Hopes and Dreams

hopesanddreamsIf you follow the church calendar at all, you know that this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I had the privilege of kicking off our Advent sermon series called “He is greater than I.” Appropriately, the sermon was focused on Mary and her response to the news that she had received from the angel regarding her pregnancy.

As I weaved my way through Mary’s song in Luke 1, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of a disruption this might have been for Mary. Mind you, the place of women in the 1st century near East is not near where the place of women is in today’s society, but you still have to wonder what kinds of things Mary hoped and dreamed of for her future.

Regardless of those hopes and dreams, things turned out very different for the teenage girl. She had a lot of explaining to do and she probably had to put up with a whole lot of stares as she walked through town. Any chance of having been a wallflower was most likely lost as the world would eventually know her name and what she had done.

I wonder if Mary realized the full extent of what she was being called to do. Of course, that’s been speculated in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The angel who appeared to her was pretty clear about what she was being asked to do and who Jesus was, so it’s hard to think she didn’t know. But then, what else she heard after “You will become pregnant….” might be somewhat questionable, considering.

Whatever Mary’s hopes and dreams may have been, they really paled in comparison to what she got. On a list of hopes and dreams, I’m not sure that anyone would consider “Mother of the Son of God” as one of the bullets, yet that’s just what she would become.

After my message this past Sunday, I was asked this question, “How do we reconcile God’s bigger plan with our own dreams or is it better just to skip them altogether?”

Although I gave an immediate answer, it’s something that I’ve pondered a lot since the asking. While immediate answers aren’t always wrong, I find myself continually asking myself questions long after answers to them have been given.

I had to think whether or not I had hopes and dreams for myself. If I did, what were they?

As I thought about it, it seems that my hopes and dreams as I have gotten older have grown broader than they used to be. While there are some specifics, I find myself looking at things more generally than I did before, when I was younger. My hopes and dreams center around my family, hoping for certain things for my children yet not living vicariously through them.

I want certain things for my children and my family. I want to experience certain things for myself. I want to be effective in what I do and even have some vocational hopes and dreams as well. But what happens if those dreams are never realized? What if they don’t align with God’s plan for me?

I think that I learned about disappointment before I even left middle school. So, suffice it to say that the fact that my hopes and dreams might be dashed hasn’t stopped me from still hoping those hopes and dreaming those dreams. If I’m honest, I think that I might even find that like Mary, my hopes and dreams actually paled in comparison to what reality became for me. That’s not to say that I haven’t faced my share of disappointments, struggles, and heartaches, but overall, my blessings have exceeded some of what I dreamed they might be.

As I have grown in my faith, I have realized that we can often get too specific in our asks from God. Don’t mishear me here, we need to ask God specifically for things, but I think we have a tendency to take it a little too far. I was the kid who had Jeremiah 29:11 as his senior yearbook quote, so I’ve had to grow into this myself. I think we get too hung up in whether God wants us to be an artist or an engineer, whether he wants us to have 2 kids or 4, whether we should rent a house or buy a house. I’m not saying that he doesn’t care, I’m just saying that when we ask those kinds of questions, we kind of miss the forest for the trees.

God’s got a much bigger plan and we are only a small part of it. When we get so focused on specifics, I think that we’re trying to make ourselves a much bigger part of the plan than we should be. We’re not insignificant, neither are our desires, but there are much more important fish to fry than some of the ones that I have spent my time frying in the past.

I probably dreamed of the wife and family that I would have, maybe obsessing a little too much on them before I had them, but now that I have them, I see that my dreams were tiny in comparison to what I actually got. I pursued one vocation for a decade until I stumbled into another one that I’ve been in for more than that. While I dreamed of what my career would be, I don’t think that I ever dreamed of what it has become. It almost seems as if my dreams have always fallen short of reality, although it might not have always looked that way to me.

I’m not going to sit here and mimic a certain Houston pastor who wants you to live your best life now. I won’t sit here and say that God will always let you have what’s best for you (although that may be true). What I will say is that God will always let us have what’s best for him, what will bring him the most glory. In mulling that over, we can’t forget that one of the things that brought him glory was also the thing that brought him pain, the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. If God’s glory is even costly for him, why should we think that it won’t be costly for us?

