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.

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(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

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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.