Category Archives: Spirit

What matters most

I didn’t know spring until I came here
Here we’re pushing up the lid on the cool hemisphere
Everything melts I know even your tears
Here in this hemisphere

What matters the most is what you do for free
Me believing in you and you in me
You try to find work and you do your best
You get what you get and you deserve the rest

– “When The Ice Goes Out” by John Gorka

trinity churchI went to visit my girl this past weekend in a region of New York known as the North Country, up near the Ontario border. She’s been staying up there for the past three weeks, visiting old friends and family. I went to get a taste of the place and people she so often talks about and found that she didn’t exaggerate when it came her descriptions of the land and the souls who live on it.

It started snowing the night after I arrived and accumulated several inches by the time it was time to leave the next day. I had never seen so much snow outside of the Rocky Mountains and it was beautiful as it blanketed the Grasse River, frozen in parts, still running in others and visible from the kitchen window. I kept saying how beautiful this place was and everybody kept replying, “No, you really need to see it in spring or summer when it’s so green.” But I’ve seen incredible, lush green, this summer in Seattle and the Puget Sound, everything growing and constantly saturated with a sheen of fresh rain.

But all that white frosting a rural area like this was something I wasn’t used to and it WAS beautiful. Still, I get the point the locals were trying to make. The green of springtime, at the end of so much winter white, must really be breathtaking.

As we were driving around town on that last day to meet a friend with a more winter-ready car to drop me off at the airport, I tried to imagine what spring might look like. I remembered a line from a song by one of my favorite songwriters, “I didn’t know spring until I came here.”

In Texas, everything is flipped. The summers seem never-ending and often brutal. Fall is what I look forward to here, and it comes late, but when it finally arrives with that first crisp turn in the air temperature and a hint of woodsmoke in the air, it’s a joyful occasion for me. Spring seems to last about a day in comparison. There’s the first break in what we consider winter, then bluebonnets, maybe a tornado or two, then the mercury rises and rises and rises.

I don’t have an appreciation of spring, not like these winter folk do. But I kept reciting those lyrics aloud and came to the next line. Maybe one of my favorites.

“What matters most is what you do for free.”

This fall (and really even a bit longer than that) has been a time of learning for me. Learning about what really matters. Learning to silence the premeditated resentments of expectation, edit out the constantly-comparing language of pride, and to reframe life’s goals, joys, pleasures and treasures in terms of what truly lasts.

I’ve always liked Gorka’s lines but there’s a double edge to them. On one hand, the things that are most important are things for which we don’t receive a check – being good husbands/wives, raising a family, glorifying the Creator with all the blessings He’s given us. Or even some of the more trivial things, talents, hobbies, pursuits we do simply for the enjoyment of them – music, cooking, writing, art.

On the other hand, there’s the implication that we assign value to the ways we spend that “free” time. Look at how we spend our moments away from our day jobs or routine responsibilities – what does it say about what matters most, deep in our hearts? The lyric used to make me smile. Now it convicts me. I think good music can do both.

What matters most to me is changing, slowly but surely (it’s just the way I seem to operate). Because I’ve been coming out of a winter of sorts, and it seems that I’m starting to truly know spring for the first time myself.

The only place

Note: Before continuing, you should know that I don’t think of Jesus as a last resort and this is not a post to promote that kind of faith. I know He’s the only resort. I’ve been given some great encouragement in recent weeks and have done a lot of thinking on what it means to know Christ as your hope and treasure. But this is a post from the midst. When you find yourself surrounded and cut off and maybe a bit confused as to how you got here. I assume some of you can relate. Thanks for reading.

Sometimes I just freeze. It’s a psychological paralysis, but I often find it hard to do much physically in those moments.

Have you been there?

That moment where you’ve just watched your best efforts return empty. You did things right. You weighed all the options and you picked the course that you’re not only sure was the best, but it seemed to be the only one to take.