I think that what happens as we grow in our faith, our maturity, and our relationship with Christ is that our hopes and dreams align more with his plans for us. That’s doesn’t mean that we’re always aligned, but I think that we begin to want what he wants, making our hopes and dreams his will. Does that make sense?

I’m still hoping and dreaming, and I plan to until my dying day. The minute that I stop hoping and dreaming is the minute that I begin to give up, and that’s not something that I want to do.

I’m going to keep mulling this over, but for now, I’m going to go hope and dream some more! 

How’s Your Soul? – A Book Review

hows-your-soul“You can have millions in the bank, a Maserati in the driveway, and more Instagram followers than the pope, but unless your soul is healthy, you won’t be happy.” So Judah Smith writes within the first pages of “How’s Your Soul?” and then he spends the whole book talking through just what it means to take care of your soul.

As I dove into this book, I entered skeptically. I knew that Judah Smith had risen through the ranks to become one of the most popular hipster pastors of late. But was he for real? While I’ve read his book “Life Is…” the jury was still out in my mind as to where he stood. I’m fine with people writing encouraging and inspirational books, but I was wondering whether or not there was any depth to Smith. After all, there’s already one Joel Osteen in the world, I’d rather not see any more like him.

Judah Smith is the real deal. He’s funny. He’s quirky. He’s self-deprecating. He’s grounded. As much as he is all these things, he brings gospel truth, not compromising the message of the cross or the gospel and clearly laying out the essentials of the Christian faith. Smith writes with a winsomeness that allows for those who aren’t quite there yet in discovering who Jesus is. He’s not pushy or arrogant, but neither does he pull punches when it comes to the truth of the gospel. That won me over.

As Smith talks about the soul, he’s honest about the beginnings of our problems. He doesn’t shy away from the word “sin” and says, “…if we try to apply these…elements to our souls without dealing with the sin issue, it won’t work.” He’s also honest about the work that we do for ourselves and the work that God has done for us when he says, “Self-effort is noble and admirable, and it will carry you through some things; but a love birthed in self will never be strong enough for all things. We need a love that transcends human ability and experience.”

His words are reminiscent of Augustine’s words when he writes, “As our souls find themselves in God, our lives will find their purpose, place, and value in him as well.” We will not find rest in our souls until we find that rest in God alone. He speaks of living lives that are surrendered and surrounded. We surrender to God and surround ourselves with others with whom we can walk. Even if we don’t fully get it or fully believe, it’s important to belong as we enter the process.

I appreciated what Smith said about belonging before believing. Too often Christians can be guilty of asking people to clean themselves up and then coming to Jesus. Smith encourages us to seek ways to allow for people to belong first rather than getting all the behavior right. It is a journey, we belong, then we believe, and then we behave. To try to behave first without belonging and believing is not only counterintuitive, it’s contrary to what Jesus taught us.

“How’s Your Soul?” was a pleasant surprise to me. There is no deep theology here, but that’s not what Judah Smith is going for, he’s just reminding his reader of the importance of soul care for living. It’s a fast read with some worthwhile truth. Check it out!

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Unreasonable Hope – A Book Review

unreasonable-hopeWhen I picked up “Unreasonable Hope,” I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. As Chad Veach tells the story of his journey with his daughter, Georgia, he pulls the reader into his story. He describes the emotions that he and his wife, Julia, experienced in the anticipation of a baby and the dreams that come for every couple expecting their firstborn child. Veach explains about the disease, lissencephaly, that his daughter has and explains the disease and their family’s journey with it.

It was hard to read at times because I could feel the heavy emotions that this young couple was feeling, which speaks to his ability to describe the situation with such vivid detail, enough to invest the reader into his story. Throughout his explanation, Veach never blames God. He is honest about the struggles but also sees beyond those struggles to what God is able to do through them. He shares about what God has taught he and Julia as well as those around them. He’s honest and realistic about their struggles but he also shares the hope that they have found in and through Jesus Christ.

