No Single Christian Left Behind

I have the privilege of doing youth workership with a couple of guys I graduated high school with. They’re married with kids (though they didn’t get there at the same time).

I saw an old (now married) girlfriend in the store the other day. She looked…I’m bad at this…six or seven months pregnant? I was certainly happy for her.

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Several of the students I’ve mentored in my twelve years in youth ministry have gotten hitched. One’s even had a couple daughters.

It’s certainly enough to make a bachelor feel left behind.

In years gone by, I would often reassure myself with something like Don’t worry, they’re a lot older than you. You’ve got time. Then one day I woke up and was their age. So much for that arrow in the quiver. In fact, they’re younger than me. The pastor at one of our offshoot churches has a salt-and-pepper beard, a seminary degree, and a small tribe running around his wife’s ankles. My jaw dropped when I found out he’s two years younger than me.

Ever felt left behind?

Don’t. You’re not.

Though we could turn to comforts such as there are still plenty of people who marry late and only a minority of my old students are hitched and you’ve accomplished plenty that they haven’t, and each would be true, the best response to times of loneliness is knowing that the Father’s love knows no boundaries.

Nobody at my church has ever openly made me feel outmoded or outside God’s will for being single – my spiritual family is too Scripturally literate for that. They know that although the Old Testament certainly seemed to hand all the stature and security to those within families, Jesus changed things. He stresses singles’ place in his family. Both through his words (Matthew 19) and those inspired into Paul (1 Corinthians 7), Jesus pointed out that singles actually have an easier time navigating the evangelistic demands of his kingdom. Sometimes married people fall behind the singles!

But more importantly, Scripture breaks down barriers to his love. Rich or poor, slave or free, sick or healthy, Jew or Gentile, popular or otherwise, educated or a lowly fisherman casting about on Galilee’s shores, Christ takes pains to embrace people on every part of every spectrum as candidates for his grace. The pain of the cross opened the way; they need only follow him.

Singles are no exception. If marriage doesn’t even exist as a state in heaven (Matthew 22), why would singles be an exception?

No. Every single Christian is a pool into which Christ’s waterfall of love tumbles perennially. He did not come to earth, suffer the cross, empty the tomb, and ascend to heaven so that his love would be thwarted by the lack of a ring.

It hurts that there are churches who do not share this view. Singles across the world are too often ignored, sidelined, or flat-out rebuked for not marrying, as if they’re only “playing at life” until they do. But then again, not every church is Scripturally literate, as ridiculous as that sounds. We can only pray and continue to teach them.

The emotional burden is real, and God will hear our honesty in the meantime. It’s not fun to have less and less in common with your friends as they grow deeper into their marriage, having to work harder and harder to keep up your friendships. That’s not what Hebrews meant by “running the race”.

But no single Christian has been left behind with God, for no Christian gets left behind. Single, you are secure in his love. Your present potential and value to God are undimmable; it need only be prayed for and sought. And God’s eternal future for you is sealed; Jesus will one day give each of us a new name (Rev. 2:17), whether we ever changed it here on earth or not.

Therefore, I can celebrate where I am today. For on the spectrum that matters most – God’s love – I am on equal standing with all who are his.

 

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Delight Amidst Mordor: the Hard Part of Psalm 37:4

Take delight in the LORD, and He will give you your heart’s desires. (Psalm 37:4)

Hoo, boy. Few Bible verses carry as much potential to turn us into mercenaries.

“Love God and he’ll give you things” – yeah, that’s just begging to go down the wrong alleys. How do we handle such a verse? How do we treasure God and his opinions on things in light of such an offer? It’s Scripture. It can’t be wrong. So there must be a solution to this conundrum.

Don’t obey God to get things, obey God to get God. – Tim Keller

For me, it is the sheer intensity of “delight”.

1378807888_1c49b58b1b_z“Delight” doesn’t just mean a vague affection, certainly not a conditional one. It means delight. An intense love that crowds out other considerations. I don’t just like my mom – I delight in her, such that I’d make her a priority over a great many things. Same with my friends. (That’s why they’re friends.)

Delight can’t be faked. God sees right through it, and we’d never trust our own motives without it. When we delight in God, the first half of Psalm 37:4 outshines the second half, which sidles up to us out of nowhere while we’re absorbed with God.

