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Category: Fear

The safest place in a storm

On my office wall hangs a vivid photograph entitled, “Phares dans la Tempete, La Jument.[1]” It shows a lighthouse keeper at La Jument reef, standing in the door of his lighthouse just as a towering wave nearly engulfs the structure from behind.

Original photo by Jean Guichard,

As retold later in Celtic Countries magazine,[2] the story of the shot goes as follows.

On December 21, 1989, a powerful storm smashed into the area, hitting the lighthouse with gale force winds and with waves reaching up to 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) high. During the night, the massive waves crashed through the lighthouse’s lower windows, flooding its living quarters and forcing the keeper to escape to the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse.

The next morning, despite dangerous flying conditions, a photographer named Jean Guichard hired a helicopter so he could photograph the dramatic storm from the air. The lighthouse keeper, Théodore Malgorn, heard the approaching helicopter and thought it was his rescuers. So he opened the door and stepped outside.

That was the moment the giant wave slammed into the lighthouse.

That was the moment Guichard took the shot.

Fortunately, the keeper was able to slip inside and shut the door, just before it was completely covered.

Original Photo by Jean Guichard,

This famous picture of safety in the storm was given to me by my wife, shortly after life swept me into chaos. As I endured the greatest turmoil of my life, I took solace in looking at it, wondering what the lighthouse keeper felt that night. Did he shake with fear as the wind and waves whipped into a deadly frenzy, crashing again and again into his tiny stone tower? Did his heart pound in his chest as freezing water shattered his windows and poured into his home? Did he pray to God for survival as he fled to the lantern room—the very last refuge he had?

That night in the lighthouse, the keeper must have felt very unsure of his own safety. Yet in the whole vast ocean, the lighthouse was the safest place of all.

Like the lighthouse keeper, Jesus once faced a violent storm. After a day of ministry beside the Sea of Galilee, he and his disciples set out by boat to cross to the other side. But according to Mark 4:37-38:

“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’”

Note the sequence of the disciples’ reactions. Like most of us, first they panic; only later do they ask the God of the universe for help.

But Jesus does not punish them for this lapse by withholding that help; instead he immediately commands the elements to “Be still!”—and they obey. Only then does he turn to his disciples and ask, “’Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’” (v. 39-40).

The truth is, it is one thing to trust God when things go well. But it is another to trust him from the center of the storm, when our world is upended.

And our world is upended now. Every day during this surreal COVID-19 pandemic, we get hit by wave after wave as we lose travel autonomy, small businesses, and loved ones. Our lives will be changed for months, if not forever.

Original Photo by Jean Guichard,

I have not yet been touched directly by the virus, nor by the escalating death rates, so I have not felt explicit fear—but I do feel unsettled and anxious in this storm of uncertainty, as I’m sure the lighthouse keeper did at La Jument.

When life is like this, we must take refuge in our Creator, who is far bigger than any virus, news reports, or ventilator shortages.

No matter what happens—even if we experience sickness or death—we are not spiraling helplessly through stormy seas. Instead, we are secure in our lighthouse as the storm rages around us. We are safe in the arms of Christ.

By Falken – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

[1] This French phrase means “Lighthouse in the tempest [at] La Jument.” La Jument (“the mare”) is a treacherous reef near the isle of Ushant in the Iroise Sea, off the northwest coast of France.

[2] Celtic Countries magazine, January 18, 2011,

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A tale of two miracles

There are two occasions in the Bible when God miraculously parted the waters:[1] the more famous Exodus account (Exodus 14:21ff), and the lesser known Joshua account (Joshua 3:7ff).

The Exodus account gets all the acclaim, primarily because it was none other than Charlton Heston standing at the banks of the Red Sea majestically holding his staff over the water. Thus far, the best we have come up with to portray Joshua is a cucumber from Veggietales.

Still, both miracles fall into the category of “something that doesn’t happen every day.” Both go against the laws of physics, Both defy explanation. And both result in making a way for God’s people, sending them from the old into the new.

The Exodus account is dramatic, precariously sticking Moses and the Hebrews between the raging Red Sea and an approaching enemy superpower (Egypt) bent on revenge. So God places a fiery pillar between the two groups, holding the Egyptians at bay. Pretty amazing, but God is not yet finished. God then instructs Moses to lift his staff toward the sea, and amazingly the chaotic ocean separates into a path for the Hebrews to safely pass through.

In the Joshua account, while waiting at the banks of the flooded Jordan River, Joshua reminds the people that God is about to do great things on their behalf in the Promised Land. However, unlike Moses, Joshua does not raise his staff over the water. Instead, the priests are instructed carry the ark of the covenant directly into the river.

Imagine being one of the priests who hears that bit of information: Wait—you want us to do what?

