heavy.

At my desk chair, moving the baffle a few more inches down the fabric in my machine, I see purposeful footsteps arrive at my cubicle. My coworker and good buddy gave me the news of Chester Bennington’s death. In the weeks that would follow in tribute covers of Crawling, Numb, and Points of Authority by esteemed musical counterparts, and even by Coldplay, the world seemingly devolved further into chaos with Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean swallowed in the literal undertows of record breaking hurricanes. Between those events, lions at the gate in the current political coliseum foamed at the mouth over the events of Charlottesville, and my old high school experienced an explosion that caused two deaths and multiple injuries. Culminating in the events of last weekend, a close family member of mine tragically passed in an accident. As I’ve had the time, particularly in the intentional silence of that same cubicle, to process it all, I can’t help but feel the heaviness of these events.

I don’t write this touting a bulleted list of resolutions that rest the aforementioned events and circumstances peacefully, it’s more of a memorial, observing the antinome between good, evil, joy, peace, good times, and bad times.

When I was in high school, my confirmation classmates and I were given Bibles with our names stamped in gold on the bottom left corner of its imitation blue leather with a date penned on the inside of receiving. Ephesians was accidentally ripped out, is stained with root beer and has seen a lot of wear and tear. Between the inroads of its aesthetic imperfections lies all my notes scribbled within one of the most celebrated yet confusing books of the Old Testament…

Ecclesiastes.

This (seemingly) despondent epistle is a collection of grievances that air out Solomon’s tension between a world where we can simultaneously enjoy the ingots of meals, friends, laughter (3:22; 8:15) and the malfeasance of unexplained suffering and inevitability of death (2:22; 7:15-18). By the time its 11 chapter run time takes a bow, Solomon never arrives at a triumphant conclusion on the matter. Instead, he’s okay with understanding that trying to reach such conclusions is, “vanity.” As if he’s saying that holding the tension is healthier than trying to dissect meanings beyond our human intellect and heart capacity. Similarly, his exhortation reminds me that my finite consciousness and understanding of God is unable to adequately explain why Linkin Park’s lead singer left behind a wife, six kids, and his band at the hands of his own suicide. It cannot rationalize natural disasters or demonstrations of racism. It cannot anymore undo my high school’s tragedy or bring back my Uncle Morgan’s jovial personality, laughter, and his Forrest Gump impression.

My mind asks a question that Chester Bennington sang near the end of his life… “Why is everything so heavy?” On an album that polarized long time fans of their previous work, Heavy, takes a sharp musical departure from its nu metal roots, but with Bennington’s passing, it has the ambiance of a funeral dirge when you listen to his musings about a life down-turned. Much like Solomon, Bennington never reaches a peaceful close in this song, giving it the smack of a personal lamentation.

I’m sure we’ve all cogitated a similar thought of why is everything so heavy when our worlds begin to show signs of buckling (as tragedy has its tendency to do) when reason arrives nowhere near our desired destinations. I have in the last week and especially when I hear the chorus echo those thoughts like a call and return. Yet, when I think back on how Uncle Morgan’s lively personality made family gatherings that much more vibrant, how Minnehaha Academy is moving forward with confidence into this school year, the humanitarian response to the said natural disasters, and the legacy of Bennington’s art on a generation of musicians, I remember once again that my explanations will ultimately draw blanks when I try to put a punctuation at the end of it…

And that’s ok with me.

My conclusion that I can confidently draw is that God’s ways and thoughts are higher, perfectly developed, and good in contrast to mine (Isaiah 55:8-9). Putting those verses through the parallax of my family’s recent turn of events, I am resolute that I could spend time bargaining somehow to hear Uncle Morgan talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers or help polish the heads on his Alfa Romeo one last time, but Solomon would tell me that time is better spent acknowledging that life is what the original Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, translates as “vapor.” It’s short enough, but life can be truncated by tragedy. I will carry the memories with me in suitcases, through photographs, and stories shared with family as the best of ways to celebrate a life lived passionately. In the mean time, Solomon does give us counsel to relish the tokens of joy we can tangibly experience through fellowship with other people… I feel like things such as a good meal with friends around the table, laughter, sunsets, early morning coffee, and a good walk are places to start to honor his life and honor the God who loves. If there is any conclusion I can draw in all of this, it’s knowing that when tossed and fro by the waves that James paints in his New Testament letter, I have that same resolve and confidence that his brother Jesus is in the hull of the ship calming the swells (Mark 4:35-41), ferrying me through to the peace that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

 

 

Advertisements

welcome, ghosts.

