Every.Single.Milestone

Yesterday was kindergarten registration and I brought my baby girl to register. Seriously, how did these years go so fast? This is the last one, my baby, my only girl, my princess, which is one reason why it’s that much harder. Sure, she’ll always be “daddy’s girl” but it’s just one of a series of milestones that I just have to get used to, no matter how hard it is.

Compounding the kindergarten registration, it’s just been a rough week. We had some minor issues with our house, nothing unusual or serious, but for some reason, every issue with houses, cars, and family always seems to be monumental when I’m going through it.

My emotional state wasn’t helped at all when a dear family in my church tragically lost their twelve year old grandson…

And it probably also didn’t help things any when I backed our van into my car on Saturday…

Then it was the four year anniversary of my dad’s death on Monday…

Then the father of my oldest son’s friend passed away…

Then another friend was handed a breast cancer diagnosis…

And the hits just keep on coming. But that’s life, right?

In the midst of these moments, the ups and downs, the high points and the low points, I feel the loss of my parents that much more. Just the comfort of hearing my mom’s voice on the other end of the phone and ending our conversation with prayer was a game changer for me. I’m no longer able to benefit from their experiences, other than the ones that they shared with me, which in less than 40 years just doesn’t really seem like much.

But God…

Yup, he’s still there. He is still not surprised by any of this. He still cares. He hasn’t removed himself from the picture. In fact, in the shadow of Easter, we remember that he suffered anguish and pain, that the difficulties of this world are not unfamiliar to him. He walked his own journey, felt his own loss, struggled with his own pain, and wept his own tears.

Sometimes it feels like every single milestone requires an exorbitant amount of strength just to get through or over. It’s like the fatigue that you feel on the last set of your workout. I sometimes feel like the little engine that could, continually reassuring myself with the simple words, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….”

I want those words to be replaced with something about how I know God can, but I’d be lying if I said that those words were always at the top of my list or on the tip of my tongue.

In Bible study the other morning with the eighth grade boys that I mentor the lesson was on Mark 9 and the man whose son was demon possessed. When Jesus asked him how long his son had been like that, the father answered, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

You can just hear the frustration and exhaustion in the man’s voice. He’d probably been to person after person who he’d been told could help his son, only to come to another dead end, another disappointment, another ounce of hope dashed to the ground. I can completely understand his response to Jesus, regardless of whether or not he knew who Jesus was. I’ve been there before, I’ll probably be there again.

But God…

Yes, he’s still there, but sometimes he seems silent. Maybe he’s just speaking softer than we can hear. Maybe we just need to find solitude and quiet in order that we can actually hear him. Maybe he knows better than most people in the midst of dark times and instead of filling the air with empty words and platitudes, he simply offers us his presence, choosing rather to grieve with those who grieve and mourn with those who mourn. God has not left the building and he, in fact, knows how best to minister to us better than anyone else around us, but it’s not through prescribed solutions and quick fix answers.

Life continues to march on. Milestones come and go, registrations happen, sickness happens, loss happens, transitions happen. They are all a sign that things continue to move. We cannot stop the passing of time. 

But we are not alone, nor were we meant to be alone. We have been given the gift of God’s presence, those of us who call ourselves his children. We have been given the gift of the presence of each other, which can sometimes feel more significant because of its tangibility.

As I drove away from the elementary school after registering my daughter, tears welling up in my eyes, my mind jumped to my family’s cross country trip last summer. I thought about the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam and Carlsbad Caverns and New Orleans and Memphis and Los Angeles and Denver and all of the places we went. I thought about the many miles we drove, packed together in a minivan. I thought about the absurd moments that took place, I laughed at the shared moments by which we are all bonded together, and I wondered whether or not my kids have any friends who have dads who are as goofy, inappropriate, and unrefined as me. I thought of all those things……..and I smiled.

How Do I Hold This?

On my way to an appointment yesterday, I got a text message from my wife with an update on the father of one of my son’s friend’s dad. Any time I hear the words, “It’s not good,” I always feel like a boulder gets firmly planted in my gut. My shoulders sag, my heart aches, and I do my best to keep the waterworks from starting. Tears seem inevitable, yet I still try to contain them.

There’s so much hurt, pain, and brokenness. I get so frustrated with those false prophets who say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That’s a load of garbage. I can’t find one place in the Bible where it even remotely says that. In fact, I think it says the opposite, that in this world you will find trouble and that if you choose to follow after Jesus, pain will be part of the journey.

As I sit here feeling the weight of all the stuff swirling around me, I keep asking myself, “How do I hold this?” How do I hold onto hope while standing in the face of turmoil?

I’ve always struggled with those who consider themselves Christians and who talk about an absolute assurance with no doubt. My speculation and cynicism makes me think that they’ve never really experienced anything significantly difficult in their lives to be able to hold to that. I’m not saying that I doubt God, but I certainly wonder about his ways at times.

When you’ve seen a godly man like my father who served God for years as a pastor come to a place of brokenness and defeat in his final years and months, it’s hard to have such bulletproof assurance. Again, hear what I am saying, I still believe, but like the man in Mark 9, I continue to ask God to help my unbelief.

I honestly don’t know how people do it without hope and without faith. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” It’s a heartbreaking read of a father’s letter to his son. But that father has no hope and without hope, it’s hard to just know what to do about the future. What are we sailing towards if we lack hope? How do we step with one foot in front of the other without hope?

In the words of the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The problem is, sometimes I wish that my hope could be founded in something that I could see and even touch. Sometimes I wish that I could get a little glimpse of that hope for myself rather than having to hold onto God’s promises. It’s not that I don’t think that they’re true, it’s just that sometimes you want something a little bit more tangible.

After hearing of some more difficult news this morning, I almost told my friends that I think it’s time for a prayer meeting. What else is there to do?

While it might seem that I am in despair, I’m not. There’s a difference between discouragement and despair. Despair happens when we lose hope, and I haven’t lost it.

I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Bible. Despite the difficulty of the circumstances surrounding him, he still maintained his hope in the Lord when he wrote the following:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

My circumstances and the circumstances of the people around me don’t need to dictate my response to them. If those things bring me to my knees, then they draw me closer to the One who holds all these things in his hand…..so that I don’t have to.

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!