But the command is clear. The priests’ feet are to get wet. They are to traverse the slippery rocks beneath a swift and swirling river. Only then, after getting their feet wet, do the waters part to make a way into the Promised Land.

I prefer the Exodus method whenever God wants to move me. It’s less ambiguous and more straightforward, an uber hardcore miraclesomething we can definitely talk about during praise time on Sunday morning. Epic movies with big budgets would be made to tell our story. Even pompous scientists and militant atheists with no sense of awe or enchantment would attempt to insert themselves into the narrative by writing lengthy tomes hoping to invalidate it.

In contrast, no one writes about the Joshua account. Many Christians give it little more than a cursory glance. You won’t find a lot people sharing about how God tossed them into the water before anything happened. It’s not dramatic. It’s not cool.

Besides, Joshua’s account involves a rivera much smaller body of water than the Red Sea.

Yet in many ways, the Joshua method is scarier. The path forward doesn’t appear until you make the first move. In other words, with absolutely no guarantees, you must run the risk of getting swept away by the current before there is any sign that God is about to do something.

All you have to cling to is your faith that God is somehow presentand, you hope, a still, small voice telling you to go. The action could kill you instead of providing a way forward.

Why didn’t God simply part the waters and make a way for Joshua, as he did for Moses?

It’s a question we all ask at one time or another.

I think the answer is found in another tiny but important distinction: In Exodus the Hebrews were running from something—a vengeful army, a life of slavery, possibly even annihilation itself; in Joshua they were going to something—the land promised by God to the generations before them.

Recently I’ve felt forced to go through the Joshua method, asking myself whether I am running from something or to something. I am writing this from a hotel lobby, my temporary home until our prospective house closes. My wife and I are in a transition from Portland, Oregon to Helena, Montanaa transition that’s been bumpy, rough, and uncertain. In the past months, we have deliberated about this move. For over twenty years I have lived in Portland while eagerly hoping to return home to Montana. In Portland I felt on the outside of the culture, never fitting in and complaining ad nauseum, ad infinitum about my life in the city and about the city itself.

When I got a job offer in Montana, I had to ask myself: was this my chance to finally flee city life and return to a less stressful smaller town? Brush the dust from my shoes and leave Portland in my wake? Sayonara, Portland! I’m outta here.

A Moses-style “parting of the waters” would have been the perfect way to do that. All I needed God to do was to part the waters and let me pass.

But what if this move is not about fleeing from something as Moses did, but going toward something as Joshua did? What if this move is for my growth?

I suspect that a “parting of the waters” enabling me to flee Portland would not have been spiritually healthy for me, but would have allowed me to run away from the city with a hard heart and a suitcase full of bitterness.

Instead, I am beginning to believe that God wants me to see this transition as going toward something, a new chapter in the journey. I am going because God wants me to.

The Joshua-style river parting forced me to put my feet in the water before it parted, forced me to remember and appreciate this chapter closing in my life. I thought about the friends I have made in Portland, the people I grew to love there. I celebrated and memorialized the good moments (getting married, buying a house, publishing a book, and being a part of a wonderful church community) as well as my deepest heartaches (the loss of my teaching job and the doctoral degree, the deaths of my father- and mother-in-law, and years of spiritual darkness).

Portland has been a significant part of my story, and if I had left it by fleeing through a parted sea, I never would have grasped the good.

I believe God wants me to remember those years—the good, bad, and ugly—as years that he was working in my life. And to rejoice in what he has done there.

God forced me, like Joshua, to step into the water first, before it would part.

So, with feet clumsily planted on the slippery rocks, I move to a new chapter of my life—in Helena, Montana.

My feet are wet.

The rest of the adventure is up to God.

[1] Technically, there are three “partings of the water” if we count the third day of Creation when God separated the waters to make “land” (Genesis 1:9)but I omitted this account since no one was around to see it except God.

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Battling demons and finding God on the ash heap

2017 finally comes to a close, and I am ringing in the new year firmly ensconced upon a pile of ashes.

This is definitely not the place others flock to when welcoming in a new year. Dusty, bleak, a place of exile and uncertainty. You don’t count down the final seconds of 2017 on the ash heap; instead, you wrestle with endless questions about how you got there with a God who seems more interested in the annual ball drop in Times Square. You wait, trying to understand the rationale of another who is infinitely above your pay-grade.

Kind of like Job after the Accuser chopped him off at the ankles. As part of what looks like a mysterious cosmic bet, Job loses his children, his livestock, his wealth, and eventually his health over a short period of time. He retreats to the mound of ashes where he sits quietly with friends, saying nothing for a week. Then the characters engage in a misguided debate about the cause of suffering and its relation to sin before God himself finally enters the discussion with one of the most beautiful and frustrating responses to humanity’s suffering in the entire Bible.