And yet… nothing. Not even nothing with a little confirmation of nothing, which would be better than just a vague sense of failure. Nothing without the benefit of feedback. No drawing board to which you can return. Like hitting a ball into darkness with no way to track the trajectory, to adjust, to try again on solid ground.

What are you left with in these moments? If our eyes are open and we’re honest, I’d say it’s probably the same stuff with which we began. And that’s not much.

And where are you left to turn? I’m sitting here in the middle of it right now. Frozen, except for these fingers across these keys. Working it out.

There’s only one place I can go. Only one place a man like me can plead. Christ. The Cross.

Jesus is the only person I know who can take all my insufficiency and make it work. More often than not, he makes abundance out of the minnows and crumbs I present as bread and fishes. A lot of times he does it when I don’t ask Him too. He’s THAT kind of good to me.

But I know He likes it more when I do ask. When I do acknowledge that need. He likes me at the end of my rope sometimes because He knows I’m less likely to get in His way there. Some of you will read this, unbelieving, and mock or think me simple or brainwashed. Some of you will think me simple for not having this post studded with theological vocabulary or some cacophony of buzzy church words.

I don’t have it all figured out. I just know that there’s no where else I can go. And I really believe that there’s no where else I should go.

I used to think the Christian life was all about having everything together so that you didn’t “need” Jesus. He’d be there, in case of emergencies. All you’d have to do is break the glass. But He’d really prefer it if you’d just handle this stuff yourself so He could be busy doing Lord knows what.

That’s bad theology. Foolish thinking. Worldly ambition. And it got me nowhere.

What does He want? Not my independent, pulled up by my bootstraps faith. I’m not that good to begin with. The best of us is not that good.

He wants me to need him every hour. Not because He’s needy. Because I am. I’m desperate and helpless and hopeless without Him and even though He’s God, I’ve a hard time believing he’s not exasperated by all my attempts to put off an air of “I’m fine” or “I got this.”

Because without Him, I’m not and I don’t.

But with Him… oh boy. My junior varsity faith has only gotten tastes of it. But I know that I’m far more than fine and scripture would call us “more than conquerors.” I’m not even sure what that looks like but I’m sure it’s doing better than “got this.” Because “got this” only sees one side of the coin, this life. But “more than conquerors” with Christ – we’re talking eternal perspective – sin, death, shame, fear.

So what I do? I pray. Passionately. Feebly. Whatever I’ve got in the tank. Minnows and crumbs. Sometimes I can’t even see the edges of this thing to have a clue of what I should really be asking for. But I put it down and bottle it up and toss it in the ocean of Him, to borrow a metaphor from David Wilcox. And after that, it’s got more to do with the ocean than with me. And this ocean can be trusted.

I love the story in the Gospels where Jesus has just given a hard-to-understand teaching on communion – but they just don’t get it. How can they? It’s thick with symbolism of events that haven’t yet come to pass. Many of the people following Jesus find it offensive and leave until it’s just Him and the Twelve.

And He asks them, Are you going to abandon me too?

And Peter (God love him) answers.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Sometimes I confess I don’t know much more than that. But it has been enough in the past. And I trust it will be today as well.

The din of noisy nonsense

I saw it in my Facebook newsfeed, courtesy of Gizmodo.

“Facebook changes its mind again: It’s now re-banning decapitation videos”

The story, accompanied by a deeply distressing though not gory still of the beginning of one the videos, talked about a re-reversal of Facebook’s policy on allowing graphic videos of vigilante/terrorist executions/murders. The still image illustrating the story was of a woman who was about to be murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. Some commenters were defending their posting as a form of raising awareness and condemning these atrocities. Others worried for children who might see the images. Still others took the stance that responsible parents would keep their children shielded from sites like Facebook in the first place. I wondered if any of the latter had children, or had ever even taught children.

