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Month: July 2014

A book pre-release prayer

botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallIt’s been years since the start of this journey.

But then the years became months.

The months became weeks.

The weeks, days.

And now it is only hours until the release of Losers Like Us.

I am well aware that countless others have published before me, but this is my first publication. I have been antsy the last few days: anxious, jittery, full of anticipation, beating my head against the wall until it is all soft and squishy. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I am tired but too excited to sleep.

Last night, my mind raced with thoughts about what could—or will—happen next. There is no possible way to know, but that doesn’t stop my imagination from conceiving of a slew of “what-if” scenarios.

But then I realized that this whole thing is not about me. I was reminded of this truth by the words of my home community leader, words tattooed on her arm no less: “We are trees in the story of the forest.” She writes about this statement on her blog, Among the Evergreens.

“We are trees in the story of the forest.”

No matter what tomorrow brings – good, bad, or ugly – I am not the main character of the Story. I am not the protagonist. I am not the hero. The Story is not about me, but God.

I pray I never lose sight of that. Further…

I pray that God uses the imperfect words of this finite and flawed nobody to speak truth into the stories of others. I pray that from this book he speaks into their brokenness.

I pray God saves me from me. From my inflatable ego. From my tongue. From my future bad decisions. I pray I never try to be something I am not. I pray he silences my mouth when it should stay silent, and opens it when he wants me to speak.

I pray that if the release is met with the chirps of crickets in the corner that I won’t place my value in the responses of others but solely in God.

I pray that I will always be thankful. Truly thankful.

After that prayer, I drifted to sleep.

And I woke this morning to a beautiful new day.

And those prayers are still on my heart.

Friends, forgive my rambling words. Please continue to lift up this loser in prayer.

To God be the glory. Amen.

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Why “Loser”?

Losers_HIRESWhen people ask me about the book, one question that often comes up is: why I am so focused on the label “loser”? It’s in the title of my book, rendering me by default an expert on the topic. I have identified myself as a loser, and now that identification is out there for all the world to see.

So the questions come: Why are you so hard on yourself? How can a child of God call himself or herself a loser? Don’t you realize you are under grace?

Allow me to answer these questions.

First, why am I so hard on myself? Really, I am not. It’s taken me the better part of my life and a couple of kicks below the belt to realize that I am at best an ordinary, frumpy, broken, sinful person. I have failed more often than I have achieved. I have not now, nor will I ever, overcome the “if-only” syndrome (if only I can conquer this sin / overcome this flaw / achieve this status).

However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The point of Losers Like Us is to show how God uses ordinary, broken individuals (losers) and does so quite frequently in the biblical narrative. How is calling myself a loser any different than Paul calling himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16)? Or how is it any different than Moses saying he is not qualified to do what God asked (Exodus 3:10ff)? The Bible never hides such flaws and sins. Why should I?

The second question is, how can a child of God call himself a loser? Doesn’t that deny the reality of God’s redemption? No. In order to truly understand redemption, I must remember the mess that is my life. Only God and I know the darkness in the corners of my heart. And, to borrow from Philip Yancey, only with that knowledge can I truly understand what’s so amazing about grace!

That brings me to the final question: Don’t you realize you are under grace? But I say, if grace blinds me to my need for grace, then it means nothing. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). We must never forget how sick we really are.

The truth is, some get very uncomfortable when I discuss these things. And that’s okay. Forcing ourselves to look within, behind the image we try to project, is unsettling. Often, if we’re honest, we don’t like what we see. Further, it goes against our human nature, our American can-do spirit, our competitive “just do it” mantra.

However, after spending the last several years rummaging through old hopes and dreams, I realized that the debris was more than that: it was my framework of God that lay crumbled at my feet.

I had constructed a god of cutting-edge ideas and trendy slogans. A god who celebrated status and accomplishments. This was a god who merely affirmed my own plans and actions. He was there to bless the next development of my life. That was the framework of the god who lay at my feet.

But into my hopelessness and despair came the real God. And I found this God not to be a god of achievement but a God of the impossible. This is a God who actually enjoyed moving history through the ordinary and broken.

The sinner.

The outcast.

The fool.

Even the graduate school failure.

Looking within and seeing the mess of my life in the context of grace is freeing. It allows me permission to stop trying so hard to impress. Maintaining an image is exhausting—especially if that image is far more impressive than the real me. There is freedom in understanding that my ordinariness is the best I’ve got and watching to see what God will do with it.

And this is why I proudly call myself a “loser.”


Meaningless sunshine

Photo by Daniel HochhalterEver since I first read Ecclesiastes, I have been intrigued by this mysterious book. Though I have always struggled with its meaning, I have also been intrigued by and even drawn to its words. I hope that this has nothing to do with a naturally pessimistic temperament, though it could very well be.