This morning, I handed in my keys to the administrative assistant’s office, humorously nodding my head to our high school pastor, but knowing that this transaction symbolizes the passing of an era in my life. My internship is over. The last two years of transformation as a young man looks into a mirror adorned with a couple of cracks around the edges and even a few small pieces missing (given that I am still a work in progress), but ultimately when I meditate on the reflection I see, that person is unrecognizable in the best way possible. It reminds me of how Jesus’ brother, James, cogitates a similar yet opposite thought when he says that a man whose faith doesn’t follow with action is like someone who looks in the mirror and forgets what he looks like when he returns to it (James 1:23). I’d like to think after all this time, the last two years have shown me the art of living that exhortation, because the word of God truly transforms its reader upon further investigation (2nd Timothy 3:16) and the people I’ve encountered have given me God-ordained moments to practically apply those truths – never with every opportunity taken or followed through, but always with conviction and always greater grace. I could not have thought of a better landscape than Celebrate Recovery to let God grow gardens where we all blossomed as a whole. For two years I saw beauty and tragedy come together in the same room, reconcile, divide, bring together, split, and ultimately live under God’s control. For two years, I saw and felt victory, defeat, joy, grief, and the whole spectrum of human emotion. I truly lived and led in a place where we let ourselves air out on the line for the world to see, warts and all. And I would never trade any of the experiences this internship provided for any salary that a corporate position could have otherwise afforded me, never done differently. Everything in between emotional poles allowed for God to grow my character and something of a call in my life.

The malaise of transition feels very real in a way I wasn’t expecting. As one chapter is closing, another one is beginning with God, the architect, author, and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2) putting pen to paper in a language of sovereignty I don’t understand. Commenting on Pastor Mark Driscoll’s truncated pastoral leadership at Mars Hill Church, theologian John Piper, made a point to recognize that above and beyond circumstance is, YHWH – the kind of general who is not taken aback or shaken by changing landscapes on the battlefield, and the king who is still on the throne. The power of such analogy translates well in this phase of my life where the blueprints of my future feel like an outline. As an analytic, critical thinker, the shadowy open ended-ness of the next year and a half makes me bristle, because I find security in the details. Starving this hunger for knowledge and loosening a death grip on this life that’s in transition (as appropriately observed by Relient K’s, Matt Thiessen) is admittedly not easy for someone like me to do. But if traversing Proverbs has taught me anything, the counsel of many like my parents, mentor figures, roommates, and close friends are all channels that the Lord communicates through in the foray of static like a shepherd whispering to its sheep amidst the world orbiting into tomorrow. Jesus had choice words in Matthew 6 about what tomorrow holds and how no one can add a single hour to their lives by worrying about the ephemeral (Matthew 6:27) – clothing, food, other basic provisions, or best laid plans that aren’t a guarantee in the arena of God’s ultimate plan. Many of my decisions about finances, employment, and even what I decide to do in my spare time are all adjuvant to and influence what comes next for me…

Graduate school.

I tentatively begin Bethel Seminary’s Marriage and Family Therapy program in Minneapolis in September 2018 in the pursuit of licensure and wanting to counsel young men, couples, and families through the throes of reverberating sexual addiction issues in a family system. I am excited to turnover a new page, absorb God’s word, theory, practice, and let Jesus usher in a new phase of life in the world of tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

As I’m experiencing, “tomorrow” can feel like an unwelcome ghost when it overstays its welcome in our daily schedules, reprioritized responsibilities, the shifting cadence of social rhythms, and eclipses the demands of today. In writing this, I revisited through Explosions In the Sky’s 2007 release, All of A Sudden I Miss Everyone – a nod to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, rich with post rock bravado on a more cinematic scale than its predecessor – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. By contrast to the latter, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone instrumentally belabors at drawing out a different set of emotions that feel more urgent by virtue of how the music sky rockets into catharsis, slows down, and (for lack of a better term) explodes into those same twinkled tremolos. I hear songs like Welcome Ghosts and feel the parallels of emotions that swell as I think of what is around the corner in my life and calm when I remember to be content and at peace with my identity in Jesus.

Much like the music and much like the book of Psalms (a timely an primary source of scripture in recent months), our emotions can swell and crash on the shores in these flush, orchestral-like narratives that are ultimately under the control of our ultimate conductor and Heavenly Father. He keeps count of our tossings (Psalm 56:8), and keeps us in the shadow of His wings as we navigate the unknown (Psalm 17:8). When I remember those truths, I can remember to welcome the ghost of tomorrow’s challenges as I meditate and live in the today.

I’m learning to take in the ordinary, understanding that though my life is coming about on a turn at a break in the wood, there is still life to be lived within this next year and a half in the here and now. So much of it is to be celebrated: Putting my shoulder into my faith all the more, transitioning leadership, keeping my feet planted in my current community, working full time, financially investing well (adulting), pouring into the lives of cherished friends, and vice versa being poured into. Allowing myself as Gandalf the White commented, a deep breath before the plunge. The challenge is keeping hands open to the changes, feet planted in the security of my identity, and my head looking up towards my Creator in what Tom Eccleshall of Kings Cross Worship calls, the state of flux.

