look on up.

I would sit to write this one over and over again in the last couple of months, only to run face first into a brick wall of writer’s block every time I tried. I think it’s because I recoiled at the thought of coming across as a hypocrite and had trouble scaling the scope of this down to a readable length. Besides that, I’ve had time to digest some life circumstances that I’ve been chewing on as of late, especially in a week that couldn’t have been more appropriate to reflect on it all.

Last week, the church I intern at observed a media fast – taking a break from online social platforms and the digital universes we live in for a couple of days to reflect, pray, spend quality time with people and God in observance of Jesus’ last days before the crucifixion and resurrection. Taking a break from Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram has been something on my mind, but admittedly, I made the excuse that I live parts of my life on social media that sustain communication with my internship, family, and friends. How else would I maintain them? I kept shelving this personal project, knowing deep down that it was necessary and needed, but I eventually let it slip between the traffic of ministry projects and theology papers to write… until this last week.

Two Sundays ago, a breaker switch flipped. I can remember mentally freezing in the sanctuary after second service in the buzz of people shuffling out, saying hello, and talking about lunch plans, thinking to myself that I need to go home. Go home, rest, and unplug. I scratched my head over this notion, because it came out of nowhere. With minimal notification, I packed a few belongings and essentials in my Saturn and drove to Minneapolis with the intention of spending some quality time with God away from the noise. It was the perfect time to unplug. In addition, I was seeking a change in scenery in the hopes that it would be part of the antidote for a set of nebulous symptoms that were pointing to some kind of renal condition. Two rounds of antibiotics and a physician’s visit in Lacrosse throughout the last two months have been giving few answers and at this point, I figured it was only a matter of time when it all came to a head when the symptoms began to collectively get worse. The first day and a half at home was spent not on my phone, without my laptop, and spending some time absorbing scripture (more specifically the Gospel of Matthew), prayer, and brainstorming. It was well lived until Monday afternoon when (long story short) I doubled over in pain in a Target parking lot and was taken to United Hospital in Saint Paul. Kidney stones.

Laying in an emergency room in downtown Saint Paul, pumped with enough Morphine to put a fully-grown gorilla to bed, and weathering excruciating pain led me into a profound spiritual time. The video below is front man and worship leader for Bethel Church in Redding, California providing context for Bethel Music’s newest album, Have It All. In this video he talks abut a cull of circumstances that led to a mental breakdown and having to medicate panic attacks. The first line in this clip is… “True worship happens when there’s nothing else. When there’s no other options.”

I had no other options in that hospital bed, because I was emptied. No social media, no physical strength left, and emotionally drained. The only viable option was surrender to God. Surrendering the most acute, excruciating pain I’ve felt. I only had the breath that the Lord sustained and in that moment, it was weirdly enough – and in a good way. It’s kind of hard to explain, but to have experienced a dependence on God that could have only come through circumstances like that was a significant experience for me.

Upon my release later that evening and returning to Winona, I was in a time of prayer with a few other ministry leaders this weekend, leafing through some old notes scratched from a couple years ago in a worn journal and came across a great passage of scripture in 1st Thessalonians. The Apostle Paul spent three Sabbath’s in Thessalonica – an area of Greece that was a crucial Italian crossroad and port city with a church made up of primarily, Gentiles. Because of the amount of persecution he and the church endured, Paul didn’t stay too long, but a few commentaries I found about the Thessalonian epistles (letters) talk about how the themes of endurance and giving thanks in everything help reinforce the circumstances in the letter. It gives context for verses such as this that made me think of Brian Johnson’s thoughts and my experiences in the week…