There were moments in reading “Unreasonable Hope” where I felt like I was reading a Joel Osteen book. Veach is honest about the fact that being a Christian does not insure a pain-free or trouble-free existence when he says, “But just because Jesus is with you doesn’t mean you’re free from trials. Storms will happen when you know and love God.” While he acknowledges that, he still makes it seem as if we should be experiencing blessing and gifts from God in this life, that we should somehow anticipate that God has something more for us in this life.

While I don’t disagree that God wants to bless his children, I think the Veaches own experience is a testimony to the fact that sometimes in life, we don’t have answers that are satisfactory for the troubles that come our way, even as those who trust and follow Jesus. There were moments when it seemed that Veach got this, and it’s evident that he does, considering his circumstances, but the specifics of it weren’t as clear as I think that they could be to prevent someone for having unreasonable expectations of what our life in Christ should be like. He writes, “He’s ready to overflow our boat and give us more than we need.” I just wonder how a Christian living in the Third World might respond to reading that sentence as they are scrambling for their latest meal and watching their children go hungry.

Veach has an engaging writing style and, as I said, he draws the reader in with the honesty of his story. While I admire the honesty and transparency with which he writes, I feel like he misses the boat a little when it comes to explaining that sometimes the hope that we have in Christ won’t be fulfilled until the day when we meet Him face to face.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Thomas Nelson Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Every Season Prayers – A Book Review

every-season-prayersPrayer is conversation with God. Good conversations should be two-sided with both parties dialoguing and exchanging thoughts. The thing about conversations, especially the hard ones, is that it can sometimes be difficult to get them started. That’s where Scotty Smith comes in.

 

Scotty Smith’s book “Every Season Prayers is a fairly exhaustive volume of prayers for different occasions that we may encounter in life. Health concerns. Life change. Prodigal children. If you can think of a situation, chances are, Scotty Smith has covered it in this volume.

 

In the introduction, he states that his intent for this book, “is to equip God’s people to pray, not do their praying for them.” These are supposed to help people get their prayers off the ground, and in many cases, give them words that they are struggling to find in the middle of circumstances that have left them speechless. Smith is giving words to the wordless and helping them articulate what’s going on inside.

 

The prayers within this book are saturated in Scripture. The subtitle for the book is, “Gospel-centered prayers for the whole of life” and he does a great job infusing the Gospel into every prayer throughout this book. The prayers are also filled with honesty and genuineness. There are prayers that are so raw and emotional for moments when one’s own emotionality may dominate so much that they are incapable of thinking clear thoughts and articulating just how they are feeling. Into those moments, Smith gives clear and concise prayers that can easily help someone to find words in the struggles.

 

This book is not meant to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it can be used as a guide and resource, a tool to help people through the various seasons in life that they find themselves. There are short and simple prayers. There are prayers for various seasons in the church such as Lent and Advent. Smith encourages the reader to go beyond the prayers in his book, recommending that they be a springboard into an understanding of the importance of prayer.

 

While I’ve not been fond of using others’ prayers in my own life, I can see how this book would be helpful for those who struggle with knowing just what words they need to use in conversation with God. If you find yourself in that place of struggling for words in prayer, this may be a good starting point for you to move towards finding a place of comfort and security in your times of prayer.

 

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

15 Years

jon carrie bermuda 2001How do you sum up fifteen years? How do you find words to describe an adventure that’s taken you to places you never imagined, that’s helped you to learn things you could never have dreamed of, that’s made some of the things that you longed for seem so inconsequential compared to what you actually got? How do you find words to describe the gift that God has given you?

Fifteen years ago today, on a very hot day in upstate Connecticut, my wife and I were married. Even though it was hot and there were some hiccups along the way, it was a perfect day. The storybook wedding that my wife had always dreamed of took place in a country church in Woodstock, Connecticut followed by a reception under a tent.

If you had told me that day where we would be today, I’m not sure what I would have said. I don’t know that I would have believed you, but I don’t know that I wouldn’t have believed you either. My wife married an engineer. We lived in Connecticut for the first three years of our marriage. I eventually left engineering when God called me to be a pastor.

