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Category: 1 & 2 Samuel

Claiming “Christ Alone” from the bottom of the stupid ditch

There’s a funny video going around social media showing a boy pulling a sheep out of a tight ditch. When the boy finally frees the sheep, the sheep excitedly bounds away and, possessing the average intelligence of a sheep, leaps into the same ditch. Often the caption is attached: “Some days when Jesus shepherds me.”

I am having one of those moments.

The last couple of weeks have not been my most stellar. I have not felt on my “A” game. In fact, I have felt I urge to be relegated back to the Peewee League of life.

Many nights, I have laid in bed this week, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “I am a grown man. How did I miss this?”

I couldn’t even ask what I was thinking because clearly I wasn’t thinking.

What has been the most frustrating part was that I did nothing rebellious or intentional, just—well—stupid.

I have felt like the more I try to focus, the more thoughtless I have become. The more fires I try to put out, the more fires are started by my own hand.

If I was in the Bible, I would have been Uzzah walking alongside the ark of the covenant on its return to Jerusalem. I see it tip, reach out my hand to steady it, then–zap–I am remembered for my thoughtless blunder for all eternity.

That’s the kind week its been.

We all have times like this. Some of us have no trouble making amends, rectifying the mistake(s), and moving on.

Unfortunately, even after successfully doing the first two steps, I often have trouble with the last part–“moving on.” My tendency is instead to make sure I take ample opportunity to beat the crap out of myself for committing such a faux pax in the first place.

How could I let [insert latest faux pax here] happen? I question my abilities and even doubt my calling. I demand to know how I could be so stupid, or how I neglected to catch something so obvious.

Then I spiral.

Into full-blown depression.

It’s kind of the way I am wired.

This morning, I shuffled into church when I clearly would have rather crawled under a rock. A cloud of self-condemnation hung  over my head. Up to the point of actually entering the church, I entertained the thought of not even going this morning and just taking a drive to anywhere but here.

I crept in after the service started and found the furthest corner to sulk in.

I was pretty sure this would be a waste of time. I avoided eye contact as best I could. I didn’t want to worship today. I didn’t want to hear from God. I just wanted to beat myself up.

My attitude was sour. My filters were down.

Then Jesus pushed himself in.

It came through the second worship song:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name[1]

These words derailed my self-loathing. For the last several days, my entire focus has been on me: my stupid mistakes, my shortcomings, my self-pity. In other words,  the more I condemned myself for my stupid mistakes, the more I removed my focus from the Shepherd.

Of course I am going to be depressed.

The first line of this song, however, tore my focus from self and back onto Jesus.

Jesus alone has to be our source of hope. I have to place my hope in him and not in my performance and accomplishments.

Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm, He is Lord
Lord of all.

Christ alone.

It’s an easy claim to make when life is rosy and lush.

However, it is another thing when you’re uttering those words ensconced head-first in the bottom of a ditch.

Through the storm. Lord of all.

I think when we beat ourselves up over our mistakes, bad decisions, and just plain carelessness, we are implying that life is not about Jesus but about ourselves. The world is all about me — my successes, my failures, my achievements, and my mistakes. Truthfully, though, the one who benefits the most from this kind of self-condemnation is the enemy.

Instead, Jesus sticks his head into the ditch next to my stuck body, says, “I got ya,” before pulling me out by the leg.

The truth is, I am likely going to wind up in that ditch again. I wish I could say otherwise. But that’s what it means to be human.

However, real discipleship occurs not by boasting how we can avoid the ditch but by how we can utter the words “Christ alone” while head-first within it.

Whether it’s the first time we’re there or when we stupidly find ourselves there again.

[1] “Cornerstone,” Hillsong Worship

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How the church lost our prophetic voice in 2016 (and how we might get it back)

On Friday, our next president will be sworn in.

The 2016 election ended the most bizarre, unsettling campaign season I’ve ever seen. Afterward I felt great relief, not because my candidate won (I couldn’t vote for either major candidate) but because it was finally over.

Thankfully, mercifully, happily over.

Then the protests and riots began—the most violent of them in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The losers threw tantrums while the winners gloated.

My heart hasn’t stopped aching about the 2016 election season. However, what troubled me most was not the candidates, but the body of Christ. I consider 2016 to be the year the church lost its prophetic voice.