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1st Thessalonians 5:16-18

It’s like Brian Johnson says later on in the video, surrender is a process that comes with giving up the smallest of things, the biggest of events, and all the subtleties in between. Being hospitalized gave me the shot to learn dependence and that was huge. So did taking a break from social media – the smaller of details. Like I said in the beginning, the words never quite materialized when I tried to write this last fall and even on break before coming back to Winona. My inspiration is drawn from the well of a pastor from Oklahoma City, a class presentation I gave last semester, my roommates, and of course – the forthcoming Relient K record. Part of my recovery process is sifting through the 30,000-foot issues and the smallest crevices of my present routine, every relationship, habit, attitude, and unsaid thing in between. Admittedly, this has been an area of my life that I’ve altogether ignored for all of high school and most of college. I assimilated to a platform that is so commonplace and widely used, that I never even saw how much of my idle time is spent chained at the ankles and wrists to my devices until I took a break from them. Relient K’s new song, Look on Up, touches on how the beauty of things like sunsets, the face of a mountain or hillside, and even ourselves get lost in the trimming of every minute detail we don’t like. We filter and crop it until its very essence is basically gone and we lose appreciation for anything natural and unscathed by scant editing. I know. I’ve been there. It’s actually a very poignant song for the age we live in that calls us to appreciate the simple things in life. But doesn’t that feel hard when it seems like everyone has it better than us?

Craig Groeschel of Life Church in Oklahoma City quoted pastor Steven Furtick in his new book called, #Struggles when he said, “We compare our behind the scenes to other people’s highlight reels.” At this point in my life, a lot of friendships are looking very different. Many of my friends are getting engaged, married, beginning careers, moving, and starting families – most of them are my age or not that much older and admittedly it makes me think, “I’m missing out or doing something wrong.” And it doesn’t even stop there. I sometimes go to the simplest of photos or Snapchats of our friends hanging out with people, doing things on the weekends, taking trips, etc. and we wonder why I’m not doing the same thing. I’m sure we all share these same sentiments to a certain degree.

I don’t exactly know how I’m going to continue with this social media fast, because I don’t want to blanketly bash social media behind a keyboard without lending anything good to it, because there are some indisputably good things about social media. I just know that after an eventful week, I know I can’t really go back to the way I used it before. It’s just not the same. I see the difference when I sit down with people and don’t feel like I need to whip my phone out upon feeling the buzz of it going off for mundane notifications. The conversations feel more real and authentic. I care more about the people I’m around and what’s going on in their lives rather than comparing it to the events on a news feed. I like that I can feel like life is actually going okay and that my circumstances are fine when I disengage from it.

I think Holy Week was the best time to experience all of this, because I had the chance to back drop all these recent circumstances against the events of Jesus suffering a barbaric execution as an innocent man and Son of the Living God to be resurrected three days later, conquering death. Through that event we have the freedom to surrender and crucify our insecurities, blemishes, social standings, and need for approval into his wrists in the way of Galatians 5:24 – Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” It’s a gentle reminder to me to look on up to the cross when I feel like life isn’t really how I want it to be, because when I am weary from painful illnesses or from finding myself comparing my behind the scenes to everyone else, His yoke is easy and His burden, light (Matthew 11:28-30). Live it in the moment and know that Jesus Himself said in Matthew 6:34 – “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring troubles of its own.”

 

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in repair.

When I was a senior in high school, a few of us in our youth group stumbled upon a controversial Youtube video with a young man eloquently spitting a spoken word piece about how a personal relationship with Jesus was the cure for all the pitfalls of corporate, organized religion. It reminded us all of a homegrown pastor from Chicago named, Leslie Hunter, who used to travel to Minneapolis and read his spoken word short stories to us about God’s redemption and transforming grace, so we naturally connected well with it. Bethke’s catalytic message became a conversation starter among all camps of the Internet and was the source of a lot of commentary from notable pastors in the United States. Admittedly, I never watched much more from him until he released this video….

The title grabbed me, because I’m always intrigued whenever things like depression enter the same conversation as Jesus. I feel like some Christians have a misunderstanding about mental illness and addiction – that instead of them being neurochemical imbalances and the results of extenuating circumstance or poor choices, they’re marginalized and chalked up to the result of a lack of faith. Thankfully, the perspective in this video doesn’t really take sides on this issue, but it did capture the narrative of living with depression and addiction, especially at the point where it feels like such illnesses are immune to even Jesus’s healing. I was the same way. I thought that if I confessed my sin, and began to really follow Jesus, things would finally look up and my problems would evaporate into a distant memory of desires I no longer had. But, Bethke nailed it… “Relationships broke, addictions stayed, and that pervasive feeling of loneliness kept gnawing at me.”