Most of the book of Job takes place on this gray, arid mountain of ash.

Admittedly, the events that brought me to my ash heap were nowhere near as dramatic as Job’s suffering. In most ways, my crisis pales to those others face. Shortly before the holidays my wife and I were informed that, due to cutbacks, our primary means of household income was coming to an end after a ten-year run. At our age, this can be especially disconcerting as Human Resource Departments seem more interested in terms like “fresh” and “new” over others like “skilled” and “experienced.”

So, at the start of 2018 our household sits upon an ash heap of uncertainty, caught in a strange vortex between the present and the not-yet. I am not sure what the next year will look like, or where. I can only be certain it will be different. Perhaps better, maybe worse, but definitely different.

Living in limbo is a life of distraction. It is difficult to concentrate on just about everything. We hold our breath, waiting to see if or how all those promises in the Bible will work out in our lives. Lacking focus or energy, everything seems on hold. The speed of life hits a wall. The world runs in slow motion. Nothing seems important.

Unfortunately, this includes even my writing, or more accurately, trying to maintain my fledging writing career. This has been my first attempt to write something since Thanksgiving. I’ve got all kinds of ideas swirling around in my head as my wife and I work our way through the uncertainty. But the words don’t come. My mind cannot generate more than a sentence or two before being distracted by the next shiny thing. Maybe it is simply because the heart is not there or anxiety crowds out the passion.

However, not only do I sit upon an ash heap of uncertainty but also one of self-condemnation. Questions about my lack of any marketable skills and abilities that haunted me years ago suddenly return with a fiery vengeance. The Accuser whispers in my ear words that reignite feelings of self-loathing that I had wrestled with a long time ago: worthlessness, failure, washout. At times, the Accuser’s words seem terribly convincing. Too convincing. My heart knows these words are untrue, but my head isn’t so sure.

It becomes yet another throw-down between my spirit and my flesh. My spirit reminds me that my value comes from God and his love for me. However, my flesh counters, nobody cares about that on a resume. God thinks I have worth isn’t a very marketable skill. My spirit won’t answer that point. Not because it has no answer, but because it stands solely on its initial premise and doesn’t see any need to repeat itself.

Finally, my ash heap is built on distrust. Not necessarily toward others, but specifically toward God. I want Jesus to come and move in my life, yet I also hopes he doesn’t. I never liked my life’s direction, but that doesn’t mean I would like to change it either. Then the realization hits me that even after decades of direct evidence to trust God, I still don’t really trust him. At times, I am not sure he has my back. Is he really looking out for me? Does he want what is best for me, or does he merely want to teach me yet another lesson I will never understand? Has my life used up its quota for miracles? Am I going to be truly thankful for the ending of my current ordeal?

Silly questions for a “mature” Christ-follower.

Oh how I wish I could be a Super-Christian. Heck, at this point, I would be happy just being Super-Christian’s clueless comic sidekick.

So, I watch the world’s new chapter from the dusty mountain of ashes. It’s a place of boredom and discomfort, of uncertainty and fear. It’s a place to battle my personal demons.

But it also seems to be the usual place for God to enter into my story. Like he did for Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19). Or Jonah in the desert (Jonah 4). Or the shepherds in the chill of a night (Luke 2). Or Peter in the dungeon (Acts 5). Or Job on the ash heap (Job 38).

The ash heap—built upon uncertainty, self-condemnation, and distrust—is where my spirit battles my flesh, but it is also where I am sure God will once again enter into my story.

God’s objective is not to bless my household with wealth or certainty or even courage. He comes to the ash heap to remind me exactly who is in charge of the universe as well as who is really charge of, and thus responsible, for my life.

On the ash heap, God throws out a list of questions that point only to his power and sovereignty as the correct answer (Read those questions for yourself in Job 38-41 and see if you can answer them any differently). God’s objective is not to get me or my wife a good job. It is to get me to once again admit what is truly important.

So, as 2018 begins, I will find myself still ensconced on a pile of ashes.

However, this year also begins with Job’s final confession ringing in my ears and filling my mind and heart:

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4-6)

I pray Job’s confession remains on my—as well as your—lips and heart all year long, whether in a new location or career or even while continuing to grieve on the pile of ashes. Whatever new challenges or chapters that come our way, God wants us to know that he is the one in control of the universe and that he is the one who controls our lives.

No what matter what ash heap we find ourselves on, that is the only outcome God wants.


Being thankful when the storm comes

God has an infinite number of ways he answers our prayers. There’s the gentle nudging or the still small voice whispering in our ear. Personally, I prefer God uses these methods to answer my prayers: it is more pleasant and, frankly, has less drama. Then there is the prophetic word uttered from a loved one—more confrontational yet still tolerable enough.