I know – tall order.

How do we delight in God so freely when we have so many beefs with all he has allowed? It’s the question instantly begged upon the word “delight”.Some of our lives resemble Mordor – ashes and geysers everywhere you look.

That was the fork at which I stood.

All I can say is, I chose delight. It wasn’t some saintly nobility – I just knew the way back was cut off.

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68)

And I found that things really do operate the way God describes.

The Christian who desires more money must release it, trusting so fully in God’s creative provision that charity becomes the greater joy.

The Christian who desires upward mobility must instead wash feet.

The Christian who desires more friendship must offer it, gushing like a spring upon those around him (as Christ did) rather than incessantly drawing inwards.

The Christian who desires a spouse must be filled with Christ now, so that they will not grasp like an empty one.

The Christian who desires justice must not seek it by his own hand, but depend on God’s watchfulness and convicting power. (You might be interested to know that justice is actually the strict context of Psalm 37).

At each point, our desire is tested to determine its worth. Some would survive the fire, others would not (Psalm 37:4’s applicability to Lamborghini’s is doubtful), but all must be sublimated to Christ.

And no matter what the cherished object, we must delight in his timing.

God has a funny way of keeping dreams alive. It’s one of the great paradoxes. He brings our dreams around. But they happen in his way, according to his calculations and machinations, and often with a more eternal reach (like the artist whose future work might raise souls instead of curtains).

It is difficult to delight amidst the Mordor of this world. But if we choose it anyway, we will be rescued, pulled out of the cataclysm and awakened in a new home.

The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
    he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
    he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
    because they take refuge in him. (Psalm 37:39-40)

The Joshua Harris Fallout: The War Everyone’s Forgetting (Or Never Saw)

Few days of history compare to the last day of the World Wars. Millions danced in streets across the globe.

But those scenes seem far removed from today.

“Why continue torturing myself? Why not just forget God and get on with life, like most of the rest of the world? Instantly I felt a sense of relief and freedom, like I had just passed a final exam … I picked up my Bible and a couple other Christian books and walked downstairs and out the back door. I shut the door softly behind me, so as not to wake anyone. In the backyard was a brick barbecue grill, and I piled the books on it, sprayed them with lighter fluid, and struck a match. … at last I had peace. A great weight had lifted. I had been honest with myself. Any pretense was gone, and I no longer felt the pressure to believe what I could never be sure of.”

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These aren’t the words of Joshua Harris, nor those of Hillsong worship leader Marty Sampson, who this week declared his own critical struggle with his faith.

The words are from Richard, a young man whose conversations with author Philip Yancey served as the backbone of Yancey’s book Disappointment with God.

They’re becoming familiar. Within the battle reports offered by these leaders, there’s a pattern:

“I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It’s crazy.” – Sampson

Though Sampson goes on to cite intellectual conundrums, I sense an undercurrent of feeling in his words. It was similar with Harris – in his case, internal conflict over a doctrine that’s particularly costly for certain Christ followers. He couldn’t reconcile, so he took the path of least emotional resistance and found himself outside.

And I get it.

I know the weight they’re talking about, the Gordian knot deep in the chest year in and year out. It’s the “oh, come on” knot, that just won’t accept paradox and longings deferred and the constant tension of cultivating a relationship with the unseen. People hit their forties and start realizing that “that thing” won’t just evaporate by itself, isn’t responding to simple prayer or maturity, and might never resolve in this life. A final straw.

That’s why I’ll decline the usual “let Scripture matter more than your feelings” line that John Cooper offered.

Not that he’s wrong. Our generation has forgotten to trust Scripture. Or never really heard it.

But remember that we are refugees in war-torn lands. Not all of us found trouble as adults; some were born into it. Into families that didn’t get us, that fell apart while we were still in high chairs, that carry unspeakable secrets. Right from the opening credits, we were beleaguered. Those feelings do not simply go away. They matter.

So the part of Scripture we might most need is the part where faith is a war.

Many Christians seem to have assumed that proper belief is one long, unbroken catharsis and inner resolution (and anything else is failure). There is partial relief to be had. I’ve found much.