A previous post I wrote in observance of the calendar year still reminds me to sing into the storm when skies blacken and tides shift. Clouds aren’t foreboding on the horizon, but the tides are shifting and the winds ahead are signaling change, so my prayer is that my simple song will remain and sustain with a more maturing tone as I exist in this pocket for the time being.

born & raised.

I came to this sobering realization as I sat on my mattress after a full day of working at the coffee house last Thursday night – I feel a little bit older. My Spotify account accompanied my thoughts as I laid down reminiscing on the last year of life and now soaking in the gift of the last five days between family and friends coming down to celebrate my birthday with me.

I’ve been a John Mayer fan since early high school when my siblings turned me onto his seminal record, Continuum. I know some people pass off later albums like Born and Raised as a wrinkle in time compared to older material from his prime and youth, but I think this record’s polar departure from the contemporary suave of Battle Studies parallels Mayer’s personal fall from grace or as he, himself coined it in an interview with Ellen Degeneres, “a violent crash into adulthood.”

Mayer coming to terms with his own charlatan persona printed in the ink of Rollingstone and Playboy shines through in Born and Raised, because I hear him singing about something more esoteric in contrast to drunken one night stands. Instead, I hear him reflecting on the areas of his life that actually matter – longing for something more intimate like slowing down, rethinking his goals, wanting to be closer to family, and heal. In my opinion, the newly introduced Americana flourishes and his nod to classic singer songwriters of the 1970’s provide the perfect soundtrack to Mayer’s lamenting of his youth. It’s honest. Real. It’s a pool of resonance that allows me to wade in similar waters when I reach this milestone of my mid twenties and look in the rear view. Not to say that I’m pining or lamenting the past – quite the opposite.

According to many I’ve conversed over this with in recovery, birthdays can be painful mile markers that remind us of how the soles of our feet still burn from walking through our own personal hell. It can leave us with wounds that ache in the third degree, but as I learned at 23, God can’t show through our blistering skin without those burns. At this age, this is how I look at the blemishes and acne scarring on my face, the slight crook in my front teeth, and the cuts on my hands from working in the restaurant industry through college. They have stories to tell from certain epochs of my formative years that remind me of what wilderness God led me through. In fact, I’ve grown to like how they feel and fit within my own skin. The same goes for everything I experienced in 22 years previous that I once thought should be left to slowly rot in my memory bank. 23 was the first year where I didn’t see February 17th (or the other 364 days) as a day to pine for a clean spiritual/emotional rap sheet.

Now, 24 has set in and feels a bit different in its own light, but in the best way. I’m applying for grad school, gratefully taking on responsibility in this internship, looking forward to continue investing in my friendships both new and old, family, and faith… plus I’m filing my own taxes this year. Never have I ever felt more like an adult. This new reality replays lines from the title track of Born and Raised where Mayer sings, ‘Cause one of these days, you’ll be born and raised and it all comes on without warning. Between that and reflecting on the memories made in a year marked by God’s gracious gift of sobriety, I can say that never have I ever felt more like and adult, more content with where life is right now, or where God is leading it at 24.

My heart is full.

Through the Holy Spirit using the best friends, family, and support as vessels to challenge and encourage me in my walk through navigating the mechanics of my faith in young adulthood, I can say that 23 was the best. To anyone who ever came over for PlayStation battles, threw down in board games, went out for late night T-Bell runs, prayed, did Bible study, wept, laughed, hiked, went to shows, road tripped, attended conferences, seminars, and spent time in the margins or monotony with me…

Thank you.

At this point I do honestly feel a bit older in navigating the intricacies of the real world, but when I take a step back and remember those tangible silhouettes of God’s grace and provision from this last year, I remember the world is not a cold, dead place. Whether you’re celebrating a birthday or a slow Tuesday, cherish the little things in the moment and keep perspective when the waves of hectic schedules, classes, and work crash on the shores of our intimacy with our Heavenly Father. After all, Jesus said in His sermon on the mount, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own [Matthew 6:34].”

 

 

 

tragedy will find us.

After a couple good naps, lunch breaks with coworkers, and plenty of Settlers of Catan throwdowns, the first couples of days of a new year are over. I’ve been one for resolutions before, but not in a triumphant way. Many of them were epithets about “this being the year” I would shed the skin of my addiction for good but doing so by avoiding the pain of putting my life under the surgical knife of the Great Physician in John 5. I made few unsubstantial goals since then to preserve the guilt of not following through on them, but as I have been blessed by God’s grace to be in a time of my life where I have enjoyed the fruits of sobriety, recovery, and transformation, the new year shines in different shades, now. Small, measurable goals seem to be the most logical of any resolutions I’ve seen people be successful with, but even those are still subject to some kind of failure in a calendar year. As a result, I figured it’s meaningless to even try. But, this is where grace is key.