But then there is a catastrophic method of answering prayer. This is exactly how it sounds:  prayer gets answered, but it takes the form of a broadside where God kicks our wheels out from under us until we find ourselves completely out of control, sliding sideways across the road toward a retaining wall. Everything becomes blurred. there’s a lot of screaming and shrieking. Occasionally, someone breaks out in a chorus of “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Eventually, everything rocks to a stop, leaving behind a trail of bent metal and shattered glass. Clearly, this method is my least favorite, although I have a sneaking suspicion it is God’s preferred go-to.

November 10 was like any other typical November Friday. My wife and I had our birthdays to look forward to the next week. We share the same birthday and traditionally celebrate with a dinner out.

Even more exciting was a trip to Montana for Thanksgiving for a wild-and-crazy week with my family—undoubtedly the highlight of my whole year.

With so much to look forward to, this particular Friday morning was an active one, preparing my wife’s birthday present and heading to the store to pick up a carload of Christmas lights—never too early to get a start on the season.

All in all, it really was a wonderful Friday.

Until the telephone rang.

My wife was on the line. She had just come from a meeting that let her know that her job of ten years was over. Just like that. No more passing Go. She was a casualty of downsizing, so in an instant, the greatest portion of our household income went up in smoke. In moments, our life was chopped off at the ankles.

We are heading into a season of thanksgiving, hope and anticipation. However, instead of approaching this season with celebration, we found ourselves stumbling forward into it trying to keep our feet underneath us. It’s astonishing how sudden and complete chaos and uncertainty can pound life into a stupor. One minute—life as usual; the next—a fog of grief and panic.

The last two weeks have been in limbo. Life seems to be in a state of incompleteness and perpetual waiting. Everything is half-done, on hold, and discombobulated. Suddenly the immediate future looks to be extremely different yet entirely unknown. The darkness of uncertainly surrounded our house.

Yet today is Thanksgiving Day.

Today, we give thanks.

And, surprisingly, I am truly thankful.

I am thankful to our God, who amidst our wide swings of fear and sadness, has set my wife and I upon a solid foundation of peace within this storm. We truly believe God is somehow behind this and is preparing us for a dramatic life-change. More than once since receiving the news of unemployment, we have had to remind ourselves that we actually prayed for this. I have long been feeling antsy, restless. Over the summer, I had finished my second manuscript but instead of celebrating I fell into depression and became irritable, and I constantly reminded loved ones and friends how frustrated I was. I prayed to God in no uncertain terms that ten years of waiting is long enough — it is time for him to do something in my life. Interesting enough, my wife was struggling with the same feelings. And now God seems to be moving. I don’t know what the immediate future holds, but I am thankful.

I am thankful for a God who created a stunning Thanksgiving morning sky over Hauser Lake in Montana. Only our Creator can paint the sky in this way to serve as a reminder that he is still in control.

I am thankful for the grace to walk through this chaos imperfectly. I want to have faith; I want to surrender my control; I want to not be afraid. Some days are better than others. But God’s mercy is constant. And I am grateful he cares for us the way he does.

I am thankful for our wonderful home community, who surrounded us when the news broke. They prayed for us, were present with us, and even helped us to be able to pay for this Montana trip, which by the way, also serves to prospect jobs. Our home community stood by us within our tears. Each week they teach me what love and life in community truly is, and this week they went far above and beyond the call of duty. They are as much a part of this journey as we are.

I am thankful to be a part of a great family gathering on Hauser Lake outside of Helena, Montana. I never grow tired of the laughter and love of family.

I am thankful for the colors and smells of autumn.

I am thankful for the majesty and beauty of wildlife as well as the scenery.

I am thankful for the anticipation of the Advent season.

I am thankful for a wife who clings to God alongside me in this time, who feels this same peace as me.

I am thankful that this peace of God is real.

This Thanksgiving, despite the storm in our lives, I can truly be thankful that God is good.

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Living in the ‘now’ not the ‘what if’

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:25–26.


I don’t run marathons; the only running I do is from the couch to the fridge during Super Bowl ads. But I have a friend who does. And he says that in a marathon, he can’t focus on the finish line lest he get overwhelmed by the size of the task. Instead, he must stay in the moment and focus just on the current mile, one step at a time.

 Writing a book is like that. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon—a long, exhausting, brain-cramping marathon. If I focus on the finish line, I’ll  get overwhelmed and never make it. Instead, I must stay in the moment and focus just on the current chapter or paragraph—one sentence at a time.

