Choose Great Suffering Part III: Grasping Salvation Now

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Productivity and stewardship are great – necessary even. Just ask my son (from a safe distance) as he battles to recover from neglecting them for a couple of years. Being responsible hurts when you are young. You have to step away from a fair amount of easy fun in order to steward a better future. However, running from that pain makes things much worse sooner or later. At the other end of the spectrum, I am learning that busyness and work can also serve as “protective” idols. They distract from the clarifying and sometimes painful process of dialoguing with God. It takes great courage to slow down, accept my flaws, and listen in stillness.

What I hear highlights my profound dependence on God. It is frightening, and it hurts. It also issues a strong invitation to peace. Conscious dependency opens the door for faith. With faith I can hear the Spirit proclaiming God’s brilliant strength intertwined with my critical weakness even over the cacophony of my swirling inner chaos.

This is the moment.

This is the unassailable heart of peace at the center of my Christian struggle.

No one can see into me, nothing can challenge me, and never can I feel love more deeply.

Spending time naked in my insufficiency before God defines my identity in Christ and prepares me to be the blessing God intends for others.

It does not drain the sting from suffering. It certainly does not rob my actions of their meaning. It invites me to embrace discomfort as an opportunity to get into the game. Reaching the end of my abilities, venturing into the rapid waters outside my comfort zone drives me into the arms the Spirit. There, only there, can me find meaningful peace and joy in the middle of the rushing stream.

I can’t possibly tell you when this line of thought will makes sense to my son. The consensus from many brilliant people I consulted is that Eli needs to find his own path and suffer his own setbacks in order to develop a thirst for this kind of deeper truth. I will love and respect unconditionally, enforce reasonable boundaries, model those truths, and trust God to make Eli ready.

I am ready now. I will embrace the immediate implications of our salvation and the power of my broken, joyful, dependence, on God. I look forward to living in peace and joy right here and now in anticipation of the astounding victory parade to come.

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Choose Great Suffering Part II: Finding Peace in the Storm

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On the first day of the New Year, with the subtle awareness that it was time for me to stop running from my own brokenness prowling around in my sub-conscious, I dove into a long stretch of PJ wearing idleness – watching Netflix, playing cards, and tracking football on espn.com with my family. Anxiety crept in. The uncertainties of the New Year gathered around. Potential problems grew into happiness robbing fears. I did not want to think about all that uncontrollable uncertainty tinted with the sick gleam of my past failures. I wanted to get off the couch and get busy. I wanted to work on something, anything instead. But I did not. Knowing that Jesus promises peace in the middle of the storm I stayed where I was and let my desperate vulnerability break over me in waves. I mourned the end of the holiday season, worried about work, and suffered with my anxiety.

This was uncomfortable but not all consuming. I had enough attention left to notice that my alma mater, Wisconsin, was also suffering – slowly losing the Capitol One Bowl to South Carolina. I found myself defensively setting each negative play against the greater perspective of the game and the history of the football program. “All is not forsaken (I got a little dramatic). We’ve won Rose Bowls in the past and we will again. Hang on to our glorious history and hope for the future. Keep fighting the good fight Wisconsin!” Then, as I was about to break into a rousing rendition of Varsity, it hit me.

My stewardship (all that productivity I throw myself into and the failure I fear) matters. God chooses to work through people, and my faith must manifest in loving acts of humble service. My sanctification requires it, and God stands ready to use my life’s testimony to invite others. But. But, the greatest possible victory has already been won. I am immersed in the pleasure and privilege of playing a vital role on the winning team. The pressure is off. My participation is critical, but God knows I’m going to screw up and it’s cool. The plan accounts for my selfishness, stubbornness, and astounding desire for control. In fact, all that human messed up stuff is part the victorious game plan. I don’t need to run from it. I need to embrace it and trust God with it.

Poooooof (or maybe it was more like woooosh), anxiety lost its power. The waves stopped pounding, the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Now the New Year looked challenging and bright. I realized that I could bust my butt, fail, succeed, and find peace all at the same time. His burden is in fact a real burden and the yoke is in fact light.

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Choose Great Suffering Part I

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“You cannot earn your crown of patience without some struggle. If you refuse suffering, you also refuse the crown.”  Thomas ẚ Kempis

It seems we are all caught up in the idea that suffering is bad. Not only that it is uncomfortable, but that we should not be suffering. Culture encourages us to flee from suffering and avoid it any cost. We should be happy, relaxed, and having fun. If not there is something wrong, and it needs to be fixed.

Think of the implications for a young man who finds things like hard work, discipline, and delayed gratification boring and painful.
I’m not lobbying for masochism. I don’t think we should go out of our way to chase suffering down, but I do think it’s inevitable and beneficial.