We’ve hardly been the perfect couple or had the perfect marriage, but we’ve knew early on that the big secret of our marriage would be to make sure Christ was at the center and to make sure that we always worked together. We eventually adopted the phrase “better together” as our motto, realizing that separately we might have been good, but together we were so much better.

I don’t know that I would have believed that we would have three kids, but we do. After I held the first one, I didn’t think I could ever love another human being the way that I loved him, but I did. After having two boys, I wouldn’t have imagined that we would have had a little girl, but we did. I wouldn’t have imagined how crazy, funny, sweet, and unnerving that those kids could be all at the same time.

I never would have imagined that I would have lost my parents at this point in the game either, but I also don’t know what I would have done had I not had my wife by my side through all of the storms. Her empathy and experience in counseling was exactly what I needed to help me through the struggles. Her quiet strength, faith, and trust in God were just a few of the qualities that would be so essential for me to weather these storms.

People who have been married for a long time might look back at their own fifteen year mark and think that it feels like yesterday. I think that we can say the same thing about that day fifteen years ago, that it feels like we blinked and we got here. Time has both flown and crawled at the same time, if that makes any sense. There are days that it feels like all fifteen of those years have passed while there are other days when it feels as if I stepped into a time machine to fast forward to this day. Then I just need to look in the mirror at the face I see staring back at me to know that there was no time machine, but in fact, I can see all fifteen of those years lined out on my face, in my hair, and in my body.

No, I can’t adequately describe fifteen years, but it certainly hasn’t stopped me from trying. The one word that means the most to me in all fifteen of those years is “grace.” If it weren’t for grace, those fifteen years would have never happened. If it weren’t for grace, my wife would never have put up with me. If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be able to wake up every day and realize that no matter how badly things went yesterday, there was today before me, allowing me a second chance.

Today is a day of celebration, and for that I am thankful. God is good and I am blessed. Happy fifteenth anniversary to my wife, I love you. Here’s to many more.

How Do I Keep From Crashing?

crashImagine yourself, relaxing, sitting back and just taking in every moment. There is nothing pressing for your time as you move slowly through the day. Your phone isn’t ringing, there is no one vying for your time and attention. You’re a little bit off the beaten path but feeling as if you’re completely disconnected (in the best way possible) from the real world.

Times like this may be few and far between for you and for me, but what happens when we find them and experience them? How do we react in the moment? How do we react when we leave that moment?

During my time away last week, I had a good deal of down time to myself. I was able to read, write, and relax without much distraction. If I was tired, I could rest. If I wanted to watch a movie, I could watch a movie. There was no one hanging on my heels, asking me boatloads of questions, and needing my undivided attention for every minute of every hour.

It was peaceful!

But I knew that there would come a time when I would have to go back to reality, when I would have to face the responsibilities that surround me on a normal and average day. I also knew that facing that reality would most likely hit me like a brick to the side of the head, hard, painful, and leaving me worse for wear.

No matter how hard I could have tried, I don’t think anything would have prepared me well for my reentry into the real world after my time away.

After sitting in my car for six hours (even my lunch was purchased at the drive-thru, a mistake I don’t know that I will duplicate), I arrived home to smiles on everyone’s face. One child was playing in the cul-de-sac, one child was watching TV, and one child was hanging on Mommy’s heels. Everyone exchanged hugs and I sat down to do my best to catch up with my wife.

Now, let me add a parenthetical detour here and say that my wife and I do our best to communicate as often as we can. I have found that face to face communication isn’t very easy with three children. There seems to be a radar on these little ones that goes off as soon as some amount of meaningful conversation begins to take place between the two adults in the house. It doesn’t matter whether kids are happily engaged in activities at the commencement of said conversation, somehow or another, as soon as the first meaningful words begin to emerge from either of our mouths, the interruptions commence!

We pushed through our conversation and into dinner, doing our best to be gracious through all of the interruptions and distractions. I kept my voice calm and even, all the while I was mentally reminding myself of the fact that in five or ten years, these kids will have turned into two-headed monsters who may or may not care what their mom and dad thinks.