I did note at least one “LOL” in response to the whole debate. Just seeing the still was enough to turn my stomach. I worked in a daily newspaper editorial department for five years and had grown used to some darker humor. But such a callous comment was hard for even me to swallow.

I remember when videos of the beheadings of journalist Daniel Pearl and businessman Nick Berg were posted from Iraq for the entire world to access. I knew people who couldn’t wait to go and see – online rubberneckers and gawkers, their morbid curiosity aroused in the most base of ways.

I avoided those videos. I couldn’t bring myself to watch something so awful. I was afraid for what it might do to me.

There’s an abundance of truly awful, soul-killing content on the Internet. I don’t think we all have to believe the same things to agree on that.

But I’m not sure if that’s the big enemy for us in the online world. Because the truly awful, soul-killing content is far outweighed by the constant hum of benign time-sucking garbage that shows up everywhere you turn.

I just wonder if the din of noisy nonsense is worth the occasional gem I turn up on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And the problem is not that I hate the nonsense.

The digital noise, however harmeless, that we allow to constantly buzz in our consciousness can dull our ability to focus on subjects that have a deeper significance.

The digital noise, however harmless, that we allow to constantly buzz in our consciousness can dull our ability to focus on subjects that have a deeper significance.

The problem is how much I enjoy it, and how easy it is getting sucked into the black hole of it all.

Start with asking the question of whether or not any of this really enhances your life – feel free to exempt the stuff you need for work, or the blog where you post updates on the kids for your extended family, or even one or two or three activities you really enjoy that require some online time. But ask yourself about the hours on Facebook, pouring over the personal minutiae of someone you haven’t known since high school. Or, if you’re like me, the hours you spend on Facebook crafting silly little jokes to amuse a small group of friends.

Question the compulsion to check your Twitter feed every five minutes. Or Instagram. Or any number of pet websites or blogs, or the feeling of needing to read and watch and comment on the latest thing that everybody else reads or watches or comments on. I think we might all be a bit like the grandmother in the Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” The snotty daughter claims the grandmother is crashing their family vacation just because she’s afraid of missing something. Spoiler alert: They all get murdered.

For me, it used to be hours spent surfing one Wikipedia page to the next. I’d suck down the information like a garbage disposal – and I’m still able to call upon my knowledge of Zamfir as the unquestioned master of the Pan flute, but that info has never served a purpose in my life outside of one magic moment in a bar trivia contest. I wasn’t doing it because I was hungry for knowledge. I was just restless and bored. And that’s where I turned. On the surface, it’s a harmless choice considering some of the other options those moments present.

But the small things bring about the same result as the big.

A multitude of termites can leave a home just as destroyed as a hurricane. Destruction is destruction no matter what speed it happens. Break a man’s legs or shatter his confidence. Cut off his hands or dull his senses and dampen his drive until he stumbles through life useless and irrelevant.

Your Facebook fixations or my Wikipedia binges might not twist us up inside like some brief lurid piece of video. But they do suck away our time, and they sap energy to do anything with the time that remains. Doing the easy things does not make it easy to do the hard things.

The grains are falling through the hourglass and they only move in one direction. In my better moments, I’m haunted by the words that John Piper said have hung in his family’s home for at least two generations. “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ shall last.”

12 for 12: January’s theme – Renewal

Image: arkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I spent some of my first lucid hours of 2012 at Fellowship Church in Jacksonville, Texas, listening to my brother preach on “Putting First Things First.”

He laid out the text, Matthew 6:33 – “a Biblical resolution for the new year,” and then identified three obstacles that keep us from the goal.

  1. Earthly interests are here and now.
  2. Sin has skewed our view of the world.
  3. It’s easy to be mastered by stuff.

It was a well-chosen message for the new year, but the second point really caught my attention and got my imagination working.

“Our minds have been seriously damaged by sin,” he said. “That’s why they need to be renewed. Believers need to be renewed on a daily basis.”