I hear a lot of commentary about God’s grace, but I’m going to pull at this string and say we don’t understand the depth of its definition on a cultural level. It’s not like we can fully comprehend it to begin with (hence, the scandal of grace), but there’s always two sides to every coin. I think it’s easy and moving to lift our hands in praise to God for the incomprehensible mystery of His unending grace, but how often do we understand that it’s built on something to be given grace from? I get caught in this current time and time again. Without acknowledging the inevitability of personal suffering down the corridor of a week, a month, or when we pen new year’s resolutions, grace is devalued and cheapened. The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 6 – What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? New years resolutions are made to be broken. It’s not a matter of if we will break a resolution, but when. It’s not a matter if there will be difficulty, but how. It’s not a matter of if we will unintentionally hurt someone relationally, but whom. The difference is how we respond to it when our faith is tossed and fro by the winds as said by Jesus’ brother James (1:1-6). Grace is anti venom for hurting hearts, wounded emotions, frail spiritual devotions, and those broken resolutions. But, should we stop making resolutions to preserve ourselves from feeling bad about it? By no means!

In 2015, Canadian hardcore vanguards, Counterparts, released their most commercially successful and emotionally revealing body of work yet, Tragedy Will Find Us. Soldering the melodic veracity of post-hardcore from the early 2000’s, modern metal, and a dash of punk grit, Counterparts have a handful of powerful albums that prove themselves to have gusto in a scene that lead singer, Brendan Murphy, himself coins as a “congregation of outcasts” – the amalgam of a socially conscious, dissatisfied vector of young people, searching for something bigger and outside of themselves. I have power stomped and screamed my way through the bridge of songs like, Outlier, probably half a million times when my roommates have been gone. I have air drummed my way through supercharged passages on songs like Withdrawal and have head banged through the melodic haze of Tragedy countless times as well. I’ve reviewed them on this blog before, but they’ve ascended the ranks in my favorites list after a couple years of taking in their last two records. Tragedy Will Find Us is a half hour burn book that illustrates a crestfallen period of the lead singer’s life coming off tour between their previous record, The Difference Between Hell and Home. Murphy’s lyrical content has always been kind of standoff-ish, but this new record is way more uncompromising. The underlying themes of despair and brokenness have silver linings of some sort. Because, according to Murphy, the ten songs on Tragedy Will Find Us is a collective recognition that difficulty is unavoidable and we have to find some kind of strength to move learn and move past such circumstances. On this album, Murphy muses the existence of God and His role in suffering. Going back to the idea of grace, I believe God works in suffering to produce something that we cannot see with the tunnel vision we often have in trials as further reflected through Paul – Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4). Pastor John Piper says it well…

Not only is your affliction momentary, not only is your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all if it is totally meaningful. Every millisecond of your pain from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that. I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism… slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. It’s doing something… of course you can’t see what it’s doing.

This new-year, I have a new resolution echoed by Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman…

Sing into the storm.

Face trials as they come along and see them as learning opportunities that sharpen me like iron on iron in Proverbs 27:17.

Though, this sounds morbid and fatalistic, we should remember that in darkness, light pierces through with even more power and luminescence. I look forward to future plans unfolding prepared by God’s work in the previous year, the gift of continuing to invest in friendships both here and far, growing in sobriety, leadership, and even to the storm clouds on horizons I can’t see right now. By intentionally sailing into and not spiritually circumventing them in my cocoon, the Holy Spirit will never put wind in our sails to serve others, to invest in others, to sacrificially love others.

Though tragedy will find us, Jesus will meet us there to pick us up, put wind back in our sails, and inspire us to keep loving and serving when storm clouds blacken.

of dust & nations.

I was at a best friend’s wedding this weekend, sitting down at the head table with three other guys in identical grey tuxedos, black Vans, and beards feasting on a sirloin and mashed potato entrée. Even better? It was in the aquarium at the Minnesota Zoo – there was a seal, whom we affectionately named, Kevin Paul, acrobatically spinning behind us as one of my buddies from back home asked us our favorite cover songs. My answer… a rendition of Of Dust and Nations by Thrice as performed by British modern metal vanguards, Architects. The recent death of their lead guitar player and cofounder, Tom Searle, gives their newest release, All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us, the tone of a funeral dirge by nailing insane guitar work, apocalyptic production, shredding vocals from Sam Carter, and politically supercharged lyricism into their band mate’s coffin (Also, if you want the nastiest riff-age you’ve EVER heard in your life, go listen to Gravedigger and thank me later). As I began to go through earlier records of theirs, I stumbled upon this Thrice cover on their re-release of Daybreaker. I was totally taken aback by how an already awesome song was given a post hardcore facelift. It’s a lyrically powerful track penned by Dustin Kensrue with vulgar imagery taken straight out of Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew 6 where He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” The song is a reminder that our earthly possessions, ambitions, ans personal empires are footnotes from an eternal perspective. In other words, we have to look at life from a different lens. Listening to that song on the heels of being in a season waiting for what God has on the other end of my internship, and breathing in the ashes from incendiary political/cultural conversations, made me think of something…