Now, I had changed my plans to be back for my daughter’s pre-school program. My wife took her and my oldest to the school to get ready for that, while I took my younger son to baseball practice. He was none too happy about going to practice for some reason or another, and it eventually reared its ugly head.

After being asked to sit in the dugout because of his reaction out of frustration to a drill his team was doing, I grabbed him and we went to the car to try to ensure a decent seat at his sister’s program. My own frustration was more than brimming to the surface. I was ready to spill out any moment and the thing that caused the spill to take place was my son’s coughing to the point of spitting up, right in the back of my car, right when we got into the parking lot of the school for the program.

I called my wife to tell her of the latest development and of our impending lateness. As I drove home, my phone vibrated with a message from her asking how my son was doing. Still not having sufficiently cooled off, my text response was inappropriate. Unfortunately, in the close quarters at the school program, my oldest glanced down at my wife’s phone and saw my inappropriate response……[sigh]

Ugh! How many parenting fails could I possibly achieve in one evening? I thought that I might be setting a record for fails per hour considering that I had only been home for about two and a half hours at this point.

By the time we got back to the school, the program was over and we had missed it. Of course, this just set me off even further. I can’t even imagine what my blood pressure was at this point. I thought to myself, “Weren’t you just really calm for the past few days? How did the wheels come off so quickly?”

I’ve obviously not found the remedy for reentry. In my experience, it seems that the more relaxed and unwound that I get, the greater the challenge for me as I reenter the world of my own daily grind. They almost seem exponentially connected. The further retreated from reality I get, the harder it seems to get back into that reality again.

I’ve still got some time to work through this, to see if I can find a way to ease through the constant reentries that I will face in life. I am hoping that over the course of my sabbatical, I can work on reentry more. We’ll see how it goes.

Finding God in the Hard Times

finding god in the hard timesIf you’ve spent any time around churches that sing contemporary songs over the past several years, chances are that you’ve heard Matt and Beth Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name.” With a focus on God’s presence and provision in both the good times and the bad times, the song takes its refrain from the book of Job, the biblical account of a man who lost everything and still held on to his faith and trust in God.

 

Having both experienced difficult times in their lives, Matt and Beth Redman have written this book (previously released as “Blessed Be Your Name”). Detailing the difficulty of the circumstances that easily crowd out our thankfulness, the Redmans write, “At times, painful life circumstances seem to obstruct our view of Him and His goodness. But we have seen the form of the Lord many times before – in life and in Scripture – and know Him to be as good and as kind as He ever was.” Redman says that worship is a choice, and it’s a choice that we need to make, regardless of whether the sun is shining or if the clouds are endlessly gray.

 

The Redmans don’t shy away from engaging the subject of dealing with difficulties in life. They share of their own experiences that caused heartache in their own lives, but they also remind the reader that worship is a choice that we make always, in good times and in bad. While difficult times will come, we also need to celebrate and be thankful during the good times. Our trust in God cannot be circumstantial and based on whatever circumstance we find ourselves. We need to remember his promises and hold on to what we have seen him do in the past.

 

The reader is reminded that things won’t always turn out the way that we would like. Sometimes, our prayers for healing won’t be answered. They write, “In His infinite wisdom and kindness, God may well purpose to bring us healing. But perhaps we will have to wait awhile to see our situation changed. Or perhaps we will never be healed this side of heaven. And if we are not, God hasn’t become any less wise of merciful.” These words are reminiscent of the words of the Hebrew boys before they were cast into the fiery furnace. While they trusted God to save them, they were still willing to believe even if he did not save them.

 

The book offers a helpful reminder of the hope that we need to have in Christ as well. While others may grieve as if death is the end, Christians grieve differently. Loss is marked with hope. They write, “Outside of Christ, many a memorial service or funeral is a groping in the dark – a heavy cloud of grief with no clarity as to what lies beyond it.” The hope of the resurrection should comfort those who are in Christ. Not that it eliminates the loss and pain that is felt, but through the grieving and restoration, we need to remember that this is not the end.

