1 Peter 3:17
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” 1 Peter 4:1
“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”1 Peter 4:13
This is one of the amazing paradoxes in the Bible. It is in taking up our cross that we can rejoice, because this suffering is for our good!! It helps cleanse us of sin. It drives us to rely fully on Jesus, who loves us and offers us a new, abundant life if we keep crucifying our old life and submitting to his will. We truly are blessed, even if we have to physically endure a cross! Have you heard the amazing stories of martyrs praising God even as they were brutally murdered? What kind of amazing life is this that even in torture we can rejoice?
It’s real, friends. Accept Jesus Christ as Lord and go ahead and shoulder that cross. It won’t be too heavy, I promise. It won’t be too hard. Look at Paul! He describes our afflictions as momentary and light in 2 Corinthians, the same book of the Bible where he lists his own afflictions, including, “Five time I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Sheesh, if Paul can look at his own life and shrug his suffering off as light and momentary affliction, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Put that in mind the next time you are tempted to complain about your “hostile” work environment or that nasty Facebook comment slamming your faith.
It’s time for us to faithfully surrender our lives to Christ. No more putting off the cross. Accept what Jesus has done for you on that cross and cheerfully follow his example in bearing yours! Let’s lose our lives so that we can find them. It’s the only way to live a truly worthwhile life!
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wished to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mathew 16:24-26

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Glimpse of God's Care for Me in an Ordinary Worry

Has God ever given you a glimpse of His amazing, sovereign care for you, even in the little things? Have you ever gotten shivers as you realize that there is far more than just coincidence at play in your life? 

I was given just such a glimpse yesterday.

It started with something bad.

I was loading my mower into my trailer after one of my first few lawns of the day, slowly dismounting while brushing dust and grass clippings off me, when my eyes fell on a troubling little crack on my mower deck. I thought at first that it was just a bit of paint flaking off, but further inspection revealed that my deck somehow cracked all the way through in that one spot. And it looked like it could get worse.

This was not exactly a shiver-worthy God moment. More like a “God, I just spent $3,000 dollars on this piece of equipment; and it’s already developing a serious issue??” kind of moment. This concern was in the back of my mind all day long. I was imagining myself having to drill a couple holes in my deck and bolt down a piece of metal to hold the crack from getting worse. Nothing like a tacky hillbilly fix to a piece of equipment you were hoping would retain its value for a few years.

Fast forward to later in the day. My work done, I headed over that evening to a new customer’s place to get a bid in on the lawn. The man and his wife are super nice, both new believers and members of our church. It was so clear while talking to the husband, Doug, that his faith was real and impacting his life. If you ever need a pick me up, just get talking with a new believer, I tell you! It was really encouraging and refreshing.

But as good as this was, the real cherry on top and what really showed God’s sovereignty was this: On a whim, Doug asked to take a look at my mower. While I was enjoying showing it to him, somehow it came out that he loved to weld and fabricate metal. Almost out of the blue, he said he’d be happy to help me if I ever needed anything welded.

I must have stood blinking at him for a couple of seconds in shock that God had so quickly given me relief from my silly little worries. “As a matter of fact,” I blurted out, and showed him the crack in the deck.

And would you believe it, Doug’s eyes got wide with excitement, “like a kid in a candy store”, I said later to my mom as I related the story. He launched into a detailed description of how he could fix it no problem, “Like it never happened!” He then led me back around his shop and showed me his own lawn mower deck, where he had cut out a large spot of rust and welded new metal on. At least, that’s what he said he did. The deck looked brand new to me, he is that good.

All told, I had an offer to trade half a mowing for the quick welding job, and a free lesson in welding to boot. But even more valuable, I gained a new friend and look forward to some more fellowship with a great brother in Christ. I am confident that I just “happened” to notice that crack yesterday morning, that I just “happened” To be meeting Doug yesterday evening, and I just “happened” to show him my mower because God was orchestrating a chance for me to engage with a new disciple of His. I can’t wait to see what God wants from me in this new friendship!

God cares about us deeply and wants to be involved in our day-to-day, ordinary lives. He has far more than “just” saved us from eternal damnation, but has carefully prepared good works for us, his children, to walk in. He’s gone before and cleared the way through the tangled weeds of care and worry this world so often seeks to choke us with, and we can’t help but wander down this clear path. May we more than wander, but walk step for step with our Lord in what He has planned for us! And may we, even in the little things, be awed by His sovereign hand and give Him all the glory. Amen!

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:8-10

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Would you rather fight your brother . . . or Goliath?

David had every right to be mad with his brothers. Here he was in 1 Samuel 17, delivering aid to the brothers he thought would be hard pressed in war, and they were instead caught in a fear-fueled stalemate. A horde of Philistines loomed on the other side of the battlefield, but his bros and all the men of Israel were too paralyzed to meet the threat in battle. Or maybe “paralyzed” is the wrong word for it. Israel’s soldiers were running . . . just in the wrong direction. They fled the battlefield at the mere appearance of a fierce brute you may have heard of before. The man who stood nine-and-a-half feet tall. The Philistine soldier who could hoist a weaver’s beam as a spear and who’s armor alone weighed 125 pounds. The giant Goliath.