But Scripture tells us that complete relief is not our present (Romans 8:23), and misdiagnosing reality is always dangerous. John Eldredge said, “It’s the equivalent of arriving on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, with a lawn chair and a book to read. It is a drastic misunderstanding of your situation.”

Read the Biblical accounts of the faithful. Does any of it look easy? Yes, Jesus is a God of victory, but victory implies war. Paul often uses military analogies. Ephesians 6 outlines spiritual weapons. Your life is a war.

It would explain some things, wouldn’t it? Look around you. See it as a war, with sides and weapons and tolls, and it makes an ugly sort of sense.

So the dragon was furious with the woman and left to wage war against the rest of her offspring–those who keep God’s commands and have the testimony about Jesus (Revelation 12:17).

It also explains the weird way life suddenly gets better when faith is jettisoned. Of course things got better – you abandoned your post. You stepped off the front lines and experienced the flooding relief of not being shot at. Of course you’re surrounded by “positive and affirming” thoughts now. Of course you have a fiancee now. Of course you no longer have theological quandaries to wrestle. You aren’t in the line of fire anymore. Already Satan has retasked his resources towards the next guy on the line. Why would he bother with you now? You’re right where he wants you.

My friends, there is relief to be found in this life. I fully believe it. Though weapons must be shuffled through and strategies shifted (and God allows the process), I believe it can be found.

But I suggest the theory that if you find yourself struggling to love Jesus through your disappointment today, it means you haven’t surrendered. The Christian life is unnatural to the fallen soul. Always was. And the war that results is brutal.

Satan is furious that Jesus has a death grip on you that cannot be dislodged. This Jesus never will let go, as long as you don’t. And remember the mighty thrust of his truthful words: that reward is not found fully in this life, but the next.

Morning is coming. Hold on!

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

A Week on the Plains and Plain Truth about Reservations

Last week, fourteen high school students loaded up a van and drove across Montana with three leaders – including myself  –  for a week putting on VBS’s on a distant Native American reservation. It was our second annual mission to this site. We went with God preparing the way ahead, his glory as our rear guard, and the fervent prayer and support of our congregation going up to him.

I did miss the opportunity to spend the week blasting Audio Adrenaline’s “Blitz” with its refrain “Fourteen kids in an old church van”, but que sera sera.

(For those who don’t know our church, we’ve long run a tiered youth mission program intended to get students out of their middle-class comfort zone and set before them the struggles of impoverished and unchurched corners of our world. Tier 1 trips are our shortest, most in-culture and structured. This was a Tier 2, remaining on continent but removing students further from cultural norms and controlled conditions, demanding more work and initiative. Tier 3 is off-continent; Tier 4 is long-term.

The program has availed much. So many testimonies of youth setting hammer to nail, shovel to dirt, or Windex to window in a darkened battleground somewhere, returning home with their worldview flipped on its head, and finishing growing up that way. It spurs gospel and generosity, loosens their love of their material bubble. It’s one of my favorite features about my church.)

TLDR for those wondering how their prayer and money was used: the trip was terrific. Fruitful, providential, and foundational for the future.

peckGod had clearly positioned us for this mission. Just weeks prior, huge, potentially deal-breaking questions had loomed about manning and housing. They were all solved, albeit in that on-the-run fashion that God so often favors. In fact, some of God’s answers turned out to be improvements on last year’s situations.

The students did top-notch work planning and executing their VBS curriculum and activities. Several were visibly stretched, and welcomed it. Our team was solid and fairly inclusive; no real problems regarding unity.

The unpredictability so inherent to this kind of mission trip showed up for sure, given the tendency of reservation life to start at noon and the fact that we were running separate VBS’s in towns 45 miles apart. Schedules and key information were blurred and juggled. The students met it all with a deft willingness to pivot and adapt, to jump to unexpected tasks and fill in shifting vacancies. Few complaints. It was eye-opening to watch them embrace the whirlwind as a cost of doing business.

I heard some students, veterans of last year’s trip, remarking to their parents about how God was maturing and deepening their understanding of reservation life – the challenges of poverty, the darkness of abuse and addiction, the complex way in which social ills beget other social ills, the lack of easy solutions. There were moments that silenced them. Prayers were not skimped upon. You could see their resolve growing.