Perspective is a lovely hand to hold (Side note, there’s a band by this name I found on Spotify. I wonder if they’re as big of fans of Relient K’s Forget and Not Slow Down as I am, because if so, and their name references that record, they’re now my favorite).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been traveling back and forth to Minneapolis for a seminar put on by Come&Live! ministries and my buddy’s wedding, both of which are somehow connected through my home church in the Twin Cities. I met my now married best friend at its Eden Prairie campus and their new plant in Minneapolis housed the seminar I went to. So, in the time that I’ve sojourned back to Bloomington, I decided to check out this new Minneapolis satellite campus piqued with a curiosity about the racial/income/cultural melting pot it’s serving. The lessons learned on those two Sunday mornings retread territory charted throughout this year in a journey through recovery and yes… this election cycle. The rotation of campus pastors began a new teaching series, Bad Times, Good God – an expositional survey of the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk.

Habakkuk is written in a turbulent time during Israel’s monarchy. With the transitioning of kings that take its own people down a road of pagan worship and neglect of the law handed down by Moses centuries before, God’s chosen people and their prosperity have become truncated by neighboring pagan rival, Babylon, and their military prowess. So, in penance for Israel sinning against each other and to God over the course of generations, He allows Babylon to capture, enslave, and divide the kingdom (as foretold in 1st Samuel when the monarchy is established) before restoring them.

In layman’s terms… Israel is screwed.

Habakkuk then tries to make sense of it all. Throughout its 3 chapters, you see Habakkuk beg God to spare the kingdom from its impending doom and give an answer to a bigger question that percolates thousands of years later…

Why does an all-powerful God allow suffering to continue?

(Pastor Dale’s sermon is below for reference)

I know this is opening a can of worms, but I’m choosing to answer this in the context of Habakkuk’s predicament. I don’t want to try and ubiquitously answer that for things like natural disasters, family members with cancer, and dying children in the Syrian civil war. Pastor Dale proceeded to give an anecdote about being a teenager and hating his parents at points of disagreement or when he was punished for something wrong. He said most of us probably knew what it was like to be that age and bristle at being disciplined. Yet, our parents didn’t kick us out, they still fed us, and loved us. The difference is that they, as parents, understand the big picture. Our parents discipline us, because they know what lies in the peripheries of our decision-making. Their maturity allows them to see consequences of our actions that we can’t in the moment. It translates well to God’s reply to Habakkuk in Chapter 1, verses 5 through 11 which is echoed by Paul in Hebrews 12:7. Pastor Kyle picked up the baton this week by talking about Habakkuk “watching from the ramparts” (Chapter 2, verse 1) as God replies, And the LORD answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Basically, God says he will reveal that to us in His timing and with the right sentiment that will make perfect sense in its revelation. But, it’s hard when we have tunnel vision and can’t see beyond the current circumstances. Pastor Kyle concluded that we need a broader view “from the ramparts.” We need perspective to understand that bigger picture alluded to by Pastor Dale’s application of this scripture.

The recovery process reveals the ugliness of sin in Technicolor. The twelve steps give this kaleidoscopic portrait of how corrupted our character is, yet provides a glimpse of all our good qualities these issues steal from us. Through that, I had to come to an arresting conclusion that my tendency to be selfish was beyond control. It drove everything. I took what paid dividends in relationships, work, and with God, neglecting the rest as if it was expendable. Jesus had to perform surgery as The Great Physician (John 5), taking a scalpel to a heart of stone that is now flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), but that process didn’t come easy. It still isn’t. It took days, upon weeks, and now years of daily, conscious decisions to crucify my desires in exchange for trying to understand the person sitting across from me in Celebrate Recovery, small group, leadership meetings, game nights, and dinner outtings with friends.

James uses strong language in his letter when he says, God opposes the proud (James 4:6). The first line in Of Dust and Nations reads, “The towers that shoulder your pride, the words you’ve written in stone… sand will cover them, sand will cover you.” Both serve as sobering reminders that pride and selfishness are tenants of our innate, human fragility. They’re symptoms of a soul virus that can be remedied by humility, which is prescribed through God’s handiwork in Ephesians 2. James ends his stanza in chapter 4 with… “but He gives grace to the humble.” It begins with taking perspective – and perspective is only won in a battle with self, where war must be raged on our own selfishness. It’s a radical shift in mindset to look to the interest of others above our own (Philippians 2:4), but I find that each conversation I have with someone about what makes them laugh, what gets them up every morning, keeps them up late at night, and their journeys in faith produce brick and mortar that builds bridges closer to Jesus. Those bridges create safe passage for the gospel to be discussed in rivers that rage over politics, religion, race, and cultural values (though those conversations are undoubtedly messy).

