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.

 

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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)

mountain-background-hd-14

 

When Singleness Gets Ugly

treeI’ve been getting a little mail from Christians struggling with singleness.

I have a heart for them. Long-term singleness is a delicate, heartfelt matter. If my journey has taught me anything, and if I may be honest, I’ve found the Kingdom’s singleness teachings…lacking. Not always deep enough. Frequently written by people who married at 21. Often rushing to deny that it’s even a struggle (for various reasons).

I may not be John Piper, but I am a single Christian, and you know the saying: write what you know.

Okay. For some believers, singleness is…a longing. They could use encouragement. But that’s as far as it goes. They’re okay. They wouldn’t call it their foremost trial.

For others of you…it’s something more.

You find yourself thinking about it often. It’s what you usually mean by phrases like “unspoken prayer request” or “I’m just struggling”. You used to take comfort in having plenty of time before you reached the age of the married people you admire. Then you look around and they’re all younger. Perhaps you’ve ground through three or four committed relationships (that wasn’t in the manual) and wonder what it will take for one to finally stick. Or you haven’t had a date in six years.

This stuff matters to you. You’ll not catch me looking down on you for it.

It’s not about just your “plans” (which is how the church often responds), thank ya kindly. We wanted this. Some people don’t want to vacation on their own. They just don’t. We want a witness to our lives, someone to share a ministry or thunderstorm, a Netflix series or an ominous newscast. We want someone waiting at home, to laugh and cry with us, to know our favorite words. Just getting to say “we” instead of “I” sounds amazing.

Instead, your faithfulness seems unrewarded. Singleness involves rejection. In what universe is that not supposed to sting? After a while, singleness feels less like a season and more like a statement. This is beyond campfire cliches. Anyone who’s carried a hope deferred for ten years qualifies for better spiritual aid. (Even college students can feel this ache pretty keenly.)

Singleness landscapes life. You’re walled out of ministries, less sought after by married friends who still love you but want to celebrate and grow with those in the same season. You realize families have a bigger footprint at church. Ever noticed how couples can make friends just by swapping stories of their kids? You don’t have that. Depending on the crowd you run with, it takes a greater effort each year just to keep up. I doubt that’s what Hebrews 12 meant by “run the race”.

Some judge you. They’re annoyed to see someone struggling with something so “minor” and “escapable”. They assume some dysfunction or immaturity that’s driving all your dates away. (We even assume this of each other.) Or they might just not know what to tell you anymore.

I know chaste singles who no longer wear their old purity ring. It’s long ceased to be a promise and become only a reminder.

At the end of the day, it is a profound test of faith. We don’t talk about it anymore because it never changes anything and others are tired of listening and we’re wondering whether it should be this big a deal, but honestly…nothing else seems as hard. Wisely or not, some of us staked large parts of our hearts – even the question of God’s goodness – on the dream of getting married. We feel blindsided by how bumpy and lonely and ordinary life has turned out instead.

There have been long nights, tears, clenched teeth, or abandoned purity. You’d be amazed at how often someone leaves their faith and some failed romance (or no romance at all) shows up on the autopsy. Depending on the person and their story, this season can be debilitating and scary.

You’re welcome on this blog. You’re not nuts. You’re not pathetic. You’re a child of God (or can be), target of his patient love, beneficiary of his endless strength.

Singleness is the journey I took (or was given), and know this – God has not run out of things to say. Even if the church has. We’ve only just begun to tap into the depths of his resources. When he offers to lift us through any trial – well, I have much to say about what that looks like.

For now, come back to this: he still loves us. He still pursues us. He is still for us. He has not left our side. Despite the disappointing weight of the years, he still knocks on the door of our hearts, hoping to share a meal. No new teaching is better than that.

 

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

Yes, You Learned Math You’ll Never Use After High School. Here’s Why.

mathI see it all the time – some character on the internet asking why they were taught (fill in the blank algebra) they never used after high school instead of (fill in the blank practical math like budgeting or taxes or mortgage math).

Having served in the teaching profession, this question is really mine to answer. I now oblige.

Beyond the fact that many schools do offer alternative courses in such math (I’ve taught them)…

…or the fact that practical math is far easier for someone to self-teach, so we reserve algebra for professionals…

…or lines like “it’s about problem-solving” or “we could use more trade schools” or “because federal agencies are dictating our content #lessgovernment #murica”…

…the answer is simple.