Both progressive and conservative Christians took their eyes off God’s simple requirement: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Each side seemed to have a sickening case of tunnel vision, condemning vile behaviors in the other candidate while overlooking equally vile behaviors in their own. God’s people could have called for justice and repentance without scrambling down into the mud with everyone else. But we didn’t. So we lost our prophetic voice.

What do I mean by prophetic voice?

Consider King David.

In 2 Samuel, David had just committed a string of terrible sins. First, he sleeps with the wife of Uriah, one of his top warriors. Then, when she gets pregnant, he craftily calls Uriah back from the battlefield for a little—ahem!—“R&R” with her, to hide who the father is; but Uriah won’t enter his own home because doing so would dishonor his fellow warriors, who are still fighting and can’t enjoy such luxuries. Thwarted, David resorts to premeditated murder. He commands his general to put Uriah on the front lines and then withdraw the troops, leaving Uriah to be killed.

The plan works; David gets away with both adultery and murder.

Until the prophet Nathan shows up to tell the king a story:

“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him” (1 Samuel 12:1-4).

Hearing this tale of injustice, David rages: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (12:5-6).

Only then does Nathan close the trap: “You are that man” (12:7).

This story can help us understand the prophetic voice, and also how we lost it.

The prophetic voice speaks truth to power. Nathan had to deliver a stinging rebuke to a king. Although David’s kingdom was ruled by God’s law (the Torah), in a monarchy the king is the arbiter of the law, and can essentially do whatever he wants. Though David was considered a man after God’s own heart, he did not hesitate to commit sin and then hide it.

I admit I can get pretty starry-eyed around “kings” (people who have wealth and fame – like when I used to do on-air interviews of musicians, politicians, and other celebrities at a Christian radio station). In fact, who doesn’t? For some reason, most of us want rich, famous people to think we are cool. However, if God so instructed, would I have the courage to speak God’s uncomfortable truth to power? Nathan did, even knowing it might cause his political downfall or possibly his physical death.

It took great courage for the prophet to deliver this rebuke to a king. But the prophetic voice must speak God’s truth to whomever God instructs, no matter how powerful and no matter what the potential consequence.

The prophetic voice must transcend our own political agenda. Nathan could have convinced himself that maybe he didn’t hear God correctly, or that David’s sin wasn’t all that bad. After all, David was doing some great things: establishing a beautiful capital in Jerusalem, bringing the ark of the covenant back home, and defeating some pretty bad enemies of Israel. He was a good king overall, so why care about his personal life? Why bother with his sins (or “mistakes”)? After all, bringing him down would d– evastate not only the palace and royal family, but the entire nation as well.

When my alma mater’s president posed next to then-candidate Donald Trump with a Playboy cover on the wall behind them, I cringed. I know he didn’t pick where he stood in Trump’s office, but that photo seemed representative of what was going on among Christians at that time: we were more than willing to overlook sin if it benefited our political agenda. Maybe Trump was our guy because he preached pro-life, so we didn’t care about his playboy lifestyle; or maybe Clinton was our gal because she preached benefits for all, so we didn’t care about her unethical practices; or maybe Sanders was our guy because he preached social justice, so we didn’t care that he doesn’t even really believe in God.

So we lost the moral high ground. Or, as Judge Judy says, we accused without clean hands. We found that we cannot call out the splinter in our opponent’s eye when we have a plank in our own.

The prophetic voice should lead to a repentant heart. Nathan approached David not just to spew vitriole or delegitimize his kingship, but to call David to repentance. And David immediately responded, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13). Psalm 51 beautifully expresses his repentance:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain m
(Psalm 51:10-12).

True, David was a true follower of God who cared deeply about God’s opinion, while many of today’s politicians and pundits aren’t. Still, we don’t even try to do what Nathan did: confront them directly and call them to account, led by God with the purpose of effecting repentance. Instead we confront them indirectly on social media, led by our own silly passion—pointlessly mocking them, repeating wild rumors about them, and insulting their followers. That’s the world’s methodology, and we are not being God’s prophetic voice when we imitate it. Our objective must be repentance—which, by the way, always includes our own.

So, under a new president, can the church regain its prophetic voice? Or will we keep practicing the world’s ways of jeering, rejecting, and tearing down without building up?

I hope we’ll do the former. But we’ll have to look within. Will we try to speak God’s truth, in love, to everyone or just to those with whom we disagree? Will we seek justice for all, or only for those we personally deem oppressed? Will we pray for our president, not for him to grow a brain or roll over dead but to humbly repent, seek reconciliation, and lead our nation with wisdom and grace?