The team’s adult leaders got a chance to dream and pitch ideas with the local pastors. That was exciting. There are actionable possibilities to return and grow our partnership.

The work will not be easy. Satan holds these grounds and the barriers are considerable.

But there is progress. The local churches have secured small teams of workers, prayer warriors with rough stories of their own, who are building inroads in these communities. Thanks to the tougher moments, we have clear strategies in our pocket. Most of all, we know that God’s Word does not kneel or fade but accomplishes what he intends for it – and that he intends much.

For those who prayed and supported us, God used it. Thank you so much.

Why Are Lies So Loud and Truths So Quiet?

If only life had the decency to be the other way around.

I do not know why lies have all the connections to adrenaline suppliers.

I do not know why it’s fear, anger, and self-hatred that can seize your heart and weigh it down with a twenty-pound force, rather than peace and love.

I do not know why worry seems so inescapably truthful and peace so too-good-to-be-truey. (Okay, I didn’t have a good word there, but you know what I mean.)

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But it is so. Some things are promised to the Christian, but not immediately possessed. Truths must be worked for; lies ride the second law of emotional thermodynamics straight to your doorstep. Truths must be fought for; lies dart across your battle lines and start whispering their propaganda. Truth is the gym visit, lies the chocolate cake. Truth is the ponderous jetliner, lies the gravity. The world and the four silent walls of your apartment shout addiction, despair, and your lack of value; God speaks in a still, small voice.

Even listening to the relatively loud voice of nature requires work – spiritual linguistics. Many eyeball the galaxy and see an accident. When your own life is chaos, it’s easy to agree. Part of your heart whispers, “isn’t it obvious? He isn’t there. Or he isn’t good. Just quit fighting to believe otherwise; it’ll all be such a relief.”

The good news is…muscles expand.

Work gets easier as it is performed. Ever heard the saying, “It’s easier to stay in shape than to get in shape?” It works here. There was a time when praying my way into peace took hours of spiritual work. Now it takes much less. In fact, knowing it’s possible does half the work. Like a youngster’s body finally bringing together all the right muscle movements on his first bike, the spiritual disciplines come.

It can be a long, difficult phase in which we learn to routinely surrender our emotions to Christ and find stability, peace, and hope in him. But there are equally long and difficult phases in which we learn that simple mistakes can get you fired from even your first job at the chicken joint, or that driving recklessly can get your car totaled, or that your first high school relationship is rarely destiny. It feels unfair. How were we supposed to know?

But there was a second job, a second car, a second chance, was there not? A second side to the valley of the shadow of death.

To those are born on the battlefield, perhaps in a foster home or saddled with depression, God offers more. The bigger the battle, the bigger God’s reinforcements.

Don’t give up hope. You’re far stronger than when you started. As we learn the Shepherd’s voice, the lies grow strangely dim along with the rest of the things of earth, while the truth fills our ears. Though we might not possess it yet, we are promised it.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

Is Your Comfort Overflowing Along with Your Trial?

waterfallI’m grateful that our youth group is willing to talk about suffering. We don’t masochistically enjoy the topic, but as Paul wrote with intake of breath, we don’t want our students uninformed (2 Cor. 1:8). We can either warn them, or we can let them catapult into the world and discover gravity on their own. Pick your poison.

(It’s not like suffering is abstract to them anyway. In our era of family brokenness and instant access to news of the world’s powder keg, anxiety and trial are finding them. Getting into their homes, their pockets, their hearts.

They should never have had to deal with all this so young.)

Last night, we had a chance to get ahead of the game and cut off a common twisting of Scripture: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s a distortion of 1 Cor. 10:13, which refers to temptation, not trial. And it’s a not a trivial fudging. For when it’s trial’s turn, God will allow more than you can handle – purposefully.

For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction that took place in Asia: we were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life. Indeed, we personally had a death sentence within ourselves, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9)

Sounds like more than he could handle.

trickle.jpgHasn’t that proven true for you by now? As one student said, “how do you grow unless God breaks your boundaries?” (I secured his permission to use that brilliant phrase in this post, and promised him a dollar.) This verse is unmistakably foundational in its description of the Christian life.

BUT!!!

As I sat in our circle last night, combing through this chapter while the students philosophized and giggled, one verse struck me differently. It was the fifth.