 The writing process can be rich and inspiring, but it can also be slow and grueling. Frustratingly tedious. Mind-numbingly painful. Sometimes the ideas come in rapid succession; other times, the brain is a dry lakebed. Times of writer’s block—when my fingers desperately want to tap-dance their rhythms across the keyboard, but the hand-to-brain connection is frozen—are more common than rare. Even if ideas are flying around in my head, sometimes my fingers just can’t get them out.

 My ultimate objective is to complete the rough draft of my current book manuscript this spring or summer. My daily goal is a minimum of five hundred words—roughly two pages. Five hundred measly words a day. For someone delving into a writing career, this should be a cinch. How hard can it be?

 This month? Very.

 Ideas crash around in my cranium like kids in a bounce-house. They want to be put to paper. They want out.

 But my fingers are on strike.

 Thus begins a spiral: the more my fingers refuse to cooperate, the more frustrated I become. The more frustrated I become, the more the ideas shrivel. The more the ideas shrivel, the more desperation sets in. And the more desperation sets in, the more my fingers refuse to dance.

 Then it hits me. I have shifted my focus to finishing the whole manuscript, making it harder to concentrate on the current sentence.

 All of this brings me back to the marathon as a metaphor. In fact, it’s more than a metaphor for writing; it’s a metaphor for life.

This month marks the ninth anniversary of the date when my academic life disintegrated within the rich, dark walls of a British university. Since 2008, I have prayed about, begged for, and sought after the next open door—any door—that God wants me to walk through. Yet I can’t find it. A teaching career seems out. Ministry opportunities seem rare. I have engaged in a great inner battle over whether I am really qualified to do anything.

And now I am 50—in a world where most institutions and organizations would prefer to hire someone with similar education in their 30s.

 It would be inaccurate to say that doors are closing all around me. Rather, it feels more like I am walking down a dark hallway with no doors at all.

 So, for nine years, it seems there has been only one thing to do: writing.

 Yet my writing is not supporting me. My wife is. Ultimately, of course, God is – but he is using her to do so.

 Today, writers can write and publish whatever they wish—but of all the hopefuls, relatively few make a sustained living at it. The pursuit of writing does not guarantee success by any concrete measure, including the measure of guaranteed publication—or income.

 This situation is unsettling, especially as the specter of “retirement age” looms ever closer – and even closer for my wife than for me. What will happen after she retires? How will God provide for us then? I’m worried about retirement. I’m worried about provision. I’m worried about everything except the next step, which still seems to be: Keep writing. Unprofitable or not, it’s still the only thing God seems to be telling me to do.

 The more I try to guess the end result without being able to see it, the more frustrated I become—and the less I focus on the needs of the current moment, like completing a chapter.

 I must stay in the present. If I try to look too far ahead, I’ll go into a spiral.

 So the longer I walk down this endless hallway with no doors, the more I can’t help but think this is where God still wants me right now. As moments of desperation overwhelm me and frustration stifles my spirit, God’s voice leaks into the heaviness I feel over not knowing what else to do. And he says…

 “Keep walking. I will provide the path.”

 “Keep writing. I will be your muse.”

“Keep going. I will take care of you and your wife. I will take care of the rest.”


“Hosanna!”: The presidential election, terrorism, and the state of the world

Last Saturday in Arizona, protesters tried to silence a presidential candidate while supporters retaliated with fisticuffs.

Hours later, on Palm Sunday, Christians commemorated Jesus’s kingly entrance into Jerusalem.

The next day, in Brussels, terrorist attacks killed over 30 people and injured at least 200 more.

This year has been that kind of surreal.

The elections, the unrest, the terror—all of this craziness makes me feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and afraid.

I can’t quite describe my feelings, but they include anger, horror, frustration, numbness, bewilderment and more, depending on what’s in the news each day.

I am distressed and heartbroken over the terrorism, crying out to God for the victims. But I can’t stop it. So I focus on something closer to home: election year, and how our next president might respond to terrorism and all of the other problems facing us, both here and abroad.

uncertainty-aheadYet it unnerves me to think who We, the people may choose as our next president. I am so un-thrilled by the choices that if I had to vote today, I couldn’t, even while holding my nose. I simply cannot shake the feeling that we are preparing to elect a dictator—because that’s what we seem to want.

I say this because I see a trend of feverish devotion, with several candidates being exalted to nearly messianic status. I understand that in a democratic republic, researching the candidates and trying to support the best one is a good thing. But where is the line between “support” and “worship”?

I’m not sure, but I think we border on worship when we defend our candidates by…

-shouting down or cold-cocking the opposition.

-attacking other candidates’ shortcomings while giving our own candidate a pass for the same offenses.

-name-calling and bullying anyone who dares to question our candidate.

-insisting that our candidate is the only one who has the answers.

All of these could fit the definition of “worship.”

It’s funny how history repeats itself.