I’ve always liked the idea of a new year. A fresh start. A chance to reset and begin again. To remember and reaffirm promises and plans of the past. To empty out a vessel and prepare to refill it. I think it’s an ideal time to think about the topic of renewal.

In an attempt to be more intentional about this new year than I have in years past, I’ve decided I’m going to try to approach each month with a theme in mind. Twelve themes for twelve months for Two Thousand and Twelve. I want to take each month’s theme and focus on it – in what I read, the songs I listen to, the conversations I have, the movies I watch, the photos I take, the words I write, the prayers I pray.

And so, in January, I begin with the theme of RENEWAL. I’ve got some potential themes for the coming months as well, including love, friendship, identity, acceptance, perseverance, hope, joy and thankfulness. But I’m always open to suggestions. And I definitely would appreciate suggestions for movies, songs, books, activities that will help me focus on renewal.

That’s the way it works in my happy little fresh new year’s brain of course. You know, the one that hasn’t yet been ground up by a million and one deadlines, projects, time-wastes, sick days, setbacks and the general craziness of life.

So here’s what you can do in all this… pray for me, encourage me, advise me, engage me, even join me. And let’s see what kind of year this can be.

Walking the line between faith and fear

I had a talk with a close confidant yesterday, and we spent most of the discussion about the contrast of faith and fear. We talked about how those two concepts are opposites of each other and how deep self-deception can run when fueled by fear. I don’t have time to go into more detail now, and I’m still fleshing out all my thoughts on the subject, but it was a very enlightening conversation.

And it reminded me of the song below by the Old Crow Medicine Show. Not sure if I know the exact sentiment behind this song, but I love to play it on repeat when I’m driving or just working around the house. It’s a slow tune with a weary end-of-the-trail quality to the lyrics, but there’s hope beneath it all. I think that’s my favorite sort of song.

Yes, this is my first post of 2011. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. I just haven’t been exactly sure about how to say it. More to come…

We’re all in this together – Old Crow Medicine Show

Well my friends, I see your face so clearly
Little bit tired, little worn through the years
You sound nervous, you seem alone
I hardly recognize your voice on the telephone

In between I remember
Just before bound-up, broken-down
We drive out to the edge of the highway
Follow that lonesome dead-end roadside south

(Chorus:)
We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

Well my friend, let’s put this thing together
And walk the path with worn-out feet of trial
‘Cause if you wanted we can go home forever
Give up your jaded ways, spell your name to God

(Chorus)
We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

All the hour there’s a picture in a mirror
Fancy shoes to grace our feet
All there is is a slow road to freedom
Heaven above and the devil beneath

(Chorus)

We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

Kiwi, hold the keys

I was blessed today to share what might be my last meal with a good friend, at least perhaps the last North American meal.

I met my friend Paul James and his brother Mike at Weck’s for lunch. I’ve known Paul for a few years, one of several great people I’ve met through several incarnations of a homegroup at the Village Church. I once drove him to Dallas so he could get his eyeballs laser-beamed or something like that. He’s actually come to hear my band play more than once. We’ve even jammed some together with mutual friend Adam in my living room.

We drifted apart a bit when he moved to Tyler a while back, but we’ve always kept up via technology, blogs and texts and Twitter feeds. And this is the second time in the past six months that he, Mike and I have gotten to meet at Weck’s and share what’s going on in our lives over a plate of tasty goodness.

In a little more than a week, Paul is hopping a plane and moving to New Zealand. He’s in love with a girl named Lydia who lives there. I’ve never met her, but she must be pretty great, because Paul is one of my favorite people on the planet.

He’s sold his car, and is boxing up everything but some clothes, his Mac, a digital camera and a baby Taylor guitar, which will accomany him on his flight to the land where they filmed the Lord of The Rings, and to a lesser extent, Xena: Warrior Princess.

During our lunch, he noted that when he checks out of his apartment in Tyler, he won’t own a single key.

“Do they use keys in New Zealand?” I asked. “Or do they just scan your thumbprint?”