Ecclesiastes a small poem hidden in the shadow of the much larger and more-often-quoted book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers more certainty, is more formulaic in its maxims: Righteousness leads to good results; wickedness leads to bad ones. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is far less certain. It speaks of a teacher who spends his entire life seeking—and achieving—wisdom, and experiencing many of the benefits of Proverbs, but still finds everything “under the sun…meaningless.”

But, we silently wonder, everything under the sun was created by Almighty God – so how can it all be meaningless? It seems like a big, theological contradiction. It doesn’t quite fit the narrative of evangelism: “God loves you and has a wonderful [read: meaningful] plan for your life.” It’s troublesome. So we avoid it.

However, the whole point of Ecclesiastes, first introduced in Ecclesiastes 1:9, is that “there is nothing new under the sun”:

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11

The phrase “under the sun ” – repeated over and over in Ecclesiastes – is an umbrella statement that includes anything and everything that is, well, under the sun. But in the repetition lies a hidden clue, a subtle implication that this meaninglessness does not include that which is above the sun. Would this mean stars or planets then? No. I am not referring to above the sun in spacial terms, but in hierarchical terms.

The teacher in Ecclesiastes gives an answer to his own clue. After examining the vast empire he has built and declaring it all meaningless, he concludes with:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them” (Ecc 12:1)

And there it is. Meaning is found only above the sun, in God alone.

Recently this was brought home to me in a new way through a sermon I heard on Ecclesiastes, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.

All my life, I have been an attention-seeker. In junior high I was somewhat of a reject, so I went out of my way to compensate. As I matured, my attention-seeking evolved into the pursuit of a meaningful life. I needed my life to be important, to have meaning. I sought avenues that I thought might provide that meaning: ministry, education, jobs, etc. I looked down on—or avoided altogether—some simple tasks or duties as “meaningless.” My hope—like pretty much everyone else’s—has been to have purpose and meaning in this life.

My book, Losers Like Us, is set to be released in the coming days. The recent teaching I heard on Ecclesiastes shone a brilliant light into yet another dark place in my heart: do I see this book release as another possible path to meaning? In this exciting season of my life, am I seeking meaning through sales figures or other forms of attention that might come from publication?

I pray not. Because—just like everything else under the sun—this season is temporary and ultimately meaningless. Ecclesiastes serves as a powerful reminder that nothing “under the sun” can bring meaning—not an educational degree, not a career, not wealth, not ministry, and not the publication of books. All of it is meaningless.

To look for meaning under the sun will only bring frustration and defeat. Instead I must look above the sun to the one who created it all.

Meaning lies in God alone. Only in God himself—the great I AM, the Creator of all—will we ever find the meaning we so desperately want and need.

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Five seconds on the journey

As daylight seems to be breaking on my long, dark night, I have been taking some moments to look back and reflect on a few things about all that has happened — my responses to the chaos, my emotional spirals, my relationship with God, and especially my trust in all things Yahweh.

Take that last one in particular. During my dark night, at times my trust in God was definitely strained, uncertain. This issue often came up in my prayers. More often than requests for justice over wrongs done to me, or for a miracle check from heaven to pay off my debts and bail me out of my circumstances (though I did pray for both of those things, believe me), my prayers leaned toward a plea to know the future.

lamp_unto_my_feet_painting_by_madetobeunique-d2xsvcdTypically God doesn’t reveal many details about each person’s individual future. But in my own case, when life sucked, I often wished he would. And during my long, dark bouts of depression and uncertainty, I often heard myself pray a silly prayer: “Lord, let me see five seconds of my future—any five seconds at all. Just let me see that there will be an end to this nightmare.”

My prayer was born of desperation – desperation to know whether things would ever change, whether there was something – anything – to look forward to. Metaphorically speaking, for years I felt adrift at sea, with every land-sighting turning out to be a mirage – taunting me, mocking me. I longed to know if I would ever make landfall again, or if the drifting would go on forever. I longed for the darkness to end.

“Lord, let me see five seconds of my future.” An irrational prayer? Definitely. Because which five-second moment in the future would he show me? A really good one? A really bad one? Would seeing it ease my anxieties about the future, or stir up more of them?

But thankfully, when we pray, God hears our need – not our rationality. He knew my prayer was like the plea of an injured child: “Daddy, make the hurt go away.”

And I began to notice that he did answer me. The answer I heard was always the same: a verse from Psalm 119 – the longest poem in the Bible: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

Not very specific. No details about the future. And definitely not the revelation I was seeking.

Yet during those long years of darkness, I had plenty of time to think about it. And I realized that for someone like me, in the middle of a “dark night” experience, that verse was very appropriate.