For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. (2 Cor. 1:5)

Overflows.

In a manner grammatically constructed to compare in intensity to the suffering – and written as a promise.

Would you say your comfort is…overflowing?

For much of my life, the comfort was merely a drip. A trickle. Maybe a rivulet. I dammed it up with self-pity, entitlement, despair. I let it take center view. The implosion of my family, the stress of the Air Force, a lot of social isolation for numerous reasons…it was a waterfall. The comfort did not match it.

And that is not how it should be.

6918284549_c37f2b073b_zDid God’s promise fail in my life? I say no. Just because you’re promised something doesn’t mean you possess it. There’s a real world we must still go through, and an enemy. I didn’t yet know how to go through my enemy, how to swing the sword.

Now I do.

Triggering the second waterfall starts with being prepared for the first. We pray. We worship despite our pain. We mix in some service, partially to alleviate others’ suffering and partially to get our own minds off things. We acknowledge God is not cruel, has not abandoned us, but remains faithful and is dispatching comfort our way. And that it will match our suffering.

Let us be raised from the dead. For we know that one day, at the trumpet sound, one of these waterfalls will dry up forever.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

Resting Killface and the Hard Glory of Yet Another Task

desertResting killface is a condition in which the mouth’s corners do not naturally turn upward, even when you’re eight tics happier than you look. The result is a face like mine, perpetually frozen somewhere between “quietly petrified”, “incurably grave”, and “Deep South serial killer”.

Your parents during your childhood: “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” you’d reply over your book.

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“You look annoyed.”

“I’m not. Now I’m annoyed because you keep asking.”

Years ago, I arrived at a party to announce I’d nabbed a new teaching position, only for a friend to go, “so why do you look like someone just shot your dog?”

If any of this is familiar, you might have resting killface. We’re good, we swear! We only look like we’ll strangle the next person who approaches us.

But eventually I had to face how my killface was impacting my social life. When I stood around in neutral, my downer look would repel folks. When I made a joke, my lack of smile would conflict with my tone, leaving others unsure of my intentions. It was subtle, but influential.

Following on this revelation’s heels was the fact that the onus was on me to change.

oasis-67549_1280.jpgThat was frustrating. I’ve never been socially gifted; friendmaking has been slow. To hear that I had a hand in getting where I was, and had more work to do, felt honestly like insult added to injury.

But the world wouldn’t change for me. Social dynamics were social dynamics. No matter how many Disney movies sang “be yourself”, no matter how many memes of people snapping their fingers in a “Z” motion and celebrating rejection of all advice, the score was the same. I needed to accept either this new “growth opportunity”…or the status quo.

Have you waged a years-long campaign only to be confronted with yet another battle?

Your student with special needs uncovers another learning disability.

Your illness breaks remission.

The new boss appears and turns out worse than your last three.

God exposes another soul weakness that needs work before he ends your singleness (I do believe he does this with some, my last post notwithstanding).

Another retreat fails to fix your marriage.

Your church keeps on bickering and back-biting, and now its foremost tither announces he’s moving.

Ugh.

I think of Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. He has just raced thousands of miles across country, first in a desperate flight from slavery, then carrying word of a coming invasion of the free and noble Archenland. He’s evaded city police, endured days of desert heat, and been chased by lions. Gasping, ready to collapse, he finally reaches Archenland’s citizens with news of the impending attack – only to learn that he’s the only one who can reach the king in time. He must keep going.

…”he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed, your reward usually is to do another and harder and better one.”

I don’t know where C.S. Lewis got this sage stuff (well, yes I do), but it’s the kind that alters a young man’s trajectory.

Perhaps it is not cruelty but honor and reward, wearying though our journey be. Perhaps we should throw ourselves in without hesitation, as Shasta did the first river he found after his desert crossing. Or into the next leg of his journey.

For Shasta’s mission succeeded. In fact, not only did Archenland receive his warning in time to fortify its defenses until Narnian reinforcements could arrive, but Shasta discovered who he really was: the long-lost son of the very king he’d warned, heir to the very kingdom he helped save.

Be refreshed by God today. It is only through these travails that we will discover Whose sons and daughters we’ve been all along.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

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