You learned math you’ll never use after high school – because your teachers believe in you.

You’re welcome.

Contrary to popular opinion, teachers have no crystal ball revealing exactly what each student will grow up to be. We have no way of knowing a future environmental researcher or mechanical engineer from a future office receptionist or restaurant manager.

And since we don’t know, teachers labor to equip students for as many choices as possible. Perhaps for when that space exploration video smacks your eyeballs in junior year and launches your imagination into overdrive, or when you read about that ecological crisis brewing in the Solomons and suddenly feel driven to find solutions. Darned if teachers are about to bar you from those possibilities by not teaching the basics.

Students might think we should know. “Can’t you see the loser I am? Can’t you see I have no capacity for that great stuff?”

No. We don’t. That’s not our job. Teachers believe in every human that sits before them – even when they don’t believe in themselves. How can they do their jobs with any passion otherwise? We will not count you out, even when you count yourself out.

Even if you do become a stay-at-home mom, had you chosen a path of research at Cal Tech, you at least had the option. That is not a waste of your time. For you were not a waste of their time. You may not have understood the lesson then, but it gives you limitless options later. 

You could say much the same of God – except he knows exactly where you’ll end up.

Perhaps you’re currently wondering, when on earth am I going to need these heartbreaking lessons I’m learning? Perhaps your current circumstances are stretching you to the breaking point, beyond what you thought you could bear. The fear and depression don’t lift. Money stays suffocatingly tight. The loneliness bears down like a fog. Month in and month out, year in and year out, no matter how many “things are about to change!” sermons you hear, nothing ever does.

Know that it is not in vain. Nothing on God’s blackboard smartboard is ever wasted. 

Imagine being admitted to a NASA engineering internship only to find out you haven’t the slightest math skills. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

God is averting you from that fate. He loves you fiercely and is arranging the strength and knowledge, professionally taught, that you will need for your destiny. When it arrives, you will be ready.

 

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

 

You Matter

Just the other day, Neil deGrasse Tyson dropped this pearl of morbid nihilism in his Twitter feed:

Well, thank you, Neil. You have a singular talent for brightening everyone’s day.

The greatest tragedy, though, might be how many likes that tweet got. If you read enough (forgive me, Lord) internet comments from the agnostic, scientifically curious types, you almost see a perverse delight in their rejection of anything significant about man. To hear them talk, we’re just another species adrift in the dark, clinging to a pale blue dot in its dance across the blackness, one that’s quite indifferent to whether we maintain our grip. Nothing special about us.

Anything to reject God, I suppose.

God is another matter.

You matter to God.

“I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18)

We studied this last night and marveled. Our teens shared a bemusement: “Gee, God, couldn’t you have picked someone slightly better to gift with an inheritance?”

Perhaps. But he chose us.

When I observe Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which You set in place,
what is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
You made him little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:3-5)

Unbelievable. He cares.

…casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7)

You are not an accident or a leftover; you were planned.

That thing that happened to you in high school, the one you’ve never told anyone? He saw. He is furious. And he has plans to make it right.

The trial you’re undergoing now that’s lasted years with no end in sight? He is the God who produces solutions out of nowhere long after hope has surrendered.

Those sins you committed? God wants to forgive. He arranged for it, through the blood of his son, if only it is accepted.

Behold the black hole, one of which was first finally imaged by mankind yesterday:

hole

Amazing, is it not? I’ve waited my whole life for such a vista.

You are more than this.

You are more than just a failed star, more than just a void surrounded by cosmic detritus. That weird phenomenon, that collision of the most exotic, bizarre properties of our universe, endowed with power to anchor galaxies…God has done far more intricate work on you. Your body, your life, all stamped with his seal, bound up as a testimony to his love and care.

Amidst the energy and matter that collide hourly across the universe, you matter to God. Will you not accept this?

 

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!

Snow and Suffering Can Melt Fast

evergreen-1802157_1280The last two winters have been brutal.

More specifically, this last one was mild and forgetful of its job right up until February and then got brutal to catch up (reminds me of the Seahawks offense). Constant negative temperatures, almost daily blizzards. Considering my fifteen-mile daily commute, this was immensely tiresome. I’d say something melodramatic like “I nearly died three times a week in this weather”, except frankly we Montanans are so used to roadside near-death experiences that they’re routine now.

