What’s so “good” about Good Friday?

Today is Good Friday, at least for those of us who consider ourselves followers of Christ. It’s the day when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross, his suffering and beating, the injustices done against him, his abandonment by those who called themselves his followers. As I think about all that happened on Good Friday, none of it seems to add up to giving it the moniker “good.”

But we can’t look at Good Friday on its’ own. The only way that Good Friday can really be called “good” is if we look at it in light of what happens just three days later. Good Friday becomes good when we realize just what it led to, the celebration of Easter Sunday.

As I think about Good Friday and all that Jesus did, I realize that his work is nothing that can be duplicated by any of us. He alone was able to live a perfect life. He alone was able to be a sacrifice for our sins. He alone was able to rise again after three days in the tomb. But I think we can learn lessons from what Jesus did, at least one lesson for every day that he was in the grave (give me a break, good things come in threes, right?).

1) The will of the Father was more important than his own

Jesus knew his purpose and mission from the beginning. From the moment when he began his public ministry and was baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus exhibited submission to the Father. The Father’s voice rang out from the heavens, “This is my beloved son in him I am well pleased.”

While most of us may have gone the selfish route, Jesus did not waiver in deed from his mission. He submitted to the Father’s plan and accomplished the perfect work. Jesus’ agenda was the agenda of his Father, not his own.

How many of us can say the same thing? Do we really allow the will of our Father to take priority to our own?

2) He knew there was a bigger plan at work

Not only was Jesus submissive to the Father, but he also kept the bigger plan in mind. Jesus knew what the end result needed to be and he did not waver from it. Jesus had every reason to get caught up in who he was, the Messiah, and what he was able to do, but he didn’t. Jesus, in fact, continued to try to conceal who he was until the moment was right. He knew the bigger plan and did not want to derail that plan or for anything to happen before the appointed time.

How often do we remember that God has a bigger plan in mind? Do we get hijacked in thinking that our plan is more important than the master plan?

3) He didn’t open his mouth

In fulfilling the prophecies that had been spoken of him, when Jesus was arrested and tried, he did not say much at all. He did not defend himself. He did not use his divine powers. He simply kept his mouth shut.

I don’t know about you, but this has to be one of the most difficult things for me to do in following the example of Jesus, especially when I feel that I am under attack. It’s hard not to be defensive, let alone not opening my mouth. My reflex and automatic response is always self=preservation, yet Jesus was less concerned about himself and more concerned about what we saw in lessons 1 and 2 above. The will of the Father was more important than his own and the bigger plan was more important than his own plan.

As I reflect on Jesus’ work over the course of these days leading up to Easter as well as the lessons we learn from him, it’s a little overwhelming to think about. No matter how hard I could try, I could never measure up to Jesus and all that he did. While that may seem deflating, it’s actually freeing to understand that Jesus’ work was enough and there is nothing that I can add to it. While I can follow his example, even when I don’t, he offers me forgiveness and grace.

Good Friday is indeed good. What happened on Easter was great. May we constantly pursue the example of Jesus as we are constantly transformed into the image in which we were created, the imago dei, the image of God.

Stepping Out

Last time I left the country was about 12 years ago. I had only been married for 4 years, I had no children. I went all the way to Europe, spending a week in Kiev, Ukraine, working with a small church over there to do some outreach events in their neighborhood.

The trip was a growing experience for me and probably for my wife. It was the first time that we had been apart from each other for that length of time and that geographic distance. I was in a new place where I didn’t know the language, meeting new people and trying to do my best to assimilate and blend in, something I found much easier for me than my companions on the team.

Tomorrow, I board a plane and leave the country again, this time for Costa Rica. 12 years and 3 children later, this will prove to be yet another growing experience for me, my wife, and our family. I’ll be gone for 10 days working with a team to put on a children’s camp in the mountains.

I’ll be honest, I’ve resisted this trip from the start, and I’ve been asking myself why the moment that the resistance began. While there are factors here and there that might contribute to my resistance, the biggest one has to do with my family.

For years, I never had to travel significantly for work. The furthest that I had to go was down the street or a few towns over. Over the last few years, I’ve had to travel for work more frequently, one state away, a few states away, across the country. It was hard for me whether I was gone for 2 days or 7 days, I just never liked to leave my family. But the thing that always made it easier was a phone call or a video call, the ability to hear or see my family through technology.

And that’s one of the reasons why this trip will be harder for me, aside from the day and a half in the beginning and the two days on the back end, I won’t be in contact with my family.