Furthermore, in this season of waiting on God to sketch in the blueprints of what happens after my internship next June, I’ve been looking from the ramparts having to remember that even if it feels like I’m staring into nothing or waiting on him for an answer, God has a view from 30,000 feet that I don’t from this vantage point. He is slowly placing brushstrokes in the right places that will eventually translate in my life’s canvas and I’m content in knowing that what exists in the here and now makes perfect sense in His perfect will. I’m going to take such a time as opportunity to see what God is teaching me about Him through the hands and feet of His people that are in my life right now – making the perspectives of my (our) friends with different family dynamics, theological convictions, diametric political views, and even the ones who don’t even believe in God all the more valuable (to us all). Pastor Kyle said this comes from, “Praying to get God’s ear and reading to gain God’s heart” as coined by theologian, Charles Spurgeon. Through all those things, Jesus does what Dustin Kensrue and Sam Carter sang about.. “pulling the fangs from my heel“… putting my “faith in more than steel.”

(un)answered.

Massachusetts hardcore quintet, Defeater, recently released an album called, Abandoned – a visceral 40 minute epistle about a Catholic priest coping with grisly experiences while attached to an infantry unit in Europe during World War II through the abuse of alcohol. Consequently, this character feels distanced from God as he struggles to reconcile the horrible things he has seen, the choices he’s making, and trying to be the spiritual leader he needs to be – out of ammunition and cowering in a spiritual foxhole, waiting for God to answer his cries for help. The album’s concept ties into a meta-narrative that weaves throughout Defeater’s entire discography about a blue collared family from New Jersey in the 1950’s swallowed by tides of drug abuse and murder. According to the band, this album is a topical tangent written to outlet their struggles in believing in God. The angst shines bright through songs like Unanswered

11542085_10153905563592119_1150329397823165649_n
Abandoned – Defeater. Epitaph Records.

I was a good man once, I was a good man once.
But years of unanswered prayers have left me faithless.
I was a good man once but now hopeless and abandoned.
I was a good man once, I was a good man once.
But years of serving in hell have left me faithless.
I was a good man once but now hopeless and abandoned.
Now hopeless and abandoned.
Hopeless and abandoned.

Doesn’t that sound like a familiar mantra in many of our spiritual lives?

I think it’s interesting how much social commentary prayer receives and Defeater is one of many examples I’ve seen and heard. In season 4 of Boy Meets World, Sean Hunter, begs God to save his father figure/mentor/English teacher that slipped into a coma from a motorcycle accident. Jason Street castigates his girlfriend in Friday Night Lights for praying healing over his paralysis from a tackle gone wrong in the series pilot. Prolific country artist Garth Brooks peacefully reconciles unanswered prayers in a song of the same title calling them “some of God’s greatest gifts.” Others like Mitch Lucker of Suicide Silence musically riot over prayer on the band’s debut record, The Cleansing, where in torment he screams on yet another song of the same title, “How much must I curse your name and put your beliefs to shame before you prove yourself and end this life? And I’ll say a ****ing prayer, because I know it won’t be answered, where is your god? Where is your ****ing god?” Prayer, or our attitudes about it, reveals a lot about us. Though all these examples are anecdotal, they all press into an intimate topic that muses how we see God. In fact, Christian poet, George Herbert, calls prayer a “natural human instinct” that we default to in distress. Prayer may be comforting, sometimes it’s even painful, and other times it draws blanks.

Pastor Tim Keller wrote a book on prayer that I’ve been leafing through in the last month or so. I first picked it up at my roommate’s brother’s apartment in the North side of Chicago while on a short vacation and when I returned to Winona, I checked out a copy from the public library. There’s a lot of historical exposition from early church practices, famous theologian’s commentary, and scriptural based application of prayer as a discipline – all of which has offered valuable perspective.

In this book, Keller often looks to the example of Paul – a guy who survived and even thrived multiple imprisonments (Ephesians), shipwreck (Acts 27), poverty (Philippians 4), and a mysterious lingering ailment (2nd Corinthians 12). In a sermon series about prayer from the early 2000’s, Keller references David expressing ruthless honesty. The psalms are laced with illustrations (Psalm 3, 51) of a guy who has the baggage of an affair/murder caper and a rebellious son of his who wants the crown and to kill him. Both examples are derivatives of Jesus’ demonstration of how powerful prayer is. I could go on long tangents about the awesomeness and depth of Keller’s work, but here is the bottom line I learned…

David, Paul, and Jesus offered their everything and nothing to God. When times were good, they offered praise and thanksgiving for provision. Under taxing circumstances they brought their fears to the feet of God, trusting He will make all things right.

So should we.