But I was amazed by this: weather can change awful fast.

Theoretically, fall and spring are transitional seasons. That’s not really how it works here. It’s summer, summer, summer, then BOOM maybe a week or two of something in between before the snow comes. It’s winter, winter, winter, then BOOM it’s pretty warm and the flowers start blooming.

All of a sudden, this week, the brutal cold just evaporated. The sun was suddenly shining, the average temperature jumped by twenty degrees, and not even the highest heaps of snow in parking lots are withstanding the healing radiation. It is melting swiftly, and soon the world will look as if winter never happened.

God can do this, too – with suffering.

Jesus heals people whose winter of discontent has lasted over a decade. It just comes out of nowhere. Long after they’ve exhausted every avenue and come to the end of themselves, these people find Jesus on their doorstep and dive for the hem of his robe. BOOM. No gradual change, just…sudden wholeness.

In Acts 3, Peter heals a man crippled from birth. The man had never even known how to walk, yet there he is after his encounter with Peter, leaping and praising God like he’d never missed a day of ambulation.

How surreal, how stunning such sudden transformation must have been!

God does not always bring such whiplash-inducing changes into our lives, but these stories serve to teach us that sometimes he does. And it needn’t be instantaneous to bring whiplash. Change that comes in weeks or months can be just as dizzying, just as joyful. As some say, “once God does move, he hits the throttle.”

God makes up for suffering. These people had remarkable faith to remember it, to dive for Jesus’ robe even after years of disappointment. May their example teach us.

Talking to a Generation in Pain

storm-3329982_640A childhood bouncing between foster homes, never once getting to stay and just be “gotten”.

The friend whose sibling just stopped talking.

Years of chronic pain from, of all things, falling out of a chair wrong.

This week has been a rough reminder of the valley through which an entire generation is slowly plodding en masse. My friends’ stories are piling up.

Feeling invisible because your siblings on either side get more attention.

Miscarriage.

An occupational disease from an employer that obscured working conditions to save money.

Loneliness – not just that of being single, but of being single without family or friends because of something “off” in the personality.

A denomination shifting doctrine (or shifting back) and leaving some behind, unsure of  their place in God’s kingdom despite how hard they’ve served.

Being attuned to poverty in every direction and unable to stop it all.

Coming home from the battlefield and wanting to end it all because of the carnage witnessed and the brothers left behind.

A knot of emotion, manifesting physically in the stomach, that just will not stop screaming lies hour after hour, week after week, year after year no matter what medication is tried.

And to top it all off, a Christianity that tells them – truthfully – that God has no obligation to make it end.

I would not pretend that previous generations have lived and died on a flowery bed of ease, but this is something else. Millennials are the grandchildren of the sixties. Enough said. Compound familial brokenness upon itself down through enough generations and you get…well, what we’re looking at now. God did say it would get worse towards the end. Even if that doesn’t explain all the trials I mentioned, it does make them harder to undergo.

And instead of love, only judgment often comes – “why can’t they just snap out of it?” Things like the recently revealed college admission scandals don’t help. The character problems of some give the entire group a bad name. Some of our pain, to be sure, is on us.

It’s tough to impart spiritual truth to millennials. Did you know that words like “glory” or “salvation” will shut some millennials down almost instantly? They’re priceless words, but the only thing they see is stern, detached buzzwords from a previous generation who don’t get what they’re going through. No, that’s not fair. No, I’m not willing to leave those words behind. But it highlights the difficulty of revealing Jesus to this group. Most want nothing to do with a God of pain.

We’re not dumb. We’re not (all) entitled. We’re not (all) seeking a victim complex.

But the swells do keep coming, and we’re tired of getting rolled.

A speaker I once heard said, “I believe the healing God wants to do in this generation is emotional.” Perhaps hearts, not issues of blood or withered hands, are what Jesus will pursue this millennium.

And perhaps we can be part of it. Consider God’s infinite patience for any person, his ability to convert even Paul to the side of the kingdom. If we simply embrace, listen, forgive, and weep with those who weep. Those are the foundation to the trusses of deep spiritual truth.

A bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:3)