I’ll be about good work, God’s work, assisting in the lives of kids who don’t always have the opportunity to do what they’ll be doing. I’m familiar with the language, not fluent, but familiar enough to carry on casual conversations. I think that’ll make some of the discomfort a little easier.

What’s that phrase that’s always thrown around? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? What if I’m already fond?

I don’t know all that will happen while I am away, both where I am and back at home, but I’m pretty certain that this trip will change us, all of us, in my family. I think my heart will grow, both for my family and for the world. I think that my perspective of God’s kingdom will grow, seeing how we are connected despite geographical boundaries, borders, and ethnic variances.

Christians in the western world can too often forget that God’s kingdom is so much bigger and more expansive than we are, trips like this help to bring that into perspective. I’m excited to see what God will do, nervous and anxious along the way, but I’m sure there’ll be a story or two to write about when I get back!

 

Eyes In Front

I’ve written on here before about my running. I’m not a big fan of running, but I’ve been trying to make it a discipline that I follow in order to keep some cardio activity in my life. I usually tell people that I don’t like running but I like how I feel when I am running. That doesn’t mean I actually feel good when I run (I usually feel terrible) but that in my life, when I consistently run, I feel pretty good.

Since the Spring, I’ve been struggling with running. I’ve felt tired and lethargic, but I’ve kept it up. Then we went on our cross country trip and while I started out strong, I fell off the wagon and went a month (pretty much the length of our trip) without running. My last run took place at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

As I start to get back into it again, I’ve realized that it may be the worst time of the year to start it up again. The humidity is high and hangs on you like a soaking wet sweatshirt. Every step feels as if my legs weigh tons. Since my pace has slowed considerably, I’m trying to find the right balance and have yet to get there.

After running consistently for a few months, I began to realize just what a mental game running can be. At first, I was running with music, but I decided to take advantage of the stillness and quiet of the pre-dawn hours and simply breathe in the moments. My allergies aren’t too happy about those breaths, but I persist.

But the mental game of telling myself what I can or can’t do is a much bigger battle than I ever thought or imagined. “You can’t do this.” “You’re too slow.” “Look how much further you have to go.” “Can you really get there?” All these statements and questions plus so many more run through my head.

As I was running this morning, I was in the home stretch and a thought occurred to me. I was looking too far ahead. I was missing the ground right in front of me because I wanted to see how much further I had to go, how much longer that I had to endure. But looking too far ahead was making me miss what was right before me and it was distracting me.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels in life. I have a tendency to want to see the road much further ahead. I play out in my mind all of the next steps to make sure I’m prepared, but in my preparation (or so-called preparation), I am distracted and unfocused on what’s right before me.

So, I’m learning to focus on what’s right before me. It’s easier said than done, at least for me. I want desperately to see and know what’s coming, but I need to focus on just a few steps. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Or in the words of that great philosopher Dory, “Just keep swimming!”

Sabbatical-ing

The last five years have been rough for me. It started out with the death of my mom. Then came the death of my dad a little less than two years later. I was finishing up seminary, was involved in a difficult situation in my church, and was trying to transfer my credentials into a different denomination. I was diagnosed with a weak heart and I could feel my anxiety and stress ever building within me. Thankfully, the church that I serve saw fit to extend me a sabbatical, three months away from work with the goal and intention that I rest, recharge, and study.

If you had asked me ten years ago about a sabbatical, I may have been able to tell you what it was, but it never occurred to me that I actually might have one someday. My father was a pastor for more than forty years and never took a sabbatical. While he worked towards and received his doctorate degree during that time, he never had that much consecutive time off. As he reached the end of his career as a pastor and as he reached the end of his life, I think the lack of some kind of sabbatical may have been detrimental to his health.

I was and am so incredibly grateful to my church for this opportunity. To whom much is given, much is required, and so I wanted to make sure that I was making the most of this time. I put together a plan, found an area of study that I could dive into during the time, planned some travel, and planned time with my family. Although it felt like a tall order to accomplish a lot in this period of time, I felt like I could do it.

Since I am used to sitting in front of a computer and typing a mile a minute, I knew that one of the things that I needed to do during my sabbatical was slow down. I wanted to be intentional about slowing down and that kind of intentionality can be somewhat painful. So, I went to the store and found a journal, you know, one of the ones that has paper and that you actually have to use a pencil, pen, or other writing utensil. I thought to myself, “Here goes nothing!”

The first few weeks were a little awkward. My hand hurt…..a lot. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had sat down and written so much. It was awkward because the words just didn’t flow the way that they did when I sat in front of a computer. They felt forced, contrived, empty, but I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to press on. So press on I did.

