Airborne on the Fourth: Why the Cynic Can Still Love America

cityThe timing of our Czech Republic mission allowed us a unique and rare experience: being at 35,000 feet over the continental United States on the evening of the Fourth of July.

As you might guess, the view was spectacular.

At first, I had guesstimated that we’d be both too early and too far north to see holiday fireworks. But as the sun set a couple hours out of Chicago, I opened the window and glanced down, and my breath caught. Pinprick flares of multicolored light against the dark land in every direction, as far as the eye could see, intensifying around a small town just to the south.

I alerted the others and we stared out with delight. I briefly wondered if we actually were over Canada and maybe they have their own Fourth fireworks just for the heck? But after consulting the onboard computers, we realized that the town to the south could only be Albany, NY. We were seeing the Fourth from the air after all!

Then we looked ahead of us and beheld a massive web of light terminating along a solid line: a coastal city. It was Boston. Where it all began. The tea party, the Boston Massacre, the first clashes at Lexington and Concord. The city obviously knew its history that night (or they were celebrating because I was leaving, I dunno). The only comparison I can draw to the view that night is Star Wars space battles: Boston was ablaze with tiny flashes of light. And as we flew over the coastline, still more fireworks: cruise ships off the coast were hosting their own professional displays. It was a sight I’ll not soon forget.

I must confess. Over the years, I’ve grown a bit cynical about the whole America deal.

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Pizza Lessons #5: Down the Barrel of the Gun

pizza4Every once in a while, on a pizza run, I’ll catch a glimpse of a future that worries me.

It’ll be some older male customer who’s living alone, in a tiny, isolated trailer way out on the edge of our delivery range, without a vehicle to his name. Some of these guys have a way of sharing a bit much about their lives, so I know they aren’t getting any visits from people. Just alone, filling their later years with television. Some of them by choice, some of them because of past choices.

I’ll just be real vulnerable for a second: that’s a future I’m afraid of.

I often worry about ending my life alone and broke, driving people away through advanced curmudgeonry. It sounds like overthinking, but my personality does tend that direction, and I worry about it a bit. I’m putting quite a bit of effort these days into avoiding that future.

Now, your typical response might be, don’t worry, Brandon. That won’t happen.

But maybe there’s an even better response.

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This Could Really Be the Last Day You Fail

Stop struggling with your sin and kill it!We all have something dogging us.

And we’ve had so many go-arounds with this particular enemy – some weakness, some vice, some habit seemingly iron-wrought or seemingly genetically hard-coded – that it’s turned the idea of victory into distant foolishness…even though you know that victory is God’s will, and that with his commands comes the power to obey.

Perhaps victory seems attainable during moments when we’re in the clear, when temptation is at bay. Or at church, or after the prayer of repentance, when you’re bowled over by God’s grace and power.

But once the bell rings again, and you’re standing in front of the refrigerator or the computer or that person at work who needs your patience rather than your anger, the optimism fades fast. A deeper layer of doubt is revealed in your heart. I can’t do it. If we succeed for a little while, it switches to, I can’t possibly keep this up forever. Or the urgency fades after a week and our treacherous minds convince us that one surrender won’t hurt and…it ends up being more than one surrender.

Don’t you sometimes just wake up and want to be free of all that? For good?

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“God’s Only Excuse is Easter!”

flowersIn Disappointment with God, author Philip Yancey describes a series of conversations with a young friend named Richard, who has turned away from the faith.

One of Richard’s big beefs with the idea of God is the conundrum of suffering. This one gets us all. Why does a loving and powerful God allow suffering, and all that.

Over the last few years, I’ve felt a part of me becoming impatient with that question, as I’ve found too many skeptics to be merely hiding behind it rather than honestly seeking an answer. And there are answers. But I’ve tried to hold off my cynicism and remain understanding, for I know suffering weakens and disheartens. It’s especially true for the skeptic, as they have no hope of an “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8) to sustain them.

After lambasting God for his treatment of Job, his apparent detachment from mankind, and every other angle he can, Richard eventually rounds it out with an interesting phrase:

“God’s only excuse is Easter!”

It was one of those phrases that sums up everything you’ve ever suspected but never quite has the eloquence or brevity to say.

I wouldn’t say Richard is theologically correct in saying that. God has, off the top of my head, at least one other great excuse for allowing suffering: the chance to demonstrate his ability to sustain and empower us in the middle of it. It’s quite Scriptural to say that this is sometimes the sole reason for our suffering: creating an opportunity for him to make our hearts ironclad, untouchable by despair and brimming with joy even in jail or on the sickbed.

But you have to admit: even if Easter were God’s only excuse, it’s a whopper of an excuse.

If the claims of Christianity are true, an afterlife is available whose gladness far outweighs any pain we experience on this earth (Romans 8:18) – and for those who reject it, a penalty whose horror far outweighs any peace, prosperity, or good we achieve on this earth.

Which means that judging God by what happens on this earth is…well, you can hardly call it a worthy verdict.

The ideas of heaven and hell may feel like cheap cop-out and motivation, respectively, for a church trying to boost its numbers. It may feel ridiculously out of touch with our modern era’s respect for what can be seen, felt, and proven. It may feel like the last thing you want to hear in the midst of today’s suffering.