I came to understand that the “lamp for my feet” is not a high-powered flashlight, shooting a beam far into the distance. It doesn’t show me every perilous ledge, rushing river, or wild beast awaiting me up ahead. Instead it’s more like a lantern with a soft orange glow, illuminating only my immediate surroundings. It provides enough light to keep my next step safe. Beyond that, however, there is still darkness. And there’s no promise of future knowledge – only “your word.”

What is that “word?” To David, it was the Law of Moses – the first five books of our current Bible. To contemporary Jews, it is the whole Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). But to Christ-followers, it is much more: it is the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Christ himself, the living word. He is the lamp for our feet and the light to our path. For the light of that word to guide me to safety, I must constantly meditate and depend upon it—upon him.

If we pull back from that verse and consider the rest of Psalm 119, this whole poem is unified by a single theme: the word. And within that theme is the continual plea for understanding. Because in Psalm 119, deliverance from darkness comes through a deeper understanding of God’s word.

In the last stanza of Psalm 119, David prays:

May my cry come before you, Lord;
give me understanding according to your word.
May my supplication come before you;
deliver me according to your promise. (Psalm 119:169-170)

During my deepest darkness, the silly prayer I mentioned was met with a verse promising light to guide me through it, one step at a time. I was never shown the outcome of my journey in any detail. Instead I was given just enough light to keep me from stumbling or straying off the path. But that light came by hanging on to the written word of scripture, and also the living word – Christ, the light of the world, who will lead me safely down the path.

Through the darkness.

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Waiting (and waiting) for the thrill

roller_coaster_up_hill2I love rollercoasters. Love them.

I love them for the thrill, the rush, the speed. I love the anticipation, the clack-clack-clack as the cars crawl up that first monstrous hill. I love the loops and flips, the twists and turns, the drool swinging from my seatmate’s wide-open mouth and the bugs slamming into my own. I love the way I vow to eviscerate whoever talked me into this as we crest that first terrifying hill, and then laugh and clap as we roll to a stop at the end.

That’s what I love about rollercoasters.

But apparently, judging by the long lines, everyone else loves them too. And the line is always longest for the best rollercoaster in the place. It provides the longest wait, followed by the greatest thrill of all.

So I also hate rollercoasters. I hate them for the wait, the crawl of the line, the crowd pressed tightly together. I hate standing in the sun, shuffling like cattle through those narrow rails, feeling like I’m about to pass out from heatstroke. I hate waiting an hour for a ride that will last sixty seconds. I hate calculating that if admission to an amusement park costs X dollars and I’m there for just a couple of hours, then I’m wasting half of my money to stand in line for an hour, sweating and scowling, when I could be enjoying something else.

That’s what I hate about rollercoasters.

Practicing patience is a lot like riding rollercoasters: both involve exceptionally long waits, followed by moments of exciting reward. As I wait for my book release, I am trudging painfully slowly toward what I know will be an absolute thrill. However, last month when the release was delayed, my wait got a bit longer. The delay was no one’s fault, and I’m told it’s fairly common in publishing. So I waited.

Now comes word of another delay—shorter than the first. My publisher gives me a choice: we can rush through the final proofing, or take another week or two for quality assurance. Of course, the sniveling twelve-year-old in me, screaming for instant gratification, wants to demand a release now. But the adult in me knows it is wiser to wait, to make sure it is done right, to allow my wonderful publisher to give it their all. So I choose the latter, trying to beat down the spoiled brat inside of me.

And while my wait grows, I must grow with it.

As with the best rollercoasters, the longer the wait, the greater the anticipation and the better the thrill. Soon, I will be on that rollercoaster, screaming and giggling like a little girl. Good things will happen—in time.

After the resurrection, Jesus’ final word to his followers was to wait: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:1).

Stay and wait. Something big is coming. Don’t try to force God’s hand. A gift has been promised, and it’s going to be awesome: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2).

Great! But when, and can’t it come sooner?

No. Stay in Jerusalem and wait.

How long? Who knows?

Ever notice that when we try to coax timelines out of God, he tends to keep things vague? “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set” (Acts 1:7).

I have noticed that there is a lot of waiting in the Bible. A lot. But I have also noticed that waiting on God always brings something awesome. In the case of the first Christ-followers, it brought tongues of fire and one of the coolest evangelistic crusades ever (Acts 2:1ff). They had to wait just forty days – which, come to think of it, is the total number of days my book release has been delayed! (Coincidence? Sure…totally.)

So now I stand in line, shuffling along inch by inch. But until the ride comes, how can I pass the time? Well, to continue with the rollercoaster metaphor, I am squished in among other people who are also waiting through their time on earth, with their own hopes and dreams. I might as well make the most of it: build relationships with those around me, try to be Jesus to other cranky people, and perhaps help someone else who actually does pass out in line. While I wait, there is stuff to do – stuff far more important than a book release.

Eventually, I will board that coaster, feel the bar slam down across my lap, and prepare for what could be a very wild ride.

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