The more that I forced myself to pick up a pen and write, the easier it became. I realized that the intentional slowing down was forcing me to think things through in a different way than I did when I sat at a computer. I realized that although I couldn’t get the words out as fast as I had hoped, the slowing down was helping me to process things, helping me wrap my head around things that I had been speeding past as I typed my words so quickly on a screen and keyboard.

By the time I got to the end of the 13th week of my sabbatical, the entire journal, the one that I had wondered whether or not I would even keep up with, that same journal was nearly full. I couldn’t believe it. My diligence had paid off and I had learned an incredibly important and valuable lesson in the process: journaling could significantly improve my own processing of information and spare some of those closest to me the pain of having to listen to me verbally process my thoughts.

I’m different than I was at the beginning of the three months. I’m not quite sure how, but I can feel it, I can see it. I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask my wife and kids, they might say the same thing. I’m hoping that the difference becomes evident to those around me, I’m hoping that they see how much this time has benefited me. I’m hoping that my goal of delivering a better me at the end of thirteen weeks will be realized.

My heart is full of gratitude for my church and this gift that I received. Even in the midst of a difficult season, they were willing to cut me loose to be recharged. For this, I will be forever grateful and I’m pretty sure that my family shares that same amount of gratitude as well.

I’m Seeing More Clearly Now

When I was in high school, I worked two jobs on Saturdays to make some money. I worked from 7AM until 2PM at a local gas station and 3PM until 7PM at the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. Not only did it benefit me financially, but it also gave me two very distinct windows into my culture and context. Working for people and with people has a way of doing that.

The job at Baskin-Robbins wasn’t quite as formative for me as the job at the gas station. My co-workers at the ice cream shop were much more like me while I felt like a foreigner while working at the gas station, which was a really good thing. As good of a thing as it was, I had some big lessons to learn while I was there.

You see, I was getting a good education and was most likely headed to college to pursue a professional career. My white privilege mindset had been formed in me by my surrounding culture and I thought that I was so important and special and that I knew an awful lot. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

I remember one day when it became abundantly clear to me that I didn’t know as much as I thought that I did. I watched one of my coworkers make his way around a car engine in a way that was completely foreign to me. He might not have been able to pull up all of the useless knowledge that I had stocked within my brain, but when it came to the practical and useful information of a car engine, he danced circles around me.

In that moment, I came to the realization that just because someone didn’t know what I knew didn’t mean that they didn’t know anything. While it may seem like a simple lesson, it was an important one for me to learn as a fifteen year old growing up in an incredibly affluent town surrounded by privilege and plenty. It’s stuck with me since that day, nearly thirty years ago.

The lesson that I learned that day was not something that I simply walked away from and put behind me, it was a lesson that I am brought back to over and over again in my life. If I don’t intentionally find ways to put myself into someone else’s shoes and get a different perspective and appreciation of something, I find that life has a way of forcing me into that place where I can see things more clearly.

Last week, my wife was pretty sick for days in a row. While she’s been sick before, I don’t think she’s ever been hit this hard by something (besides pregnancy) since we’ve had all three kids.

I realized early on that she wasn’t going to be able to do everything that she would normally do. The cooking. The laundry. The cleaning. The keeping track of everyone all at once. I knew that I would need to step up my game. So, that’s what I tried to do.

Now, let me say, I do my best to tell my wife how much I appreciate her. I’ve never been a fan of Mother’s Day for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that mothers need to be appreciated every day, not just on a Hallmark holiday in May. Just because I do my best doesn’t mean that there isn’t lots of room for improvement. As I surveyed the landscape of the house, the list of groceries waiting to be bought, the calendar items waiting to be attended, and the general condition of the house and our family, I realized just how much I had taken my wife for granted. I realized how I just always expected that she would be there, walking behind everyone, waiting to pick up the pieces that were dropped along the way, quietly serving and putting them back into their respective places.

While I had struggled with reentry after some much needed, restful time away, reentry is a luxury that my wife is rarely afforded because in order to experience reentry, you actually need to leave for a time. Moms are always on, whether they are working outside of the home or if they are stay at home moms, their jobs are rarely done and their “me” time is few and far between.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for a role that is not my usual role. My prayer in it all is that I show that appreciation every day. I know that my own capacity to accomplish the things that my wife accomplishes (and accomplishes well) on a daily basis is limited. I can play “Mr. Mom” for so long before I finally crash, my wife has a knack for making it look easy. No, she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I think there’s something I need to be tending to around this house.

At Just the Right Time

IMG_4276I love to read. It’s not uncommon for me to be in the middle of 3 or 4 books at a time. I have stacks of books that I am waiting to get into. I have a reading plan that I do my best to follow throughout the year (check it out here). I review books here on my blog. People give me books that they recommend.