 

Still, we also need to remember that God is God and we are not. There will be times when we will face difficulties without understanding, when the answers are nowhere to be found. The Redmans write, “Yes, there are some things we will never understand while we walk upon this earth. There comes a time when we simply have to submit to the mystery.” As we are reminded by the prophet Isaiah, God’s ways are not our ways, his ways are higher and we may never understand them on this side of eternity. It’s a tension with which we may need to wrestle at some point, a tension that feels uncomfortable, yet which is important for us to understand.

 

The book is composed of just five chapters. It’s not a long book or a difficult read. It seems designed to allow for the reader to quickly move through it, something which is important during the difficult times that we may face. The chapters follow some of the lines of the Redman’s song. Each chapter includes questions for reflection at the end. There is also a discussion guide for small groups included at the end of the book. These are helpful for anyone who wants to use this book as a springboard into a deeper study.

 

Having gone through some difficult times of my own and having experienced some significant losses in my life, I very much appreciate the Redmans’ book. They don’t candycoat the subject or try to over-spiritualize difficulties. They are honest and yet pointed in dealing with the subject of hard times in life. This book is a good resource and source of encouragement, a book that could easily be shared with a friend or loved on going through difficulties without feeling as if you are burdening them with a big book full of heady theology. There’s enough here to bring comfort but not so much that a grieving or struggling person will feel weighed down at the thought of reading it.

 

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Selfless Sacrifice

I’ve been thinking about sacrifice lately. It might be because I’ve been reading and preaching through the Book of Hebrews at my church. It also might be because of the selfless act of a friend of mine that I’ve witnessed.

I have a friend who is an outspoken follower of Jesus. I don’t say that as a derogatory thing at all. He is bold about his faith and he is an inspiration because his faith is not limited to words alone, he lives it out. He lives it out in a big way.

Not too long ago, my friend was thinking about how he could make a difference. Honestly, I think he’s been asking that question a lot. He and his family are always helping others out, serving other people, finding ways to show people the love of Christ. He’s not one to simply sit on the sidelines and wait for opportunities to come to him, he goes out and seeks those opportunities.

He was led back to a mutual friend of ours who had donated a kidney to a friend years ago and began to inquire about the possibility of doing the same thing. While he didn’t necessarily have a friend who needed his kidney, he knew that there were many people out there who were waiting for transplants. He wanted to make a difference.

When I got wind of his plan, I’m not sure what my first reaction was, well, other than grabbing my side and rubbing my abdomen as I thought about what I would do with one less organ rumbling around inside there. I do know that there were many words that came to my mind. Bravery. Selfless. Sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

It’s a word that we generally use when it comes to our veterans and members of our armed forces. They sacrifice themselves for our freedom. Their sacrifice is costly. They may lose life, they may lose limbs, they may lose a lot of things, but they consider it worth it for the benefit of others.

Selfless sacrifice.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s possible to have a sacrifice that isn’t selfless. Of course, the way that some people throw around words, I’m not always sure that we fully grasp exactly what a sacrifice is anyway.

Whenever I think about sacrifice, I am always drawn back to a familiar passage in 2 Samuel. David is king and he wants to build an altar to sacrifice to the Lord. So, he searches for a location and then consults the owner. The owner wants to give David the land but David refuses to take it for free. He says this in 2 Samuel 24:24, “But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.”

Now, David was king, so he had plenty of money. I guess there might be an argument made that David really wasn’t making a sacrifice, but it’s his words that stand out to me. “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

Sacrifice is costly.

I went to see my friend in the hospital after his surgery. I was moved to tears at what he had done. I was moved to tears that his sole motivation was to give God glory in his sacrifice. I was moved to tears because I felt like my friend was more selfless and brave than I ever could be.

I don’t think that we are all called to make the same sacrifices. Frankly, I’m not sure that anyone would ever want my organs as a bunch of them aren’t really functioning well at the present time, but what else is it that I am called to give up, to sacrifice? If I give something up, am I doing it to get accolades and glory for myself or for my God?

Like I said, I know why my friend did what he did. It’s an incredible inspiration, example, and reminder to me that sacrifice is costly. It’s an incredible reminder to me to seek out ways to make a difference, just as my friend is doing. It’s an incredible reminder to me to strive and seek to be more selfless than I am.

