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Author: Daniel

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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Ahh…political! Relief from earthly politics

elephant-donkey-boxingAs my blog evolves, I often reflect on experiences in my life and how they relate to my overall life message.

One area I have consciously worked to avoid is politics. It’s not that I don’t have political opinions; I do. And sometimes I can get passionate about an issue. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out when I don’t agree with local or national politics in our country.

But politics can deeply divide people into pro vs. con, us vs. them, progressive vs. conservative, or—in Christian-speak—God’s prophet vs. Satan incarnate. I’m sad to think public discourse can be so polarizing, but unfortunately, divisiveness is a part of our fallen nature.

There was a time when I truly believed that the implementation of God’s kingdom on earth depended upon the victory of a particular party. Honest. If “my” candidate won, all was well in the world. If he or she lost…well, pass the Prozac. So, as a follower of Christ who sincerely desired God’s will for my nation, state, and town, my “kingdom work” revolved around leaving literature in screen doors and encouraging people to vote – which, especially if I believed in a particular cause or candidate, I did with conviction. (And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.)

But it never happened – the implementation of God’s will through political means, that is. Politics is too wobbly. Whenever a particular party actually got in and held the majority in government, it seemed to result in either a scandal or the collective governmental IQ falling to the level of bean dip – mainly because whenever one party has a strong majority, especially for a long time, the opposition becomes too weak to check them, challenge them, or counterbalance them.

My kingdom view began to change as well. As I sought Jesus’ direct support for my cause, I quickly realized the difficulty of that task. I found that Jesus was apolitical, and no political philosophy can lay sole claim to his teachings. Despite popular implications that he was liberal, conservative, or anything else, he refused to be categorized as anything other than God. His enemies constantly set him up and baited him, but each time they thought they had him pegged, he skillfully twisted out of their grasp. And despite being wrongly accused and executed as a revolutionary king (so in a way, you could say politics killed him), he steadfastly resisted citizenship in any earthly political system, demonstrating again and again that his citizenship was in the kingdom of God.

And so is ours. I wonder how the world might change if we, as Christians, focused our time, money, and energy less on politics, and more on prayerfully living out the kingdom of God on earth. While I do recognize that some Christians are called to serve as elected officials, committee members, lobbyists, or other participants in the political process, I don’t believe our primary allegiance should ever be to any earthly political party. Instead, it should be to the Lord.

JesusVotesRepublican-1The idea of being apolitical is somewhat new to me. I graduated from a conservative Christian college in the 1980s. At that time, Christian conservatives were a powerful and sought-after voting bloc. They identified Christianity with conservative party politics and believed Jesus would have agreed. They pursued family values as their primary cause and worked to get conservative politicians appointed or elected to office, including Ronald Reagan twice, in order to pass and enforce laws supporting this vision. They believed God’s will could be actualized through political avenues. So they sought to gain political influence. And they got it. Conservatives came into power, and conservative Christians were appointed to presidential commissions, invited to serve as spiritual advisors to those in power, and consulted on national policies. If a scandal involving conservatives broke out, the conservative Christian voting bloc tended to overlook such indiscretions in order to keep its people in power.

jesus_donkey300Fast-forward thirty years, and Christian progressives began making the same mistakes as Christian conservatives did in the 1980s. Christian progressives became a powerful and sought-after voting bloc. They identified Christianity with progressive party politics and believed Jesus would have agreed. They pursued social justice as their primary cause and worked to get progressive politicians appointed or elected to office, including Barak Obama twice, in order to pass and enforce laws supporting this vision. They believed God’s will can be actualized through political avenues. So they sought to gain political influence. And like the conservatives before them, they got it. Progressives came into power, and progressive Christians have been appointed to presidential commissions, invited to serve as spiritual advisors to those in power, and consulted on national policies. If a scandal involving progressives breaks out, the progressive Christian voting bloc has tended to overlook such indiscretions in order to keep its people in power.

Each side can make a case for a biblical basis.

But neither side is completely correct. Neither side fully represents God’s perspective. And even in their political successes, neither side is capable of accomplishing God’s will on earth. Only God can do that.