With all of the books that I have waiting in the wings to be read, I don’t always follow an order or a linear path. I’ll often put aside some books and pick up others that weren’t even on my radar before I pick them up.

I say all this because I am constantly amazed at the countless times in life when I have pulled a book off of my shelf that has sat their idle for months or even years only to have it drip with relevance as soon as I start reading it. It seems that the moment I crack the book open and begin reading was ordained so much that it hits me square between the eyes, speaking to me in the intimacy of my own thoughts and exposing me at the very moment in which I find myself. It’s almost as if I had purposely waited for just that moment to begin reading.

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to a book that had been on my radar for at least a year, Brennan Manning’s “The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.” My lead pastor and friend had recommended it sometime last year. I ordered it, put it on my shelf, and then promptly forgot about it.

As I journey through the sabbatical that I am on, it seemed incredibly relevant for me to read these words, “Am I getting too serious about life? Have I let my sense of childlike wonder fade? Am I so caught up in preaching, teaching, writing and traveling that I no longer hear the sound of rain on the roof?” As those words jumped off the page at me, I silently snickered as I thought of how apropos these words were for such a time as I am in.

In the middle of a section of the book where he talks about Christmas, I read the above phrase. It struck me as even more relevant because for the past few years, I have worked hard to slow myself down in the midst of one of the busiest times of the year: Christmas. I’ve realized that the four weeks of Advent can too easily be lost to me if I don’t intentionally journey through them.

But these words could hardly be relegated to just the Advent season. Looking at my children, I can see that childlike wonder of which Manning speaks if I simply stop and pay attention. If I look hard enough and silence myself and all that is within me long enough, I can see a living example of wonder right there before my very eyes.

To read this during a sabbatical seemed like so much more than just coincidence. It was as if I was supposed to be reading it at this time and place in my life.

No sooner had I read these words about slowing down and taking things in then I read this, “The early Christians considered themselves supermen not because of superhuman willpower but because of reliance on the supernatural power of the Spirit.” I was pretty sure that I had said something similar in a sermon as one of my “go to” Greek words is the word dunamis which means, “power.”

These two points were incredibly relevant and poignant to read in this season of life. Reminders to not take myself too seriously and to try to keep a childlike wonder about myself, but also a reminder that I’m not nearly as important as I might convince myself and that the power that I have to do things doesn’t originate from me.

As John the Baptist said, “I must decrease and he must increase.” The Apostle Paul spoke of his boasting in his weakness and his boast being in Christ alone. My confidence and strength resides within me, but it does not originate within me, it comes from outside of me, and I can never forget that.

Brennan Manning continues to stretch me and challenge me every time that I engage one of his works. I am not nearly as gracious to myself as I need to be. I far too often find my flaws and flagellate myself with them rather than releasing them or, as Paul did, rejoicing in them. My flaws don’t show my weakness so much as they show Christ’s strength, and that’s an important distinction that I can’t forget.

I know that there will be other books that have been collecting dust on my shelves, waiting for me to pick them up, that will speak to me at the particular and specific moment in which I pick them up. It’s happened far too many times to be considered coincidence. For now, I’ll rest in the lessons that I’ve learned in this reading and do my best to savor them and soak them in.

Watching As Spiritual Discipline

amelieMovies have always been important to me. I’m not sure when they became so important to me or how it happened, but as I have gotten older, I realize that they can be used for so many different things. We’ve watched movies together as a family for a family movie night, I’ve watched movies to unwind and distract me, I’ve watched movies to help me to laugh, and I’ve watched movies to provoke my mind and help me to think deeper thoughts.

It’s the last way that I’ve watched movies that has actually been a larger focus of mine over the years. When my wife and I were living in Connecticut, we were newly married and had a number of single friends. We would host movie discussion nights at our small little house. We had some fun times and great discussions as we worked our way through some interesting films.

Film is story. I know that there are people who don’t see much redemptive qualities about films, but I firmly believe that any medium that can be used to tell honest and profound stories is worthwhile. The stories aren’t always nice and neat, they are sometimes raw and unrefined, maybe even offensive, but isn’t that the way that life really is to us if we’re honest about it?

While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a movie theology class. A lot of my friends scratched their heads at that one, but I explained it was about finding the God stories in movies. The class for me was a confirmation of things that I had thought all along, that people are searching for God, they don’t always find him or come to the right conclusion in their search, but there are lessons learned along the way.