My son is suffering from boredom these days. It radiates off of him in tangible waves that will make you sick if you get too close. Ironically, he’s bored because he consistently choose to avoid all the “boring” stuff his dad encouraged him to embrace. Instead he reveled in the astounding entertainment and short term pleasures the world offers. As a result he has fewer options and far less freedom. Eli stands chest deep in the swirling waters of choice. He’s not thrilled with the bitter fruits of self-indulgence, but he can’t stand boring stuff like humility, sacrificial service, and delayed gratification. It’s a real dilemma.

In time, Eli will figure it out. Eventually the pain and suffering of a lifestyle focused on self-gratification will override his aversion to patience. He will move closer to a healthy balance between frivolous fun and productivity as he recognizes the long term advantages of hard work and discipline. He will choose that far more positive form of suffering and perhaps even grow to find joy in striving toward a worthwhile end.

I know he will, of course, because I’ve been there.

I am no stranger to the joys of giving in to temptation. I lived that life with total abandon for years. I spent decades learning the lesson Eli wrestles with now. That fight left me running from suffering, but in a very different direction. I bare the painful scars of my failures. I know full well how inattention and lack of effort can damage me and the people I love. As a result, I don’t handle downtime well. I see semester breaks, holidays, and weekends as opportunities to work ahead, cook for the freezer, pray with greater focus, experience something with the family, or perhaps even steward the material possessions God blesses me with. Idle time invites uncomfortable reflection and painful anxiety. Staying busy keeps me safe from standing naked in my own inadequacy before God.

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In the Wake of Christmas

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Looking forward to the New Year, I invite you to reflect with me on two of my favorite Christmas verses.

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrew 2;17,18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15, 16)

Suffering comes to everyone in a unique way. How much we suffer and are tested depends on the contrast between what we are accustomed to and what we are experiencing.

Take a moment and try to grasp what “normal” is like for Jesus. Contemplate the scale of creation and recall that all things came into being through him. Spend some time. Soak it in. It’s Christmas after all, what’s your hurry?

Now consider that Jesus Christ emptied himself of all of that (his divinity). How else could he truly suffer, be sincerely tempted, experience dependence on the Spirit, and learn through obedience the joy of faith transformed into reality? “…like his brothers and sisters in every respect… tested as we are.” He bled, got sick, felt powerful anger, horrible want, crushing disappointment, and profound sadness. “Born in a manger” does not even begin to capture what Jesus went through.

Christmas leads inevitably to Easter and the astounding gift of salvation. However, we do not need to wait to open the gift of God’s radical humility. Today, wrapped in the pain of human existence and failure, we can boldly approach the throne expecting only inexhaustible grace from a God who shares our suffering, understands our weakness, and cries our tears. Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

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Bioluminescent Saints

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After watching “Edith Widder: The weird, wonderful world of bio-luminescence” I cannot help drawing an analogy between John’s gospel and creatures who live in constant, utter darkness and generate their own light.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19–21 NRSV)

Why do these creatures create light and why only when they’re not alone? Since it doesn’t lead to reproduction or food, Widder suggests it might be defense. However, it attracts the squid in the video instead of repulsing it. It must be something else.

Maybe the bio-luminescent sea creatures produce light in response to interaction because that is when they know they have an audience. Perhaps they are making their best effort to bear fruit and bring glory to God.

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8 NRSV)
Can tiny sea creatures bear effective witness to the glory of God?

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Define Miracle

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I’ve been tracking my weight at the same time every morning for several months now – ever since I admitted I was powerless, gave responsibility for my fitness over to God, ballooned up to 290 pounds, and took responsibility for my fitness back with God’s help.

Last Saturday two things happened. I got a group text from my local mentor about the Christian joys of recognizing our utter powerlessness . That grabbed my attention since I don’t necessarily agree.  After all the bibles says, “… God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” I think the presence of the Spirit in each of us combined with God’s gift of freewill gives each of us amazing agency.

Not directly after reading that text, but a bit later, I exercised my freewill quite robustly.  I spent the entire day eating: bacon, potatoes fried in bacon fat, a total of eight chicken sausages with bacon and cheddar inside, about the same number of bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, six cookies, and an assortment of other tailgate food at the UNLV game including shrimp, party wieners wrapped in crescent roll dough, and pasta salad.

Walking to the bathroom this morning and reflecting on my online discussion with Sarah RussoJP Kim and Matthew Wimer about witnessing a miracle first hand, I asked God for one. I laughed out loud and said, “Yes. I’m asking for a miracle. Affirm my faith for me. Do a little trick miracle just for me. Make me smaller today than I was yesterday. Grant me miraculous weight loss. Make me 248. Yup, 248. Make me 248 Jesus, please. Just because you can. Do a miracle for me!”