Nathan’s gentle, truthful approach softened David’s heart to hear God’s words. We too must maintain a gentle spirit of repentance for ourselves, our opposition, and our whole society. God’s kingdom must come first; no political party, preference, or agenda is more important.

To regain our prophetic voice, we must be brave, loving, and consistent, or else remain silent.

I am pretty sure silence is not an option.

We must do better.

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New life in the zombie apocalypse, part 3: Abandoning self-sufficiency

Note: I love zombie apocalypse stories because they are a great metaphor for life crises. This blog series on the topic has four parts: 1) waking up in the crisis; 2) defining “alive”; 3) abandoning self-sufficiency; and 4) spiritual weapons and sustenance. All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.

The Walking Dead, a zombie show based on a serialized graphic novel, is one of the most-watched shows on TV, while other zombie books and movies continue to sell like hotcakes.

Why is the zombie genre so popular?

I think one reason is the compelling question at the heart of it: In a zombie apocalypse, what would I do? Or more specifically, excluding the suicide option, what would I do to survive?


This question faces all fictional people in zombie stories, and stirs such passionate interest in actual people that a real-life industry has grown up around it. sells a survival manual, and other websites offer real-life training camps on the topic. In 2011, even the History Channel aired a special (Zombies: A Living History) about outlasting a zombie takeover. The History Channel!

The question of survival can be broken down into more specific questions, such as: Where would I go? With whom would I associate? What about weapons for self-defense? And what about sustenance (food and water)?

Each of these questions has spiritual applications. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

First, where would I go?

Would I go to a city or to the country, and would I settle into a secure, well-equipped home base or stay on the move?

A city contains more scavengeable resources for greater self-sufficiency (or the illusion of it), but it also has more zombies. To get around the zombies to the resources, I’d need massive courage and ninja-like stealth – attributes rarely possessed by a guy of my size and agility. Also, in the city, there’s more danger of getting trapped in tight spaces (narrow streets, tall buildings) with no escape, whereas in the country there are fewer zombies and more escape routes. As for establishing a well-equipped home base, doing so could attract other survivors who’d kill for it; better to stay mobile.

Zombie wisdom says: Don’t follow the crowd to the cities, and don’t settle in one place. It’s safer to keep moving through open country and live off the land, even though resources might be scarce. At least, according to my sources.

In the Old Testament, the dichotomy was the same. As people built cities, they began to “follow the crowd” and develop wealth, resources, and delusions of self-sufficiency, all of which laid the foundation for many evils. Think of the people of Babel building a tower, seeking to become almost godlike: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Or think of the Hebrews establishing cities in the Promised Land, then rejecting God as their leader and demanding a human king like “all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).

In actuality, a city in itself is not evil. But symbolically, it is a monument to human strength. Living in a “city” (metaphorically), we can forget our dependence on God and find ourselves trapped in dangerous places, like in the delusion that we are self-sufficient.

Perhaps this is why, before the Hebrews became a nation, God led them away from the cities and toward complete dependence on him in the wilderness, where they had to trust him to provide manna every day (Exodus 16).

Personally, in the real world, I prefer books and computers to rugged outdoor life. But metaphorically, I believe that living in daily dependence on God’s provision – to me, represented in zombie literature by living off the land in remote places – is the way to go.

165c_aluminum_zombie_shelter_signSecond, with whom would I associate?

Would I remain a lone individualist, join a small group, or become part of a large group?

On one hand, a loner requires fewer supplies and can escape more quickly and easily—again, creating an illusion of self-sufficiency—but she has no one to watch her back or cover her blind spots. On the other hand, a large group poses logistical problems and offers little sense of true closeness. The third choice, a smallish, close-knit group, offers real interconnectedness and the best chance of survival.

Zombie wisdom says: Go with a small group. Small groups are stronger and safer than large groups or loners.

Jesus supported this model by forming a small group of disciples who knew each other intimately. He prayed that they, and we, would experience true unity (John 17), which is essential for spiritual strength.