To me, watching films can be a spiritual discipline. Yes, I read God’s Word as the primary source of knowledge and understanding of who he is, but movies are helpful, especially to understand perspectives that are not my own. I know the questions that I have, the things that dwell deep within me, but how about the questions and stirrings in others. In film, we feel those stirrings, we hear those questions, we see the struggles that are real in other people.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that this is the case with all films. It’s kind of hard to find the deeper meaning of life and the searching for God in “Dumb and Dumber” and other films whose sole purpose is to entertain. But many movies are so much more than just entertainment, they are stories of struggles that are not specific to the fictional characters within their frames, but allegorical depictions of real-life struggles that have been felt by writers, directors, producers, and others.

I still watch films for the entertainment value and to laugh, but I feel the need to watch films that stir my mind, that help me to contemplate who I am, who God is, and who I am as I am in relationship with him. When I look at films from that perspective, the act of watching becomes a spiritual discipline, something that helps me think deeper about myself, others, and God.

It might seem far off to some, and I get that, it’s not for everyone, but I think that it’s like so many things that we see in our culture, a tool. Tools are meant to be used and I’ve seen people use average and ordinary tools to do extraordinary things. Maybe average and ordinary films can be used to think extraordinary thoughts and to help us reflect deeper than we might without them.

A Tale of Two Brothers

Shake Hands[In the wake of my uncle’s death, and a few years removed from the deaths of both of my parents, I continue to try to put the pieces together of the whole story. I’ve experienced too many moments over the last few years of wishing and wanting to know more. I’ve experienced moments where I ask myself, “Why didn’t I know these things?” As much as I talked with my parents, I feel like so much of their story remains a mystery to me.

Over the past few days, I was able to find some more of the pieces as I spent time with my aunt and my cousins remembering my uncle, my father’s brother. While the pieces are still coming together and the results remain cloudy, I’ve learned so much.]

Once upon a time, there were two brothers, born about four years apart. These brothers came into the world at the tail end of the Great Depression, raised in Brooklyn to the daughter of immigrant parents and the son of Virginia farmers.

Their father was a truck driver and, somewhere along the way, he found solace in a bottle. He wasn’t a sleepy drunk, a playful drunk, or a harmless drunk. He was a violent drunk who used his fists to fight back against a world that had dealt him a hand with which he wasn’t happy. He used his fists to lash out against those who loved him the most, those who were closest to him.

The older brother, seeing the violence of the father, was all about protecting his mother and brother. Sometimes he would stand in the way and take the beatings for the others. Sometimes he would turn his little brother away when he reached the door of the apartment in hopes that his father wouldn’t discover that his little brother had returned home. He would stand in the way, he would take the licks.

There was an occasion or two when the little brother found out for himself just how angry his father could become when he’d spent time in the bottle. On one occasion, he questioned his father, not in a rebellious way, just in a curious way, the way that most children do. On that occasion, his father hit him and a tooth was knocked out. That younger brother never questioned his father again.

As those boys hit their formative years, their father was in and out. He tried to exorcise his demons, he tried to find freedom, but it never happened, at least not that they would ever witness. Although he had gone to a place where he could get help, where he could find healing, where he could dry out, his wife had seen it too many times before and she had nothing more in her to believe that this time would be different from the rest. He was released but she refused to let him back. And that was the end of the father of those boys. They never heard from him again. She worked and the four became three.

In the midst of the 1950’s, these two brothers found themselves labeled and judged because of who their father was and because of his absence from their lives. They were expected to become juvenile delinquents. They were expected to amount to nothing. They were expected to live up to every stereotype that those around them had watched before, that those around them heaped upon them. In the midst of an environment that seemed to stack the odds against them, all of the expectations pointed towards them becoming just like their father.

But they didn’t.

The older brother worked and worked and worked. He worked to live, he worked to survive, he worked to care for his mother and his brother. He worked to put his brother through school. He worked and worked and worked and he didn’t look back.

That older brother continued to rise and rise. He found success. He found love. He passed that love on to the family with whom God had blessed him. He followed his gifting and rose out of the ashes, out of the judgment, out of the expectations to become something that no one may have dreamed of……no one but him, and maybe his mother and brother.

That younger brother followed a different path. He found love. He passed that love on to the family with whom God had blessed him. He didn’t have a father around, but he had a brother who cared for him, who provided for him, who protected him. He became who he became because of sacrifices that had been made for him.

Once upon a time, there were two brothers who lived separate lives, but they had some things in common: family, faith, and love. Now those two brothers are together again, united together, seeing things more clearly than they have ever seen things before. Now they both understand in a way that they never did before.

As they see each other face to face once again, I think they’ve got a lot to talk about.