When writing this post, I cracked open an old journal I bought from Target at the beginning of my junior year in college. In it, I’ve scratched down sermon notes from college group on Monday nights, Sunday mornings, entries pouring through break ups, moments of joy, retreats,  a twelve step group, and leafed through almost three years worth of prayer requests. Its pages are stained, have rips, wrinkles, and a tattered, sticker covered, brown, leather cover. There are even sketches and a few laughs laced in between. It’s like that journal breathes. It brings back memories of prayer meetings, deep conversations with the people I care for, processing the recurrence of anxiety, and sorting out my shortcomings.

One of my favorite quotes in Keller’s book is when he said, “Prayer—though it is often draining, even an agony—is in the long term the greatest source of power that is possible.”Airing out my dirty laundry in those coffee stained pages traversed a lot of emotional landscape. I went on this odyssey back to my junior year of college that told the story of someone struggling with addiction and anxiety. Much like Defeater’s overtures… I was a “good man” once, but years of unanswered prayers to ease insecurity left me hopeless and abandoned. That kid experienced something profound, because after I finally took hold of the hand God extended to me in rescue, something changed. I cared about others for the first time. I saw God in the sublime – a cooked meal on my table, a bed to sleep in, friendships, and moments of laughter. Looking back on those entries, I saw the narrative of a guy who was scared. I was beginning to face systemic, lifelong issues that I wasn’t sure how to deal with, but all I knew is that my encounter with Jesus resorted me to lift these fears up in prayer. Those were not easy. Like Keller said… draining. Even agonizing. They haven’t really gotten any easier with time, but God has taught me through recovery that prayerfully processing the good, bad, and ugly is where I’ve experienced the most peace and gained the most perspective.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. It’s the story of a widow begging a godless, tenacious judge to give her justice in her case against someone who wronged her. Eventually, the judge agrees when he is burdened by the widow’s willingness to plead her case over and over again. Jesus says in verses 6 through 8, “And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Most importantly, the first verse in this parable says, “Then, Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Keller echoes this in his book, saying, “The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.

When I began to see prayer as a conversational dialogue with God and let Him (and others) in, prayer became easier. Easier. Not perfect. It’s a hard learned discipline that I’m still sharpening. I don’t want this to come across like I have this together and keep a strict schedule…. it’s sometimes very sporadic. But, I have been learning the value in keeping this line of divine communication open and active. I don’t know how many people can truly say they’re content with their prayer life. I’ve known a few and I’m definitely not one of them, but it’s part of the process in God operating on me. Letting the Holy Spirit surgically remove my character defects through conviction, counseling, support groups, vulnerability, and prayers of confession and praise has been part of this healing process. I am still learning patience. God giving me a “later” doesn’t embitter me anymore, but it can still be frustrating when I’m desperate for an answer. Hence, the persistence echoed by Jesus in Luke 18. Years of what I thought was unanswered prayers was God forging me in fire.

God wants us to enter into something intimate and vulnerable with Him. I cannot guarantee that God will grant you or I something like a promotion, a spouse/relationship, or even happiness, etc. but I can say from experience and from what scripture promises, is that prayer will change how we see temptation, trial, and even the smallest moments of joy. It’s like wearing a new corrective lens. Things become sharper. Clearer. James 5:16 is one of Celebrate Recovery’s most cherished passages and one I would share with anyone…. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

 

 

 

 

 

 

finished people.

Last November, I attended a one-day Catalyst conference hosted by Grace Church in Eden Prairie with the interns and select staff from Pleasant Valley. It was a great day to absorb pragmatic, Biblical knowledge from skilled communicators and experienced pastors from all over the country. Later that evening, a couple of us stuck around for Provoke and Inspire – a seminar put on by Come & Live and Steiger Ministries, both of whom equip and disciple artists as they hone their craft and message. Soon after one of my musical heroes, Mattie Montgomery, spit fire out of Isaiah 6, a guy named Chad Johnson took the mic. I didn’t know who he was, but I was captivated as I listened to him talk about a radical prayer life he developed after being told by a multiple strangers that the Lord would lead him into a seismic career change. At one point, my buddy Zach leaned over and asked me if I knew who the guy was. It turns out that Chad was the A&R of a metal and hardcore label called, Tooth and Nail Records that had a premiere roster of legendary bands – some of whom are still my favorites today. Some of Chad’s stories of transforming prayer involved a band called, Sleeping Giant. Over the years, their name had come up before in hearsay during conversations with friends of mine who are also metal and hardcore enthusiasts, but were unfortunately, not that favorable. So, under that impression, I avoided listening to them. Fast forwarding to last week, I was adding more music to a couple of Spotify playlists, when I ran across them again as a recommended artist under Gideon. Thinking back to the stories Chad Johnson was telling combined with the positive buzz I heard about their last record, Finished People, I gave some of it a listen….