In 2008 we elected a president based on a promise of “hope and change”—yet the world is still divided, hate-filled, and violent. Now we are preparing to elect one based on promises of “revolution” or “national greatness.” More and more these days, we seem to believe that the right person will be able to solve everything, and ring in utopia. Yet in truth, any president is lucky to fulfill maybe five percent, at most, of everything promised on the campaign trail (because our laws clearly define what a president can and cannot do—thank goodness for the Constitution’s “division of powers”!). In fact, no matter how great their desire, vision, and ability, none of these leaders will ever be able to save us—as a nation, or as individuals.

It has never happened, and it never will. 

Well, except once.

Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, things were much the same as they are today. Then, as now, people felt a sense of political unrest and unhappiness with the government (and it was a government of brutal Roman occupiers, not their own self-government). Then, as now, many of Jesus’s followers were seeking a social revolution instead of a spiritual one. Then, as now, they despaired when their leader didn’t do what they wanted. And then, as now, people feared forces beyond their control and longed for a messiah to deliver them.

Yet Jesus came in riding into town not on a white steed, like a military hero, but on a humble donkey.

Palm%20Sunday_jpgAnd crowds of Jews spread palm branches before him and cried, “Hosanna!”—a rich, ancient word that we now use only on Palm Sunday. But I’m thinking we should revive it, because its meaning is, “Lord, save us!” (Psalm 118:25)—an urgent and desperate cry for deliverance.

The people were quoting this word from the Psalms. They weren’t welcoming Jesus into their city; they were pleading for divine rescue—as at Passover when God rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and as at Calvary when he rescued humanity from sin. No one knew it yet, but Jesus was coming to completely and finally answer the cries of “Hosanna.” He was coming to rescue us all.

Ironically, those cries for rescue would be answered just days later, after these same crowds turned on Jesus and demanded his death—the very death which would save the world.

If only they had known.

And now, during this holy Passion Week, we need saving more than ever. We see Americans attacking one another, a capital city recovering from fatal bombings, and a world possibly inching closer to the next great war.

None of this is exactly new (we’ve seen it all before), but it still feels so chaotic, so desperate, so uncertain. I simply do not have answers—nor, despite the politicians’ promises, does anyone else.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that we will never be rescued by anyone on the ballot.

And at that realization, my spirit cries, “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”

Only one Messiah has sacrificed himself for us, instead of for his own political ends. Only one Messiah possesses all of the power, authority, and credentials required to save us.

There is only one Savior.

And he is not currently running for President.


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Walking through the valley of terror … then and now

2005 Paris-England 159
The Eiffel Tower. Photo by Daniel Hochhalter.










The last—and only—time I visited Paris was in the summer of 2005.

I was studying in England over the summer, and had taken the Eurostar to Paris to meet my wife and sister-in-law for a wonderful couple of weeks exploring Paris, Normandy, Mont Saint Michel, and the Loire Valley. We had a glorious time—a dream vacation.

On July 7, I dropped off my family at Charles de Gaulle airport, then returned to Paris and boarded the Eurostar to go back to England.

But during the train’s stop at Calais—the last town before crossing into England—the doors opened and the PA system announced an unexpected delay, followed by the strange recommendation that everyone deboard and be transported back to Paris, free of charge. The announcer gave no explanation, nor any estimation of the length of the delay.

That was odd, but I didn’t think much of it. Since I didn’t know what was happening and didn’t speak a lick of French, I decided not to return to Paris but to stay on the train and wait it out.

The delay lasted about forty-five minutes; then the doors closed and the train headed under the English Channel.

However, when we reached Ashford on the British side, again the train stopped and the doors opened. This time there was another train next to us, pointing back toward France. The PA system announced another delay, along with an even stronger recommendation that we should board the train beside us and return to Paris.

Something was happening in London.

At this point, cell phones started going off and conversations became hushed. Straining to overhear, I gathered that there was an emergency of some sort. London had suffered an explosion, or a series of explosions. Initially, it sounded like a power transformer problem or something like that. I desperately hoped it was—but I suspected it was not, because why would a power failure warrant a recommendation to return to Paris?

A silent fear crept through me. My body constricted and my throat grew dry as I researched my maps of London, trying to find the various locations I heard people mentioning. I felt some relief as I concluded that these locations did not seem to be near my intended destinations: Waterloo and then Euston Station.

But I was wrong. When the train pulled into London, crowds had gathered to watch TV broadcasts showing an unraveling situation. Three bombs had gone off in different areas of the Tube—London’s subway system—and a fourth on a double-decker bus; terrorism was suspected.

I was standing just a couple of miles from where these bombs had detonated.

At the ticket counter, I asked about rescheduling my ticket out of Euston Station since the delays had caused me to miss my connecting train. The ticket agent replied bluntly, “Euston is closed.” Euston was just three blocks from where the bus bomb had gone off.