And this giant was calling for hand to hand combat, a winner-takes-all duel of nations—the Israelite’s champion against the Philistine’s champion, Goliath himself.

So sure, maybe it was kind of understandable that David’s brothers were hiding in fear. We might be tempted to understand their cowardice, but David certainly didn’t. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God?” he shouted for all the cowering men around him to hear. He couldn’t understand why no one had risen to the challenge. With the living God on their side, after all, who wouldn’t want to take the giant out?

The response to David’s question by his oldest brother, Eliab, was a biting put down. Eliab was too scared to take on Goliath himself, but he wasn’t about to let his baby brother be the hero. “Why have you come down?” Eliab cries. “And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your insolence and the wickedness of your heart; for you have come down in order to see the battle.”

With this one sweeping verbal blow, Eliab sought to undercut David’s intentions, his occupation, and even his character. It was utterly unfounded and uncalled for, and a modern macho American portrayal of what happened next would feature David reducing his brother to shreds. He had plenty of dirt on his brother to sling back with, for sure. “Oh yeah, maybe I did come to see a battle, but looks like there is no one man enough to bring it!” “Samuel anointed me king over you, remember?” “If I’m wicked, what does that make you?”

But instead of bickering with his brother, David merely dismissed the insult and moved on, trying to find someone who would give him the scoop on the giant in town. Turns out, though, his brother wasn’t the only one to treat David like a nosy, annoying little boy who should be ignored. He was given the cold shoulder by the callous soldiers again and again. How frustrating it must have been to David to see such apathy and indifference! But still, he didn’t give in to his frustration and start quarreling with the soldiers. His question was probably double-edged. He wanted to know about this giant who was as haughty as he was hefty, but he was also challenging the soldiers to action. When they refused to answer him and rise to action, he didn’t waste any more breath on them.
David’s persistence and zeal finally got him an audience with King Saul, and then, a matchup with the Philistine brute. When the dust settled from their climactic face off—you know the story—David held up the severed head of Goliath for all to see. The Philistines lost their confidence and the soldiers of Israel finally found their courage at the sight, and an all-out rout of the enemy followed.

There’s a huge lesson here for all of us, I think, and that is this: What would happen if we stopped squabbling with our brothers, and started pursuing the real fights? Sure, some of our Christian brothers are annoying. They are camped on the sidelines of the battle, too apathetic to join in—or even, we might be tempted to think, drop the "a" in apethetic. But what would happen if we stopped trying to babysit fellow believers into being as engaged in the struggle for hearts and souls as we think they should be, and instead just got down to the business of slaying some giants?

I enjoy making snarks at Southern Baptists and the pandemonium at your local mega-church’s youth group just like most people do, and I so often gripe about Contemporary Christian Music or Tobymac’s latest attempt to “make Jesus music cool”. But all those guys are in my camp! The real fight is across the valley, and he’s yelling profanities and curses against my Lord. He’s a giant, a lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. He’s a formidable foe, a doctrine spawned by demons, but I have been given something better than David’s sling to take him down with. As a soldier for Christ, I have been given divinely powerful weapons for the destruction of strongholds!

So, no more walking in the flesh. No more posturing and boasting and laying the smack down on my brothers who annoy me, or even insult me. Wherever there is teaching that is clearly contrary to God’s Word, that is where you’ll find the true warriors of Christ rallying. They won’t be found arguing over the worship music or the color of the carpet in the foyer. The personal strongholds of sin are what you’ll see stalwart Christians laying siege to. They will be focused on removing logs instead of pinching at specks. It’s time to run out into the battlefield and meet Goliath head on. When we trust in the Living God, there’s nothing we can’t conquer.

My sister Caroline recently lived this out. In talking with a local mega church pastor, trying to get him engaged in the fight for life through the Forty Days for Life prayer rally, she was frustrated with his response that he’d rather be known for “what he stands for, not what he stands against”. She tried to reason with him through a couple more e-mails (doesn’t standing for something automatically mean you will be standing against that which is contrary to it??). But when he kept graciously bowing out of the conflict to publicly stand in prayer for the endangered unborn, Caroline moved on. She had to get back to rallying the prayer warriors who were willing to stand and take on the giant deception of abortion. And through God’s blessing on the campaign, she saw much, much success in our community.

I wonder if, years from now, that pastor will regret that he didn’t have a hand in the transformation of our society from a culture of death to a culture that values life at conception. It’s not our place to say what battle he should or should not join, though. God will hold him accountable to that. We just need to be faithful to bring down the giants in front of us. And if we fight the right battle and bring a giant down, perchance our distracted or fearful brothers will find their courage and join us.

Now I, Paul, myself urge you by Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every though captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.

2 Corinthians 10:1-6