It was one of those real conversations where I was speaking from the heart and God was listening. My stomach tingled. Something was going on. I stepped on the scale praying for joyful affirmation and boom! 247.2. I had filled my face all day, shoveled in one last sausage at the end of the night, and lost 2 full pounds.

My giggling woke my wife (I’m neither boring nor easy to live with).

Miracles, at least this one, aren’t defined objectively.  There is always an alternate explanation available or a lack of video documentation.  Miracles are personal.  Mine is defined by a complete disconnect between rational expectation and reality.   I won’t be able to convert Ed Wing with this evidence, and I’m sure it’s far less powerful for others, but for me. It’s like a huge bell ringing in my head.

I love the tension it creates between me being in charge of my weight loss and me being completely powerless with God in charge. Obviously those two things are mutually exclusive and completely true at the same time.

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Prayer and Trust Are Not Sufficient

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When I was growing up in Moscow, Idaho in the early seventies I wanted to play Little League baseball. So, my dad took me to the hardware store and let me pick out a bat from their small circular display. I choose a huge, blue, wooden beauty of a bat. It was way too big for me. I could barely lift it let alone swing it effectively. I have no idea why my normally wonderful and responsible father let me pick that one.

We played in our blue jeans and t-shirts.

I don’t remember a single thing my coach ever said to me.

I never got a hit.

But, I played baseball, and it was incredibly important to me.

This was back when I believed in God the first time. I had learned again and again that if I prayed and believed hard enough God would give me what I asked for. “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” (John 14:13, 14). Challenge accepted!

I prayed hard for us to beat the best team in our Little League, the widely hated Yankees. I prayed powerfully like only a foolish little kid who believes in a very literal translation of the bible can pray. I prayed and believed and prayed and told my friends that we we’re going to beat the Yankees.

After I recovered my faith a couple of months later, I prayed for something much simpler. I prayed that God would help me catch bugs and put them in the tent I had erected in our big front yard. I prayed and believed. Hard. Again, this was very important to me. Although, I must admit there was a bit of an edge to my faith, kind of a one eye slightly open, heart not wanting to get hurt again, believing but maybe not really able to believe all the way anymore kind of edge.

I didn’t catch any bugs, at least not any decent bugs. I was crushed.

I did what any rational person would do. I walked away and pouted…for about thirty years.

God let me pout. God let me do a lot of really ridiculous things, but eventually one of us decided I’d had enough. I started learning about praying and trusting all over again, but I never forgot about baseball and bugs.

I spent four years begging God to let me go to seminary (or God spent that time convincing me I could.). Two years later, after I had prayed, believed, and trusted my family, finances, and fitness to God I had ballooned up to 290 pounds (see “Should I be Mad at God for Letting Me Get Fat?). It was baseball and bugs all over again.

Me and God, we had it out, several times. I cussed, yelled, doubted, threatened, and pouted, the whole nine yards. God just chuckled patiently and invited me to a deeper faith that involved my active participation in his providence and my sanctification. Despite the fact that I had absolutely no time available after addressing family, full-time work, ministry, and full-time grad school I had to menu plan, shop, cook, and work out.

So, I choose a goal (this was about four months ago). I wanted to be able to jump up and casually run over to wherever I wanted to go. No big deal. I don’t need to look like Vin Diesel or play running back for the Ducks. I just want to be able to hustle. I want free and easy mobility.

Now that God and I are working together, things are going pretty well. I’ve dropped a ton of weight. But, you know what? My goal has been ripped away from me. My right knee is killing me. It used to come and go, but now it just hurts all the time. I can still walk, ride my bike, work out, and do all the things I need to do to get in shape. But, I can’t run or jump. Getting up is a chore. It takes time and it hurts.

What is going on with our wacky, all powerful, purely loving God? First, I thought it was pick a goal, pray, trust, and get blessed…Nope! Then I thought it was pick a goal, pray, trust, work with God, and get blessed…Yes, I’m far thinner, and that is wonderful, but no. Moving hurts and I’m less able to hustle then I was at 290.

So…finally…here is my point. Gratitude is hard. It requires flexibility.

This is not one of those weepy blog posts about how wonderful God and Christianity are if you’ll just “let go and let God.” It’s a heads up. Following Christ isn’t easy. Prayer and trust are not sufficient. You need to get in the game, and when you do you may not get to pick your own goals. You have to work consistently and despite pain to choose gratitude over bitterness.

Consider praying for awareness of the blessings God has already given you. Embrace the mercy we all float in rather than demanding justice. Accept God’s invitation to develop an understanding of faith as belief in the unseen, as hope and love without proof, and find astounding peace and joy exactly where you are right now.

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