Turns out this thing is a collection of BANGERS.The mix hits like a crowbar and is lyrically powerful! Funny enough, Will Putney, whom I praised in the last album review collection I posted in March was the man behind the mastering of this record – and it shows! The grit of the guitar tones, bass, kick drums, and even the smallest of hi hat taps are captured in a fierce package. Lead singer, Tommy Green, also writes honest, raw lyrics about Jesus showing up in the most barren of places that we write off. As I began doing some more investigating about this record on Youtube and band interviews throughout the web, I ran across this video.

I got goosebumps and teared up watching this the first time.

“I follow a master and he says I never give up on anybody… If he hadn’t wiped my record clean, I belong with them and He forgave me. And He’s a forgiving God, He is so good. And I think it’s our responsibility to not get comfortable, but to remember the ones on the bottom…. those are my people. Those are your people. We are all finished people.

Right now, the intern year is wrapping up at my church, summer is on the horizon, and we will be spending the next few months in reflection – fine tuning programs, planning,  gearing up volunteers/ourselves for the forthcoming fall, and bathing it all in prayer. I know many of my friends are in finals right now (best of luck!) and I consider this is to be one of my final assessments for this year. I can confidently say it’s been an amazing 12 months of growth that was catapulted by God allowing me to step into an environment where I can experiment with and teeth out my passions, abilities, and gifts in the company of incredible people who are passionate about the work of Jesus. This time of self-discovery has given me a lot of insight about how the Lord is molding me and I think part of that is the result of being in recovery. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin and seeing the blemishes I have as part of my testimony rather than embarrassing scars to cover with good works.

Participation in Celebrate Recovery on Friday nights and in step group has taught me a lot about the heart God has for people at the bottom – for the people who live with the feeling of living in the trap doors beneath rock bottom at the stranglehold of narcotic abuse and other addictions, domestic violence, anger, mental health issues, and imprisonment. I can recall Friday nights where people have come through the front doors carrying the baggage of multiple lifetimes worth of pain and suffering. With sunken eyes and fractured spirits, they sit down in the student ministry center for large group and you can see it in their facial expressions. They’re hurting. They feel as if they’ve run out of chances and that the world has closed the door on them, locked it, and put yellow do not cross tape around it. They feel like finished people.

Though Tommy Green talks specifically about prison in this video, I think we can all think of a time when we were imprisoned by our own bitterness, insecurity, shortcomings, addictions, and broken relationships. Maybe prison has been something you’ve experienced. Biblical heroes like Paul wrote whole New Testament letters in cell blocks! He says in 1st Corinthians 15 that if Christ was not raised for the dead then were are to be pitied among all men and we are without any hope. He even called it, the first importance. I read a verse like that and remember that without the grace and forgiveness of a loving God who wiped my record clean – separating my sins like David said in Psalm 103 as far as the east is from the west, I would have taken a wrong turn at the fork and crashed my car in the fog of addiction.

We talk a lot in Celebrate Recovery that step one in recovery is snapping back to reality and addressing denial. If we truly had a handle on everything, we wouldn’t have a need for the ministry to exist. Quite honestly, we wouldn’t need God either. In Romans chapter 7, Paul talks about the conflict he has of wanting to do the right thing, but the internal conflict he has with God and the fallibility of his human nature fails him…. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

We are all finished people…

But God isn’t finished with us.

There is no greater honor that I have as an intern, roommate, friend, son, and brother to see people pick up their crosses and rise above their hurts, habits, and hangups. Seeing the transformation in people’s lives this year has been incredible and evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, but the most awesome moments for me are the ones where people begin to first believe that there’s life on the other end of it all. The conversations I have when the wheels begin to turn in people’s minds and hearts that there is hope are the moments that remind me of why I do what I do. Progress happens in the minute details. They occur in the margins of our lives, the small decisions, and “minor” tweaks in our attitudes, routines, and schedules. Those build up in capitol to big decisions that will be made well when push comes to shove. I love being front row for those decisions in the lives of people at Celebrate Recovery, my church, family, and friends. It’s one of the best things I get to carry with me as a reminder of what the Lord has done this year and what He has in store next year as well. Those moments remind me that those are God’s people, therefore they are my people. And I’m in the trenches with them.

Philippians 1:2 says, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” I am a work progress that has only been made possible when I came to the transforming conclusion that without Jesus I am a finished person – hardened and unaware of the collateral damage I was causing. I have the honor in being part of a community where we are comfortable opening those padlocked, tightly secured, and taped off doors to God and each other. It may come at different points for everyone and random bones from the skeletons we keep in there may stumble out, but there is no more satisfying feeling to see someone have the courage to turn the key to those doors, take a deep breath, and examine what’s inside.

The ones who don’t want to get out of bed because their depression is too much to handle and need someone to comfort them; the ones who walk into a room alone with sunken spirits, because they feel forgotten; the ones who have been abused, violated, and hurt; the ones who sit in a cell block; the ones who suffer from addictions; the ones who grieve… those are God’s people. Those are OUR people.