Now I understood the effects of terrorism first hand: the unsettling fear that perhaps the attacks were not over; the determination to remain stoic on the outside while reeling on the inside; the inability to wrap one’s mind around what is happening; the growing confusion and panic over not knowing what to do next.

Everything was shut down. The only sound seemed to be the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles. I thought I would be stranded in a foreign city with no place to go. Worse, the authorities believed more attacks could be planned.

In an instant, all plans went up in flames. I could only explore my next step; it was impossible to look any further.

The ticket agent gave me a new itinerary that would take me through various locations and eventually to Birmingham—only about 90 miles away—while reminding me things could change any minute as events unraveled around the city. I was okay with that—just taking one thing at a time. That was all I could do.

Eventually I completed my twisted path back Birmingham—late, tired, and greatly relieved.

But the tension continued. The next day, I went into the city centre for supplies. When I returned to my room, an email from the U.S. was waiting for me, asking if I was okay. It turned out the city centre had just been evacuated due to a suspicious package on a bus. It turned out to be nothing, but the uncertainty was nerve-wracking and illustrated how much I, and everyone else, was on edge. Nerves were frayed.

2005 Paris-England 1376
The entrance to the Russell Square Tube, closed due to the bombing investigation. I was staying at the Russell Square Hotel, the darkest building on the far left.
2005 Paris-England 1377
The impromptu memorial in Russell Square, across from my hotel. The second (failed) attack occurred the day before this photo was taken. DH

Then, two weeks later, I was in London, staying in a hotel over the Russell Street entrance to the Tube, near where one of the bombs had gone off. The entrance was still closed due to the ongoing investigation. An impromptu memorial was set up in the square across the street. And just as things seemed to be getting back to normal, terrorists attempted to detonate more bombs. Thankfully, all of the detonators failed. But the true damage of terrorism was done: everyone believed another attack was imminent. Life had changed. This was the new normal: navigating life as best we could, while trying to keep our unsettling fears in check.

When the events unfolded in Paris last Friday, I found myself once again deeply engaged as new and scattered details emerged on the television screen. I felt the same fear I had felt in 2005—the uncertainty, the sorrow, the horror. The mostly blank expressions of Parisians, trying to hide their shock while exiting the stadium or standing on the sidewalks, seemed very familiar. Hearing the TV news anchors report sketchy details of yet another attack touched a raw, horrifying uncertainty that I had buried beneath ten years of “normal” life. I relived the feelings of those living in a city under attack – walking through train stations and wondering what to do, as sirens wailed past in the streets.

During that time I wished for normalcy, but instead I had to will myself to live each abnormal day as normally as I could.

Life is beyond our control; we must function on bits and pieces of information without knowing the whole story. And evil does exist. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of cultures or current events, but last Friday I saw evil on my TV screen—and though I was thousands of miles away, I clung to Jesus as if I were back in London, living through old emotions from long ago.


At such times I do feel like a sheep, hearing the growls of a predator just beyond the reaches of darkness. I cannot see him but I know he sees me. I am helpless; I am frightened. I don’t know exactly who the predator is, or why I am being targeted. At this moment, I just want to run to my Shepherd and stand as close to him as possible.

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Asleep in the boat, part 1: When God is the cause of anxiety

What if God, who comforts my anxiety, is also the cause of it? I don’t want to feel broadsided by him again…

As I sat down to write about anxiety, almost immediately I began to experience it. I couldn’t think how to approach the subject, so I started worrying. My struggle led to mental paralysis, which led to more anxiety. The harder I struggled, the darker things looked. I froze (“Come on, brain!”). I spiraled (“This blog is going down the crapper”). I globalized (“The universe sucks!”).

Finally I saw the irony – I was anxious about writing on anxiety! – and I had to laugh.

Good thing I hadn’t planned to write on serial killing.

stormy-oceanThe problem of anxiety reminds me of a story in Mark 4. Jesus, sleeping soundly in a boat almost overwhelmed by high waves (Mark 4:37-38a) is accused of indifference by his terrified disciples: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (v. 38b). But Jesus simply quiets the storm and asks: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v. 39-40)

Traditionally, the point usually taken from this story is that the disciples shouldn’t have worried because Jesus was right there in the boat with them, and was (presumably) on their side. As Paul writes later in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, then who can be against us?”

However, I’m an anxious cynic. If I’d been there, I’d be thinking: Yeah, Jesus, but you walk on water – even if the boat sinks, you can just saunter safely to shore!

So apparently I can trust him for salvation, but not for daily care and protection.

How nuts is that?