As I readied myself to leave his room, I grabbed my friend’s hand and thanked him for being an inspiration. As I walked out of that room, I lifted up another prayer for my friend and his wife, but also for whoever would be the recipient of his sacrifice. Someone else would find new life because of what he was giving up. New physical life. I know that his prayer was that they would find new spiritual life as well, and that’s just what I prayed!

 

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.

Speaking of Now

Having eulogized both of my parents at their respective funerals, I know a little bit of something about speaking words of someone when they’re gone. I consider myself fairly fortunate to have had an open and honest relationship with my parents, enough that not many things were left unsaid between us when they finally died. There were no major regrets felt by me, nothing that I felt I should or shouldn’t have said. Sure, there are always things you wish you could have said more, but I don’t feel like I missed saying anything important to them.

The thing is, while I know they aren’t wasted words, speaking kind memories after someone has gone, they sometimes feel as if they could have been even more significant if the person of whom they are about had been present at the time of their speaking. Like I said, I said all the things that I really needed to say to my parents, but I never stood in front of them and gave them one big tribute the way that I did at their funerals.

It kind of makes you think about the value of words said while people are still alive. Do we reserve the strongest and most powerful words for people once they’ve passed or are we honest with them while they sit across the table, room, computer, or phone line from us? Do we tell them the things that they need to hear or just what they want to hear? Do we encourage them and tell them how much they mean to us?

I’ve had two fairly distinct situations in the last week where encouraging words were spoken over someone who is still here. I shared about one of those experiences the other day, celebrating the 85th birthday of my wife’s grandmother. It was neat to hear the legacy tributes that were shared, the encouragement to her of her faithfulness, devotion, faith, and selflessness. It was probably also great for her to hear those things. While she exudes confidence, I am sure that in her 85 years of life, she’s had some doubts here and there, wondering whether or not all the sacrifices that she was making were really worth the efforts and, well, the sacrifice.

But those words were spoken over her, not over her lifeless body, over her life-filled body with ears that can hear, eyes that can cry, and a brain that can process. Those words will mean the same and still hold their power and strength either way, but they are so much more satisfying to the giver when the receiver can actually hear them.

The other distinct situation was the small birthday gathering of a friend who turned 40. A bunch of guys gathered around a firepit to just talk and hang out. While I had had grand plans of having everyone share stories, I realized in the midst of the time that co-opting it from what it had organically become would have turned it into something that it was not and most likely would have devalued it in some way.

As the time wound down as these men stood around a fire celebrating this brother and friend who is moving into a new decade of his life, the one who was being celebrated looked around the circle and spoke encouraging words over each and every person there. I had to chuckle to myself as I thought, “Wait a minute, this is supposed to be about him, not all of us.” That’s just him though, always wanting to spur others along.

I couldn’t resist co-opting the moment after he had finished his journey of encouragement around that circle. I spoke words over him and we all circled up around him, laid hands on him, and prayed over him. It was a holy and sacred moment, a moment of which you don’t experience many in life. Heaven touched earth and I had a sense that the Father was pleased by what he was seeing.

Not only was the Father pleased, but I am pretty sure that the one who was being celebrated was pleased as well. I think he was glad to have been the recipient of this time and celebration. I think he enjoyed it far more than he would have had he not been there, right?

Words are important. It was a stark reminder to me throughout all of these events, a reminder that I sadly need more than I’d like to admit. We can be quick with words or we can be slow with words. Sometime we wait too long to share them, sometimes we share before we’ve really had the chance to think through just what it is that we plan to say. Either way, words can hurt. In the words of INXS, “Words are weapons, sharper than knives.”

But words can lift up, they can lift us out of the pit, the ash heap on which we currently reside, and carry us up to the mountain, or at least out of the muck and mire in which we find ourselves. It’s important that we share them, especially those encouraging ones, now rather than waiting until tomorrow. After all, none of us knows what today or tomorrow holds.

If you’ve got something to say, say it, don’t wait until it’s too late. The words will be much sweeter for you when they’re shared with someone who can be physically and emotionally present to hear them and appreciate them. Everyone likes to hear an encouraging word, so why not share one today!