I’m an introvert and I’m also from Montana, where personal freedom is a core value, so I tend to favor being “on my own.” When my world imploded in 2008, I just wanted to withdraw and be by myself. Thankfully, though, my church stressed the scripturally-based point that everyone, even an introvert like me, should join a home community for close relationships. So I found the nearest one and started attending. And this ragtag band of Christians surrounded me and lifted me up. They bound my spiritual wounds and defended me from further attacks of the enemy. They cared for me through prayer, encouragement, and many other forms of support. Had I stayed alone, I might still be living, but I probably would be more dead than alive. In the zombie apocalypse and in real life, living in a small, caring community is best.

So depending on human self-sufficiency, whether in a “city” or on one’s own, is not the best way to survive the zombie apocalypse. Instead, it’s better to depend on the strength of God and a few believers who know you very well.

In my next blog, I’ll wrap up the last two questions: What about weapons for self-defense? And what about sustenance (food and water)?

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Facing the F-word

fail_stencil2It’s been a couple of weeks since David C Cook went live with the official Losers Like Us webpage. I’ll admit, seeing my book on websites like Amazon is a bit surreal, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

But I also must admit, I cringe every time I read the first sentence of the book’s description: “After permanently failing his PhD…” There it is: the “F” word. I am a failure.

Of course, I can’t complain too much. This is the book description I provided. But it still stings.

I could have sanitized the word choice. I could have softened it to: “After not receiving his Ph.D…” Or I could have played the victim card: “After getting robbed of his Ph.D…” After all, there may be some truth to that.

But I went with a powerfully ugly word — a word filled with humiliation and finality, like a tattoo on my forehead: FAIL. And now I am forever associated with that word on websites all over the world — Amazon and Barnes & Noble and David C Cook and many more — for any and all to see.

This probably won’t look too good if it comes up in a job interview.

However, even though claiming failure brings up so much shame, I chose to go with it. Intentionally go with it. Deliberately associate with it. I have spent so much of my life running from failure, always trying to dodge it and start over elsewhere with a somewhat-clean slate.

But now I can’t run from failure; I’ve gone public with it. God in his divine ingenuity is forcing me to face it, accept it, deal with it, and above all seek the Great “I Am” from within it.

Likewise, the Bible never sanitizes the failures of biblical “heroes.”  Instead it exposes them, in all their ugliness, for billions to see.

For example, when David glimpses and falls for Bathsheba, the Bible could have omitted the fact that she had a husband, Uriah. Without that part, at most David would be guilty of royal voyeurism, unable to take his eyes off the beautiful woman on a nearby rooftop. Heck, since his feelings were returned, the story might even be considered romantic.

But the Bible includes Uriah — the husband David had to eliminate in order to get her. Now David is no longer just a palace peeping tom. He is an adulterer, a conniver, and finally a murderer. In today’s degrees, what he did to Uriah would be classified as murder in the first degree, willful and premeditated. (Adding extra punch to David’s sin, the name of Bathsheba, the woman whose marriage he destroyed, means “daughter of the oath.”)

Likewise, David’s son Solomon is famous for requesting and receiving great wisdom from God. If the story stopped there, it would be a wonderful narrative — all warm and fuzzy. But it also describes how Solomon foolishly marries pagan wives and forces the people into servitude, fulfilling God’s warnings about all of the misfortunes a king would bring upon them (1 Samuel 8:10-17, I Kings 5:13). Despite his wisdom, Solomon too was a failure.

The list goes on. Abraham is a compulsive liar. His immediate descendants are so dysfunctional and manipulative, they could star in a sitcom. Rahab is a prostitute. Moses and Paul are both hot-tempered murderers. And the disciples…well, we’ll talk about the disciples in Losers Like Us. The Bible just doesn‘t hold anything back.

Failure is an ugly, humiliating word. But the gospel is about redemption, which only works in the context of failure — not in the context of those who think they have their crap together.

I am not being hard on myself by acknowledging my failure. Instead, I am acknowledging the power of the gospel in my failure through a journey that has taken, so far, six long years since then. The more I try to sanitize my failures, the less powerful the gospel.

In 2001, I thought my life story would be about overcoming my past to finish a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral degree. In 2008, when that last one went down in flames, I thought my story was over for good — I had failed, and that was the end of it. But now, in 2014, I find my story is about failure redeemed. Yet I am not the one doing the redeeming; I am the failure. The redemption comes from my Savior, whose resurrection and ultimate redemption of humanity we celebrated just last week, on Easter Sunday.

Yes, failure is an embarrassing word. However, the darker the failure, the more magnificently the redemption shines through.

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