Well, maybe it’s not as nuts as it sounds – because despite Paul’s reassurance, I know from experience that even though God is for us, sometimes he still allows us to go through very hard things.

For example, the stunted twelve-year-old boy inside me wants to know, Why did God let my parents divorce? Later, the wounded teenager inside demands, Why did God let me suffer from so much rage on the inside, and rejection on the outside? The young adult in me asks, Why did God let me stumble from one low-paying job to another, unable to establish a career? Finally, the academic washout in me asks, Why did God lead me into a doctoral program and then let it blow up in my face?

That last sucker-punch was the worst of all. As soon as the shock wore off, anxiety was the first emotion I felt. I started worrying like crazy about how I could ever have a future again. And that question has yet to be fully answered.

That’s when it really hit me: What if God, my comforter in anxiety, is also the cause of it? What if I’m anxious because part of me still feels he hasn’t always “come through” (whatever that means) in the past, and fears he won’t always in the future?

Blog-Anxiety1The truth is, I don’t want to be broadsided again. I don’t want to be let down anymore. And sometimes, putting our trust in God does feel risky like that.

So what about those times when we actually don’t trust God? Does our distrust contradict the truth of the freedom and grace we have in Christ?

Well, maybe not. Because on a deeper level, the only way to reflect his freedom and grace is through our weaknesses. In fact, the longer I think about it, the more I do believe the traditional point of the story in Mark 4: If Jesus is right here with me, sleeping peacefully through the storm, then maybe even I, weak and anxious as I am, can learn from him how to have peace too.

[Continued in Asleep in the Boat, Part 2: The Reverse ABCs of Anxiety

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Facing down fear with faith

4f0115cde03fb27ee24be46deda8454fThe holidays are over, and the new year is here. Traditionally, the masses welcome it by drinking champagne, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” watching the ball drop in Times Square, and kissing or getting kissed by total strangers. There’s a sense of relief in having made it through the old year, and a sense of hope in anticipating the new one.

As for me—well, I am usually in bed by 9:00 p.m.

It’s the classic head-in-the-sand approach: if I can’t see something coming, it’s not really there.

While I absolutely love the Advent season, I always seem to face the new year with apprehension. What I am trying to understand is why. Actually, I am pretty sure I already know why, though I am reluctant to admit it: I think the reason is fear. And part of that fear is not having any choice, any control—because I don’t have any choice or control over the new year; I must go forward into the future, even if I’d rather not.

To me, the unknown new year is a wide, gaping chasm, and I have no other option but to step into it. I feel like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, standing before an abyss, with his father’s notes telling him he must “leap.” But the void is too wide to leap across, even with a running start, a good pair of Air Jordans, and a pole vault. Indy has no choice: the only way forward is to step off the cliff, into thin air.

Yeah—it’s like that.

I can’t help but wonder as I face this year: What surprises might be in store? What catastrophes might befall? When the phone rings unexpectedly, will it bring news that is happy, or horrific? And at this time next year, what will life look like?]

Just like every other year, I know this one will include both tears and laughter, gains and losses, but I don’t know how or when.

And that is what scares me—the unknown.

I fear it.

It’s the fear of a roller-coaster ride in pitch blackness—when you can’t see the track in front of you.

The Israelites faced a similarly unknown future at the edge of the Promised Land. They had sent twelve spies to scope out the land, to see how fruitful it was and to assess the military strength of its inhabitants. And the results were positive, at least regarding the land’s fruitfulness. But the inhabitants were, you might say, a big issue. Ten of the twelve spies reported: “All the people we saw there are of great size….We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33).

And their words struck fear into the whole nation of Israel.

But two spies, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed:

‘Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Num. 13:30)

I can see it now – ten spies, rushing wide-eyed back to camp with the terrifying report: “You won’t believe these guys. They are GI-NORMOUS! They’ll smoosh us like bugs.”

Then the minority has the guts to step up and say, “We can take ’em.”

Fortunately Joshua, the Israelites’ future leader, listened to faith, not fear. Later, when he commanded the people to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, the thought of smooshed grasshoppers littering the desert was probably still in their minds. But just before they crossed, God gave Joshua this assurance:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9)

And based on Joshua’s faith and God’s promise, they did cross over.

So how can we move from fear to faith? There is only one way: like Indiana Jones and the Israelites, we must close our eyes and step into the void, acknowledging that anything—anything—could happen. This year could be the greatest year ever, or just another average rotation around the sun, or an absolute disaster. It’s a roll of the dice.

Well, correct that. It’s not up to the dice. It’s up to God. With each new year, and each new day, we must consciously remind ourselves to place our lives yet again into his hands—no matter what happens, good, bad, or ugly—and proclaim: “God is good.”

Simply put, the only way to move from fear to faith is to obey his command and absorb his promise:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”


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