But how it feels has no bearing on whether its claims are true.

That is why the claims of Christianity are too great to ignore, or dismiss as good-for-you experiential truth. They demand examination.

And if the story of the resurrection of Christ truly happened, if it bears examination then it’s all true – making the Gospel a message of enormous generosity, and enormous warning.

Though God is bringing all things together for his own glory first and foremost, he is hardly callous enough to leave our groaning hearts out of the equation. He has promised us rewards. He has prepared a great many things for those who will believe; he asks only that we receive him.

I pray fervently that the unbeliever might examine these claims.

It Can Come Out of Nowhere

God's miracle can come after decades of nothin'.“I haven’t given up hope, but…”

I was catching up with a friend. She and her daughter have seen a rough stretch. Death in the family, countless unanswered prayers. Though my battles were different, we reached the same conclusion: the last fifteen years had not gone as we’d hoped.

When you go that long with something wrong, your mind finds ways to deal with it. The most common is to assume that this is how things will always be. This is how God operates; this is his modus operandi for you. Every year offers hope. But it always ends with disappointment. The last go-around didn’t bring any breakthrough, you reason; why would this one?

“I haven’t given up hope, but…”.

We know in our hearts that we shouldn’t throw in the towel. Still, our hope features a “But”. We’re not sure we want to put our hearts out there. Not again. It might just be easier to Gethsemane this one and move on.

And yet…

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Give the Day After to God

deadtreeAhhh, here it is…the day after.

Adulthood consists mostly of three things, I think: paying bills, keeping your mouth shut, and grappling with the day after.

With Christmas behind us, there is now a comedown. Family is gone, the tree and wrapping paper have mutated from colorful expectation to trash recycling fodder, and now we have to confront just how much the entire affair has strained our waistlines and credit cards. Certainly, there’s some relief in escaping the pressure of busyness and getting to unwrap that “peace and quiet” present we wanted most of all. If you’re don’t struggle with this “day after”, I’m certainly happy for you. Feel free to close this post and have a mineral water or something. But for others of us, there is…a letdown. A crash back to earth. If it hasn’t come already, it might still, once the last of the family has hopped in the van and left, or once New Year’s is past.

 

(A moment of silence for the teachers out there, by the way. Their comedown is the worst, for they are now hitting the longest unbroken stretch of the school year. Heroic souls.)

Post-Christmas blues are a real thing. We spend months looking so forward to the food and the reverent atmosphere. It’s such a refuge. I mean, “the day we can play Christmas music” is now Halloween. Soon it’ll be Labor Day. Then the Fourth of July. But after it passes, we have to go back to work. There’s another cycle of life waiting. Nose back to the grindstone.

Even God seems to fade. He is easy to take hold of during Christmas; indeed, he almost seems inescapable. But in January, he becomes elusive again. Or we do.

It can be really disheartening.

But I wonder whether the distance we are required to “come down” from high points in our lives has been greatly exaggerated. 

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The Ache of a Cubs Championship

celebrateHere’s the 0-1…this is gonna be a tough play…Bryant!…the Cubs!!!..WIN THE WORLD SERIES!!! Bryant makes the play!! It’s over!! And the Cubs have finally won it all, 8-7 in ten!!”

Joe Buck’s words reverberated across the nation, Chicago erupting into bewildered revelry, a 108-year-old curse shattering into pieces. The Chicago Cubs, known for generations as the “lovable losers” who could find a way to choke in any circumstance, were now the undisputed top dogs – winner of the 2016 World Series.

“No more waiting until next year,” as Buck so eloquently put it – no more next game, no more tough practice session tomorrow, no more drowning in negative headlines. The players could finally let it all go. You could see the worries drop from their shoulders, the internal pressures released. Kris Bryant, having nailed the final toss, leaping across the field like Neil Armstrong on the moon; Anthony Rizzo pocketing that winning ball and flinging his glove aside to leap into a bouncing throng of teammates; fans nationwide collapsing in relief as they watched, their blood pressure dropping just as quickly. Their team…not a newly adopted playoff favorite, but their long-cherished team…had finally won it all.

For me, the most heartwarming moment of the night was watching YouTube videos of elderly folks reveling in their homes. There was none of that when my Seahawks won the Super Bowl; they’re a younger team in a younger sport, no fans in their nineties to watch a lifelong dream come true. That night, ninety-year-olds Cubs fans clapped gleefully like kids from their rocking chairs, their bodies even remembering how to dance for a few moments. They had hung on, disappointment after disappointment, for almost a century. At long last, they had been rewarded.

And thinking of that, I felt…an ache.

It was not the ache of worrying about next season. (By the way, while I have you here – don’t do that. Don’t let your thoughts start turning to whether they’ll repeat next year, to worrying about the draft and free agency, to wondering whether this was all a fluke. Not so soon. They just won the World Series. For goodness’ sake, rest and enjoy it. That’s my advice, from someone whose football team won it all three years ago. Some fans will never know this joy.)

No, this ache was something else.

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