The church is called to a higher vision than current political systems. We are called to be a countercultural example of the kingdom of God (not preach it, but be it). We are called to oppose sin as conservatives remind us, and work for peace and justice as progressives remind us. Note that I said the church should do these things, not elect politicians and pass laws to do them for us. The money we invest in political causes would be better invested in kingdom work. Instead of working through political systems on the left or right, what if we reached out to people directly with the power of the gospel? Some Christians have already caught this vision and are doing great work, not for any earthly political party or kingdom but for the kingdom of God.

In seeking to become apolitical (that is, less political and more kingdom-minded), I have found a greater sense of freedom – and relief. According to Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases” (NLT). So, no matter who gets elected or which laws get passed, God is always in charge, always working to accomplish his good purposes. Our primary job is to follow and obey him, and to work and pray for HIS kingdom to come to earth.

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Pile it on, part 2

Recently a friend asked me a two-part question. In Part 1 she asked whether, given my new book deal, I am now grateful for the painful road that brought me here (see my post,  Pile it on, part 1).

But then my friend asked Part 2: “Does it take something really big or really good to make us finally thankful for a difficult road?”

To be honest, compared to the first question, this one was even tougher. It forced me to think harder to get past the spiritual clichés.

Because, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty. It seems superficial to look back after a big God-event and say, “Yeah, now I see God’s hand in the hardship.” I mean, if someone gets canned from a job and then finds one that pays oodles better, it doesn’t take a whole lot of spirituality to “give God the glory” for losing the first job. Giving glory to God in the windfalls is just too easy.

But what about those who never get a big God-event in which all the pieces seem to fall neatly into place? What about those who lose good jobs and never regain anything similar for the rest of their careers? What about those who get blindsided by life, and the magic rescue from heaven never comes?

A common Christian answer is, “Well, God’s timing is perfect. Maybe the time hasn’t come yet.”

Perhaps. But in some cases, the time never comes at all.

In the book of Job, Job experiences terrible disasters in which he loses all of his earthly wealth, then his health, and finally his ten children. After all of this, he wants to know why he’s had to suffer so terribly. But he never gets an answer. All he gets is a voice in a whirlwind giving the most beautiful non-answer – essentially this: Who died and put you in charge that I must answer to you?! (Job 38:2ff)

Yes, eventually Job regains his wealth and health and has more children; but as any parent knows, any child who dies can never be replaced by a new one. Like most of us, Job never knows the reason for all of his sufferings. In fact, had he known that the reason was a little bet between God and Satan (Job 1:8-12), he might have drowned himself in a whole new flood of theological issues.

So I don’t believe the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” It doesn’t. Catastrophic events can affect how we view the world, and ourselves, throughout our lives. Time alone doesn’t provide the same healing as a redemptive event.

But time can bring perspective and growth. Because God’s redemption seldom drops into our lives as a single event. If it did, there would be no need for us to wrestle with God, no need to seek out his mystery and his grace. And without wrestling and seeking, our spiritual challenges become stale, bland, lukewarm. After all, if I experience a great event that alleviates all the pain of my difficult road, then I’m set; I have everything I need. So why bother wrestling with God or trying to understand him at all?

Yet with time, though we may never receive the answers we desire, we are driven to seek out and draw closer to the Creator.

And occasionally, we might get a big answer which calls for a big celebration.

But even if not, I think God wants us to develop a deep thankfulness through the search itself—a thankfulness built as we continue to “pile it on,” one painful memory at a time, turning each stone of pain into a step of thanksgiving.

For example, over the past six years of struggling with employment issues and broken dreams, I have become truly thankful that—with careful planning and despite a brutal economy—God has met my physical needs: a car that runs, food in the fridge, an affordable little home when many were losing theirs, and even the ability to attack and finally, after many long years, get my indebtedness ratio moving in the right direction. I am thankful he created my two little wiener dogs, whose antics drive everyone crazy but also bring great joy and laughter. I am thankful he brought me into a church which makes him very real to me and encourages me to cling to him. I am thankful he shoved me, an introvert, into a home community of other broken people who have poured out grace and healing prayer on me; I absolutely fell in love with these folks. Finally, I am thankful for the love and commitment of my wife, who has stayed by my side through undoubtedly the worst years of my life so far. I know she has struggled, but she’s still here. And I am deeply in love.