“They used to have them in Old Zealand,” he replied quickly. “But they left all that behind when they came to New Zealand.”

I love this guy.

The rest of the conversation was good – with goofy jokes about putting a video evidence on YouTube of how New Zealand toilets flush backward, and good affirming talk about both of our struggles to feel accepted and loved by our Creator. I left feeling so thankful for the time together, for the friendship, and for the guidance that seems evident in each of our lives.

We paid and said our goodbyes… Paul gave me the heads up to go ahead to start looking for a plane ticket to NZ so I could come visit him. I told him I’d do my best. I gave him a semi-awkward but totally sincere hug. And then we left… both heading the same direction because we had parked near each other.

“Isn’t it awkward when you say goodbye to someone and then have to walk with them to get to your car?” Paul said.

“Don’t say goodbye again,” Mike added.

“Don’t even make eye contact,” I chipped in, laughing.

It was a great way to leave a guy whom I’ve always felt on the same wavelength where sense of humor is concerned.

Lord,

Thanks for Paul and Mike. Thanks for a great meal and conversation that ran deep and full. Bless him as he leaves the States. Bless he and Lydia and whatever you have in store for their future. Thanks most of all for loving all of us with a love so big and wonderful that we can lose ourselves completely in its midst. And give us the grace to do just that.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

Thanks Armchair Anthropologist!

My church has embraced the blog. And for a lot of the staff, it seems the iPhone as well.

In the “creative” blog, Unearthe, a staff member who goes by the tag of the Armchair Anthropologist shared this handy little technique for using the iPhone to aid in scripture memorization.

I’d been searching for a scripture memory app, but this little appropriation of a couple of existing apps should work just fine.

If you’ve got an iPhone and are so-inclined, let’s experiment together and see how it works. Let me know what you think.

The Hard Part…

A little spiritual uplift courtesy of the great David Wilcox… like David, I like to think of this as a love song coming from up on high.

Favorite lyrics? There are two lines that really move me in this song.

You want a cool breeze to dance with your flame, a long lost lover who knows your true name, a secret garden beyond this shame, and it all comes down to this

and

You think your drowning hope will die in a sea without a shore, but I can drink that ocean dry and still come back for more

Thanks David for all the wonderful songs and music-as-therapy moments over the years…

The Hard Part by David Wilcox

I see the look that’s in your eyes
That says “I must keep most of me inside
‘Cause you’d never love me if I didn’t hide
the secrets of my heart”

Well I’m not here for the surface stuff
I just get bored with all that fluff
So show me the edges even if it’s rough
And let the real love start

You think your shame and deep disgrace
Are more than I can bear
But you can go to your darkest place
I will meet you there

And I’m strong enough to take it
And I know what you’ve been through
You’ve got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too

You look at me with some surprise
And I see the doubt that’s in your eyes
Like something deep inside you cries
With a hunger to be known
Like a tiger born in a city zoo
There’s been no place for what’s inside of you
You try to live like the others do
And it leaves you so alone

I know you think that the heat of your pain
Is more than I can stand
Burn it all in one big flame
And I will hold it in my hand

I’m strong enough to take it
And I know what you’ve been through
You’ve got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too

Now your eyes well up with tears
As desire mixes with you fears
After so many wounded years
Can you long for what you’ve missed
You want a cool breeze to dance with your flame
A long lost lover who knows your true name
A secret garden beyond this shame
And it all comes down to this

You think your drowning hope will die
In a sea without a shore
But I can drink that ocean dry
And still come back for more

I’m strong enough to take it
And I know what you’ve been through
You’ve got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too

I’m strong enough to take it
And I know what you’ve been through
You’ve got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too

You’ve got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too

To see the whole earth filled, by labor and plea…

More good stuff from Spurgeon’s Mornings and Evenings… it’s a petition, not just a praise.