Before watching this, I felt like the Biblical minor prophets lived up to their nominal status. Minor, thinking to myself, “There’s only like three or four chapters in some of these… what’s the big deal?” When Bethke references Hosea in this video, I decided to unleash my inner context (#Strengthfindersreference!), investigate this book, and all my presuppositions were erased. Hosea and the collection of eleven other prophets that make up the final leg and finish line of the Old Testament are sent by God to prophecy to Israel at the pinnacle of their sinful indulgences before being overrun by the Assyrian Empire. All these prophetic writings textually depict this narrative about Israel descending into depravity, enduring exile and destruction, then returning and rebuilding the kingdom. Hosea marks a turning point for Israel. The nation had become defiant, was worshipping idols, and drifting further away from the shores of God’s comfort. Hosea is sent by God to forewarn Israel about their impending doom. To illustrate God’s intentions, Hosea is told by God to marry Gomer, a prostitute whom he has two children with and ends up cheating on him – upon which God tells Hosea to continue pursuing her anyway in the same manner that God will not stop pursuing Israel, despite it’s unfaithfulness as a nation (Ch. 1, V. 2-9). As a part of the prophecy, we arrive at Chapter 2, verse 14, “Therefore, I am now going to allure her. I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her there.” The overarching story is revealing about God’s grace, just nature, wrath, love, and ultimately marks the perfect springboard into the Gospels. My friend, Erik actually pointed out chapter 11, verse 8 where the Lord declares, “… My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” When you backdrop a verse like this behind the forthcoming destruction of Israel, it paints a beautifully holistic portrait of God’s nature.

The wilderness is translated from Hebrew as Mid-bawr – meaning desolate wasteland, so it’s fitting when Bethke says that the wilderness meant nothingness and was devoid of life. I found a commentary that shows a second meaning for the wilderness in Hebrew – a good place to pasture “God’s sheep.” It’s a place to be nurtured. Think about how Bethke talks about “romance” that occurs. “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will acknowledge the Lord” (Ch.2 v. 19-20). As I read through the rest of this book, I began thinking about what Bethke said where the wilderness is something where beauty shines in the darkest places. I think when we imagine wilderness (especially in Minnesota), we picture evergreens blanketed with snow, stretching in endless waves across the northern sky. It doesn’t seem so desolate, but I don’t know about you, there’s something that tickles our fear of being alone in the wilderness. We get into a place where we begin processing our hurts with God and hearing the Lord’s voice feels deafening when we turn off social media and meander through mazes of our broken relationships and bitterness. My pastor recently said something interesting in this vein when talking about Jacob wrestling God in Genesis 32…So often we frantically search for an exit out of the wilderness. “Lord deliver me FROM.” Panic.

I think everyone can visually picture what it would be like to wander some kind of meta-physical wilderness, but the experience of dealing with the difficulties of life in that kind of wilderness is subjective. I can say as someone who is someone who is in recovery for addiction, recurring issues with anxiety, and now navigating the transitions after college, that the wilderness is an unavoidable reality of entering a life with Jesus, let alone the human experience. We should expect to walk in it and through it at at least one point. In fact, at times I think we should embrace the wilderness and allow us to be as John Mayer puts it, “in repair.” It’s kind of like how Bethke says, “There are some things that we can only see in the dark… and maybe instead of cursing the wilderness or the dry season, or thinking something is wrong with us, we look up and see His glow, maybe He has a special display for us at night. Maybe He shines even brighter when everything is going crazy.” Having to take a few long walks in the dark have been the times where God has taught me the most about myself and about His people – the messiness of recovery, the undertaking of being an adult, the continuation of sorting past wrongs. But, in that, I still see the beauty of life, and sometimes in the smallest of ways in the same sense of looking at the night sky – packing my house with friends and watching Interstellar on a Saturday night, roommates coming home after an encouraging week of travel, hearing stories from friends about their lives I haven’t before. I think we should take those small tokens and pack them on our next excursion…

“I’m in repair, I’m not together, but I’m getting there.”