Such lessons of thanksgiving can be learned only in the desert. Now that I have a book deal, thanksgiving seems almost too easy. But when I didn’t have a book deal – or anything else to hope for – that’s when thanksgiving became a true sacrifice of praise for me. That’s when it really meant something, really cost me something, to learn to give thanks anyway.

These emerging areas of thankfulness don’t come superficially through a single big event, like a book deal. Instead, they come gradually, over time. They are hard-won by persevering through the wilderness, one step after another, like Joshua and the Israelites.

Although most of us would prefer a big “something” to drop immediate clarity into our laps, the deepest moments of growth and thankfulness seem to come only as we travel those winding desert paths.

Like Joshua, we can build our painful memories into a monument of praise. We can pile up the painful moments, one by one, as reminders that God is always good, even when things look very dark. And yes, we can be thankful for the blessing of each painful memory – even if the big fix never comes.

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Pile it on, part 1

pile-of-stonesRecently, for the second time this spring, I got The Question again. Knowing my trauma since losing the PhD and my joy at getting a book deal, a close friend asked me: “Dan, standing where you are now and looking back, do you find yourself grateful for the road that brought you here?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to remember the times when God really seemed to “pile it on” – the pain, the agony, the humiliation. However, after hearing that question twice within a few weeks, from two different people, I realized God was doing the asking—and he is unrelenting. So I knew I had to answer.

Yet why the hesitation?

After all, I have a book scheduled for publication this summer—and that’s great news. If my dry, narrow-focus doctoral dissertation had passed rather than failed, there’d be no book; instead, there would be only the dissertation, gathering dust on a back shelf in a remote university library, with virtually no chance that anyone would ever read it. In fact, if my dissertation had passed I’d have no hope of redemption—because without pain and failure, there is nothing to redeem.

Shouldn’t I be able to see that by now? Shouldn’t I be thankful for my story—for all of the heartbreak God has brought me through, and for everything he’s done since? Sure, I’ve carried grief and regret so searing, so mind-numbing, I felt like I barely survived. But in hindsight, wasn’t it worth it?

My head knows the right answer. My head knows I should be grateful for all that has happened, including the wretched road that brought me to where I am. My head knows, and even believes, that “all things work together for the good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

My heart, however, has wanted to kick in the teeth of every person who spews that verse as if it were an instant fix. My heart still feels the shock of hearing my examiners reject my dissertation. My heart still remembers the torment of lying in bed like a corpse, telling myself to breathe. My heart still knows the disgrace of leaving England as a failure, having to face everyone back home, and losing my job just a few weeks later.

In hindsight, yes, I can see that those dark times may have had a purpose—yet my suffering felt so great, so overwhelming, that my stubborn heart doesn’t want to let it go.

But maybe we’re not meant to let it go—at least, not in the way we sometimes think. Maybe it means more than that.

Our society loves to get past pain as quickly as possible. We relieve our physical ills with fast-acting painkillers, so we want to relieve our emotional and spiritual ones the same way. We do everything we can to avoid and deny anything that hurts. But such avoidance and denial is not scriptural—and it does not produce spiritual growth.

Like us, the Israelites wanted to dodge pain. Their trek from Egypt to Canaan was filled with heartaches they would have preferred to avoid. It was a two-week journey which, due to detours caused mostly by sins and failures, they somehow managed to cram into forty years. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years of uncertainty, misery, and death. Forty years of conditions so bad that they actually begged to go back to their former life as Egyptian slaves.

It wasn’t a good time.

But that period was bookended by two miraculous water-crossings: First, before those forty years, God had parted the Red Sea and the Israelites crossed over from being slaves in Egypt to being free people in the wilderness. Second, after those forty years, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed over from being nomads to being a true nation, settled in the Promised Land.

And during that second water-crossing, something different happened. At God’s instruction, each tribe carried a stone from the middle of the riverbed to the opposite bank and Joshua built the stones into a memorial (Joshua 4:7), saying:

“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” – Joshua 4:21-24 (NIV).

Make a pile of stones? Really? Seems like an odd request. Why did God have them do that?

I think it was because he knew the Israelites, like all humans, had short memories. Sure, he had delivered them from Egypt by parting the Red Sea; but then came forty years of wandering in the wilderness. By the time they were ready to cross the Jordan River, virtually everyone who had been an adult during that first miraculous parting was dead. The children born afterward had only heard about it. Maybe it didn’t sound real to them. Maybe they didn’t even believe it had happened.