Our planet, courtesy of NASA.gov

Our planet, courtesy of NASA.gov

“Let the whole earth be filled with His glory; Amen, and Amen.”—Psalm 72:19.

THIS is a large petition. To intercede for a whole city needs a stretch of faith, and there are times when a prayer for one man is enough to stagger us. But how far-reaching was the psalmist’s dying intercession! How comprehensive! How sublime! “Let the whole earth be filled with His glory.” It doth not exempt a single country however crushed by the foot of superstition; it doth not exclude a single nation however barbarous. For the cannibal as well as for the civilized, for all climes and races this prayer is uttered: the whole circle of the earth it encompasses, and omits no son of Adam. We must be up and doing for our Master, or we cannot honestly offer such a prayer. The petition is not asked with a sincere heart unless we endeavour, as God shall help us, to extend the kingdom of our Master. Are there not some who neglect both to plead and to labour? Reader, is it your prayer? Turn your eyes to Calvary. Behold the Lord of Life nailed to a cross, with the thorn-crown about His brow, with bleeding head, and hands, and feet. What! can you look upon this miracle of miracles, the death of the Son of God, without feeling within your bosom a marvellous adoration that language never can express? And when you feel the blood applied to your conscience, and know that He has blotted out your sins, you are not a man unless you start from your knees and cry, “Let the whole earth be filled with His glory; Amen, and Amen.” Can you bow before the Crucified in loving homage, and not wish to see your Monarch master of the world? Out on you if you can pretend to love your Prince, and desire not to see Him the universal ruler. Your piety is worthless unless it leads you to wish that the same mercy which has been extended to you may bless the whole world. Lord, it is harvest-time, put in Thy sickle and reap.

Nevertheless

From “Mornings and Evenings” – the daily devotional from Charles Haddon Spurgeon. If you don’t own a copy, you should go out and get one, because it is a treasure.

Or, like me, you can enjoy it online.

Here’s today’s morning devotion with my own emphasis added.

“Nevertheless I am continually with Thee.”—Psalm 73:23.

“NEVERTHELESS,”—AS if, notwithstanding all the foolishness and ignorance which David had just been confessing to God, not one atom the less was it true and certain that David was saved and accepted, and that the blessing of being constantly in God’s presence was undoubtedly his. Fully conscious of his own lost estate, and of the deceitfulness and vileness of his nature, yet, by a glorious outburst of faith, he sings “nevertheless I am continually with Thee.” Believer, you are forced to enter into Asaph’s confession and acknowledgment, endeavour in like spirit to say “nevertheless, since I belong to Christ I am continually with God!” By this is meant continually upon His mind, He is always thinking of me for my good. Continually before His eye;—the eye of the Lord never sleepeth, but is perpetually watching over my welfare. Continually in His hand, so that none shall be able to pluck me thence. Continually on His heart, worn there as a memorial, even as the high priest bore the names of the twelve tribes upon his heart for ever. Thou always thinkest of me, O God. The bowels of Thy love continually yearn towards me. Thou art always making providence work for my good. Thou hast set me as a signet upon thine arm; thy love is strong as death, many waters cannot quench it; neither can the floods drown it. Surprising grace! Thou seest me in Christ, and though in myself abhorred, Thou beholdest me as wearing Christ’s garments, and washed in His blood, and thus I stand accepted in Thy presence. I am thus continually in Thy favour—”continually with Thee.” Here is comfort for the tried and afflicted soul; vexed with the tempest within—look at the calm without. “Nevertheless”—O say it in thy heart, and take the peace it gives. “Nevertheless I am continually with Thee.”

Amen! Praise the Lord for his scandalous Grace and the imputed righteousness of Christ! Praise God for our own inabilities, frailties and weaknesses, so He can show himself mighty and holy in our lives, and receive great glory for it, as well as our thanksgiving and praise, because though we had no part in it (we even stood in rebellion and opposition to Him), we are loved with an everlasting and perfect love.