So God gave a repeat performance: he parted the Jordan River, just for their generation. New generation, new miracle. And in the future, when their descendants would see the pile of stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?” – then the people could tell about all of their failures, all of their pain and suffering, and how God had brought them through.

The purpose of these events was not to show how cool and special the Israelites were, but to show how powerful and merciful God is. If there hadn’t been any difficulties, there couldn’t have been any deliverance. Just as in my own story, without pain and failure there can be no redemption.

To me, the river stones can represent the pain in our lives—memories so raw and sharp-edged that we wouldn’t wish them on anyone. These painful memories break the water as it rushes around them, and they break us too. They crush us, even grind us to powder. Though we shouldn’t dwell on or obsess over them, we should remember them. In fact, we must remember them. Because, piled together, they attest to God’s salvation. Each painful memory becomes part of our monument of remembrance – a monument to God’s work of mercy and grace.

My friend’s question still makes me hesitate, because my heart still remembers the pain. But my painful journey is now a part of my story. It’s a part of who I am. So when people ask, I can say: Yes, despite the pain, I can still be grateful.

So go ahead…pile it on.

Because there’s one thing that is always true about a pile of stones: It always points toward heaven.


Killing THOSE people


I killed a guy this week.

Oh, believe me, I was completely justified. He really had it coming. He was one of THOSE people.

I was already miffed because I had been delayed by two separate car wrecks and was running late for work. (Sidenote: Why do I always count my problem of being stuck behind a car crash as bigger than the problem of those being pulled from the wreckage?)

Anyway, even though I was behind schedule already, I still needed to make a stop at Plaid Pantry.

So of course I ended up behind a guy who had to slow down the line and make his problem, my problem. He started picking an argument, ranting at the clerk about having to show ID to buy cigarettes and raging against the idiotic law requiring her to ask him for it. He even tried to rope me into joining his crusade. Worst of all, he looked old enough to have been buying cigarettes for years and he finally did show his ID, so he must’ve known the routine and been through it before. Yet he had to start freaking out now?

On the outside, I hid my feelings. I tried to look as disinterested as possible, silently willing him to finish his stupid purchase so I could get out of there.

But inside I was deeply, deeply irritated.

So I killed him.

I didn’t kill him physically. (What am I, some kind of psycho?!) No, I killed him in the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. (Matthew 5:21-22, The Message)

Why does God always bring THOSE people into my life? I don’t mean the warm-fuzzy kind—the romantic soulmate, the trusted mentor, the BFF. No, I mean those infuriating drama queens and kings who worm their way into every nook and cranny of my business, who push my buttons and get under my skin, who bring chaos to the calm. People who, even if I am totally right, make me feel 100% wrong—and if I am wrong, they just tuck away that little demerit to use against me in the future.

God loves to let THOSE people cross my path.

Sadly, I find myself killing them all at some point.

I can say that about my attitude toward the guy at Plaid Pantry. And plenty of other people too.

It’s amazing how Jesus can take murder—which seems like such a huge, whopping sin that I’m pretty sure I’d never commit it—and bring it so close to me that I can feel my guilt oozing from every pore. Though I haven’t committed murder according to the laws of the state, I have committed it according to the law of God. I have harbored deep ire, even rage, toward others: that convenience-store crusader, that frustrating neighbor, that critical coworker, that former boss who refused to see any good in me. According to Jesus’ definition of the law, in all of these cases I stand guilty of murder. I am no different than Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.

So now that I stand convicted of breaking the commandment against murder, is there anything I can do about it? Frankly, in practical terms, no. That is what the cross is for. Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law rips us from our pharisaical ruts and brands us with guilt. But that’s why Jesus came. We are holy not because we keep the Ten Commandments—according to Jesus’ words, we manage to break them daily—but because of his work on the cross.

I think God puts THOSE people in my life to force me to leave my comfort zone and show God’s grace to the world, as he has shown it to me. In truth, I’d rather stay dumb, fat and happy in my own little club of warm-fuzzy people who love me. But THOSE people keep chafing away at the callouses on my heart. Through trial and error—multiple errors—God softens and smoothes me more and more. Hopefully, in time, I will begin to see THOSE people through Jesus’ eyes—as treasured individuals for whom he died.

Just like me.